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Thursday, November 18, 2021

Gabbard and Greenwald

 Sometimes, like now, I try to write about politics when my attempts to write fiction are floundering, and it is just not feeling true. While writers block often affects my fiction attempts, writing about politics seems pretty easy, even when I know what I write can be justly called "bullshit", and is mostly a kind of a lie. Political discourse always, in some ways simplifies and blocks out conflicting narratives, in the name of expediency. It always involves fibbing, distorting or shading out or outright ignoring evidence, especially when writing about national political phenomenon in the US. A big country we are, in many senses of the word "big". Yet here and now, as before, there are only two choices, and both the R's and the D's compress ideology into almost meaningless slogans or silly memes. And to make it worse, I  always feel dirty when I try to write seriously about any of it. Any other subject of importance such as science, technology, history, economics all require a level of intellectual investment and competence that is difficult to attain, in order to feel comfortable discussing any of it. But not so with politics. I feel perfectly at home braying my opinions without any shame. It is a full contact mass scrum that I believe we have to join in, and we ignore it at our peril, particularly these days. 


For example, how to react to Glenn Greenwald and Tulsi Gabbard appearing so often on the FOX network, particularly on segments of Tucker Carlson or Hannity or Laura Ingram. Without elaboration, I feel these three at FOX are scum-sucking purveyors of hate, shameless liars, deniers of truth, dedicated to convincing their viewers that some form of fascism is preferable to a government decided by honest elections and universal suffrage.  For me, "to hate" is a reflexive verb. It always comes around like it goes around. So I try to push it out of my mind, but with those three, (who really are only avatars, not even real, any humanity they have is left outside their studios) with them it's a constant effort to flush out hate from seeping into my emotions. 


 I admire Tulsi and Greenwald. I saw Tulsi speak in 2019 in a park in Portland and talked briefly to her afterwards. She's a dynamic speaker and a full-fledged force for peace, and she is whip smart, (as well as quite beautiful, an asset in politics for certain). While in Congress, she called out the hypocrisy of Hillary and other establishment Dems who voted for the Bush/Cheney Mesopotamian wars. Back in the beginning of the century, Tulsi, as an army officer in in the Middle East, saw firsthand the dishonesty and futility of the effort and she was an eloquent voice against our presence there, pointing out our ignorance of the region and the self-defeating nature of our own effort.


Glenn Greenwald helped Snowden publish exactly how our intelligence services eroded the constitutional protections of our rights and liberty.  His resume, to me, is admirable. I always learn something substantial when I listen to him.


Neither one, Greenwald especially, seem to care much about political party.  He refuses to be pulled into the political argument that one side was bad, so what they did had to be bad, while the other side was not as bad so what they did was not as bad. Tulsi of course ran for President, and was the only candidate - well it doesn't matter, she lost.


 Their attitude toward politics and the truth is uncomfortable, not just to other pols, but to us, or at least to me as well. We just can't be pulled into it, because it muddies the preferred narrative. For me, I feel especially dirty as an avowed fiction writer, supposedly above the lies, arguing partisan points, leaking out whatever shred of moral authority I might have had as cover. 


I believe that there's no such thing as nonfiction. Everyone has an angle, no story is neutral.  I subscribe to the corollary of Rashid Wallace's dictum that both sides played hard. The corollary is both sides are both good and bad. Yes we are to some extent a racist, ignorant country, but still, I know these people, and they are not as evil as we tend to see them on TV. But how do you say that in a 30 second ad, which is the "creative" side of politics? 


Believe it or not, I try to askew politics or at least pretend to see and explain the whole field of play when I write fiction. That is why it is so much harder than when I write about politics. In politics there can be no such rule, but if you believe, as I do, that  there is no non-fiction, then you can't avoid the sin of prevaricating, no matter the subject. It is all lies, in one  form or another.


As for Gabbard and Greenwald, they are now media personalities and I guess they need exposure to make a living. They believe in their "truth messages" and that apparently trumps any political or rhetorical ammo they may be supplying to the FOX authoritarians. Or maybe they just like being on TV. 


We are now watching the media reanimate the reputations of Bush through his weird paintings and his daughter appearing with Hoda on the TV show Today. And don't forget that his former flack, Nicole Wallace is one of the biggest voices against Trump on MSNBC. We also see Cheney becoming less of a pariah while his daughter is the one and only R to sound the alarm against the orange faced former Reality show "star" ("When you are a star they let you do anything"). 


Bush-Cheney's decision to invade the Middle East was the greatest disaster in US history, at least I believe history will see it as such. If the US is in the process of historical decline then that action was what set the decline off. 


Without doubt Trump has played a big  part in this process of decline, if in fact it is a decline. Trump undoubtedly accelerated it even though paradoxically, he condemned Bush-Cheney's war. Now he is the real and present danger while the "real" Cheney and Bush live in their Dallas fortresses of retirement. 


