Review: Daniel Silva’s The New Girl

eagerly awaiting my turn

I was actually going to put this on Goodreads, but then I realized how many Daniel Silva books I’ve reviewed here over the various iterations this blog has gone through in 17 (!!) years and realized it has become a bit of a tradition.

Also a tradition, attending his signings here in New York. Silva and his publishers have an annual “break the embargo” event at the Barnes & Noble Union Square on the eve of the official publication date which is why I often read his in hard copy. I missed the one two years ago when I was in Montreal, but I’ve been at most of the others in the last ten years. Also poignant with his release date: I was in Israel ten years ago this week and Silva’s writing, albeit fiction, was a huge part of why Israel was on my bucket list.

Spoilers below.

My annual visit to the world of Gabriel Allon with #TheNewGirl. Thank you, @DanielSilvaBook for your time & workds Click To Tweet

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Review: Scott Jurek’s North

Amazon tells me I bought Scott & Jenny Jurek’s North on July 3, 2018, shortly after I finished Eat & Run. Oops, didn’t mean to wait this long to read it. Linking up with Kim and Zenaida for Tuesday Topics to discuss this book.

Mom & I, on the AT in Western Mass, August 10, 2014

Let’s start with the ways I am not and will never be Scott Jurek:

  • vegan
  • ultra runner
  • champion ultra runner
  • willing to live out of a van for ~50 days

That said, I really enjoyed this book. Coming off a hike in the Anza Borrego section of PCT and needing a new challenge, Scott and his wife Jenny decided to go for a Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Appalachian Trail. In the interim, this journey took on a lot more significance as he struggled with who he was at a time when he was no longer a competitive ultrarunner and he and his wife struggled to start a family.

The crux of the journey begins with their drive from Boulder, CO to Georgia in the van that would be their home for the next 45+ days as they chased the record. Factoring out a record as that is just not within my ability, I’m not sure which would be harder: hiking or living in a van for two months. They had occasional nights with real beds & showers, but ick. No. Can’t do it.

The photo above is the only segment of the AT that I’ve knowingly walked, although I’ve walked the Long Path near Harriman/Bear Mountain on a number of occasions and probably walked part of where the two intersect. On the Western Mass segment we lasted about twenty minutes and had approximately the same number of mosquito bites. While I love running, I am so not outdoorsy. I have no idea how Jurek dealt with a mystery rash, poison ivy, and smelling like apple cider vinegar as his muscles broke down despite eating 7-9K calories a day.

Both Jureks touched on the contrast between the AT, PCT and Continental Divide Trail being that so much of the US population lives within a day’s drive of a segment of the AT and as result, it has higher hiker (or hicker) volume and all the pluses and minuses that go with that. While they didn’t paint a rosy portrait and acknowledged the possible dangers to Jenny waiting for him or Scott hiking based on the trail’s grim history, they did realize that the access to vegan foods and other staples might not have happened in the past on the AT and/or now on another trail.

While Jenny was his main crew chief, the two of them were joined by other running friends on their 2000 mile journey from Springer Mountain to Katahdin. Horty and Speedgoat were the two who spent the most time, with El Coyote a close second. As Scott and Jenny alternated sections of the book, it was interesting to see both sides of the journey and their individual opinions of the friends who joined them. I smiled when Topher was mentioned as I always enjoyed his antics with Dean Karnazes. I also enjoyed the trail angels they met along the way: the ones who sought them out as well as those who greet all hikers throughout the season. I found it good that Jurek acknowledged others’ opinions on his quest, moving at an overall average of roughly 1.77 mph to set the record, when others took five – six months. For me personally, it was the running angle that made this book interesting – I’ve had no particular desire to read other peoples’ accounts of their trips on any of the hikes. For the same reason I’m intrigued by the Netflix special on Speedgoat’s quest.

I didn’t know going into this whether he was going to set the record, so I’m not going to spoil it for other readers. If you do know the outcome, I still think you’ll enjoy his physical and psychological journey from Georgia to Maine.

  • Did you read this book? If you posted, happy to link to it below
  • What are you reading now/planning to read this summer?
  • Are you a hiker?
  • Have you hiked any of the major trails?

Other Reviews:

Review and a Race Recap: Matt Fitzgerald, Life is a Marathon

For this week’s Tuesday Topics, I’m linking up with Kim and Zenaida to share a race recap and book review.

Tuesday Topics

I was given a copy of this book to read via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

While Matt Fitzgerald is a name I’ve seen in perusing running titles, this is the first one of his books I’ve read. The title piqued my curiosity when I saw it on NetGalley and decided to give it a whirl. That it took me a week+ to read isn’t indicative of its quality, I just had minimal reading time with friends in town.

