Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Literary Film Noir from the Nevada Desert - Review of "Battleborn" by Claire Vaye Watkins

There is no question that Claire Vaye Watkins is a gifted writer with a distinctive voice.  There is also no missing the fact that the Nevada desert where she was raised has deeply impacted her literary style and her view of the world.  In this compilation of short stories, entitles "Battleborn," characters who could only thrive in the desiccated atmosphere of Death Valley and environs interact with the harsh environment and with one another in ways that are often troubling.  Like the meandering Truckee River that emerges as a minor character in many of the stories, the men and women and young people who inhabit these tales struggle to find a straight course for their lives.  They often miss connecting with each other at an emotional level.  There are assorted stories of Forty-Niner gold miners, denizens of a brothel near Las Vegas, young women struggling with pregnancy, members of the Charles Manson family, and a host of characters mourning the loss of a loved one or of innocence.

Reading this collection felt like watching a series of short film noir offerings, dark and tormented narratives leading to an unresolved or unfulfilling denouement.  The trick in my enjoying this type of writing was to look for flecks of gold catching the light amidst the slurry of the background atmosphere and action.  Like the stalwart Forty-Niners who panned for gold, the work was hard but occasionally rewarding as flakes and nuggets of brilliant writing presented themselves.

I look forward to reading more of Watkins' work.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Spirit of Giving - Helping a Freshly Wounded Warrior

Just as I was getting ready to put together the previous Blog posting about holiday giving and Advent Conspiracy, I received an e-mail that I knew I had to share.  It fits beautifully with the spirit of giving that I was writing about earlier.

My friend, Josh Ollek, is a West Point graduate who is currently pursuing an MBA at Harvard Business School.  His e-mail, copied below, made me aware of an urgent need to help the family of one of Josh's West Point classmates who was just wounded in Afghanistan.

"I learned today that one of my West Point classmates, CPT Edward "Flip" Klein was seriously injured in Afghanistan.  Flip lost both of his legs, his right arm, and 3 of his fingers on his left hand when an IED exploded on him while leading a patrol.  I wasn't very close with Flip, but as a fellow infantry officer and his classmate, I did know him fairly well.  Having been so far removed from this war for the past year and half, I've almost forgot about the sacrifices being made over there.  After learning about what happened to Flip, I found a website that some friends made for him to help raise money for him and his family during his recovery.  Feeling somewhat helpless already, this made me feel like I had some ability to help out.  I've tried to send the link along to the folks I know that can get the word out.  Rye Barcott graciously posted it on his website, which has guided several people to it already.  I was hoping you may be able to do this same through your blog.  It may make for a good post for you after the Thanksgiving holiday.  I'm sure Flip would appreciate any attention you can bring to his cause.  Here is the link:

Sorry for the dreary news.  I hope you had a great Thanksgiving.  I look forward to talking soon. 

Take Care,


+   +   +   +   +   +   +

Josh's e-mail prompted me to go to the link provided above, and to donate to this family.  If you want to get an early start on your holiday giving, I invite you to join me in helping The Klein family.


From Black Friday to Advent Conspiracy - A Better Way to Celebrate the Holidays

I watched with grotesque fascination the reports of some of the outrageous behavior that took place across the nation during Black Friday.  Fights, stabbings and shootings in line and in the parking lots of WalMarts, Sears, and Target stores were reported from coast to coast.

I shook my head and asked myself: "How did it come to this, that we would kick off the sacred holiday seasons of Christmas and Hanukkah with such crass consumerism run amok?  Isn't there a better way to prepare for the holidays?"

Having spent a wonderful week in Orlando celebrating Thanksgiving with family and friends, I returned to Boston on Saturday.  During the worship service Sunday morning at my church, the sermon was on Advent Conspiracy - a better way to prepare for the holidays.  It was perfect timing as an antidote to the excesses of Black Friday.  Our church has been participating in Advent Conspiracy for 5 years, during which time we have re-directed money that would normally have been spent on gifts and gave those funds to selected charities.  In those few years, the amount we have been able to contribute has been in excess of $100,000.

