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Friday, March 28, 2014

Grave Designs (Rachel Gold Mystery) by Michael A. Kahn | LibraryThing

Grave Designs (Rachel Gold Mystery) by Michael A. Kahn | LibraryThing:

Rachel is hired by the managing partner of her old firm to find out who or what is "Canaan."  At issue is the execution the will of a recently deceased (he died in flagrante) partner in the firm who had added a bizarre codicil to his will two years earlier. This addition  provided for the maintenance of Canaan's grave, which happened to be in a pet cemetery, yet to the best of everyone's knowledge, he had never owned a pet.
Kahn has woven an intriguing plot related to a book written by someone who had attended Barrett College that purports to relate the story of a lottery in a town that ceased to exist.  The story flows well and keeps the pages turning.  My only quibble was Paul, Rachel’s erstwhile ex-boyfriend who happens along at a convenient time with a copy of the book (he was a Barrett graduate, also) even though his knowledge of it is explained adequately.  I had hoped for a more satisfactory ending that might have involved some legal shenanigans rather than a moray eel. But it's Kahn's first and the legal end becomes more pronounced in later volumes.
Much like another of Kahn’s stories, this one also has a code as its key. It was hard to believe this was the first book by Kahn.  Having read a couple out of order, I’m now going to read them all in the proper sequence.  In this book, Rachel is still in Chicago, Benny has just been hired to teach, but Ozzie is still a presence.



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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen | LibraryThing

Annie Jacobsen is obsessed with secrecy.  Her other book, Operation Paperclip, deals with the hidden machinations of the US government after WW II to find and  import Nazi scientists who had special expertise in rocketry and chemical weapons.

This book details the hidden history of Area 51, an ultra-secret location (officially it doesn’t exist) in the Nevada desert just next to the atomic weapons testing area. Supposedly created by the CIA in 1955 for U-2 flights, Jacobsen discovered it had been set up by the Atomic Energy Commission to conduct tests some might consider to be unethical on animal subjects. The secrecy of the Manhattan Project, an effort unknown to Congress and even the Vice-President --Truman was briefed on it only after he assumed the presidency, --  was adopted as SOP by the CIA, NSA, and AEC to the point where one might argue the United States had a shadow government run by the military.

Jacobsen’s entry into this world came by chance when she met Edward Lovick, an 88-year-old physicist, who suggested he might have an interesting story for her and connected her with other elderly pilots, engineers and scientists regarding the plane known as Oxcart (the A-12) which had been created half a century earlier.

Some of the secrecy was arguably quite necessary since it related to aerial surveillance that ostensibly helped keep the world from nuclear holocaust.  Whether even in hindsight this kind of secrecy justified keeping the president (President Clinton was not privy to Area 51 affairs) out of the loop is problematic and certainly undemocratic.

The UFO conspiracy theories emanating from Area 51 she attributes to some seriously awful human research being done there during the early cold war and the whole UFO nonsense became useful for the Air Force as a cover for its own nefarious activities.  Who needs nasty aliens when we have the Air Force?

Area 51 was where the U-2 was developed.  Richard Bissell (of later Bay of Pigs fame) was put in charge and everything was so secret and control of the money providing so much power that Curtis LeMay, the Air Force general and SAC commander, was royally pissed off and he was not someone to mess with.  Eisenhower insisted that the pilot be CIA so as to avoid charges of military complicity should one of the pilots ever be captured.  The last thing he wanted was to risk charges of hostile action. Yet hundreds of Air Force personnel were assigned to the program (by Bissell) since they had all the expertise.  Eisenhower, when pushed by LeMay, insisted it remain under CIA control so he could have plausible deniability.

Secrecy could cause problems. Since they wanted no one to drive to Area 51 or live in Las Vegas, the closest town, a shuttle between Burbank and the area was initiated and workers lived in Burbank.  No flight plan was listed nor any record of the flights kept. So when, inevitably, the C-54 became lost in a snowstorm, and asks for help finding their position, controllers were completely flummoxed;  they had no record of any plane being in that area. The plane crashed on the top of Mount Charleston north of Las Vegas killing some all on board. Several interesting side-effects resulted from the crash.  It was the first time the U-2 was used on a mission (to help pinpoint the exact location so they could retrieve briefcases and classified documents), and the CIA learned how easy it was to use the public’s preconceptions and the media’s desire for a story - any story -- to manipulate publicity. The press, denied access to the site, made up a story that those killed on board were working on a secret nuclear weapons program, hence all the security.

It’s no wonder UFO sightings proliferated.  The U-2 was originally silver in color, had an extraordinary wing span, and flew at 70,000 feet during a time when commercial aircraft flew between 10,000 and 20,000 feet. The sun glinting off the plane made it look like some kind of fiery cross.  You have to remember this was a time of great paranoia.  Americans were terrified of nuclear holocaust and a Russian induced Armageddon.  I remember being on my uncle’s farm in Wisconsin in the late fifties scanning the sky every time we heard a plane, jotting down the characteristics and its direction of flight, so the information (my uncle volunteered with the Civil Air Patrol) could be phoned in and checked to make sure it wasn’t some Russian bomber. (Even then we thought it odd that a Russian bomber would make it all the way to Wisconsin without dropping any bombs, but logic never plays much of a role in paranoia.)

