Thoughts on books, often interpreted through the high-brow prism of cartoon (read: Archer) references. Wait! I had something for this...
For my money (which, since I'm neither a Wall Street tycoon, nor a Russian coding genius, isn't a whole heck of a lot) this isn't Michael Lewis' best work. My reading experience was a mix of fascination and frustration. Why the latter? Lewis covers (and condemns) a whole bunch of different things. Agreement aside, as a human who reads books, this lack of distinction is what resulted in the bulk of my star-docking (and, I'm guessing, some of the backlash against the book among insiders). Lewis' books often seem to spawn ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps, but with this one I can't for the life of me figure out where I fall!!
I was hoping to have come to a resolution before attempting to write a review, but, as time passes, it seems like that's just not in the cards…
Since Flash Boys evoked some pretty heated internal debates between Mara and Other Mara I'm gonna let you know where I'm coming from (by all means, feel free to skip ahead—I'll even spoiler-ize this section it to make it easy for you).
In reality neither I nor the voices in my head know much about the logistics of trading beyond the scope of this book, but what follows is a list of some of the points of mental contention.
1. The Need for Speed
While I'm very pro Net Neutrality and public access to public goods, I had trouble discerning an appropriate analogue for Dan Spivey and his super straight, super fast, fiber optic cable.
Let's say that information travel is like human travel. If information highways are the equivalent of, well, highways, then yes, everyone should have equal access. However, there are people who are willing to pay a premium to get to and from wherever they need to be more quickly and more reliable—perhaps by helicopter or private jet. Heck, us common folk can cough up cash to get better bandwidth, so that much seems fair.
However, what about all the eminent domain stuff? Well, I don't know. Is this any different from 'air rights' transactions?
2. Information Asymmetry
Let me start by zooming out a bit here. Some games are games of “perfect information.” Chess is probably the most commonly cited, but backgammon, and tic-tac-toe both share the same requisite attributes: both players are completely aware of the state of the game at all times.
In order to avoid launching into a treatise on Bayesian Nash Equilibrium and such, I'm gonna just lump games like poker or crazy eights, or the Prisoner's Dilemma in together as games of imperfect/incomplete information.
Information asymmetry, on the other hand, exists when one party has more or better information than another. And, FYI, we deal with transactions of asymmetric information all the time! I don't care if you go on car fax, or get a whole bunch of quotes from contractors before remodeling your kitchen—even if we have access to information, we deal with people who could, theoretically, screw us over because they simply know more.
Of course, there are different types of information asymmetry when it comes to financial markets. For example, “insider trading” is an example of information asymmetry that, in most cases, is illegal.* Most of the time when one refers to “information asymmetry” it's not a good thing, but it seems to me (and, again, I'm no expert) certain types of information asymmetry make the world go round. It’s not that it’s always innocuous, it’s just that we allow (and encourage) it on so many other levels. The market would be static if everyone thought that they had the same amount of information (or less than) everyone else out there. Right? (Seriously, I’m asking…)
3. The Fight for Fairness
My dad, who read this book a while back, contended that before *something* (high-frequency trading, I'll assume), the market used to be a level playing field. My knee-jerk reaction was that this simply wasn't true. But, then again, there are many different types of unfairness (and I'll have to ruminate on this some more before I figure out what exactly these are).
This is definitely the part of the book about which I feel most conflicted. Other than Brad Katsuyama, the Patron Saint of Fairness, who exactly are the good guys supposed to be in this all?
I don't know how much input (if any) Michael Lewis was allowed to give on the cartoon above, but it captures perfectly what rankled my nerdy feathers most—the idea that, basically, it's these computer-using hoodlums that are responsible for the injustices of Wall Street.
4. Dark Pools and Fiduciary Duty
As far as this part goes, I just felt like I need more information than I was given—dark pools seem shady (they have the word ‘dark’ in their titles, after all), but I also don't know how a client's investment ends up there.
Though I'm taking it into a new context, I'm gonna make use of an analogy Chris Stucchio laid out in “A Fervent Defense of Front-Running HFTs” (the thesis of which, BTW, I'm not totally sold on). In the context of a competition (and, let's be real, the stock market is definitely a competitive arena) the rules of engagement are different depending on the relationship between the parties involved.
