Thursday, August 29, 2013

The perfect cast for The Family You Choose (and The New Pioneers)

This may have been the hardest blog post I had to craft. How do I choose a cast to portray people who have lived in my head for over two decades? No one is going to perfectly satisfy me, and when I decided to follow up on the idea, suggested by Courtney Giardina, the idea of compromising in any way made part of me freeze.

Well, after several hours (days?) of agonizing, I finally came up with what is as close as is going to satisfy me. It's not perfect in my mind's eye- there is one character I'd still like to change up a little bit- but for the rest it's very good. I can live with it- no, really.

Please go check out my blog post on Courtney's site, then for a little more about the characters and some teasers for The Family You Choose, check out my Pinterest board.

Now who might this be?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Check out the latest review I got :-D

I am sooo excited about the latest review I got from Caroline Fardig. The fact that she likes the bad guys makes me even happier than that she likes the love interest.

Writer/reviewer/blogger Caroline Fardig

Please read and then excuse me as I get back to edits and blogging...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My latest guest posts

A couple of weeks ago I was featured on Monique McDonell's blog talking about what I've learned as I've written. You know how I feel about getting too "writer-ly", but I do share my thoughts there about publishing venues and distribution.

Today I'm featured on Crimson Flower Reviews. I wrote this a few months ago, and I confess I cringed a little bit to see that I described my characters as "strong". They are, but they're also very human (and if you read the first one you already know that). My point was that my characters fit in pretty nicely with many other writers I've read- multi-dimensional human beings. 

Enough of that- please go read :-)

Friday, August 23, 2013

It's Just a Little Crush (Lizzie Hart Mysteries) by Caroline Fardig

Copy editor Lizzie Hart is twenty-six, independent and maybe looking for a little excitement in the sleepy midwestern town she lives in. In spite of herself, she can't help but blush, stammer and occasionally spill coffee when charming reporter Blake Morgan is in the same room with her. Is there any way she can get this guy out of her system?

No guarantees, but there is nothing like a handful of murders, bombings and some breaking and entering to give Lizzie something else to think about. So much for a quiet little town. As her friend reminds her, murder is usually about love or money, and those two are everywhere. The woman obsessed with spelling and grammar may not know how to tell a story, but she certainly knows one when she sees one- and she also knows how to dig for it. When her investigation puts her at directly at odds with Blake, she finds herself re-evaluating her feelings for him... a couple of times. Is he going to stop her, help her or does she need to get this guy out of the way if she wants to find the truth? Or is he the key to this whole thing?

Lizzie has rooting value, but she also makes you laugh- a pretty mean feat in the middle of a story about murder and general mayhem. (Hands down, the funniest scene involved a makeover by a mortician. So wrong, yet so perfect.) She's has her suspicions about almost everyone, but she also has a sense of humor about herself. When you laugh- and you will- you're laughing with her, not at her.

Lizzie does solve the mystery, but there's more than enough material from this story to make you want to snap up the second as soon as it comes out. What is the story with her quiet colleague, and what was in that duffel bag? Why did Lizzie break it off with her ex-boyfriend? Did something happen between Blake's grandfather and Lizzie's grandmother? What is going on with those... accountants? And what, if anything, is Lizzie going to do about Blake?

Recommended for fans of chick lit and mystery.

Buy from Brookline Booksmith

Thursday, August 22, 2013

My Greatest Mommy Moment- Not! by Carolyn Aspenson

Writers do other things aside from obsess over characters and plot points- believe it or not. Here, Caroline Aspenson, author of Unfinished Business and the upcoming Unbreakable Bonds,  talks about another very important aspect of her life and one of its more memorable moments.


My Grestest Mommy Moment-Not!
Carolyn Ridder Aspenson

About fourteen and a half years ago I gave birth, sort of, to a bouncing, screaming, eight-pound baby boy.  I say sort of because after thirty-six hours of induced labor with contractions a mere minute apart, the doctor decided I couldn't actually pop the fatty out of my netherlands and he needed to be surgically removed.

Trust me, after thirty-six hours of labor, I didn't care how he came out, I just wanted him OUT! So a C-Section it was.  After a few minutes of watching my husband's face turn green (I later found out he watched the doctor remove most of my insides and place them on the table) I finally heard the whaling sound of a Winston Churchill lookalike bundle who either wanted to be stuffed back into where he came from or was screaming in excitement about his release. I'm not sure which and though I've asked him many times, he doesn't remember either.

