Book review: Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

This is my first political biography in years since this genre is particularly my cup of tea but I was sold by the following two points:

(1) Insights into Iraq and Afghanistan wars – Having watched both wars from afar and hearing so much from the media, what better than hearing from the ex-secretary of defense himself.
(2) Robert Gates unique position – Not only did he helm two wars but he was also the only secretary of defense who served two consecutive presidents from opposing parties (George W Bush’s last two years and Barack Obama’s first two years).

“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates though was a dense read that took awhile for me to get through, it was overall, an enjoyable and juicy read, almost like going through an exposé that dishes the dirt inside the White House administration and Pentagon.

“I did not enjoy being secretary of defense. As soldiers would put it, I had too many rocks in my rucksack: foreign wars, war with Congress, war with my own department, one crisis after another. Above all, I had to send young men and women in harm’s way.”

In this biography, Gates was astoundingly forthcoming, almost uncomfortably frank that it rankled opinions across the political spectrum. Whether was he ethical in ratting on his ex-bosses will be discussion for another day, yet I cannot deny it was interesting to learn about his experience working with notable political figures.
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Book review: Blood, Bones and Butter

“Blood, Bones and Butter” is a memoir by chef Gabrielle Hamilton, who owns the restaurant Prune in New York’s East Village. As a disclaimer, I have never ate at or been to Prune so I am in no capacity to pass any comments about the establishment or its food.

What really drew me in though was when I learnt that apart from being a cook, Hamilton also holds a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. That combination, undoubtedly, is uncommon and got me intrigued.

My first impression of the book? It is a very frank memoir documenting Hamilton’s personal journey to cooking professionally, and frank might just be an understatement to describe her strong-willed personality, which is plainly reflected in her writing style and also the vision behind her restaurant she wrote passionately about.

“To be picked up and fed, often by strangers, when you are in that state of fear and hunger, became the single most important and convincing food experience I came back to over and over, that sunning afternoon humming around my apartment, wondering how I might translate such an experience into the restaurant I was now sure I was about to open down the block… I knew I had to somehow get that kind of hospitality into this minor little thirty-seater in the as-yet-ungentrified and still heavily graffitied East Village.”

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Book review: Lawrence in Arabia

Perhaps one of the most iconic figures in the 20th century, Thomas Edward Lawrence, or simply T.E. Lawrence, has captured the hearts and imagination of enamored audiences through the numerous films, books and other materials surrounding this enigmatic figure.

Despite having heard of the World War One British military officer during my travels and from various news articles, Scott Anderson’s book was my very first stab at trying to comprehend with this mythical character historically whose life is intricately intertwined with the complex process of how the modern day Middle East territorial borders were formed.

It was truly a mammoth attempt to digest “Lawrence in Arabia,” a long, dense and comprehensive book that spanned the entire lifetime of Lawrence from cradle to grave backed by extensive research. More than just a biography, it helped put into perspective many of today’s problems in the Near East, particularly poignant if you have been following the events unfurling in Syria and Iraq.

“Beginning with the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, but greatly accelerated by the so-called Arab Spring movements that have roiled the region since 2010, the established order has steadily eroded before the force of the “Arab street.” Thus far, though, that “Street” has shown little sign of coalescing around any notion of Arab unity, let alone the old dream of a greater Arab nation, but very much the opposite: a reversion to the balkanized patchwork of ethnic and religious enclaves that existed under the Ottoman millet system.”

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Book review: The Last Man in Russia

A sign that you have read a good book is when after you finished it, you dream about it. That was what happened to me upon completing Oliver Bullough’s “The Last Man in Russia.” In my dreams, I was on the Trans-Siberian railway traversing through the vast and empty tundras past the onion-shaped domes of the Orthodox Church. With such a picturesque dream, I almost did not want to wake up from it.

I was surprised by how Bullough’s non-fiction swept me off my feet to whisk me off to the land of the tsars. By anchoring the story around Father Dmitry Dudko, Bullough narrated the religious life of an Orthodox priest while never losing sight of his wider aim of conveying Russia’s tumultuous contemporary history and the struggles of the ordinary people.

“He (Father Dmitry) realized that trust between people is what makes us happy. Any totalitarian state is based on betrayal. It needs people to inform on each other, to avoid socializing, to interact only through the state and to avoid unsanctioned meetings…

The misery that Father Dmitry heard in confession was the symptom of the state’s policy. No one trusted anyone, and that is a parlous way to live. People were living in solitary confinement in the middle of crowds, and it was killing them.”

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Mid-week travel tales

travelI have most recently completed two travel stories that were sent to me for review and decided I should put them together for a two-in-one blog post. Travel stories typically make for intriguing read because of the very nature of traveling unseats people from their comfort zone and throw them in the face of bewildering changes, giving them the chance to interact with the unknown and opening up space for self-reflection.

The first book is “A Breeze in Bulgaria” by former Peace Corp member Bruce McDonald recounting his volunteering experiences in the ex-Soviet country back in the early 2000s. The second book is “Double Happiness” by Tony Brasunas who was in China to teach English in 1997 and his traverses through the vast Middle Kingdom.

Both titles are written by Americans who chose to take a step away from their relatively affluent lifestyles to re-live their lives in developing nations, and through their journeys, they discovered new truths that is best expressed by Brasunas:

“Time does not exist for travelers – they’re always children at heart, always living in the first day of creation.” Travelers have always by necessity welcomed this magic, this fate, danger, and discover. Travelers ineluctably live in the now.”

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