“The Quiet American” – Graham Greene book review


I read my second consecutive British expatriate novel set in south east Asia. Burmese Days by George Orwell, is set in 1930s Myanmar while the Quiet American is set in 1950s Vietnam. Graham Greene is one of my favorite authors and his writing style flows beautifully. Like Burmese Days, The Quiet American was a controversial book when it was released.

The main character is Thomas Fowler, a middle-aged reporter for a British newspaper. He is covering the conflict between the French and the communist Vietnamese in the first Indochina War after World War II. The novel predicts the entry of the Americans in Vietnam and its failure. Alden Pile is works as an economic attache at the US Embassy. Both men are in love with a young Vietnamese girl, who is living with Fowler. It is a really good story and gives some good background into the time period and war as all good historical fiction does. Greene has many astute observations about aging, retirement, age differences in relationships and the expatriate lifestyle. Fowler is dreading going back to England to take over as the foreign editor of the paper. The characters represent the different viewpoints of the war, with Americans, British, French, Vietnamese and Chinese perspectives explored.

I will not spoil ending, but my only criticism of the book is the depiction of the detective work in a murder investigation. I don’t believe the murderer would get away with the crime. This does not however, take away from my enjoyment of the book and I highly recommend it. It was made into a movie twice and I would like to see the 2002 film.

Pico Iyer from NPR writes more eloquently about the book. Below is an excerpt from his 2008 review:

What touches me in the book, though, is something even deeper and more personal. The novel asks every one of us what we want from a foreign place, and what we are planning to do with it. It points out that innocence and idealism can claim as many lives as the opposite, fearful cynicism. And it reminds me that the world is much larger than our ideas of it, and how the Vietnamese woman at the book’s center, Phuong, will always remain outside a foreigner’s grasp. It even brings all the pieces of my own background — Asian, English, American — into the same puzzle.

You must read The Quiet American, I tell my friends, because it explains our past, in Southeast Asia, trains light on our present in many places, and perhaps foreshadows our future if we don’t take heed. It spins a heartrending romance and tale of friendship against a backdrop of murder, all the while unfolding a scary political parable. And most of all, it refuses the easy answer: The unquiet Englishman isn’t as tough as he seems, and the blundering American not quite so terrible — or so innocent. Both of them are just the people we might be at different stages of our lives. The Quiet American, in fact, becomes most haunting and profound if you think of it just as a dialogue between one side of Greene — or yourself — and the other. The old in their wisdom, as he writes elsewhere, sometimes envy the folly of the young.

The more I read about Vietnam and meet people from there, the more I want to visit.


Book Review: “Everybody’s Fool” by Richard Russo


I finished Richard Russo’s novel Everybody’s Fool on the flight back to Japan. The book follows the lives of people in the small fictional town of North Bath in upstate New York. Having grown up in a similar small town in northern Michigan, I could relate to the characters, although I realized it has been a while since I’ve been home and my friends today are different to the people I grew up with. Although not as pronounced as Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, my life has taken a similar trajectory.

Everybody’s Fool takes place in a 48 hour period and is a sequel to Russo’s 1993 “Nobody’s Fool”, which was made into a movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Newman. The story gains momentum throughout and I eagerly read the last third to find out what happens. I couldn’t help but have the picture of the actors in my head while reading the book. A great casting job! It also reminded me of the plight of small towns in America in a time of economic globalization. The book is not life-changing, but it is an entertaining read.

I spent the last part of our summer holidays in the small Poconos mountain town of Freeland, Pennsylvania, which is probably quite similar to Russo’s North Bath. I saw plenty of signs of Trump support in Freeland. I agree with Vance that he appeals to whites in small towns because of his blunt way of talking, which differs from the polished and privileged speech of Hillary Clinton. One of the reasons Bernie Sanders appealed to me was that he was not a multimillionaire and I think could relate to average Americans. He has a lot of support in middle class urban areas similar to Trump in more rural areas.




Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture and our Minds


Between Greg Milner’s Pinpoint and my Lehigh summer class, Teaching & Learning with Geospatial Tools, I realize the huge effect GPS (Global Position System) has on our life. Milner’s book is excellent, although the chapters covering the development of the GPS industry are a bit dry, and the book exposed me to ways GPS is used that I never even thought up. It was also good to learn how the whole system works. We take for granted the blue dot on Google Maps or WAZE , and how much went into getting this system up and going.

The US military developed GPS to more accurately drop bombs on its enemies. The 31 GPS satellites orbiting 20,000 kilometers above the earth are controlled and monitored by an air force base in Colorado. I didn’t even know about the NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) the CIA of GPS, which controls the majority of the earth-based monitoring systems that keep GPS accurate and running. The military was slow in realizing the importance of GPS and its civilian applications.

GPS is being used more and more for such things as predicting earthquakes and tsunamis, airplane navigation and landing, tracking criminals, etc. Milner describes the phenomena of “death by GPS” where people follow the commands of a GPS unit to their deaths, whether off a bridge under construction or little-used roads in remote mountains where they become stuck and die. Relying on GPS has changed humans’ sense of place and the mental maps in our brains. For me, growing up without GPS, I rely on paper-based maps, landmarks and always knowing which direction is east/west/north/south. Recent generations may be losing this sense according to some experts and brains do not generate the connections for place sense like they used to. There is a lot of science in the book and some sections are full of acronyms and abstract topics. The latest advancement in GPS is accurately mapping the shape of the planet (it is more like a squashed grapefruit) and the minor changes caused by earthquakes, tides, etc.

I am interested in how GPS can be used in my field of education and learning analytics. I would like to do a study of tracking the movements of school leaders and maybe even teachers and students to see where we spend our time. Am I in my office for too long? Are there sections of the classroom or building that I am not getting to? Where should I be spending most of my time? Universities are tracking students’ time in the library and seeing if there is any correlation to failures. The book and class inspired me to apply for an EARCOS action research grant.

Book Review: “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage” by Haruki Murakami


(Image courtesy of PopMatters)

This is a blog post from last February – I found it in my drafts and decided to post it.

Murakami is like J.K. Rowlings or Stephen King here, and his books are highly anticipated and sell over 1 million copies in the first few days. It is good to find out for myself, why he is so popular.

I read this book over a cold weekend in February of 2014, which in contrast to his last book 1Q84, is quite short. I could not put the book down and was entertained by the story. Murakami usually has a mystery or plot twists that keep readers wanting more. I have now read four books by him and I see recurring themes, as one reviewer noted, with his Murakami bingo card.The reviewer joked you can always find the same things referenced in all his books, like Murakami always mentions songs to form a sort of a soundtrack for the story. 

After reading however, I wasn’t swept away by the book. The main character, Tazaki, has some serious self esteem issues, that I don’t see happening to a financially successful man in his mid-thirties. He also has some emotional blocks about things that happened in high school, which I cannot believe were not resolved or at least explored more at the time. In the story, the pilgrimage is to go find his high school friends after 16 years to discuss an incident that occurred ended their group friendship.

It is nice to live in Japan and understand more his references to daily life here, and it makes the book more enjoyable. He did insert some “magic realism” with a story about a man who carried “death” in a bag, which really had no bearing on the plot. I got burned out on magic realism after 5 years in Colombia and multiple Garcia Marquez books.

I would recommend the book as it is not a big investment in time and a page-turner.  A special thanks to the former OIS librarian Chieko for getting the English translation so quickly in the library.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Eric Larson

Eric Larson is a New York Times best selling author. His books are unique in that he researches historical events and tells the compelling story by weaving actual diary entries or newspaper accounts into the narrative. This is the second book I’ve read by him, the previous (In the Garden of Beasts) being about the rise of the Nazis in Germany from the viewpoint of the US ambassador’s daughter to Germany at the time. “Dead Wake” refers to the wake left by a torpedo ejected from a World War I German U-boat. It is the tragic tale of the cruise ship the Lusitania, a contemporary of the Titanic. It was one of the largest passenger ships in the world at the time.