So, if Mickey (who is Rocky's coach) punches Rocky in the face, that's bad. It's unfair, and, as Chris put it, that would mean that Mickey is an asshole. Conversely, if Apollo punches Rocky in the face, this does not make him an asshole. Actually (and here I'm taking it a step further than Chris did), Apollo would be an asshole if he didn't at least try to punch Rocky in the face. There are people counting on him to do just that!
Questions? Comments? Snide remarks?
So yeah, I'm just going to leave it there with this loosely related boxing analysis that I haven't even tied back in with the book. I don't want this to add to my growing list of languishing, half-finished reviews, so I'm putting it out there, half-baked thoughts and all.
In addition to snide remarks, I'd be happy to field any further reading recommendations, especially anything that begins to describe normal, “just” behavior in and on Wall Street (and those fast, straight wires running across the globe) because, damn, is that stuff ever difficult to find!
If you found this book interesting I highly recommend checking out Steve's two-part review (learning and laughing always pair nicely).
* Thanks a lot SEC—turns out there is legal insider trading, which is just confusing.
This is totally outside the realm of my normal reading fare, but, for under two bucks, I figure I could do with a dose of insight on my so-called "value" (especially since I'm categorically terrible at capitalism).
This book is a strong 3.5 stars, maybe even tilting toward 4. If you're interested in it—read it. It's fun, short, and fascinating. My star-docking is more of a content critique, but (attention spans being what they are these days) I wanted to get that out of the way.
Kim Jong-Il was not always “Dear Leader.” As a child, he was called “Yura.” Though he was the son of Kim Sung-Il, “The Great Leader” and founder of North Korea (aka Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK), it wasn't always a given that he would one day take his father's place. It's hard to parse the varying stories of his birth/ancestry (check out Time's Kim Family Tree if you're curious). Jong-Il was passionate about cinema from an early age and when (taking a page from the Soviet playbook) Sung-Il formed the Propaganda and Agitation Department, Jong-Il soon made a natural and eager Cultural Arts Director.
As with almost all aspects of society after the Korean War, there was a race for supremacy in the film industries between the North and the South. Together, director Shin Sang-Ok and actress “Madam Choi” Eun-Hee were seemingly unstoppable.
Shin Films became a juggernaut—with the combination of Choi on screen, and Shin behind the camera, their films were met with acclaim in South Korea and abroad.
Shin and Choi (above as happy, young newlyweds) embodied the success of South Korean films. Few people (if any) would have been as acutely aware of this as Kim Jong-Il. His obsession with movies was so great that he set up Resource Operation No. 100 (a fancied-up term for what was essentially film piracy and dubbing at DPRK embassies across the world) so he could study the work of all the greats.
By the late 1970s, however, Choi, Shin, and Kim Jong-Il were confronting challenges in their respective lives. Though Choi had tried to ignore Shin's infidelities, the two divorced after Shin had a baby with a younger actress. Shin had a penchant for pushing the limits of what was considered acceptable in South Korea at the time. After ignoring the censorship board one time too many, the Office of Public Ethics revoked Shin's license to make films.
Though the first films made in North Korea (e.g. Sea of Blood and The Flower Girl) were successful, with a quite literally captive audience of people who were exposed to no other media, Kim Jong-Il was not satisfied. Furthermore, given that the DPRK was a “closed country,” Jong-Il was effectively isolated from foreign talent.
Both Shin and Choi were essentially foiled by their desires to succeed and pursue their passions. Abductions/kidnappings across the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) were by no means uncommon. Fishing boats were regular targets (which will come as no surprise to those who have read The Orphan Master's Son), and many were skeptical as to whether or not South Korean “defectors” were truly acting under their own will.
Choi became a “guest of the Dear Leader” by way of Hong Kong in 1978, enticed by an opportunity to direct a film (which would help her to achieve her dreams for an acting school in South Korea). Though the two had divorced, Shin was concerned when his ex-wife went missing. He spoke out to the press about his suspicions of political conspiracy, and was also questioned as a suspect in Choi's disappearance.
