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Blue-Eyed Boy: A Memoir
Blue-Eyed Boy: A Memoir
Offered by Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Price: $11.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why you may want to read this book, September 1, 2014
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I know it will be hard to persuade most people to read a memoir by an author they do not know. But I want to try.

Go to a book store. Pick up a copy of this book. Turn to the pictures following page 178. Now turn four pages and look at the photograph on the left.

That was the face Robert Timberg saw in a military hospital in Yokohama AFTER he had had considerable medical treatment. He was a young Marine officer in Vietnam; with less than two weeks left in his tour, his vehicle had struck a booby-trapped explosive which--ripped away most of Timberg's face. He seemed to have one eyeball; a mouth the size of a straw, almost no nose or ears--and no skin.

Reader, if this had happened to you, what would you have made of your life?

Well, but this book and read what Bob Timberg made of his. To me, the dramatic high point is this: since he cannot any longer be a Marine officer, he picks journalism as a career. After graduating from a university program, he has two job offers. In one (the better-paying one, I suspect) he will be a copy editor, working inside a newsroom where only known, trusted colleagues will see his face. In the other, he'll be a reporter, approaching strangers to introduce himself and ask questions.

He picks the reporting job--with a face still so disfigured that children and disturbed people run or scream when they see him.

And he makes a career out of it. A hell of a career. And a hell of a book.

For people with long memories, Timberg is also the author of The Nightingale's Song, a strange, brilliant book about five Naval Academy graduates (John McCain, Jim North, Ollie Webb, Bud McFarlane and John Poindexter) whose lives were changed by Vietnam. It was the book that first told the story of McCain's impossible heroism as a POW.

This is an equally amazing book.

Bob Timberg is now the author of two of the best books about Vietnam--neither of which is really about Vietnam. This one--the life story of this crazy-brave, modest, compelling man--is something you'll never forget.

I Heard My Country Calling: A Memoir
I Heard My Country Calling: A Memoir
Offered by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
Price: $10.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best book I have read this year, June 26, 2014
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This book takes the reader to one of the more interesting and complicated places in America: inside the mind of Jim Webb, Marine company commander in Vietnam, great novelist (Fields of Fire), former Secretary of the Navy (as a Republican) and former US Senator from Virginia (as a Democrat).

The trip is most worthwhile. Webb is wisely selective. He focuses on his amazing father, whom one comes to admire enormously, and his grandmother (ditto).

But the most amazing character, depicted with an honest writer's eye, is the author. Webb's ability to navigate through uncertainty and to arrive at decisiveness (what else does a company commander do?) is extraordinary and admirable, even if no reader will agree with all the author's decisions.

Some of the most celebrated episodes in Webb's life are not written about. One must refer to Robert Timberg's The Nightingale's Song for an account of his boxing match at the Naval Academy with Oliver North; his service as Navy Secretary is barely mentioned; one meets no Presidents and no Senate colleagues.

But Webb's choices make great sense. OK, I could have done with a little less about the strategic importance of Guam and Tinian, but the author deserves the benefit of the doubt. His description of the Naval Academy in the mid-1960's is unforgettable. And so is his account of defending a Marine who was convicted of war crimes though the platoon leader who gave him the orders was freed.

To one who served in Vietnam (in much less danger and with no distinction), Webb's account of his time with Delta Company, 3-5 Marines, is the highlight of the book. It is hard reading and extraordinary writing.

If there is a weak part of the book, it is the first half of the epilogue, in which the former Senator turns his voice to today's politics (perhaps even with an eye to future campaigns) and sounds a bit more like your average politician than the amazing author of the previous chapters.

But Webb is surely the best writer ever to serve in the US Senate. And this is an extraordinary book.

On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope
On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope
Price: $12.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best book in years on charter schools., June 7, 2014
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I learned an enormous amount from reading Richard Whitmire's On The Rocketship. If you are at all interested in the debate on public education in the United States, you'll like it.

On the Rocketship is two books in one. It's a history of Rocketship Charter Schools, which started in San Jose and are notable so far mostly for their founder's crazed ambition to expand faster than any other charter group. The group hasn't been a complete success so far--there's been a lot of success, then some predictable political setbacks, then a bad year of test scores, followed by a recovery. Rocketship is controversial even among charter school advocates and you'll see why.

But side-by-side with the Rocketship story is some excellent reporting by Whitmire on charter school progress all over the United States--not just among the KIPP's, Aspires, and Uncommon Schools (though these are covered too) but among schools I never heard of in cities I never heard of (Spring Branch, TX?).

