Quick Review: Thank-You for Your Service by David Finkel

Book 1 for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge
★★★½
  • Another book I might have given four stars (and I did on GoodReads) but I wouldn’t reread it.
  • For the past few years, one of the first books I read in a new year has to do with war. Not sure how that happened, but that’s why I finally sought out this book.
  • I didn’t realize this is something of a follow-up book. I wish I had read The Good Soldiers first, because it did feel like I missed the first part of the story. It’s on my list now.
  • I always feel a little strange when reading a book about such an American subject. Canada has soldiers, too, but in a different political and cultural climate than America. I wonder what reading this book would be like for an American who had strong feelings, either way, about the Iraq war. I was a bit thrown by Romeo Dallaire’s foreward and then the introduction that praised Dallaire’s work. I thought, “Wait, what is this book about again? It is about Americans in Iraq, right?”
  • This isn’t a book to read for a great reading experience. This is the kind of book you pick up so you can bear witness to the tragic stories inside, and try to come to terms with the fact that these are real people, real lives, contained within. It is not an uplifting read. This is something you should read so you can maybe start to understand. The writing is plain and factual. Recording the words and the actions of the families in this book is more than enough to make an impact. It’s a tough read, especially when you’re let into such intimate moments of these people’s lives. You’re learning about so many people in so many difficult places, and what you’re getting is just a snapshot.
  • I was most interested in the generals discussing soldier suicides and General Chiarelli effort’s to do something about it (see ~ pg. 100+). But it’s such a difficult situation. If you’re sending men into these horrific situations and then want them to be okay when they get back – what can you do? The current system is bloated and broken. It’s really sad, seeing men who finally try to find help but then can’t get it – hindered by politics, money, bureaucracy. 
  • I don’t understand the purpose of war. I admit I know very little about it, but I suspect there must be a better way to accomplish at least some of the supposed objectives of militants sent into areas like Iraq and Afghanistan. I know that the lives soldiers return to after completing their work is only one part of the picture, but after reading this book, I wish it was considered more. If I were American, I’d be thinking – what’s the point if we’re destroying our own people at the same time, if we can’t help them after they’ve given everything for our freedom (or whatever it is you thank a soldier for…)? It’s to remember what, if any good, comes out of such war.

Review: Tolkien by Devin Brown

Author: Devin Brown
Title: Tolkien
Format/Source: eBook/NetGalley
Published: October 2014
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Length: 145 pages
Genre: Biography
Why I Read: New Tolkien book supposedly about The Hobbit
Read If You’re: New to Tolkien and want to know about his life
Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
 I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The subheading of Tolkien implies it’s about how The Hobbit was published (I suppose to draw in new fans of The Hobbit films), but Tolkien is actually just a very succinct general biography. I was about 60% in before The Hobbit came up. When I checked my progress, I was surprised to see I was that far into the book* and had only been reading basic biographical information about Tolkien one can find repeated in many places. There is nothing new to be found here. So, why would one read this instead of anything else that touches upon Tolkien’s life? I suppose this book fills a gap in Tolkien literature for those are newly introduced to Tolkien and just want learn a bit about his life. It’s a fine enough book if you come at it from that perspective – a good introduction to Professor Tolkien for those who have little knowledge about him (and perhaps this is a growing audience now again due to the films), but pass by if you’ve ever read anything about the Professor.

Brown attempts to distinguish his narrative by pointing out “If this one person didn’t do this one thing…” many times to show the unlikeliness of Tolkien’s Middle-earth being introduced to the public. Once or twice is a nice reminder of how everything really must fall in place, but after reading it numerous times I got a bit weary and started thinking “Well, isn’t that the case with everything in life? One tiny change and everything could be different”.

There isn’t anything wrong or bad about this book beyond the minor note above; I’m just not the target audience. I still intend to check out Brown’s The Christian World of the Hobbit. I hear a lot about Christianity and The Lord of the Rings but not so much about The Hobbit, so the subject caught my attention.

The Bottom Line: Nothing about this book makes it stand out, but it’s still a solid if brief introduction that could be a good read for those with no knowledge of Tolkien.

*This is both the trouble and delight with ebooks – it’s easy not to notice how far in you are or aren’t. Although I find it’s usually trouble – “Oh what, that’s the end already?” “Oh what, I’m already that far in?” “Oh wait, the book is THAT long?”

Elsewhere:

Review: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology by Simon Cook

Author: Simon Cook 
Format/Source: eBook/Author
Published: October 2014
Publisher: Ye Machine
Length: 49 pages
Genre: Literary analysis
Why I Read: Enjoyed Cook’s article on Tolkien fundamentalism
Read If You’re: A Tolkien fan, esp. one interested in how his mythology connects to English history
Quote: “Thus the two traditions of Ing identified by Chadwick are, for the first time in Tolkien’s writings, seamlessly integrated” (74%).
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads Amazon 
I received a complimentary copy from the author in exchange for my honest review.