Fast forward four and a half years and my son and I talk about where he came from. To this day, he remembers his skeleton hanging on a meat hook in Heaven and God releasing the hook when I walked by so he could drop into my belly. Hey, who am I to say he's wrong?  After he told me how he got in my belly, I told him how he got out. 

I showed him my scar, waxed on poetically about how amazing it was for the doctor to pull out this monster-sized baby from a three-inch hole in my body. He rubbed his little fingers along the thin line, back and forth, over and over. It was an amazing bonding moment. I told him how I threw up something that looked like a garlic clove after almost choking on it because my tongue was so dry and I was sure it had swelled up to the size of a tennis ball. Okay, I didn't really tell him that but compared to the message he got from me, it would have sounded much better.

A few days later he began the pounding on the closed door thing most kids do. If he woke up before my husband and me, he'd come to our bedroom for a little snuggle before heading downstairs to rot his brain with Disney or Nickelodeon.  Sometimes though, the door was closed and GASP! locked and the boy would freak. He'd pound and pound and say Mommy over and over until I couldn't stand it anymore.

You know why the door was closed, right?

Out of sheer desperation to stop the madness and allow myself a little, shall we say, intimate gratification, I decided to talk to my son, you know, like woman to man. Because he was four and would totally get it, right?

I explained that sometimes Mommy and Daddy needed to have alone time and that he if the door was closed, he could just forego the whole knocking thing and head down to rot his brain. He wanted to know why we needed alone time. So me, in my vast parental knowledge, told him that Mommy and Daddy were practicing making babies.

It worked because he stopped knocking on the door for several weeks. I was pleased. I high-fived myself. I celebrated. My husband reaped the rewards of sealing the deal, if you will, uninterrupted. Life was good.

One night, while snuggling with my son at his bedtime, he told me he didn't want me to have the door closed that next morning. When I asked him why, he said it scared him. Of course I told him it was okay, that we were still home, he wasn't actually alone and that it never took too long to practice making babies anyway so before he knew it, we'd be downstairs with him and life would be okay.

He said he wasn't afraid of being alone (brave little whippersnapper that he is) but that he didn't want us to practice making babies anymore. He said that's what scared him.  I laughed. I told him not to worry because practicing didn't mean he'd have a little brother or sister any time soon.

He said he wanted one but not that way. I didn't understand and I told him that. His response?

"Mommy, I don't like that Daddy cuts your tummy open so many nights in a row. I don't want you to practice making babies anymore. It scares me."

I face-palmed myself. The poor kid thought his father was cutting open his mother so many nights in a row.  It wasn't that often, much to my husband's frustration!

So as it turned out, my son got the entire where babies come from story at only four and a half years old. It was either that or years of expensive therapy.

What stellar mommy moments have you experienced? Let me know. Leave me a post on my Facebook page.


"It's about ghosts, the love of family, the never-ending love of mothers and daughters...add some humor and it's the perfect combination of adult/chick- lit/paranormal (all in one book)." - The Book Trollop
"Aspenson hits the ground running with her debut novel and carries the reader along on a rollicking adventure highlighting both the joys and conflicts of mother-daughter relationships." - Katrina Rasbold
ANGELA PANTHER HAS A PERFECT LIFE:  A lovely home in an upper-middle class Atlanta suburb, an attentive, successful husband, two reasonably behaved children, a devoted dog and a lot of coffee and cupcakes.

Angela spends her days taking care of her family and while her life might border on mundane, she's got it under control. Until her mother, Fran dies-and returns as a ghost.  It seems Fran's got some unfinished business and she's determined to get it done, no matter what.

While Angela's shocked and grateful to have her mother back, she's not thrilled about the portal to the afterlife Fran opened upon her return. Now every ghost in town is knockin' on Angela's psychic door, looking for help.  And it's a royal pain in the butt.

Death has given Fran some nifty celestial superpowers-powers she uses to keep her granddaughter out of danger and to levy a little ghostly retribution on the child's frienemies, which doesn't make Angela happy.

Now Angela's got to find a way to balance her family life with her new gift and keep her mother in line. And it's a lot for one woman to handle.

Carolyn Ridder Aspenson tackles, with comic cleverness, the serious subjects of mother-daughter relationships, death and raising teenagers in this smart, funny take on the love of family and the uncontrollable paths our lives take. 

Where to find Carolyn:

Where to buy Unfinished Business:

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age by Dan Kennedy

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy. This did not affect my review in any way.

The Wired City uses the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news website that serves the city of New Haven, Connecticut, to help provide a context for the larger story of how news reporting has changed and, more importantly, is changing.

