Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts

 There was so much buzz about Erik Larson's new book, In the Garden of Beasts that I actually went out and bought it even thought the library owns more than 10 copies. It was money well spent. The story is about William E. Dodd, the United States ambassador to Berlin in the early 1930's. Hitler was just starting his rise and Germany was in a state of flux. The United States was still suffering from the depression and most of Europe was still recovering from World War I.

Dodd, a professor at the University of Chicago lobbied hard for an ambassador position assuming it would give him time to finish his opus, On the Old South. He could not have been more wrong. Dodd was not part of the "old boy network" of the diplomatic corps and was almost totally frozen out from this group from the very beginning. An academic and an unassuming man, Dodd arrives in Berlin in 1933 with his wife, son, daughter and his beat up Ford sedan. This was in sharp contrast to the previous ambassador and indeed from some of his aides.

The story is meticulously detailed through the use of both private and public correspondence. It shows a man who was somewhat out of his depth but had a better read on the political situation in Germany than did many of his superiors in Washington and that he did more than he was given credit for. The book hints that Roosevelt placed Dodd in Germany because no one else would take the position and that once Dodd was in Germany Roosevelt left him alone to deal with the situation.

There is very little in the book about Dodd's wife and son. His daughter is the most complete family member and she is something else. A consummate party girl, Martha, takes up with a series of men even though her American divorce is not finalized. She runs through an alarming array of diplomats, new reporters, Nazi officers and a Russian embassy liaison assumed (and rightly so) to be a Soviet spy.

The book reads like a work of fiction, a trait of Larson's. But what makes this book so riveting is that from our point of view we can actually see what is coming and how Dodd was really left twisting by a government that wouldn't believe him. The story moves quickly and I will tell you that the more I read the more sympathetic I was towards Dodd. This is one very interesting book. There are hundreds of books about the lead up to World War II and Hitler's rise to power. In the Garden of Beasts tells the story from a different angle. It is most definitely worth the read.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

The Filter Bubble

We live in an information age with nearly everything available at our fingertips, but are we no longer being exposed to contrary opinions? Eli Pariser, in his book The Filter Bubble, considers whether personalization and filters on the internet are having an unfortunate effect upon us as individuals and citizens. Pariser, a former Executive Director of MoveOn.org, argues that the Internet is on the path to providing us with opinions from only those who think exactly the same as we do.

Try searching a term on Google and then have a friend search the same term and you may see that Google is providing different results for each of you. This is because Google uses many factors, from cookies to click history, to determine which results are most relevant to an individual. While personalization is clearly useful (e.g., when searching movies you probably want to see what's playing near you, first) Parserer feels that by only serving up information that we like, we might no longer be exposed to some information that is potentially good for us. To remain responsible citizens we need to be exposed to contrary opinions and in-depth analysis. From news to Netflix, there is a chance that the systems are overfiltering what we are seeing, and only coming up with very narrow matches. We are potentially missing out on gray area information that is not a great personalized fit but which we may enjoy reading or seeing.

Facebook and Google are two of the major sites trying to determine what we "like" to see vs. what we "need" to see and one of Pariser's problems with these sites is that their method of filtering is not transparent. Google serves as an editor by providing certain results first while moving others farther back in the results list, and we often have no idea why. We have very little control over what we prefer that Google provides to us.

Another major concern that Pariser addresses is the fact that when we use free online products, information that is being captured about us is usually being sold. There are huge databases about us, our preferences and the people we interact with, and there are myriad ethical questions about how this information can and will be used down the line.

While part of this book meandered away from its main topic overall this was a breezy look at some issues that will affect us more and more as the Internet continues to integrate itself into our lives. The book reads like a long magazine article and is approachable by anyone interested in the current state of the Internet.

View Eli Pariser's TED talk on the filter bubble.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011


The second of Rory Clements' Tudor intrigue series, Revenger picks up several years after Martyr ends. Set England near the end of the reign of Elizabeth 1, Revenger is filled with great historical detail. The Spanish Armada attack is over and the colony in Virginia has failed. So what is the royal court to do for intrigue? Argue about succession that's what.

Cecil and Essex are still plotting against each other. Essex hires Shakespeare to find Eleanore Dare a woman who was supposed to have died along with all the other Roanoke, Virginia colonists. Cecil hires Shakespeare to spy on Essex and all Shakespeare wants to do is teach at the school he has set up after retiring from the intelligencer business.

Essex is the Queen's favorite, but Shakespeare finds that the Queen is in danger along with his family. Essex has ambitions for the throne and he is using Shakespeare to help him. Unwittingly Shakespeare seems to be doing just that. He finds Eleanore Dare and uncovers a secret that involves Essex's henchman McGunn. McGunn, a hired thug has murdered people and generally made Shakespeare's life miserable. He has his own agenda and is going to make sure it succeeds.

Some of the characters from Martyr appear in this book. Shakespeare and his wife Catherine, along with Essex, Cecil and Topcliff, who is still in service to the Queen and up to his torture routines in his hunt for catholics.

