Monday, June 2, 2014

May's Best Reads

Junkyard Dogs, Craig Johnson. I’ve been a fan of the Longmire TV show since it came on, and finally gave one of Johnson’s books a try. Liked it even more than the show, by a comfortable margin. The books are wittier, far more “novels with crime” than “crime novels.” In Junkyard Dogs the real crime doesn’t appear until about halfway through, though there are other things that could be crimes, depending on context. The book also has a much quirkier world than the show, though the quirks that make it work best may have been difficult to fit into one-hour episodes, and may not have played well with a network that wants as broad an appeal as possible. Nothing offensive, but Johnson finds humor in an elderly man being dragged behind a car, and makes it funny to the reader. Not everyone can do that. The story comes down to a rich developer who wants more land to develop. I mentioned it last because the premise is nothing you haven’t seen before, but the telling is. Johnson is in my rotation now; highly recommended.

The Sentry, Robert Crais. I like Crais’s Elvis Cole novels better than his standalones. The strengths of his writing style seem better suited to Elvis’s wisecracking than to third-person looks into other peoples’ minds. The books where Elvis’s sidekick, Joe Pike, plays the lead—of which The Sentry is one—are a little of each. Third person, but Cole plays an important role, so the world view has a bit of his leavening perspective. Here Pike becomes involved with a woman and her uncle when, acting as a Good Samaritan, he intervenes in a beat down in the uncle’s restaurant. Things are not as they seem, with Pike and Cole soon find themselves involved with a truly psycho hit man, drug cartels, cops, feds, and what may be feds, or not. Crais’s deft timing and innate knowledge of how long to stay with a scene are, as always, well used. No one writes ending shoot outs better.

The Generals, Thomas Ricks. Good, if uneven. The acknowledgements cite how many people had how much input at various points and drafts, which explains why the book sometimes feels as though it were written by a committee. The analysis of World War II and Korean War generals was excellent and informative, digging well beneath most histories. (Talk about the Forgotten War: Ricks’s description of how the generals handled the Battle of Chosin Reservoir has me looking for a good history of the “police action.”) Lots of good information from Vietnam, including horrifying details not commonly known about My Lai and the cover-up. The book seems to lose focus after that, using examples from both (so far) Iraq wars and Afghanistan to show how the Army has drifted from George Marshall’s and Dwight Eisenhower’s policy of “quick relief” when commanders don’t measure up, though he also seems to take it to some rigid extremes, as when he chides Norman Schwartzkopf for not removing a commander who didn’t move as quickly as Schwartzkopf wanted; the whole ground war lasted only four days. Quick relief is one thing, but damn. (Not that Ricks doesn’t point out several more valid examples of where Schwartzkopf should have done better.) Somewhat inelegant writing aside, this is a thought-provoking and well-documented examination of the caliber of American military leadership, its focus on tactics over strategy, and why we don’t seem to be able to end wars well anymore.

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