Politics. money and the media all symbiotically created the perfect storm of paranoia in the fifties. Time Magazine was terrifying readers with stories of Soviet ICBMs crashing down on American cities;  Curtis LeMay was locked in a battle with the Defense Department over whether manned bombers were better than ICBMs (they could be recalled, missiles could not while he called for a pre-emptive strike on Russia and even ordered massive test launches of B-47s** from Alaska and Greenland taking them just to Russian airspace risking a Russian missile launch.)  He disdained the overflight research being done at Area 51 but continued to lose officers to both that program and the missile initiative promoted by the Paperclip scientists imported from Germany.

Those wanting a specific focus on Area 51 will be disappointed as Jacobsen uses it more for a springboard to discuss the history and background of such things as the U-2 flights, etc. Personally, I loved those details and once again was amazed that we survived the twenty years after WW II without descending into WW III. Our arrogance and self-righteous behavior was on display over and over.  Can you imagine the Congressional reaction had the Soviets flown a U-2-like plane over the U.S.?

One interesting, if scary, tidbit is that the physical experiments for the U-2 pilots were designed by Paperclip doctors, i.e., German doctors who had conducted experiments on concentration camp victims.  Many of those tests buggered the imagination.

Project 57 involved another kind of test.  Assuming that someday an Air Force plane would crash in the United States carrying a nuclear bomb, the scientists wanted to see what would happen.  (Today we would call that a dirty bomb.)  The only area that could guarantee secrecy, was outside the area normally allocated for open air nuclear testing, and wouldn’t be used for 25,000 years (the half-life of plutonium) was in Area 51.

The book abounds with scientists, who, had they conducted the experiments they did for the other side, would have been labeled evil.  James Killian, for example. Former president of MIT, Kennedy asked him to be head of a super-secret internal agency that was hidden even from Congress.  Killian authorized two extremely dangerous atmospheric 3.2 megaton hydrogen bomb tests, one at a height of 140,000 feet, over the Pacific,  i.e. in the midst of the ozone layer.  In order to see what the effects would be on eyesight, hundreds of monkeys were flown, their heads locked into a position where they would have to look at the explosion.  Their retinas were burned, blinding them painfully. The effect on the ozone layer wasn’t recorded (although I suspect it was far more deleterious than aerosol chloroflourocarbons) and damage was observed 250 miles away.

I could go on. Let’s just say Jacobsen uses Area 51 discuss a wide range of topics and people related to work done at Area 51.  to I won’t spoil anything by discussing the flying disc that crashed in 1947, but will whet your curiosity only by suggesting you research the Horton Brothers and Operation Paperclip.  Or, you could read the book.  It’s a depressing page-turner. I won’t ever believe again anything coming out of Washington or the media.  I’ve always said that if you really want to find out what happened, forget the daily news and wait a decade for the book, or, in this case wait fifty years for some things to be declassified..

**LeMay sent some flights over Russia to test their radar defense.  Some of these were shot down and those pilots who survived spent the rest of their lives in the Gulag. When asked about the provocative nature of the flights, he replied, “With a little more luck we could have started WW III.”  The CIA was not happy and reported his clandestine activities to Eisenhower in 1956. LeMay’s actions, ironically, provided an extra boost to the push for the U-2 as the CIA argued it could provide necessary intelligence about Russian capabilities at far less risk.  Still Eisenhower worried that one might be shot down triggering a nuclear holocaust. Bissell assured the president that could not happen. Well, we all remember Gary Powers. The CIA, as I note from recent headlines, has a long history of continuing to  lie to the president (and probably itself.)



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Saturday, March 22, 2014

A HANDFUL OF GOLD: Three Rachel Gold Short Stories by Michael A. Kahn | LibraryThing

A HANDFUL OF GOLD: Three Rachel Gold Short Stories by Michael A. Kahn | LibraryThing:

Having enjoyed Kahn's Trophy Widow, I poked around for some more Kahn books and downloaded this collection of three Rachel Gold stories. Nifty.

The first involves a clever scheme by a Holocaust survivor, Mendel Sofer, to mimic a Jewish Seder custom involving breaking of the matzah. The larger piece of bread is known as the Afikomen and this piece is hidden. The smaller piece, the Lahma Anya, is also known as the Bread of Affliction. (I have to admit having forgotten all this stuff, but then I've only been to one seder, that of my high school buddy.) After dinner the children search for the hidden Afikomen and the finder gets a reward.

I won't say any more except that Sofer decided to hide an important part of his will. Without that part there was a chance the money would revert to some very distant relatives who, it just so happened, also happened to be Aryan Nation anti-semites. So Rachel has to puzzle out where the rest of the will might have been hidden.

The other two stories are equally compelling. The middle story has a prosaic subject. It’s a lawsuit between a dress designer and a rich matron who first bought and then returned a dress claiming she didn't like it. Words were exchanged and she is now suing for defamation. Rachel’s trick to get her client off was nifty but it also revealed the truth. The third story involves DNA, sperm deposits, a 26-year old wife and her 76 year-old husband, a blood-line trust, and mad relatives. How could you not be compelled to read that?