Reading @mattfitwriter's latest and running @nyrr's #RunToBreathe Click To Tweet

This book begins with Fitzgerald quitting on a high school race out of stage fright and ends some 20+ years later with his eighth marathon in eight weeks. The latter encompassed a road trip that took him from California to Oregon via Scranton, Boston, Toledo and beyond. What a journey. This book isn’t just a chronological look at his running career or a travelog, but rather the eight marathons are interspersed with his autobiography.

Fitzgerald’s roadtrip companions are his dog Queenie and his wife Nataki. Both figure prominently in his life history, in fact one night he almost squashed Queenie when attempting a return to his apartment after fleeing it when fleeing from one of Nataki’s psychotic breaks. To say the three of them have had an eventful life is an understatement, but this book isn’t a tale of woe so much as the tale of the author’s growth as a man, runner and husband. My one quibble with the book is that the chronology wasn’t always clear, making it challenging to determine whether a particular race had a goal time, or just a goal of finishing.

As he traveled the country to run his eight marathons he met up with local runners – either for a shakeout run or at the races themselves. In some cases these were planned and in others they came about as he was approached while walking into a port-a-potty. One of those he met up with is Lisa from Tech Chick Adventures who I’ve come to “know” through the Weekly Run Down and its predecessor, the Weekly Wrap. I look forward to her review of the book.

All in all, a wonderfully written account of a difficult journey.  I would definitely recommend it to most runners. If you have personal experience with bipolar disorder, you might find some sections to be somewhat triggering. I think Fitzgerald portrays his & Nataki’s journey to live with her diagnosis very well.


Boomer Esiason

Movement is a privilege. That’s something my colleague often says when we go for a run, and it’s so true. It’s also something I fought to keep in mind during Sunday’s #RunToBreathe -one of NYRR’s regular four milers which doubles as a fundraiser for Team Boomer, Boomer Esiason’s foundation that raises money in honor of his son with Cystic Fibrosis.

9AM start was nice, and I jogged to the start. It was so liberating not to need all the layers! I wore capris but would have been fine in shorts most likely. Who AM I?!? It was a staggered start and Corral K crossed the start about 11:30 minutes after the front runners. They said this race had about 5,000 runners. It felt like everyone wanted to come out and play in support of a good cause.

I didn’t have a race plan. I didn’t really have a goal. I just ran by feel and walked the water stations as they’re too crowded not to. I tossed my long sleeved shirt at the top of Cat Hill. My Achilles was perfect. My hip was chirpy, but not to the point where it impacted me during or after, although I opted to walk rather than run home. Mile one into two, I wanted to peel off and walk home for no good reason other than I wasn’t feeling it. Then I got into a rhythm and three, four seemed to go quickly. As much as I enjoyed 5-7 mile runs, the first two are always mental torture.

As was the case with the Bronx, some distance helped with my look at this race.  The issues:

  • Running three days in a row: tired legs
  • Cat Hill. I’ve run the West Side rollers a few times lately but other than the office run group I’ve been avoiding Cat Hill. Had to deal with the kitty in the first mile. She made me pay for my abandonment

The results weren’t terrible, but they weren’t good. When compared to other 4 milers, it’s better than 2019 Gridiron when I was more broken and 2018 Achilles when I was sick. Oh and much better than my inaugural #RunToBreathe. I realized early on that my legs were tired and decided to focus on the fact that I was healthy & able to run this race while  that isn’t the case for others.

On to the next. And yes, movement is indeed a privilege.

  • What do you do if you just don’t have it during a local weekly race?
  • Any favorite local races that aren’t destinations, just fun for your community

Tuesday Topics: Run Like Duck

We know judging a book by its cover is bad.. but the title is OK, right? When Liz blogged about Run Like Duck, I was immediately intrigued. It just sounded like a fun book.

Tuesday Topics

Linking up with Kim and Zenaida to share whether the book was as good as it’s title was funny.

Spoiler: it is. I’ve read a number of books about running, but this is definitely top five. I was also happy to find the author is a pretty funny read on twitter.

Running and reading, a perfect pair. My review of @montythemole's Run Like Duck Click To Tweet

Atkinson is a fat British man who was encouraged by a friend to go for a run, and ultimately ended up running ultras and a Quadzilla (four marathons in four days) en route to joining the 100 Marathon Club. That’s not to say this is a book just for those who want to go extremes, I’d say it’s more applicable to the everyday runner than Dean Karnazes’ books. He started where many runners do, running after dark in his neighborhood and gradually increasing his distance. He also balanced his running journey with his family life: his wife crewed for him in his 100M run and occasionally he had to check the finances before signing up. I feel like the latter is something that doesn’t often come up in running books. It’s as if there’s a race fee fairy that pays them.