Meanwhile, Shin was still trying to resurrect his company, and was having passport/visa problems. With nibbles, but no bites on various foreign deals for film distribution or directing opportunities, Shin was growing desperate and was running out of cash. When told that he would be able to get a South American passport in Hong Kong, he went for it, only to find himself traveling on the same freighter that had taken Choi to the People's Republic.
Though Shin and Choi were “special guests,” this did not save them from all of the horrors of North Korea's detention and reeducation camps, nor were they immediately reunited. The conditions of Shin's detainment were particularly bad—similar to those described both in The Orphan Master's Son and Escape From Camp 14.
It's difficult to describe my impression of Kim Jong-Il based on this book. To say that he was well-intentioned seems naive, and it's impossible to imagine what the world looked like through his eyes given his bizarre upbringing. However one sees him, though, Kim Jong-Il was undeniably eager to earn the approval of Shin and Choi, and, in his own way, tried to make them happy (even re-marrying the couple in 1983, below).
The title of the book reflects Paul Fischer's ongoing depiction of Kim Jong-Il as the producer of his country and its narrative.
“Between the late 1960s and the end of his [Kim Jong Il's] life he created one vast stage production. He was the writer, director, and producer of the nation. He conceived his people’s roles, their devotion, their values; he wrote their dialogue and forced it upon them; he mapped out their entire character arcs, from birth to death, splicing them out of the picture if they broke type.”
Accordingly, there were ways in which “working” for Kim Jong-Il was familiar to Shin and Choi.
“Shin and Choi had both met men like Kim Jong-Il, on a smaller scale: talented but not quite talented enough, powerful, jealous, insecure, and boastful; with an overinflated sense of their own importance in the world, a short temper, and an obsessive need to micromanage. Kim was, they thought, the archetypal film producer.”
Likewise, for Shin especially, Jong-Il's unilateral power made his life easier. Need to blow up a train? Sure thing—sorry, you'll have to do it in one take, because it's a real, running train. However, lacking the incentives inherent in capitalism, the same could not be said of the cast and crew.
So, did it work? Were Shin and Choi everything Kim Jong-Il ever dreamed of? In some ways, yes. Movies in North Korea did get better. The people of the DPRK began to share Jong-Il's enthusiasm for film (in part because the films became something more than pure glorifications of life North Korea).
Shin Sang-Ok and Choi Eun-Hee, however, were not truly happy. Though they had many of the comforts of “the good life,” they were prisoners. Also, they were pawns in the propaganda game that got this whole thing started. Luckily for them, their roles as spokespeople for the DPRK required some of the trappings of freedom which proved crucial for their escape.
While this was a fascinating story which seems well-researched (though I'm no expert), Fischer seemed a little overly determined to layer on all of the mystery and “weirdness” of North Korea and its leaders. While I'm not planning on overthrowing our democracy any time soon, I think that there's always value in trying to see things from other perspectives. One of the things I enjoyed about The Orphan Master's Son was its references to how America might look or be portrayed in North Korea—a land of “illiteracy, canines, and multicolored condoms.”
I became acutely aware of this while reading Fischer's descriptions of the death and funeral rites of Kim Il-Sung.
“Kim Il-Sung’s body was embalmed and put on display for his people to see. The process involved removing all of the Supreme Leader’s organs before bathing his hollow corpse in a formaldehyde bath and injecting liters of chemical balsam, a cocktail of glycerine and potassium acetate, in his veins to keep his flesh lifelike and elastic. Finally makeup and lipstick were applied to Kim’s face to restore the illusion of youth.”
I'm no mortician, but that doesn't sound all that different from what goes on at open-casket funerals here in the U-S-of-A (I think it involves formaldehyde and methanol).
Full disclosure—I undoubtedly read this book too soon after finishing The Tudors. While the overlapping content is minimal, and the authors differ somewhat stylistically, both books are broad sweeping histories featuring lots of kings and queens (many of whom shared the same names). Given that this was my first time encountering much of this material since high school, characters and events inevitably began to blur together. So, my take on Dan Jones and The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England is likely suffering a bit from sequential bias. Onward ho!