There are three basic tenets of Advent Conspiracy:

  • Spend Less - on gifts
  • Give more - of yourself, of gifts of time or hand-made gifts
  • Love all - By giving the money not spent on gifts to causes that spread love to others.
At our congregation, the Advent Conspiracy money is shared among several projects at home and abroad:
  • A ministry in the Dominican Republic that brings hope and health to people living near a garbage dump.
  • Living Water that provides wells and potable drinking water to those who would otherwise not have access to water.
  • A ministry to help victims of sex trade escape their lives of despair
  • A homeless shelter
To learn more about how Advent Conspiracy works, check out this link:

Whether your tradition is to celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, I encourage you to join me in adopting the spirit of Advent Conspiracy and channel some of your holiday giving into charities that you believe are making a significant difference in the world.

I encourage you, as well, to share this message with those on your holiday shopping list.

Buy less - Give more!

God bless.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Review of "The Absolutist" by John Boyne - An Unblinking Look at World War I

John Boyne has reached back a century in time to capture the pathos of The Great War and how it impacted countless lives in Europe and the U.S.  "The Absolutist" is the story of a complicated relationship between two soldiers, one who was executed for his opposition to the senseless war, and another who both loved and betrayed him.  That second soldier, Tristan Sadler, at the end of the war travels to Norwich from London to confront the family of his fallen comrade, Will Bancroft.  His excuse for making the trip was to deliver letters to Will's sister that she had written to him on the battlefield.  He planned, if he had the courage, to also tell her the real story of how her brother died in France.

This novel is beautifully told, with masterstrokes of writing that contain passion, pathos, jealousy, heroism, and self-doubt.  The sense of frustration and despair by those in the trench along the Maginot Line is palpable.  As I read, I could feel the grittiness of the mud and feel the vermin crawling on the skin of the soldiers who were carrying out orders they little understood.  It is an unblinking look at war from the bottom of a literal trench as well as from the bottom of a psychological one.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Literary Feast - Mini-Review of "John Saturnall's Feast" by Lawrence Norfolk

Lawrence Norfolk loves food, cooking, history and literature. These are the main ingredients of his delectable novel, "John Saturnall's Feast," set in the 17th Century. John Saturnall has been born out of wedlock to Susan, who may be a witch or just a very gifted woman who can grow anything and cook it up into a feast that resembles the mythical meal served to Adam and Eve in Paradise. Each chapter begins with a reproduction of a recipe from the 1600's. It is a wonderful conceit.

After Susan is hounded to death by the superstitious villagers, John is bequeathed to the Manor where Susan had once been in service. About to be sent to the Poor House, John astounds the cook in the kitchen by correctly identifying all of the complex ingredients of a stew. He is set on a path that eventually leads him to become Master Cook of that kitchen, cook and taster to King Charles I, and illicit lover to the daughter of the Lord of the Manor.

The tale is lovingly told, the culinary and narrative ingredients are described in detail - each character adding his or her own subtle spice to this well-prepared and slowly-cooked literary feast.



Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Former POW Sets Us Free To Lead with Honor - Review of "Leading with Honor" by Lee Ellis

Lee Ellis was imprisoned in the infamous Hanoi Hilton for five and a half years after he ejected from his crippled USAF Phantom jet over Vietnam in 1967. For eighteen months of that long imprisonment, John McCain occupied the cell next door. Like his fellow POW McCain, Lee Ellis has taken what could have been a crippling episode in his life and turned it an an opportunity for reflection, self-awareness and a post-military career of distinction and service to others.

In his new book, "Leading with Honor - Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton," the author digs deep into his soul and his history - both as a prisoner of war and as an executive coach and consultant - to extract lessons that are universally applicable to anyone privileged to lead others. The format is simple and deeply impactful. At the beginning of each chapter, Ellis shares recollections of his time as a prisoner of war, and reflects on leadership lessons he gleaned by examining his own behavior and the behaviors of other brave men with whom he was incarcerated. He then transitions to a section in which he applies that leadership lesson to a "real world" situation - often a business challenge. He cites a variety of examples from the many companies and leaders he has helped in his role as consultant and coach. Finally, he boils down the crucial point of the chapter into what he calls a "Foot Stomper" - a pithy, short paragraph that captures the essence of the leadership principle in question. The result is a compact book on leadership that is both powerful and practical.

