Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Higher Loyalty

I have to compensate for two types of bias in my review of A Higher Loyalty.  The first is political, and the fallout of the 2016 Presidential election.  The second is more personal - how does the book compare to my 22-year-old memories of my Trial Advocacy professor?  I've never read, let alone tried to review, a book by someone I knew, albeit slightly.  Because of that, I'm going to break my review down into parts.


Comey's writing style is engaging and highly descriptive, showing an affinity for the language which meshes with my memories of his classes.  As a professor, he emphasized preparation (which indirectly led to my Jack McCoy moment) and using your questions to make the witness comfortable enough to use his vernacular.  He makes those priorities obvious in the chapters on his early career as a prosecutor.  I found them engrossing, particularly the mob trials (which he also used as classroom examples) and the prosecution of Martha Stewart, but readers who aren't lawyers and don't read legal thrillers might not agree.

He also uses a bit of self-deprecating humor to counter an earnestness that verges on self-righteousness.  That's important as he segues into his years as Assistant Attorney General and FBI Director.  Comments about being the "FBI giraffe" and the tight quarters in the Situation Room humanize a man who clearly believes in the American system and the rule of law.  Without that, these chapters might come across as a bit too self serving.  I assume that anyone who writes a memoir has a healthy ego, but Comey's writing style and flashes of humor prevent these chapters from coming across as self-aggrandizing.

Now, about the emails...  I've spent the last 19 months thinking that the FBI mishandled the "October Surprise."  Not just because of my political views, but because I've spent most of my career doing document review.  When I heard, less than 2 weeks before the election, that there were thousands of new emails to be reviewed, my first thought was "de-duping."  Document review programs have gotten much better at de-duping in the 15 years since I moved from hard copy to electronic review - good enough that de-duping (along with predictive coding) has affected my job security.  Comey writes he was told that there was no way to review all of the newly found emails before the election.  My belief (which I think is supported by the fact that the *FBI* did review them all in under a week) is that he received bad information.  Most of the emails were duplicates, and the rest were fully reviewed within a few days.  I've found that partners and associates who either haven't done document review in years or who've always had project attorneys to handle the grunt work don't have a good grasp of the mechanics of electronic review.  My experience has been with associates who don't understand the limitations of the review systems, but I can easily see how the top few levels of the FBI legal team, who probably hadn't done document review since they slogged through a warehouse full of bankers' boxes in the late 20th Century, wouldn't know how good review programs are at de-duping data sets and how an experienced reviewer can separate the relevant an non-relevant documents with a few good keyword searches.  Keeping that in mind, I can understand Comey's reasoning, but I still think he made the wrong decision.

This leads us to Donald Trump.  Press reviews focused on Comey's description of Trump's hair and spray tan, but that's not particularly important.  I was more struck by Comey's comparison of Donald Trump to the mobsters who filled the headlines in the 1980s (and my Friday night viewing while in law school) - so much so that I flashed back to Trial Advocacy and Comey's cadences as he switched between the his prosecution voice and that of his mobster witness.   Except that he's less disciplined, firing (executing) people with little thought about the repercussions.  That mix of ruthlessness and thought-free "decision" making combined with avarice and more than a dash of incompetence scares me.  I think it scares James Comey as well, and reading A Higher Loyalty I think he feels some responsibility.  I just don't know how much.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Adventuress

Lady Emily's childhood friend Jeremy, Duke of Bambridge, has spent Tasha Alexander's novels making himself the most useless man in England and avoiding marriage.  At the start of The Adventuress, we learn that he's failing at one of his goals.  Jeremy, Emily and Colin, Cecile, and Meg are in Cannes to celebrate Jeremy's engagement to the daughter of an American millionaire.  Amity Wells is a bit unpolished compared to Jeremy and his friends (although not when compared to her social climbing mother - the mother and daughter reminded me of To Marry an English Lord), but her enthusiasm grew not only on me but on Emily.

Emily can't help but encounter dead bodies, and in this case, it's one of Jeremy's Oxford friends.  Even worse, the poisoned whiskey was intended for Jeremy - but who would want to kill the cheerfully useless young Duke?  I thought I figured it out early on, and then changed my mind, only to change it again about 5 pages before Emily discovered the murder's identity.  Normally, that's an ideal mystery - fooled twice, but solved.  However, the murder's motive was a bit off in my mind.  I followed the logic but it just felt wrong.  I'd still enjoyed the book, because I love Lady Emily, and I was thrilled to see Margaret again.

Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth

More than a century later, Eleanor is a heroine and Alice has mostly been forgotten. No one could have envisioned that in the early 20th Century, when Alice Roosevelt Longworth was the sparkling, sharp-tongued star of Washington society and her cousin Eleanor Roosevelt was the slightly cowed wife of an ambitious politician who was himself considered a bit of a dilettante.  Their shockingly different personalities came from a surprisingly similar background.  Not only were they cousins born a few months apart, but they also lost parents young and were partially (and most affectionately and effectively) raised by their Aunt Bambie, Theodore and Elliot Roosevelt's older sister.

Hissing Cousins only spends a few chapters on the cousins' upbringing, but it explains how the two girls grew into very different women.  The Alice we know is a whirlwind brimming with confidence and her father's famous swagger, but here we see her as a baby abandoned by her grieving father (TR lost his mother and wife on Valentine's Day, 1884, the day after Alice was born).  After a few years with Aunt Bambie, Alice returned to her father and step-mother. Edith Roosevelt was a rather stern and forbidding character who insisted that Alice live with the family because it was proper.  My impression is that she meant well, but Alice never felt welcome and in modern parlance "acted out."  That led to occasional trips back to Aunt Bambie, who was also Eleanor's occasional guardian.

