Pages

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

James Comey, A HIGHER LOYALTY: TRUTH, LIES, AND LEADERSHIP

I think this is an important book, although people who are determined to find it a self-serving justification will find it so. Well ... it *is* partly an explanation by Comey of why he did what he did and when with respect to both the Hillary email case and the Trump/Russian case. But it also asks bigger questions about public discourse and policy, provides larger legal and personal contexts, and reflects upon Comey's own doubts and possible missteps. So I think it's better than just a justification. I'd say it is also a reflection upon what it means to investigate a "state of mind," to situate a current case with respect to previous ones, and to sustain separation among the divisions of government. 

It's easy to follow his dates and his logic, and frankly, while I went in to the book a bit skeptical, I was gratified to find an account that had both balance and a clear timeline. He doesn't worship either Obama or the Clintons, and in fact points out their missteps and shortcomings and errors in judgment. I was also gratified to have background on Comey himself, before he became FBI director. We don't even get to the Hillary email issue until chapter 10. Until then, he writes about his childhood, owns up to some of his moments of fear and shirking, describes the pain of losing a child when that loss could have been prevented, and explores the challenge of helping to take down the Mafia. I found some of the latter a bit heavy-handed--it felt fairly obvious to me that it was a set-up so that later he could later compare some of Trump's demands for unquestioning loyalty (as opposed to honesty) to that of the Mafia bosses. I also had to smile at his discussion of his wife's admonition: "It's not about you, dear." He spends a few paragraphs talking about why that is such a hard lesson for people, especially those in leadership; I sort of felt like this is something that shouldn't have to be explained, but perhaps it does. He also has some interesting things to say about listening, and how in Washington "listening" is often merely keeping quiet until it's your turn to talk. 

Overall, this feels like a thoughtful and detailed account of the troubling growth of tribalism in America as well as one man's attempt to hold his ground and stay ethical. His most difficult problem toward the end seems to be having to convince Trump that the FBI and CIA MUST be kept separate from the President--that it is an ethical imperative to keep an arm's length. Trump keeps inviting Comey to private dinners and private meetings and you can feel Comey's discomfort and his eyes begging someone else to stay in the room. I do have to say that I felt infuriated by his examples of Trump's petty nastiness. 

Still in a fury at McCabe, Trump then asked him, "Your wife lost her election in Virginia, didn't she?"
"Yes, she did," Andy replied.
The president ... then said to the acting director of the FBI, "Ask her how it feels to be a loser" and hung up the phone.

Sigh.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

William Kent Kreuger, ORDINARY GRACE

I think this is one of my favorites for the year. It won the Edgar Award, but as with so many of the best mysteries, it transcends the straight mystery genre. Like Tom Franklin's *Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter* or some of Tana French's best (*Faithful Place* comes to mind) this book explores the long psychological shadow cast by a past event. In this case, it's WWII, and we see the fallout during one summer in Minnesota. The narrator is a 13-year-old boy named Frank; he has a brother named Jake who is both younger and more perceptive than Frank is. Their father was going to be a lawyer, but after the war he became a Methodist preacher, to the chagrin of their mother. His father's friend Gus is a bit of a lost soul; Officer Doyle seems to have returned from the war perfectly fine but exhibits a level of sadism that is frightening. To some extent, these three drive the narrative forward, but Frank does his part; we at once root for him and wince. I enjoyed this book very much, found the writing precise and nuanced. Will look for Krueger's others.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Tracy Kidder, A Truck Full of Money

Kidder always chooses interesting, even eccentric characters to cover. Paul English, entrepreneur, programmer, person with bipolar, is another one. I did find him intriguing and dynamic. But I think I was expecting more of a story arc for English. I know that when writing biography, one doesn't want to fit life to a pre-set arc. But I lost some interest about halfway through, when the storyline and timeline started getting fuzzy.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Jennifer Egan, MANHATTAN BEACH

Reading some of the reviews afterwards, I found myself surprised. Boring? Conventional? Crap? Hm. ... Several readers suggest that this book suffers by comparison with Egan's Pulitzer-Prize-winning A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, which was admittedly an extraordinary, inventive, ambitious post-mod novel. But as Elphaba sings--"I'm not that girl." This book isn't that kind of book and doesn't attempt to be (to me, it hearkens back to The Keep rather than Goon); and judged on its own merits, as an historical noir-ish novel, it has much to recommend it, including original characters and details that to me felt organic, germane, and presented with Egan's usual skill. I read this book in two days; and if at times I felt psychological motivation was a bit thin (just why does Anna want to become a diver? why is she attracted to Dexter Styles? why exactly does Eddie seem so emotionally detached from his family?) I was willing to forgive it because I felt transported to the time and place--and because in noir-ish books, characters tend to be somewhat inscrutable. To me, that's part of the general darkness. Maybe I'm just a sucker for any kind of historical novel (particularly with a bit of mystery), but there were passages that gave me the satisfying feeling of Egan having gotten it just right, needlepoint as opposed to the nautical knots Anna undoes. For example--and it doesn't really work to take sentences out of context--in describing Merchant Marine men: "No one talked more than men on ships, but the point of the stories they told was to hide the ones they could never divulge to anyone." "Mackey gave him a strained, haunted glance--the look of a man whose desperation had trumped his ability to play along."

Thursday, March 22, 2018

George Saunders, LINCOLN IN THE BARDO

Wildly imaginative and unusual. It took me a while to gather what was happening--it's a conversation among the ghosts in a graveyard where little Willie Lincoln has been interred in 1862, one year into the Civil War. But the ghost characters range from slaves to a reverend to a man whose every other word is the f-bomb. Lincoln himself appears; and the graveyard keeper. All the personal accounts are interspersed with quotes from historical texts and figures, most of which contradict each other and made me smile. The themes are poignant and rich and ambitious, and there's not a sentimental or cliche'd sentence in the book. The deepest concern in this book seemed to be empathy--with the governing metaphor for it the way that ghosts are able to slip inside Lincoln to convey the truth of their experience. (I found myself thinking of that old Robert Downey Jr. movie, "Heart and Souls.") Liked it very much.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Lisa Ko, THE LEAVERS

Very well written story about a Chinese immigrant woman and her son, making their way in NYC, only to be torn apart; through a series of leavings and many years, they reinvent themselves and find a way to be mother and son. One of my favorite passages is about the boy, Daniel (born Deming), who is a musician: "For so long, he had thought that music was the one thing he could believe in: harmony and angular submelody and rolling drums, a world neither present nor past, a space inhabited by the length of a song. For a song had a heart of its own, a song could jumpstart or provide solace; only music could numb him more thoroughly than weed or alcohol" (p. 258).

J.B. West with Mary Lynn Kotz, UPSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE: MY LIFE WITH THE FIRST LADIES

An interesting read from the perspective of the Chief Usher of the White House from Eleanor Roosevelt through the beginning of Pat Nixon's tenure. It's an alternate history, in that the focus is on the first ladies, not the presidents. For example, the shooting of JFK is given one line; in any other history, it would be Jacqueline Kennedy's story that took a back seat. Here, she's front seat. It also reveals the quirks of the presidents and the immense expenses they ran up--for example, Johnson's obsession with his shower, which West compares to a Rube Goldberg contraption and which cost thousands to install and was subsequently ripped out by Nixon. That said, West tends to sugar-coat things a bit, and the ladies are not always represented as having inconsistent characters; but it's still an engaging read without being a "tell-all."