Back in the spring, Simon Cook published a short article, “On Tolkien Fundamentalism“,  at Tolkien Library. I enjoyed the article and posted a response, which Cook commented on. I was happy to engage in discussion, and so I was also happy accept an invitation to review his recently published essay, “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology”.  The essay explores “how The Lord of the Rings arose as a conjectural reconstruction of the lost mythology of the English” (9%). Cook explores H.M. Chadwick’s understanding of ancient English history and how Tolkien’s mythology responds to those theories.

Until about 60% of the way through, I wondered what evidence exists to show Tolkien was very familiar with Chadwick, as I had not heard of him before. Early on, Cook notes that Tolkien would have studied Chadwick during his undergrad (24%), but given the extent of Cook’s discussion I expected more evidence of Tolkien’s engagement with Chadwick. Cook eventually points to the lecture notes published alongside Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf earlier this year (which I have not yet read) that demonstrate Tolkien’s familiarity with Chadwick (63%). So, if you’re like me and wondering if Cook’s argument has a solid foundation – it does! 

I was cautioned that the essay might be a tough read due to its scholarly nature. Admittedly, it was a bit of a challenge for me – not quite because of its nature but because of its content. I think I may have got more out of the essay were I familiar with Chadwick’s work. This essay was my first encounter with him, though I am sure now it will not be my last. Regardless, I enjoyed the reading and feeling my brain working hard (it has missed critical thinking since I finished university). I made many highlights and notes to make sure I could keep on top of everything. A lot of groundwork is laid before reaching the final segment, “The Lord of the Rings”, in which Cook demonstrates how the central characters of that story relate back to the ancient English history about which Chadwick theorized. Following along carefully, I understood and appreciated Cook’s analysis and conclusion – what Chadwick argued, where Tolkien disagreed with him, and how the ancient stories influenced Tolkien’s mythology. The bulk of the essay was a lot of new information for me, but I had an “Aha!” moment of understanding as Cook tied everything together towards the end.  Cook successfully argues how (and why) Tolkien constructed his mythology to stand in for lost English mythology, partially in response to the ancient English ideas of Chadwick.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are stories of little Englanders who depart their rustic homes in order to explore a wider, perilous world of ancient English tradition. (12%)

At the very heart of [Tolkien’s] project stands the passionate conviction that the stories of the ancient English could spark imaginative delight in the hearts and minds of a modern audience. (84%)

Part way through reading, I made a note – “it’s exciting to consider Tolkien in new ways (possibly not just me this time?)”, meaning I think there are fresh ideas here even for a more well-read Tolkien enthusiast than I. That Tolkien constructed his mythology to stand in for the mythology England ‘lost’ is part of the reason his work is so fascinating to me. It’s fiction, yes, but the historical roots make it so much more real.  This is an aspect of Tolkien’s work I really enjoy and I liked reading more about this connection between the mythology and English history. There is always so much to read about Tolkien’s mythology, I have trouble focusing on one topic, but this is an area I would love to delve into further one day. Of course, it might be helpful if I acquaint myself a bit further with English history… (that 6 credit course on the history of the English language can only get me so far).

The Bottom Line: For those unfamiliar with Chadwick, this essay may take some work to get through. I would like to read a bit more from Chadwick and then return to this essay. But, if you’re interested in how Tolkien’s mythology relates to English history, definitely give it a read.

Further Reading: 

Quick Review: I Am Malala and Life After Life

These two books are about living, about life, about living your life to make a change.