 So what should think? What should we do? Should we condemn Tulsi and Glenn for aiding and abetting the present day enemy and should we forget their past actions which focused a bright light on the worst aspects of the worst foreign policy disaster in the nation's history? Or should we say history smidgely, what have you done for me lately? How do we acknowledge the opposing truths? 


Time does not stop. It's a river, it is never the same. We can't freeze moments in time and move them into other eras and expected all to fit. We are now in a struggle for a future that we can't see. Remember the show trials of the 20th century from Stalin's to Joe McCarthy's. Should we put Gabbard and Greenwald on the dock and send them to the proverbial block? Do we want a return to that?  Do we want to replay the lies, the evil barbarity and stupidity of the past in order to accommodate our very murky present? 


If not, that means we have to chart our own course, and let the past go, while at the same time never forgetting it. That is the scariest course of all.  Leaping into the unknown, led by the new and unfamiliar.


 19th century France couldn't stomach the horrible side of  their own revolution, but they could not let go of the part they admired, so after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, they returned to monarchy and after that to the mediocre authoritarian, and silly nephew, Louie Napoleon. That turned out to be an even bigger disaster for France, and led to the first World War, eventually.  Does our future have another Cheney or Bush or Clinton or Kennedy or even a younger Trump in the wings? Can we escape the past? Can we get to a sane place, a livable place without going over the same ground?


If you were waiting for an answer, then don't ask a fiction writer.  We are the most untrustworthy of them all.

Monday, November 1, 2021

The Lure of the Red Dragon by Mark Oulton


The Lure of the Red Dragon: Life and Love for a Foreigner in Modern China by Mark Oulton

Buy the Book!


The Lure of the Red Dragon (“...Red Dragon”) is a big and important book. It is encyclopedic in scope, full of well-researched facts, facts that sit comfortably beside keen observation and personal anecdote. It admirable attempts to do the nearly impossible - explain China. It is an up-to-date compendium on the Xi Jinping era.

The recent “great books” by westerners about China often come with a layer of historic dust. They impart the perspective of the classic “China Watcher”, of the post-war “China Hand”, writing before Deng Xiaoping’s reopening, men (for the most part) who could be imagined as the younger adventurous sons of the upper class, versed in Latin as well as Confucius, stuck outside looking in, reading tea-leaves from some kind of self-imposed exile in British Imperial Hong Kong. Contrary to that, Mark Oulton writes from deep on the inside, not living in a Legation, but as a married member of a vibrant Chinese family, completely integrated with Chinese rhythms, even as he acknowledges the difficulties this lifestyle imposes on a westerner. Yet, “...Red Dragon” pays odd homage to the old China Hand’s passing generation. Oulton himself is a Brit whose father worked in international development, and who grew up all over the world, so his story imparts a bit of that older view and style from when the sun never set on the Queen’s empire.

“…Red Dragon” is a book that is aware of the various winds blowing from public discourse about the Middle Kingdom but is not buffeted by them. Oulton is anything but blind to China’s faults and bizarreness. Having lived there long enough, he can clearly see the strange logic that drives Chinese behavior. For all the corruption, and inequities that the Chinese system imposes on its people, (and trading partners) Oulton knows and describes how China (and the Communist party) has recently lifted more people out of poverty in a shorter period of time than any government in human history. Oulton shows the wonderful gracious humanity that Chinese people extend to their friends and family, as well as the seeming hardness and sometimes rudeness that can be shown to those outside that orbit. He clearly explains that in order for westerners to come to grips with this, they have to leave behind preconceived ideas and western assumptions about nearly everything in order to really understand what is going in China. He takes the long view about many of the points of contention between the West and China, best described below.

“The west committed the biggest theft of intellectual property of all time... In 552 A.D, two Christian monks smuggled silkworm larvae hidden in bamboo canes out of China and the Byzantine monopoly in silk sustained that empire for over 500 years. Silk production continues in Greece to this day. In today’s value, this theft would dwarf anything else.”

The book is full of practical hard-headed advice about where and what to eat, about highly detailed strategies for buying vs renting, and about driving, “Chinese are the worst drivers in the world.” (But, IMO, the best drivers in the world at navigating the crazy traffic in China…). He talks at length with wry humor about parking your car, the recent changes in laws and how they often don’t work, how Uber was “run out of town” by a local car-hailing app (Didi), He relates his misadventures trying (and failing) to find somebody, anybody, who he can beat in ping pong.

“Also, never play a Chinese person at ping-pong/ table tennis. I considered myself a more than competent player and had learned the game at school from a pupil from Hong Kong. I had mastered side and top spin and had a mean forehand smash. On my first visit to Beijing, I had a Saturday off and asked the hotel reception where I could play ping pong. They directed me to a local club and I was matched against a player of similar age. Opening game: Mark Oulton (England) 1 Local Beijing Amateur (China) 21.”

