Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities

Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America's UniversitiesSpy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities by Daniel Golden
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I received this book via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program in exchange for an honest review.

The openness of American colleges and universities for thought and research is seen by academics as the keystone to higher education. However Daniel Golden writes in Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities this is seen as opportunities to recruit agents and cultivate operatives as well steal technological innovations both by our own intelligence agencies and those across the globe.

Golden divided his book into foreign and domestic intelligence agencies exploitation of American universities. The first focused how foreign agencies, mainly the Chinese, have been exploiting American universities need of prestige and tuition money to gain partnerships between Chinese universities and their American counterparts resulting in an exchange of students and professors. Yet the most important focus of Golden’s investigation was on how the openness and collaboration within American university labs opens up opportunities for individuals to funnel research, including those paid by the U.S. government and American companies, to their home country to be exploit by their own government or to patient and start up a business. The second half was on the complicated relationship between American intelligence agencies and universities, some of who encourage a relationship and those that do not. The aspect of conflict between secrecy and openness is seen throughout the latter half of the book with 9/11 playing a pivotal role in each side’s views. Unlike the first half of the book, this section is seen over the course of 60 years compared to more near 2000 but in a way to show that past is prologue.

As an investigative journalist, Golden uses extensive research and a multitude of interviews in giving a full history and the scale of a front in the global spy game that many in the United States haven’t been aware of. Unfortunately for Golden the timing of this book while on the one hand current and on the other potentially dated. Nearly all his interviews take place no later than 2015, but since the election of Donald Trump with a seemingly nativist groundswell behind him and student demonstrations against conservative speakers might have begun a fundamental shift that could drastically change how both American and foreign intelligence services are seen on American universities especially as a post-9/11 “tolerance” on campus changes to hostility.

Even though the subject Daniel Golden has written about could be in the midst of a sudden sea change, Spy Schools is still a book to read in at least to understand an important part of the global spy game. Although no up-to-date, the recent and long-term history is significant for anyone who is concerned about national security and foreign intervention in American affairs.

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Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Travels with Charley: In Search of AmericaTravels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the fall and early winter of 1960, John Steinbeck packed up a camper-converted pickup truck and along with his dog went in search of America. Travels with Charley finds Steinbeck making a round trip around the United States with his dog, the titular Charley, looking to rediscover the voice, attitude, and personality of the characters he peoples his fictional work with. Yet like all journeys this one takes unexpected turns that the author doesn’t see coming.

Save prearranged meetings with his wife in Chicago and then in Texas for Thanksgiving, Steinbeck and his loyal canine Charley traverse various sections looking to get back in-touch with other Americans that he’s missed by flying over or traveling abroad. Quickly though Steinbeck learns that the uniqueness of speech and language was beginning to disappear into a standardize English in many sections of the country. He finds the Interstate and Superhighway system a gray ribbon with no color in comparison to state roads that show color and local character of the area. And his amazement about how towns and cities have begun to sprawl losing local character as they became mini-versions of New York or Los Angeles which includes his own home town in the Salinas valley, highlighting the changes the country had occurred to the nation during his life time alone by 1960.

Yet Travels with Charley isn’t gloom or despair, Steinbeck writes about the national treasure that is the various landscapes around the country that help give locals their own personality even in the face of “standardizing”. His interactions with people throughout his trip, whether friendly or hostile, give the reader a sense of how things remain the same yet are changing in the United States at the time of Steinbeck’s trip. But Steinbeck’s interactions and observations of this travel companion Charley are what make this book something that is hard to put down. Whether it’s Charley’s excitement to explore that night’s rest stop or Steinbeck’s amazement at Charley’s nonchalance at seeing a towering redwood or Steinbeck’s concern over Charley’s health or Charley’s own assessment of people, Steinbeck’s prose gives Charley character and lets the reader imagine the old dog by their side wherever they’re reading this book.

Written later in the author’s career, the reader is given throughout the entire book the elegance of Steinbeck’s prose that embeds what he his writing about deep into one’s subconscious. Though there is debate about how much of Travels with Charleyy is fiction or if an individual is a composite of several others or even if events are ordered correctly, what the reader learns is that Steinbeck’s journey is unique to himself as theirs would be unique for them as well.

Written almost 60 years ago Travels with Charley details a changing America through the eyes of one of its greatest authors, even today some of Steinbeck’s passages resonate with us in today’s cultural and political climate. But if like me you wanted a book by Steinbeck to get to know his style and prose than this is the book to do so.

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Home to Our Valleys!