Atkinson shares race and training recaps, as well as specific tips applicable to the race he ran. I like how he established traditions such as the Milton Keynes Marathon which he made the effort to return to each year as a measure of tracking his own growth. I also like that he makes no claim that he’s perfect – he still enjoys McDonalds and bacon & egg sandwiches as breakfast. A word of advice, don’t read the chapters on ultrarunning if you’re hungry, the aid stations will make you hungrier. I felt for his chafing on one of his ultras.  He still occasionally forgets his race bib in the hotel room and struggles with pacing-there’s no magic in this story. He also acknowledges that not every race is perfectly organized.  Running isn’t perfect and he doesn’t paint it out to be.

Although parkrun hasn’t yet expanded to NYC, I love his tips and information about it as well as other races I will probably never run. The advice is applicable to many other runs. I think I finally understand the role of tail running, though I had to chuckle at the image when he runs to a parkrun, is late and comes up from behind said tail runner probably catching him or her by surprise. One thing to note, I was slightly confused at the timing on some, so make sure to pay attention to the dates/marathon numbers in the chapter heads.

I think there is a lot in this book for both beginners and experienced runners, and many runners will see a bit of themselves in the author. Excited to share this book I enjoyed with you, enter to win a signed copy. I’ll pick a winner on Sunday, January 13.

  • Any favorite running reads?
  • Any books you’re looking forward to reading in 2019?
  • If you need running ideas, The Runners’ Bookshelf on Facebook is one of my favorite sources along with Wendy’s book club.

Travel Tuesday: Pre-Roman Britain

Unlike previous trip recaps, my 2018 England trip is not going to be chronological but rather thematic. My trip was rather hap hazard and doing a day by day travelog just won’t work.  I’d like to think they’ll take up the next Tuesdays and Thursday as Travel Tuesday or Throwback Thursday, but I know my own blogging habits to know that probably isn’t realistic. Also, this stupid Flickr plugin is still misbehaving.

Other Write-Ups To Come:

  • London’s Churches: St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey
  • London’s Castles and Palaces: Buckingham, Kensington and the Tower of London
  • Walking London
fun with filters

“Two legends are wound about Avalon, the legend of the Cup and the legend of the Sword – the cup from which Our Lord drank at the Last Supper, and in which the drops of His Blood were caught; and Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, engraved with ancient pagan runes. Two traditions meet in Avalon – the ancient faith of the Britons, and the creed of Christ.” ~ Dion Fortune

I knew when this trip came together that I really wanted to do Stonehenge. Like Rushmore last year, I accepted that it would probably be a let down, but it fascinated me. After some research I booked a tour with International Friends that took in both Stonehenge and Glastonbury. The original plan included Winchester but they had to adjust that due to access issues, and Avebury ended up being way more interesting than Winchester would have been.

Why did I go for one that included Glastonbury vs. say, Bath, Windsor, Oxford or the Cotswolds? In short: I have a soft spot for the legends and tales around King Arthur and while I know that Glastonbury’s ties are considered iffy with recent research-not to mention that it’s hard to visit the site of a legend-I still wanted to see it since it was reasonably accessible.

The night before this trip left, I realized I probably should do some reading on Stonehenge and a perusal of NYPL’s Kindle offerings introduced me to Francis Pryor’s Stonehenge: the Story of a Sacred Landscape. I was subsequently pleased to see that and one of his other titles for sale in the English Heritage gift shop at Stonehenge, therefore lending some legitimacy to a book I was enjoying. I didn’t finish it on time, but learned a lot: my review. Speaking of books at Stonehenge’s gift shop, I didn’t buy this Oxford Guide to Arthurian Legends because the font was way too small, and now I find it’s not available for Kindle. Or Nook. First world bookworm problems!

Monday morning started early and I met the bus at Marble Arch. We made two other stops to pick up others on the tour and I was thrilled we were not only a small vehicle, but that we were only seven people. It made everything a lot more efficient time wise, and more accessible. It also felt like a private tour in some ways because the guide got to know each of us, and what we were interested in learning more about. He’s lived & guided in a number of locations worldwide so it helped him contextualize some of the sights we were visiting.

The first stop just minutes away from Stonehenge was Woodhenge, with which I was completely unfamiliar. It was helpful though in teaching us about the Stonehenge Avenue, Cursus and other key features of the landscape that explain how Stonehenge isn’t “just” a circle of rocks. I think that’s what leaves people walking away unimpressed. Key to understanding Stonehenge is understanding why it was constructed and what role it was meant to play for those who lived and made pilgrimages to it. As a circle of stones, it may not mean enough for people considering the travel time from London, but as a place of cultural significance? Absolutely.  Beware of some serious woo out there when researching Stonehenge.

first sighting
Heel stone with winter solstice arrow

As a tourism professional, I love how they’ve set up the Stonehenge experience. They closed one of the major roads and run access to the Stones via shuttle buses (or a walking path) from the Visitor Center. I think it makes the first viewing even more awe-inspiring. It’s also much more pleasant to walk around the circle without high traffic, although there’s still a road that goes fairly close. I’m glad we were there early in the morning as there was no wait for the shuttles, which wasn’t the case when it was time to leave. Although I think the Stones might have been more striking against a blue sky, the overcast seemed to lend an aura of mystique to them and allowed the different textures, heights and scale to show more. While it’s true that Stonehenge imagery is saturated, it was still great to see them live. Other companies run tours where you can go in early or stay late, and I’m not sure that’s of interest to me – it would be a very long drive only to do Stonehenge. That said, sunrise or sunset at the right time of year could be pure magic.