He discusses the Chinese “natural” approach to earthquake predictions, which works if the signs are quickly and universally communicated to the affected area. “Observations included pigs running into walls and running around in circles, chickens refusing to stay in their coops, well water inexplicably dropping in temperature and bottles on a shelf rattling; all signs of seismic activity…(he then describes how this was communicated to Qinglong County, near Tangshan). “The death toll in Tangshan City area (in 1976) was around 240,000 with 164,000 seriously injured but other estimates which include surrounding rural areas place the death toll at over 600,000 people. Tangshan was completely flattened. 180,000 buildings were destroyed. In Qinglong County however the direct loss of life was zero, yes, I mean zero, although one person died of a heart attack. Qinglong County was also able to provide some of the first respondents to other areas. The lessons learned were employed in the three earthquakes that struck Yunnan Province in 1995 where the loss of life was 11 people due to timely warnings by public officials.”

Oulton has long discursive sections on the language. His explanation of pinyin, (The Chinese system for transliterating Chinese character pronunciation int the Roman alphabet) and how pinyin works and why it is useful is interesting and engaging. He has a long exposition on how to differentiate the different grades of uniformed organizations. Essentially divided into guards and police, (and the many varieties of each) he explains the differences and the different behaviors to expect. “Don’t ask guards directions but police are ok.”

QUOTE “It’s a sad fact that most foreigners can’t retire in China and those wanting an affordable retirement place in Asia will have to consider other options such as the Philippines and Thailand. You can’t normally become a citizen of the People’s Republic or have dual nationality although there have been a few exceptions as honorary citizens or for bravery or outstanding service. The only realistic options for most are for permanent residency as a route to retirement, through marriage, the use of tourist visas and by keep leaving the country or getting a work permit such as for teaching.”

He discusses activities related to drugs as the penalties are some of the harshest in the world. “In a recent drug raid in my home city, foreigners were asked to carry out a urine test for marijuana and those who failed were sent to “rehabilitation” for three months followed by three months in jail and then deported. That’s just for smoking a joint. Sharing one with a friend would be an even more serious crime.” When I lived in China, in the 80s, the Chinese still related drug use to 19th-century opium addicts, with no awareness of hashish, which was available everywhere from the Muslim traders from Xinjiang. Unfortunately, the Chinese authorities seem to have caught up.

He has some strong opinions about historic figures. He is a big fan of Claire Lee Chennault, the American aviator who led the “Flying Tigers” in World War II. But not so much his nemesis Joe Stilwell. “This unconventional genius (Chennault) was not invited to the Japanese surrender partly because of his career-long battle with higher command and in particular, Joseph “Vinegar” Stillwell, one of the most vainglorious and politically and militarily incompetent commanders in American history.” According to Barbara Tuchman, Stillwell was one of the greatest generals the United States ever produced, who performed brilliantly while constantly being hamstrung by the “vainglorious”, but inferior General Douglas MacArthur.

Barabara Tuchman reviewed by Jonathan Spence on Stilwell

Oulton tells the story of a hero of whom I had never heard. A Chinese diplomat, He (Ho before pinyin) Feng Shan, in Vienna saved 3,000 Jews (more than Schindler) by getting them visas to Shanghai. “It is impossible to compare Schindler and Ho. For one, Schindler, if discovered, would have been tortured and killed. Ho (He) might have escaped but more likely be assassinated. He had already antagonized the Gestapo by threatening them at gunpoint to save some Jewish friends. These are incomparably brave men who acted while most of the world stood by and did little. In November 1986, Ho made a visit to his home country and went to his Changsha middle school ‘s 80th year celebrations, and on his death in 2007 at 96 years his bones were repatriated to China.”

Oulton talks about the strange loneliness a foreigner can feel during Spring Festival.

“Honestly, this is not the time to be in China if you are an unattached foreigner. If you have a Chinese family connection it is magical but if not be prepared for deserted cities, closed restaurants, hotels with skeleton staff or even shut and the larger towns and cities that become almost lifeless. My first Spring Festival in China, I spent in Weihai, Shandong Province. I was mostly alone and lucky that the hotel managers asked me to join them in the festivities as a guest. It was a memorable party. The following morning, I did get a knock on my door at about 11 am and a hotel member of staff had brought me a big jug of water and some headache pills as they had apparently helped me to bed in the early hours after I staggered around from excess consumption of Chinese strong liquor.”

I will just add a personal note. I took a cruise from Shanghai to Hong Kong on the SS Jinjiang, formerly a famous ship (the SS Mariposa) that the Chinese bought from my Dad’s old company Matson Line. We had 12 people, all young Westerners, on board. It actually was one of the best travel adventures (read “party”) I ever had, but I’ll leave the details out. However, the fact that only 12 people were on a luxury ship to Hong Kong illustrated how no one goes to Hong Kong for Spring festival, as it was a city created by the Brits and is the home village to very very few Chinese people.

