Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Ground Truth

The Untold Story of America Under Attack
John Farmer
Senior Counsel to the 9/11 Commission

The Ground Truth begins with the Clinton administration's response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. It relates the abortive attempts to assassinate Osama Bin Laden with cruise missiles, criticizing both the missile launch that failed and those that were not sent. Farmer's take on both the Clinton and Bush administrations is that people high up in the administration believed that they were in control of America's security when in fact they were out of touch and unable to act decisively when action needed to be taken.

The center of the book is a detailed reconstruction of the events of September 11th 2001, showing the actions of the FAA, NORAD, DOD and the White House minute by minute based on written logs and voice recordings collected by the 9/11 Commission. Farmer's timeline shows that the only effective measures were taken by low level commanders and the passengers on United flight 93.

Farmer is particularly critical of the FAA, the Department of Defense and the Bush White House, not for their failure to anticipate or to deal adequately with the attacks on 911, but for their handling of the aftermath. In each case, according to Farmer, officials attempted to "spin" the story of 9/11 in order to make their agencies, and themselves, look good. These efforts at public relations interfered with the analysis of the events and confused the effort to improve our ability to respond to emergencies.

The Ground Truth then examines hurricane Katrina. Farmer contends that the mistakes of 911, gone uncorrected, occurred all over again in the response to Katrina. Even the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, which was supposed to be able to coordinate emergency response, was clueless and ineffective as Katrina swept across the Gulf of Mexico and drowned New Orleans and much of the Gulf coast. Again the most effective action was that of "spinning" the events, officials causing more delay in the delivery of needed help and supplies while preening before the TV cameras.

Farmer's story ends with the Bush administration. Whether our ability to deal with the many challenges facing us has improved is still unknown.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Carnival #31 is Up!

Visit the 31st Book Review Blog Carnival at Linus's Blanket. There are 33 entries in this carnival, which Nicole has grouped into categories ranging from Social Science and Politics through Literary to Graphic Novels. The review I submitted is listed under "Thrillers." Me and Michael Jackson.

If you write book reviews, you can participate in the Book Review Blog Carnival by clicking on the picture and following directions.

Or if you prefer, go to

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Don't Shoot! We're Republicans!

Memoirs of the FBI Agent Who Did Things His Way
Jack Owens

And now the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend I'll say it clear
I'll state my case of which I'm certain
I've lived a life that's full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

(Jacques Revaux, Paul Anka, Gilles Thibaut and Claude Francois)

Which of course he didn't or he would have quickly been out of a job. Don't Shoot! We're Republicans! is a memoir of his career in the FBI by an agent who retired after 30 years of service. He made some arrests without calling for backup and once used an old yellow Volkswagen and a pair of jeans to get close enough to a fugitive to grab him. He did need a haircut in the '70s, but then who didn't? Jack Owens writes with self depreciating humor and expresses some strong opinions. He is especially opinionated about the relative merits of the several FBI directors that he worked under. J. Edgar Hoover topping the list.

Owens joined the FBI in 1969, while Hoover was still alive. Hoover had headed the FBI since the late 1920s and was famous for the demands he put on his agents; white shirts, blue suits, wing tip shoes and no coffee in the office. He was also famous for blackmailing members of Congress and dressing up in women's clothes, but Owens doesn't believe any of that. He liked directors that had been field agents and not those that were appointed despite a lack of law enforcement experience. Who would have guessed?

Owens stories of chasing down fugitives, cosying up to Soviet spies and subduing rioting federal prisoners with the SWAT team are well told and interesting. He gives the impression that every day is an adventure, glossing over the long hours of report writing and unproductive cold call interviews. He does mention the reports in passing and a few stake outs in his BuCar (Bureau car). Did I mention there is a lot of FBI jargon in the book?

I discovered through Google search that Jack Owens was briefly on the 1993 season of the CBS "reality" show Big Brother. The news of his being voted out of the house still reverberates through the reality show bulletin boards. Perhaps Owens was more of a loose cannon than thought.

The title of the book comes from a story of a road block, where a group of blue haired old ladies is rousted out their car at gunpoint. They had been driving right behind the suspect and were at first thought to be accomplices. I don't think Owens would have shot them, even if they had been Democrats.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood

I heard a radio interview with Margaret Atwood, promoting her latest book The Year of the Flood. She mentioned that some characters and the speculative scenario were common to this earlier novel. In preparation for reading the new one I went down to the local library and checked out Oryx and Crake.