National Trust sign near lot adjacent to the Tor
Glastonbury Tor, remains of St. Michael’s Church

From Stonehenge it was a long-ish drive to Glastonbury, reported to be a very hippie town. I actually didn’t find it overwhelmingly so. Our first stop was Glastonbury Tor, just outside town. It’s run by the National Trust who share some of the legends about the Tor. On some level, the ties between Arthur make historical sense, especially the Tor and the adjacent Somerset Levels’ flooding throughout history. Do I believe King Arthur was literally a man who walked the soil of early Britain? No. Do I understand where the legend/fairy tale could come from and survive? Yes. The setting is perfect for these stories. And who doesn’t love a good fairy tale?

Chalice Well Gardens

Arthur isn’t the only story with ties to the region. Chalice Well is claimed to be the place where Joseph of Arimathea brought the chalice from the Last Supper. I’m not a Christian, so it isn’t my place to judge a religion that isn’t mine’s history – but I’m more than a little confused how this man would have ended up in the English countryside. Northern Spain along the Camino de Santiago, or somewhere in the Mediterranean? Sure. I’m a little iffy on England.  And yes, I drank the kool aid err… iron water. A week later, I’m still breathing. It tasted better than Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth which was more sulphury. Still, it was an interesting piece of history to learn about and pilgrims continue to come to Glastonbury for both of these as well as for the stunning remains of the Abbey in town.

Great Hall, Glastonbury Abbey
Glastonbury Abbey ruins

Like the rest of Glastonbury, the ruins of the Abbey are tied up in a mix of history and legend. Do I believe Edward I oversaw the reburial of Arthur and Lady Guinevere? No. But tourism was understood to bring money throughout history so I can see why that story was promoted. As someone familiar with and interested in the legends around Arthur, I’m confused how they were ever buried since it’s alleged that the Lady of the Lake took him… But I digress. What stunned me about the Abbey was its construction. It’s not like the contemporary churches where we understood how they were built. This, the Great Pyramids, Stonehenge… just how did they construct these? How did they reach such great heights? It must have been stunning prior to the fire. And the recent research around the glass found at the Abbey site is phenomenal. Whatever the myths and legends around Glastonbury, it was active and thriving until the Dissolution. Impossible not to think of what could have been.

While I’m not Christian (or Pagan), I’m fascinated by myths, legends and religious histories so I was happy to find Glastonbury: Avalon of the Heart available in Kindle edition through NYPL. Unfortunately it was a little too heavy on the woo for me, presenting some of these stories as literal fact. I’m not sure if that was the author’s bent or just a factor of it having been published in 1934, but it didn’t complement my experience the way Pryor’s Stonehenge book did. To be fair, a number of the reviews clearly said this wasn’t the book for skeptics. We didn’t have time to climb the Tor, but this is an interesting look at it and I found it more accessible as it was steeped somewhat in facts and history to go with the myths.

Although I’m a non believer, I found Glastonbury fascinating. In many ways, it’s how I felt about Israel when I went. Was there a King Herod?  Maybe. Masada is a stunning fortress regardless. The other tie between the two that fascinated me was linguistically: Tor was a hill and when we were in northern Israel we learned that “Armageddon” comes from Har/Tel Meggido an archaeological mound. I’m not at all familiar with Celtic or Hebrew, but that caught my attention immediately.

Avebury: for scale
Avebury perimeter

The tour originally called for Winchester, but when the guide explained the access challenges and the fact that the round table has been proven to be an reconstruction, we were all sold on Avebury as a replacement. It is no loss, it’s the largest Stone Circle in Britain and surreally empty, save for sheep. I’d heard of Silbury Hill, which we saw on the drive in, but the only stone circle I was familiar with prior was Stonehenge. It was amazing to see the scale of Avebury’s, and to be able to walk among them. While the perimeter was a clearly delineated line, the other stones appear haphazard but it may have originally been a square formation. While current research leads to the belief that Stonehenge was associated with death rituals, it is believed that Avebury was associated with fertility. Both of those make sense within Pryor’s point that religion played a larger role in the prehistoric people’s lives, and the artifacts that seem to show that no one lived permanently at either location but traveled to them.

If this were my tour to design, I’d flip Avebury and Stonehenge. I understand why that isn’t done — the crowds at Stonehenge would be insane on a nice summer afternoon — I think there’s a lot to absorb at Avebury that would be easier to take in on a fresher brain. Maybe that’s just me. We didn’t visit the museum or any of the other National Trust facilities, and I’m not sure I’d go back in order to do so-but I’d love to learn more about the site since it’s so complex.