I could easily go on, but I will leave the rest to the reader. I think “...Red Dragon” is a very good book, one that doesn’t have to be read cover to cover, first to last, but can be dipped into anywhere and it will provide elevated entertainment. I suppose some might say that, in order to make it more commercially accessible, it could have been edited more tightly, taking out or abridging some of the longer sections, but that would have only made it shorter, not better. I hope Mark gives us another book because he is a talented, entertaining writer.


Friday, October 29, 2021

Some Assembly Required - by Michael Strelow

Some Assembly Required

by Michael Strelow (Goodreads Author)

S. Barckmann's review Oct 27, 2021

Buy "Some Assembly Required" here!

also available on Amazon Kindle etc.


The history of madness in literature is ancient and long standing. The gift of prophecy was a form of madness. Cassandra could see into the future, but after spurning him sexually, she was cursed by Apollo to never be believed. When Cassandra warned the Trojans what was to come they didn’t believe her, and she ended up suffering worst of all.

From the majestic wailing of King Lear we learn what he saw that he could not see before he was blinded.

The delusions of Don Quixote give us a sad yet comic tour of the ridiculous side of medieval chivalry. Up until the 19th Century great writers saw tragic wisdom in those called mad by the world.

The Russians began to explore mental dissonance and existentialism crept into the story of madness.The tragic wisdom sometimes gave way to just plain crazy. Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” was a first person account of a minor Russian bureaucrat living in Czarist St Petersburg who slowly sinks into at first believable hallucinations and paranoia and ends up convinced he is the King of Spain. Dostoyevski wrote about madness a number of times, in fact much of his literary output focused on mental disturbance. “The Double” was a novella about a man convinced there was another man who looked exactly like himself and who is gradually replacing himself in his own social world. His stories “A Ridiculous Man”, “Notes from the Underground”, “The Gambler” and the great novel “Crime and Punishment” all deal with men who lose touch with what is commonly (if loosely) agreed is reality.

And in China, Lu Xun wrote a story, also called “Diary of a Madman” where mental illness is a result of oppressive economic and social conditions and barriers. The list of stories dealing with characters whose sense of reality is a transitive mental state goes on and on.

Michael Strelow’s “Some Assembly Required” is an original and very different look at the sources of madness, where the fruits of 21st century science are at the root of the horror. The narrator, Jake, is an erudite man who writes articles for science magazines. He says about himself, “I render the science into foundational English, maybe with a cute metaphor, a diagram, a piping of my own flute.”

He goes to a bio genetics conference and hears a Professor Sewell talk, (mumble actually) about his new experiment.

“He said, essentially, that he could, someone could, break down an animal into its component chemistry and register that recipe into zeroes and ones and then compress the whole set of instructions into storage and then later bring out (hash functions) the recipe and reassemble the critter.”

As Jake circles around Prof S trying to look for an angle for an article to write and sell, and he finds the “experiment” the Professor is hiding. It looks like a pile of spilt oatmeal. Jake comes to realize that the “oatmeal”, named “Rex”, is conscious and is talking to him telepathically.

Jake says, “This voices business. I learned later, of course, that this is a very old epistemological problem: what is there we can know? And how do we know it? It’s the next questions, though, that grabbed me by the ass very early on, earlier than if I had had no voices, I think. Who else knows what we know? And all the corollaries: who else knows stuff we can never know? That one has kept a circus of philosophers very busy.”

Jake is a well educated man who lives modestly with his wife in a middle class, mid-life kind of relationship. Jake slowly begins to see Rex flex his muscles and have an influence on everything. He sees Rex manipulate the universe as a self-learning tool, and plaything. Jake tells his wife what he is seeing and experiencing, and she believes him, sort of, and makes an effort to see what he is seeing. But there is always an alternate explanation to Rex’s seemingly material manifestations.

“I could have avoided it if I’d really made my voices go hide out in a cave. Not so easy a thing, it turns out. Rex, the voice of thunder, my Loki and coyote trickster is sitting on my shoulder, though I could deny and deny and deny.”

Jake explains to us, with detailed and humorous analysis, how Rex’s is affecting the environment. Jake’s manner is so dispassionate with seemingly clear minded self reflection that he begins to convince (this) reader that his view of things is cogent and part of the accepted common reality.

Rex talking - “… a fracture in the equilibrium that leads anywhere. The need I am speaking about is strongest in those who hear me now. The ones without the need are … well, just let me say that they are getting inklings and intimations without the logos—the word. They too yearn but insufficiently. They also yearn palely.”

Jake says - “…I thanked my genetic stars that I got a set of amusing, even soothing, voices. I knew, after a little research, that there were much worse versions.”...“I spent the afternoon shifting around the park asking myself Thoreau-like questions: what does the thin layer of the natural world mean to tell us about being alive in it? What does the next layer deeper want to give us as metaphor? And then, once again, the Tina Turner question: what’s love got to do with it?”