Although most people wouldn't immediately identify New Haven (or most other places in Connecticut) as a hotbed of innovation, we see pretty immediately why that city is a perfect place for experiments in news coverage: it's a city of about 120,000- not large enough to have attracted big name investment that would crowd out individuals with less money but no shortage of ideas; it's a diverse city, with significant white, black and Latino populations; it's a city in which income is not evenly distributed: 29% of its residents are at or below the poverty level; finally, it benefits from the proximity of Yale University, which attracts and to some extent fosters people with clever ideas.

On top of that, many residents in New Haven felt underserved for decades by the city's major paper, the New Haven Register. In part, this was due to the fact that the paper was largely supported by advertisers (as are most newspapers), and a calculation was made that an advertiser's potential customers were likely not in the poorer areas. Also, when poorer areas were covered, the predominant focus was crime. Crime happens- but so do library events, new business openings and gardening victories. The Register had and continues to have very little interest in covering those aspects of city life.

The New Haven Independent, founded by respected and energetic journalist Paul Bass in 2005, set up shop in the heart of New Haven, leasing space from La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, the city's Spanish-language paper. Rather than (literally and figuratively) phoning the stories in, the Independent's handful of reporters move quickly from story to story within the city, whether it's taking place at an elementary school, city hall, a local business or a crime scene.

Kennedy paints a picture of a news ventures that's succeeding primarily because of its intimacy with its subjects. Indeed, as the title suggests, the Independent sees its job as not only to report the news of the community but also, as one philanthropist put it, to foster a sense of community. If that is the primary mission, everything else about the site is subservient to it: being a non-profit that depends primarily on grant funding works because its audience is low-income and therefore not attractive to advertisers, and being strictly web-based works because the entry and maintenance costs are much lower than those of a traditional paper. As of right now, the model works, but Bass (and Kennedy) are very aware that the grants it now depends on might not be renewed after its initial expiration, and there is always a concern about potential conflicts of interest. Fortunately, Bass seems to have no end for funding ideas, and as of this writing, the site continues to operate.

This is not strictly about the Independent. Kennedy also discusses other successful hyperlocal online ventures such as the Batavian, Baristanet and the Voice of San Diego, some of which were inspirations for the Independent, but most of which are for-profit. He also discusses some less successful endeavors, including AOL's Patch network, which less than two weeks before this writing announced a number of upcoming layoffs and site closures. In other words, the story of how- and indeed whether- local journalism is going to survive continues to develop.

Recommended for media watchers and anyone concerned about the continuation of local news.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Do I write strong female characters?

I'm pretty sure I've described my heroines thusly before, but this article makes me think that maybe I didn't, and that's not a bad thing.

What writers and readers really want, I think, are characters that are real. Writing someone who is always strong and always right is exhausting, and readers who have to read about those people quickly lose their motivation to continue with their story (at least, this reader does).

In The Smartest Girl in the Room, Emily does a couple of things for her friends that you might expect a man her age to do. I didn't put that in to make her "strong", and some people are going to question to what extent it shows she's courageous. It shows she's willing to take risks, but (spoiler alert?) that's one of the questions I'm asking in the book: at what point is a risk brave, and at what point is it foolish? Perhaps as a corollary, does the former make you "strong" and the latter make you "weak"? More to the point, does being weak on occasion mean that you aren't allowed likable or readable?

Gosh, I hope not, because I'm going to keep writing about people who try, sometimes fail, but never give up. If that's strong, swell, but I prefer to call it "human".

"Whether I'm strong or weak is irrelevant to whether I can solve this case- which of course I can."

Keeping Score by Jami Deise

How does Shannon Stevens do it all? With a little help from her friends, both logistically and emotionally. That's the only way a divorced working mom with a semi-hellish commute is able to provide a happy childhood for her sweet son Sam. Fortunately, the sons of the mothers she's close to are also friends with Sam. By the time the story opens, Shannon has perfected the balancing act that is her life and allows her to put up with the self-righteous boss who doesn't think family is a good enough reason to call in sick when needed.

When something is so carefully balanced, one domino falling can send the rest of them crashing down surprisingly quickly. The worst of all is when her best friend lies to her about an opportunity for her son and then defends herself. Before she knows it, Shannon is left virtually friendless- and paying hundreds of dollars more for childcare.

But is it all worth it if Sam has opportunities in a sport he loves? Even if it is, what's to stop Shannon from turning into "one of those" moms- self-reflection, studied indifference, or an unexpected new friend who might be the breath of fresh air she needs? And oh yeah: what about that hot baseball coach who can't talk to her without setting off a fresh round of whispering among the other baseball moms?