No murders, car chases, stabbings, airplane crashes or aliens. Just interesting characters and realistic legal stories. I liked them. I’ve bought all of the Rachel Gold books for my Kindle.


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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Trophy widow : a Rachel Gold novel by Michael A. Kahn | LibraryThing

Trophy widow : a Rachel Gold novel by Michael A. Kahn | LibraryThing:

It’s always fun to discover new authors, especially prolific ones, and so it seems with Michael Kahn.  It’s especially interesting because his protagonist is a female lawyer and he seems to write well from the female perspective (although how I, a male, should have a clue, is problematic.)  Excellent legal mystery novel (the courtroom scene in the case of the rampaging ostrich was a hoot.)  I liked the way the investigation was spelled out and even learned some real estate law.

This book has a great set of characters and some quite humorous scenes that always makes a read enjoyable.
  • Rachel Gold:  Our heroine, a St. Louis, Harvard lawyer, who’s also rather smashing (of course.) She’s got a hot boyfriend, a widower, who happens to be orthodox Jewish (she’s Reform) so she (and we) get some instruction on the role of the orthodox Jewish wife. Rachel thinks most of the Orthodox rules and rituals are medieval superstitions. 
  • Professor Benny:  Rachel’s good friend, foil, and comic relief.  My favorite character.
  • Angela Green:  Convicted killer of her husband Michael Green. Rachel is Angela’s attorney in a Son of Sam suit.  Rachel is perplexed by some anomalies in the trial record.
  • Samantha Cummins:  Michael’s squeeze and his  intended replacement forAngela.  She owns and runs the 309 Gallery. She has bizarre connections to many movers and shakers in St. Louis through the sale of paintings by Sebastian Curry, a mediocre artist at best.  She is the mother of Trent, party through “equitable adoption” in the Son of Sam suit. “Ellen McNeil had described him as eye candy. That was an understatement. Sebastian Curry was a hot fudge sundae with whipped cream and, well, nuts.”
  • Sebastian Curry:  the aforementioned artist who happens to be a real hunk. His paintings Samantha sold at the gallery for ten times their actual worth. 
  • Millenium Management:  a company that seems to exist only on paper and which no one wants to talk about, but which was getting a 40% commission on Sebastian’s paintings.
  • Oasis Shelter:  a battered woman’s shelter, also a client of Rachel’s. Their property is a thorn in the side of Nate Turner, a commissioner trying to bring redevelopment to St. Louis.
  • Harry Silver: ex-English professor (fired for screwing the wife of the department chair not to mention one of the chair’s students.  He’s a big fan of Trollope and now a successful businessman producing porn. “I certainly didn’t earn my degree to enlist as a foot soldier in Jacques Derrida’s poststructuralist/postmodernist deconstructionist brigade. So I finally said fuck it. I tried film criticism for about a year, but there’s no money in that, and most of the films I love date back several decades. Newspaper readers want a review of this year’s version of Pretty Woman, not an essay on the use of irony in The Philadelphia Story. So I decided to quit writing about the latest chick-flick and started making my own versions. I tried the independent film route. That’s a one-way ticket to oblivion. Fade out. Cut to interior—Pinnacle Productions.” He gestured grandly. “And here I am: the Prince of Porn.” 
  • Billy Woodward:  One of Harry’s erstwhile actors who just happens to commit suicide in front of Samantha’s house. Just what was his relationship to Samantha?  He also happens to be the mysterious “John” who Angela claimed was her alibi for the night of the murder.  His nickname was “Rouphe.”  (Hint)
  • Jacki: Rachel’s secretary: “Standing six feet three and weighing close to two hundred and forty pounds, with plenty of steelworker muscles rippling beneath her size 22 shirtwaist dress, she was surely the most intimidating legal secretary in town. And also one of the best. I’d call her my girl Friday, except that anatomically she was still a he—and would so remain until next summer, when she would undergo the surgical…”
Some funny vignettes.  For example, she goes to Chicago to meet with the other lawyers hired by the parties to the suit.  “I spent two hours watching the alpha dogs take turns marking their territory as their entourages looked on approvingly. Harvey Silverberg staked out the First Amendment high ground, subjecting us to an eye-glazing summary of the three “seminal decisions” in the field, all of which, coincidentally enough, featured Hefty Harvey as lead counsel for the victors. Next came Nelson Liberman, who lifted his hind leg and sprayed us with a discourse on the importance of burying the other side in a blizzard of motions and discovery requests. Then it was Hammerin’ Hank’s turn. He sniffed around the perimeter and spouted a lengthy reenactment of his cross-examination.”

4.75 really




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Monday, March 17, 2014

Thy Kingdom Come by Randall Balmer

It is refreshing to see an historically accurate recounting of the evangelical movement, rightly pointing out some of its achievements and shining light on its political hijacking by a few cynical folks who wanted to take it away from its social liberal roots and use it for its on purposes.