Whitmire's conclusion is that superintendents in unexpected places are impressed enough with charters and charter operators that they are doing the obvious and bringing charter people and charter techniques into traditional public schools (viewed in this light, Bill de Blasio is an outlier). It sounds as if the "war" may be over in a lot of places.

I think this is the best education book since Jay Mathews' Work Hard, Be Nice. And I attach what Mathews himself has to say about On the Rocketship.

Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises
Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises
by Timothy F. Geithner
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.99
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8 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Extraordinary Work, June 2, 2014
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As an older reader who lives in Washington DC I have spent a quite unusual amount of my life reading Washington memoirs. I must have read 50 of them.

This is one of the two or three best. It feels unfair to most of the others to say that because it's subject is so different. It is a memoir of a crisis and it successfully makes you understand what it feels like to live through one. It's like a memoir of World War II that brings back the months after Pearl Harbor when it seemed likely we would lose.

It wasn't fun.

"At that moment," the author writes, "fear was a sign you were awake and intelligent. Anyone who wasn't scared had no idea how close we were to the edge of the abyss.

"I was scared too. It looked like the system was going to collapse, taking down the strong firms as well as the weak...."

And a bit later: "my colleagues and I thought we were looking at another global depression that would hurt billions of people.... It was a horrible feeling."

At an early moment in the book, Geithner recounts the story of his role, as a junior Treasury aide, in one of the Asian financial crises of the late 1990's. In words almost never seen in Washington memoirs, he writes "I was wrong." Most of his book is informed by the same modesty. One has the feeling of listening to a man who had to make enormous decisions (or rather, help to make them--Geithner showers praise on his colleagues, Democrats and Republicans alike and he is certainly right to do so). But he never made them with utter confidence that he was right.

At the end of 2008, it was not at all obvious that the United States economy as we know it would survive the financial crisis. That we did is a tribute above all to Ben Bernanke, Hank Paulson, Tim Geithner, and the many who worked with them, along with the two Presidents they served.

The last third of the book, after the US and European financial crises ease somewhat, is a more normal Washington memoir. Scores are settled, opponents are one-upped. A bit too much discretion sets in--if Secretary Geithner ever differed with President Obama, others will have to tell us (but Geithner's account of what it is like to be a colleague of Larry Summers is worth the price of the book). Whole huge issues Geithner dealt with are overlooked (the future of entitlements, to take an obvious example).

But this is the characteristic way of Washington memoirs. Writers tread a fine line between bland subjection to their leaders and their party lines and the undesired epithet of kiss-and-tell (I've read plenty of those too).

This one is different. It is a memoir of one of the most frightening periods of our lives. If the financial crisis had been a war, Geithner's memoir would let you smell the gunpowder and hear the explosions.

I know the author a bit; I don't believe this has influenced any of the judgments in this review.

Act of Congress: How America's Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn't
Act of Congress: How America's Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn't
by Robert G. Kaiser
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.41
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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Education in politics, 2013--it's changed, May 9, 2013
You should know that I have known Bob Kaiser for 40 years. But I feel I that what I'm writing about his book is objective.

There are lots of books about how bills become laws in Congress. I've read some and thought I knew a lot about the subject. I was wrong; in today's Congress, much of what's described in (for example) Robert Caro's excellent books on Lyndon Johnson has gone out the window.

The strength of this book is that Rep. Barney Frank and Sen. Chris Dodd gave the author quite extraordinary access to their work as they drafted what turned out to be the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation. Kaiser, by then a retired journalist, sat in on confidential meetings, but promised to write nothing until the bill passed (or did not).

The result is unsettling. This most important law (as described) was written and edited almost entirely by staff. There was strikingly little detailed attention by members, except for Barney Frank. When members sought to amend the bill, it was almost always at the instigation of a staffer with a hobbyhorse.

Unsurprisingly, the book goes into sad detail about the lack of co-operation between Democrats and Republicans. The subject, banking reform, was one both parties had expressed concern about and one might have expected co-operation. There was none. The book is frankly partisan; Kaiser, spending hours with Dodd and Frank and their staffs, tends to adopt their views.

It is also detailed; I found the detail fascinating and I think most students of government will feel as I did. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for an advanced course on how Washington works (or does not). It is outstanding, highly original reporting. I wish I could tell you it will leave you feeling better about your government. It won't. But you'll know a lot more.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 25, 2013 10:28 AM PDT

Pilot [HD]
Pilot [HD]

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Give us more, April 21, 2013
One great joke after another. Excellent writing and acting; hope to see more. Different from the Onion News Network TV show, but just as funny in its own way.

Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765
Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765
Price: $0.00

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb e-book, February 24, 2013
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Boswell's Life of Johnson lives up to its reputation. It is, as many have said, the best biography ever written. And this Kindle version of the first volume of Birkbeck Hill's edition of the life is very well-done indeed. One admires the thoughtful placement of the innumerable footnotes (in the back and out of the way) and the faithful rendering of the text.

Escape from Camp 14: One man's remarkable odyssey from North Korea to freedom in the West
Escape from Camp 14: One man's remarkable odyssey from North Korea to freedom in the West

185 of 199 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Most Extraordinary Book, March 24, 2012
Many excellent books will no doubt be published this year. None will be more disturbing. None will be more unique. There is no one on earth like Shin Dong-Hyuk.

Shin was born in a North Korean labor camp in 1982. His "crime," as he learned many years later, was that two of his uncles defected from North Korea to South Korea (as tens of thousands of others did)--in 1951. He is the only known person born in a North Korean labor camp to escape and defect.

His treatment was horrifying--and routine. In camp he was starved and beaten all the time--as was every other prisoner. His earliest memory is of an execution (everyone in the camp, including children, had to watch them). As a punishment when he broke a sewing machine, a guard cut off one of his fingers.

No matter what I write, you cannot understand the brutality of Camp 14 unless you read this book. Blaine Harden's cold, unsparing prose tells Shin's story in a way that anyone can read it, though no one will quite believe it (I knew Blaine for years while he worked at The Washington Post. I don't believe I'm influenced in the least by my admiration for him in what I'm writing--the shock of the book is too great for that).

There are no answers to the questions raised by Escape from Camp 14. The State Department estimates that 200,000 people live in such camps (you can see them on Google Earth), and most live out their short lives there since they are worked unsparingly and given little food and few clothes. What should be done about it? I don't know. But those who read this amazing book will know a few things about the North Korean regime that others cannot.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 25, 2013 7:21 PM PDT

Charles Dickens: A Life
Charles Dickens: A Life
by Claire Tomalin
Edition: Hardcover
100 used & new from $0.01

29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Book by a Great Writer, November 18, 2011
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Claire Tomalin is an unfailingly wonderful writer. She has told familiar stories very well (Hardy, Shelley, Jane Austen); has brought unknown stories to life (Mrs. Jordan's Profession; An Unknown Woman) and re-introduced us to the amazing Samuel Pepys.

Her Charles Dickens is a fantastic book on a great subject. There are other lives of Dickens (many of them much longer). In Tomalin's, Dickens seems to leap off the pages. He is boundlessly energetic; he is inconceivably brilliant; he binds friends to him for life. But he treats his children horribly, and not them alone.

It is a well-known story, enriched by Tomalin's unique understanding of the life of Nelly Ternan, Dickens' late-in-life mistress. Nelly is a complicated story herself, but the reader comes to share the author's admiration for her character and for the difficult choices she made (all but one, perhaps).

This book is a splendid introduction to two great writers: Charles Dickens and Claire Tomalin. Read it, and go on to any of her other books (I particularly recommend Pepys and Mrs. Jordan)

The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898
The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898
by Evan Thomas
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $29.99
277 used & new from $0.01

23 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Six-star book, April 19, 2010
I've read all of Evan Thomas's books, and enjoyed them. He is the author of excellent biographies of Edward Bennett Williams, Robert Kennedy, and John Paul Jones, and of a recent book on the World War II Battle of Leyte Gulf.

This one is in a class by itself. It is as good as a popular history book can be: carefully researched, ably constructed, extraordinarily well-written.

I have known the author for many years and admire him greatly. Evan Thomas has been for years the writer to whom Newsweek turns to make sense of a complicated story: to knit together the different strands of a news story in a way that helps the reader follow it. That's what he has done here on an epic scale.

Thomas tells the story of the Spanish-American War through a group biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Randolph Hearst (all agitators for war), Speaker of the House Thomas Reed (a clever political opponent), and William James (an opponent from a distance).

Group biographies can make wonderful or dreadful books. This one pulls off the impossible: as much as you enjoy watching what Roosevelt is doing, you are glad to see Reed re-appear, or Hearst, or James, or Lodge. And the story of the war gets thoroughly and beautifully told.

To me, the unexpected hero of the book is Reed, a very important political figure in his day (Roosevelt and Lodge favored him for President) who has been all but forgotten. The House procedures ere different and the Speakership conferred enormous powers. Reed used them to delay the war for months; how he did so and how he was overcome make a fine story. One needs to know nothing of the history of the period to enjoy this book.

I cannot recommend this book too highly. I would even put in a note of admiration for the publishers: the type size is as generous and the spacing as ample as all books should be.

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