These were serious topics, but Shannon's sense of humor found me laughing out loud. I also found myself screaming at the screen at several points; warning: don't give someone a first kiss when you might be a little drunk. I also gasped after I read one scene; I think most parents will too.

This definitely has a happy ending, but not everything is wrapped up in a tidy bow. Perfect, because neither are most people's lives.

Recommended for fans of baseball and chick lit.

Buy from Brookline Booksmith

Thursday, August 15, 2013

An interview with Vincent Yee, author of The Purple Heart

More than 70 years after Pearl Harbor, most Americans still don't know about the involuntary internment many Japanese Americans endured during World War II. Even fewer know about the incredible bravery of the Japanese American 100th infantry battalion and the 442nd infantry regiment. Vincent Yee, former National President of the National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP) decided to shine a light on this important part of American history for his debut novel, The Purple Heart.

Below is some of our conversation about history, the Japanese American experience and what, if anything, we've learned since World War II.

Vincent Yee

Why did you choose to write about the Japanese-American experience during World War II?

It all started out with a dream to write a book and when it came time to choose a topic, I knew that I wanted to write an Asian American story. I was inspired by the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” I asked myself what else happened in WWII and then I remembered the Japanese American internment. As I started to do research, it was the story of the 442nd that really inspired me. Despite their families, wives, girlfriends being imprisoned, when this country asked them to fight against the Nazis, more that 4,500 young Japanese American men volunteered to fight for our country. That story of patriotism is a lost story in American history that I wanted to tell but I needed a story concept. That’s when I had an epiphany to tell a story about love and courage. A girl-meets-boy story, then separated by the war. I had love, courage, patriotism and through the power of fiction, I knew I had a concept that could finally tell a story about the sense of hopelessness of the internment and the vindication of the 442nd.

But just as important, I knew that the Japanese American experience would be a lesson for the rest of the Asian American community. Because what happened to the Japanese American community could happen to any other Asian ethnicity in the U.S., whether that is Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and so on. One of the biggest challenges for Asian Americans is to not only be seen as American. That doesn’t mean White, but it does mean being seen as patriots, and there is no stronger story of patriotism than the story of the 442nd, the Japanese regiment that fought in WWII.

Your younger characters are surprised when they find out what happened to this community. Has it been your experience that people don’t know about this?

Yes, at the time of researching this story idea, there wasn’t that much information about the Japanese American experience on the Internet. I came across a number of personal websites, put together by a number of Yonsei, 4th generation Japanese Americans, who lamented that they only recently found out about their great and grandparent’s experience during WWII. There were a number of non-fiction books out there and the movies that touched on the internment simply didn’t do the justice that the Japanese American community deserved. This furthered my desire to write this story.

Some of the reasons that were given to me as to why these stories of the Issei and the Nisei, the first and second generation Japanese Americans, were lost was that they simply bore the shame and resolved to move on with life.

You didn’t just write about internment; you wrote about the “questioning”, the suspicion, the camps and also the 442nd. What kind of research did you have to do to in order to be able to cover all of that?

I spent about a year of research before writing this story. In that research, I gathered as much information as I could from historical accounts on Web sites but it was the personal websites with intimate stories that gave a personal perspective. I watched the limited number of movies that depicted internment life and the one movie that gave some kind of idea of what the 442nd went through. I read a number of non-fiction books and also the PBS documentaries that chronicled the Japanese American experience. Though The Purple Heart is historical fiction, I needed to get the most important historical facts correct for this fictional story. When I created the historical timeline, it spanned 4 years and right then and there, I knew my story project was going to be challenging. That’s when I chose to write a scene based story rather than a linear story account of the Japanese American experience. I paired up my most important story scenes against the actual historical timeline and that created my story’s outline. Once the outline was ready, I was almost ready to write but I needed something more than just a good story, I needed a hook that had the potential to be controversial. And that’s when I had the inspiration to add a bit of mystery into the book that centered on a hidden family secret surrounding the grandfather.

One of the bitterest ironies of this story is that the people we put into internment camps were fighting an enemy that was putting people into concentration camps. And those soldiers took incredible risks but weren’t acknowledged until decades later. How did those people close that psychological circle so they could not only live in their country but be genuinely patriotic?