Overall, a great intro to/refresher on pre-Roman Britain. Pre historic as a term drives me nuts. You can’t be pre history!

Review: Alyssa Mastromonaco’s Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?

I don’t consider myself a political person, in fact I generally don’t enjoy discussing politics. Somehow, this has translated into reading three political books this year with one more on #20BooksOfSummer. That said, if you’re looking for a discussion of the 2016 election cycle, or an in-depth look at the Obama presidency, this book isn’t either of those.

Alyssa Mastromonaco’s Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?

I first spotted Alyssa Mastromonaco’s Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? at the physical Amazon Books store on E. 34th Street last summer. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover as it seemed funny and intriguing, but I didn’t buy it at the time. I was headed somewhere and didn’t have room to carry a book with me, but I added it to my wishlist. I was happy when it came up on a Kindle Deal of the day in November and jumped on it, after which it sat on my digital Mt. TBR for six months.

It’s not that I suddenly thought I wouldn’t enjoy it; I was just utterly burnt out on anything related to US politics. Then I read Joe Biden’s Promises to Keep and absolutely loved it. His second book, and the book I intended to read, Promise Me Dad, is the fourth one still to come. I followed that up some months later with Beck Dorey-Stein’s From the Corner of the Oval from NetGalley. That was a fun memoir, and I found myself mostly surprised by a woman younger than me working as a stenographer during the years of the Obama administration. I truly thought that was a dead profession. Spurred on by my enjoyment of those two, I put this on #20Books figuring that was as good an incentive as any to push it to the top of Mt. TBR. When I finished Rise Up! I wasn’t sure what I was in the mood for, and this finally seemed as intriguing as when I first saw it. I proceeded to finish it in four days, and would have been less given more reading time. ETA September 8: followed this up with Dan Pfeiffer’s book, which his a wonderful complement to this book.

While on the surface this is the memoirs of a woman working on the Kerry and Obama campaigns, as well as in Obama’s administration, and attaining high level positions in both while under 35, it’s much more than that. There are a lot of life lessons here for professional women working in any field. Among my favorites:

  • you can’t completely sacrifice yourself for your job, you have to find a way to prioritize yourself. While going prematurely gray can be treated easily with hair dye; Mastromonaco suffered from IBS and at one point was so sleep deprived she feared she was suffering from a brain tumor due to the side effects. It is possible to excel professionally, and rise to the level of being the President’s Deputy Chief of Staff while still taking care of yourself.
  • Fear of raising an opinion, despite being qualified. While working to be re-elected, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the East Coast. In a senior staff meeting, she wondered whether anyone had considered recording a PSA to offer advice on how to contact FEMA. After (over) thinking it, she raised the question and it was unanimously agreed that it was a great idea and they did it.
  • There is no bigger compliment than being intellectually curious about what someone else spends his or her days doing” YES. So many people fear it will be perceived as nosy or threatening, but it isn’t. And by the same token, you shouldn’t feel offended if someone asks about your job.

What wasn’t as prevalent in Dorey-Stein’s book that I enjoyed reading about in Mastromonaco’s was the “softer” side of Obama and the administration:

  • The lack of tampons in the West Wing bathrooms due to the relative lack of women of child-bearing age working in the White House
  • Obama arranging for the author to join him at Buckingham Palace before they flew out because he knew how much she admired the royals; and the important lesson to always carry a pair of dress pants on you.
  • Jack Lew, the White House Chief of Staff, arranging a hello from Bruce Springsteen because she’d been unable to attend the performance.
  • Obama calling from Air Force One after she’d left the White House to express his condolences on the loss of her beloved cat.

And of course where the book itself drew its title from, Obama asking this of his staff when they had a plan he wasn’t sure he was on board with.

There’s also the side you don’t know; such as:

  • if you’re an administration staffer looking to get married but without time or inclination to plan a wedding due to the stress of your jobs, you can get married by a Supreme Court Justice.
  • When traveling to a war zone, all is synchronized including when cell phones can be turned on so as not to create the opportunity for someone to interfere with POTUS’ travels or sabotage them in some way.
  • When traveling for a state function or other meeting with foreign dignitaries, the guests aren’t just a who’s who of American glitterati. In the case of the 2011 trip for Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, they wanted “ a group of dynamic Americans the queen might enjoy meeting”, which came to include Kristin Chenoweth once they learned she enjoyed Broadway musicals.

All in all a really enjoying book that read more like a novel than a non-fiction book of the self-help/memoir variety. This was way less of a political book than I expected, and I’d actually say it’s of interest to most professional women regardless of your political leanings unless you’re someone who just cannot tolerate Obama at all. In the early chapters I didn’t care for Mastromonaco as much and found her an underwhelming narrator, until I better realized the purpose of this book: it wasn’t a memoir of working in the White House, it was a memoir of personal and professional growth while working there. And then I really began to click with her.