What a hot mess life could be in the Plantagenet empire! The best one can hope for is that we learn from the mistakes of the past. So, should anyone find themselves in any of the following situations, here are some bits of wisdom, courtesy of these “warrior kings and queen” of yore.
1. Never put all of your heirs in one boat.
Poor King Henry I—though his reign was long and prosperous, and his government among the most successful since Rome, high hopes for his legacy were dashed with the sinking of the White Ship. Not only was his legitimate son and next in line for the throne, William the Aethling, on board, but a couple of Henry's illegitimate children as well (Richard of Lincoln, and Matilda FitzRoy). The alternate lesson (this one from William) might be “if you're in a skiff after a shipwreck and see your half-sister in the water, just let her drown.”
2. Stop naming everyone Matilda!
I guess the time for my proposed naming injunction has kind of come and gone, but, seriously, there are just too many Matildas to deal with. We've dealt with one Matilda FitzRoy (the one who drowned), so that's taken care of. However, Henry I had another illegitimate daughter named Matilda who also was a Matilda FitzRoy because “FitzRoy” just means “son of the king” (and I guess they didn't bother dealing with the gender thing for these two daughters).
Maybe Henry just didn't know there were other names for girls because Matilda was also the name of: his mother/onetime Queen of England, Matilda of Flanders; his first wife, Matilda of Scotland; and the daughter they had, who became Empress Matilda. After William's death (FYI, his wife was also named Matilda), Henry appointed his only other legitimate child (the aforementioned Empress Matilda) as his heir. However, her cousin and his wife, Matilda of Boulogne, took over leaving us with King Stephen (not to be confused with Stephen King).
3. Not everyone's cracked up for the crusades.
During the twelfth century “taking the cross” (the term for becoming an official crusader) was all the rage. Richard I (aka Richard the Lionheart; below, L) came from good crusading stock—his mother, after all, was the super badass Eleanor of Aquitaine. For Richard, crusading was “both a spiritual business and a family matter.”
Richard had his own style about it. At one point, he sent a message to Saladin (the leader of the opposition Muslim crusaders; above, R) “requesting secret negotiations – and asking for peaches and ice to cool his raging fever.” Saladin declined the meeting, but still sent the fruit (classy move). Sickness didn't keep Richard on the sidelines:
“he was carried onto the battlefield on a litter, covered in a gloriously regal silken quilt and carrying a crossbow, which he fired at Muslim defenders from behind a screen.”
Philip II was a different story—Jones refers to his crusading career as a “catalogue of humiliation.” Finally (shoutout to Eric Cartman) he basically said, screw you guys, I'm going home.
“Philip II, driven by a cocktail of emotions that included jealousy, homesickness and exasperation, announced that he considered his crusading oath to have been served by the conquest of Acre. He was going home.”
4. Do not cross King John.
It was the reign of King John (the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor; below, L) that is thought to have given birth to the legend of Robin Hood. I guess people just needed something to believe in because John was “a cruel master” to say the least! In addition to the typical methods of extracting money from the people (e.g. persecuting the Jews is always popular), he killed his nephew; pissed off his richest citizens; took the wives, mistresses, concubines, and children of clergymen hostage; and, upon learning of the papal Interdict against him, vowed to “pluck out priests’ eyes and clip their false tongues.”
From the commoners to King Edward I himself, thirteenth-century Europe was crazy for King Arthur. There was even Arthur swag!
“By the time Edward was born, there was a booming trade in Arthuriana, and a healthy industry had grown up around his imagined memory.”
So, a great way to make a quick buck: pretend to find Arthur's skeleton and sell tickets for people to come check out the bones! Best business plan ever!
6. Don't bro down on your wedding night.
Our next Edward, Edward of Caernarfon, had a BFF by the name of Piers Gaveston. It's not clear whether Gaveston was a “brother figure,” as Edward claimed, or if there was something more to their relationship, but everyone thought the Edward-Gaveston bromance was just too much.
Edward became known for acts of impolitic favoritism, but the Gaveston-centric wedding takes the cake. Not only did Gaveston basically walk down the aisle with Edward and his bride, Isabella, he also (in his bizarre role as wedding planner) decorated the banquet hall with tapestries of his and Edward's arms and not Isabella's. The in-laws, of course, were not impressed.