From the conversations that I had with a few people who were interned and from a couple of 442nd veterans, the experience of the internment did have a strong effect on their community. I don’t want to speak for the Japanese American community but I’ll share a few thoughts. It created a sense of alienation and some questioned the value of their own Japanese ancestry. Many of the Japanese Americans went on to rebuild as best as they could, which was a testament to their will to move on with their lives. This speaks to our quiet Asian American resolve to move on with life but in this quiet resolve, those stories were never told and only recently, with people like George Takei, are stories of the Japanese American experience coming to light. However, the unfortunate thing is that the number of Nisei survivors, the 2nd generation, are quietly passing away at an alarming rate and their unique American story has not been told. The veterans of the 442nd know that what they did was patriotic, demonstrated by the blood they shed on the battlefield and remembered by the 9,486 Purple Hearts their regiment received. They were the most decorated U.S. army regiment of their size and no one knows this and their story deserves to be told.


After the war, many of the people who came out of the camps found they couldn’t return to homes that had been sold while they were gone. How did people rebuild their lives?

I think they unwillingly and unfairly accepted a lot. The trust that they thought they had in the White neighbors, whom they thought were their friends, was betrayed when those White neighbors who were supposed to watch over their property, turned around and sold off their property for profit. The egregious treatment of the Japanese American community wasn’t recognized by the U.S. government until decades later and the compensation that was given to the Japanese American survivors was so small that it had little value in my opinion. The heroism of the 442nd wasn’t fully acknowledged until early 2000 when the Congressional Medal of Honor was bestowed onto 21 other 442nd veterans. They were not properly recognized for their battlefield heroism due to simply a racist double standard at that time. One of the best compliments that I got for my book was from a 442nd veteran. Since he fought in the war, he could only see it from his side but after reading my book he said, he could finally see the entire scope of the internment and what his family went through and the experiences of the 442nd. That meant a lot to me. When he came back from the war, he quickly met his wife, took advantage of the G.I. Bill and got his education and went on to build an academic career and had four children. He is now a grandfather and enjoys life every single day afforded to him.

The Japanese Americans didn’t take this lying down. Gordon Hirabayashi brought the case to the Supreme Court- and lost. The decision is really appalling, and it’s never been overturned. What does that say about us?

In addition to this case, Fred Korematsu also brought this case to the U.S. Supreme Court. That ruling said that during a time of war, the U.S. had the right to “intern” a certain group of people based solely on their ethnicity was never overturned. The Japanese American internment was the biggest case of racial profiling. I always postulate that if the majority of U.S. population was Japanese American at the time, they would never had interned people who looked like them. What these rulings tell us is that minorities are subject to those people who are in power. As we still live in a White male dominated society, where power is centered, unfair laws or policies could be passed based on nothing more than fear and worst, racism. Another act that unfairly targeted a group of people was the Chinese Exclusion Act. We live in an America where equality is still a struggle and subject to those who wield legislative power.

Along the same lines, when people start rounding up undocumented Spanish-speaking immigrants and put them into long-term ICE detention centers, or when people start attacking Muslim Americans in the streets, it’s terrifying. Didn’t we learn anything?

My simple thought on this is no. The powers that be have simply gotten smarter about how to target a certain group of people. But that is not to say that there aren’t people who are hell bent on causing harm to all Americans, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans. Law enforcement definitely have the right to do what they can to protect Americans, but not at the expense of taking away an American’s right to due process under the law. I think one of the differences here is that in the U.S., yes, we do have a segment of the population that has created harm to Americans but during WWII, the Japanese Americans were guilty because they were simply Japanese and that was wrong.

Another tricky part in this thorny discussion is that some of the detained are not U.S. citizens and thus are not subject to our laws and I think that’s where my story is important. Of the 120,000 Japanese Americans that were detained, about 80,000 were born in the U.S. and thus American citizens. But during WWII, their constitutional rights were too easily suspended by people in power. It’s even more important now that more Asian Americans get into politics.

As an Asian American writer, what was it like to have to “go there” and write a story about people who like you (and me) being so victimized by prejudice?

The unfairness of it all, caused by the prejudice was a given. But rather than write about the prejudice, I wanted to write a story where the characters feel it emotional and through those powerful emotions, I wanted the reader to vicariously feel all those visceral emotions, everything from unfairness, hopelessness, shame, fear, redemption, strength, courage and patriotism. From what my readers have told me and the tears that they have shed, The Purple Heart has done that. I believe that only through the powerful emotions of the characters, only then will a reader experience the full emotional toll of the Japanese American experience.

