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Friday, August 19, 2016

Review: Man in the Middle by Brian Haig

When you listen to a lot of audiobooks, those in a series tend to take on the characteristics of a particular reader, especially if h/she is well suited to a given author. I’m a devoted fan of the Sean Drummond character invented by Brian Haig who has been narrated primarily by Scott Brick. The narrator becomes Drummond. Brick captures all the nuances of Drummond’s humor. LJ Ganser is fine, just takes some getting used to if you are accustomed to Brick, but he often reads the wiseacre passages so endearing to Drummond fans too flatly.

Drummond is now a Lt. Colonel, still in the JAG, but assigned to the CIA in a special projects group and he’s assumed the role of an FBI agent to infiltrate the investigation into the suicide/homicide of a man with lots of classified access, Clifford Daniels, and the man about to be outed as a major force in promoting the invasion of Iraq.

The scene eventually shifts to Iraq where the plot gets thinner and the content more wordy. Haig engages in digressions that often have little to do with the story, and sometimes the point he wants to make regarding the war gets muddled. For example, he goes to great lengths to portray the dangers of Fallujah yet Drummond and his escorting contractors have little difficulty making it through town to their target where a great fuss is made over Bien’s conduct in identifying the man they want to kidnap (but only after a ridiculous banter over who gets to go that was really silly). Their attempt must be made speedily because the Marines are about to obliterate the town with artillery. Shift to a hospital where much is made of the injuries to soldiers from roadside bombs without even a consideration given to the effect of artillery on non-combatants.

One interesting historical mention was the terrorist bombing in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, in which a truck bomb was placed next to an eight-story structure that housed members of the coalition forces being used to enforce the no-fly zone in Iraq. Close to 500 coalition servicemen were killed or wounded as the whole side of the building collapsed. Precursors of many attacks to come.

In spite of a constant refrain that as members of the Army, both Drummond and Bian Tran, his female MP major sidekick follow orders, they consistently avoid doing what they have been ordered to do, all the while proclaiming the rightness of the cause.

The book resonates best when Sean is dealing with the bureaucracy and its silliness, less so when he meanders all over in assorted sermons/lectures. There are some seriously incredible plot twists and devices. But I do like some of the characters in spite of their flaws hence three instead of two stars. Haig (and his editor) need to learn the difference between imply and infer.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Review: Killer Stuff and Tons of Money by Maureen Stanton

One of the features of Antiques Roadshow that makes it so interesting is the historical information delivered by the experts as they discuss the provenance of some unusual item. That knowledge is what separates the amateurs from the professionals in the antique business. You have to know a lot of stuff. This is one of those ridiculously fascinating books that truly holds my interest becoming impossible to put down as I am overwhelmed with more and more intriguing trivia, e.g., in the chapter about the show, “Lint on the set is a problem, too. “We spend a lot of time picking lint off the tables, floors, the velvet-covered display racks,” Matthews says. And derrieres cause trouble. The crew often films an object set on a waist-high table. “Many times we cannot use the shot because in the background is someone’s ass,” Matthews says. “The Antiques Roadshow butt shot. That’s a phenomenon in this business.”

True aficionados of flea markets, for example, realize that by the time the show/market actually opens 95% of the really good stuff is already gone as the dealers use that time to search through each other's wares for the good stuff. The best target is a rental truck signaling a possible estate being sold, the owners often not recognizing what they might have and willing to let it go cheap.

It’s exciting and addicting, but it’s clear that the breadth and depth of knowledge needed to get to this point is daunting. Knowledge is what makes this robbery okay. Robbery is not the right word, though, because the information is available to anyone willing to study, to do the homework. “If you buy something off someone’s table, you don’t owe them anything,” Avery says. The dealer is responsible for setting the asking price. Caveat venditor.

Why do people start collecting stuff? Stuff that often overwhelms their lives and homes. “... from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s storage unit rentals increased by 90 percent.” Avery’s house had become a warren of paths and finally, using yard sales and group sales shops, and lots of time, he managed to reduce the quantity somewhat. The conundrum was that in order to sell, he had to buy, and determining what to take to any given show on any given weekend was always difficult, but he had to have lots of “stuff.” The impulse to collect begins as early as age three, a tendency that fast food restaurants and toy manufacturers exploit by marketing sets of toys and urging kids to “collect them all.” And some collecting is just weird. “Photographer Amy Kubes has collected her toenails since 1995. “I’ve never missed a cutting,” she wrote. William Davies King, author of Collections of Nothing, has “seventeen to eighteen thousand labels,” including labels from forty-four brands of canned tuna. “I’ll spare you the clams, crabmeat, mussels, oysters, sardines, snails, herring, salmon, and kipper snack” labels, he writes. “

Lots of delectable information. Did you know, for example,
In a single year, 1859, just one glass factory in France produced eighty million bottles for opium. Until it was banned in 1905, opium was cheaper than beer or gin, and easily purchased in grocery stores, by mail, and over the counter at pharmacies. Parents even gave opium to fussy babies, a product like Street’s Infants’ Quietness, which “quieted” many infants through death by overdose. In Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas de Quincey called opium a “panacea for all human woes” and “the secret of happiness.” Opium addiction was so widespread that an English pharmacist, C. R. Alder Wright, formulated a derivative called diacetylmorphine, which he hoped would be less addicting. The new drug, sold by the German company Bayer, was called Heroin for its heroic ability to cure. Heroin was the best-selling drug brand of its time.