Balmer is an historian and evangelical who decries the distortion of the movement's roots and its hijacking by a small group of cynical (that's got to be the only word for it) group of people anxious to improve their own political power and standing. The issue of abortion was not even on the right's radar screen until several years after Roe v Wade. As Balmer points out, abortion is barely mentioned in the Bible appearing -- and even then only very loosely -- in Psalms, Deuteronomy and Luke. Divorce had been the evil of choice until around 1979, but with the election of Ronald Reagan, darling of the right, they couldn't very well pick on divorce. (of course, Reagan had supported pro-abortion bills earlier in his political career.)

It remains ironic -- and a symbol of their political callousness -- they the number one issue for the religious right is tax cuts. Tax cuts, for heaven's sake. Balmer has every reason to be dismayed.

A list of his concerns posted on Amazon:

"Other issues championed by the Religious Right strike Balmer as equally disingenuous and/or misguided: 

"Prayer in schools -- Jesus criticized those who made prayer into a spectator sport - "go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father."

"Creationism -- Until the intelligent design creationists "can devise experiments consistent with the scientific method to test their claims, they should stop parading as scientists." 140. "Intelligent design is religion, not science and the proper venue for the propagation of faith is the home or the church, not the university." 138.

"Home schooling -- "For much of the twentieth century, evangelicals found comfort within their subculture as a place of refuge from the outside world, which they came increasingly to regard as both corrupt and corrupting. The homeschool movement and the impulse to send children to religious schools merely represent an extension of that fortress mentality." 107.

"Anti-environmentalism - "for decades, evangelicals have neglected the environment because it seemed to them unimportant in their grander scheme of biblical interpretation." 145. Now groups such as the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship which is a coalition of Religious Right leaders aiming to counteract the environmental movement, with support from James Dobson, Charles Colson among other high profile of the Religious Right, simply "echo the pro-business and antiregulatory sentiments of political conservatives." 154.

"Torture - unconscionable silence. [Who Would Jesus Torture?:]

"Perhaps most disturbing of all is how "Leaders of the Religious Right [Dobson and others:] have expressed their disdain for toleration and for pluralism itself." 90. "Their ideology, laced as it is with the rhetoric of militarism, represents a betrayal of the faith. The shameless pursuit of affluence and power and political influence has led the Religious Right into shady alliances and has brought dishonor to the gospel." 189. 

A Sensible Approach to Abortion

 
by 

Harold J. Morowitz, professor of biology, and James Trefil, who teaches physics, both at George Mason University, have produced what I consider to be one of the seminal books on abortion that I have read. They examine the concepts of "life" and humanness. They point out that at the molecular level we are indistinguishable from plants and bacteria -- on a chemical level our cells function the same as brewer's yeast, a single cell organism; and we share a 98.5% genetic (DNA coding) with chimpanzees -- which are also "alive." Therefore, the important question one must ask is at what point the fetus or zygote acquires those characteristics that make us human, for no one would deny that we are indeed profoundly different from other forms of life. The point at which humanness is acquired (not personhood, which is a legal concept) becomes important to help distinguish between the rights of the mother and those of the fetus.

An enormous amount of change occurs from conception to birth, and the authors have examined the biological and scientific evidence to determine at what point this humanness is acquired. From a biologist's point of view, at conception, "two previously existing living things come together to form another living thing." Traditionally the anti-abortion advocates have argued that because the DNA genetic code exists at conception, that is when "life" begins. Morowitz and Trefil suggest that is like saying a building is complete when the blueprints are done. The combining creates the DNA blueprint, but dead tissue excised in a hospital has the same DNA blueprint, and cancerous tumors contain genetic uniqueness, yet no one would call them "life" worthy of preservation. Not to mention the fact that only about 1/3 of all conceptions lead to a successful birth -- nature performs abortions at a much higher rate than humans. (Research being done on parthenogenesis -- birth without conception -- indicates that unfertilized eggs can be stimulated to divide and begin the development of a complete adult: a Gloria Steinem fantasy come true.)

To make a long, but fascinating, story short, the authors propose that humanness begins at the moment when the cerebral cortex is formed and the synapses begin functioning. This is not a unique nor new position. The Jesuit scholar Teilhard de Chardin and the Catholic theologian Bernard Haring have both written that the cerebral cortex is the "center of all personal manifestations and activities." It is here that speech, conscious movement, visual information and sensory stimuli are all processed. The enlarged cerebral cortex is unique to humans, and it becomes a functioning entity sometime between 25 and 30 weeks of development. Coincidentally, that is also when electroencephalographic readings take place. (The absence of EEG readings is now widely used as a determination of death.) Teilhard de Chardin, who was a paleontologist, as well as a theologian, regarded the "development of an enlarged cerebral cortex as almost a second creation -- as a sign from God that humanity is, indeed, special, regardless of the fact that we share a common ancestry with all other life." Hence the authors recommend that in the conflict of rights, until the fetus achieves synapses in the cerebral cortex, at about 7 months, the woman shall choose and her rights must predominate. After 7 months, a loss of certainty occurs and one can no longer deny with certainty the humanity of the fetus, and its rights must be considered and protected.

This book will probably not solve the abortion dilemma, but it goes a long way toward providing a rational and scientific basis for evidence of what constitutes humanness and at what point we achieve that distinction. It should be required reading.