The Cunard line Lusitania left from New York in May of 1915 heading for Liverpool. The British ship was full of mostly American and British passengers. At this time, the German submarines, called U-boats, were taking down many ships coming to the UK. They did this to stop arms and other supplies from reaching their enemies in World War I. The German embassy in New York warned Cunard publicly that they would try to sink the Lusitania, but with its vastly superior speed and carrying thousands of civilians, no one thought they were in actual danger. The captain was aware of the possibility and they did take some precautions, but not enough. On a lucky shot, the submarine, Unterseeboot-20, sank the boat, killing thousands of civilians, including women and children. Larson describes daily life on the Lusitania and U-20, bringing the two together on that fateful day in May.

There are several villains in this story, the biggest being the U-20 captain Walter Schwieger, who was on his own in charge of the submarine. I don’t know how he could have lived with himself, knowing that his shot killed entire innocent families. Schwieger got his a couple of years later, running into a British minefield with his submarine. There were some arms being carried on the boat, but not enough to make a difference to the war effort. Why Cunard lines didn’t give the boat more protection, why the British navy didn’t warn Lusitania when they had good intelligence that the submarine was in the area, are beyond me. Cunard takes a lot of the blame for in the name of profit, risking the lives of passengers by traveling in an unsafe area during a time of war. It is somewhat like the recent downing of the Malaysian airlines over the Ukraine.

Some of my other notes and vocabulary words are below:

Those weeks of openhearted American hospitality and forth-comingness, of frankly expressed pleasure in meeting one, did something for me that made a difference to the whole rest of my life.

A British passenger describing her time in the USA.

Vocabulary words I want to use more:

  • milieu – social environment of a person
  • pewter – silver or blue gray
  • deposition – a report of evidence; Deposition – taking Jesus down from the cross

Book Review: Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

During the long flights from South America to Japan, I finished the book, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh. Dr. Marsh is an experienced British neurosurgeon. He is an excellent writer with an rebellious attitude and I really was immersed in his world.

I learned a lot of about the life of a brain/spinal surgeon and it is a tough life. He deals a lot with death and illness, and I know it should be common sense, but when one thinks of doctors, one thinks of high salaries and respect in the community. With that however, comes much responsibility and the idea of going into work and someone’s life depends on your performance that day is awe inspiring. It is a demanding career choice, especially doing delicate operations on the brain and spinal cord.

He went through a lot in his over 30 years of practice. Dr. Marsh has come to some revelations through this and he has some interesting reflections on death, illness and medical care. As with other books I have read about death and illness, much of it is just bad luck. I have only known one person with a brain tumor, a teaching colleague of mine when I was in Australia. I was new to the school and didn’t really know him, but he was on and off at the school while he battled the cancer, eventually ending in his retirement and death. So tragic as he left behind a wife and children. Marsh recalls many emotional stories of people dealing with brain tumors. One story of a bicycle rider reminds me to always wear a helmet!

Marsh is a really Brit, and for those Americans who have spent a lot of time around them, you’ll know what I mean. I had to laugh out loud when he wrote what he learned from his American residents that he trained at his hospital. “…I love their optimism, their faith that any problem can be solved if enough hard work and money is thrown at it, and the way in which success if admired and respected and not a cause of jealousy.” I admire the honesty of the Brits.

It is truly awesome to be able to cut into and work on the human brain. His descriptions of the procedures are amazing. The operating microscopes and technology that allows doctors to cut through the skull and repair the mass of jelly which is the brain is incredible. 25% of our blood from the heart goes to the brain which makes it even more complicated and dangerous. He liked his job because “it seemed to involve excitement and job security, a combination of manual and mental skills and power and social status as well.” He sees medicine as a form of craft, neither art nor science.

Many of the cases are really depressing. When patients are terminally ill, it is difficult to accept it and to decide how to proceed. As he asks, “will I be so brave and dignified when my time comes?” I too wonder about my death. He reckons the perfect death is to die in one own’s home, after a long life, quite quickly, looked after by her own children, surrounded by family and free of pain”

He refers to Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and writes that errors of judgement and the propensity to make mistakes are built in to the design of the human brain and gives him comfort in thinking about the mistakes he has made in his career.

