Jan 272012

Hampton Sides gimmick as a writer is to start two or three parallel stories and watch as they converge in a single moment in history.  I strongly recommend Ghost Soldiers by the same author, the story of the Bataan death march in the Philippines.  In this case we travel with Martin Luther King Jr. during his last fateful months before his assassination.  Simultaneously we track the movements of his killer, James Earl Ray, as he prepares for the shooting.  All the while we get inside the head of J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, and lifelong enemy of King.  On the upside the author does an excellent job of recreating a time and place in American history: the devastating racism of the deep south in the 1960s and the virulent paranoia of Hoover’s cold war FBI.  Somehow, however, I did not feel the suspense.  Maybe I recall too much of the events from my childhood and the book would be more successful for younger readers and maybe it just wasn’t that suspenseful.  Everyone knows the outcome long before the first page.

Jan 202012

This book changed the way I viewed the CIA.  I used to believe they were ideologically driven bumblers, but after observing the careful exhibition of the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan from the inception of the Soviet invasion during the 1980s years through  the 9/11 attacks of 2001 I realized how really difficult it is to gather good intelligence.  You have to assemble electronic data (spotty at best) and human intelligence.  Your spies on the ground are being paid and their loyalties or veracity cannot be independently verified.  Often you are trying to gather data from extremely hostile territory where your opponents are in the business of flooding your sensors with misinformation.  And how in the world do you maintain your own objectivity as information arrives at CIA headquarters?  Don’t we all tend to find what we are looking for rather than what we are not?  The only shortcoming of this book, perhaps, is its length and detail, but in trying to ascertain what someone like Osama Bin Laden is up to, or the next Osama might be planning, detail is really what it is all about, isn’t it?

Jan 072012

The conclusion, and maybe the best, of the Swedish trilogy about men who hate women and abuse, cut apart, strangle, murder, beat, rape, and do other unspeakable things to them.  As in the previous two, the central character is Lisbeth Salander, who, true to form remains forcefully present through her silence.  Larsson defends women’s right to revenge, but also makes a strong statement in favor of the role of the press in protecting democracy from the forces of fascism.