Sunday, May 28, 2017

Book Review (OT): Spy School (junior high, spy school)

Spy School, by Stuart Gibbs (Simon & Schuster, 25.00$, 2012, 291 pp, ages 8-12 and adults)

Spy School is the first in a series of exciting books for both boys and girls, and adults. For boys because the hero is a boy. For girls because a girl always saves the day. For adults who want a quick very entertaining read.

The second book, Spy Camp, was reviewed earlier in DogEvals: read the review here.

The Adventure Begins

Spy School explains how our friend Ben is accepted into the super secret academy of spies, the Academy of Espionage, a fortress somewhere in the Washington, DC, area, behind impenetrable walls, guarded by “real” CIA agents – a spy school for kids from grades 7-12 (shades of Hogwarts, eh?). 

The time is mid-year, with snow on the ground. All the 300 students know each other, except the new kid, Ben, who fails his initiation test royally: nobody tells him it’s a test!

There are underground bunkers and miles of tunnels (and why is there a bomb in one?), but who is who? Who are the good guys? And who are the attendees at the conference called ”Who’s Who in Espionage?“

How would you like to study – and starting in Junior High to boot -  instead of English and Algebra and Geography and Biology, subjects like Psychological Warfare, Arms and Armaments, Information Acquisition (Interrogation), Self- Preservation, Self Defense, Enemy Subjugation and Apprehension, Cryptology, Cryptography, Counterespionage, Disguise, Chemistry 102: Poisons and Explosives (my Chem 102 was titled More Inorganic Chemistry), Chemistry 105: Constructing Weapons from Cleaning Supplies, Explosive Destruction and Defusion?

How would like two of your text books to be Peachin’s Field Guide to Bombs and Other Incendiary Devices and Driscoll’s User’s Guide to Southeast Asian Artillery?

Yes, the students even play war –paintball war – but they are graded on capturing the flag.

What is Pinwheel? Scorpio? Jackhammer? Jackrabbit? Klondike?

Who’s the mole? Who’s the bait? Who’s the patsy? Who’s codenamed Smokescreen? What is the nefarious SPYDER?

Sounds like an American Harry Potter?

What’s it like to have a junior high school crush on a girl two years older who smells of lilac and gunpowder?

Could our young hero Ben Ripley be another Gracie Allen – “. . . so clever he’s extremely good at appearing not clever at all”? Did he really foil an assassin with a tennis racket?

“Back in public school, if someone told you something like “Say one word about what you saw down there and you’re dead,” you could assume it was an exaggeration. At spy school, they actually taught you how to back those words up – and gave you the weapons to do it.” No wonder the CIA school does not tell the parents about the true identity (or location) of the school. [sic]

PS - Even the chapter titles are intriguing:
Bomb defusion

Highly Recommended

The Spy School series is an incredible set of plots starring nerds that even adults will be engrossed in. Each page is a surprise and the plot escalates towards the end of each book but, in retrospect, all makes sense and keeps you wanting the next installment. The reader will even learn a thing or two but as to the pragmaticality of what he learns – that is a different matter.

(This book is available at the Howard County, MD, public library.)

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Movie review: War Machine (Netflix, Brad Pitt, Afghanistan, satire?)

Official Release Poster
War Machine” it is not. Sorry, Brad Pitt.

My ears perk up whenever I hear the word “Afghanistan,” so I was intrigued when I heard about a new movie, a humorous (satirical?) movie about US troops in Afghanistan, starring Brad Pitt. What a combination!

We watched it yesterday when it came out on Netflix.

Brad Pitt?

Brad Pitt is a little boy trying to scowl, squint only in one eye, and act wizened, grey and wrinkled. He just doesn’t quite have the command presence that even “first louies” pick up naturally – rather, Pitt affects a put-upon macho swagger that fizzles like the day after the Fourth of July. Perhaps he has too much blond hair for a four-star general?

I do appreciate his bunking in a regular troop’s billet rather than a private room complete with his own bathroom in Afghanistan. I am not sure I like his numerous selfies with the troops. He supposedly eats one meal a day and sleeps four hours a night, though.

Smell the heat

Sections of some scenes are so realistic that I could smell the piercing temperatures and the radiating-heat canvas tents and the desert powder-sand (all the smells I love and that bring back memories), but I then I would be sidetracked by the many instances of troops being depicted “out of uniform” - a jacket totally unzipped, an ACU collar standing up on one side rather than lying down flat – generally by colonels or generals.

The further downrange one goes, however, the less uniform the uniforms can get away with (more important things on the minds of soldiers than saluting, plus Marines do not salute in a combat zone) but every movie has military advisors and, I have heard tell, that there is at least one uniform error so that the enemy viewing the film will not know the proper way to wear our uniform.