What's on my To Be Read Pile

Started to panic just a little bit when I realized how many books I have on my pile for review right now. For the next two weeks, I can't entertain any new review requests- but just for two weeks :-)

Currently on tap:

Keeping Score by Jamie Deise
The Wired City by Dan Kennedy
Life's A Ball by Erin Cawood (pre-release)
Birds of Prey by Danielle-Claude Ngontang Mba (pre-release)
Fifty Ways to Leave Your Husband by K.C. Wilder
It's Just A Little Crush by Caroline Fardig
Spellbound in His Arms by Angel Sefer

Alright, excuse me- I've got some reading to do...

Thursday, August 8, 2013

An interview with Scott Anderson, author of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East is ostensibly the story of T.E. Lawrence's work in the Middle East during World War I- but you've got to know that a 500 page book is going to cover a little more than that. Scott Anderson paints a picture of the stale Ottoman Empire that finally fulfills its centuries-old destiny as the Sick Man of Europe and comes tumbling down with all of the violence you'd imagine something that large and diseased would cause. There to acquire as much as they could were the British, French and later the Americans. Can we forgive them for making such a mess because they were preoccupied in Europe?

I'm grateful that Anderson took time to talk to me about not only Lawrence but also the Scramble for Africa, the other Western adventurers who connived in the region, Woodrow Wilson, the unraveling of the modern Middle East, and what, if anything, the West can do to fix what we broke.
Why is T.E. Lawrence’s personality so important when we consider his achievements?
Lawrence endured an extreme crisis of conscience in Arabia, torn between serving Great Britain and the Arab rebels whom he had joined in the field. What made this crisis acute was that, due to his position in the military intelligence apparatus in Cairo, Lawrence knew full well that the Arabs were probably going to be betrayed by Britain at the end of the war. As a result, he placed himself in a kind of fragile intermediary role, which also meant technically committing treason by informing the Arabs of the secret deal cut between Britain and France. Lawrence was able to do this—and to sufficiently cover his tracks to avoid being caught out—primarily for two reasons: 1) his utter disdain for military culture and Britain's imperial schemes, which also meant he wasn't going to simply "obey orders", and 2) he was a master bureaucratic infighter. Due to his highly-sensitive position in military intelligence – virtually nothing was so classified as to be beyond his purview—he knew where all the principal power blocs in the British military and political spheres lay, who was allied or opposed to whom, and he masterfully manipulated these blocs and personalities to get what he wanted. Even more, he was able to do so without the finger of blame ever being pointed back to him. Put in a less exotic environment, say in the corporate world, this is a guy you would never want to be in competition or rivalry with, because he would outmaneuver you before you'd even realized it!

Why is the story of a “sideshow of a sideshow” from the beginning of the last century relevant right now?
What is happening in the Middle East today is a final unraveling of the arbitrary borders and divisions put in place at the end of World War I by the Western powers. These lines were drawn with little to no thought of what actually constituted cohesive political units—or nations—but rather to what most benefited the Western powers—specifically Great Britain and France—from an economic standpoint. It should also be said that these powers gave shockingly little thought to the process—they were far more exercised about rearranging the European chessboard—because the Middle East was a sideshow and no one anticipated it would become the strategic center of the universe within a few decades' time. While these arbitrary lines held for nearly a century—first through colonial control and then by extremely repressive military and/or dynastic regimes—the passions ignited by the Iraq war and now by the so-called "Arab Spring" revolts means an end to them. We are already seeing the forces of disintegration at work in Iraq, which will soon become essentially three nations (although American administrations will still pay lip-service to the idea of it being unified), and in Libya, where the flourishing of the regional divide that has always lain under the surface is rapidly leading to de facto east and west mini-states in the post-Qaddafi era.

Some of the most maddening moments in the book were when Lawrence or even some of his out-of-touch superiors called out problems with burgeoning World War One agreements: the agreement the British negotiated with the Zionists would lead to conflict with the Arabs; the Saud family was reactionary and unpopular with many in the region; and ceding control of Syria to France was going to lead to continuing conflict. But ultimately those agreements or principles prevailed. Why?
I think it largely goes to my answer up above, which is that no one in a position of power at the end of World War I really gave the Middle East a lot of thought. Or put a slightly different way, they simply didn't care: the Middle East was the divvying-up ground, with concessions made or favors granted to one or another power there (and again, we're mainly talking about Britain and France, but also Italy and Greece) in order to achieve consensus for the "more important" postwar arrangements in Europe. One other point to this. To truly understand the blithe arrogance with which the European powers regarded the Middle East at this time, one must look at the imperial event which immediately preceded it, the so-called "Scramble for Africa," in which virtually the entire African continent was conquered and subjugated in a mere 30-year period. Certainly the imperial powers were aware of how the lines they had drawn in Africa cut across tribal and ethnic lines, but who cared? It wasn't as if the indigenous populations were in a position to do anything about it. I think this had a huge effect on the European imperial mindset when looking at the Middle East, that these were hapless "little brown people" that they could subjugate and divide up as they saw fit. In that, they guessed very wrong.

