Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Real Spy Tells a Tale of Espionage in the Field: Review of "The Maverick Experiment" by Drew Berquist

In the tradition of Ian Fleming and John Le Carre, Drew Berquist is a former intelligence officer and contractor who has chosen to tell a tale of spy craft in Southwest Asia. It is clear that he is using this novel, and the entire Maverick series, to make a political point about the deleterious effects of bureaucracy and political correctness tying the hands of our intelligence community. His polemical bent notwithstanding, he tells a tale that is worthy of being read.

Derek Stevens is called out of early retirement to lead a Maverick team to do the black ops dirty work that the CIA cannot afford to have its own employees do. Berquist writes with the voice of one who has been there and understands the labyrinthine ways of the intelligence community and Special Ops. His well-told tale of the Maverick's team's exploits in Afghanistan and Pakistan kept me on the edge of my seat.

I look forward to the next book in this series.



Monday, August 29, 2011

Lithgow's Vivid Memoir - Review of "Drama: An Actor's Education"

I have long appreciated and admired the acting of John Lithgow. I thought he was superb on Broadway in "Requiem for a Heavyweight." His role as the transgendered nurse in "The World According to Garp" was transcendent. And there have been many more memorable roles - onstage, TV and on the silver screen.

This memoir of his evolution as an actor and as a human being is a wonderful example of his skill as a story teller. John Irving gets it right in his blurb for the book: "John Lithgow's memoir is more than an insider's view of his craft. Lithgow likens acting to storytelling, and he's a wonderful writer. I loved this book."

The bulk of the book is taken up with Lithgow's early years at Harvard, New York and London. HE shares wonderful and transparent anecdotes of his relationships with Mike Nichols, Liv Ullman, Meryl Streep, Bob Fosse, Brian De Palma and many other luminaries of the entertainment world.

Lithgow's complex relationship with his father is a thread that weaves itself throughout thew narrative.

This book is a must-read for lovers of acting and storytelling.



Hitting Just the Right Notes: Review of "Wunderkind" by Nikolai Grozni

Nikolai Grozni's dark novel is a revelation. Drawing deeply from his own experience as a concert pianist in Soviet era Bulgaria, he uses music as a metaphor throughout the book to show the bleakness of the life of a gifted music student under the oppressive thumb of an Eastern Bloc regime. Having spent considerable time in several for Communist nations, I can attest to the fact that Grozni hits just the right notes in painting vivid word pictures of characters, places and attitudes. The story is a heart-rending tale of the gifted young pianist, Konstantin. He struggles to make sense of his musicianship, the pedagogy and oppression of the Sofia Music School for the Gifted, the soul-dead apparatchiks, the crumbling infrastructure of his city and the wider world locked behind the Iron Curtain, and his myriad relationships with peers and older citizens.

The heart of the struggle is revealed in the quotation from Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" that opens the novel: "What is hell? I maintain that it's the suffering of being unable to love." The action of the novel unfolds like a Chopin etude, consonances and dissonances interwoven as Konstantin and his cohorts grope around in the dark to discover where love and meaning may be found. The tale is one of grayness with surprising interludes of beauty - emblematic of life in Sofia and beyond in those hopeless days before the end of the Communist era.

Grozni writes beautifully and evocatively:

"This was the temple of the robots, of science and reason, of empirical hallucinations and ideological hemorrhaging. This was where the smell of embalmed corpses and pickled contempt came from. The smell of never-ending war. The fact of the matter was, we were all still at war - only by now the battlefield had moved from the fields and the streets into our brains. We had been forced to dig trenches around ideas and big words. We had built fortifications to protect the permitted centers of thought. We had isolated our subversive tendencies with barbed wire. What a great time to be alive! Lunatics to the west, lunatics to the east. On both sides of the thought divide, people hid in shelters, clinging to their meager rations of reality. What should it be? The champions of greed or the harlequins of misery? The priests of selfishness or the heralds of the disposable soul? The grateful slaves of plenitude or the conniving experts of government-sanctioned kitsch? Take your pick." (Page 90)

I am not sure if Grozni is deliberately offering a nod to the writing of Robert Conroy, or if they have simply drawn inspiration from the same muse, but they both use a lovely metaphor to demonstrate the ineffable loveliness of music:

Conroy “The Lords of Discipline”: ". . . the window through which the bright, lovely petals of Mozart dropped into the garden.” (Page 21)

Grozni: ". . . the rose petals floating in Mozart's sonatas . . ." (page 151)

The novel is clearly overtly autobiographical. The author reflects his upbringing in Sofia, as well as his sojourns studying and living in Boston and India. Equally adept at keyboarding on his laptop or sitting at a Steinway, Grozni fingers both the white keys and the black with great artistry. The chords of his writing are major, minor, diminished and augmented. This is a book that will be appreciated by artists as well as by students of the human condition. I look forward to his encore.



Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jimmy Breslin Brings to Life "Branch Rickey"

I have always known of Branch Rickey as the genius behind the machinations that brought Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues. Breslin always writes with a working class New York accent, and he does so in this intriguing biographical sketch that brings the colorful Rickey back to life. Breslin uses the investigative skills that won him a Pulitzer Prize to discover the forces that brought Rickey from the poor boy from Ohio with a strong personal faith and transformed him into the iconoclastic pioneer who changed the complexion and the trajectory of baseball for all time.