The first half of the book deals with helping the reader to lead himself/herself. The second half concentrates on principles of leading others. Chapter 9 - "Develop Your People" - I found to be a particularly inspiring chapter. In his memoir section, the author recounts the extraordinary efforts that his cadre of prisoners undertook to pass their time constructively and to keep morale high under the most trying of circumstances, including physical torture. Within his cell, the prisoners took inventory of the areas of expertise that they possessed, and they created a curriculum whereby prisoners would teach other prisoners.

"Even though Camp Unity had much larger rooms - my cell measured about twenty-five feet by seventy - fifty-five of us were jammed in there like sardines,twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. . . In such close quarters, SRO [Senior Ranking Officer] Clower quickly realized that things could get dicey if we didn't have activities to occupy our time. So he asked Captain Tom Storey (USAF), an experienced educator, to launch a learning program. Tom listed several study options using the concrete slab floor as his blackboard and pieces of broken brick as chalk. The electives included math, calculus, science, history, Spanish, French, electronics, German wines and public speaking.

One track of courses was taught on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and another on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. School was in session three hours in the mornings and two hours in the afternoons. . . Most cells had similar ongoing educational programs, and someone came up with the idea of organizing an officer candidate school for the only three Air Force enlisted men in the Hanoi POW camps. A number of officers developed a rigorous curriculum and volunteered to teach the various components of the course. When the three men returned home, the U.S. Congress approved the program and offered the candidates commissions as second lieutenants in the U.S. Air Force.
The lack of books or outside resources did not limit our continuous learning in the POW camps. We relied on recall of past education, and where there was a lack of clarity on a subject, we tried to get a consensus of the best minds. . . Our investment in development has paid big dividends in the years since." (Pages 121-123)

Lee Ellis and his fellow prisoners were well ahead of the wave of "Crowd Sourcing" that has become so popular in this century.

The practical application of this chapter leads with the story of US Air Captain "Sully" Sullenberger and his "Miracle on the Hudson" landing of the crippled 737 with no loss of life. The point was that a life-long commitment to self-development, training and development at the hands of others had uniquely prepared Sully for this once-in-a-lifetime emergency situation.

Two different pilots of crippled aircraft - flying worlds and decades apart - each has a great deal to teach us about courage and leadership under duress.

Here is the "Foot Stomper" for this chapter: "Authentic leaders engage in continual development. Knowledge alone is not enough; the only way to grow as a leader is to do things differently,and that requires change. Go first, and then take your people with you." (Page 128)

During this time of year when we thing about giving meaningful and thoughtful gifts, this book would be a welcome addition to the library of any leader or aspiring leader.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Veterans' Day Gift - RallyPoint Launches - The Career Building Tool Is Now Open to All Veterans


Here is an excellent and very practical way on this Veterans' Day for us to honor the men and women who are serving and who have served  in our nation's military.  Share with each Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airman, and Veteran in your network the news I am pleased to make you aware of today.

I am excited to pass along this message from my friends at RallyPoint.  Yinon Weiss and Aaron Kletzing are both military veterans who have applied their military experience and Harvard Business School training to the task of helping those serving in the military to play a more proactive role in charting their military career, using the latest in social networking technologies.

+   +   +   +   +   +   +   +   +   +   

We’re launching today -- in honor of Veterans Day!
Thank you for the support and encouragement you've given to our RallyPoint team as we grew from a mere idea to a real business.  We first launched our beta site on Aug 1st to an invitation-only group of military leaders covering a wide range of ranks and specializations.  As this group continued to grow, we decided to move our full launch earlier -- and I’m excited to let you know that we are opening our site to the entire military today -- in honor of Veterans Day!

Here is a 90 second launch video that I think you will enjoy...
Video Intro


Many of you have asked how you can help our launch today.  Here are 3 quick things you can do:
  • Help share our launch video on places like Facebook:
  • Do you know anyone currently serving in the military?  Send them the video link and refer them to our homepage
  • If you know any media contacts who would be interested in learning more, please let us know.
As the nation reflects on Veterans Day, we thank you for your support and encouragement.