One of the best books about Vietnam

Edit 3/17/14  The problem with adding links to reviews is that sometimes they disappear or get bought or whatever. Such is the case with the Dempsey link I reference below. Rather than refer you to a cathouse in Vietnam I dug up a copy of the original from the webarchive which you can reference here:  http://web.archive.org/web/20040210142213/http://thecatfromhue.com/doc.htm

Addendum 10/9/09. I just discovered there is a web site that tells the story of "Doc" Dempsey and a follow-up. Anyone who has read the book, MUST check out this website:http://www.thecatfromhue.com/doc.htm. If you haven't read the book, don't look at the website; it's a huge spoiler.
***
What makes this book different from many of the others about the quagmire we call Vietnam is the unusual relationship that existed between the soldiers and the correspondents. After all, the correspondents could chose to leave the front. They fly up from their cozy little bungalows in Saigon or wherever, spend some time with the troops (admittedly often a very dangerous time) and then once they get the story, grab a ride on whatever chopper is heading back to "civilized" country. But there was a symbiosis that existed, too. The troops often used the reporters to get their side of the story out. Without them, our view of the war would have been a very different -- and wrong and censored and manipulated by those in control.

The symbiotic relationship that existed between correspondants and the military had its good and bad sides. In one instance, Laurence and his camera men were given a ride on an AE-1 bombing mission. There are directed to bomb a village by an officer in a spotting plane who gives them directions to bomb on one side of the river. On the other side and they will be bombing Cambodia. They proceed to do so and the plane Lawrence is in then strafes some villagers working in their gardens. Lawrence can't understand why the villagers just look up and watch.He asked the pilot why they didn't run. "Dumb bastards," was the reply. Later there are reports that some American planes had bombed and strafed a village in Cambodia. Of course he suspects that had done so and when he inquires, the PR people in the military ask him to please not write about it. He doesn't and the spotter later confirms he had made a mistake. But Laurence, by not reporting the error, had gained more trust and access to the stories - if somewhat expurgated. 

In April of 1970, Laurence and his crew were given permission to accompany Charlie Company on routine patrols near the Cambodian border. In a series of very personal and incisive interviews they got the men to reveal their personal feelings about the war and each other. Attitudes toward the war were changing drastically, not just in the United States, and those concerns were reflected among the men in the field. So much so, that the Pentagon was getting worried and the PIOs (public information officers,) who hitherto had been most cooperate, had either been replaced or become much more intrusive and pro- and pre-scriptive. Casualties were increasing as well as the NVA and VC became more bold. Firebases were being overrun, in one case an entire battalion was put out of action. There were clashes between the men and the officers. Laurence and his crew were present, and reported on, one incident where a newly appointed company commander ordered his men down a road, something the previous captain would never have done knowing such a tactic might lead them into an ambush. The men just refused to follow him. Laurence and his group reported it as a rebellion. The vigaro hit the Mixmaster when word of the story got back to brigade. Their PIO was reassigned to the front and a series of mendacious meetings occurred as the army tried to cover up what had happened. Official reports from command had a certain antiseptic quality to them: Reading the handout, I thought the language captured the American high command's view of the war precisely. The battle was described almost exclusively in statistics: military designations, units of men, numbers of kilometers, miles, millimeters, hours, minutes, numbers of killed and wounded, numbers of weapons, calibers, times, distances, sizes, quantities, amounts. Looking at the statistics, what I saw was a cold, impersonal, detached accounting of what had happened during those two hours of hell at the firebase, devoid of any sense of the human cost. How else for an establishment of obsessive number crunchers and quantitative analysts like Robert McNamara to describe a battle? Attrition, the number of enemy soldiers killed in each fight, meant more to them than anything, even as the total number of America's own killed and wounded had grown itself over the years to a monstrous statistic. . . No mention of the consequences of the battle on U.S. operations in War Zone C. No suggestion that with so many of its men killed and wounded, and so many others who survived in shock, 2/8 was crippled, too understrength to stay in the field. The MACV handout told a lot about numbers but nothing of the fury and heartbreak of the fight. The battle was sanitized with statistics. But honest reporting had negative consequences for the brass, as well: The public forgets. No problem. But it's within house the generals don't forget. They never forget. Reputations are affected. Promotions are affected." So that's it, I thought. They want us to cover up the rebellion because it will hurt their chances for promotion. No wonder they've gone to all this trouble to meet us. `When the four-stars in the Pentagon see your story,' the sergeant major said, `they'll go into orbit. They'll come down on General Roberts like a ton of bricks. And he'll come down on us twice as hard for making him look bad.'
A whole lot more is at stake than the reputation of just one company,' Coleman said. `You have to understand the way the Army works.'
`Yes,' I said, `I understand. 


