James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

4.0 Stars

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In A Higher Loyalty, Comey is attempting to define what good, ethical leadership should emulate and how he has always strived for honesty in his work. While he has been criticized as being sanctimonious and having a big ego, I think much of the criticism towards Comey does not reflect his grand ideals on ethics, integrity, and leadership, and why that lead him to that fateful day in October.

Surprisingly, this book had me laughing a lot. Comey’s humor comes through in an awkward yet endearing way, very much in line with most dad-jokes. One theme throughout the book was humility, even when it was juxtaposed against power and prestige. He introduces you to several key people, from Harry the Grocer to President Obama. Comey highlights specific points in his career and personal life and uses them to illustrate what he deems as ethical leadership.

Comey isn’t here to appease a specific base or to even defend himself against critics. His recountings in the book read very prosecutorially. He’s simply laying down the facts in the situations and showing you how he made decisions regarding multiple cases from Martha Stewart to Hillary Clinton. Comey will probably go down in history as the person who cost Hillary the election. He certainly was one of many factors. That day in October before he talked about investigating more emails from Weiner’s laptop, he was asked, “Should you consider that what you’re about to do may help elect Donald Trump president?” I think his response accurately sums up Comey’s view that the FBI should always remain independent and also explains why he made the decision to speak. He says, “It is a great question, but not for a moment can I consider it. Because down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent force in American life. If we start making decisions based on whose political fortunes will be affected, we are lost.” Comey truly believes this and while I believe there is valid criticism directed towards Comey, I do not think that critics are trying to understand that the independence of the FBI was his focus, as it should have been. Comey asserts that if the FBI started to act and think like every other partisan in Washington then the FBI would no longer have or deserve the public trust. He truly believes that the job of the FBI is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States. He says, “we all have different roles, but the same mission.“

Current politics aside, there were several surprising aspects to Comey that I enjoyed. For one, I liked his almost old-fashioned, gentlemanly, philosophical approach to being a good person. Being somewhat of a former goody-goody myself, I could understand his aspirations.  I did not know that he was the one in charge of the Martha Stewart case. He says that he didn’t think the case was worth all the trouble. When deciding how far he would pursue the case against her, he decided to check how many people in New York who did not have wealth and status and power are imprisoned due to lying to a prosecutor — two thousand people a year. The case now didn’t seem so minor. And he pursued it.

Another surprising thing I learned about him was his disturbance upon discovering that over 80% of special agents in the FBI were predominantly white. He believed that the agency should reflect the people it is supposed to protect, and if it does not then it will not be effective. During his years as FBI director, he was able to recruit more people of color to the FBI. In the book, he says, “I was frightened by one trend. The special agent workforce since 9/11 had been growing steadily more white. When I became director, 83% of the special agents were non-Hispanic Caucasians. As I explained to the workforce, I had no problem with white people, but that trend is a serious threat to our effectiveness. In a country that is growing more diverse, which, in my view, is wonderful, if every agent looks like me, we are less effective. 83% would become 100% very quickly, if the FBI became known as “that place where white people work.” I also admire that Comey took the initiative to improve the workforce’s mentality by having them read Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He says it is one of the most important things he has ever read and he has re-read it several times since first encountering it in college. Personally, I think every American should read Dr. King’s letters. I admire that Comey did not shy away from the truth about the involvement of the FBI with Dr. King and Civil Rights. He aggressively states, “I wanted all agent and analyst trainees to learn the history of the FBI’s interactions with King, how the legitimate counterintelligence mission against communist infiltration of our government had morphed into an unchecked, vicious campaign of harassment and extralegal attack on the civil rights leader and others. I wanted them to remember that well-meaning people lost their way. I wanted them to know that the FBI sent King a letter blackmailing him and suggesting he commit suicide. I wanted them to stare at that history, visit the inspiring King Memorial in Washington, D.C., with its long arcs of stone bearing King’s words, and reflect on the FBI’s values and our responsibility to always do better.” In the age of Trump, where I no longer give white people the benefit of the doubt, I was super touched by Comey’s understanding of the importance of Dr. King and the FBI, and his refusal to not shy away from this topic.

Another chapter of his book deals with police brutality and a brief response to Black Lives Matter. He gave a speech at Georgetown University, saying, “we in law enforcement need to acknowledge the truth that we have long been the enforcers of a status quo in America that abused black people; we need to acknowledge our history because the people we serve and protect cannot forget it.” I think this is one of the most powerful lessons that law-enforcement can learn. Many people to this day don’t understand why black people still talk about slavery. Comey knew that as a white FBI director with long law enforcement experience, he could say things about law enforcement history and biases that others couldn’t. I commend him for using his privilege this way.