Lawrence is the star of your book, but you spend a significant amount of time on three other men: the German Curt Prufer, the American William Yale and the Jewish Aaron Aaronsohn. Why do they deserve a spotlight in the story of how the modern Middle East was formed?
One of the little epiphanies I had in first thinking about writing on Lawrence, the challenge of saying something new (there have been literally scores of biographies of him), came when I decided to look at the core riddle of his life. In a nutshell, how did a 28-year-old Oxford scholar without a single day of military training go off to Arabia and become not just a leader of the Arab rebels but a crucial player in the geopolitics of the region? The answer: because no one in a position of authority—and I'm thinking specifically of the British here—was paying much attention. All their attention was focused on Europe. From that little breakthrough, it occurred to me if that inattention was true about Britain, by far the biggest imperial player in the region, then it must have been true about the other competitors as well. With that idea in mind, I then began searching around for other spies/intelligence agents who might have operated in the Middle Eastern theater, and eventually came across Prufer, Aaronsohn and Yale—in Yale's case, literally the only American field intelligence officer in the entire Middle East. Like Lawrence, these other men were all brilliant, ambitious and utterly ruthless. They didn't achieve Lawrence's fame, but each had a profound influence on their nation's (or, in Aaronsohn's case, the Zionist movement's) policy and standing in the region and a hand in shaping the Middle East of today.

Most people don’t know about the atrocities inflicted on the Armenians during the First World War, but it comes up quite a bit in your book. How important was the fate of the Armenians to the characters in your book?
I think it was especially important to the Jews, in that as another frequently-distrusted religious minority within the Ottoman Empire, they feared they could easily be the next group to suffer the Armenians' fate. This helped fuel Allied anti-Ottoman propaganda in general, and also provided a guy like Aaronsohn with a certain plausibility when he raised an international alarm by claiming (quite inaccurately) that the Jews in Palestine were about to be purged.

One of your subtler points, I thought, was that the Jews weren’t the only ones suffering in the Ottoman Empire and Europe. The Armenians did very badly, as did some Arab groups, as did other ethnicities, but they got nothing or close to it. Why is that important when we consider this period and region?
I think the end-result of the selling-out of the Arabs at the end of World War I was to create a culture of resentment and grievance against the West (again, primarily directed at Britain and France, but also at the United States for its failure to intervene) that continues to be felt throughout the entire region. And because the West has no choice but to stay involved in that region (oil), it will continue to suffer the repercussions.

Is it fair to say that you were more damning of Woodrow Wilson than even Mark Sykes (co-author of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement)?
That probably is true. I have to say my view of Wilson underwent a rather dramatic overhaul over the course of writing this book, that where before I regarded him as a kind of high-minded intellectual done in by his own unwillingness to compromise his ideals, I now feel that his flaws were actually a lot more base, that he was extremely vindictive (in the words of his private secretary, "he's a good hater") and steeped in a sanctimonious worldview that largely derived from his ignorance of that world. More to the point, he made matters worse in the Middle East. At least the British and French leaders knew they were operating completely out of their own national self-interest. By his grand talk of recognizing the rights of "small nations" and self-rule, Wilson dramatically raised expectations among native peoples everywhere that the United States would stand against the imperial designs of the European powers, but then he turned around and did nothing. There are a number of other things about Wilson—his decision to resegregate the American civil service, for example—that have left me wondering why he continues to enjoy such an esteemed position in American history.

If we (Britain, France, the US et al) "broke" the region, what can we do to fix it a century later?
To be honest, I'm really not sure there's much we (the West) can do at this point to fix it, because the divide operates on so many levels—political, ideological, cultural—and much like the blue-red state division in this country, it seems to be growing wider all the time. One initiative that would help would be for the West to broker/force a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, although even this would not be the regional panacea some might imagine; the current turmoil in the Middle East now far transcends the Israeli question. Besides any Israel/Palestine settlement would require the American government to put serious pressure on Israel to make major concessions, which is simply not going to happen under either a Democrat or Republican administration. Sorry, but nobody ever went broke being a pessimist about the Middle East!


