Wednesday, July 31, 2013

13 Days by Robert F. Kennedy

Title: 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis
Author: Robert F. Kennedy
Publisher: Pan Books Ltd (1969)

Have I mentioned lately that Michael is awesome? It really can't be said enough and this month will show us another example: he's doing two movies for the book I picked!!! That's right, two! I've always liked the movie Thirteen Days and I thought it would be a nice addition to our series. Turns out a person shouldn't assume books and movies of the same title about the same thing are necessarily based on each other. But, again, Michael is awesome so he queued up the actual movie based on this book and that other movie about the same thing that I like.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Missiles of October/Thirteen Days

"You are in a pretty bad fix, Mr. President." The President answered quickly. "You are in it with me."

This succinct memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a fascinating look not only at the events surrounding the placement of nuclear warheads into Cuba but of the philosophy of dealing with a crisis. It is virtually impossible to separate Kennedy's description of the events from his thoughts on the obligations and responsibilities of those called to respond to crises. I have not found government officials this inspiring in a very long time.

He [RFK] demonstrated then, as I have seen him do on so many other occasions before and since, a most extraordinary combination of energy and courage, compassion and wisdom.
--Robert McNamara

The events of the Cuban Missile Crisis are inherently exciting and tense but this is not the type of memoir prone to the grandiose. If anything, it is focused and generous. RFK sets forth a clear record of the days he spent in council with Ex Comm and the president responding, sometimes hourly, to the USSR's provocation. It's generous in that RFK highlights what was brought to the table by each of the committee members rather than judging or blaming individuals whose opinions varied greatly from his own.

And so we argued, and so we disagreed - all dedicated, intelligent men, disagreeing and fighting about the future of their country, and of mankind.

What becomes abundantly clear is that multiple opinions and viewpoints was integral to what RFK thought was the committee's strength as an advisory body. He never misses a chance to point out that comprehensive information and detailed contingency plans for all recommended courses of action are what enabled JFK to act appropriately during this global, nuclear crisis.

It might be this aspect of the memoir that was most captivating to me. It's a crisis we know the end of, it's a crisis that comes with its own 'dramatic tension' but what may not be known is the absolute dedication of both brothers to have all possible information and not be hasty. JFK did not want the Russians backed into a corner from which they could not gracefully exit. It was the ultimate in think globally (a mistake now will almost surely lead to world devastation) but act locally (our national security is threatened, how do we fix this without precipitating war).

The strongest argument against the all-out military attack, and one no one could answer to his satisfaction, was that a surprise attack would erode if not destroy the moral position of the United States throughout the world. 

I'm the last person who's going to opine modern morals as inferior to the Greatness of the Good Old Days but an additional theme of the decision making during this crisis was: Can we justify what we're going to do? Will the world support what we do? Appropriate answers to these questions were vital to anything JFK might decide. Again, it's clear that Kennedy believed any decision made by a super power had to serve that super power but also had to serve the greater world responsibility any super power has. How inspiring!

Miscalculation and misunderstanding and escalation on one side bring a counter-response. No action is taken against a powerful adversary in a vacuum. A government or people will fail to understand this only at their great peril. For that is how wars begin -- wars that no one wants, no one intends, and no one wins.

Reading this book left me feeling much as I did when I read Don't Shoot by David M. Kennedy: could people who make policy decisions please also read this book? Read it, learn from it, pay attention and apply that knowledge. Emotion and knee-jerk reaction almost never end well. Careful consideration and analysis improve everyone's chances of making the correct decision at the right time. My little scientist heart just soars when I see good analysis. 

He did not want anyone to be able to write... that the United States had not done all it could to preserve the peace. We were not going to misjudge, or miscalculate, or challenge the other side needlessly, or precipitously push our adversaries into a course of action that was not intended or anticipated.

Neither brother ever forgot that this was as much a human crisis as a nuclear crisis. How hard to push was a carefully orchestrated gesture that would be just hard enough and come with UN/Latin American support. This memoir shows the delicate and elegant dance that is international relations. It shows the success that deliberate and visionary problem solvers can enact in the face of great pressure. How inspiring!

