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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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.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

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4.0 Stars

There is so much to say about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad that I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s start with content. Whitehead doesn’t just talk about slavery in the basic way that we’ve heard the story told before. He describes all the atrocities that came along with it – medical experimentation on black bodies, the hiding of black bodies, the selling of black bodies and the neutering of black female bodies. He makes the reader wander through plantation-era America as a black woman so effectively that the pain and humiliation you feel as a reader will make you want to either put the book down or hurry up and get it over with. For me, it was painful. It was humiliating. I experienced second-hand rage and defeat at the feelings of powerlessness in the face of savage injustice. I don’t know if I should advise future readers to gird yourselves against these emotions or to open yourselves to the rage, humiliation, and despair that is certainly still echoing in our nation today.

Stylistically, Whitehead is simple and straightforward in his writing. The sufferings and situations are quite possibly real accounts that have been transcribed into a work of fiction. There is no need to elaborate on the suffering when the suffering was already so brutal. One factor that surprised me was that Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is an actual locomotive with an underground network of rails. Personally, I think this was a smart literary tactic to draw attention away from the workings of the real Tubman-style Railroad, and instead emphasized the experiences, emotions, and fears of the runaway, not just the system.

The last part of this review has less to do with the novel and more to do with the universality of the impact that slavery and colonization had around the world. I was raised in the West Indies and as I read more literature on American slavery I’m learning that so much of what I was brought up around is a product of white supremacist Christianity and racism leftover from generations gone by. For example, the term “pickney” is used in the West Indies to refer to a child or children. The word is derived from “pickaninnies” which we now know as a racist term for a black child. Now, the English Oxford dictionary says that the word “pickney” isn’t used to be offensive or as a racial slur. However, the more I read about slavery era customs and see how they have carried over to this century, the more I disagree. As a West Indian, I can say with confidence that they don’t know that the word is derived from a racist term. I didn’t until I was in my late twenties. I hadn’t heard the term “pickaninnies” until then either. West Indian and Caribbean education was ruled by the British for so long that we continue to tell our history through the lens our conquerors. As West Indians and Caribbean people are still just trying to survive economically, what time do they have to learn about the oppression and divide imparted to them by their British and Dutch conquerors? If they did, maybe they would change their language and not refer to their children as pickney and the racism that exists between them and Afro-Caribbeans would cease.

Processed with VSCO with a5 presetI’m pairing this novel with a cider because whenever the slaves in the novel were able to, they drank cider. This book was such an emotional trip, so feel free to get some moonshine instead. I chose an American made cider, Angry Orchard’s Cinnful Apple Cider. It is sweet with a slight heat that will warm you even as the flames of rage engulf you from the atrocities of slavery you will be reading. The juicy apple notes are complemented by cinnamon spice so that even if you aren’t a huge fan of ciders, this one is pretty tasty. Plus the double entendre of a “cinnful” cider paired with the sinful* practice of slavery was too much for me to ignore.

*Sinful is used here in a personal, moralistic sense, not a biblical sense. The Bible approves of slavery.

Quotes:

“Slavery is a sin when whites were put to the yoke, but not the African. All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.”

“Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.”

“The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others.”

“Yet when his classmates put their blades to a colored cadaver, they did more for the cause of colored advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”

“If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.
Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor–if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.”

“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.”

Format: E-book.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

3.0 Stars

I love Louise Erdrich and I enjoyed reading LaRose. I’m giving it three stars because there was something that seemed incomplete to me. In previous novels, sorrow and power are such strong forces in Erdrich’s storytelling. There are usually multiple points in her novels that wind me up and send me crashing through so many emotions and conflicts, leading me to dwell on a certain scene for weeks after I have finished the novel.
This novel seemed lacking in that aspect. If I had to speculate, I would assert that it’s because, Processed with VSCO with a5 presetdespite Erdrich selling this novel as a story of retribution, it reads more like a story of healing. It’s as though, these characters, whose predecessors were filled with magic and power, are slowly fading into “normal” Indians. They’re forgetting the language, forgetting how to use their power; but they’ve still got their stories. If I were to analyze this book in a hyper-critical sense, I would say that the story seems almost complacent and maybe that is where Erdrich, as a storyteller, was when she wrote this book. I’d argue that maybe this moment of healing and safety is just a prelude to greater things to come.

I’m pairing LaRose with a draft of Chimay Blue. The yeasty fragrance and roasted malt flavor set the mood for the reader as the story progresses. While I feel that the story of LaRose was borderline complacent, this beer certainly is not.

Quotes:

“She had been lying in her room – cooling off after another hot, hot shower. She had started to cry, alone. It was okay alone. But she still cut off the crying as quickly as she could, to toughen herself. She was a wolf, a wounded wolf. She’d sink her teeth in those boys’ throats.”

 

Format: Paperback.

Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers

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4.0 Stars

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is a strange little collection on loss that will leave you with a few tears by the end. 

The narrative is dissected into fragments based on perspective. The dad, the boys and the crow all have a viewpoint to share. The story starts after the death of a wife and a mother. Her husband and two young boys are left to grieve. Helping them grieve is Crow. Crow is all parts protector, comforter, and trickster. He watches over the family and offers his incites and anecdotes to help them cope. 

I greatly enjoyed this book. Edmund Burke describes grief as a pain we cling to and make the focus of our lives. Porter expresses this through the father when he is told he should move on: “Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us lets no man slow or speed or fix.”

A particularly heartbreaking part of the narrative was how the boys talked about being deliberately mean to their dad so that they wouldn’t feel bad if they forgot their mom. One of my favorite lines in the novel comes from the boys’ perspective: 

“We used to think she would turn up one day and say it had all been a test. 

We used to think we would both die at the same age she had. 

We used to think she could see us through mirrors.”

The vivid expression of grief is intermingled with the absurd, yet for anyone who has experienced grief, you know this is how it is. Grief will stalk you throughout your day, and just when you think you can keep it together; you break down. A memory or a thought will suddenly connect and there is no subduing your reaction to it. Perhaps, the single greatest line to sum up all that grief encompasses is from the dad as he remembers all the memories he shared with his wife:

“Again. I beg everything again.”

Feelings of sadness are always best soothed with a glass of dry, red wine. I recommend Domaine Paul Autard Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Rhone, France. The 2012 vintage was given a 91 rating by Wine Spectator. This red blend consists of 70% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 15% Counoise. It has a full mouth feel and deep flavor. At $39 for a 350ml bottle, it’s on the expensive side, but totally worth it.

Format: Paperback.

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.