The Booksnob’s Blog

Books… the best, worst, & weirdest…

Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA

Legacy of Ashes This book, by Pulitzer prize winning journalist Tim Weiner is a devastating critique of six decades of the CIA’s operations, from the agency’s beginnings in the 1940s as a follow-on from the wartime Office of Strategic Services, through the eras of the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam, right to the present era.

Legacy of Ashes is a relentless catalogue of decades of crippling intelligence failures due to the infiltration of virtually every unit from its inception, of inter-departmental turf wars, of an agency addicted to covert action at the expense of intelligence gathering, whose main agenda seems to have been the buying or toppling of foreign governments (Italy, Japan, Egypt, Iran, the Congo, Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, who knows how many others).  

 It is a story of rampant alcoholism and ruthless personal ambition amongst agents, of execrable planning and hideous bungles costing thousands of lives, including hundreds of the CIA’s own agents. It is the story of out-of-control section heads and gung-ho cowboys operating virtually as laws unto themselves, answerable to no-one, dreaming up insane schemes like throwing live bats out of airplanes with incendiary devices strapped to their backs, to rain down on Tokyo (this one didn’t work).

This priceless little gem appears on pages 4 and 5, courtesy of David Bruce, former CIA operative and later U.S. ambassador, whose unenviable task it was to test the bats-as-bombs hypothesis. It tends to set the tone for the whole, sorry saga, which could almost be a Keystone Cops comedy if the effects on the history of so many other nations had not been so devastating and long-lasting.

All in all, Legacy of Ashes is an utterly gripping narrative, one that I have been quite unable to put down – a 700-page catalogue of “swashbuckling of the worst kind”, to quote the words of one former agent.  The book’s great strength is that everything is on the record, sourced from first-hand reporting and primary documents, with numerous direct quotes from former operatives. There is an addendum of over 150 pages of notes documenting the author’s sources.

Frightening stuff.


December 27, 2007 Posted by | Non fiction | , , | 1 Comment

Urban Babies Wear Black

Urban Babies Wear Black is a cute little book by Michelle Sinclair Colman, and my favourite so far from her series of board books, ostensibly for babies, but probably really for the adults who read them aloud. The other titles in the series are:
Urban Babies Wear Black

Eco Babies Wear Green
The New Baby’s Baby Journal
Winter Babies Wear Layers
Country Babies Wear Plaid
Beach Babies Wear Shades

Our library also has the last two titles in this list.  “Eco Babies” is due to be published in early 2008.

December 19, 2007 Posted by | Fiction, Junior | , | Leave a comment

Hamish Macbeth Series 3 on DVD

Hamish Mmacbeth
Our library service has only recently added the third DVD from this wonderfully black-humoured 1990s Scottish TV series to its collection. Sadly, only three series were made.

It stars Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty) as the maverick Highland police constable who steadfastly resists any promotion that would take him away from his beloved Highland village of Lochdubh. There is derring-do and crime aplenty in Lochdubh, much of the crime minor, and Macbeth adroitly manages to keep the perpetrators out of jail, unless things get really ugly or they kill themselves in the meantime, both of which happen relatively frequently.

One of the best and most hilarious episodes of the third series is “The Lochdubh Assassin”, which has four spivved-up Glasgwegian hard men tracking down a young man on the run to his bolthole in Lochdubh. The locals outwit them at every turn until they are literally begging to be sent off to the jail in Inverness.

The cast of characters in Hamish Macbeth is fantastic, not the least of whom is Hamish’s adorable sidekick, Wee Jock the Highland Terrier, and from someone who does not love dogs at all, that is saying something. Several of the actors will also be recognised in that other extremely popular Highland TV series, Monarch of the Glen, which I also greatly enjoyed.

Wee Jock.jpg

Hamish Macbeth is loosely based on the characters from the “Death of a …” crime novels by M.C. Beaton, featuring the detective of the same name. Incidentally, all of the title covers for this series that are stocked in our library seem to feature chintzy English  houses with thatched roofs and cottage gardens, bearing very little resemblance to the houses of the Highlands. Oh well, never mind.

M.C. Beaton is also the author of the Agatha Raisin mysteries.

December 7, 2007 Posted by | DVD, Fiction, TV Series | , , | Leave a comment

The Darwin Awards

Darwin AwardsThe Darwin Awards
Wendy Northcutt
Orion Books, London 2000

The things one sees when toiling away at library check-in. This one definitely qualifies for the Weirdest category. Apparently, since 1994 there has been a thriving online community of passive eugenicists who love to gloat over other peoples’ foolish escapades that lead to their deaths in bizarre and spectacular circumstances, thereby removing their defective DNA from the gene pool.