The story abounds with intrigue, deceit and murder. The historical detail is remarkable - from the back alleys of London's most sordid areas to the royal displays of the Queen's pilgrimage, Clements doesn't skimp. This is a great historical mystery.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

An Unfinished Season

An Unfinished Season, by Ward Just, is a coming of age story that highlights the conflicts of nineteen year old Wilson Ravan (Wils) as well as those of post-war America in the early 1950s. Wils lives with his family in a wealthy and rural North Shore suburb called Quarterday. His father owns a printing company and the family is well-off. Although Mr. Raven's family is solidly midwestern, Wils' mother is from the East Coast. She once harbored hopes that her husband would become a partner in her father's New York law firm.

The reader sees their marriage through the lens of their teenage son. When the workers of the printing company go on strike for better wages and benefits, an idealogical rift occurs between the couple. This is a time of strife between labor and management. Unions are gaining strength as workers wish to share in the new post-war economic boon. There is blatant racism as African American soldiers return from the front to face intense discrimination. Discord in the house is mirrored by labor unrest.

Wils' summer job is that of an intern for a Chicago paper. He has gotten the job because his father golfs with its publisher. Ward Just, a former journalist, portrays the news room in all its excitement and grittiness. The down-to-earth reporters secretly resent Wils and his social advantages.

At a debutant party, one of the guests thinks Wils' summer job is a form of "slumming." "Why would anyone want to be a newspaper reporter? It's so sordid, what you have to see and do. It's so--vulgar. That colored girl, for example. The stories about her throw such a bad light on things, accentuating the negative, makes us all feel rotten, as if we're being accused of something." (p. 111)

At one of these parties, Wils meets the alluring Aurora and her respected psychiatrist father. He is drawn into their world, which is intensely complicated. Dr. Brule is divorced, a veteran of WWII, lives with his daughter and South American lover, and suffers from what we recognize now as post-traumatic stress. His relationship with the enigmatic Dr. Brule, as well as his own code of honor, play a huge role in his affair with Aurora.

As Michael Upchurch writes in the Seattle Times (Sunday, July 18, 2004): "An Unfinished Season stays tightly wrought throughout, even as it hones in on 'a loose end that will stay loose' in Wils' life. For Just, as for Wils, the mystery of that "loose end" exerts considerably more fascination than any mere journalistic fact."

An Unfinished Season contains crisp writing and an engaging plot. It is a period piece which vividly depicts Chicago--its music, its politics, its sights and its sounds.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Second Messiah

Out in the desert near Jerusalem archaeologists are digging for scrolls. Not just any scrolls but ones that are related to the Dead Sea scrolls. They have been digging in the area for more than 20 years. The scrolls they are specifically looking for refer to Jesus Christ.

Jack Crane is an archaeologist like his parents were, and like his parents he is searching for scrolls in the desert outside of Jerusalem. 20 years ago Jack's parents and some of their diggers were killed in a car accident after finding a scroll that would undermine the teachings of the Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish faith.

Jack finds a similar scroll and he informs his mentor, Dr. Green. Green believes that this new scroll indicates that there might have been more than one person claiming to be Jesus Christ. Before any further research on the scroll can occur, Dr. Green is murdered with Jack's knife. Now the action really begins.

A newly elected Pope wants to tell the world about the scrolls and their contents. The Mossad and other priests want just as much to keep the information a secret. Hassan Malik, the son of one of the dead diggers and now a rich Bedu, has every intention of keeping the scroll for himself, extracting revenge on Jack and the church and then selling the scroll to the highest bidder.

The story abounds with good guys, bad guys, double crosses and murderous priests with their own agendas. The book feels a little like the Di Vinci Code - most notably in it's treatment of Vatican priests and the Church's habit of keeping somethings secret. The story is straight forward - Jack must try to save the scroll and his own life while people he loves are murdered all around him.

No surprises just an entertaining thriller with some religious overtones.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Buried Secrets

Taylor Armstrong, troubled and drug addicted and her best friend Alexa Marcus, the daughter of a billionaire hedge fund owner (Marshall Marcus) decide to go out for a night of drinking and fun. The fact that both girls were teenagers did not stop them. The night of partying ended up being a nightmare for Alexa.

After being approached by a good looking Hispanic man, Taylor decides to bow out leaving Alexa alone with the man. A short time later a drugged Alexa is removed from the bar by him. No one hears from her for several days. When she is heard from, she is seen on a camera in an enclosed space begging her father to help her. After being warned not to contact police, Marshall decides to contact his old friend, Nick Heller. Heller is a friend we all should have. An ex-special forces member Heller uncovers secrets for a living and he does it well. Marshall tells Heller he will give him anything to get his daughter back. What he doesn't tell Heller is everything he knows about his daughter's disappearance.

Heller discovers that Marshall's hedge fund is in trouble. It has been looted and Marcus has borrowed money from an unholy alliance of international bad guys to try and get the fund up and running again. Heller discovers this and more damaging info about Marcus and his wife with the help of an extraordinary array of contacts including a FBI special agent, an ex-Russian spy, thieves, computer experts and expert computer hackers, an administrative assistant any one would love to have and of course ex-special forces buddies.

The story moves quickly and there is some suspense as to just what exactly is going on with Alexa. Whether she will survive or pay for her father's folly is not decided until the end of the book, guaranteeing that you, the reader, will continue. Secrets are continuously revealed through the plot and they help to keep the story moving along. The only problem I have is with the friends Heller can call upon. It was a touch unbelievable but fun anyway. Despite that, the story has lots of action and is actually a good read. it's a great book for a lazy summer weekend.

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