Through Jake, Strelow gives us a vaulted tour through the conundrums and bad dreams of scientists working on all levels of problems from physics, linguistics, biology, nano-technology, mathematics and chemistry. In the end Jake and his wife (who copilots his journey into the abyss), are enveloped with a placid and bucolic backdrop while being drawn into a dark drama of a shifting reality that seems inescapable.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Book Reviews Previously Posted on Various Other Sites

Taming the Dragon

by Dan Armstrong 

Oct 11, 2019 

 

https://mudcitypress.com/dragon.php

 

i

Dan Armstrong's "Taming the Dragon" is a very good read. It tells the tale of an engineering consultant who is assigned to look at the Three Gorges Dam for some German investors back just before the huge dam was completed. It is really about the Chang Jiang (长江) or as it is often called in English, the Yangtze River. The Yangtze drains the slopes of the Himalayas, rushes passed Sichuan province through the heart of China's rice belt finally draining into the Pacific near Shanghai. Armstrong takes us up the river into the heart of China literally and figuratively. It is a great story about fixation and desire for both the narrator and China itself. It was set 30 years ago, so much of the story might seem dated because China doesn't need foreign investors to complete its mega engineering projects anymore. But still, there is a universal theme to the story. Like W. H. Hudson's "Green Mansions" also a story about a trip up a river, it shows what happens when we come face to face with our illusions and discover that ordinary reality is really much more enticing.

 

 

 

Portland Zionists Unite! and Other Stories by Eric Flamm

 

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1629015989

September 2, 2019 

Eric Flamm’s collection of short stories contains a powerful, informative, artfully intelligent story titled “Mauser Karabinder”. It reminded me of different aspects of two of Tolstoy’s masterpieces of short fiction, “The Cossacks”, and “The Death of Ivan IIyich”. Flamm's writing style in this story is slightly melancholic, yet accessible (in that Tolstoyian manner) that adds up to an encompassing 360-degree view of his subjects that leaves the reader stunned and in awe of the depth of the reading experience. It really is that good.

The other stories were excellent and very different from one another and serve as a nice supporting structure around “Mauser Karabinder”. All of the stories are longer, (30-40 pages), and deeply explore the experience of American Jews coming to terms with their Hebrew heritage. I am not Jewish myself, and I found myself engrossed in all of them.

The American Jewish relationship with Israel is present in all of the stories, and if you have ever thought about the American-Israeli political relationship in a casually critical sense, be prepared to get out of the kiddie pool and be thrust into deep water. Every aspect, from every point of view, finds a home with some character, (or in the main characters, many conflicting views, fighting for control in their own consciousness.)

The Portland stories, “The Mount”, and “Portland Zionists Unite!” are fun reads because I live just outside the Rose City and sorta, kinda, know the “types” he is talking about. “The Mount” is set in tony Northwest Portland, and revolves around young, well-off Jews who grew up in Orthodox or at least very conservative homes, that from the outside seemed cut-off from “normal” American society, but from the inside you see the struggle to be “normal” and the desire to escape from that lifestyle. The main characters, for the most part, all men, felt they were rebelling against Orthodoxy, while still fighting within themselves to maintain their identity. “The Mount” is an upscale Portland Synagogue, and the story gives an unsentimental look at the struggle within the community to define itself in the face of the new authoritarian reality of Netanyahu’s Israeli, and the response American Jews should have to it.

“Portland Zionists Unite!” is about a Millennial kid, Gary, whose mother “told him he was a Jew”, but who otherwise has little consciousness of his Jewish identity. Flamm catches the rhythm of Gen-Y dialog really well and is able to pump life into a believable portrayal. Gary manages a rental unit and encounters a struggling semi-Jewish couple who rent the duplex next door. It is a very believable story of the struggles, and relationships of youth in this current age of so much uncertainty.

As for the masterpiece of the collection, “Mauser Karabinder”, I am going to only say it is about an American Jew who enlists in the IDF and is doing occupation duty on the west bank in Hebron, protecting a tiny group of Orthodox settlers, surrounded by a sea of Palestinians. If you have seen the recent HBO series “Our Boys”, about retaliatory ethnic murders and the Israeli response to them, you will quickly get the picture of the setting. The story will blow you away.

Eric Flamm is a talented writer, and this collection is worthy of his talent. 

 

The War of Atonement: The Inside Story of the Yom Kippur War

by Chaim Herzog, Michael Herzog 

Jul 08, 2021 

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/80124.The_War_of_Atonement

 

This account of the 1973 Arab Israeli war is full of facts and vignettes that were not previously discussed in the popular press. Chaim Herzog has a very interesting bio, which I urge you to look up on Wikipedia. But to summarize he was a prominent member of the founding generation of Israeli leaders, as a general, politician, and prominent Labour Party Leader. He was President of Israel for a period.

 

The account of the war is an hour-by-hour, day-by-day, dispassionate story of the two week long war. It was fought on two fronts, in the north against Syria, and the south against Egypt. In many ways it was a proxy fight between the NATO and the Warsaw Pact, with the weaponry and strategies of the two sides being tested out.