So about the movie... don't forget to check out Michael's post.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Coming up next:

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

Links to previous joint posts: 
The Constant Gardener

Monday, July 15, 2013

Reading Roundup

Quick notes:
Still haven't got my brain working properly to write a few words on the Flowers From the Storm audiobook. I keep trying to sit down to write something useful and all that comes out is: so much awesome. (tears) didn't know the book could get better. (joy) just listen. (more joy). holy shit the ending. (tears) Yeah, seriously, I cried! I've read that book more times than I can count but this is the first time I cried! Also, just started Code Name Verity (my library didn't have any more of Wein's Aksum series) and I'm totally hooked. This book is fantastic and flat out engrossing. And after gobbling up some Vinge I'm so full of joy smiles satisfaction at being on a good reading run. Yay!

Title: Paladin of Souls/The Hallowed Hunt
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Publisher: Harper Voyager (2003, 2005)

These are next after The Curse of Chalion. Paladin is about the dowager Ista and it is awesome. And so is she! The gods are back meddling with the poor wee humans and Bujold's amazing characterization/plotting are, of course, around while she enriches the world she introduced in Chalion. The Hallowed Hunt is about some people who do some stuff... I didn't finish it. Stick with just the first two in this trilogy.

Paladin: recommended
Hallowed: not recommended

Title: A Coalition of Lions
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Viking Juvenile (2003)

I mentioned in a previous post that I finally got around to reading The Winter Prince which is a retelling of the King Arthur legend... it begins Wein's Aksum series and I'd thought I'd read 2 and 3 from the series. I picked this title up again (#2) and realized I didn't finish it the first time. I remember why I didn't finish it and it was a mistake. Coalition follows Goewin who has fled Britain after the high kings' deaths for help from her allies in Aksum (Ethiopia). There she encounters complicated politics that involve her fiance (the British ambassador in Aksum), the kingdom's heir, and her Aksumite ambassador who escorted her to Aksum. Oh, and she meets her nephew (son of Medraut) who lives with his mother and grandfather. Loved the world, loved the characters! It's been a few years since I read The Sunbird but I would say this one edges it as the better between the two. Have not read the two newest in the series.


Title: Borrower of the Night
Author: Elizabeth Peters
Publisher: Dodd Mead (1973)

I picked this one up as I was attracted to a mystery without a PI/former cop/succubus or similar as the protag and I ended up really liking Vicki Bliss but, in the end, the series was too dated for me. Too many gender based jokes, too few female allies... but Bliss did intrigue me so I went ahead and tried another (Silhouette in Scarlet) since the Bliss character had a lot of potential for me but, in the end, my first impression of the series won out and this series is not for me.

not recommended

Title: Cold Steel
Author: Kate Elliott
Publisher: Orbit (2013)

This is the third title in The Spiritwalker trilogy which is set in a world I adore. It's an alternate history (with magic) in which a Little Ice Age is underway during, um, early 1800s maybe? Books one and two mostly occur in Europe with the second book primarily in the Antilles. A desert plague (which results in ghouls!) drove several African nations to immigrate en masse to Europe and their history is co-mingled with western European history resulting in the current culture. I also really like most of the characters. Books one and two were enjoyable reads for their creativity but often let me down in the characterization (it's frustrating to like characters so much who you feel could be written better) but seemed to be steadily improving. I looked forward to the third installment but it was a disappointing finish to the trilogy. I'd talk more about this title but it's all spoilery for the first two which are way more enjoyable so instead I'll just say go try out those. Keep expectations reasonable and they'll end up being quick, fun reads with a great world.

not recommended

Title: Psion/Catspaw
Author: Joan D. Vinge
Publisher: Delacorte Press (1982); Warner Books (1988)
I read the newer Tor editions...

Cat is a poor, disenfranchised Oldcity dweller on a planet which has become the new Hub of interstellar human commerce. He's picked up yet again by Security personnel but given an alternative to prison: take a test, see if you are a psion. Psions are a minority group of humans who have tele powers (be they pathic, kinetic, or otherwise). Cat is unaware of his latent skills but is willing to avoid prison. For the first time in his life he becomes part of a group, has a safe place to live and meals to eat. If it seems too good to be true, it is; he'll soon find himself caught up in complicated interstellar schemes but the real heart of this novel is what it's like to be caught up in the schemes of humans, be they carefully crafted or emotionally tangled. And I'm only describing Psion! Catspaw continues with the interstellar politics but again focuses astutely and acutely on themes of what it means to have humanity, the temptations of power, the plight of the have-nots, prejudice, greed, fear and loathing. This is not light reading but it is worthwhile reading. My poking about the internets has revealed that Catspaw is generally thought to be the cat's pajamas (hee!) but I think I liked Psion just a little better. Both are very good so it's splitting hairs but I thought I'd mention it.

both recommended

As is probably obvious, I've been reading a lot of sf/fantasy of late. I need to take a moment to talk about awful cover art. Because seriously why does sf/fantasy trend towards awful cover art? Fantasy titles have better odds here (and some fantasy books have some truly beautiful covers) but, holy fuck, the sf covers are almost 100% just plain terrible. Am I just getting unlucky here? Can anyone point me towards some beautiful sf cover art? I also find sf cover art is often inaccurate. Body types and especially skin color are so off from what is described that I wonder if it's even supposed to be for the book I'm reading. Ugh!