It all started on a Stanford University webserver back in 1994, and the Darwin Awards eventually acquired such a cult following that the Stanford sysadmin politely suggested that they might like to relocate to another server, hence the birth of the Darwin Awards website

Winners of Darwin Awards are evaluated by the following simple criteria:

The candidate must remove himself from the gene pool
The candidate must exhibit an astounding misapplication of judgement
The candidate must be the cause of his own demise
The candidate must be capable of sound judgement
The event must be verified

Candidates who fulfill all criteria except the third (i.e. those who survive to tell their sorry tale) rate an Honorable Mention.

Northcutt, the culprit who started the whole thing, studied molecular biology at Berkeley and later worked in neuroscience, before chucking it all in to become the Darwin Awards webmistress, although she lays the blame for the initial concept at the feet of her cousin Ian.

December 6, 2007 Posted by | Non fiction | , | Leave a comment

The Dangerous Book for Boys: Australian Edition

The Dangerous Book for BoysThe Dangerous Book for Boys: Australian Edition
Conn Iggulden & Hal Iggulden
Harper Collins 2007

The book that the authors wished they had when they were boys. How to: juggle, tie knots, make the best paper plane, build a treehouse (with adult help) write in invisible ink, teach your dog tricks, play chess and many other useful skills. Also lots of interesting trivia on kings and queens, war heroes, the solar system, dinosaurs, creepy crawlies and much, much more.

The Australian edition (the one with the green cover) contains a list of Australian Prime Ministers, information about Australia’s first inhabitants, early explorers and Australian trees, and the rules of Australian football. Consciously old-fashioned in both design and content, and loads of fun.

December 5, 2007 Posted by | Junior, Non fiction | , , | Leave a comment

Good Music at the Library – Teddy Tahu Rhodes

The Voice Teddy Tahu Rhodes
What I’m listening to at the moment:
Teddy Tahu Rhodes, The Voice, 2004
Recorded at the Eugene Goosens Hall, ABC Ultimo Centre.

New Zealand-born opera hunk Teddy Tahu Rhodes seems to be flavour of the month just now, with in-depth profiles and newspaper articles left, right and centre. Rhodes turns out to have the voice of a (very robust) angel, and he’s not bad-looking either, with a gym-honed physique that ensures he’s regularly asked to wander about on stage half-naked. Singers built like Sherman tanks are apparently a tad passé on Planet Opera these days, and if the new breed are anything like Teddy Tahu Rhodes, I could probably even acquire a taste for the genre.

The highlights of this selection for me are a pair of arias from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Wagner’s Song of the Evening Star, and Shallow Brown, a traditional folk song arranged by Australian composer Percy Grainger. The only track I didn’t enjoy was Handel’s Why do the nations, which I can definitely live without, even if Teddy himself loves it, as all that gratuitous warbling drives me to distraction, embodying everything that I can’t stand about opera. Literary snob, unreconstructed opera philistine (sorry, Teddy).

ABC Shop

December 4, 2007 Posted by | Music | , , | 1 Comment

The Gathering by Anne Enright

thegathering.jpg Winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize, Enright’s novel received glowing reviews from literary heavyweights such as The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement.  A review in The Scotsman, quoted on the cover blurb, states, accurately, that Enright’s protaganist, Veronica Hegarty, is “so fully realized that the words simply melt into pictures and moods”.

However, I find it a difficult book to review, as it is at once both bleak and intensely lyrical. The death of a sibling unleashes a stream of memories, some real and some imagined, of Veronica’s early years in a large Irish family. Enright documents her underworld journey into a form of temporary madness engendered by grief, with the hope of redemption and the form it might take still dangling at the work’s end. While she is a consummate writer and the novel is engrossing, it is not one I wish to read again in a hurry. 

However I am probably being unfair, as for me any Booker Prize winner has to measure up to Kerry Hulme’s The Bone People (1985) – described at the time as “frankly unreadable” by a critic whose name I can no longer remember, and more accurately, as “beautiful and terrible… tender and cruel… dream and reality… poetry and crudity… infinitely simple and infinitely complex” by The New Zealand Herald. A very big ask, as a novel of the stature of The Bone People occurs only once in a generation, and everything else tends to pale in comparison.

The Gathering is published by Jonathan Cape (UK) & Black Cat (USA), 2007

The Gathering (LibraryThing)

December 4, 2007 Posted by | Fiction | , , , | 1 Comment