Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker by Kevin Mitnick

August 26, 2011

What I know about programming, telephone phreaking, and root directories could fit in a thimble. I wouldn’t know how to crack a telecommunication system if my life depended on it …  it’s all I can do to learn the features of my cell phone.  But I sure know a page turner when I read one. The best part about Kevin Mitnick’s book is that you don’t have to have a Computer Science degree to enjoy it. Most interesting to me isn’t Mitnick’s discussion of computers or telecommunications: it’s about “social engineering.” He describes how he got  passwords, codes and phone numbers by simply asking for them. Apparently  if you know the lingo, can drop a few key names and play the part of a trusted member of the group, the world is your oyster, or at least your database. His best stories were the ones where he described how ingeniously he finagled the passwords, not necessarily what he intended to do with them.  His  message is that even if a company has spent millions of dollars protecting its information, it means nothing if the people answering the phones are friendly, trusting, easily charmed and eager to be helpful. Like taking candy from a baby. Did this guy ever feel guilty about betraying that trust? I don’t think so.

His escapades started out innocuously enough: figuring out how to get free bus rides all over the city. He was 12. Then there were a few hilarious teenage pranks diverting the loud speaker at the McDonald’s Drive-in to his own broadcast. You can imagine the possibilities for mischief there. His fascination grew. He spent time in Juvenile Detention putting his long- suffering mother and grandmother through much heart ache. While I wanted to yell at him the whole time to just knock it off, I knew he couldn’t. He asserts that hacking is an addiction. I believe him. I don’t think Mrs. Mitnick could have raised him to be different.

Much of the book is about his life running from city to city using fake IDs, looking over his shoulder, tapping phones to detect if the Feds were on to him, always hacking into bigger and seemingly more secure targets and taking greater risks. That risk taking was his adrenaline, and as the Feds figured out where he was and closed in on him, my pages turned faster.

Kevin Mitnick has been a household name in my house for years. While some kids follow the careers of sports stars, astronauts and pop artists, my son followed Kevin Mitnick as a teen and attended a convention in New York City in 2002 returning with those “Free Kevin” buttons.  Oh dear.  Once Mitnick completed his five year prison sentence, he started speaking  at conferences and signing copies of his books.  We even have a signed copy  (The Art of Intrusion) in our bookcase at home.

Mitnick now lives among the law-abiding and works for the very companies he used to hack. He finds gaps in their security and recommends solutions so even he can’t get in. He doesn’t advocate that his followers become hackers but rather speaks on the topic of how one can protect himself from hackers.  While his safety tips are useful albeit a little routine, you can bet it’s the “social engineering” stories that attract his many followers.


Waiting and Learning

November 22, 2010

The Philadelphia Free Library selected Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire to be its One Book, One Philadelphia selection in 2007. It won the National Book Award in 2003. Eire, who knew and loved Cuba before it became Castrolandia, as he puts it,  described an island paradise of turquoise waves, perfect clouds and tangerine sunsets. To avoid Castro’s imminent recruitment to the Revolution, young Carlos and eventually 14,000 other children were airlifted to Florida and faced the unknown. Much of Waiting is about Eire’s rough and tumble boyhood, his eccentric complicated but beloved father and the changes Castro brought. In putting their children on a Florida-bound plane, parents sacrificed their most precious possessions hoping that families could re-unite at a later time. Most never did. But waiting to reunite as a family, reclaim property and enjoy life on the green island was like waiting for snow in Havana; it wasn’t going to happen.

I’d always hoped Carlos Eire would write a sequel. He rushed through the story of his arrival and wrote just the highlights. We know he survived just fine to go on to be a T. Lawrason Riggs history and religion professor at Yale. But how was it to live in the United States during those first few years? Besides his parents, what did he miss? When did he start to identify himself as an American and not a Cuban?  When did the Cuban in him die?