 

For Israel it was a life or death struggle. The first three days could have gone either way. It was in the middle of the Yom Kippur holiday, and it took Israel by surprise. Herzog points out all of the blunders of the Israeli intelligence establishment, of the political leadership, as well as its tactical and strategic shortcomings that led to the near disaster. He also praises the Arab strategy from a military point of view.

 

It also points out the sacrifice, and heroism that saved Israel. He explains the reasons for the superiority of Israeli pilots and tankers. He also says that dependence on tanks and airpower, while relatively playing down the importance of infantry and artillery was a serious mistake. It was also interesting to see his disdain for Ariel Sharon, a rising political rival at the time and of course eventual Prime Minister of the country. He points out that Sharon’s "primadonna" behavior led to some indecision as well as other problems on the battlefield initially, but in the end gives Sharon his due as a brilliant and fearless tactical general.

If you are interested in modern military history, this is a very good read.

 

The Oppenheimer Alternative 

By Robert J. Sawyer

September 20,2020


https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3536989583

 

I like books that both entertain and inform and this Speculative fiction novel works on both levels. It is an excellent "biography" of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. It is real history mixed with some very intriguing and imaginative speculation. The novel drills into exactly what caused "Oppie's" loss of security clearance in the Red Scare days. We get penetrating and entertaining portraits of the great scientists with whom he worked, including Teller, Einstein, Richard Feynman, and many others. The novel tells the story straight - with one wrinkle. Oppenheimer was a great physics theorist in addition to being the greatest "science project" administrator ever. His work related to the nuclear processes in stars, and (here is the wrinkle) in 1938 it was discovered, (using his theories) that - something bad was going to happen, a strong likelihood that the earth is doomed and soon, very soon.  The novel is a story of how all of the superstar physicists  of the Manhattan project worked to overcome their disagreements and come up with a plan to prevent the bad thing from happening.

The story is told in a non-sensational way, and this was its strength and perhaps its tiny weakness. It stays true to the plodding nature of the way real science actually works, and the manner that real history happens, and sometimes as a reader you want it "sexed up' a little. But I recommend the book highly because it will keep you engaged, and will teach anyone (whether they are experts in science or in history, or both) something profound and interesting. Sawyer proves again why he is a master.

 

 

 

Squeeze Me (Skink #8)

by Carl Hiaasen

Sep 20, 2020 

 

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50644565-squeeze-me

 

 

Hiassen finally turns Skink loose on the White (House) Whale. You knew it was coming, and it is a great and satisfying read. Melania is getting boned by a couple of Secret Service guys while the biggest Scumbag in American History is porking a local pole dancer over in a strip mall in West Palm. The old Palm Beach widows and divorcees plot to get invited to the Winter White House. There is a catch though - one of those rich bitches gets eaten by a python, and if the news gets out it will ruin the coming party season.

It says it right there in the title - Skink #8. If you love Hiassen when he is on the hunt for scumbags - environmental rapists, scam artists, hucksters, corrupt Florida pols and other lowlife frauds who plague the Sunshine State, you will like Squeeze Me. Skink - not the burrowing lizard, but the former Florida Governor,Clinton Tyree, former war hero, and highly popular Florida native. Tyree was run out of the Governor’s Mansion back in the 80s,  by the real estate lobbyists who didn't like him blocking their development projects. He retreated to the Everglades and pursued a career of unrelenting vengeance on the human trash who have been working to make Florida into America's trashiest combination amusement park and nursing home. This is the 8th novel Skink/Tyree  has appeared in and every one of them will give your spirit a lift, even if it is only fiction. It's a hilarious peek at life down in North America's infected appendix, where life after death comes early. Hiassen is a national treasure.

 

 

 

Lest Camelot Fall

by Danny Adams

Dec 11, 2015

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20566520-lest-camelot-fall

 

Danny Adams has written a strong historical novel about what happened after King Arthur died in battle and Excalibur was returned to the Lady of the Lake. It is interesting because it attempts to fuse what (little) we know from solid historical sources, while maintaining faith with the legend. The story puts a real context to characters whose only existence is confirmed by stories written some 700 years after the fact.

 

It takes place in the decade of 530-540. We know that at that time, the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian was attempting to reconquer Italy, which had been overrun by various Germanic tribes over the previous century. We have a good deal of knowledge about the events and people in the Mediterranean area, but little about Britain. We know the Saxons have invaded to stay and have settled in the Wessex region of south central Britain but they are not really secure. Other Germans tribes are also on the scene, as well as the native Celts and the Romans who stayed after the Western Empire withdrew its troops.

 

Adams has a historical eye on all of this, but what I think the reader wants to know is what about the characters of Camelot? At this point Adams has to use his imagination to tell us their histories. Who was Merlin? How did he live so long? Who was the real Lady of the Lake? What was Arthur's parentage and who were his descendants in history? What were the ultimate fates of Guinevere and Lancelot?

