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Friday, July 22, 2016

Review: House Revenge by Mike Lawson

Don’t ever piss off Joe DeMarco. He brings a new cleverness to revenge.

His boss John Mahoney, high-ranking Congressman, was approached by Eleanor Dobbs, an 82-year-old woman living in an apartment building that has been marked for destruction so Sean Callahan can build (and make gobs of money) a new upscale development. In spite of Callahan’s having offered her a great deal of money to move, Dobbs is set on living out the remaining three years on her lease.

Callahan pisses off Mahoney and the result is a monumental ego battle. Joe, taking Eleanor’s side, goes (IMO) way out-of-bounds in getting back at Callahan. I like Lawson’s serious. And this book, certainly held my interest (perhaps helped by the outstanding narration of Joe Barrett), but several lives were lost because of Eleanor’s intransigence and Mahoney and Demarco’s total over-reaction. The ending is tied up just a bit too neatly for my taste.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Review: Enola Gay by Gordon Thomas

Lots of ironies and happenstance surrounded the delivery of the first atomic bomb. FDR backed the beginning of the Manhattan Project without the knowledge of Congress using money off the books. Max Tibbetts, a pilot with an impeccable record who had been the first to fly a B-17 on a bombing raid across the English Channel and was in charge of flight testing the B-29, a plane that had killed its first test pilot and was thought by some to be too dangerous to fly, almost didn’t get the job to drop the bomb. In an interview he admitted he had gotten into trouble in high school for a backseat “dalliance” with a girl. Had he forgotten about it or lied about it he would not have been chosen. They were looking for someone who could be totally honest. Because of that his name would be forever enshrined with the bomb and Hiroshima, a city he had never heard of.

Use of the bomb was never a certainty. Neils Bohr, one of the scientists working on the project, thought science belonged to the world and wanted to open up the research to everyone. A laudable thought but in 1944? To the Germans and Japanese?

Thomas focuses mainly on two participants to get differing POV: Colonel Tibbetts as he prepared the 393 Bombing Group for the mission over Japan; and Officer Yokoyama in charge of the anti-aircraft guns on the hills surrounding Hiroshima. I had always been under the assumption that Hiroshima was primarily a civilian target targeted simply because after General LeMay’s firebombing of Japan there were few cities left to bomb. But, apparently Hiroshima was home to several military industrial sites producing many weapons, although by this stage of the war raw materials were in such short supply they were barely operating. Hiroshima, was highly vulnerable to air attack. All a bomber need do was drop its load within the bowl to be almost certain of causing damage. Apart from a single kidney-shaped hill in the eastern sector of the city, about half a mile long and two hundred feet high, Hiroshima was uniformly exposed to the spreading energy that big bombs generate. Structurally—like San Francisco in the earthquake and fire of 1906—Hiroshima was built to burn. Ninety percent of its houses were made of wood. Large groups of dwellings were clustered together. The Japanese had rationalized the fall of the Marianas and other Pacific Japanese bases by saying it was a strategic withdrawal to lure the Americans closer to the Homeland where they could be more easily destroyed.

In the U.S. secrecy surrounded all preparations for the atomic bomb development and attack. "Many thousands of man-hours and dollars had been spent on tapping telephones, secretly opening letters, collecting details of extramarital affairs, homosexual tendencies, and political affiliations. The dossiers represented the most thorough secret investigation until then carried out in the name of the U.S. government.

I still remain a bit astonished at the naive faith everyone had in the bomb. They really had no idea whether it would work and if it did, what the results might be. How far from the center would radioactivity extend, what would be the effects of the blinding flash, were just a couple of the many questions they had. The extraordinary secrecy probably had as much to do with their fear the bomb might not work as it did that it would work.

The United States, to this date, remains the only country ever to have used nuclear weapons in war.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Review: Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal by David France OR "Does Abstinence Make the Church Grow Fondlers.

This book could have provided the basis for the docudrama Spotlight (an excellent movie, by the way.) You will also, after reading it, realize how the movie barely scratched the surface of the problem and how much the reporters owed to work done by others, work that had been shown them years before and which they ignored.

It’s a very interesting book concerning the raging pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church, which has spread way beyond the United States into Ireland (!), Germany , and the Netherlands. Der Spiegel ran a series awhile back linking Pope Benedict (formerly Cardinal Ratzinger) to the cover-up in Germany so it’s hard to see how anything will change in spite of Pope Francis.

France begins by tracking the biographies of several seminarians looking for early hints of their later problems. The Church, it appears, attracts a certain personality already conflicted with their sexual persona. The attitude of the Church toward celibacy just made things worse. It was treated as some holy relic. “Years later, when scandal buckled the American church, theologians would look back and see the problem inherent in this approach. By casting celibacy as a fragile rarity in a world of temptation, it placed sexual action out of the hands of the actor, [the temptation to pun here is overwhelming] condemning him (or empowering him) to fail from time to time.”

To deal with temptations, which were totally removed from seminarians, the Papacy had little to offer other than to avoid movie theaters. Pray to the Virgin Mary. Receive the Eucharist often—because celibacy may be a gift to God, but God’s gift back is the power to sustain it. Sounding a practical note, Pius promoted a technique he called “flight and alert vigilance,” and he spelled out the many ways to elude temptation The experience of one seminarian, Sprags, is instructive: Especially on matters of sexual drive, the one enormous struggle they all faced, the seminarians were left to their own devices. The subject was cordoned off like a crime scene, to be milled around and gawked at but never approached. For Spags, this had the unintended consequence of making sex sexier, a succulent and mysterious thing too deliciously outrĂ© to mention. Matters relating to reproduction and marriage in moral theology textbooks, for instance, were rendered in Latin, as though in some sort of secret code to be pored over intensely. Spags had never once masturbated. This required a great struggle of the will and prayer, but temperance always triumphed. He wondered if this meant he was especially headstrong, or just a lot less hormonally charged than his peers. He would never know—the closest Spags ever came to discussing it came during his annual evaluations, at which point his spiritual director would frankly inquire, “Any issues with celibacy?” Honestly, Spags answered, “None.”