My only real struggle with the book was the author’s choice to use a lot of nicknames, which didn’t appear to be out of a need for anonymization.  She mentioned a lot of friends, colleagues and others she met in the course of her job, and it was sometimes hard to remember whether Moose, Shrummie and Possum were family members, pets or colleagues.

Review: Joe Biden’s Promises to Keep

Surprised to find this review here? Me too. I’m still semi surprised to find this book on my Kindle.

I was a late convert to Joe Biden, but quickly fell in love the night Joyful Heart Foundation honored him in 2016. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him as VP-I did- I just don’t have a great love of politics or politicians. Biden was an exception and when I heard he was coming to NYC on his American Promise tour, I knew I had to be there. Promises to Keep is not the book Biden was promoting when I saw him on that tour in November 2007 and while I could say I read this for background, I’d be lying. I just didn’t pay attention to the title of the book I requested from NYPL and it was only as I got toward the end and was still in the thick of the Bush administration I knew there was no way this was going to cover his eight years as Vice President, let alone Beau’s illness and death. Oops.  Still, this was an amazing read.

“Joe Biden represented Delaware for 36 years in the U.S. Senate before serving as 47th Vice President of the United States from 2009 to 2017. As the Vice President, Joe Biden addressed important issues facing the nation and represented America abroad, traveling over 1.2 million miles to more than 50 countries. He convened sessions of the President’s Cabinet, led interagency efforts, and worked with Congress in his fight to raise the living standards of middle class Americans, reduce gun violence, address violence against women, and end cancer as we know it.” ~Goodreads Bio

I went into this book knowing the Biden of the last few years of the Obama administration. I definitely didn’t know he’d run for president in 1988 and I’m not sure I knew of the 2008 campaign either. I still remember “voting” for Dukakis in a mock election in elementary school. On some level I knew how long he’d been in the Senate because I knew the stories of his first wife passing just after the election, but I don’t think I realized just how long he’d been “Senator Biden from Delaware”. As he said, so much has changed in that time.

“Things have changed in my six terms, for better and for worse. I served with the last of the southern segregationists, but I was there to see Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama sworn in. There was not a single woman in the Senate in 1973. Today there are sixteen, and one of them has a real shot at the presidency.

I love the storied Senators who he worked with throughout his tenure. Because I didn’t yet realize when he’d written this book, I didn’t realize that the Senator he was talking about was probably Hillary Clinton. While he talked a lot in his intro about the decline in decency, I don’t think I realized how common that was now until I found myself surprised at the degree of bipartisan discussion and debate that marked his time in the Senate. Or how the Bork senate confirmation hearings went. I really like how he interwove his speeches and those of other colleagues in to fill out the stories he recounted in this book.

Part of this book that I found most interesting was how much different campaigning was. I loved the inside look into how he ran for both New Castle County Council and Senator in a time where campaigning was physically much harder. I feel like his sister Val, who ran every one of his campaigns, would make for a fascinating biography.

While the story of how he survived his first wife & daughter’s death is well known, I don’t think his survival of the aneurysm is nearly as well documented. I said to a friend while I was reading this that his wife Jill may be the only reason he’s still with us today, it is truly amazing what he survived in 1972 and again in 2015. I love how this book also included so much about his first wife’s family, and how divisive marrying a Catholic Democrat would have been in the late 1960s, yet Neilia‘s parents supported him and them throughout.

“Neilia’s parents came to town in the last days of the campaign to help out. Actually, Mr. Hunter had been helping all the way. The hardest thing in the campaign, I can say without equivocation, was being able to run and eat. I was getting a little share from my new law firm, but things were tight. Neilia’s father, a good Republican, became a quiet provider for the Joe Biden Jr. family. If we were down to nothing, Neilia would reach in her pocket, and there’d be a hundred dollars. “Where’d you get a hundred dollars, Neilia?!” But I always knew. Her father’s faith in me actually flattered me. Six years after he stood trembling at the door of the Catholic church in Skaneateles, Mr. Hunter was still ready to take a chance on me.”

I am too young to remember Biden’s work in the 1970s and 80s, but he played a key role in one of the international news stories that I followed intently: the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. While I remember the Berlin Wall falling and the fall of communism and the USSR, the Balkans was a major news item throughout high school and college and I followed it closely. Sarajevo to me was what the battles of WWII, Korea and Vietnam were to the older generation. I loved reading about Biden’s meetings with Tito-and later his trips to Afghanistan and what a Senator’s role is in such negotiations.

Because he wrote this on the eve of his 2008 campaign, September 11 (which served as an intro as well) and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fresh in Biden’s mind. There was a lot from Bush/Cheney/Powell that was news then and is history now… it’s amazing how much ten years and the Trump election could change the lens. With Biden’s disappointment in Bush’s defeat of John Kerry, I can only imagine how he took Trump’s defeat of Clinton.