Relations between the correspondants themselves were not always cordial. Morley Safer, in particular, was known for flying in at the last minute, collecting tapes and writing from others, then melding it all together under his own name and garnering all the credit. Many of them managed to get rich off the war. The official exchange rate was 70 piastres to the dollar, but the black market rate was 150. So they would get paid in dollars, exchange them for blackmarket piastres, pay their bills, and make a 100% profit. Some correspondants would rush to get the bills to pay them and left the country with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The pacification program, touted by Johnson and Ky was a joke. Laurence was sent to watch how one such operation was handled. The army moved villagers who had lived in the village for hundreds of years out so they could establish a base camp in a fertile framing area. The children were terrified of the shelling, and when they asked where they could go, they were told they would be flown some ten miles to a nearby town. The promised transportation did not come so they were forced to walk a considerable distance, They were housed in old Frenc barracks, which had no windows in blazing heat. There were no latrines. They were given condensed milk that was too old to sell on the black market and useless. They became sick and many died. That's how we made Vietnam a better place for the residents. At the end of 1965, the US had created 620,000 refugees in some 194 camps. Newsmen who reported the story were accused of being "commie-lovers." It was just newsmen who suffered. Officers who had the temerity to discuss missions that did not go quite as planned got demoted or reprimanded; they were helping the enemy.

The troops were often placed in impossible situations. Impossible to determine just who the enemy was, flown in to perform "search and destroy," watching their buddies be blown away by otherwise seemingly innocent civilians, it's a wonder any of them retained any vestige of humanity or sanity.

It was their practice to fly into a village and dump grenades down into village bunkers. Laurence describes one instance where the grenade killed a young pregnant woman who the villagers then lay out [b:on the road|6288|The Road|Cormac McCarthy|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1320606344s/6288.jpg|3355573] and everyone passes by to view the body - and presumably pay their respects. When the captain heard about it, he ordered it stopped and to use smoke grenades instead. " 'These bunkers,' he said, 'They're part of the house. Everybody's got one.' " Lawrence continues, "The peasants were trapped. If they took shelter when their hamlet was attacked and hid in their bunkers they were vulnerable to being killed by grenades. If they stayed above ground when the helicopters came in, they were in danger of being killed by artillery, air strikes, or gunships."

In the meantime, in Saigon, corruption was rampant. "...that pervasive secrecy in the civil service was necessary to protect the intricate networks of graft, bribery, nepotism, payoffs, kickbacks, and other corruption that permeated South Vietnamese institutions. Nor did I understand that most Vietnamese saw us as transients, another temporary army of occupation, like the French."

Death was omnipresent and the soldiers and correspondents soon learned that "the mission was death, cold stinging death, an end in itself, the racking up of bodies -- an NVA platoon here, a VC sniper there, a hostile village here, a few civilians there -- like points on a scoreboard, adding to the illusion of a mission accomplished. . . .winning was more important than any other consideration -- morality not truth, is the first casualty of war -- and that the means, however loathsome, would be justified ultimately by the end, as long as the end brought victory." (Shades of Dick Cheney.)

In WWI, if a British officer became shell shocked he was evacuated to England to a special hospital. Enlisted men were shot for cowardice. Lawrence, trying to get his story filed from Hue, gets to an aid station where three Marines are just sitting on the floor, all of them with the thousand-yard-stare. I quote:
"The Marine had lived in the line for days, his body embedded in the earth until it became part of it, moving on his stomach like a snake, falling asleep exhausted and waking up tired. His senses had absorbed fire and blast, cries of the wounded from no-man's-land, the silences. Most of the men around him had been hit but he had not. He had seen his friend's bodies pierced by flying steel, their blood draining away in the dirt, and so finally the fuses of his modest self-control snapped. Some internal regulator switched off his external senses from the unbearable reality of the Citadel, shut down his nervous system, located a quieter, safer place in the dreamy interiors of his mind, and left him alone. He was finished with the war. His mind had taken refuge in another reality.
"Everyone who went through close combat in the war was like him to some degree: more or less isolated, cut off from reality, lost in other worlds, at least in the mind . . . Who's to say he was less sane than anyone else. . . My guess was that it had more to do with his tolerance for insanity."


Laurence had 3 tours of Vietnam and himself suffered extensively from PTSD. He was responsible for the award-winning documentary The World of Charlie Company.

I graduated from high school in 1965 and college in 1969. Right smack dab in the middle of the war. We were all terrified of the draft, and the war permeated everything we did. We all lost friends there. It's no wonder many of us continue to be obsessed with books about Vietnam and our role there. I don't know what the modal age of Goodreads participants might be, but I suspect many are much younger and might have difficulty understanding how the war and attitudes to it colored everything we did during those years.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Book case : a John Marshall Tanner mystery by Stephen Greenleaf | LibraryThing

The first sentence of this book, describes me to a tee: “I’m not certain whether the affliction originates in genetic disinclination or environmentally induced aversion, but I’ve always been more a recluse than a celebrant.”  Exactly.

Marsh is hired by Bryce to help save Periwinkle Press. Bryce received a manuscript, one that he thinks is truly magnificent. He wants Marsh to read it and then find out who wrote it.  What makes it interesting and tricky is that the novel, about a man falsely convicted of sexual harassment and abuse, is unfinished and in the missing section promises to reveal who the false accuser was and what revenge he intends to extract.  Of course, the best way to track down the author is to assume the book is non-fiction, but that could raise issues of libel.  But then, if the book is a novel, libel could also be a problem for the publisher since all it takes is one person to come in and proclaim that s/he thought the protagonist was someone in particular for libel law to become an issue. Apparently if you disguise a person’s identity by having them do several nefarious things, and someone still recognizes the individual, then you could be guilty of defamation since the portrayal wasn’t accurate enough!