Home to Our Valleys! (A Destiny Book, #161)Home to Our Valleys! by Walter Utt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Vaudois were a little Christian group that throughout the Middle Ages were not considered “orthodox” by The Church resulting in persecution and attempts to wipe them out, however after the Protestant Reformation they were considered important to many prominent Protestant leaders throughout Europe especially after Louis XIV influenced the Duke of Savoy to attack them. Home to Our Valleys! is the retelling of the Vaudois’ return from exile during the onset of the War of the Grand Alliance by author Walter Utt using the official account of Vaudois leader Henri Arnaud as well as numerous primary sources from around Europe.

The Vaudois home valleys were in the Piedmont region of Italy, then known as the Duchy of Savoy, right next to the border with Louis XIV’s France. Their exile as the result of French influence on the Duke of Savoy just after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, made them refugees in Switzerland and German lands alongside the Huguenots. It was these combined refuges that came together in a 1000 man strong force that left Swiss territory into Savoy marching for home, a journey that included a sliver of France jutting into Savoy territory. Although this force avoided major battles, it continued to win minor skirmishes before reaching their home at which point their campaign turned into a guerrilla action against French forces operating in Savoy territory.

The overall subject of the book was very interesting, but was undermined by Utt’s decision of how to tell this story. At times the book read like nonfiction then as historical fiction, going back and forth throughout. This inconsistency is what really drove my rating of this book so low because while after thinking long and hard that for the most part this was a nonfictional account of the Vaudois with apparently reconstructed conversations between individuals as best guessed by Utt.

The fact that I had to debate what type of book this was while reading it and a while afterwards, took considerable attention away from content Utt was writing about. The subject matter in Home to Our Valleys! is very interesting, but was lost in the style of writing that Utt chose to write in making the overall book underwhelming.

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Who Travels with the Doctor?: Essays on the Companions of Doctor Who

Who Travels with the Doctor?: Essays on the Companions of Doctor WhoWho Travels with the Doctor?: Essays on the Companions of Doctor Who by Gillian I. Leitch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Since Doctor Who took to the air over 50 years ago, his companions have been the audiences view into his adventures. In the 10 essay collection Who Travels with the Doctor? the role of the companion is examined from various viewpoints as a character, as a mirror on the Doctor, as a reflection on the audience, gender roles, and many more ways.

In the introduction the book’s editors by Gillian I. Leitch and Sherry Ginn, who also contributed, conceded that the most studied companions in the volume were from the “New Who” era than “Classic Who” but many of the more famous or infamous were included as well. The essays early in the book look at companions as a group before really focusing on individual companions. While getting an overall sense of the makeup of companions and their collective reactions to the Doctor is an important facet of examining them, the early essays came off as dry and laborious without really engaging the reader. Studies on gender roles—in which one acknowledges the debate surrounding Steven Moffatt’s alleged misogyny—are then the focus and only really click when making case studies of characters. It’s when the essays turn to studying companions themselves that the writing and arguments seems to make an impression. Essays about Sarah Jane Smith & Jo Grant, Rory Williams, and River Song are three of the strongest in the book. The last two essays of the book about “the companions who weren’t” and “companions in print” finish off the book on a strong note.

With the admitted focus on “New Who” companions as well as current showrunner Steven Moffatt as a result, the essays in which these factored heavily did not fully address the current state—as of 2014—of the show itself. As a fan and watcher of Doctor Who, one of things I found increasingly irritating and impacting my experience in viewing is the lack of a coherent narrative over the course of a season (series in UK). While this complaint would be an essay itself, to me the biggest factor in how current companions are viewed is not only how they are written but the quality of stories they are in. To me this was a missing dimension in the early essays in the book when they discussed the Moffatt era in particular and why I found early essays laborious, they weren’t address a key issue.

However my thoughts about the issues in the first third of the book; the latter two-thirds is where this book of essays takes off and makes the reader think. Yet even without a good fundamental grounding when look at companions on a whole, the study of them individually is undermined.

I received this book for free though LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.

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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and HopeThe Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How does a 14-year old high school dropout in a small famine-stricken country in south eastern Africa build a windmill? William Kamkwamba tells how he did in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a memoir of a young man who wanted to ensure a better life for his family by using ideas inspired by science books and his own innovation to build them.

