Friday, April 19, 2019

Audio of Disasters: "Directorate S" by Steve Coll

Audio of Disasters: Directorate S: The CIA and America's wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan by Steve Coll, 2018, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library

Coll wrote a previous book about AfPak issues from Soviet invasion through to about 2000 and the Taliban. This book covers the area from then to the start of Trump's term. From the title I was thinking this would be tales of special operator's tactically tactilizing, hiking mountains, and shooting AQ leaders. Nope. This is all politics except for some info about a particularly tough battle during the Afghan surge of troops.

This is a long book and took a while to finish. Maybe that sometimes tedious slog about diplomatic discussions, political confusion, and piles of bodies is fitting for a war that is almost old enough to vote.

Coll's initial focus is on Pakistan and how their involvement with their neighbors has colored so much of the successes and failures of the U.S. and various allies in Afghanistan. The discussion travels to the changing goals of U.S. policy, Afghan politics, Karzai's extreme paranoia, and whether we should fight the Taliban or just AQ.

So much hinged, and still does, on the dispute between Pakistan and Indian. Pakistan and India HATE each other. Don't forget they've been fighting over Kashmir since the 1947 split. Pakistan is especially grouchy after losing the 1973 war and watching as India's economy goes high and higher. While India's economy and international influence have grown Pakistan has been static or shown weak growth.

The Taliban have been a way for Pakistan to control the region and check India's power. Making friends with and supporting the Taliban has helped Pakistan. They keep India from moving into Afghanistan and have used the many, many aligned militant groups in rural Pakistan as surrogates to attack India. The most recent notable event being the Mumbai terror attacks.

As Coll writes the history it becomes a listing of all the happenings since 2000 in Afghanistan. So much of it is a list of things gone wrong and things that could have been. 18 years of "If only. If only. If  only."
If only: we sent more troops to invade.
If only: we sent more construction money.
If only: we'd recognized Pakistan's lasting alliance with the Taliban.
If only: we'd not been distracted by Iraq.
If only: U.S. troops left their bases to know the people.
If only: we'd not killed so many civilians.

As Coll wrote about the first eight years of the war my head had the refrain of "Fucking Iraq. Fucking Rumsfeld. Fucking Bush."

The initial invasion of Afghanistan did have some sound ideas behind it. A smaller invasion force that teamed with the  Northern Alliance made sense after the experiences of British and Russian invasions. The Pentagon and White House wanted to avoid being the invading and occupying power. Fair enough. But, the goal then shifted from killing Al Qaeda to killing Taliban. Again, that makes sense because the Taliban were the happy hosts of AQ and the Taliban were certainly horrible and murderous. But, as the war progressed - and quickly - the U.S. still never had enough people in place to stop all the fleeing Taliban and AQ heading to Pakistan.

By 2009 we'd sunk tons of cash and swimming pools of blood and still had trouble.   The military is going hard to kill the Taliban and AQ but it is not working. So, let's go harder. Why not double down on death? The beatings will continue until morale improves. First there is the domestic political and financing fight over how many troops to send over and then Petraeus and McChrystal start an anti insurgent campaign. But we're still an occupying force. There are : dead civilians, night raids, allied convoys that hit a civilian but have standing orders to just keep trucking. Afghan are not happy.

The surge's troops work to push back Taliban territory and secure cities. By this point we are 3/4 through the book and the first time Coll details combat operations. Coll uses diary entries and personal correspondence to cover the attacks of allied forces in the Green Zone Sangin province.

Things are still not resolved. Afghan are murdering Allied soldiers. The U.S. commissions study after study.  There are still unclear goals on what to do with the Taliban? Kill'em? further define co editions for a win? Make a deal?

Afghan president Karzai is in a shitty job. The guy cannot make anyone happy AND he seems to have mental health issues.  Endemic corruption and crooked family members don't help either.

Most US troops are finally pulled, we continue to push Pakistan for action,  spend money on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a week ago (April, 2019) three soldiers were killed by an IED.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Done: "The Secret History of Twin Peaks" by Mark Frost

Done: The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost, 2016, 9781250075581.

Published before the return of the series in 2017. Written as a dossier compiled by an unknown person and found in a custom built metal box. The dossier contains original documents dating back to Lewis and Clark to modern day. With notations and commentary by the investigating FBI agent.

Don't bother reading the book if you have not seen the first part of the TV series. You won't care.

If you have seen the first part of the TV series you'll enjoy the book. I have not yet seen the second part of the series so I have no idea how this ties-in.

There are some anachronisms. The dossier is a compilation of work by different authors but, amazingly, all those writers over the past 200 years use the same parenthetical asides within sentences.

Much paranoia, UFO conspiracy, Illuminati and Masons pondering, and small town gossip. Frost and Co. don't seem to understand small towns versus small cities. The Welcome to Twin Peaks sign says the population is over 50,000. That is not small. And don't pretend there is only one diner in the damn town and that a sheriff's department can handle all that population with just six sworn employees.

Anyhoo. I thought the book was fun and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

EDIT 5-4-2019: I just saw that I wrote Lake Mills instead of Twin Peaks when referencing population. Lake Mills is 6,000 people and we are big compared to many places.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Hardcover: "Nomadland" by Jessica Bruder

Hardcover: Nomadland: surviving America in the twenty-first century by Jessica Bruder, 2017, 9780393249316.

Journalist Bruder does deep reporting on van, car, and RV dwelling people.

The book is interesting and a bit depressing. Bruder is writing about decent people who work hard but were dunked on by the 2008 depression. They are an itinerant workforce of people 55-years-old and up. People who were financially stable until they lost their retirement funds when the market collapsed and then went under on their mortgages when the real estate market collapsed.

Many people were already just getting by before 2008. Then economic layoffs hit and older people with plenty of experience were unable to land a paying gig. An illness would toss them out of work and leave them in more debt.

Bruder researched this for a few years and got to be friends with several people. She focuses on Linda May and her journey from having to live with a adult daughter's family to buying a used van to live in. Linda works as a camp host at different state and federal parks and forests. The work is physically difficult and when tallying the long hours versus pay she finds she only makes 2-3 bucks an hour.

On the off-season Linda joins many other van dwellers van dwellers who find work as WorkAmpers. The work is often described as "Have Fun! Make Friends! Get Paid to vacation!" The slogan is, of course, bullshit. Bruder tags along to one of the many Amazon warehouses around the country. The pickers and stockers will walk 10 miles a day up and down concrete floors to fill orders. They work 10 or 12 hour shifts, head back to the RV park, eat some ibuprofen, and hope they don't freeze overnight in an uninsulated vehicle.

Homeless is what they are but not what they will talk about. Bruder writes about people who are forcefully engaging in a 'nomadic lifestyle' and proclaiming the freedoms of no rent, no mortgage, no utility bills. They do have to worry about using Social Security and part-time jobs to pay for engine and transmission repairs. They do have to stretch every day to buy food. Homelessness is the "H word" and fervently denied.

Bruder seems to have done plenty of reading and research on the topic for both the current and historical trends of itinerant people. She writes about the rail riding phenomenon (my paternal grandfather included) of the Great Depression and how many other people took to the road.  A commenter from the 1930s remarked how poor Americans embrace the open road and a positive attitude but don't acknowledge they've been screwed over. Reminds me of the This is Fine 'meme'.

Because of the internet the nomads are a fairly well organized group. Linda and others are inspired by blogs and online discussions to stop couch surfing and buy RVs.  I tried looking up a few of the people who had an online presence. I gave up after I could not find a couple. One woman had started and quit a few blogs and - at her last writing - had settled down somewhere.

Besides, isn't having your own space - even if something as small as a Prius - preferable to couch surfing, scrabbling for rent, and living out of suitcase? You're certainly free to follow work wherever it takes you. Cutting out rent is cheaper than the regular car repairs. There is privacy of a sort - as long as people aren't knocking on your windows and trying to peer inside.

As the saying goes, "Your mileage may vary."

Very Good: "A Student of History" by Nina Revoyr

Very Good: A Student of History by Nina Revoyr, 2019, 9781617756641.

I was flipping through an older issue of Booklist or Library Journal and lucked out be seeing the review for this. I had missed any pre-pub announcements and, embarrassingly, missed seeing the book on our own new books shelf. For whatever reason I was immediately engaged with the story.

Short version: 32-year-old PhD history student from USC is about a year behind on his thesis. He is hired by an uber-wealthy woman to transcribe 70 years of handwritten journals and falls for a super scheming socialite.