The trail leads Marsh into a corrupt world of influence, private schools, and hidden agendas. Again, the positive comparison to Ross MacDonald is warranted.  I remain astonished that Greenleaf never attained similar stature.  Greenleaf does exhibit a strong sense of moral outrage at the disparities of life in San Francisco during the late eighties (the book was published in 1991.) <i>“...the gap in both assets and attitudes between the rich and poor has become cavernous, the America that allows businessmen to coin money in the name of junk bonds and stock options yet requires the poor, illiterate woman to fill out a six-page form to qualify for food to feed her children, the America whose poor contribute a higher portion of their income to charity than the rich,  the America whose best and brightest are no longer rewarded for creating things of value but for selling off our resources to foreign companies, the America whose politicians want to force everyone to pledge allegiance to the flag while hundreds of thousands of men whose allegiance to that flag included bravery and bloodshed must find shelter in doorways and subway tunnels and abandoned sewer pipes.”</i>

The beginning of each chapter has a paragraph or two from this "great" novel, Homage to Hammurabi," as well as longer passages within the novel, a tricky conceit since it's supposed to be the next great American novel and, for my money, doesn't appear to be so.

Greenleaf’s books are filled with righteous anger;  this one especially so.  Great read.  On to the next one.



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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Superbia (Book 1 of the Superbia Series) by Bernard Schaffer | LibraryThing

Superbia (Book 1 of the Superbia Series) by Bernard Schaffer | LibraryThing:

New York City has about 36,000 cops.  All report to the same chain of command. Philadelphia is surrounded by counties divided into multiple municipalities, each having its own police force with different standards and operations.

Schaffer uses that structure to examine two detectives in a small police force, Frank and Vic.  Frank is coming back from leave having been shot and is assigned to work with Vic, an old-fashioned detective. He’s still in pain but Vic won’t let him have any narcotic pain-killers for fear he’ll become a junkie.

The book is a series of vignettes all tied together by their pursuit of Paris, a vicious drug dealer.

Some of the repartee and scenes are LOL funny.  The one where they go dumpster diving and have to wade through diaper feces was hysterical.  Others are sad as we watch Vic succomb to alcohol.  He’s lost his kids in a divorce, most of his pay goes to child support and alimony, and he realizes the only time he really feels alive is when he’s tricking a pedophile into confessing.

<i>Vic spun around and glared at Frank, his eyes red and streaming with tears.  "I am sick of being used by everyone around me, Frank.  I give everything I have to Danni, and she only ever wants more.  It's never enough.  I give everything I have to the Chief, and he only shines me on with promises that will never come true.  The only time I feel alive is when I'm standing in blood and guts or talking to child molesters, Frank.  Don't you see how fucked up that is?  For one second, try and imagine how fucked up that is." "Maybe you need a different job." "Do you know why I became a cop?  I was curious," Vic said.  "I wanted to peek behind the curtain of evil, but what I saw can't be unseen, Frank.  No matter how hard I try.  All I had to hold onto was the kids, and without them, it's like the lights have all gone out."</i>

The book is quite good if a bit unusual and provides an intimate look at the strains and pressures of being a cop.



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Friday, March 14, 2014

The Heritage: A Daughter's Memories Of Louis Bromfield by Ellen Bromfield Geld | LibraryThing

The Heritage: A Daughter's Memories Of Louis Bromfield by Ellen Bromfield Geld | LibraryThing:

I always loved working on my uncle’s dairy farm during the summers. As a teen, I discovered the Louis Bromfield “Malabar Farm” series of books. I fell in love with his theories of agriculture and organic farming. I devoured all the books when I was in college; they presented such an idyllic view of life on the farm. They were a major force in my decision to go into dairy farming after college. That phase lasted about five years.

Bromfield bought the farm that he named “Malabar” (after the Malabar Coast)with earnings from the books he had written about India (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/396988.The_Rains_Came] which was made into a movie that won some Academy Awards, The Rains of Ranchipur.) To give you a flavor of his books one need only read this short paragraph about the ending of the movie: Lady Edwina tries to explain to the Maharani that her love for Safti has become true, so much so that she will make the sacrifice of leaving him for his own good. She drives away from Ranchipur with her husband. You get the idea. His books were extremely popular and even earned him a Pulitzer.

The farm was run down with pastures being taken over by thistles and other “noxious” weeds (I suppose one might argue that was nature reclaiming what it had lost.) Gullies were causing erosion and the buildings were in a state of disrepair.

Bromfield had studied agriculture at Cornell for several years before transferring to Columbia to study journalism. His agricultural ideas, considered fresh and innovative in the forties and fifties had their roots in what he had learned in school. (Fresh with naivete, when I was working on my uncle’s dairy farm in Wisconsin, I described many of Bromfield’s ideas to my uncle, who, in his inimitably kind manner, replied, “well, I guess he studied at the same places we did.”)