In 2010 his sequel was published Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy. There are those special books that are so wonderful that you savor them page by page. You slow down your reading to make it last longer. Learning to Die is one of those books. As they always do, the immigrant experience narrative includes the perfunctory jaw-dropping trip to an American grocery store. Even an eleven year old boy wondered about the disparity between this abundance and the empty store shelves in his Cuban home neighborhood.  Right in the aisles of a “rinky-dink” grocery in downtown Florida City, Carlos Eire decided to be an American. What Eire realized as he grew older is that for his American Self to live, his Cuban Self had to die. He changed his name from Carlos to Charles to Chuck to sound American. He later assumed his given name Carlos. He learned English but worked at losing the accent by listening to the speech patterns of Andy Griffith. He figured a well known actor such as Griffith would be a fine model. Truth be told, his foster family in Florida had a television that picked up one channel: Andy Griffith was on that channel. As he reflected later, he taught himself Southern without knowing it. He never lost the Cuban accent entirely. I’ve heard him on the radio and he’s charming.

Contrary to the trend, Eire asserts that providing bilingual signage and services to Hispanics is a way of creating an underclass and he’s angered by the Hispanics who demand it. “Learn English, it’s what you need in order to climb out of the bottom.” He encourages Hispanics to keep their Spanish but learn English to succeed. “Spanish won’t get you anywhere.” Wow. You don’t hear that very often.

This book is going on my Top Ten All Time Favorites.

Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler

September 28, 2010

I’ve been friends with Anne Tyler for years. Only she doesn’t know it.

As far back as The Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, I have felt at home in her kitchens, living rooms and Baltimore neighborhoods. In her characters I see myself and people I know.

In Noah’s Compass, Tyler’s 18th novel, I met Liam and Eunice, two profoundly harmless characters. Most reviewers have focused on Liam’s life and how it didn’t go as he had planned. What plan? Any guy who started out as a philosophy major in college wasn’t  laser-focused on timetables, plans and career tracks. But young Liam Pennywell had ambition all the same. The untimely death of his first wife left him so grief stricken and disengaged that he wandered around in a daze though parenthood, a second failed marriage and an undistinguished teaching career. He liked movies, for example, because he could “watch people’s conversations without being expected to join in.” Then he got hit on the head and met Eunice. Literally. In Tyler Country, Eunice was a typical citizen: frumpy but well meaning.

The concept of a compass was the book’s focus in my eyes. One of Liam’s daughters, a fundamentalist Christian, declares that people without formal religion (specifically hers, of course) lack a moral compass. We see by the end how evolved Liam’s moral compass is. He did the right thing even though it broke his heart. Even in his daze, he was never without his moral compass. The title came from the bible story of Noah’s Ark. Liam told his grandson that Noah didn’t need a compass or a rudder since the Ark didn’t have a destination.  Liam had a late-in-life opportunity to reflect on his past, chart his own future and open himself up to the possibility of a different life. He was no longer without a rudder.  He realized he had memory issues: he had been trying to remember the wrong things.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Book 5!

August 12, 2010

Hey all you Diary of a Wimpy Kid fans … Book 5 is coming out on November 9th!  The cover is finally released.  Want to see which color it is?  Well, check out this link.  Don’t forget to play the Cheese Touch Game.

It Takes Two

February 18, 2010

The classic memoir was once a genre that produced writings about “important events related by the great men [and women] who shaped them.” Today the memoir is a substantial part of the library and book store collection, and few of its authors would be considered “greats” of our day. I’ve reviewed memoirists Jen Lancaster and Julie Powell here, and while I’m a huge fan of both, I couldn’t assign them a role as a cultural or historic icon. But they sure were fun to read.

Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her bestseller Eat Pray, Love of her traumatic divorce several years ago. In Committed, she doesn’t dwell on the divorce but rather her struggle to commit to a legal marriage with a man to whom she has emotionally committed herself for years. Were not for his legal status as a citizen, it may have never been an issue.  The result is a highly readable history of marriage. Occasionally Gilbert gets a bit scholarly but it is more fascinating for it. Her research literally takes her all over the world. Her historical time frame reaches as far back as biblical times.  She goes beyond the history of marriage and discusses the role of the “Aunt” who could be childless or not;  related or not, but  always at the ready to provide support for a child not her own.  Every culture has “Aunts,” and almost every child can think of a special one while his mother sees her as a God-sent life-saver.  Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love in a tone that was  chatty, witty but  full of insecurity;  she wrote Committed with the confidence that comes from choosing her options with an open heart.  This book could be the text for Sociology of the Family 101.