Of course, there are more takeaway tales, but I suppose you'll just have to learn them for yourselves. The book progresses quickly, and Jones does a great job of injecting personalities while moving through the larger history.
While author G.J. Meyer would be the first to admit that there is no way to cram the minutiae of more than a century of history into a single volume, he's captured a whole heck of a lot in this book. Furthermore, as promised, The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty is not just the Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn show. Frankly, “The King's Great Matter” (the euphemism employed by those in the know to refer to the whole Catherine/Anne annulment debacle) doesn't even begin to capture the full gamut of skullduggery of Tudor times.
It's hard to know where to begin with this debauched dynasty. Henry Tudor's ascent to the throne was rife with baggage and bloodshed. One might think that, five hundred years after the Battle of Bosworth, interest might have waned, but we're still running baby-daddy tests and bickering about that debacle. But Henry VII took the throne by combat, so let's skip the genealogy bits.
Henry VII actually did a pretty good job setting up shop. Love and romance aside, getting married was something akin to signing a treaty and/or taking a hostage, so Elizabeth of York was the perfect bride for an upstart king looking to shore up his royal status.
Meanwhile, Henry had to figure out how to keep the royal coffers full. The classic serfdom pyramid scheme took a hit when the black death swept through, dead serfs can't exactly work the land. With help from the Council Learned in the Law, Henry cooked up some new ways to put the kingdom “in the [monetary] black.”
Neonatal care being what it was (and with that dastardly X chromosome popping up all over the place), producing an heir was no easy feat. H7 and EoY did pretty well for themselves in whelping four royal offspring beyond infancy (below from L to R): Arthur, Margaret, Henry, and Mary Tudor.
Primogeniture put the smart money on Prince Arthur to be the next in line for the throne, and he was groomed for the role from the start. Duke of Cornwall at birth, and toddling into his role as Prince of Wales, the plans for Arthur's marriage to Catherine of Aragon (sealing the deal for an Anglo-Spanish alliance) were set in motion faster than you can say “child bride” (though they waited until the betrothed were of a respectable tween-age to exchange vows). Alas, Arthur died before the couple could make it to their first anniversary.
Courtesy of protracted negotiations with the Spanish court and a papal dispensation (Catherine's family being super Catholic and such), Arthur's widow and Henry VIII were wed in 1509 just months after the death of Henry VII. Though the common folk weren't sad to see Henry VII, Henry VIII could have benefitted from a few of his father's faults.
The story of Henry the Eighth, “great matter” and all, is far more complex than I ever would have imagined. Meyer does an excellent job of putting the case of Henry v. the Church in the broader context from whence it came. While the religious upheaval in England and central Europe were separate, it wasn't a coincidence that these schisms happened around the same time. Let's just say it went beyond the issues of trophy wives and whether or not Jesus Christ could actually turn into a wafer cracker (transubstantiation if you want to be fancy about it).
The six wives are but drops in the sea of people who were totally screwed over by King Henry VIII. There's really no one who wins when a king introduces “treason by thought.” From scapegoating Cardinal Wolsey to leaving his son with a government that was, essentially, bankrupt, the impact of Henry VIII knew few bounds.
Standouts from the hit parade of the damned? Well, let's start with people named “Thomas.” As it turns out, this list includes the Thomas responsible for the name's popularity, Thomas Becket. Perhaps you think that, on account of being both a saint and dead, Becket would evade Henry's grasp. Wrong! If Henry calls you to court, you best come correct, otherwise he'll take your treasure, dissolve your shrine, and burn your bones!! TomCrom (Thomas Cromwell) was no saint, but he was certainly one of Henry's head henchmen—in the eyes of Henry, the Bro Code was meaningless. Thomas More, popular among the people, also did a bid in the Tower and exited via the stairway to heaven for refusing to take the Oath of Submission.
