Saratoga by David Garland

David Garland’s Saratoga is a well-written, fictional account of one of the key turning points of the American Revolution – the Battle of Saratoga.

The book centers on Captain Jamie Skoyles, a career soldier in the British Army who has risen from the ranks (promoted to an officer from the enlisted ranks because of a courageous deed). As the campaign progresses toward the climax at Saratoga, Skoyles’ character changes in several ways. He falls in love with a woman who is betrothed to a fellow officer and he begins to have grave doubts about his military leaders.

I think that Garland did particularly well in describing the characters and their relationship with each other. You can understand Skoyles’ dilemma in regards to his relationship with Elizabeth Rainham – he is beginning to fall in love with her, but he does not want to create friction with the officer to whom Rainham is betrothed to (who happens to be his commanding officer). In addition, Garland nails his characterization of General John Burgoyne, the commander of the British Army, as an over-confident commander who ultimately underestimates the American forces at Saratoga.

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Whatever It Takes by J.D. Hayworth

Cross Posted to RedState

Immigration is a difficult topic. In our politically correct times any discussion of the issue runs the risk of being labeled racist or xenophobic or worse.

And to be fair, the issue can and does attract some unsavory types; supporters you would rather not have. It is not an easy issue withing Republican politics either, as their seems to be little consensus within the party as to how to address the issue.

President Bush has tried to defuse the issue and gain ground among Hispanics by emphasizing strong enforcement in his speeches but pushing for a guest worker program and what many consider de facto amnesty.

I am not an expert on this issue. I have not read the bills currently proposed in Congress and I haven’t studied President Bush’s proposals. But I do think this issue is important and that it isn’t getting the attention it deserves. To attempt to remedy that, and educate myself, I decided to read Whatever It Takes: Illegal Immigration, Border Security, and the War on Terror by Congressman J.D. Hayworth.

I am glad I did. To see why, click below.

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1776 by David McCullough

David McCullough’s 1776 is a masterpiece of writing and historical study. 1776 continues McCullough’s string of excellent books.

The book generally covers the time period from when King George III addressed Parliament on the rebellion (October 1775) to the Continental Army’s victories at Princeton, New Jersey (January 1777). McCullough does not provide a blow-by-blow account of each battle, but he gives enough of a description of each battle in this time period to allow the reader to understand the reasons for why the battles ended as they did. He captures the desperation and courage that the Americans had in some of the darkest times of the war. For instance, McCullough describes George Washington’s daring raid to defeat the Hessians at Trenton as a gamble to provide the Americans with some type of victory.

In addition to the Americans’ will to never give up, McCullough explains that the Americans were often just plain lucky. A well-timed storm twice allowed Washington to lead the Continental Army out of the grips of the Recoats’ grasp, thus preventing the ending of the “Glorious Cause.”

McCullough’s strongest writing is in his excellent descriptions of the individuals who played pivotal roles during this time period. These individuals include King George III, General William Howe, General Nathaniel Greene, and General George Washington. His portrayals of these individuals are balanced and fair. For instance, many historians have portrayed King George as a bumbling idiot, but McCullough describes him in a softer light – as an intelligent ruler who believes that his American subjects have no cause for rebelling.

McCullough thoroughly captures the feelings and beliefs of both sides. He interweaves his narrative with excerpts from letters and diaries of the participants. He frequently quotes Washington in his letters to various individuals. In addition to providing quotes from the major historical figures, he often cites common soldiers from both sides. He frequently quotes Lieutenant Jabez Fitch, an officer from Connecticut, who spoke plainly of the experiences of the Continental Army in the early stages of the war.

In short, 1776 is an instant classic.

Company by Max Barry

Cover of "Company: A Novel"
Cover of Company: A Novel

Last week we were talking about futuristic novels that posit “what if” type scenarios and then allow the reader to watch them play out. I noted that this is tricky business. If you push things too far you may lose the reader, but if you don’t push things the resulting plot won’t raise interesting questions or stretch our imaginations.

Well, the same can be said of satire. The best satire seems to be that which isn’t afraid to skewer anything and anyone. The best writers seem to be able to push things to the absurd and yet pull it off. This literary reductio ad absurdum not only makes us laugh, but often opens our eyes and makes us think.

In his latest book, simply entitled Company, Max Barry offers up another dose of corporate satire. Not having read his previous works I can’t tell you how this fits in with his previous books. In fact, I was first attracted to it by the large donut on the cover. I am on a low fat and low sugar diet these days (don’t ask) and so the donut called to me from across the bookstore. If I can’t actually eat one maybe I could read about someone who does.

The company involved – Zephyr Holdings, Inc. – doesn’t make donuts but rather serves them at meetings on occasion. The book does, however, start off with a mystery involving a donut. It seems someone ate more than one donut at the office meeting and this sets off a series of recriminations that reverberate throughout the book.

But what exactly is Zephyr and what does it do? What does it produce, sell, trade, or design? This is the mystery that business school graduate and newly hired “Jones” is faced with after just a few days at this typically maddening corporate behemoth. As it turns out, this is the string that will unwind the sweater and Jones just won’t quit pulling. I won’t spoil the plot twist that is central to the book, but it turns out Zephyr is not your typical corporation after all.

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Our School by Joanne Jacobs

Before she was a blogger and author Joanne Jacobs was a journalist and columnist. She covered the education beat for over twenty years. In 2001 she began to volunteer at Downtown College Prep (DCP) a San Jose charter school just getting off the ground. DCP’s mission was to take failing area students, predominantly poor Mexican-American families, entering high school and help them qualify for a four year college or university. Jacobs decided that this was a story worth telling so she quit her job to write a book about this amazing place.

Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea, and the School That Beat the Odds is the result. And if you have any interest in education or the charter school movement you will want to read this book. It is a unique blend of human interest story and public policy journalism that tells the story of the leaders, teachers, students, and families of one particular charter school, but also offers insights and recommendations into this critical component of education reform.

In Our School Jacobs introduces the DCP’s founders, Greg Lippman and Jennifer Andaluz, and describes what led these two young teachers to undertake such a imposing challenge. She gives you a sense of what running a charter school is like day-in-day-out and outlines the hurdles and barriers such a school faces. Interspersed within this narrative are glimpses into the lives and feelings of individual students.

Each chapter not only tells the story of DCP but also highlights the challenges of charter schools and education in general. Jacobs provides the political and personal back-story (including key data and statistics) so the reader can understand the larger context of the education system in California and the role of charter schools. In an appendix she even provides key lessons she has learned along the way for those looking to start their own charter school.

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Prayers for the Assassin by Robert Ferrigno

“What if” or futuristic scenarios are often difficult things to pull off. Plausibility can be tricky thing. I would imagine that deciding how much you can trust the reader to suspend their disbelief is challenge for authors. In order to make people think, and to entertain them at the same time, you have to push things, exaggerate elements to a greater degree than you might wish in a more conventional story. But push things too far and you run the risk of losing the reader.

The reason behind these musings is Robert Ferrigno’s latest book Prayers for the Assassin which is set in the year 2040 and imagines part of America as an Islamic Republic. In large part, your enjoyment of the book will be dependent on how much you are willing to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the story. Seen as an action/thriller with “what if” cultural and political components, Assassin is entertaining and at times thought provoking. If on the other hand, you are looking for a fully fleshed out view of what the world might look like in 2040, or a completely believable political scenario for an American Islamic Republic, you might be disappointed.

Here is how the book flap sets the scene:

SEATTLE, 2040. The Space Needle lies crumpled. Veiled women hurry through the busy streets. Alcohol is outlawed, replaced by Jihad Cola, and mosques dot the skyline. New York and Washington, D.C., are nuclear wastelands. Phoenix is abandoned, Chicago the site of a civil war battle. At the edges of the empire, Islamic and Christian forces fight for control of a very different United States.

[. . .]

After simultaneous suitcase-nuke attacks destroy New York, Washington, D.C., and Mecca — attacks blamed on Israel — a civil war breaks out. An uneasy truce leaves the nation divided between an Islamic republic with its capital in Seattle, and the Christian Bible Belt in the old South. In this frightening future there are still Super Bowls and Academy Awards, but calls to Muslim prayer echo in the streets and terror is everywhere. Freedom is controlled by the state, paranoia rules, and rebels plot to regain free will…

The story follows two characters: Rakkim Epps, a former elite warrior, and Sarah Dougan, a young iconoclastic historian. Dougan is researching the nuclear blasts that led to the conflagration and the formation of the American Islamic Republic. What she begins to find out about these world changing events calls into question the history and rationale of governments around the world. It also make her a fugitive. Epps is called on by her uncle, the head of state security, to find her. Epps does manage to track her down but rather than simply return Dougan to her father he helps her run down the clues to solve the mystery at the heart of these world changing events.

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Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

Leave it to Paul Auster to pull a fast one on his readers. When one thinks of Auster multi-layered and intertwined stories with a touch of the surreal come to mind. Meta-fiction, stories within stories, stories about stories, however you want to describe it Auster is usually anything but straightforward.

But Auster’s latest novel, The Brooklyn Follies, leaves most of that behind. Not all of it, however, as the main character is still a writer (at least in an amateur sense), the book is still about the power of stories, and there is a twist at the end aimed at forcing you to rethink what you just read. But even with these Austerian touches the book is really rather simple. It is about finding happiness in community; in the family and friends that surround you with all their faults and frailties.

The central character and narrator is Nathan Glass a retired and recently divorced insurance salesman who moves to Brooklyn looking for “a quiet place to die”. Glass has been diagnosed with lung cancer and the chemotherapy, his ugly divorce, and an estrangement with his daughter leaves him a dark mood. When Nathan beings a project entitled The Book of Human Folly – described as “An account of every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, every idiocy, every foible, and every inane act I had committed during my long and checkered career as a man.” – the reader thinks Auster is off on one of his traditional novels where unexpected chance events change people’s lives forever and where the story Auster is telling and the story the main character is writing/telling become intertwined and blurred. But the central focus of Follies never really shifts in that direction. Instead it concentrates on how Nathan goes from stoical despair to a busy and fulfilling life centered in his, and Auster’s, beloved Brooklyn.

This comes about, as is typical of Auster, by chance. Nathan runs into his nephew Tom Wood in a local bookstore. The once promising academic is now a lowly book clerk, a step up from his previous job of taxi driver. Soon nephew and uncle are eating lunch together and waxing philosophical about everything from the meaning of life to Edgar Allen Poe. Nathan’s interaction with Wood brings in a host of additional characters: Harry Brightman, Wood’s boss with a complicated past; Lucy, Wood’s niece who mysteriously shows up and refuses to talk; Aurora, Lucy’s ex-porn star mother who is trapped in a marriage with a religious fanatic; “The Beautiful Perfect Mother,” a gorgeous neighborhood women with whom tom is infatuated; not too mention a number of other side characters. Each character adds a little to the story.

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