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Monday, April 13, 2009

The Code of Love by Andro Linklater

Astonishing, amazing, remarkable, and incredible, all apply to Linklater's The Code Of Love. You could add fascinating, riveting, captivating and engrossing.  This is a true story that is a romance, a war story and a mystery all rolled into one. 

Linklater moves seamlessly between the story of Pamela and Donald Hill's romance, Donald's horrific war story as a prisoner of war and the saga of decoding Donald's journal. 

The early part of the book makes you feel as if you are living in England in the early 1940s.  He paints a picture of daily life that is vibrant and clear. 

He is equally clear when describing the world of ciphers and codes.  In easily accessible language he tells the story of Philip Aston's attempts to break the code.  This part of the story is fascinating all by its self.  An added impact comes from the realization of just how brilliant and disciplined Donald had to have been to create and use  such a code. 

In many ways this is a book that broke my heart.  Donald's fight for survival was heroic.  I marveled at his sheer determination and grit.   The courage it took to hold his mind and body together under appalling conditions and dreadful psychological trauma is almost unbelievable. He should have had a happy ending. . .Lord knows, he deserved it.

And yet, it was not to be.  He obviously suffered from a severe case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which was unnamed and untreatable. In many ways his struggle to create a normal life, medicate himself with alcohol and bury the trauma are even more courageous than his basic survival.

If his story were not so familiar today I might have been able to shake it off.  But over the last few days I have thought about the veterans of the current war.  It is shameful that with all the information we have about PTSD our veterans are still untreated. They too, must struggle to create a normal life, medicate themselves and bury their trauma.  What a miserable statement about our society!

Reading this book, however, will remind you of what really matter in life: the power of love.  If you don't read another book this year, read this one!

An astonishing true tale of secrets, love, and war.

Pamela Kirrage, beautiful and impulsive, met and fell in love with the dashing RAF pilot Donald Hill just months before Hill was shipped off to the Far East to protect the British colonies against Japanese aggression. They exchanged rings the day before he left, a promise to marry as soon as he returned. Little did they know that five years would pass before they saw each other again.

The Code of Love tells the stirring tale of Donald's experiences in the front lines of the Pacific Theater and Pamela's war efforts back in England in a dramatic, deeply moving portrayal of the World War II era and its aftermath. On the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they also moved into Hong Kong, where Donald had the misfortune to be part of a small group of officers in charge of a meager five planes. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, keeping a journal of the indignities he faced in complex, nearly unbreakable code. Meanwhile, Pamela was swept into the frantic swirl of a wartime society eager to live to the fullest. She cooked meals for secret agents and danced the nights away with handsome soldiers. But her love for Donald never altered, and the two married within weeks of Donald's release at the end of the war. The scars Hill bore from his years of emotional encoding would eventually wear away at their relationship, though never their love.

Andro Linklater skillfully weaves the many fascinating parts of this tale together into an unforgettable narrative. From the mesmerizing siege of Hong Kong, to the romantic roller coaster of a truly great love, to the unbelievable efforts of the mathematician who finally cracked the encoded diary, The Code of Love is storytelling at its very finest.

Monday, April 6, 2009

I'm Perfect, You're Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah's Witness Upbringing eBook edition by Kyria Abrahams

                                                                                                  The first half of Kyria Abraham's I'm Perfect You're Doomed is like taking a trip to strange land.  It looks familiar, the people sound the same but the culture is very different.  The inhabitants have peculiar superstitions and curious rituals.

Kyria takes us on a tour and explains.  In this land the Devil is hiding in Smurfs and lurking at yard sales. Only repeating the word "Jehovah" over and over again will drive out evil.  Inhabitants do not dance or smoke but alcohol is permitted.  The people do not celebrate holidays, value education or socialize with foreigners.

Growing up this was her world.  A world in which these beliefs were accepted without question.  And where it was hip to be holy and zealous.  Her (slightly twisted) sense of humor keeps you entertained and amused.

The tone change as she enters her teenage years and battles with OCD, her sexuality and a creeping apostasy. Her solution?  Get married!

From here on the story is like the proverbial train wreck. Disgusting and riveting.  Abrahams carefully chronicles her depression and loneliness as she attempts to replace the void left by her religion.  She is painfully honest about her ventures into adultery, alcohol and suicide. 

This book ends as she finally seizes responsibility for her life and begins to grow up.  I suspect that is a more interesting story in the long run.  Hopefully she will write it someday.

I was deeply affected by this book. I found it by turns disgusting, exhilarating, terrifying and hopeful.  With all those conflicting emotions it is hard to write a simple review.  In the end I was glad I read it and you will be too. 

Here is the publisher's note:

I'm Perfect, You're Doomed is the story of Kyria Abrahams's coming-of-age as a Jehovah's Witness -- a doorbell-ringing "Pioneer of the Lord." Her childhood was haunted by the knowledge that her neighbors and schoolmates were doomed to die in an imminent fiery apocalypse; that Smurfs were evil; that just about anything you could buy at a yard sale was infested by demons; and that Ouija boards -- even if they were manufactured by Parker Brothers -- were portals to hell. Never mind how popular you are when you hand out the Watchtower instead of candy at Halloween.

When Abrahams turned eighteen, things got even stranger. That's when she found herself married to a man she didn't love, with adultery her only way out. "Disfellowshipped" and exiled from the only world she'd ever known, Abrahams realized that the only people who could save her were the very sinners she had prayed would be smitten by God's wrath.

Raucously funny, deeply unsettling, and written with scorching wit and deep compassion, I'm Perfect, You're Doomed explores the ironic absurdity of growing up believing that nothing matters because everything's about to be destroyed.

House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street by William Cohan

Any book that has "wretched excess" in the title is sure to grab my attention! Although given the subject matter I would have probably picked up  House of Cards without this particular subtitle.  Books on Wall Street hold some dark fascination and I have read everything from The Predator's Ball by Connie Bruck to Michael Lewis' Liar's Poker

The first section of the book is a detailed a day by day account of the final Bear Stern's meltdown.  There was a lot going on, some of it quite technical.  Cohan struggles to explain a lot of complex and technical transactions and the people at the center of the action. 

There is a lot of technical detail to plow through.  And there are even more people people to keep tract of.  I found myself a little confused by roles, titles and events; never mind the technical parts of the transactions.  In this section, he gets an A for effort and a D for accomplishment.

In part two, he backs up tells the eighty-five year history of Bear Sterns and it's last four CEOs. He draws finely detailed portraits of the men and the corporate culture they fostered.  In part three he details more current history (2001-2008) of the Firm, Wall Street and the US government.  By the time you have read all these pages you really understand how the combination of the men, the government and the corporate cultures on Wall Street worked to bring down the entire firm.  Here he gets an A for effort and a B+ for accomplishment.

I have to say, I was rather disappointed overall.  The book has a thrown together quality about it.  It would have benefited greatly from decent editing.  Much of the material was restated over and over again.  Cohan relies on a lot of quoted statements pulled directly (and indiscriminately) from other sources.  The flow is often confusing and the sequence of the sections didn't work very well. 

Unfortunately, there are some glaring and inexcusable errors as well. The first one is on the very first page where he states that Orlando, Florida is 2,500 miles from New York City.  A simple Google search will tell you it is only 1,081. 

If, however, you are willing to plow through the errors and the extraneous material you will glean a pretty good understanding of what happened at Bear Sterns and why. 

If you do decide to read it, start with part two.

On March 5, 2008, at 10:15 A.M., a hedge fund manager in Florida wrote a post on his investing advice Web site that included a startling statement about Bear Stearns & Co., the nation’s fifth-largest investment bank: “In my book, they are insolvent.”

This seemed a bold and risky statement. Bear Stearns was about to announce profits of $115 million for the first quarter of 2008, had $17.3 billion in cash on hand, and, as the company incessantly boasted, had been a colossally profitable enterprise in the eighty-five years since its founding.

Ten days later, Bear Stearns no longer existed, and the calamitous financial meltdown of 2008 had begun.
How this happened – and why – is the subject of William D. Cohan’s superb and shocking narrative that chronicles the fall of Bear Stearns and the end of the Second Gilded Age on Wall Street. Bear Stearns serves as the Rosetta Stone to explain how a combination of risky bets, corporate political infighting, lax government regulations and truly bad decision-making wrought havoc on the world financial system.

Cohan’s minute-by-minute account of those ten days in March makes for breathless reading, as the bankers at Bear Stearns struggled to contain the cascading series of events that would doom the firm, and as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, New York Federal Reserve Bank President Tim Geithner, and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke began to realize the dire consequences for the world economy should the company go bankrupt.