As the historian Garry Wills wrote in Papal Sin, “The more the assembled members [a lay conclave] looked at the inherited ‘wisdom’ of the Church, the more they saw the questionable roots from which it grew—the fear and hatred of sex, the feeling that pleasure in it is a biological bribe to guarantee the race’s perpetuation, that any use of pleasure beyond that purpose is shameful. This was not a view derived from scripture or from Christ, but from Seneca and Augustine.”

After a while the litany of constant evil gets a bit overwhelming.

The Cover-up

As we all learned from Watergate, the initial problem is never as damaging as the cover-up that follows. So it has been with the Catholic Church. Critics and supporters divide into two camps, it seems after reading reviews and other books, those who think what happened with priests is simply a reflection of the 6% problem in society in general, and those who believe the celibate culture of the church tends to attract persons struggling with their sexuality coupled with a hierarchical structure that distributes power to its priestly class.

Both groups tend to miss the point. It’s the cover-up that’s a much larger and costly (exceeding $3 Billion) problem. Had the hierarchy recognized (heaven knows they had plenty of evidence) that some priests had a problem with kids and got them help (instead of just praying about the issue) and moved them to a monastery or some function removed from children and then got help for the molested kids, they would have been celebrated as a caring and well-functioning institution. Instead, they buried their collective heads in the scripture, suppressed those trying to warn them, hid documents, bought off victims, used their institutional power to prevent investigations, and generally hoped everything would go away.

Father John McNeill’s book The Church and the Homosexual dealt with some of the issue related to chastity and its impact on homosexuals as opposed to heterosexuals in an environment that demanded chastity. “This is not an equivalent demand for a heterosexual priest and a homosexual priest. Most people miss that, they seem to deal with the fact that chastity would be the same thing for both groups. But a heterosexual priest’s sexual desire to reach out to a woman is considered good in itself. And always a valid choice if they chose to leave the priesthood. Whereas the homosexual priest is taught that his desire to reach out to another male is evil. And never an option. Therefore it’s not a question of sacrificing a good as it is for a heterosexual, it’s repressing an evil desire. The church wants gay priests to interiorize homophobia and self-hatred and this leads to all sorts of neurotic stuff.” Father McNeill was expelled from the Jesuits by Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict.)

This is not an issue unique to the United States. Investigations have surfaced in almost every country revealing a conspiratorial pattern of abuse and cover-up. (The example in Africa of priests forcing nuns to service them out of fear of HIV is especially egregious.) Those who are doubtful need only to read the Irish Murphy Report (available online in its entirety), which shows a pattern of institutional neglect, abuse, and cover-up on the part of the Catholic Church. The standard defense of the church that I have heard repeatedly is that the number of priests who were pedophiles is no larger a percentage than in the general population. That may indeed be true; the difference being that the church made a deliberate and concerted effort to hide their predations and continued to put children in harm's way. For that alone, the church deserves to be dismantled.

Additional reading: (an extraordinary resource for additional citations.)

For information about how the money was manipulated by the church in the settlements, see Render unto Rome the Secret Life of the Catholic Church by Jason Berry

Review: Blood Count by Robert Goddard

I had forgotten how much I enjoy Robert Goddard’s books until I started this audiobook read very well by David Rintoul. Goddard seems to specialize in ordinary people finding themselves in difficult situations and usually involving some kind of multi-continent chase.

In this one, the past of a liver transplant surgeon, Edward Hammond, comes back to haunt him. Several years before he had been offered a considerable amount of money to save the life of Dragan Gazi, a man now on trial in the Hague for war crimes, with a liver transplant. Gazi’s daughter, Ingrid, has approached and tasked him with retrieving Gazi’s millions which are hidden away in bank accounts somewhere. If he refuses, Ingrid will reveal evidence that Hammond had had his wife Katie killed because she was about to divorce him and marry someone else.

The man holding the key to the location of the money, Gazi’s accountant, Marco Piravani, doesn’t want to be found, however, let alone release the money to Ingrid. To detail more of the plot would be to drive spoiler police over the edge.Let’s just say the situation he finds himself in is very complicated and one that Hammond himself does not recognize or understand.

It’s a story of revenge, responsibility, medical ethics, corruption, and family and tribal loyalty. An interesting story diminished only by an overabundance of coincidence.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Review: The Case of the One-Penny Orange by EV Cunningham (pseu. of Howard Fast)

Charming detective story. Howard Fast was a prolific writer across many genres. I had not realized that he also wrote a series of detective novels under the EV Cunningham pen name that have been recently re-issued under his real name by Open Road Media (bless them.) They feature a tenacious Nisei detective, Masao Matsui. For those who don’t know, Nisei was a term invented to describe those of Japanese heritage born in the United States. (Don’t get me started on the inherent xenophobia of these kinds of designations.)

As you might have guessed, the case involves a stamp and the murder of a stamp dealer. The murders escalate and the provenance of the stamp and its effect on a twelve-year-old become important, not to mention Buchenwald. Matsui, head of the Beverly Hills homicide squad, is a treat to watch as he interacts with his colleagues and boss employing the “kill ‘em with kindness” technique. Little action, well, except for the three chain-wielding motorcyclists, just good dialogue and intriguing plot.

For those who care about such things (I find them endlessly fascinating, including Lawrence Block’s creation Keller’s passion for stamps) the one-penny orange was first issued in 1847 in Mauritius and is one of the rarest of all stamps. The history is quite interesting. You can find more at