  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
    • Gives a lot of background and historical context to Malala’s father and her fight for the right to education.
    • I suppose somewhere in the cynical side of the world, people accuse Malala’s father of using her as a prop and they would dismiss this book as furthering her role of mouthpiece? But, I think if you read this you’ll realize she’s just a girl who wants to go to school. There’s nothing terrible about that. 
    •  It’s hard to put my finger on what, but I felt something was missing from the story. I think I wanted to read even more about Malala and her opinions on education. There is a lot of history and ‘this is what happened’, which is very informative and interesting to read, but I thought I would get more of a ‘Malala manifesto’. That being said, still give this book a go if you’re interested in the topic or Malala herself!
    • A good introduction to the struggles girls face in pursuing education in Pakistan.
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
    • Rating: ★★ [ratings guide]
    • I kept reading at the start because, even though it felt slow to me, I thought I liked Sylvie (hahaha, Silly Reno).
    • I liked the earlier part of the book much more than anything else. There were some poignant parts – for example, when Ursula falls out of the window trying to fetch her doll. That part really hit home for me.
    • The whole does she or doesn’t she remember her pasts lives was a bit weird for me. It seems she has some vague feelings about what happened before? The flu scenario starts to show this (I liked how getting past the flu proved difficult). 
    • Every now and then the story skips ahead to Ursula’s life in Germany. Most of them these ‘flashfowrds’ felt abrupt and disconnected (123, 206).
    • The one tragic lifetime that Ursula experiences, where she wants to die but doesn’t (and ooh, here’s where I realized Sylvie’s quite terrible [209]) was very sad, as you realize many women have found themselves in her position. When she finally broke out of that loop I felt immensely relieved (232).
      • This is where I felt the book should have ended…I felt very disheartened when I realized I was only halfway. 
    • I became bored after 250 pages and skimmed the last 200 (although a certain character’s death did, okay, make me pretty sad).
    • Around 355, my stream of consciousness was: okay what why Germany then why hanging around how did you get here in the first place again. The Germany parts of the story just felt so disjointed to me. It’s supposed to be the main part, I think, but it felt like excess to me.
    • Overall , Life After Life was a disappointing and uninteresting read. The main plot is woven in strangely and doesn’t seem very important, or integral, or clear.

Review: No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

Author: Glenn Greenwald
Title: No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State
Format/Source: Hardcover and eBook/library 
Published: May 2014
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
Length: 254 pages
Genre: Journalism
Why I Read: Learn more about the subject from a key player
Read If You’re: Concerned about US surveillance and your privacy
Quote: “I only have one fear […] that people will see these documents and shrug, that they’ll say, ‘we assumed this was happening and don’t care’.” (29).
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

I thought No Place to Hide was going to be about the process of Snowden’s decision to leak documents and how the immediate aftermath of that affected him. Actually, this book can be divided into three very distinct yet significant parts. The first two chapters (~35%) of this book are indeed about Snowden, documenting his initial attempts to contact Greenwald up through the release of the first documents. These chapters, by nature of the activities they document, are exciting, intense and fascinating, especially if you want to know more about Snowden personally. Greenwald is one of the more qualified people writing about the leaking to give an account of Snowden’s personality and motivations.
The third chapter (the second part), “Collect it All”, explores some of the leaked documents. This chapter is extremely important and shocking (if, like me, you hadn’t looked at any of the actual documents), but it’s not as thrilling as the previous segment (again, by the nature of what the chapter describes – these are static documents, not people taking daring action). Because I had thought the entire book was going to be about Snowden, I was a bit taken aback and thus disappointed (though that’s my fault fault for having misconstructed expectations), but I still found this chapter a good, enlightening read. I did get stuck here for awhile because it’s so abruptly different from the first two chapters. The information contained is important, but it might be better served by having its own book. Here’s one disclosure that really blew me away:
The NSA routinely receives – or intercepts – routers, servers, and other computer network devices being exported from the United States before they are delivered to the international customers. The agency then implants backdoor surveillance tools, repackages the devices with a factory seal and sends them on. The NSA thus gains access to entire networks and all their users. (176)
I’d also like to note that the super secret classified PowerPoints slides are outrageous in their poor design and use of Clip Art. The visual presentation makes you laugh until you read the actual information being presented. Chapter Three concludes with the goal of surveillance:

When the United States is able to know everything that everyone is doing, saying, thinking, and planning – its own citizens, foreign populations, international corporations, other government leaders – its power over those factions is maximized. (198)

The third and final part of this book explores why citizens should be concerned about surveillance. This is where Greenwald starts to pick up steam again. He provides a clear reasoning as to why, even if you’re an upstanding citizen who never does anything wrong, you should be concerned about government surveillance. Even though I consider myself pretty left wing, I did sometimes naively wonder, “But if you haven’t done anything wrong, what’s the problem with surveillance?” Although I knew surveillance was bad, I couldn’t reason to myself why. Greenwald does a good job of that, making me think “Ah, yes, of course! That’s why.” One notable point he brings up is how surveillance has been passed from Republicans to Democrats, how it isn’t a dualistic issue with one side for and one side against (231). He concludes Chapter 4 with an important reminder summary of his discussion about transparency vs. privacy:

That is why we are called private individuals, functioning in our private capacity. Transparency is for those who carry out public duties and exercise public power. Privacy is for everyone else. (244)

The Bottom Line: No Place to Hide feels like three mini-books of information, each of which could easily filled a full book on its own. There’s a lot packed into these 254 pages (perhaps too much), but all of it valuable and fascinating and terrifying.

Elsewhere: