Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich

Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel: A Graphic Novel Ulinich does something extraordinary here by combining her storytelling and drawing skills to create an absorbing graphic novel featuring the drama of an adult woman searching for love. This is not ordinary entertainment, but instead a realistic and riveting examination of the vicissitudes of finding love and keeping it.

Lena Finkle is the twice-divorced mother of two who is about to get herself involved in an inter-continental relationship with a married man. When a friend wisely suggests Lena get more experience with men before she jumps into another unsuitable relationship, Lena forays into the world of online dating. Lena’s trenchant observations about her stumbling first steps in this direction are cringe-worthy best friend talk, admitting confusion, bad choices, and failure. To top it off, Lena has a homunculus on her shoulder making snide asides and expressing the observations Lena’s less rational side needs to hear.

There is an energy in this novel that derives from the combination of cartoonish drawings and the wrenching real-life agony of misplaced and unrequited love. References to the online dating site OkCupid lower the tone; comparisons of Lena’s work as a novelist with Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Anton Chekov heighten the tension. It is an absurdist romp with heartbreaking consequences, and yes, this is indeed a sort of classic literature filled with naked vulnerability and deep intelligence. There is movement, introspection, growth, and understanding.

The central character, a Russian, a Jew, and a mother, has all the strengths and weaknesses of those categories we use for shorthand. Lena denies her Jewish background (“I fail the faith test in God”) at the same time she pulls out her angst for us to contemplate. “Oh my God, I’m turning into a Russian wife!” she exclaims when she instinctively over-cares for her sick lover. In the next line she denies being slotted into that category: “I will never, ever be a Russian wife!” She is practical and loving as a mother, and also claims to be “impersonating a mother” when her love affair goes sideways. She tosses her homunculus into the gutter: “Your knee-jerk skepticism, your materialist rationality, and your stupid irony—what use are they to me now?”

Buying a pair of shoes might set off a flood of introspection, self-criticism, and a peering into the larger society: “buying a pair of red shoes wouldn’t constitute a punishable offense, but would certainly invite questions…which would load the shoes with too much significance to ever actually wear…which is why married people in Brooklyn are stuck in horrible moccasins and fleece sweaters they buy online…” The Scottish philosopher-lawyer-author Alexander McCall Smith couldn’t have said it better.

The man she chose to learn from was not the perfect man: he was a device for making her more self-aware and accepting. Lena wanted to ignore her homunculus and friend Yvonne who told her not to close her eyes to the bright yellow caution tape in his conversation. Lena needed to be able to see, to listen to her homunculus even when she didn’t want to. Finally, understanding dawns.
“No one ever really arrives. We just nudge each other along muddy ruts of suffering, occasionally peeking over the edges of our ruts in search of a better way.”

The name of Ulinich’s central character, Lena Finkle, is derived from two references that situate the character in the absurdist canon. Lena Dunham’s droll movie, Tiny Furniture, about a college graduate moving back into her mother’s apartment in the City, has an unforgettable scene about the struggle for intimacy—in a street-side construction pipe. This same hilarious and breathtakingly painful description of the nakedness of one’s need is keenly described in drawings and thought bubbles by Ulinich.

The second reference is derived from Bernard Malamud’s story, “Magic Barrel,” in which a man, Leo Finkle, asks for help from a matchmaker in finding a mate. Leo Finkle is a rabbinical student doing what was expected of him until one day he realized he had no faith! This set off a depression which led him to a “panicked grasping” of a young woman which he called “love.”

I can’t recommend this novel more highly. Its dark humor and anguished understanding ties into some of the great literature of the 19th and 20th centuries but in a format that is finally coming into its own in the 21st century. The graphic novel format is uniquely suited to Ulinich’s skills. As always when an author manages a breathtaking high-wire act, I wonder if it can be replicated. But no matter, enjoy this one for what it is—an astonishing and absorbing example of high-intensity literature for our time.


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Friday, August 15, 2014

Prisoner of the State by Zhao Ziyang

Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang Zhao Ziyang, former Chairman of the Communist Party in China, was politically sidelined in May 1989 and went into house arrest as a result of his opposition to the government response to students occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This fascinating personal and secret memoir recorded in the years after his arrest was published only after Zhao’s death in 2005. Bao Pu, son of Zhao’s trusted advisor, secretary, and speech writer, Bao Tong, transcribed, translated, and published the documents in his own publishing house in Hong Kong in 2009. Simon & Schuster published a U.S. edition with a Foreword by Roderick MacFarquhar, noted China scholar.

In that Foreword, MacFarquhar notes that Zhao was an economic reformer but a political conservative in the 1980’s, but during his house arrest he became increasingly convinced that political change was both necessary and advantageous, i.e., economic development must be accompanied by development of an independent judiciary and the rule of law. MacFarquhar asks readers to consider that it took some years of house arrest for Zhao to come to these conclusions and wonders how much more difficult it would be for those involved in the day-to-day management of state and skirmishes within the Politburo to come to similar conclusions.

Though Zhao Ziyang has been erased from public discourse in China today, he did have some notion that the demands of the students in Tiananmen were not essentially undermining the state, but all about modifying the state to better represent the will of the people. Reading the full narrative makes clear that Zhao’s position as Party Chairman in the spring of 1989 was already tenuous. He still had Deng’s support, but that was all. After his refusal to carry out Deng’s wishes in handling the student demonstration, his political career was finished.

Hu Yaobang, in the chapter about his ouster, sounds politically tone deaf. When faced with conflict Hu ignored it or went out of the country. Hu was Party Chairman when Zhao was Premier. Hu was forced to resign in January 1987, and Zhao was asked to take his place, though he’d made clear that he did not want the role of Communist Party Chairman. He would have preferred to stay focused on economic issues as Premier.

Zhao speculates that Hu was forced out because he suggested in interviews and by “loose talk” that Deng Xiaoping would (should) retire from making decisions. Zhao did the exact opposite with Gorbachev in 1989, suggesting that Deng was really in control of everything, and that Gorbachev, if he wanted the “final word” on anything, should meet with Deng. A little later we understand the reasons for this more fully.

Corporate types who have lived/worked with a group of people who disagree but who never openly voice their disagreements and instead jockey for position by leaks or by willfully excluding someone from discussions will recognize immediately the stomach-churning turmoil of the 1980’s government of the most populous country on earth. Each individual was a planetary power shifting his weight, yet no one was precisely sure what the actual sticking points were since no one voiced their opposition openly.

It appears that the shift of Zhao to position of General Secretary of the Party from Premier in 1987 was the beginning of his downfall. Though Deng Xiaoping created a Central Economic and Financial Leading Group with the intention that Zhao would keep his hold over the management of the economy while at the same time handling Party affairs, Zhao was sidelined and attacked by more conservative ideologues Li Xiannian, Wang Zhen, Hu Qiaomu and Deng Liqun.

The real writing on Zhao’s headstone was Zhao’s failure to push through price reforms in the fall of 1988. He’d made preparation, proposed and supported the idea, but when it came to implementation he choked. Zhao’s chapter on official corruption gives a clear explanation of how vast sums can be channeled and manipulated through government enterprises unless there is price reform. Deng Xiaoping had made clear that he wanted this work done because all the economic reform efforts in the world couldn’t work properly without price reform. Deng said repeatedly that Zhao should be strong and if it all went sideways, that Deng would take the blame. But Zhao couldn’t pull the trigger, and the conservatives then had the ammunition they needed to refuse his recommendations as bank runs, inflation, and lack of available money from the center slowed the economy. Reforms were retrenched.

Zhao later said that this was the thing he most regretted. Indeed, we learn something about the nature of leadership with his failure in this instance: a leader doesn’t necessarily have to be fearless, but he must be bold. A leader may be afraid, but he sometimes must make a bold move despite that fear (think Shackleton). I think Deng understood this. Deng himself was vulnerable to ultraconservatives who sought to sideline his influence, and he tried to preempt their attempts by resigning from all posts and suggesting other elderly statesmen do the same.

What happens next is just the burying of the body. By 1989 Zhao must have known his position was extremely tenuous, and therefore convinced Deng not to resign his posts, knowing he would lose his powerful mentor and his one friend in the upper reaches of power. Zhao finally split with Deng over the student demonstrations, which Deng felt should be dealt with harshly, by forcing the students from the Square. If Western observers thought the political center in China was in turmoil during Tiananmen, they had missed the fact that power was being consolidated, in fact. Deng stepped down from his position as Chairman of Central Military Commission in 1989, despite promising Zhao that he would wait a year. Deng was still consulted on official matters until 1992.

Zhao never was released from house arrest, and very rarely left his home. He died in 2005. His memoir of his final years was discovered at his home in plain sight, recorded over his grandchildren’s music tapes and tapes of Chinese opera.

This memoir was both heartbreaking and heart stirring. It has the feel of truth—Zhao Ziyang’s truth—which is all we ask of a memoirist. Bao Pu did a great job condensing the material, providing explanatory text, and making a worthwhile testament to Zhao Ziyang’s life.

Postscript: I read this because I recently read Louisa Lim's fine report on China today, which I reviewed earlier: The People's Republic of Amnesia. Oxford University Press, 6/4/2014, ISBN 978-0199347704.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Invisible Murder by Lene Kaaberbol & Agnete Friis

Invisible Murder (Nina Borg, #2) This Danish mystery series featuring Red Cross nurse Nina Borg in modern-day Copenhagen follows a long line of deliciously cosmopolitan and yet delightfully local novels translated and published by Soho Crime. Reading a few of the mysteries by these illustrious authors will give the reader an indication of the quality associated with Soho Crime: James Benn, Cara Black, Jassy Mackenzie, Leighton Gage, Timothy Hallinan, Martin Limon, Peter Lovesay, Qiu Xiaolong, Helene Tursten, Akimitsu Takagi, Matt Benyon Rees. Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis are in good company. Crime and intrigue is all the more complicated in a Danish society famously known for its liberality.

Invisible Murder is the story of a young gypsy Hungarian boy seeking to gain some control over the fates of his family by looting an old hospital left to rot by departing Russian occupiers. He intends to sell leftover X-ray equipment to the highest bidders in Europe, leaving himself and his family exposed to the most rabid and calculating bottom-dwellers in the criminal syndicate.

We meet Nina Borg, a Red Cross nurse volunteering outside work with illegal immigrants to Denmark, and members of the Danish Counterterrorism Units who are chasing whomever accessed known terrorist sites on the internet while in their jurisdiction. We get a fascinating peek at the concerns of Danish society today, and the impetus for crime from the most underserved and exploited communities in the EU.

This novel is the second in a series, and as such the authors may have missed an opportunity to present Nina Borg in the depth first-time readers need to accept her leading role. The book was long and complicated—perhaps more complicated than it needed to be. Some judicious editing or more time spend reducing the work to its essentials would have aided our understanding and interest starting out, but the action picked up in the last third and it stands as a solid entry in this crime series.

BTW, I just noticed that amazon is running a special e-Book price for The Boy in the Suitcase (Nina Borg #1) at $1.99 for a limited time if you think you want to read this series from the beginning. (8/13/14)

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

The People's Republic of Amnesia by Louisa Lim

The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited Louisa Lim is an experienced China-watcher and has been an NPR and BBC reporter in China for at least a decade. She has completely captured a strange phenomenon of modern-day China: the heady mix of strong-arm political repression and an intolerant nationalism that is captured in the term “moral absolutism.” She shares the candid views of a cross-section of Chinese citizens and in the process manages to give an excellent update to our view of post-Tiananmen China.

Lim gives us a series of snapshots that capture the ambiguity and nervous pride with which ordinary citizens view their government: “aren’t we better off than we were four years ago?” When a young girl chooses “official” as her desired profession “because they have more things,” there must be some sidelong glances and reluctant acknowledgements at the unevenness of officialdom's wealth creation. But the political consciousness of ordinary citizens is strangely truncated. Those aspiring to work for the government do so for economic security, not with hopes of political change or influence.

The conversation started in 1989 by students at Tiananmen Square was not then ripe for democracy in China as we know it in the West, but some officials knew the risks to the Party and to the country of avoiding discussion of political reform and for suppressing the protests without some acknowledgement of their underlying discontents. That the conversation has been so utterly changed since the loosening of restraints with economic freedoms should not amaze me as much as it has. The government has effectively erased the memory of 1989, so much so that young people don’t even know about that time, and older folks don’t want to talk about it. How so many people can willfully forget that earlier moment when the stability of the Party was in jeopardy is explained: China’s turn towards economic liberalization happened because of Tiananmen.

Lim peels back the veil on the events in Chengdu during June 1989 when protestors sympathetic to students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square also marched and were also suppressed, beaten, jailed, killed. It astonishes me still that we don’t know the extent of the crime, and won’t either, until the government changes hands. Surely there was extensive documentation: some of the dead in Beijing and Chengdu lay for days in morgues or hospitals and photos of loved ones showing their injuries appeared many months after their deaths.

I imagine one day it will be the Chengdu policemen who, on their deathbeds, wish to be forgiven and come clean with what happened in 1989. They must be as haunted as Chen Guang, the military photographer-turned-painter in Beijing, whose work at Tiananmen on June 4, 1989 haunts him still.

Lim has an easy, clear, and precise style that is not without humorous moments. She juxtaposes lives of ordinary citizens with remarks by former officials. In one vignette, she tells of Yang Xiaowu, “a jovial distributor of grain alcohol” who visits Yan’an regularly, once with his sales staff for a bonding exercise. (Yan’an is where the Communist Party ended the Long March in 1935. A huge statue of Mao Zedong dominates a square built in front of the Revolutionary Memorial Hall there.) “[This is] the right place to come…because Mao’s classic essay ”On Protracted War” was [Yang’s] business bible. He used it to help his team map out their strategy for marketing booze.”

Bao Tong was Policy Secretary for Zhao Ziyang and Director of the Office of Political Reform for the PCP before both were placed under house arrest in 1989. “Describing the mood at the highest levels of government Bao Tong painted an atmosphere so weighted by factional mistrust that any discussion of the issues was impossible…According to Bao Tong, [he and Zhao Ziyang] never had a single conversation about what stance to take toward the student movement. ‘This wasn’t something you would discuss,’ he said.” This remarkable and revealing admission reminds me that fear of reprisal haunts even the anointed in China, though the lack of discussion saved neither man.

What I liked best about this book is the journalistic skepticism Lim brings to the party: everyone has faults, mistakes, and good intentions in their pasts. No one is unequivocally good or bad Even Deng Xiaoping, according to Bao Tong, “went back and forth like a pendulum.” The student rebels at Tiananmen are not lionized, but placed in the context of their historical moment. I incline towards the viewpoint of Jan de Wilde, consul general in Chengdu at the time of the protests: “I don’t think they had the foggiest idea what freedom and democracy actually meant in China or anywhere else. They were still very much [operating] in the framework of a one-party state.”

Tiananmen has not been forgotten by everyone, and the issues it raised are as valid today as they were twenty-five years ago. Undoubtedly some folks have begun to think about what political change would look like in a modernizing China. However, recent rhetoric from the center and the tight control the Party has on social discourse does not hold out hope for a “revolution from within” the Party. The change, when it comes, will be demanded by all those “moral absolutists” making up the population that the Party has created, and heaven help the Party then.

“All blood debts must be repaid in kind…”—Lu Xun

Louisa Lim’s brave and unblinking look at modern China is a book I hadn’t known I was waiting to read.

--Later: Lim mentions Zhao Ziyang's secret memoir of the Tiananmen debacle and I managed to rustle up a copy. I have reviewed it here: Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang. Simon & Schuster, May 2010, ISBN 9781439149393.

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Monday, August 4, 2014

The Inferno of Dante translated by Robert Pinsky

The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation by Robert Pinsky This is far and away the best and most accessible translation I have read and I looked at several since 2010. But best of all is that it can now be listened to, as Pinsky's 1995 translation is read with great cognition by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Nobel Prize Winner Seamus Heaney, Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize Winner Louise Gl├╝ck, and Bolligen Prize Winner Frank Bidart, in a new production cosponsored by Penguin Audio and FSG Audio. It doesn't take long to listen to, and it packs a punch, just like the original should have.

Dante's The Divine Comedy is an epic poem in three parts and was written in the 14th Century, at a time when oral traditions in storytelling were still prevalent. One benefits from hearing the work spoken aloud, as in all poetry. But in this audio presentation we get only Part I, The Inferno and not Purgatorio and Paradiso. How I yearn to learn that the latter parts will also be translated by Pinsky. I have read Part I many times, Part II once, and never Part III. I'd like to see what Dante has to say about heaven. The whole work was originally entitled Commedia, and in later centuries other artists added the "Divine." The meaning is the same: our God plays with us humans...setting us difficulties and seeing how we manage. Many of us fail.

I came away wondering if this is the version of hell that the Catholic Church promulgated and has adhered to for centuries. Wikipedia says it is, and that in fact, Dante drew on St. Thomas Acquinas' Summa Theologica from medieval Christian theology. It is grim. It is horrible. It is hell in every definition. It is so similar to what I was taught that I wonder now how it is possible that so little has changed in Church teachings and at the imaginations of our religious leaders that no one has come up with a more hellish (or even a different) scenario. How little ignorance is excuse for wrongdoing in Dante's eyes. We have only ourselves to blame, he says. How clear our human moral conundrums seem from this fiery pit.

Remind yourselves of moral wisdom, and listen, just listen to our greatest living poets read Dante.

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Friday, August 1, 2014

Powers of Two by Joshua Wolf Shenk

Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs Joshua Wolf Shenk, celebrated author of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, has a new book due out August 5 which focuses on the power of creative pairs. Using a number of compelling examples, Shenk posits that exceptional creativity is not the outcome of an individual mind, but requires the interaction of two minds. He will argue that three people change the creative dynamic. The concept of the “lone genius,” Shenk says, is overstated if not flat wrong.

Describing a phenomenon many of us have experienced firsthand, either personally or by observing others, Shenk posits that two well-suited creatives together experience a surge in their output that is greater than either individual could achieve on their own. He interviewed pairs who are not household names, but used mostly the examples of well-known creative pairs that each of us will recognize to illustrate the power of creative pairing. For this he mostly used the vast record that has grown up around such pairs as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, James Watson and Francis Crick. In each case, Shenk posits that each pair could be shown to have followed a set of stages that allowed and fostered groundbreaking creative output: 1) Meeting, 2) Confluence, 3) Dialectics, 4) Distance, 5) The Infinite Game, and 6) Interruption.

The book uses the outline to structure his narrative, and though he occasionally uses the results of psychological/sociological studies to buttress his argument, this is not a formal proof. It is the presentation of an idea. Shenk also suggests that pairs take the form of The Star and the Director, The Liquid and the Container, The Dreamer and the Doer, or Generator and Resonator, or all of these at different times. Shenk sidesteps the debate between “Collaboration is good” and “Creators need time alone” by recognizing people vary in their needs and no one can prescribe the proper conditions for collaboration from afar. “…Complex interdependence—one with real room for idiosyncratic individuality and enmeshed identities—is characteristic of the best collaborations…The conditions required for human beings to thrive in one another’s company are…a function of balance.”

There is often an obvious power disparity between partners in creative pairs. Shenk points out that “the chief advantage of power clarity is absence of strife.” When both sides of the pair recognize which of the two is stronger, there need be little argument about it. But, Shenk follows, “To be a strong pair, both members must be able to lead and follow.” This also seems like something we probably have witnessed in our own experience. Strong husband-and-wife pairs, for instance, inevitably switch dominance roles often in their interactions, yet each feels confident of their role at any particular time. “The necessary flexibility in power can manifest in a variety of ways…The ultimate irony of extreme alphas is that they often have someone who dominates them.”

Shenk brings his thesis full circle, describing events that may precipitate a “system failure” or an interruption of the creative outpouring. Ironically, this may include success. “As the world around the pair changes, the experiences of the two within it are naturally affected too…Success can bring to the surface quarrels about credit that would otherwise remain underground” or irrelevant. “The most common wedge comes in the form of a third person who gets between a pair.”

Shenk’s theory is not as obvious as it appears at first blush. After all, he is saying creative genius does not stem from the individual alone. He allows us to consider this radical idea in the context of his many examples of successful creative pairs, either cooperating or in competition (Larry Bird and Magic Johnson), and gives us space to consider that this model may be the prevalent one for creative output, while the “lone genius” model (Einstein) is the exception that proves the rule.

For those of us who relish contemplating the creative process and that magic moment when the lightbulb comes on, Shenk’s discussion of the creative interaction between Lennon and McCartney or between Picasso and Matisse is revealing and utterly fascinating.
“For fifty years, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso pushed each other, goaded each other, drew from each other, and tried to best each other. It may not be too much to say that, over the course of their careers, they made each other—and shaped the standards for modern art in the twentieth century.”

I immediately applied Shenk’s thesis to my [admittedly limited] knowledge of Harper Lee and Truman Capote working together on the groundbreaking non-fiction fiction In Cold Blood. It could be possible that the two friends created a competitive environment that pushed each to exceed their already considerable talent to contribute material that resulted in that unforgettable book. The competition between the two may have also spurred them each individually to excel. Marja Mills, in her recent The Mockingbird Next Door (July 2014) talks a little about the relationship between the two authors.

Shenk uses his own experience with his editor as an example of the creative power of pairs, insisting that he is more clever and capable and productive when he is working directly with his editor, Eamon Dolan, whom he credits as co-creator of this book. It is a far more personal and reflective statement of theory rather than proof. Whether or not we believe this thesis to be true is hardly the point. We ourselves probably have examples of creative pairs we could consider within his outline. But whether it is true to the exclusion of the concept of “lone genius” is another matter.

My mother once told me that “Nobody is successful on their own.” This always rang true to me, since “success” can only be realized in society. Joshua Wolf Shenk’s theory focuses on the creative spur to success and his thesis states that groundbreaking creativity also requires society. He says we can do something about our creativity by facilitating the conditions for its flourishing by finding someone with whom we resonate. It makes sense. More importantly for readers, perhaps, is that it is interesting.

I am happy to offer a giveaway of this hardcover to an interested reader until August 5, when the book is published. (U.S. respondents only, please.) If you are interested in this title, you may fill out the form below. I will use a random number generator to choose a respondent. That reader will have two days to respond to my email with an address to which the publisher will send a hardcover copy of the book. Good luck and good reading!

A winner has been chosen. Thanks for your participation!

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton

Hard Choices Clinton sets herself up to be compared with Dean Acheson by recalling his Pulitzer Prize-winning book at the outset. It is typical of Clinton to set her sights high. One must remember that Acheson wrote at a time when faith in government was at an all-time high, and many folks read his book before criticizing it. I am not at all sure the same could be said for Clinton’s comprehensive memoir about her four-year (2009-2013) term as Secretary of State for the Obama Administration.

I come away thinking there is perhaps no person with better credentials to be president. She could handle the job, certainly. But we would have to decide if she is the person we want to lead our country and the world into the future. She would be an activist president for sure, clearly convinced that American leadership is all we should or could consider. Clinton blasts critics who proclaimed Obama “led from behind” on Libya, and said his leadership was in fact critical to the success of that international involvement.

Clinton’s time as senator from New York was good preparation for the prodding, jockeying, and cajoling that is done in international forums with government heads of state. Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense while Clinton was Secretary of State, expressed a vast admiration for Clinton’s intelligence, experience, restraint, and pragmatism in his own memoir, Duty. Both longtime Washington insiders, Clinton and Gates shared a sense of service, a clear-eyed realism, and a healthy skepticism. I believe they also shared a mutual distrust of Vladimir Putin and both sought to marginalize, where possible, his inputs.

A lot happens in four years when the world is the stage, as Hillary Clinton’s memoir of her time as Secretary reminds us. Clinton logged nearly a million miles in her role as Chief Diplomat, though like all managers, she spends more time dealing with and talking about trouble areas than about countries whose troubles were not catastrophic.

Most revealing and interesting for me were her discussions about Syria, Iran, Gaza, Libya, Russia, and Afghanistan, including the Bin Laden raid and Benghazi. She was remarkably open about the steps that led to backdoor talks with Iran, and the calculations she had to make when considering deteriorating situations in Syria, Libya, and Gaza.