Mary, Henry's daughter, seems a particularly tragic character in it all. Sure, she'd ultimately earn the moniker Bloody Mary as queen for her cruel for burning protestants en masse (including a Thomas or two), but the girl had some serious daddy issues. Separated from her mother, subjugated to her infant half-sister, and forced to sign an oath against everything she believed, it's not exactly surprising that Mary would become unhinged. Also, she may or may not have had an hysterical pregnancy when she first married Philip, but I'd have to do some fact-checking on that.
Here I've promised you a dynasty, and find myself more impressed than ever with Meyer's ability to steadily distribute material across the Tudor succession! My apologies for skipping ahead…
Queen Elizabeth I (in stark contrast to her predecessors) acknowledged that a monarch reigns with “popular consent.” Unfortunately, her exit from the world wasn't particularly picturesque. Scarred by smallpox in her youth, the Queen tried to hide behind ceruse—a makeup made of lead and vinegar (and you thought eating paint chips was bad). I imagine her physical devolution being a sort of Tudor Era analogue to that of Michael Jackson.
It's difficult to rate this book because its title is so misleading. Don't get me wrong, the details of Operation Pastorius (the titular “terrorist attack“) are covered. However, this book is decidedly more constitutional law than military history. It's about civil liberties (or lack thereof), the justice system and executive power “in times of war,” featuring a case study of the Nazi saboteur trial. Published in 2005, the author gives a comparative analysis of FDR's handling of the Nazi saboteurs, and the circumstances of and precedence for Guantanamo Bay and declarations of “enemy combatant” status under Bush 43.
Even after resigning myself to the fact that I was drawn into reading this book under false pretenses, I still felt that it was deeply flawed. The balance between security and liberty is a rich topic for debate because there are strong cases to be made for both sides. Though I think of myself as falling more in the “pro liberty” camp, I found myself mentally fighting for the interests of security because author Pierce O'Donnell neglects them so thoroughly. If the best offense is a good defense, then this book is the 2008 Detroit Lions (or the '81 Colts, or '66 Giants, but I wasn't alive then, so they don't really count).
After reading this book, I'm finding it hard to muster the energy to recount the events that led to the scene pictured above. I put in my two cents on George Dasch (the Nazi saboteur who turned himself in) and J. Edgar Hoover in my review of Enemies: A History of the FBI, and (400 pages later) I'm just as happy to to never discuss Ex parte Quirin again (if you want to read the Supreme Court case, it's here for your edification). I guess that says it all—O'Donnell drained the interest right out of me.
It's extra exciting when you read a book you enjoy and know that there's plenty more from whence it came (read: it's part of a series). Thus, I'm pretty darn pleased to have made the acquaintance of the eponymous Lincoln-riding lawyer, Mickey Haller.
Haller is a defense attorney of the “Better Call Saul” variety. Criminals need lawyers, and if their money's green… He's a likable guy—so likable, in fact, that neither of his ex-wives (prosecutor/baby mama Maggie McFierce, and super secretary Lorna Taylor) treat him with the contempt typically associated with broken marriages. Heck, they're downright helpful.
The case at hand involves wealthy Los Angelean and potential “franchise”/big money client, Louis Roulet (rhymes with Robert Goulet). Roulet is on the hook for the assault of a working girl, and, of course, he's innocent. Right? It's hard to describe much without risking spoiler-ing (the first four paragraphs of James' review do a damn fine job of it).
Since there's an overbearing mother, and a switchblade involved, and because I'm oh so predictable, I'll leave you with this.
Heads up: Available for $4.95 on audible until February 7th as part of their "Discover a New Series" sale (seemed like a good deal, given the rave reviews).
There are plenty of prolific authors out there with whom I'm completely unfamiliar. It was only a few years ago that I “met” (and fell hard for) Stephen King. So I decided to give Dean Koontz a whirl, and (as suggested by my lone star rating) Odd Thomas and I did't exactly hit it off.
I get the whole different strokes for different folks thing, but I just couldn't handle the saccharine sweet (e.g. “My favorite body part is my heart...”), at times infuriatingly repetitive narrative voice of Odd "Yes That's My Real Name" Thomas. The premise for the book is simply not all that hard to follow—Odd sees dead people. So, there's no need to expressly state that *insert character's name here* (who doesn't see dead people) might have a different take on the world.