He really hates the British public health system and the way modern hospitals are managed. There seems to be a shortage of beds in the UK and I am glad I have private health care, which he also uses. I hope I can afford to keep private health care as I get older.

I am not sure if I would like a job that deals with death and disease all the time. I think I would be good at it however, except for my fine motor skills, which are not great.

Some of the other quotes and vocabulary words I got from the book are as follows:

“…as I become more and more experienced it seems that luck becomes ever more important.”

“…the long working hours and the self-importance it produced in me would lead to the end of our marriage 25 years later.”

“to treat some of the keynote lectures at conferences with a degree of skepticism”

pineal gland – a cone-shaped gland under the brain that releases melatonin, regulating sleep and circadian rhythms. This is known as the “third eye” and some quacks believe the gland can be managed through meditation or other means.

aneurysm – the wall of the artery gets weak and bulges out

pithy – adjective meaning concise and forcibly expressive language

ignominious – causing public shame or disgrace

paroxysms – sudden violent attacks

Book Review: El Cartel by Don Winslow

Being in Latin America for the summer and with El Chapo, the Mexican drug cartel king in the news, I wanted to read something about the drug trafficking business. Don Winslow’s El Cartel fit the bill. It is a novel, but based on years of research on the Mexican cartels, and having lived in Colombia, Bolivia and Venezuela through the years, the book really rang true with me. Winslow certainly knows Latin America. Mexico despite being neighbors with the USA, is one of the few countries of Latin America, I do not know much about. The novel gave me a good background in the history, politics and geography of the country.

I was shocked at level of sick violence in the battles between the drug cartels. In the novel, it mentions a blog detailing the gruesome and awful violence of the cartels, and in looking at the real blog, Blog del NarcoI immediately was repulsed by what I saw. I could only watch for a few minutes, but there are poor souls being tortured, with beheadings, limbs being chopped off, etc., This is much worse than what I saw in Colombia in the 1990s when I was living there and on the level of the ISIS thugs.

The book got me thinking again about the “war on drugs”. I have seen the effects of this first hand in Latin America and with more America putting more people in prison per capita than any other country, it does not make sense to continue down the path of prohibition. If I was czar of the US, I would legalize all the drugs involved in the trade, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines and even prostitution. When these products are illegal, it brings high profits (fact – cocaine alone is a $30 billion market in the USA annually and a kilo of cocaine costs over $50,000 in Europe)) and violence and a corruption of societies. The money and efforts being spent on curtailing this can be used for better purposes. The author came to the same conclusion and explains some of this in a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. He mentioned the large percentage drop in the Mexican cartel’s profits from legalization in Colorado and Washington.

Winslow is a thriller writer so the 600-page novel has lots of action and not much analysis or deep philosophical or emotional insights into human nature. It does give some basic background on the politics of Mexico which made me do some more research on the history of the country. I really want to make a visit to Mexico someday!  There are a few tidbits however:

  • “how corrupt does a society have to be when its citizens need to get high to escape their reality, at the cost of bloodshed and suffering of their neighbors?”  – The eternal question of the drug trade, who is more to blame, the users or the producers?
  • Drug cartel members are “sociopathic murderers whose sole contributions to the culture has been the narcocorridas sung by no-talent sycophants.” – It is sad that Latin America is known for the drug trade when it does have great writers, actors, artists, musicians, etc.
  • “So it’s chaos here now, and the people who pay the price for it are the people who always do, and who can least afford it – the poor, the powerless, the ones who can’t lock themselves up in gated communities, or commute from El Paso” (describing the  effects of the drug war in the border city of Juarez)

New vocabulary

  • pocho – An Americanized Mexican
  • ennui – pronounced an-wee, listlessness
  • inchoate – pronounced (in-ko-it), newly formed, not quite ready
  • assignation – a secret meeting with a lover