Maria Finn, author of Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home doesn’t mince words on the brutal pain she suffered during her divorce. Her Cuban husband and salsa dancing partner admitted to an affair, maybe more, and Finn’s raw despair just makes your throat close up to read it. Even she realizes that no reader can take much more of that and leads us quick, quick, slow to the milongas, tango social dances of New York City and Buenos Aires where dancing in the arms of strangers creates trust without the risk of betrayal; intimacy without compromise.  She and other tango aficionados take group and private lessons and practice, practice, practice. Tango, where the dance and the music tell the story of passion, anger, happiness, desire, lust, jealousy, love, was more therapeutic than any pill. Finn’s history of the tango explains why this dance transcends cultures, bridges language barriers and crosses age and social groups. Rudolph Valentino tangoed his way to celebrity, Arthur Murray Americanized it, the Pope banned it, and Queen Victoria didn’t approve of it. In Argentina, Maria Finn dries her eyes, puts on her stilettos, and begins to enjoy the embrace.

Both authors are wise enough to know that they are not historical figures, nor even celebrities. They both have written history/sociology books with their own life story gracefully woven through it. Their life story alone would have been wretchedly self-indulgent, boring and a big embarrassment to everybody. They likely would not have been published. Both Gilbert and Finn were able to elevate a memoir from self-therapy into stories that capture a universal feeling and give us an inside look into a world we’ve never seen or imagined.  I’m sure they were roaring over at itunes when I ordered Placido Domingo songs for my ipod.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

September 1, 2009


This is my third novel by Lisa See and it did not disappoint. She didn’t mince words when she described every excruciating detail about foot binding in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and she doesn’t spare us the horrific realities of war in Shanghai Girls. In Shanghai of the 1930’s models were called Beautiful Girls. Shanghai models Pearl and May are the Hilton Sisters of Shanghai (without the trust fund) and enjoy all the privileges, parties and fun that come with being Beautiful Girls. Unknown to them, their father had been gambling away the family fortune including the money they made modeling, and the lifestyle they had become accustomed to came to an abrupt halt. No more silk cheongsams in every color, private rickshaw rides, servants; and the best of everything that Shanghai, the Paris of Asia, could offer. Their father’s admission isn’t the only disaster. He has sold his daughters in arranged marriages in order to settle the gambling debt. Just when Pearl and May don’t think things could get any worse, Shanghai is bombed by the Japanese. Through the whole novel, it never lets up. It’s one tragedy after another. We keep reading because somehow these two sisters, long beyond their Beautiful Girls days, find the inner strength to survive. What becomes interesting is how differently they do that.

For a Chinese immigrant in this country during the 1950’s, citizenship status determined one’s fate. Lisa See does a fine job of explaining how some immigrants were “paper sons.” Some used the earthquake of 1906 when all the birth records were lost as a means of establishing citizenship while some gained citizenship by turning in others whom they suspected of being Communists. The suicide rate soared. Even though the sisters married brothers, a complex family history leaves May a fully documented American citizen but Pearl is not. Like all sisters, they are different people by nature. May becomes an entrepreneur in Hollywood capitalizing on the rush of Chinese culture–based films being made. She becomes American in her attitudes, behavior and sense of entitlement. Easy for her as a citizen. Meanwhile Pearl’s life takes a very different turn. In one of the final scenes May explains to her jie jie, older sister that many of their problems stem from Pearl’s unwillingness to give up her old Chinese ways. I’m not so sure about that. Pearl’s attempts at assimilation were heartbreakingly discouraged at every turn such as selecting her own neighborhood in which to buy a house, enrolling her child in good school, and even getting into a dance hall worthy of her pretty dress on New Year’s Eve. Who wouldn’t cling to the ways that bring comfort, familiarity and safety? But hope and the possibility of change are in store for Pearl. We know that as she heads for LAX. I hope Lisa See is busy writing the sequel.

