Monday, April 27, 2015

Mao: The People's Emperor

Mao, the People's EmperorMao, the People's Emperor by Dick Wilson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a hard book to rate. On one hand, it provides a lot of information and is somewhat detailed. On the other, it leaves out huge chunks of information which is simply unforgivable.

I wanted to read about Mao to learn more about him -- I knew next to nothing -- and I did. I learned of his modest upbringing, his hardships, his love of country, his love of the peasants, his introduction to Marx, his awakening to socialism and communism and the way to save his country -- and every country. I learned of his split with the nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek, the backstabbing, dictatorial asshole American naturally supported to rule China and whom Mao eventually drove to Taiwan. I learned about Mao's raising of a peasant army, about the Long March, about his battles against Japan during WWII, his continued battles with the nationalists after the war, and about his victorious march into Peking after defeating them. I read of his rise to power and of how power corrupts, in this case, his cronies. Mao apparently wanted the Chinese to continue to revolt to bring about true communism, but his cronies on the Politburo grew a little too comfortable. I read of the numerous attempts to get Mao thrown out of office, which surprised me, and of how he survived each, coming back stronger each time. I read of his Cultural Revolution, which was taking place when I was born and was something I barely remember. I read of when Nixon went to visit him, the first time an American president had done such a thing. And I read of his death in the mid-70s.

All of this was interesting, but so much was left out. For instance, you would think the Korean War would be pretty big, wouldn't you? It was big for the US, the two Koreas, and China, but it only merits a few sentences in this huge book. WTH? What's up with that? Surely the author could have written something about that! Also, during the Hundred Flowers phase of the '50s, Mao was said to have said that "the imperialist claims that twenty million people had been killed as counter-revolutionaries were quite false. The true number was 'not much greater than 700,000.'" Um, excuse me? Where the hell did that come from? At least 700,000 people died and perhaps as many as 20 million and the author never even hints that executions are taking place, that people are being murdered, that there are death squads, that anything AT ALL is happening???!!! Doesn't Mr. Wilson owe it to his reader to let them know that this is happening? It's shocking that he left this information out of the book. It's insulting to the Chinese and to the reader. If I were a relative of one of the deceased, I'd be outraged. I just couldn't believe it when I read that passage. And that's not an isolated example! This occurs elsewhere. Mass massacres, with no advance warning. No sense of injustice. Mao's just a rustic good old boy, a somewhat naive genius who barely understand Marxism, but is well loved by the peasants. What the hell??? And so on. And then there's the Vietnam War. How much do you think that's mentioned in this book? Not at all. I can't believe it. Not at all. The author is an idiot, or he thinks his reader is, I'm not sure.

I would give the book one star, but I'm giving it two because a lot of research did go into it and the author did tackle a moderately complex character with a minimum attempt at explaining him. He tried, but only just. I expected so much more. If anyone can recommend a better Mao bio to me, I'd appreciate it. Definitely not recommended.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

The Guns of Navarone

The Guns of NavaroneThe Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't sure what to expect with this novel, as many of MacLean's books tend to be a bit "fluffy" for me, but I wasn't disappointed with his efforts on this one. Of course, like many, I'd seen the film when I was a kid, but I'd only now picked up a copy of the book to read and I'm glad I did.

The setting is somewhere in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey after Italy threw in the towel in WWII. The Germans control a series of islands and the shipping lanes through them, although I don't know how historically accurate this would have been, because they do so through their feared air force, complete with hundreds of Stukas. I would have thought their air force would have been non-existent by then, but then I'm not a WWII scholar, so I'm willing to be wrong. Anyway, 1200 British troops are trapped on one of these islands and are awaiting rescue, but the problem is, it's got to be by boat and that can't be done because the mythical guns of Navarone rule the area, huge, monstrous guns protected by natural and man-made defenses, making it a virtual impregnable fortress. It'd be a suicide mission for anyone to attack it and yet, the British navy has to sail right by it within days to rescue these troops.