There’s no question that Biden’s life has impacted American history: his perseverance after Neilia’s death, and his decision not to run for President a third time after Beau’s. Overall, I think we as a society are lucky to have had him in office for so long. This book is a really insightful look at the first thirty years, now I look forward to reading the book I intended to. Two politics books from me in the space of a year? It could happen.

Review: Prisoners of Geography

Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography

Has been a while since I reviewed a book in a more in-depth fashion than on my Goodreads, but this one is really resonant. It was also bought on my first venture to the new Amazon Books store at the Time Warner Center.

the new Amazon Books store, opened May 2017

While I don’t love everything about the store and don’t frequently buy hard copy books any longer and when I do I usually frequent The Strand, one of the store’s marketing strategies paid off. They display all books face out and the cover of this one caught my attention in a way spine out might not have. I checked the price and found that, as a Prime member, it was about the same cost as the Kindle edition so I left the store with a book in hand. In truth, I don’t see myself going often, but it might come in handy for a gift or impulse purchase when I’m carrying a tote bag.

Ahh yes, the main reason I didn’t finish this book more quickly — it wasn’t very portable and I don’t make nearly enough time to read at home. If I’d had the time, I probably would have finished it last weekend as I read it in three chunks. It’s a very readable look at the world and relatively contemporary: pre Trump election, but post Brexit vote. It also awakened the International Studies major and history lover in me. It is, somehow, the rare book that counted for zero of my 2017 reading challenges.

“The colonial powers used ink to draw lines that bore no relation to the physical realities of the region, and created some of the most artificial borders the world has seen. In the Middle East, an attempt is now being made to redraw them in blood.”

Further in Africa, he noted,

“Back in the great capital cities of London, Paris, Brussels, and Lisbon, the Europeans then took maps of the contours of Africa’s geography and drew lines on them – or, to take a more aggressive approach, lies. In between these lines they wrote words such as Middle Congo, or Upper Volta and called them countries. These lines were more about how far each power’s explorers, military forces, and businessmen had advanced on the map than what the people living between the lines felt themselves to be, or how they wanted to organize themslves.”

The book is organized by region/country with a map as chapter intro and I think this might be one of those books that’s better in paper form — I frequently found myself flipping back to the map when I wondered where exactly a border point was. One of the quick themes that covers most sections is the mess that colonialization wrought on the world. While it’s the Middle East’s struggles most frequently in the news today, the same problems remain in southeast Asia, Africa and South America with relative differences in the amount of blood being shed. As was true when I read Jessica Alexander’s Chasing Chaos, the African bloodshed resonates with me because the Rwandan genocide was a major news event when I was learning world history in high school. Marshall’s points about the artificial lines drawn there, DRC, Nigeria and throughout the continent make it clear why there will always be bloodshed. Like in Iraq, we as westerners can call them “Rwandans” or “Iraqis” but that doesn’t mean they’ll ever get along, or let borders keep them from members of their historical tribes, now “foreign”.

When speaking of fighting in Afghanistan after September 11, Marshall wrote:

“Again it was clear that the move south was on hold until geography finished having its say. The rules of geography, which Hannibal, Sun Tzu, and Alexander the Great all knew, still apply to today’s leaders.” p. 5

There’s only so much technology can surmount and that remains true when fighting wars, looking to expand or invade. One of the saddest cases of technology is of course Tibet and the railroad. In 1998, Paul Theroux remarked in Riding the Iron Rooster, “The Kunlun Range is a guarantee that the railway will never get to Lhasa.” Not even twenty years later, the railway was opened and trains come from Beijing and Shanghai four times each day. That, moreso than anything else, will likely mark the end of any chances of a free Tibet.

I found the Russia/USSR/Baltic states chapter fascinating, not only because it very clearly explained why the Ukrainian situation happened, but also because it lays some context to the current state of the world with Trump and Putin working so closely together. I’m old enough to remember the breakup of the USSR being current events and not history, but I loved how he presented this with 20 years of hindsight and development, or lack thereof.  As he noted throughout the Europe chapter, people born in post WW2 Western Europe have known mostly peace although there was war in the 1990s and 2000s in Eastern Europe. The interconnected nature of the world makes the question resonant: for how much longer? as there seem to be many simmering feuds ready to ignite. US involvement with NATO under Trump will dictate a lot of that, I believe.

I think the Middle East has shifted. Israel v. Palestine was the defining story for a long time, but since 2001 Islamic terrorism has become a broader focus. Marshall believes, and I agree, that the utopia of a Sunni Muslim governed Middle East “paradise” isn’t going to happen. Terrorism and fanaticism isn’t the way to long term stability and as he said:

First, only some of the Sunni Iraqi tribes will support the jihadist aims, and even then only to achieve their own ends-which do not include a return to the sixth century.