Too many minutes are devoted to a unit ‘under fire’ in a village but the viewer even then ‘gets’ the true flavor of being in a combat zone (except hats are generally not worn on the tarmac for safety reasons). War Machine will bring back memories and spark conversations for those of us who were deployed there or to Iraq.

Farce or not?

Not quite. A quality film would have been astutely well-written with slick quips to bring forth a sly smile or an audience-wide round of loud guffaws. War Machine wasn’t exactly slap-stick but, obviously, the military advisor to the script and filming was not fully present when he should have been.

What’s effective about War Machine

Actors of the proper age were generally selected for the proper rank. Two-star general Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall, portraying a similarity to General Mike Flynn) is about the right age – much older than the higher-ranking four-star general, Pitt. Proper deference for rank was not afforded, however, even when deployed.

Meg Tilly as the General’s wife puts in a stellar, believable performance, as does Tilda Swinton as a realistic German reporter, and the ever-malleable Ben Kingsley as President Karzai.

However, . . .

The Book
The Story: In or about 2009, the ranking US general (Stanley McChrystal) in Afghanistan took an assessment tour of the country and requested a troop surge (right after I left!), then approved a Rolling Stone writer to be embedded and ‘hang out.’ The eventual article reported on comments purported to be made by the general that should never have been said or related (they were ‘off the record’) and on soldiers drunk at an impromptu party (not in theater). This, combined by the good general’s attempts to fight the system resulted in his being fired or resigning – as well as a book by the magazine’s reporter (The Operators by Michael Hastings) before he died in an auto crash in 2013.

People will watch War Machine because of the subject matter, because it is a Netflix flick, because of Brad Pitt: they may not watch the entire film even if it is Memorial Day weekend.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Review: Tuesday's Promise (veteran, golden retriever service dog)

Tuesday’s Promise: One Veteran, One Dog and Their Bold Quest to Change Lives, by Luis Carlos Montalvan and Ellis Henican (Hatchette, 294 pages, 2017, $27)

The Last of the Tuesday Books

Have you read the previous* Tuesday books - Until Tuesday, Tuesday Tucks Me In and Tuesday Takes Me There? 

If not, you may want to start with Tuesday’s Promise and then the lovely Tuesday Takes Me There.

If so, you will want to read Tuesday's Promise, the most recent and the final one. The author, Luis Montalvan, passed away a mere six months ago and his 10-year old service dog Tuesday now lives in Connecticut with his trainer, Lu Picard, at her service dog training facility ECAD (Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities, formerly East Coast  Assistance Dogs). Montalvan was able, however, to finish writing this book.

The Final Chapter . . . . of a Veteran’s Life

Yes, this is the final Tuesday book. Montalvan starts by summarizing his military service and Iraq War injuries in one chapter (rather than the third of the book in Until Tuesday), following by a series of chapters relating the assistance Montalvan provides at the request of veterans’ mothers concerned about their sons returning from war – and the lack of interest on the parts of the Army and the VA for their PTSD. We don’t exactly know how Montalvan helps, but he seems to be the reason for these service members’ recoveries and receives the mothers’ undying gratitude. (Sometimes people are in the right place at the right time – an injured veteran, the support of a US Senator, a best-selling book, a photogenic golden retriever service dog. . . . )

Reading Between the Lines

Reading between the lines, military officers can identify that the author is another officer, and the very astute reader can recognize premonitions of an impending depression. This may occasionally happen as those surrounding a sufferer notice outward improvement and mistake it for recovery rather than finally making a fatal decision.

Montalvan led a difficult life, being injured in Iraq and having to leave his beloved Army. His pain, both emotional and physical. But he also received much: a 5000$ wheelchair and, though his amputation surgery was not covered by the VA (why not?), he was able to obtain an $80,000 prosthesis that made all the difference. And most of all, his best friend Tuesday as well as the adoration of children, service members and service dog handlers everywhere. Oh, and a best-selling book!

And More. . . .

Tuesday’s unfortunate experience being attacked by another dog, the mutually-appreciated daily grooming sessions of a dog which include teeth brushing, the anguish of finding a lump on your dog and waiting it out, being incorrectly arrested at a VA facility because Tuesday did not have service dog identification (which was not required).

Perhaps the most valuable lessons for the reader concern Montalvan’s decision to have his leg amputated and then the procedures of being fitted for a prosthesis – certainly an eye-opener for this reviewer who spent time training service dogs in the past.

And secondly, another lesson for service dog trainers and recipients alike – the decision to consider a successor dog (replacement dog) named Promise, as one’s dog ages.

RIP, Luis!

Luis, rest in peace. The world will miss you! Especially Tuesday.

*New York Times bestseller, Until Tuesday, and award-winning children’s books, Tuesday Tucks Me In and
Tuesday Takes Me There,
all reviewed earlier on DogEvals.

Caveat: Tuesday’s Promise may be available at your local public library: DogEvals’ reviews are always objective.