This is a book for anyone who has a love for baseball and a desire to understand an important chapter in our nation's history of race relations.



An Anatomy of Rage: "Townie" by Andre Dubus III

I became a fan of the writing of Andre Dubus III when I heard him read from his landmark novel, "House of Sand and Fog." So, I was excited to learn that he had penned a memoir. "Townie" is a remarkable achievement of transparency and vulnerability. I think of it as an anatomy of rage - how Dubus learned to harness the inchoate rage that burned within him as a result of his upbringing on the mean streets of Haverhill and Newburyport, Massachusetts.

His father left the family when Andre III and his brother and sister were still quite young. The small amount of money that the struggling writer and teacher was able to send to support the family ensured that they lived in affordable and rough neighborhoods along the banks of the Merrimac River. The fact that I also grew up along those riverbanks made the reading of Dubus' recollections all the more poignant for me.

Andree II lurks as a phantom character throughout the memoir, moving on and off the stage of the drama that was unfolding in the life of his namesake. The evolution of the son's handling his inner demons is the skeleton of this moving piece of literary reflections. Early on he expresses his rage through physical attacks - always spoiling for a fight. Eventually, he learns that writing is an effective and intoxicating substitute for fisticuffs.

The struggling family subsisted on Lime Street in the down-at-the-heels South End of Newburyport. It was not today's suburban Eden of shoppes and up-scale restaurants, but a hard scrabble town that smelled of the tannery that provided employment for many of the working class denizens of Joppa. A memorable chapter includes a fight in the playground of the Jackman School during recess. The fact that during my junior high school years on my way to the Jackman School I walked each day past the Lime Street house that would one day house Dubus and his siblings made the book very touching indeed.

This honest memoir explains a great deal about the "making of the sausage" that is often the ugly pilgrimage that a person undergoes in being transformed into a writer who work is worth reading. This set of literary jab and left hooks by this pugilistic writer is well worth the investment. I invite you to step into the ring with him.

Continuing the Saga - Mini-Review of "The Girl Who Played with Fire" by Stieg Larsson

Having been drawn into the Stieg Larsson web when I read his first novel, I could not wait to read "The Girl Who Played with Fire." I was eager to see what additional adventures Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander might get themselves into. I was not disappointed. The author does a remarkable job of making the reader care deeply about the fate of an unlikely anti-heroine. Is she victim, victimizer or complete enigma?

Larsson uses his sensibilities as a reformer to ignite a firestorm that exposes social abuses and neglect of women who are victims of human trafficking. He channels his passions into creatively crafting a story that uses a fascinating plot to shine a glaring spotlight on this vital social issue. He does so in a way that is not at all preachy, but scintillating.

Jumping on the Stieg Larsson Band Wagon

I am not one to readily jump on a populist literary bandwagon. I often snobbishly think: "How good can this book really be if that many people are reading it?"

How glad I am that I caved in and finally joined the Stieg Larsson entourage. Larson's ability to weave a gritty tale is eye-opening. His writing and plot devices are witty and plausible. His characters are quirky and memorable. The weaving together of the various threads of this saga is brilliant. I can't wait to read his other two novels.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Job Alerts - Boston-Based Crisis Response Company is Hiring

One of my client companies is a Boston-based firm that provides best-in-class medical, security, advisory and evacuation services to individuals, corporations, government agencies, travelers and expeditions worldwide. Through an exclusive partnership with Johns Hopkins Medicine, members benefit from the advisory services of some of the world’s finest physicians. The company utilizes its worldwide network of personnel and assets to evacuate and extract its members from emergency arising from injuries, illnesses, natural disasters or security situations while traveling.

The company is looking to hire persons to fill two key roles:

Operations Director

Sales Director - Corporate and Government

For each position, ideal candidates will bring the following background:


  • Experience in the medical, security, military, law enforcement, intelligence or other related fields is required
  • Strong leadership abilities and experience
  • Highly energetic and motivated to succeed
  • Ability to thrive and stand out in a fast paced environment
  • Exceptional written and verbal communication·
  • Attention to detail and follow-through
  • Efficient time management and organizational skills; attention to detail and follow-through
  • MBA or equivalent graduate degree
Former special forces or intelligence officers who have worked in the private sector after military service would be ideal.

Location: Boston

Compensation: Competitive and dependent on experience; Salary + Bonus + Benefits

Qualified candidates only, send MS-Word resume and cover letter to:

Dr. Al Chase - achase47@gmail.com

Feel free to forward this to qualified and interested parties.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mini-Review of "Among the Wonderful" by Stacy Carlson

I have always been fascinated by the place of P.T. Barnum in American folk history. In her novel, "Among the Wonderful," Stacy Carlson has done a marvelous job of bringing back to life the wonders of Barnum's American Museum. the story is told through the dual narrative voices of Ana Swift, the world's only living giantess, and Emile Guillaudeu, the museum's taxidermist.

One review noted that Carlson, in her lovingly told tale, makes the "off ordinary and the ordinary odd." I agree. This is storytelling at its highest level. I found myself caring about the fate of even the most obscure member of Barnum's phantasmagorical menagerie off oddities and wonders.