Longer version: Rick Nagano's girlfriend dumped him a year ago and he has gotten no research or writing completed on his thesis concerning community business loans among the Japanese in early California. A friend from the History Department is moving away and recommends him for the 10-hour-a-week transcribing job for Mrs. W--- (her last name is never used). The extra cash for this job will allow Rick to pay his rent and eat. Rick narrates us along the journey.

Rick drives out to a massive estate with a massive mansion and meets Mrs. W---. She is in her 70s, always dressed elegantly, and tart tongued. W--- is the granddaughter of one of modern Los Angeles's founders and oil barons. W--- has always been super rich and, at one point in the novel, Rick discovers W--- is worth about a billion dollars.

This is a novel where money makes a difference. Rick becomes W---'s walker and escort to multiple society events across L.A. He enters a completely different strata of society from growing up an electrician's son and attending Stanford and USC on scholarship funds. W--- mostly associates with just old money like hers. The society events include recent celebrities and millionaires but W--- plays to the men and women with the same old money background as her.

W--- in public is very petty and very private. She verbally cuts down competitors for the spotlight. She never talks about her absent adult children. She makes several vicious comments on immigrants and poor people.

Privately W--- is welcoming to Rick and befriends him. She tours him around the mansion and chats with him over tea on the patio. She encourages Rick to attend USC's law or business schools. Rick protests that it is too late to apply to those schools W--- tells the USC President about Rick (a word from super donor W--- would immediately set Rick into class). W--- also funds an immigration legal group.

Anyhoo. Spoilers await. Rick is kinda driftless, even after getting the job. He cannot concentrate on his thesis and his adviser won't put up with his excuses anymore and won't endorse the 2nd year of a fellowship that keeps Rick afloat. Out of desperation Rick tells his adviser he has access to the records of the super private W--- family. His adviser is a nut for Los Angeles history and she bites.

So, Rick has to try and fake the W--- angle and motivate himself to write his thesis. Instead, Rick falls hard for beautiful socialite Fiona. Rick is self estranged from his family and has only one close-ish friend. He has lost all perspective on what he is doing. He knows he is only a visitor to the uber-rich life but with his Walker's wardrobe (provided by W---) and good looks he can fit in. When chatted up by the talkative Fiona he falls hard.

Fiona has her own agenda and effortlessly pulls Rick into an affair and pushes him to discover personal information that will be damaging to W---.  We can see this but Rick cannot. Everything blows up Rick's face. We also saw that coming and greatly enjoyed the journey there.

1. I think adviser should be spelled advisor.

Audio: "Lost Girls" by Robert Kolker

Audio: Lost Girls: an unsolved American mystery by Robert Kolker, 2013, downloaded from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Kolker sorta investigates the murders of several prostitutes whose remains were found in 2010 and 2011 near Oak Beach, a small town on a barrier island south of Long Island. I write "sorta" because Kolker had minimal access to the police investigation. Kolker was able to either interview or pull comments from a few police officers but he had no inside information on the deaths, the bodies, the investigation, etc.

Tied directly to the victims is Oak Beach, Long Island where Shannan, whose 2009 disappearance ignited the search that stumbled upon the bodies. Oak Beach is a small, insular, private community of homes that used to be summer cottages and are now, mostly, year round residences. The entire investigation kicked off after one prostitute, Shannan, went missing from Oak Beach during a prostitution out-call.

Kolker focuses on the known victims and their families. The remains of 10 people were found and one victim was a child. The identified victims were prostitutes and most everyone assumes a serial killer is assumed. This is an easy assumption since four of the bodies were buried together.

Kolker did a lot of interviews with survivors. Parents, grandparents, siblings, co-workers, boyfriends, husbands, neighbors, so on, so forth. He lays out the biographies of all the women. Some were heavy drug users. Some needed money and prostitution paid very well. Some had mental health trouble. All of them were loved by their families.

Because no killer has been tried or identified - including currently, in 2019 - this is different than other true crime stories I have read. With no one to blame Kolker is giving a dual report on the victims's and surviving relatives lives. Prostitutes are so often regarded as rotten people by society. They have drug problems, childhood traumas, criminal records, and are all-around trouble for local police. Kolker lets us know the dead women were human. He shows us their personalities, childhoods, ambitions, and failures.

After a time the many different families start to talk and gather. They raise awareness with vigils, remembrance ceremonies, and interviews. The 2,500 person Suffolk County Police seem to be getting nowhere and the families are angry about it.