Probably my favorite parts of this book were his recollections of his interactions with President Obama. It is obvious that he gained a deep respect for President Obama. His first impression of Obama was his ability to focus on an issue, and he was surprised that the president’s view of the FBI’s job mirrored his own. Comey writes, “ it turns out he had a different conception of the FBI director than either I or most partisans assumed. He said, ‘ I don’t want help from the FBI on policy. I need confidence and independence. I need to sleep at night knowing the place is well run and the American people protected’.”  There were two other encounters that Comey details, one in which they discuss policing in black communities. In the end, Comey says, “I was trapped in my own perspective. A black person – who happened to be the president of the United States – helped me see through other eyes.” In his last meeting with Obama, he said, “Although I hadn’t supported President Obama when he ran for office, I had developed great respect for him as a leader and a person, and it was only at that moment that I felt the full weight of his imminent departure and what it would mean.”

 

And now to leave you with a few quotes from Comey about our current president:

“What I found telling was what Trump and his team didn’t ask. They were about to lead a country that had been attacked by a foreign adversary, yet they had no questions about what the future Russian threat might be. Nor did they ask how the United States may prepare itself to meet that threat.”

“The FBI and the Department of Justice are drawn into the most controversial investigations in the country, investigations that frequently involved prominent members of a presidential administration… The FBI is able to do that work credibly because it is not – and is not seen as- a tool of the president.”

“I remember thinking in that moment that the president doesn’t understand the FBI’s role in American life or care about what the people there spent 40 years building.”

“In what kind of marriage, to what kind of man, does the spouse conclude there is only a 99% chance that her husband didn’t do that.”

“The ‘leader of the free world’, the self-described great business tycoon, didn’t understand leadership. Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty. Those leading through fear – like Cosa Nostra boss – require personal loyalty. Ethical leaders care deeply about those they lead, and offer them honesty and decency, commitment and their own sacrifice. They have a confidence that breeds humility. Ethical leaders know their own talent but fear their own limitations – to understand and reason, to see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be. They speak the truth and know that making wise decisions require people to tell them the truth. And to get that truth, they create an environment of high standards and deep consideration – ‘love’ is not too strong a word – that build lasting bond and makes extraordinary achievement possible. It would never occur to an ethical leader to ask for loyalty.”

“Without all those things – without kindness to leaven toughness, without a balance of confidence and humility, without empathy, and without respect for truth – there is little chance President Trump can attract and keep the kind of people around him that every president needs to make wise decisions. That makes me sad for him, but it makes me worry for our country.”

“Our country is paying a high price: this president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty. “

I’m choosing to pair this book with a Mint Julep even though, in the book, Comey mentions drinking beer and having Pinot Noir on the flight back to Washington after finding out he was fired. The book was humorous and informative, and I think the combo of refreshing mint and slow burn of bourbon fit the tenor of this book.

Format: Hardcover.

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André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name

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3.0 Stars

Call Me By Your Name is written in a manner that is somewhat reminiscent of the days of old when people wrote about their love and lust for one another so painfully eloquent that it penetrated deep into the reader’s being. Their words bordered on the obsessive, “That foot in the water– I could have kissed every toe on it. Then kissed his ankles and his knees” (27). That is exactly what Elio’s thoughts are like. This book is so painfully relatable to my past self. Actually, to anyone who has been in love, been in lust, been so enamored by another being that all of your thoughts are a jumbled heap of praise, admiration, captivation, self-loathing, and brooding amongst over things, “What’s liking when we’re talking about worshipping?” (103). This is an ode to adolescent love, teenage lust.

In the instance in which a movie adaptation is created for a book, I usually favor and enjoy the book more. This is the first time I have loved both book and movie for telling the same story but in different ways, from different perspectives. They compliment each other, in my opinion. Perhaps I would have a different opinion had I read the novel prior to seeing the movie, but I’m glad it turned out this way.

Pointless Side Note: Towards the end of the book (not a spoiler, promise), Elio asks Oliver, “Do these things die out on their own or do some things need generations and lifetimes to sort themselves out?” I found this interesting mostly because it reminded me of something I read in Louise Erdrich’s LaRose, “Can’t solve that loneliness. It sets deep in a person. Goes down the generations, they say. Takes four generations” (71). The idea that feelings and desires can be so strong that they travel down familial lines is intriguing to me. Something worth delving into when I’m not lazy.

I paired this with Omission Brewing Co’s Lager. I originally wanted to pair this book with an Italian wine because I felt it would be more appropriate, but I’m broke and all I had in my fridge was this beer. I find it still an appropriate pairing. It’s light, crisp and easy to drink akin to the effortless read Aciman’s novel was. It’s a great summer beer and this story is the epitome of summer. See? A decent pairing haha.

Quotes:

“You can always talk to me. I was your age once, my father used to say. The things you feel and think only you have felt, believe me, I’ve lived and suffered through all of them, and more than once– some I’ve never gotten over and others I’m as ignorant about as you are today, yet I know almost every bend, every toll-booth, every chamber in the human heart” (58).