Empower Your Military Life and Career - Sign Up Today for RallyPoint!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Deeply Moving Remembrance - Heartbreaking and Gorgeous: "In the Shadow of the Banyan" by Vaddey Ratner

Vaddey Ratner has turned the nightmares of her girlhood in Cambodia into a novel of epic impact.  Using a poetic voice that makes the pathos of her subject matter all the more poignant, she tells of the years when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in the 1970's.  The unfathomable suffering of her family - a distant branch of the Cambodian royal family - is told through the eyes of 7 year-old Raami.

The author, as part of her reaction to post-traumatic stress disorder from all she had seen and experienced at the hands of the oppressors, lost her ability to speak.  Fortunately for the reading public, as an adult she has found her speaking voice and a remarkably elegiac writing voice. The result is a novel that is both eye-opening and heart-breaking.

Here are some brief tastes of her writing style in this novel, "In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree."  Raami is sitting and speaking with her Papa, the poet and prince:

"He pulled me to him and, resting his chin on my head, murmured, 'Once, in a journey's dream, I came upon a child bearing my soul. . . '

'Once, in a journey's dream,' I replied, knowing well the routine, the game we'd often play with the verses he'd written, tossing them back and forth, testing them aloud, 'I came upon a reflection of myself.'

A frog jumped into the pond, and the water rippled again, undulating under the sky that had darkened now to the color of despair.  A father's bruised conscience.

'Words, you see,' he said looking at me again, 'allow us to make permanent what is essentially transient.  Turn a world filled with injustice and hurt into a place that is beautiful and lyrical.  Even if only on paper.'" (Page 106)

With these few words, the author has shared with us her reasons for capturing her distant memories in the pages of this novel - capturing in the amber of language that which would otherwise have been transient and forgotten, which now takes up permanent residency in our minds and hearts.

This next passage illustrates the rich imagery with which Ratner uses words to recreate the lost world of her childhood:

"The wind gave a long, drawn-out sigh, and from the giant banyan by the temple's entrance, a flock of birds flapped their wings, echoing the exhalation.  A new day's radiance greeted us from every direction as we made our way across the temple grounds.  Water lilies and lotuses threw splashes of color - yellow, purple, pink, indigo - across the verdant landscape.  Gold and silver flashed off the roof of the prayer hall and the giant dome of the stupa, turning the temple into a miniature bejeweled kingdom.  Above us the sky stretched high, blooming with the thick white clouds, like a wide blue sea cradling floating gardenias.  I marveled at how the sky imitated the earth and the earth imitated the sky.  Pockets of rain dotted the ground, and each held in its reflection the possibility of another world much like the one welcoming us now." (Page 116)

This is a book that gave me a much clearer sense of the insanity that gripped Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge sought to empty the cities and create a new and agrarian Democratic Cambodia.  This book will stand as a masterpiece of recollection and a way of honoring those who did not survive.

Enjoy - and learn.


Thursday, November 08, 2012

Newsweek Recommends the Best Books from Today's Wars - Some Familiar Names

In its November 5 edition, Newsweek devotes a large section to honoring the men and women who have served our nation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Once section of this tribute includes the article below written by Lucas Wittmann which highlights some of the best books written by veterans of these wars.  The list will be very familiar to readers of The White Rhino Report, for it includes three books that have been reviewed here - written by two authors I count among my friends, and a third author I have come to know through correspondence.  I commend to you these books, especially "Joker One" by  Donovan Campbell, "One Bullet Away" by Nathaniel Fick and "Fobbitt" by David Abrams.

FYI - Donovan Campbell has follow-up his New York Times bestseller, "Joker One," with a new book that will be coming out in April, 2013: "The Leader's Code- Mission, Character, Servcie and Getting the Job Done."  Watch this space for a full review.