The Girls from Ames by Jeffrey Zaslow

August 20, 2009

9781592404452They can’t all be winners. I was never certain when I read The Last Lecture where Randy Pausch started and Jeffrey Zaslow ended. Now I think I know. What started as a column in the Wall Street Journal about the power of friendships among women, Zaslow developed into a portrait of women who grew up together in Ames, Iowa and maintained their relationships for 40 years into their adult lives. The premise was so promising but the delivery was flatter than Iowa. At times I thought I was reading the idea book for Jodi Picoult’s next teen angst-filled crisis du jour novel. That’s how it read: like a list with no humor, no conclusion and no interweaving story. No flow.

As not to be a total loss, there were a few gripping sections that any reader would remember for how painful they were. The slumber party ambush intervention of Sally for being too shy and different was a reminder of how strikingly cruel girls can be to each other. As adults, they are uncomfortable and ashamed of their behavior toward Sally and everyone has learned the power of forgiveness by Sally’s example. Dr. McCormack was a larger than life hero practically headed for Iowa sainthood by all accounts. The automobile accident that took his son’s life and Dr. McCormack’s eventual decline into dementia was truly sad. Zaslow effectively explained why his daughter would take solace in being with the people, i.e., the Girls from Ames, who knew him during his prime. That’s the father in her mind’s eye and likely a big part of her identity.

The descriptions of the parties, the car rides, the summer jobs – enough already. The girls from Ames with their corn field keggers didn’t invent fun. Every Jersey girl knows that.

Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell

August 12, 2009

julie-and-julia-my-year-of-cooking-dangerouslyCompared to what I normally read, this was fluff. After the tragic ending of Loving Frank, I needed something where the only description of something fiery and burning was a flat iron steak. This book is the second I’ve read lately that started out as a blog and reads like a blog … not unlike these book reviews: informal, in the first person, punctuated casually, and frequently digressive. Full of sentence fragments. When Julie was writing her blog, she would cook something and report on the experience the next day. That’s the log in blog. A memoir is not just a collection of individual posts but rather a structured unit comprised of many adventures and reflections pulled together by the narrative’s theme. Julie Powell’s memoir ties together as neatly as a Seinfeld episode with concurrent stories that meet up at the end. Be warned that the language is salty and there is plenty of Republican bashing. There is also an undercurrent of fertility issues which offers TMI (too much information.) for my taste. Both Julie Powell and Julia McWilliams Child (before she was JULIA CHILD) were adrift in their lives. Julia Child had no job and Julie Powell hated hers. Both took on projects to help “find themselves.” Julia Child learned to cook and Julie Powell learned to blog. She had to have a subject and Julia Child’s cookbook was as good a subject as any. What makes Julie Powell’s subject such a great idea was that she could report on her activities everyday, food is interesting or at least understandable to almost everyone, culinary catastrophes lend themselves to humor and her goal was so ambitious: 524 recipes.  Powell’s descriptions of the foods both horrified and fascinated me at the same time: boiling calves feet to make the jelly on Foies de Volailles en Aspic (Sautéed Chicken Livers with Jelly). Every meal was a train wreck and who could resist watching? Both Julie and Julia are self-made successes yet neither set out for fame and fortune. They both set goals and simply did whatever it took to achieve them.  I’m looking forward to seeing the movie this weekend and whipping up some macaroni au fromage when I get home. You know which kind, the cheesiest.

The Count of Monte Cristo

August 7, 2009

the-count-of-monte-cristoFor those of you who are still busy reading the newest Evanovich, Grisham, or Patterson book, The Count of Monte Cristo shows us that some of the most entertaining books may have been written as long as a hundred and sixty five years ago.

Originally written as a serial for a French newspaper, it was later collected into one volume that has had an amazing staying power in its place of origin and around the globe. It is still widely read by young and old today, and its popularity lies in the simplicity of the work. The story is so universal that we can all relate to it and in a way already know it: innocent man is imprisoned, an inmate tells him of a treasure, man escapes and plots revenge on those that locked him up. The book is really that simple, like an old tale passed down from generation to generation to teach a lesson.