“Now, in the silence of the moment, I stared back, not to defy him, or to show I wasn’t shy any longer, but to surrender, to tell him this is who I am, this is who you are, this is what I want, there is nothing but truth between us now, and where there’s truth there are no barriers, no shifty glances, and if nothing comes of this, let it never be said that either of us was unaware of what might happen” (78).

“…and even if this is all he is willing to give, I’ll take it– I’ll settle for less, even, if only to live with these threadbare scraps” (104).

“In a few days, you’ll be back, and you’ll be alone, and you’ll hate it, so don’t let anything catch you unprepared. Be warned. I had rehearsed losing him not just to ward off suffering by taking it in small doses beforehand, but, as all superstitious people do, to see if my willingness to accept the very worst might induce fate to soften its blow. Like soldiers trained to fight by night, I lived in the dark so as not to be blinded when darkness came. Rehearse the pain to dull pain. Homeopathically” (212).

Format: Paperback & E-Book.

Mary Beard’s Women & Power: A Manifesto

4.0 Stars

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Women & Power: A Manifesto is the book format of Mary Beard’s lecture on the subject. Beard explored the way in which women’s voices have been silenced, disregarded, and replaced ever since Ancient Rome. From Penelope waiting on Odysseus to Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel being harassed, Beard explores how women are attacked, repressed and disparaged while their male contemporaries are given a pass.

Take the book for what it’s worth, a brief exploration into the history of male dominance and male ridicule over a woman’s voice. It is short and seemingly incomplete due to that brevity, but it is well worth the read.

I decided to pair this essay with a Madeira. Madeira is a Portuguese, fortified wine so it’s stronger than most wine but decidedly sweet. I don’t usually like sweet wine, however, a small pour was perfect to get me through such a short book. The Sandeman Madeira is root beer colored, having a mixture of nutty aromas.

Quotes:

“The only other group in this country said to whine as much as women are unpopular premiership football managers on a losing streak. Do those words matter? Of course they do, because they underpin an idiom that asks to remove the authority, the force, even the humor from what women have to say. It is an idiom that effectively repositions woman back into the domestic sphere.”

“Women in power are seen as breaking down barriers, or alternatively as taking something to which they are not quite entitled.”

Format: Hardcover.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Fates Worse Than Death

20160831_1908183.5 Stars

The picture quality is terrible for this review, but fitting for the way I read the book.  Most of the book was consumed in a poorly lit bar.  I read until words became blurry, consuming most of the novel in that sitting.  Fates Worse Than Death is the third in a series of what Vonnegut called autobiographical collages, a collection of writings that were a blend of essays and personal anecdotes all done in that undeniable Vonnegut voice.

For me I’ll always prefer Vonnegut novels although there is something to be said about his short stories as well. With that said, this collection was highly enjoyable and quite thought-provoking. Vonnegut covers such a wide range of topics but the collection spends a lot of time around the topic of death.  The suicides of various family members and friends come across time and again, as does his own attempt.  His time in WWII, especially behind a prisoner at Dresden during the unfortunate bombing is another reoccurring throughout.  Although anyone familiar with Vonnegut shouldn’t be surprised about that.

It’s tough to summarize Kurt Vonnegut, the man had a mind and a voice that was familiar while at the same time like no one else you’ve ever read. That comes through loudly in Fates Worse Than Death as it does in all his works. A lot of what is contained in the book had been published elsewhere as he uses lengthy bits of pieces he’s had published in various papers and magazines along with speeches he’s given to address his points. At times, the essays run on too long because of it and honestly, in the middle, they blur together.  I think that unless you are looking to be a Vonnegut completest this is one that can be skipped. I gave it 3.5 stars but truthfully it gained a star because of how much I love Vonnegut and possibly because of the setting where I started the book as well.

I’m pairing this with Hop God from Nebraska Brewing Company and it pairs pretty perfectly with this Vonnegut collection since it is a collage of styles with a unique flavor.  Hop God is a Belgian IPA that was aged in a Chardonnay barrel.  A Belgian IPA in itself is an interesting look at the traditional IPA but factor in the aging process in the Chardonnay barrel and it is something completely different just like Vonnegut.  Even the bottle, a 22-ounce beer bottle is a blend of a beer and wine bottle.  On a slightly morbid note that I think Kurt Vonnegut would appreciate, he has one other big thing in common with the beer, both are discontinued.  

Favorite Quotes:

“It is tough to make unhappy people happier unless they need something easily prescribed, such as food or shelter.”

“You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.”

“Liberty is only now being born in the United States.  It wasn’t born in 1776.  Slavery was legal.  Even white women were powerless, essentially the property of their father or husband or closest male relative, or maybe a judge or lawyer.”

