Archive for September, 2013

Review: Commodore – A Company On The Edge

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

I really wanted to like this history of Commodore by Brian Bagnall, but I ultimately disliked the writing too much.  The topic itself is interesting.  Commodore produced some great pioneering hardware and introduced a lot of people to computing.  I had Commodore machines in high school and graduate school.  Supporters of the company and the technology tend to be fans for life, so I was very curious to hear about the company history.

But, man, 500+ pages without getting to the Amiga line is a lot of text.

It doesn’t help that Bagnall tells his story completely from the words of his interviewees without interpreting at all.  He often makes an assertion, then produces quote from a participant that says the exact same things, and then moves on.  There isn’t enough attempt to provide a context or an understanding of the whole picture.

There’s a good argument that this first book should be about Commodore’s founder and CEO pulling them into the computer business and then being ridden out of the company.  It’s a compelling narrative, and the CEO in question seems so larger-than-life that a book about him is a sure winner.  But Bagnall gets lost in minutae that don’t advance the overall story.  Those side trips are more often than not about technical issues, but I never got the feeling that Bagnall understood what was interesting and important about them in the big picture.

I got the feeling that Bagnall conducted his interviews, broke out the interviews into chronologically ordered quotes and framed each quote in a paragraph.  That makes for a decent high school term paper, but over 500 pages, it gets old quick.

Review: The Skies Belong To Us

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Brendan Koerner has found an amazing corner of history to explore and does it with verve.  The corner is the rash of skyjackings from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s, and it’s amazing to the point of unbelievability. I’m old enough that I remember comics using getting skyjacked to Cuba as a punchline, but even in the late 70’s it seemed stale and overblown. Skyjackings always seemed rare to me, and air travel simple and safe.  Mentally disturbed people shot public figures to get in the news; they didn’t reroute aircraft.

But, oh, things were not always thus.  If I were 10 years older, skyjacking punchlines would not seem like “take my wife” lines, but like the edgy references they were. The golden age of skyjacking was short lived – about a decade – but spectacular.  Before the airlines finally began using metal detectors, skyjackings were a weekly occurrence – if not more frequent.  Koerner uses a particular 1972 skyjacking as a case study/framing story and there were 2 skyjackings that day.

It is a fascinating and alien world where the airlines are fighting metal detectors as impractical and intrusive in the face of armed passengers frequently commandeering aircraft.  And the skyjackers are an amazing lot as well.  Some want to get the attention of the media, some want the money, some want to leave the country.  One fellow flees to Italy and becomes a celebrity and movie star based on the skyjacking notoriety. As, I say, fascinating.

Koerner’s framing story captures the spirit of the times by following a specific case.  A troubled veteran and his hippy girlfriend carry out a less-than-precision operation that takes them to Algeria to  join a set of Black Panthers in exile.  The original plan was homesteading in Australia after a stopover in Vietnam, but improvisation is apparently a hijacker’s best friend.

Koerner follows them as they appear and disappear, joining Paris society and eventually (for at least one of them) wending their way back to the US. It’s a remarkable story, and the backdrop and snippets of other skyjacking tales capture a nigh-unbelieveable period in American history with clarity and style.

Highly recommended.

Review: A Delicate Truth

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

This is the first novel I have read by John LeCarre, and it is excellent. He’s well known as one of the grandmasters of spy fiction – a genre I have some affection for – but I’ve never picked one of his works up before.  I won’t hesitate to pick one up in the future.

Unlike many spy novels I’ve read, Truth draws the reader in from the first sentence.  I was expecting some scene setting, and then the intricate plot coming into focus.  Instead, LeCarre drops the reader in media res with taut, suspenseful writing that amps the tension up immediately.  And he does that in a description of an older diplomat pacing the floor of a motel room.  That bit of writerly craft is awesome to behold in and of itself.

From there we get a tangled web of deceit and compromise that ensnares disparate characters.  There are a few who are moustache-twirlingly evil, but not many really.  By and large we get to see a set of reasonable, even virtuous, people who construct an undeniably twisty set of circumstances and actions that lead to a tragedy.

Conscience and other forces crack the uneasy and distributed alliance, and much of the book is how and how much that collusion cracks.

The characters and their lives are believable, as is the technology and the machinations that are the problems.

Many spy/adventure novels are very much escapism.  Good guys make last second escapes, and the bad guys go to prison or the grave as punishment.  The world is saved and laurels are passed around.  Truth is not like that at all. These characters live in a world that is real enough that none of that is automatic. LeCarre shows us a world where what is right is abundantly clear, but where doing what is right costs more than a sane person would pay.  Often more than one can pay. It’s  not so much a world of shades of grey in morality, but of the compromises one faces because everyone seems to be making compromises.

One is left with a thrilling, well-written adventure yarn that shows a realistic world of moral appeasement.  It’s tough to do better than that.

Strongly recommended.