Then there are topics/references tossed in that just felt forced. September 11th comes up a couple times, pedophilia and molestation are in there for good measure, and then there's Odd's bizarre understanding of autism. I'm no expert on the etiology of autism spectrum disorders, but Odd's rationale for avoiding big cities— that, in the face of so many lingering dead, he “would no doubt quickly seek escape in autism or suicide”—left me feeling a bit thrown. It doesn't come up again, other than transitioning to the next thought with “Not yet either dead or autistic…” But WTF?!?
Long of the short, Odd Thomas is not for me. I'd be open to giving Koontz another try, but, after this one, I'm in no hurry.
Neal Stephenson's characters and I seem to share quite a few interests (some of which are, admittedly, not for everybody). Though Snow Crash seems to be Stephenson's most popular book, I wouldn't give it the kind of universal recommendation status merited by the likes of Zodiac. However, I think it would appeal to a broader audience than say, Cryptonomicon, or Reamde (only in part due to the fact that those two each clock in at over 1,000 pages).
So, let's get that snow crashing! Ok, so it's not an avalanche survival story, but what do I really have to contribute to the body of Snow Crash commentary out there if not vaguely related Archer clips?
Our protagonist, appropriately named Hiro Protagonist, is a freelance hacker, and pizza delivery guy (which, as a mafia-run industry that takes its promise of delivery in 30 minutes or less very seriously, is not an occupation without risk). Hiro's imaginary report card would read:
“Hiro is so bright and creative but needs to work harder on his cooperation skills.”
The gear in this futuristic world is really half the fun. Hiro (aka The Deliverator) has a uniform made of an “arachnofiber weave” that would put the tactical turtleneck to shame any day. Even the relatively lame Metacops get to have night vision goggles.
Hiro's cooperation skills are put to the test when our other lead character, 15-year-old courier YT (it's supposed to stand for Yours Truly, but Michael Jackson's PYT kept getting stuck in my head), saves his skin by bailing him out of a near-miss pizza delivery. Couriers, of course, travel by skateboard, “pooning” passing cars to speed about the city.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that Hiro (as noted on his business card) is also the Greatest Swordfighter in the World.
I don't even know where to begin with the whole cyborg situation (a certain world's greatest secret agent would be decidedly uncomfortable in this Stephenson verse). I'll just say that there are some, and not all of them are good (duh). I mean, can you really even kill those things?
Science or Fiction?
As in the other Stephenson books I've read, the sheer power of his intellect is on display in this one. After complaints from the reading public that Stephenson failed to cite sources with respect to Riemann Zeta function cryptography, Stephenson sent an email to “real life” mathematician/cryptography expert Michael Anshel in which he noted “that many readers of fiction underestimate just how much of a novel's content is simply made up.”
But, guess what Stephenson? There's a reason “that many readers seem to have [difficulty] in identifying the boundary between fact and fiction” in your books. And, for my money, that's not necessarily a bad thing! Sure, I should probably go and check out some of the bits about Sumerian etymology before I go tossing them around as fact, but at least now I'm interested enough to do so!
Cornelius Ryan has a knack for writing military histories that are incredibly accessible. I'm a far cry from being any sort of “armchair general.” I didn't grow up playing Risk, and my primary point of reference for distinguishing between battleships and destroyers is the number of pegs required to sink them in the game Battleship (and even then I manage to mix them up). Don't get me wrong, Ryan's trio of WWII accounts (The Longest Day, The Last Battle, and A Bridge Too Far) tell you who was doing what, when, and where—there are plenty of references to squadrons, troops, battalions, and divisions. However, they are full of smaller stories that give my mind something to hold on to.
I figure that if you really want to know the ins and outs of Operation Market Garden, there's plenty of excellent material out there (including this book); the quick and dirty version is basically that it was the largest airborne operation to-date, took place in the Netherlands and Germany and was not a success. So, I'm now gonna go with the “Jeff approach” I co-opted for my review of The Last Battle, and dish out some assorted bits and pieces that stuck out along the way.