What have you been reading lately?

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Long Answer

My Time With Captain Cordelia Naismith's Son

One of the author crossovers for Megan Whalen Turner fans is Lois McMaster Bujold and her Vorkosigan series is oft recommended to me. I loved Cordelia's Honor (which I've mentioned before) but only tepidly made it through a Miles book many moons ago. I decided to not mention to my fellow mwt fans how little Miles interested me due to the, as far as I could tell, universal love of Miles by my fellow fans. Time passed, my little Miles aversion remained hidden but a confession to discussion with jmc inspired me to give him another chance. She directed me to some of the later books in the series and I gave it a go again. I'm still not a fan of his series (though you wouldn't know it if you've been checking out my recently read stuff on goodreads) but I know exactly why now.

What I Like About Miles:
His refusal to accept "conventional wisdom" limitations. His loyalty. His faith in second chances. His "trust beyond reason." (I think that's the way Cordelia was described which gets him his mother's "results beyond hope.") He doesn't ask for more than he gives. His commitment to enthusiastic consent. :)

What I Don't Like About the Series/Miles:
I listed the heading that way because what I don't like about Miles is basically what I don't like about the series. I loathe Barrayar as a character. I don't find its social situations interesting as conflict for a series. If anyone has any links to articles/interviews with Bujold as to why she picked such a culture for her centerpiece culture I'd love to read them. I'm sure reasons for not liking Barrayar are pretty obvious (Quinn and I have identical thoughts on the issue) but I find the whole set-up so done. It's what's already been done, it's what's being done now (just see the news about this recent event in Texas where, incidentally, citizens who wish to participate in the political process are seen as disruptive), and these characters aren't bringing anything new to the struggle. Maybe that's the point, I don't know but repetitive social problems without new applications of conquering said leaves me cold. And Miles is so Barrayaran. In a feat of characterization that impresses me no end he's galactic but psychologically enmeshed with that "backwards hole." Ugh. Specific things that stand out to me about the Barrayar Issue that I can't let go of while reading.

1. Miles' determination to be successful with "the hand he was dealt" is completely self-serving. His actions are to prove that he can still be Vor and worthy but he doesn't seem to participate in any way with a greater representation of disabled/disadvantaged Barrayarans. How is this being part of the vanguard for galactizing Barrayar?

2. I read somewhere that Bujold chose for Miles to be disabled as it would be one of the hardest things her characters, Aral and Cordelia, could go through being parents on Barrayar but, in fact, she should have made him female. He is assumed to be a mutant on a mutant-phobic planet and yet he still managed to get to the Academy and get into Imperial Service. Turns out a vagina is even more disabling on Barrayar.

3. Miles doesn't escape Barrayar's patriarchal respect for women. I find this line from Mirror Dance particularly telling: "Miles sometimes wondered how much of his on-going maintenance of the Dendarii Mercenaries was really service to Imperial Security, how much was the wild self-indulgence of a very questionable aspect of his own faceted--or fractured--personality and how much was a secret gift to Elena Bothari." How revoltingly insulting! To me, this is the equivalent of his parents coming up to him and handing him a Miles-scaled Barrayar with lower physical requirements because without them doing that he would not have had his successful life as a result of his choices and hard work. (To be fair, I think Cordelia later pointed out the fallacy of this as a strategy with Ekaterin's garden. Cordelia is so awesome.)

4. Marriage is death to female characters getting to do much of anything interesting on the page. I know the series is about Miles but do the wives have to end up in the hinted at behind the scenes stuff all the time? I find Ekaterin to be the most egregious example of this. Seeing her in Komarr and A Civil Campaign and then comparing that to her "have you eaten anything yet sweetie" and "you just listen to him right now" role in Diplomatic Immunity makes me sad. (This is where you need to hear Cordelia saying Barrayarans! as a curse.)

5. Miles accepts his mother's love/respect without question but has to perform worthwhile work to obtain his father's??? See #3.