 

Adams takes the myths of Camelot and blends it into what we do know of history and he does a very good job at it. He has altered my own internal map of that part of the world at that time. I think his vision is very sound.

 

His main character is a nephew of Arthur's, Lucian Flavius Aurelianus, whose ancestry is part Roman, part Celt. He tells the story as he journeys back and forth across southern Britain. First person narratives have the obvious strength of being immediate and camera-eyed on the action. The disadvantage of first person is you only see and know what the character knows. So all that history that Adams offers up must be told through the eyes of a Dark Age Royal Prince, who has his own issues that often blind him to the motives of the people around him. He is a young man with many insecurities.  These issues get in the way of him seeing clearly what his final place in the world will be. Lucian is petulant, quick to anger and full of self-doubt and guilt over his own hates, lusts and desires. So when he tells how a Saxon Camp is laid out, or discusses the religious squabbles of Pagan Celts and Christian Camelot, or explains new weaponry such as the crossbow brought in by agents of Justinian, this information-rich discussion causes the story to wait. As a serious history buff, I don't mind, but maybe other readers might lose the thread. Shifting that focus without the all knowing omniscient narrator is tricky.

 

But never mind that. It is a meaty book and I enjoyed it all. In addition to Arthurian lore and Dark Age history, Adams throws in lots and lots of allusions to Tolkien and Beowulf and probably much more that I missed. It is a work of a sound scholar and a good fiction writer. Well done.

 

 

 

Havana Bay (Arkady Renko, #4)

by Martin Cruz Smith

Oct 26, 2015 

 

 Havana Bay is about tramping the streets of Havana and I suspect that it will be a resource to understand the Cuba that is soon to disappear now that we Yanks are invading as tourists. Arkady has lost some of his fire I think - he is suicidal in the beginning, (over a horrible lose that will hit hard on long time readers of the series) and then seems to accept what comes afterward. It makes sense character-wise but it is like he is sleepwalking. There is a lack of tension in the story compared to some of the past Renko novels. But it is a wonderful story of the Havana streets and if you are going, this is the book to read to create your own adventure. Smith delivers the scene better than any of his contemporaries - after you read it you can see and smell the city. He did the same thing for Chernobyl in Wolves eat Dogs.

 

 

The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam

by Max Boot

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35187192-the-road-not-taken

Jun 30, 2021  

 

Edward Lansdale has an outsized reputation that has inspired conspiracy mongers for the last 60 years. Max Boot has written a somewhat pedestrian biography of the American “dirty tricks” empresario of our anti communist wars in the Philippines and Vietnam.

 

His biographer here, Max Boot,  immigrated from Russia with his parents when he was a young child, went to Yale, studied history, and is now a regular opinion correspondent for the Washington Post. He has had an interesting ideological journey, moving from staunch supporter of our incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan, to a harsh critic of Trumpism. He has been described as a “neocon”, a label he rejects. He has (of late) developed more liberal views on most domestic issues and is a strong supporter of the military and our recent wars. He recently recanted his support for the Bush-Cheney Iraq war debacle.

 

His biography of Lansdale is a fairly blatant attempt to revive the liberal/conservative American view of the “Third Way”, toward moving what were once called “emerging nations” away from Marxist insurgencies toward American style democracy. Lansdale, a former advertising executive, stuck in a somewhat loveless marriage, stayed in the Air Force after World War II and joined the precursor organization of the CIA and was stationed in the Philippines, a recently independent former American colony. The Philippines were ruled by landed families, but were beset by the growing threat of the Hukbalahap Rebellion (Huks) which began as resistance to the Japanese invasion in World War II and continued into the post war era of American predominance.

 

Landsdale met a Filipina woman during his tour of duty and fell in love. She remained his lover whenever he could see her during the next decades, even though he never got divorced from his American wife. She was a member of the elite class on the islands and through her he met many of the leaders of the landowning class, which was afraid of the Huks. Lansdale also met Ramon Magsaysay, a war hero during the fight against the Japanese, and an auto mechanic by trade. Even though the upper class didn’t like Magsaysay, Lansdale saw his charismatic open personality had the best chance to succeed in Philippine politics and they became great friends. Lansdale used this friendship to barter his way into a powerful position within the American intelligence community and Magsaysay became President of the Philippines. This “coup” launched Lansdale’s career.

 

The big story about Lansdale is of course in Vietnam. Lansdale was the supposed model for Graham Greene’s popular novel “The Quiet American”, and he also was allegedly portrayed positively in book and later movie “The Ugly American”. As the war got hotter and larger, Lansdale was stationed in Saigon and tried to use the same technique of playing the friend and power behind the throne to President Ngô Đình Diệm. And for a while it seemed to be working. But Diem was not nearly as charismatic as Magsaysay, and in spite of Lansdale’s efforts to popularize him among his own people, the effort failed. Diem and his brother, Ngô Đình Nhu were overthrown and executed in a coup in November 1963, with the tacit approval of President Kennedy. From then on Lansdale’s influence waned.