Eleanor's story is even sadder.  Her alcoholic father half-abandoned, was half-removed from his family and eventually died from his addiction.  Shortly afterwards, her mother also died, but instead of being permanently left with Aunt Bambie, Eleanor and her brothers were left in the care of her maternal grandmother.  Mary Hall's household was backwards and repressive, far from the ideal situation for a bright, sensitive girl, and visits to Aunt Bambie (plus a year in finishing school at Babmie's insistence) still left her shy and insecure.

As adults, they continued to live parallel lives.  Both married unfaithful men (although they dealt with that in different ways), were indifferent and ineffective mothers but loving grandmothers, and became standard bearers for their respective parties.  That is where their stories separate and why we now revere one and barely know the other.  Alice was a grand campaigner, and the doyenne of Republican Washington, but her high profile position was essentially inconsequential.  Eleanor, as befits her more earnest personality, got into the weeds of policy discussions.  Political differences exacerbated the personality differences, and they spent much of their adult lives estranged.  But even someone like Alice can mellow with age and tragedy, and by the time of Eleanor's death, they were at least cordial.  I thoroughly enjoyed this dual biography of two strong women who were joined by blood and separated by the blood sport of politics.  It made me want to read more about them, and about the sprawling Roosevelt family.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Present at the Future: From Evolution to Nanotechnology, Candid and Controversial Conversations on Science and Nature

Present at the Future is an imperfect commute book.  Ira Flatow, whose work I've enjoyed since I was a kid watching Newton's Apple, seems to have aimed a bit too low and a bit too trendy with this mid-2000s book.  The chapters, discussing topics ranging from the Dover, PA lawsuit on the teaching of intelligent design (disclosure - I know Steve Harvey, the attorney who argued science's side) to alternative energy sources to outer space, just aren't deep enough to be fully engaging.  On top of that, I read it with a decade of perspective, and therefore a bit of knowledge about how some of these issues turned out.

Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court

I'm familiar with the Tudors and Stuarts, and with George III and the 19th and 20th Century English monarchs.  The first two Geroges have been placeholders in my mind.  They came to the throne by political accident, German Protestant cousins of the childless Queen Anne, plucked from obscurity to lead a major power.  Lucy Worsley describes court life under George I and II, when the monarchy was transitioning to an almost purely ceremonial position and when appearance mattered.  Chronicling the public (and nearly nonexistent private) lives of ladies-in-waiting, artists, writers, and a pet "wild boy" as well as those of the Kings and Queen Caroline, Courtiers provides an introduction to an era.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Leave the Grave Green

One reason why my mom loves Deborah Crombie's mysteries (and pushed me to read them) is how she blends police department politics into her novels.  That's at play in Leave the Grave Green, where the Assistant Commissioner calls in Duncan Kincaid to take on the case of Connor Swann's drowning.   Connor's in-laws are a famous conductor and opera singer, both knighted in their own rights, and twenty years earlier their son had drowned in the same flooded stream.  As Duncan explores the family matters (and becomes attracted to the victim's widow), Gemma explores the world of opera.  Along the way they find several viable suspects and motives (the widow is always a suspect, and the victim's gambling connected him to a particularly unsavory local character).  Crombie created an unexpected conclusion, though, which surprised me and in which the separate worlds in which Connor Swann lived collide.

To Marry an English Lord

Although I read it at home, To Marry an English Lord is the perfect commute book.  Interesting enough to distract me from work but arranged in short, discreet sections so that I'd never reach my stop at *the good point*, it's the perfect book to pick up when you only have a few minutes.

The authors start by tracing the patterns of American wealth.  Old Money, as we all know, is quiet, and until the mid-19th Century, American society was less sparkling than its European counterpart.  As brasher, flashier families acquired wealth, the old (and not so old) families closed ranks.  Meanwhile, in England, old families had old homes which needed an infusion of cash and the outgoing daughters of robber barons outshone their sheltered English counterparts.  Add in the Prince of Wales's predilection for vibrant female company and you have the recipe for two generations of American girls marrying titled men.  To Marry an English Lord doesn't stop at the wedding, though.   It shows the dreariness of married life in a cold, run-down manor house and the need to produce an heir (it also touches on the acceptance of extramarital affairs once that heir had been produced).  What most struck me was how recent some of these marriages were.  English Lords started marrying American heiresses in the mid-19th Century, but the last marriages were shortly before WWI.  Some of the women profiled lived well into the 1960s and even the 1970s, relics in the modern world.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Cities of the Empire: The British Colonies and the Creation of the Urban World

Tristam Hunt's trip through the British Empire starts in 17th Century Boston and ends in 1980s Liverpool.  As he travels from the early stages of the empire to the riots and racial tension of an English city in a loosely affiliated commonwealth, the British desire to impose their ossifying social structure on every city they took over.  While the British do deserve credit for the roads, buildings, and cultural institutions they left in Cape Town, Hong Kong, and New Delhi, they also brought segregation and suppressed local cultures.  The British Empire made the modern world, but at what cost?

Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science

I'm not sure how I feel about Heretics.  Some segments were engrossing, but others (including the first three, on militant creationists, ghost hunters, and a meditation retreat), were a plodding mixture of dry facts and Will Storr's oversharing.  Storr's writing-as-therapy faded as his delved into more interesting topics, and I found the chapter on implanted memories of (presumably) false abuse particularly fascinating.  He finished the book, though, road tripping with Holocaust deniers, which I can only describe as disturbing.  Perhaps a better writer could have explained how these people developed their horrifying obsession, but such a task is far beyond Storr's skills.  Still, there were enough interesting topics and adequately written chapters for me to not quite regret reading it.