Kamkwamba’s memoir starts at the beginning, giving a brief history of his parents and grandparents as well as the cultural background of not only his local village but of his native Malawi itself. He then relates the adventures, and misadventures, of his earlier childhood in the relatively stable time before the 2001-02 famine that struck his country. Next comes the hard times of the famine and the struggle his family endured to survive it, but what also forced him to drop out of school. Yet all of this is important in understanding how Kamkwamba was able to construct the windmill that would change his life forever because he explains how not only he, but his family and friends would reuse material to create toys, or hunting traps, or repair other machines.

A little over halfway through the book Kamkwamba begins recounting how he got the idea to build the windmill and his motivation behind it. The ingenuity of his reuse of materials found from junkyards to random materials he could all over his village to engineer his first windmill is fascinating, but given the earlier examples from his childhood the reader understands how Kamkwamba was able to use everything he found for the purpose he wanted. But Kamkwamba does not neglect the contributions of his friends and members of his family that helped and supported him throughout his building, even while some in his village though him a madman.

Only in the last 30 pages of the book describes Kamkwamba experience from local curiosity to giving a presentation at a TED conference to eventually writing this book along with Bryan Mealer. Both Kamkwamba and Mealer knew that the why and how of building the windmill was the central point of this entire book and that while all the fame that Kamkwamba has gained is interesting, it only happened because of the windmill. The book is Kamkwamba’s, but he would be the first to acknowledge that English is his second language and Mealer’s contribution was to ensure that this book was very readable without losing Kamkwamba’s voice.

If I was forced to write a review of this book in ten words or less, I would only needed three: “Just read this”. This book is of a young man who survived trying times that potentially put a limit on his expectations for life and the future, but he found a way to expand not only his own horizons but that of his family and village with an idea and hard work. So just read this book.

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The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America’s Founders

The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America's FoundersThe Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America’s Founders by Forrest Church
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

During my lifetime the so-called “culture war” has seen a debate about if the United States was founded as a Christian nation or not, however it turns out that this debate occurred during the nation’s founding. In The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America’s Founders the issue of religious liberty and if the United States was a Christian nation was presented in 14 chapters of original writings of Founding Fathers and other Americans of the Revolutionary period, compiled by editor Forrest Church.

Covering a thirty year period, between 1772 and 1802, Forrest Church provided to the reader 14 writings from a variety of authors. The most famous are Presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison with material before, during, and after their times in office. Other writers including not as well-known Revolutionary figures Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams as well as largely forgotten Founding Fathers now George Mason and Oliver Ellsworth. However while the well-known and historically prominent were well represented, Church also included the writings of average citizens Isaac Backus, Caleb Wallace, and John Leland to show that not only the ‘political elite’ were debating issue of religious liberty.

The strength of the entire book is the writings presented in this volume and need not be reviewed or critiqued. Although Church does his best to introduce and give context to the writings he presents, these little introductions are in fact that the only compliant one can really have with it. Given the amount of material available during this time period, Church does an admirable job in complying a number of texts from a variety of individuals to present what America’s founders thought and is a must read for anyone interested in the church-state debate in the United States.

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Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible ThingsFuriously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny  Lawson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What strikes you about Jenny Lawson’s “Furiously Happy” first and foremost is the smiling raccoon adorning the cover of the book that just makes you want to pick it up and find out why it’s one there. However before Lawson explains about the smiling raccoon, she has succeeded in sucking you into her hilarious journey of living furiously happy.

While “Furiously Happy” is Lawson’s second book, one does not have to have read her first one to quickly find one entrapped in her fascinating misadventures that many a time bring a smile to your face. The degrees of amusement go from the mildly fun to cringe-worthy hilarity—think Ross in the last three seasons of Friends—in a rollercoaster of events from Lawson’s own childhood to being a wife and mother herself. Between the humor are chapters in which Lawson talks about her numerous mental illnesses and their resulting dark side. For those not aware of Lawson’s health, she is upfront at the very beginning on why she is writing this book and it’s her own dealing with her mental illness that makes her want to live as the book says furiously happy.

While this rollercoaster of emotion prevents reading this book in a single setting—it took me many in all honestly—that’s okay because Lawson wants her readers to think. Here is a woman who is many mental illnesses, she is taking medication and getting therapy but when she has one of her bad days or spells she can look back at all the funny things she’s done in her life by just living furiously happy to keep her from doing anything hurtful to herself. For readers dealing with some of the same issues as her, the knowledge that someone else is feeling like them and keeps on going is a positive. And for readers like myself who do not suffer any mental illnesses, this book is a challenge to take steps to help our friends and family who do deal with mental health if we aren’t already as well as taking advantage of our own good fortune to live “Furiously Happy” because you never know when you might need those humorous memories.

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