From Newsweek

Best Books on Today’s Wars, From the Pens of Veterans

"They fought. They died. They killed. They came home. And some of them started to write. Now 11 years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, nine years after the invasion of Iraq, the soldiers have started to write. They have written hooahs and gung hos in the first person; they have written books so painful to read, you don’t believe they could still be alive; they have written in truth and out of desperation. But we are hearing their voices. Think back to Vietnam, to the generation that gave us The Things They CarriedIn Pharaoh’s Army, and Dispatches, among many other now classic books.

All books that have done more to tell us about Vietnam than a thousand hours of TV. When we think of that war now, we think of Cacciato imagined by Tim O’Brien, of the nightmare visions of Philip Caputo, of Neil Sheehan’s perfect soldier who saw the light only to be blinded by it. In short, their war has become the war. That’s the war we know, and the great heroism of these writers is to have brought it to us as true and unvarnished as a bullet entering the brain.
Years after the wounds have healed, at least to our eyes, we still turn to these books as a way to not forgot and to be amazed, again, at what great literature can do with the worst. We think it’s impossible, and surely no one who has watched Fox News, read the newspaper, even daily, and followed the news can achieve that same understanding that a single perfect paragraph in the hands of a writer who has seen war and wants to understand it himself can bring to us.
And let’s not be shy in calling them heroes. Many of them may already be heroes for their acts on the field, but it takes another sort of bravery to try to share the incommunicable experience of war."
—Lucas Wittmann

Dust to Dust: A Memoir
By Benjamin Busch
Veterans Who Write: Benjamin Busch
‘Dust to Dust: A Memoir’ By Benjamin Busch. Ecco. $27.
Benjamin Busch served two tours in Iraq with the Marines and was twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In this haunting, lyrical memoir, he is mired in the seductiveness and consequences of macho violence. But Busch hasn’t only written a memoir about war; the journey also takes him to the heart of family and yields gems like this: “My parents’ home is now a museum to my memory of them in it. No one to greet me at the door. No warmth inside.”
—Nicholas Mancusi
The Snake Eaters
By Owen West
Veterans Who Write: Owen West
‘The Snake Eaters’ By Owen West. Free Press. $26.
While most veterans describe their own experiences, Owen West, of Goldman Sachs and the Marines, sets out to analyze how one unit of American advisers and the Iraqi unit they trained adapted to the insurgency and turned around their corner of Iraq. It’s a devastating indictment of how poorly prepared and disorganized they were, and a salute to how brilliantly brave and resourceful they were in succeeding at their mission to make their unit one of the best in the Iraqi Army.
Here, Bullet
By Brian Turner
Veterans Who Write: Brian Turner
‘Here, Bullet’ By Brian Turner. Alice James Books. $16.
Is war poetry barbaric? Certainly not to Homer or World War I soldiers like Wilfred Owen. But there is something uncomfortable about wringing beauty from the language of combat. Turner bypasses this problem by shunning deliberate experimentation and simply recording what he sees (“tower guards eat/sandwiches”) in hypnotizing rhythm, arresting the imagery as if he’s attempting to make time and space stand still. He seems to be saying: the least you can do is to stop, and look with me.
—Jimmy So
Joker One
By Donovan Campbell
Veterans Who Write: Donovan Campbell
‘Joker One’ by Donovan Campbell. Random House Trade Paperbacks. $16.
Ramadi was the focal point of the Iraqi resistance, and Lieutenant Campbell headed a platoon of Marines that was stranded in the important city as American forces focused on taking Fallujah in 2004. Campbell is so intelligent that he was able to see the trap as it was set, but he is also intelligent as a writer, possessing a knowing omniscience like Tolstoy’s as he movingly tells the story of his men and how they, together, wisely navigated the insanity of warfare.
The Yellow Birds
By Kevin Powers
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers. Little, Brown, and Co. $25.
Iraq War vet Kevin Powers’s unforgettable debut novel opens with a line that is elegiac, measured—and captivating: “The war tried to kill us in the spring.” John Bartle is a soldier in the middle of combat in Iraq. His one job is to stay alive, and he’s made a promise to the mother of a fellow soldier, Murphy, that he would keep him alive, too. It’s the honoring of this promise that propels the book backward and forward in time and across landscapes in Iraq and the U.S. He’s written fiction that seems more real than the “real” thing.
—Doug Stanton
One Bullet Away
By Nathaniel Fick
Veterans Who Write: Nathaniel Fick
‘One Bullet Away’ by Nathaniel Fick. Mariner Books. $15.
There is great Iraq reportage from journalists, whereas a soldier’s memoir can be too hotheaded, and they write as if nothing else matters. So why read one? Because nothing else matters. Fick, an elite Marine, shows that you do not emerge from war and conclude all humanity is the same. The immense stress of war dehumanizes soldiers, and that’s why Fick and his recon Marines seem like machines obsessed with excellence—it is the only way to survive. These men are different.
By David Abrams
Veterans Who Write: David Abrams
‘Fobbit’ by David Abrams. Grove Press, Black Cat. $15.
This is not another Lord of the Rings prequel, but a satire of comfortably numb life during wartime. Think of FOBs, or forward operating bases, as Starbucks on the front line, where the staff, called fobbits, can get a bite, surf the Net, use the bathroom, meet for a date. Abrams spent 20 years in the Army, including a tour of Iraq, and he merely has to lightly fictionalize his observations to point out the absurdities of American occupation.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