What sets this book apart is how the author fleshes out the characters and world with such detail and passion that the book becomes a world in itself. It feels more like your reading an account of an amazing life story instead of a novel. It also plays on your emotions so well that when the tough moral and philosophical questions come into play, you’re not so sure what the right thing is. The main question posed numerous times in the book is this: If the law will not punish those who are guilty, shouldn’t it be the victim’s right to take the law into their own hands? In other words, is revenge just? However, like all good tales, we walk away learning the lesson, convinced that we won’t make the same mistake.

On a side note, although many people prefer to read the abridged version because of the book’s length (it’s a little over a thousand pages) I highly recommend reading signet’s new unabridged translation by Robin Buss. The new translation makes it even more accessible to the modern reader and contains notes that explain some of the history of France that occurs simultaneously with the story. It amazes me that people would prefer to read a cut down version when the book’s quality is very consistent.

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

July 21, 2009

loving frank book cover

What do the Guggenheim Museum and the bronze tile of a ginkgo leaf over my stove have in common? Frank Lloyd Wright. He was the architect for the Guggenheim and his influence pioneered many designs that include craftsmanship, nature, and if there is a suggestion of Asian design, so much the better. Houses all over the world include decorative elements that reflect Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence to some degree. Enough about Frank and me. Loving Frank is really about Mamah Borthwick Cheney. She loved Frank … and her children, and her freedom. That’s where things got tricky. They weren’t Frank’s children (he had six of his own). Mamah had to choose between conventional motherhood, circa 1910, and her own happiness. Since she couldn’t support herself, she was never truly free. Cheney had a fine education but the times did not encourage most women to devote themselves to a career. The few that did were singularly driven, usually privileged and rare. She packed her bags and left her husband, two children and a life of domestic security, albeit boredom to be Frank Lloyd Wright’s soul mate. He was never free to marry her and she suffered far more public scorn for her scandalous lifestyle than he did. I can only assume that taking her children with her wasn’t an option. Of course it wasn’t an option! Frank Lloyd Wright made it clear that he wasn’t interested in living with children: anyone’s children including his own. There were visits but much longer separations. Frank and Mamah beat their breasts in parental guilt. But that was all forgotten Ginkgo-branch rightwhen the next party in Paris or Berlin was ready to start or the afternoons in Fiesole, Italy were just too lazy to do anything but lounge in the garden. What children?
Most Frank Lloyd Wright biographies mention Mamah but no one had written about her life until Nancy Horan created a fictionalized biography. Scholars often struggle with the fictionalized part but Horan’s careful research has allowed little stretching of the facts. Her account was readable and I was not able to deduce from her book if the author was horrified, supportive or indifferent to Mamah’s decisions. We readers are left to judge for ourselves.
For me, I see Frank Lloyd Wright as one of the many brilliant, creative and charismatic men we’ve seen even in modern times whose personal life is in shambles. If Wright had attended a Governor’s Conference in this country, he would have been among friends. The more benevolent thinking is to realize that in extraordinarily brilliant people, there is frequently, as the pop psychologists say, “risk taking behavior.” For Mamah, I’m torn. I want to write her off as a woman who took the easy way out. She dabbled at a career only when it was interesting to her, took the role of “Uncle Mommy” getting to avoid the day-to-day headaches of parenting, and basked in Frank Lloyd Wright’s fame and genius. I honestly don’t know how she could look herself in the eye. But I realize that she was frustrated at having so few options. One of her worst fears was that she’d have to go back to being a, gasp, librarian if she had to work for a living. She couldn’t support herself on the wages a librarian made at that time. Living in a loveless marriage would have been miserable and Frank Lloyd Wright offered her a much more exciting alternative.  She knew her children were well cared for – just not by her. Nancy Horan, the architect of the story achieved the balance and harmony seen in Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs and favorite leaf, the ginkgo.