Enter Captain Keith Mallory. He is a famous New Zealander rock climber who has survived behind enemy lines for months at a time. He's going to lead this little expedition. His close Greek friend and killing machine, Andrea, is coming along. So too, Stevens, good at linguistics and rock climbing, Brown, a saboteur, and Miller, a brash American who is a medic and a demolitions man. They have three days to scale the sheer 400 foot cliff walls on the southern side of Navarone, destroy the guns, and escape before the British navy arrives.

The climb nearly kills them. As luck would have it, a German spy back at HQ had alerted the Germans to their presence, so everyone's looking for them everywhere, making it virtually impossible to go anywhere, get anything done. They do hook up with two resistance fighters and the reader spends the next few days in a frenzy with these men, anxiously trying to enter the fortress and destroy the guns and then escape. It's a pretty exciting story.

This book reminded me a lot of Where Eagles Dare. In fact, it seemed like a complete rip off. I don't know which was published first, probably this one, but there are a ton of similarities. The cold, the high altitudes, the climbing, the near inhuman strength our protagonists must display, the injuries and deaths our heroes encounter, the "elite" status of the German troops, the back stabbings and betrayals. Very similar. But they're both still good books. I'd read each again. My primary complaint is in MacLean's boilerplate formula for his protagonist heroes. They always seem to know the right things to do and say. They always seem to fight through exhaustion with superhuman strength and, indeed, have superhuman strength. And that just doesn't seem too realistic to me. It makes them out to be more superhero than anything to me, but perhaps that's just my viewpoint, I don't know. Anyway, not a bad book. Now I want to see the movie again. Recommended.



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Friday, April 3, 2015

Hatching Twitter

Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and BetrayalHatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal by Nick Bilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've never read about such a group of immature, whiny, backstabbing losers in my life! To think that some reviewers consider them brilliant is really pretty funny. They were mediocre thinkers with mediocre talent who couldn't cut it in real places, like Xerox PARC or Google, so they wind up at a start up, broke and desperate. The one who has had success, Ev, is good for the seed money. He at least founded Blogger, so he actually had done something, which was sold to Google for millions, making him successful. The other three Twitter founders -- Noah, Jack, and Biz -- were pretty much losers. They founded a company called Odeo that was going to take podcasting by storm, but were beaten to the punch by Apple. Jack and Noah drunkenly came up with the idea for Twitter one night, as an idea to escape loneliness. Noah came up with the name. And so it began. Ev stayed in the background, Biz handled publicity, Noah was the CEO and Jack was in charge of Engineering. I believe, if my memory serves me. This didn't last long. They had a board with capital invested and soon there was rumbling, with Ev doing his fair share of the rumbling. And so Noah was forced out. Jack was brought on as CEO and Ev as chairman. Biz did what he did best. In a little while, Twitter starts taking off, slowly, very slowly at first, but surely. Jack didn't want hash tags, but they emerged and they were brilliant. However, it became clear to everyone that Jack couldn't run a company. They were losing money left and right, weren't making a dime, everyone was on edge, and Ev and the board had had it up to here. So more backstabbing. And Jack was out the door. To plot his revenge. Ev took over as CEO. After all, he had successfully run Blogger, so why not this? Sounded good. Twitter had bought another company a little while before this happened and Jack had asked their main engineer to become director of ops at Twitter, a position this man didn't feel he was qualified for. After Jack was gone, the board asked him for a briefing. He told them, in a state of disbelief, that there was no backup to the system. That if the system crashed, Twitter was gone. And that Twitter was held together with string and wires to begin with. Not good news. They got to work fixing that. Jack had been in way over his head. [Let me interject here. It's clear that the author HATES Jack in this book, and has a serious man crush on Ev, so you have to take everything written about them with a grain of salt.] Okay. Twitter has grown to millions and millions of users. Hosting many millions of tweets daily. Ev has helped people like Oprah tweet her first tweet live on TV. But Jack has been plotting with one of the board members, who -- and this is never clearly explained -- loves Jack dearly, to get Jack back into the company. I could go on and on, but long story short, Ev is backstabbed by Jack and the board, is shoved out the door, Jack comes back as head honcho, Biz quits, we never hear from Noah again, and Twitter continues on, in spite of total incompetence and arrogance. Good book to read, disgusting people to read about. Cautiously recommended.

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