Frenemies From Within
Working with other people is never easy. In retrospect, it's easy to think of the Axis and the Allies as unified fronts, but (as usual) there's way more nuance to the story. Honestly, it wasn't really until I read Panzer Commander: The Memoirs of Colonel Hans von Luck that I began to consider the difference between a German soldier and a Nazi.
So, contentious relationship number one is between the Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel, and der Führer, Adolf Hitler. Rommel loathed Hitler, and with good reason—because, in September of 1944, Hitler's orders to Rommel et al. in the Western front were suicidal and insane. Long of the short, Rommel was part of a plot to assassinate Hitler, and then Hitler basically “let” Rommel kill himself.
Meanwhile, the Allied leadership wasn't exactly having an easy time of things. Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (aka “Monty”) wasn't the only diva Supreme Allied Commander DDE had to deal with, but he definitely earns himself a nomination for Most Difficult Colleague for Market Garden (which was, after all, his show). Monty's intentions were good—he wanted to march straight into Berlin and end the war for once and for all. However, in addition to demanding absolute priority for all resources, and declaring that he simply couldn't/wouldn't work with Patton, Monty's plans were a bit “offhanded.” One Lieutenant Colonel describes the slipshod orders to the effect of:
“First, we'll take this bridge; then that one and hop this river...”
It was at Monty's HQ that Lieutenant General Frederick Browning tried to challenge the Field Marshall: “But, sir, I think we might be going a bridge too far.”
The best one-liner regarding Monty, though, definitely came from Ryan's interview with Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands who said:
“My country can never again afford the luxury of another Montgomery success.”
Yes, this LZ!
The logistics were a mess. The 82nd Airborne Division's initial success, with 89% of troopers hitting their drops, and 84% of gliders making it within 1,000 meters of their Landing Zone (LZ), proved to be the exception, rather than the rule. The 101st Airborne Paratroopers (below) had danger coming from all directions, including themselves. One Private, after dropping a match into an oil drum, was “the only member of the 101st jumping into Holland with no eyebrows.”
Oh, and by the way, gliders are not the same thing as airplanes—something that first-time glider pilots attempted to communicate with leadership without much success. But, nevertheless, their dedication was impressive. One of the pilots of the IX Troop Carrier Command even managed to get his jumpers into the green light zone despite the fact that his plane was on fire!
Myrtle the Parachick and more...
Ryan's knack for weaving anecdotes in with military maneuvers makes it all feel more real. Lieutenant "Pat" Glover had a chicken, Myrtle, who'd accompanied him on six prior training jumps. He described that
“this rather gentle pet would wait patiently on the ground for me to land and collect her.”
Though Myrtle made the jump successfully, she, like so many others, died in the trenches on the ground in the ensuing battle. Glover “buried her with honor and properly–with her badge of rank–as befitted those who died in action.” I'm never a fan of bringing birds, or any animals into battle, this story reminded me of the fact that each fallen soldier was more than just a number.
After reading Thomas Penn's Tudor England oeuvre (aka this book), I am now substantially less impressed by the imagination of George R.R. Martin because *Holy Toledo Batman* this stuff like really happened!
Having been MIA from the Land of Reads and Reviews for a while, I'm admittedly not writing this book the review it deserves (a theme which, alas, will likely become the chorus of my next few updates). That being said, I really think you should read it because this sh*t be crazy!
4.5/5 stars (and, like Lucille Bluth, I'm probably being withholding).
I know, I know—this isn't what most think of as being a “book” per se. However, after being laid out in bed with the flu, Captain Trips, or maybe even that Gluten Free Ebola they were talking about on South Park for the past week or so, I really needed a dose David Sedaris' sardonic brilliance in its most potent form.
I have all of Sedaris' books in audio and physical form. And, yes, most of the material you will hear on David Sedaris: Live at Carnegie Hall has found its way into his work elsewhere. But, even having seen him read live several times, I maintain that this is Sedaris at his absolute best.
I don't know if this recording of “Six to Eight Black Men” from the performance is officially sanctioned or whatever, but if you listen to this and don't want more then, well, I have nothing to say to you.
Really, it speaks volumes that I pulled myself out of bed just to ensure that even those of us with the hearts of coal have something to make us laugh at this oh-so jovial time of year.