Kolker has tons of information from interviews and research about the victims but the investigation is a case of outside looking in. With no convicted killer to blame the families are left guessing what happened to the women. This guesswork leads to some specious theories about the victims, the residents of Oak Beach, the police, and the victim's friends or acquaintances. Survivors sit at a coffee roundtable and come up with all sorts of wild theories.

Part of survivor talk seems to be guilt and shame over the women's work and lifestyle. They want to see their dead relatives as "clean" people. "She didn't do drugs. She didn't really have sex. She was a good girl." They love and miss their daughters, granddaughters, and sisters. It's bad enough that the women were murdered and buried in sand. That some of them were dismembered and the parts scattered.

Kolker spends a good deal of space repeating internet gossip. Recounting the wild theories that attempt to tie in various Oak Creek residents as viable suspects. Often times people are coming up with a theory and fitting the facts to it.Telling those stories is part of learning what everyone is going through. Repeating the internet bullshit is a reminder that an entire community - even a online community are are involved - even if it is scurrilous bullshit Scurrilous because the wild theories try tie-in Oak Beach people and cast them as a possible serial killer. One online poster that Kolker interviews calls himself "Truth Spider" who won't even reveal what part of Long Island he lives in.

Online trade is where all the women worked. Craig's List was their main advertisement. At one point Kolker follows along one woman who sees her former pimp on the sidewalk. She hates the guy and tries to stroll on past. Instead, he fakes a punch at her, she flinches and yells at him, he then slugs her in the face and pursues her into a store. The woman escapes and tries to laugh it off. The violent encounter is a part of everyday life for street workers. Why not take a risk of a dangerous client off the internet then give all your money to a pimp and get slugged in the face?

Friday, April 5, 2019

Meh: "The End of Vandalism" by Tom Drury

Meh: The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury, 1994. 9780395621516.

I don't recall how I was reading about Drury but this 1994 novel had a great reception when published. Drury has not published many novels and this is the second of his I have read. His book Pacific came out a couple years ago and "revisits Grouse County" where this is set. Grouse County is somewhere in WI, or MN, or IA. At one point a marching band plays something like On Wisconsin! so I suppose this is west or southwest Wisconsin.

I was about halfway through the book and it was kinda "meh". Only then did I realize - reading a online comment - that this is supposed to be comedic. The problem with this is that the humor is based on varieties of small town life and interactions. Well... to me that is normal life. There were a couple laugh out loud moments but I don't recall them.

Anyhoo. The focus is on Sheriff Dan and Louise. [Spoilers ahead] The novel starts with Dan arresting Louise's drunken husband, Tiny. Tiny and Louise end up divorcing. Dan marries Louise. They have some trouble. Louise gets pregnant and loses the daughter only days from delivery. Louise leaves and stays with relatives a few months. Dan and Louise reunite.

I do not categorize this as a romance story. I suppose it's more of a "modern rural life" type thing. Except it is set in 1992 or so and, therefore, out of date in several ways. There are more county maintained gravel roads. Smaller towns are still slowly dying off. Job prospects are limited. Some high school kids fall in love and some high school kids want to immediately hit the highway and not look back.

There are not as many of the interpersonal intricacies and diverse family trees of most small town life. Louise and Tiny have some of that. With Louise divorcing, remarrying, and telling the ex-husband to buzz off. Tiny wanting to hang out with a former sister-in-law in Colorado. Over time so many families merge and diverge that keeping track of people is very difficult for newcomers. It's the standard small town rule that you need to be careful what you say. You can inadvertently insult someone's cousin, aunt, nephew, etc. Complain about a road repair decision made 20 years ago and you'll find you're talking to the former City Council President who argued in it's favor. Praise one person and find out that you did so to the angry former spouse.

I cannot think of any comparable writing except maybe Garrison Keillor's stories. Speaking of which, I read The Book of Guys in 2000 or so and thought it was great. I read it again a few years later and it sucked. I never much cared for Keillor anyway.

1. One difference to my county is that fictional Grouse County is smaller. Jefferson County is 83,000. Most weeks I never leave the city limits. I just looked at the distance calculator on Daft Logic and see I stay within a 2 mile diameter circle.
2. The stillbirth was a jarring and well written section. A bit of a shocker and somewhat sad.