Atwood describes Oryx and Crake as "speculative fiction," as opposed to science fiction, by which she means there are no space ships or aliens in the book. I think that Atwood is trying to differentiate herself from the pulp science fiction that some of us so dearly love, myself included. I would call the book a Vulcan mind meld between science fiction and literary fiction. The book begins in the middle with a protagonist named Snowman who lives in a tree house and wraps himself in a dirty sheet as if he never quite made it home from a toga party. His neighbors are a group of innocent naked vegetarians that look up to him as some sort of prophet or high priest. It's not at all clear what is going on at first - or second, or third. As the novel progresses Snowman's past is revealed bit by bit and Atwood's science fiction speculative scenario unfolds. By the time I reached two thirds of the way through the book it began to become clear to me what was going on.

Atwood takes contemporary issues and asks "what if." This is what really good science fiction does. Like Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz and Nevil Shute's On the Beach. Atwood gives us a post apocalyptic world. In this case, it is our current obsession, climate change and another contemporary issue, genetic engineering, that cause the apocalypse, and not nuclear war, the favored end times scenario of the 1950s and 60s, when these books were written. What if the Earth warmed up to the point that Canada had a tropical climate? What if corporations had their own cities, gated communities writ large, that separated their privileged employees from the dangerous unlawful, disease ridden "plebe lands" occupied by the rest of humanity? What if plants, animals and microbes, customized for commercial purposes, escaped into the wild and were able to survive and reproduce?

As might be expected one of those diseases, a raging airborne hemorrhagic, breaks loose and kills almost everyone. The naked people, a group of genetically engineered, disease resistant and socially manipulated post-humans, created in one of those corporate compounds as an experiment, that Snowman is living among are one exception. The genetically engineered "pigoons," wolvogs," "snats" and "rakunks," all animals created with the combined genes of different species, are the survivors, along with Snowman, for reasons not apparent until near the end of the book.

It is hard to write about Oryx and Crake without letting out some spoilers. Even knowing what you now know will take away some of the initial confusion, but perhaps also the frustration, of reading the first chapter or two. Atwood wants the reader to wonder what is going on with Snowman and who these friendly naked people are. It seemed as though he were a stranded Robinson Crusoe figure on one of Ursula LeGuin's planets, among her hermaphroditic humanoids. No aliens, indeed.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rain Gods

James Lee Burke

I am attracted to James Lee Burke's characters despite their dark nature. Each of his protagonists is a veteran, scarred by his experience in war. Private detective Dave Robicheaux and lawyer Billy Bob Holland in Vietnam. In Rain Gods Burke introduces Sheriff Hackberry Holland a 74 year old former prisoner of war in Korea and young Pete Flores, severely burned in an attack on his tank in Baghdad. Once again Burke's characters are be alcoholics, either active drinkers or recovering ones in AA, although God only knows what their higher power might be.

Burke holds his fictional universe together, bringing some New Orleans organized crime figures to Texas, displaced by hurricane Katrina. He adds a truly evil caricature of a Russian mobster, a motley collection of colorful freelance killers for hire, a young beautiful folksinger and a female deputy who rubs up against the elderly sheriff to add another complication to his life.

The freelancers, working for the Russian, in the first of a series of odd and comical mistakes, hire the unemployed Pete Flores, for $300, to drive a truck containing a group of smuggled illegal aliens, who are hiding balloons of uncut heroin in their stomachs. When the balloons begin to leak and cause a medical emergency, inconvenience and loss of the Russian's product, solve their problem by shooting all of them and burying them, using a bulldozer, in a remote corner of Hack Hollands county - for storage. Pete, after getting drunk on bootleg mescal, makes an anonymous call to the Sheriff, setting the course of the bloody adventure.

Burke attempted to create a metaphor for the struggle between good and evil, creating a Character, Preacher Jack Collins, who believes himself to be living an old testament life, one of cosmic importance and who kills on impulse, justifying himself in the name of his vengeful God. Sheriff Holland is set against him, showing compassion for the weak, being kind to animals and resisting temptation, provided by his deputy, all while feeling sinful and unworthy right up to the final confrontation where Collins is defeated but vanishes without a trace. It feels more than a bit contrived, which, of course, it is.


The thirtieth Book Review Blog Carnival is posted at the Book Review Blog Carnival" blog. Who woulda thunk it?

The next edition will be hosted by Linus's Blanket on November 22nd. Submit your reviews now at our page.