 

The thrust of Boot’s biography of Lansdale was that he was not the sinister figure that he has been made out to be in popular myth: That he was an open, friendly Californian with a salesman’s personality and a belief in the decency of American intentions. He was no intellectual but possessed a “can-do” attitude, and while he was complicit in some murderous treachery in jungle battles in the Philippines and did approve of assassinations during the Phoenix operations in Vietnam, his record was not nearly as murderous as it has been thought by some writers and conspiracy minded leftists. Boot goes out of his way to “prove” that Lansdale had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination as has been alleged by some.

 

Boot’s political motive for writing about Lansdale’s (and he clearly has one, which really is a no-no for a serious biographer) appears to me to attempt to justify (or at least explain in the best possible light) American post-war anti-communist behavior in the developing world. He is trying to counter the prevailing left view that much of our problems today stem from our ignoring the popular will in other countries (like Iran, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, etc) and imposing our will through force and connivance wherever we could. Lansdale, in popular culture, was a symbol of that post war American aggression and while Boot seems to show his warts, (such as his adultery), he really paints a pretty benign picture of Lansdale.

 

I learned a great deal from the book, especially about how Lansdale came to the forefront of American counter insurgency, and while it didn’t change my mind about the folly of much of American post-war foreign policy, it did disabuse me of some of what I thought about Lansdale.

 

I will say that for all his intellectual diligence, Boot is not nearly as self-reflective as he should be. He was a front and center cheerleader for our most recent misadventure in Mesopotamia that ended in disaster much as the Vietnam war did. Both wars not only killed vast numbers of people and destroyed much of their society, but they had a profound negative effect on our own country. Boot seems to hate Trump, as I do, but he doesn’t seem to realize that if we had never invaded Iraq we likely never would have had Trump. Bush-Cheney’s historic blunder is the most important factor in the fragmenting of our social and political cohesion as a nation and opinion molders like Boot still have a good deal of explaining to do. I appreciate Max Boot’s conversion but until I see a bit more contrition, (a’la Robert McNamara) I am not going to take him that seriously as a journalist or a biographer.


Saturday, July 24, 2021

Review of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

  

by 

's review originally published in Goodreads 
 

1Q84 is a strange book that I almost gave up reading numerous times. Nearly 1000 pages, it is full of seemingly trivial details that repeat again and again. 

Yet I did come back. In fact, I am within 50 pages of the finish, so I am well positioned to discuss the book, yet there is no danger I will give away the ending. I will definitely finish it soon, because of the strange spell this book has on me, plus my own stubborn determination to finish any task into which I have sunk deep resources into (I have read over 850 pages already) guarantees I will finish reading it. 

Do I recommend it to you? As the characters in the book feel about their own quandaries, I am not sure. I can easily see someone throwing it down and cursing me for roping them into reading it. The chapters seem to meld together, and the details we learn about the characters and their environment repeat, again and again like a Buddhist chant. And yet, I can also see other readers so captivated by it, that they will seriously wonder about my lack of literary taste because I wasn’t over the moon with praise. Or rather over the two moons.

Tengo is a man about thirty, accomplished as a writer and teacher of mathematics, big, athletic, and painfully shy. His mother left her husband when he was a very young child and the husband raised him. He was poor, and as Tengo subsequently learns, not his biological father. But once out of the house Tengo’s exterior life prospers. His major longing in life is for a girl who had been his classmate when he was ten years old. 

Her name was Aomame and she grows up to be an assassin of men who sexually abuse young girls. She is pretty, athletic and also painfully shy. She too longs for the boy she knew when she was ten. This longing goes on, back and forth even when they are within shouting distance of each other, for the first 900 pages. I still don’t know if they will meet. 

They are connected by a strange teenage girl named Fuka-Eri who has written a book about the little people who actually control the world. Tengo’s editor convinces him to polish her book, and edit it for publication. He does and it, titled “Air Chrysalis”, becomes a mega best seller. 

To both Aomame and Tengo, the world of Air Chrysalis becomes real. There are indeed two moons in the sky, and other more subtle differences between the world of 1984, when the story is originally set, to the new world of 1Q84. 

And there is a religious cult called Sakigake that doesn’t like the story of Air Chrysalis being published and is after both Aomame and Tengo. Aomame must use her skills as a killer, while Tengo tries to learn the secrets of his slowly dying stepfather.

It is not a thriller by any means, in fact, it is difficult to fit it into any genre. That alone might be what has kept me coming back to get to the end. The author Murakami, takes his time, and builds the suspense - builds it past what often seems like the breaking point, but you soon see that that is the point. The novel is a different sort of story.

As I said, I can’t wait to get back to it. Reader discretion advised.