“Am I too pessimistic about life a hundred years from now?  Maybe I have spent too much time with scientists and not enough time with speechwriters for politicians.”

“We probably could have saved ourselves, but were too damned lazy to try very hard”

Format: Trade Paperback.

Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air

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5.0 Stars

When Breath Becomes Air is heartbreakingly beautiful. A young neurosurgeon with a love for literature is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and in his attempt to understand morality and death, he teaches us how to live.

Kalanithi’s identity in this book is as both doctor and patient or as he puts it, as subject and then direct object. He gives readers an insight into his experiences and opinions as a doctor. Then, once diagnosed, he struggles with the idea of how to live. He says, “The future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.” Always eloquent, Kalanithi recounts his struggles and his decisions. A great example, and one that I believe bears witness to the depth of his character and his capacity to live, is when he and his wife discuss if they should have a child:

” ‘Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?’ She asked. ‘Don’t you think that goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?’

‘Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

The hard choices that he had to face and the love and grief that are intermingled will bring you to tears many times throughout his book, but still, read on. Philosophical, raw, eloquent and powerful, this book’s premise is about facing death and about leaving something behind; yet what we really learn is how to live: ceaselessly striving.

Favorite quotes:

“When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.”

“I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life – and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another soul – was obvious in its sacredness.”

“I searched for a question to bring understanding. None was forthcoming. I could only imagine the overwhelming guilt, like a tidal wave, but had lifted him up and off that building.” – describing how he felt when he found out a friend and colleague had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the hospital.

“The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

“What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy. I expected to feel only empty and heartbroken after Paul died. It never occurred to me that you could love someone the same way after he was gone, that I could continue to feel such love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that in times I shiver and moan under the weight of it.” – Lucy, Paul’s wife

I’m pairing this book with Boulevard Brewing‘s Tell-Tale Tart, a slightly sour ale. I chose this brew because even though not everyone enjoys a sour ale, the tartness seemed to fit this sorrowful yet powerfully inspirational book. Add that the name of the brew is a play on words regarding literature, Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, and it seemed like the perfect pairing for Kalanithi since he was a lover of literature. He majored in English literature before turning to neurosurgery and always struggled with what to do first – medicine or writing. It’s clear that he was accomplished at both. As we see from this book, he was a brave and brilliant man. It was only time that was against him.

Format: Hardcover.

Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo

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4.0 Stars

Joy Harjo is a Mvskoke poet, musician and activist. She is a strong defender of women’s equality and is an active member of the Muscogee tribe. She uses her poetry as a “voice of the indigenous people.” I first encountered Harjo through her poetry and I’ve been hooked ever since. Harjo’s works blend the physical world with the spiritual world. She is almost a mystic, a shaman, a seer. In both her memoir and her poetry she speaks of visions and stories as though they are a part of her life and the spirits of her ancestors.

Harjo’s memoir chronicles her life from before she was born, to when she was fighting in the womb and had to be pulled into this world, to how she finally was able to envision herself above panic and poverty and eventually follow the spirit of poetry. Her storytelling in enchanting and brutally honest. The lesson that Harjo lived and relived is that through the casual abuse, rape, negligence, and fear there is still the ability to transcend beyond that, to let yourself be healed, and to bring healing to others.

While most Native literature is suffused with magical realism (for lack of a better term), Harjo is one of the few who actively sees visions. While other authors create characters like the wise grandmother or the magical elder in their works, Harjo is that character. She is the one who sees into the past of her ancestors. She’s the one who relives the life of her great-grandfather through a vision. As a reader, it is not hard to suspend my disbelief; because I want to believe. I am fascinated by the idea of being able to dream the life of your great-grandmother. I am enthralled at the thought of having sickness being eaten away by an alligator in a dream. I find it mystical and wonderful. Can I honestly say that I believe it without a doubt? Probably not. However, I want to believe; and I think it is the believing that makes it beautiful.

I’ve chosen to pair this with Black Grouse, a smokey-sweet whiskey that finishes with hints of peat and a gentle smokiness. Throughout her childhood, Harjo lived in Oklahoma and everybody seemed to have smoked. She also believed that “all of these plant medicines, like whiskey, tequila, and tobacco, are potential healers. There’s a reason they’re called spirits. You must use them carefully. They open you up. If you abuse them, they can tear holes in your protective, spiritual covering.” So pour yourself a finger of whiskey, light a cigarette and enjoy this memoir.

Memorable quotes:

“In the end, we must each tend to our own gulfs of sadness, the others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music.”

“I felt the presence of the sacred, a force as real and apparent as anything else in the world, present and alive, as if it were breathing. I wanted to catch hold, to remember and never forget. But the current hard reality reasserted itself. I had to have the house cleaned just right or my stepfather would punish me. So I continued on my path to forgetfulness.”

Format: Paperback.