Iraq (or Afghanistan) under US military guidance, may not have been the way of the stable future-but nor is ISIS/ISIL/DAESH, although I do believe they’ll change the lies/lines of the Middle East before they’re done.

What this book made me realize is how often the current crisis / news item fades when the next one comes up. I remember when Jammu and Kashmir was frequently in the news as a simmering issue, and his recent death reminded me of the crisis in Panama under Manuel Noriega. And of course the breakup of the former Yugoslavia which dominated the 90s.  Just as they were gone to those not living there, soon will follow the current ones to be followed by new ones. Sometimes I wonder if true peace isn’t a geographical impossibility too.

Wonder what our future selves will have to say to us?

“[Yuri] Gagarin, Buzz Aldrin, and many others are the descendants of Marco Polo and Columbus, pioneers who pushed the boundaries and who changed the world in ways they could not have imagined in their own lifetimes.”


Review: Orange is the New Black

The 63rd book I finished this year was certainly among the most intriguing. I never had much interest in the show of the same name, and only added the book to my library wish list after watching Pablo Schreiber as Lewis in SVU Season 15. Some 700 people later, my turn came up in the waiting list and I figured Why Not? I’d just finished the really good (review TK) The Pious Ones by Joseph Berger. I’m really glad I read it as it was an amazing, albeit dated, read.

Continue reading “Review: Orange is the New Black”

Steven A. Shaw vs. Food

This originally started as a review of his first book Turning the Tables, which I realized two-thirds of the way in that I had indeed read it. My LibraryThing confirmed it.  Oh well, it was still a good and quick re-read and I needed the “T” for the challenge. And then I read Asian Dining Rules in two days after and decided to combine the two.

As I noted from re-reading my review, the book was dated in 2010 and is even more so now. Neither being “the Internet food guy” nor experiencing high end dining is that unique. The Time Warner Center isn’t new and the “famous” chefs have lost media ground to the latest crop of “famous” chefs due to the growth of Food Network and its cousins. In fact, some of Shaw’s subjects and favorites are no more:

  • Gray Kunz is back in exile ala his time after Lespinasse with the closing of Cafe Gray (discussed in the book) and Grayz, which followed
  • His eagerly anticipated Time Warner restaurants struggled
  • Tabla was a victim of the recession
  • Starwich closed following a bankruptcy

In fact, Shaw himself is gone. He passed away in April 2014 and was mourned by some of those he wrote of in Turning the Table.

While some of that was exacerbated by the recession of 2007-10, some also has to do with NYC’s changing dining culture. Shaw’s eGullet lives on despite a state of the 90s web design, but the internet has drastically changed food writing just as technology changed food availability.

A central tenet of both of his books (2005, 2008) discussed the theory that each restaurant is two: one for the public and the other for the regulars. And I agree with him that  “There are few things more comforting in life than hearing a waiter say, “The usual?”” but I think he overestimates the wow factor of that now. 

I enjoy Shaw’s writing style, he feels like someone I would have enjoyed having a meal with even though I’m not a fine dining person.


Asian Dining Rules  was written three years after Table and as with his previous one, it’s dedicated to getting an inside view. While its chapter on Japan was a nice complement to my recent sushi reading, I think the book came from a point of Mr. Know it All. Some of what he hated in Zagat (which formed a chapter of his book, nearly verbatim) came through in his analysis of the restaurants. Ditto with his dislike of critics.

That said, he added some additional info to that which is typically known of “ethnic” food. In fact, he has some interesting thoughts on what American diners really mean when they say “ethnic”.

Indian restaurant owners have told me that, time and again, their non-Indian customers order mostly the same five dishes. Thai restaurants seem to sell more pad Thai than everything else put together; sushi restaurants serve up an alarming number of California rolls; and many Americans assume that Korean cuisine equals and is limited to Korean barbecue—if they’ve even had Korean cuisine.

That was true when he was researching the book and is, with broad generalizations, still true in 2015. With eGullet full steam by the time he wrote this, some of the chapters are available online in condensed versions, but this was still a good read with them well-edited together.

Some other funny moments/interesting takeaways:

  •  Just as Masa was in the news while he researched these two titles, it is again at the time of this reading with the opening of Kappo Masa. The latter of which has broken the Internet.
  • “Chances are, your friend who doesn’t eat Japanese food will at least enjoy tempura. When cooked properly, tempura is the lightest, least greasy fried food imaginable. Unfortunately, most tempura served in Japanese restaurants in North America isn’t particularly good.” Sadly still true.
  • I really enjoyed his insight on off the beaten path places like Indochine in North Carolina. Truly shows the impact of  immigrants, but his comments on the lack of Filipino restaurants are sad.

An enjoyable if light read. Shaw’s beloved Empire Szechwan is still there on the UWS. Maybe I should go in honor of him.