The Syria section reveals the calculus around the support for rebels. The Iran talks were equally revealing—Clinton is remarkably frank about her assessment of country rulers and their personal ‘styles.’ It almost reads like a Wikileaks cache in this section and perhaps she is willing to talk about it because of those leaks. When it comes to Gaza, Clinton hauls out the (surely tattered by now) “strong support for Israel” that we have come to expect, but tempers it with unenthusiastic observations about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political history, party backing, and current positions. She managed to avoid the wider invasion of Gaza that we are experiencing now, but consistently reiterated the increasingly critical need and strong support for a two-state solution.

The Edward Snowdon leaks in May 2013 came after Clinton resigned in February 2013. Clinton must have been aware of and not in opposition to the information collected during her tenure…perhaps even using it in fact. It would have been interesting to hear what she would say to Angela Merkel about the taps on Merkel’s personal phone, when Clinton makes the observation that she and Merkel are often considered two of a kind and expresses admiration for what Merkel has been able to do while she has been in office.

Clinton had areas of concern that she championed wherever she went: women’s rights and human rights. She is a tough negotiator and gave plenty of government leaders some restless nights with those “hard choices” she talks about. Clinton recognized and harnessed the power of the connected world, and the tendency of the world to shrink as telecommunications, cell phone connection, and social media improved. Fortunately, she is not afraid of changes in the status of women, LGBT citizens, and minority voices, and instead welcomes them.

She recognizes that all talent will be needed in a 21st Century world facing climate change, shifts in energy dependencies, and the economic upheavals that will bring. We cannot afford to shun anyone with a good idea and had better take advantage of all the skills our citizens can bring. It’s a question of making sure they are all able to grasp opportunity when it presents itself. I like this concept a lot, and think her insistence on human and economic and political rights for all citizens may be her longest legacy.

Clinton felt so strongly about energy policy, economics, and the interdependencies of trade that her role as a wide-view activist Secretary of State surely encroached on the roles of other cabinet-level officials. In her memoir she sounds positively Presidential in making decisions, deciding directions, and in the scope and definition of her role. Obama had much on his plate in handling domestic intransigence so he was probably pleased to have someone with Clinton’s understanding, reach, and clout. She says they worked well together, and I’m sure it worked about as well as any team with high stakes and powerful players.

What struck me as I listened to Clinton’s memoir is the number of times familiar names were recycled again and again in different jobs, some from much earlier administrations, as though they are the only ones who could handle the work. I suppose it is true that experience counts, but isn’t that one reason Obama was elected to office…that he actually didn’t have all the experience (and all the baggage)? Foreign countries trying to keep tabs on who is doing what in the American government must be pleased they don't have to research the background of anyone new. There simply has to be some transfer of responsibilities to new players: a requirement of top-level posts should be finding and training their own replacements. Sometimes it just sounded like a closed system though I can appreciate the time constraints in finding someone able to handle a task effectively and with grace. If anyone is interested in trying to solve the intractable problems involved with government work, they should make their wishes known, and be known, because it is who you know that counts.

I do not think there is any certainty about Hillary Clinton taking on another campaign for President, though there is probably no person better equipped to handle her activist agenda, despite her age. She is both revered and feared at home and abroad. Enormously motivated, she believes she has and can still make a difference in people’s lives. I feel confident that this seasoned political actor wants to see what American voters decide in November 2014. [Biden says he is doing the same.] If the attitudes and will of the American people were to significantly change the balance of power in the Congress in favor of Republicans, she may be swayed one way or the other. On the other side of the equation, the Democrats must find and field another credible candidate for Clinton to relax her sense of responsibility. In many ways, we'd be lucky to have her--she is a dogged American proponent. She can't be the only person able to take this on, though we have seen what lack of leadership has done for other countries, the Middle East in particular. That wouldn't happen on Clinton's watch.

Readers who lived through this period may feel they’ve “heard all that” Clinton has to say, but I don’t think anyone can say they’ve heard it all until they hear it from the woman who did the driving. It was a tumultuous period in world history and it was completely enlightening to hear what our Chief Diplomat had to say about it. Hillary Clinton remains something of a marvel.

Clinton only narrated the introduction and the epilogue, but Kathleen Chalfant had a voice that recreated Clinton’s accents and speaking style so completely, I was unsure sometimes who was narrating. Chalfant did a fantastic job with the place and personal names and the pacing. Simon & Schuster Audio provided a copy of this to me for review.


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