And the hint of the day: “It might surprise antiques dealers to learn that a recent study found that low starting bids yielded higher final prices, at least on the Internet. In 2006, researchers sought to discover the causes behind this “reversal of the anchoring effect,” so they set up simultaneous auctions on eBay. Their study showed that when the starting bid is low, anyone can jump in (“reduced barriers to entry”). This increases activity, causing a “sheep effect” (my term—if everyone else wants something, then it must be valuable).”

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Superficial patriotism

There was a lot of grumbling and aspersing about the seeming difference between the Republican and Democratic conventions in the number of flags flying. Aside from the obvious silliness in determining what might constitute the proper number of flags that must be displayed in order to be considered appropriately patriotic, i.e. is the threshold 5, 50, or 100, or perhaps 76, that kind of flag-waving patriotism is so superficial. Who's the more patriotic, the man driving down the road with a flag waving from the car who throws his McDonald’s trash out the window? Or the guy without the flag who stops to pick it up?

The whining about the number of flags is simply a way to distract attention from the vacuity of the Republican candidates.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review: Ruin Value by J. Sydney Jones

It’s just after the war and before the Nuremberg trials. The werwolves ( young boys indoctrinated by the SS to wreak havoc on the Allies through sabotage and murder, operating as quasi-commandos after the war) were giving grief to supply officers. A Thriving Black Market A unique combination of characters: Former Chief Inspector Beck is in a POW camp, Kate, is an American journalist whose father is an important senator, Colonel Jensen is a lecherous officer trying to maintain supply lines, and Captain Nathan Morgan, a former OSS espionage agent and ex- NY homicide detective who springs Beck from jail to gain his assistance in finding out who has been killing people by slitting their throats and leaving a page from a novel behind with certain words underlined. But the investigators don’t have exactly clean hands either. Lots of grays.

Let us say, then, that my Gestapo colleagues and I had a falling out over who was really in charge of criminal investigations in the Nuremberg district. That argument manifested itself specifically and, finally, in a needless and idiotic order. I refused to institute it at Kripo; ergo, I was a political criminal.” “The order?” Beck hesitated, blew air out, shrugged. “To shoot on sight any Jew caught in the district after the final transports had been sent to the occupied territories. It seemed a senseless piece of cruelty. Those people would be sent to their deaths once captured anyway. Why make my Kripo personnel complicit in their murder?” The American officer was silent, staring at Beck with those innocent but not so innocent eyes. “Not exactly what you wanted to hear, eh? Not exactly drawing a line in the sand for morality.” “So you admit knowledge of the death camps?” “Of course. All of Germany knew.

Nuremberg had been declared a “dead” city by the Allies. For the trials it was perfect; for criminal, too.

There was limited electricity, public water, or transport, and barely any mail or telephone to speak of in the several months after the end of the war. The local government was a joke, and the occupation authorities were the only thing between the city and total anarchy. Three months earlier, OSS analysts had declared the place among the dead cities of Europe. But the accident of a huge Palace of Justice complex, inexplicably untouched by Allied bombing that had leveled the rest of the inner city, made it the venue for the trial of the century. There was the further confusion of shared authority between the Allies themselves and between the Allies and the German police who had only started operating again last month; the complete absence of societal controls—women who would screw for an orange, displaced men who’d murder for less; a lack of records to track known criminals. A cop’s nightmare.

An excellent murder mystery set in an interesting location during an intriguing historical time period.

Generally Speaking by Lawrence Block - For Philatelists Only?

Probably a book of interest only to those engrossed in stamp collecting. Lawrence Block, himself, is quite a collector and that’s reflected in his Keller stories which have his hitman protagonist endearingly looking for and buying stamps for his collection.

Block got his start in writing supplying a column for a numismatic magazine, interestingly, but I don’t believe he was ever bitten by that bug. His ruminations on the advantages of stamp collecting; inexpensive or costly, requires little physical labor or space, either generalist or specialist, and moderately intellectual, not to mention they don’t have to be walked, all ring quite true.

The book consists of a series of essays that Block wrote for Linn’s Stamp magazine and they became one of its most read features. Being a collector and liking Block’s writing, I enjoyed them very much.