Scott Anderson is a veteran war correspondent who has reported from Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Sudan, Bosnia, El Salvador and many other strife-torn countries. A contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, his work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Harper's and Outside. He is the author of novels Moonlight Hotel and Triage and of non-fiction books The Man Who Tried to Save the World and The 4 O'Clock Murders, and co-author of War Zones and Inside The League with his brother Jon Lee Anderson.  

Please check here for more information about Anderson's book Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Purple Heart: A Love Story by Vincent Yee

The story is kicked off by two grandchildren of Japanese American World War II veterans, both of whom (for different reasons) know little about their family history- or this important moment in American history. Aiko Satoh then begins a journey to uncover who her grandfather was, but as she delves into her family's story, the reader also gets a sense of what the Japanese American community was.

Through memory and memories within memories, we see the journey the original Japanese immigrants made to the United States, get a taste of both their hard work and the racism that simmered under the surface, the heartbreak and dread many experienced the day of Pearl Harbor and the way many took advantage of their desperation. We appreciate how lives were paused without regard for human dignity. And we see the heartbreaking effects of the mental torture Japanese Americans suffered upon "questioning".

Many of the older generation recognized immediately that they were in danger, but the younger characters come to that slow realization in the form of a malevolent soldier. But we also see the respect that other soldiers came to have for their prisoners once they worked- and played- with them as a community.

The most quietly poignant moment was when a character remembered playing an "All American" sport. For me, that little moment highlighted how real- and simple- the aspirations of many from that generation were. That the character could take those aspirations and use it to help not just himself but also his community was one of the most uplifting in the book.

We also see the rigors of training and the horrors of war. The battle scenes are intense, but the camaraderie that develops between the soldiers is inspiring. Yee does an excellent job of showing each soldiers' different personality- and implying the reasons he may have signed up.

While the romance between Hiroshi and Minami is one of the sweetest I've ever read, the "love story" is a little different from many other romances. It emanates from a sacrifice one man made not only for his beloved wife, but also for his family, other Japanese Americans and ultimately all other Americans. And it's a love story that could be told of many real-life veterans, and for many years it was unrequited. While many steps have been taken to rectify that, the author reminds us at the end that the prejudice which forced the issue still lingers, and sadly remains evident in today's armed services.

An excellent book for anyone who wants to explore an important chapter in US History.

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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present by Max Boot

Invisible armies *are* the regular armies. That's not an attempt at cheek; that's from the author himself, both in the beginning chapters of the book and from his Twelve Articles at the end. If most conflicts aren't guerilla warfare (the concept is only 5000 or so years old) or terrorism (which wasn't fully developed until the 19th century), most wars aren't fought by conventional state-run armies. If anything is irregular, it would be those engagements.

Over 550 pages, Boot provides a thorough overview of not only how guerilla and terrorist techniques evolved and where they were used, but why some such engagements are going to be more successful than others. Throughout the volume, the book makes clear the tension inherent in guerilla insurgent warfare: it is the preferred method of the weak adversary, and it's dependent on avoiding being drawn into the kind of conventional battles guerillas are unable to handle. Such warfare is a war of attrition. However, while it can be successful against a conventional enemy (particularly if guerillas can spin media communications against their enemy), the already weaker side has more to lose and usually can't afford the losses they incur over an extended period of time. Although not the rule, most such engagements will be more successful if they receive outside help. (Surprisingly, Boot makes a convincing argument that Mao falls into this category.

Although frequently coupled with guerilla insurgency, terrorism is a different animal. While it doesn't coalesce in the popular imagination until the Anarchists of the 1880s, it was actually pioneered in the United States, both before the Civil War (John Brown at Harper's Ferry) and after (the Ku Klux Klan). From the start, terrorist operations have been successful when they have shaped the narrative; in general, terrorists aren't going to be successful at winning wars outright. While they're seen by many as having enjoyed incredible success since the 1970s, much of that is due to their ability to manipulate the popular media. Further, there has been a disturbing tendency of many terrorist groups to overreach, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. To paraphrase a quote from the book, terrorism is theater and you want to minimize the dead; personally involving too much of the audience will turn them away from the cause quickly.

One of the longer books I've read for review, it flows pretty quickly over about 65 chapters. His scope is extensive, but most of his chapters are short vignettes about various military (or paramilitary) engagements as well as the circumstances leading up to it; it doesn't presume an expertise in any theory of warfare or history. Having said that, I would recommend the last few chapters to anyone who wanted a brief overview of the post-9/11 wars the US became entrenched in.

Recommended for anyone interested in military history and current events.

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