A Modern Day "Catch-22" for the War in Iraq: Review of "Fobbit" by David Abrams

Every major war produces one or two writers who have the genius to turn deadly serious subject matter into an opportunity to shine the purifying light of comic relief into dark corners of our collective psyche.  Joining Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five" and Heller's "Catch-22," we now have David Abrams' "Fobbit."  The author served as a "Fobbit" during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Fobbitt - Definition: A U.S. Army employee stationed at a Forward Operating Base who avoids combat by remaining at the base, esp. during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011).  Pejorative.  

As a soldier in a Public Affairs team in Iraq in 2005, the author kept detailed notebooks of his observations and comments about what he was seeing at the FOB.  Those notebooks found their way into a Blog, and now into this fictionalized account of life inside the wire in Baghdad.  Abrams brings a literary and cultural sensibility to his writing that enlivens the narrative, with frequent allusions to classical music and literature that seem deliciously and ironically incongruous amidst the sandstorms of the Saddam's former kingdom.

The writing has an acerbic wit that made it difficult for me to put the book down.  I raced through its 350+ pages in a couple of days.  Like Dickens, whom the author clearly admires (there are several mentions of "Hard Times" within the text), the author takes great delight in inventing names for his characters that describe them and lampoon them.

"Quinner was a man who talked tough to his staff but, Duret suspected, deep down inside he was irresolute as a choice given two choices for dinner: pepperoni pizza or chicken nuggets with barbecque dipping sauce.  When faced with a fork in the road, Quinner probably wrestled with himself for hours on end, wondering if he should take the high road, the road less traveled, or if he should just stop by the woods on a snowy evening.  This didn't mean Quinner was necessarily a cautious, prudent man; no, just a dumb one who couldn't tell a fart from a turd.

Was he a quitter?  No.  Was he a winner?  No.  He was Quinner!" (Page 102)

Abrams lays out clearly his vision for this book, as he presents a snippet of conversation between ill-fated Captain Abe Shrinkle and an Aussie soldier at poolside inside a distant corner of FOB Triumph:

"The soldier put down his book.  'Is this a joke?'

Abe pointed at the book. 'No, but that is.'

'What's wrong with Catch-22?' Abe's poolside companion said.  'It's a classic.'

'Yeah, classic antiwar rhetoric.'  Abe had never read the novel, but he remembered how, during office hours, one of his West Point professors had gone on a vein-throbbing rant against 'that ass-clown Yossarian,' who spent the entire book trying to weasel his way out of his patriotic duty.  One the basis of that alone, Cadet Shrinkle vowed he would never touch Catch-22.

'Why in the world,' he asked the other soldier, 'would you want to read a book like that at a time like this?'

The soldier grinned.  'I can't think of a better time to read it, can you?  It's helped me get my perspective skewed in the right direction.  Sort of like an owner's manual for this war.'" (Page 194)

We should be grateful that this former Fobbit has crawled out of his lair in the Shire and joined the front lines of those waging literary battle against the inanities of warfare.

Enjoy - and think.