6. This isn't a Barrayar specific issue but the series is riddled with darker skin being described with food (and sometimes even as exotic!) which maybe it's time to move past that in the literary landscape we are living in today. Unless, of course, we're going to start using exotic water chestnut hues (or similar) to describe lighter skin.

What I Do Like About the Series:
The world building. The humor. The characterization. The variety of characters. It can break your heart. Good people do bad things. Bad people do good things. Cordelia makes appearances. The MC shows that determination and persistence are more important than convention based limitations.

Below are the titles I've read and some thoughts. All titles by Baen Publishing. Click here for publication dates and internal chronological order of titles if interested.

Shards of Honor/Barrayar
As I've mentioned before, I love Cordelia with the power of a thousand burning suns and these books are on my keeper shelf and warrant rereads.

The Warrior's Apprentice
While my admiration for Miles' persistence was high, I find the inferior to daddy complex tedious and most of the time was just wishing I was reading another book about Cordelia. I also find Miles' idea of what he needs to do to be worthy of his father to be weird (does he not see the same Aral I see?). I actually think it's a displaced Barrayar complex but he expresses it as an inferior to Aral complex.

The Borders of Infinity (novella)
This has ended up being my favorite of the entire series. The amount of enjoyment I get out of a Miles title is indirectly proportional to the amount of Barrayarness that creeps into the story.

Brothers in Arms
Liked this one well enough. Ivan, Quinn and Cordelia are my faves* in this series so I like situations that heavily involve Ivan. I find his later appearances in the series to be jarringly off from our introduction to him as the guy who importuned Elena when she was young. Are we to assume that Ivan smarted up (he is also a great supporter of enthusiastic consent) or that Bujold didn't initially imagine him as so large a character in the series?

*Sergeant Bothari is one of the most fascinating characters of the series but it's difficult to list him as a fave due to his complexity.

Mirror Dance
Was really enjoying this one until the torture-porn made its appearance. Was Mark not interesting enough already?

Can't really decide on this one. I like Illyan so the mystery surrounding his condition was interesting but it felt a bit like MC cheating for Miles to do something so destructive and then get rewarded with a second career.

Can I still count this as a favorite if I skimmed almost everything that wasn't Ekaterin? No matter, the final conversation between her and Miles makes the entire novel worth it. I was laughing my ass off.

A Civil Campaign
I think it says a lot that I like this one despite it being completely on Barrayar. The plot moppet stuff got a bit over the top and cloying, though.

Diplomatic Immunity
I love the quaddies but Ekaterin was a disappointment.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
Good times with Ivan but this book felt really series dependent. Like a twenty year summer camp reunion where everyone is "just happy to be here." Plus you have these two awesome women who lose all initiative once they are on the page with a Barrayaran. Barrayar strikes again.

I didn't read these in the order listed and found there really is no need at all. Any pertinent plot/character points from previous novels get explained to the reader. I don't care for this technique so didn't always read the re-caps.

My top three Miles books:
The Borders of Infinity (novella)
Mirror Dance (sans torture-porn)

Miles fans, your top three?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Discover America

Grantland is a lot like Facebook for me. They are both laid out and updated in a way my brain finds counter-intuitive to genuine engagement. As such, I tend to go v. long periods without visiting. Dr M was kind enough to give me a heads up that one of my favorite contributors is doing a road trip series. So far, this one has made me laugh the most.

And while we're on the subject, why oh why did Mark Harris only do one year of Oscarmetrics???? Why isn't he submitting more movie articles??? :(

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Well Said

I don't know any of the backstory that led to this open letter post but it's a beautiful post regardless of whether or not you know the background and well worth a close read.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and it doesn’t have to go on forever.  As a species we cannot conduct ourselves in this manner.  As creations of the Living G-d, we are commanded to be better.  You and I are both the descendants of people who lived, fought, died, suffered so that we could be better in our own time.  I’m disappointed but I’m not heartless.  And better yet, praise G-d I ain’t hopeless.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Love is in the Air!

In Star Wars: The Old Republic the character you play has a series of companions. Some of these companions can be wooed. The character I play with the most has a companion I can never have any interest in due to his supremely stupid comment after my ship was stolen. I refuse to woo him in any way though he is a possibility. What I really wish the developers had done was put in the option of wooing your co-op player. My co-op player and I joke about this all the time. I think I have finally succeeded with her. Look at that loving gesture! She says it was an accident... ha!