Using his considerable fortune, Bromfield implemented conservation techniques and experimented with “new” practices such as roto-tilling instead of moldboard plowing (a practice still used some places but not as much any more because of its high energy requirements,) chisel plowing (very common now) and multiflora rose plantings to replace fences as they attracted large numbers of birds and other wildlife while keeping cattle safely penned in a field. Multiflora rose is now considered an invasive (it is native to Korea and Japan) noxious species as it spreads wildly, taking over everything. It’s certainly quite pretty and good fodder for goats, but very discouraged presently.

The plan for the farm was roughly that of a cooperative with the member families earning a salary with rent-free housing and food from the farm. It was to be a general farm mixing dairy with beef, hogs, chickens a variety of fruits and a common vegetable garden Bromfield was to cover all the expenses until the farm made a profit and then would draw 5% of any net, the rest to be divided among the families. The farm manager Max, a very competent sort, remained skeptical, arguing the cost of machinery was more than the farm would be able to bear and noting presciently that much of the food could be purchased cheaper than it could be raised.

Ellen published these memoirs first in 1962, just a few years after her father’s death and then they were republished some thirty-five years later. The writing is often quite lyrical:

We came to Malabar Farm in early spring, which is an important condition in the fixing a farm in the heart. We saw the winter whiteness that covered the hills and burdened the limbs of trees dissolve under the cold misery of March rains, into thick sucking mud, which dragged off our boots a hundred times between the house and the barn. The mud and rain, chill and sorry, converged upon Switzer’s Creek, swelling it to the proportions of a roaring river. It lapped at the groaning iron frame of the bridge, grating its underside with bits of driftwood and trunks of fallen trees which, once the rains had ceased, would lodge to form deep pools where trout streaked temptingly silver in the summer twilight.

After Bromfield published  Pleasant Valley, the first of the Malabar books, the others being Malabar Farm  and Out of the Earth, he became something of a cult figure and the farm was beset by hoards of visitors, Bromfield holding court in a rather heroic manner.


He was seldom accurate in his descriptions. If anything he was expansive and grossly optimistic and I think any good farmer with sharp ears and a practical eye could have tripped him up on a hundred disparities. But, somehow, his audience didn't seem to care about these enthusiastic exaggerations. What seemed to be important was the picture they evoked, the whole vast scene of farm life which suddenly became complete, important and, using one of his favorite expressions, "limitless in possibilities" 'the common everyday practice that most of those people carried out became suddenly alive and meaningful as he described them in a way that every farmer understood but could never quite describe to himself.

Ellen continued her father’s dream recreating Malabar in Brazil where they foster sustainable agriculture. Malabar Farm itself could never sustain itself after Bromfield’s death. The children had no ability to keep it going so it was sold to a trust which eventually donated it to become a state park in Ohio (which I MUST visit one of these years.)

The book is hagiographic, but so what? Bromfield was her father. In the end, I realize now that Malabar Farm was a rich man’s plaything, but in a good way. Some of his ideas were worth adopting and the fact that people like Humphrey Bogart could marry Lauren Bacall there helped to publicize his thinking. It never would have succeeded without his considerable income from writing, however. Bromfield had the best of all worlds: the farm, a great place to hang out and play with, and a vibrant intellectual community. His wife, Mary, wasn’t quite so fortunate. Bromfield “rescued” her from a Massachusett’s Brahmin environment, and she did fine as they traveled around Europe and the world, but the farm made her very lonely.

I still retain very fond memories of lying around my dorm room transported to the idyllic lands of Malabar Farm.

References: http://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/fact/romu1.htm





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Monday, March 10, 2014

Peccadillo - A Katla Novel (Amsterdam Assassin Series) by Martyn V. Halm | LibraryThing

Peccadillo - A Katla Novel (Amsterdam Assassin Series) by Martyn V. Halm | LibraryThing:

Wow. This second in the series is really a page-turner. Halm takes us in a slightly different direction. A gang of Chinese underworld are anxious to take over Sphinx Shipping of which Katla is a majority stockholder (in reality probably the brains behind the operation) and that want it for free.  Katla is not about to give away her investment.  A rapid chess game results as each side seeks advantage.

Katla’s circle of friends expands (I recommend reading the books in order) adding Anouk, a talented artist and sculptor, ex-girlfriend of Bram.  Zeph, Bram’s Rastafarian friend who is raising organic ganja, also becomes more involved which permits Halm to create several layers of moral tension as Zeph is as non-violent as possible and Bram wants to protect that innocence.  Katla even takes on a fellow professional as backup.

It will be interesting to see how Katla manages to maintain her anonymity in the third volume after as the number of people who know that she is Loki continues to increase. Given the number of dead bodies after the attack on the triad, surely the police will take a more pronounced interest in Loki.

Very fun read.  This one will be hard to top.



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Friday, March 07, 2014

Dublin Noir: The Celtic Tiger Vs. the Ugly American (Akashic Noir Series) by Ken Bruen | LibraryThing

Dublin Noir: The Celtic Tiger Vs. the Ugly American (Akashic Noir Series) by Ken Bruen | LibraryThing: " Akashic Books has been issuing a series of books that thematically collect "noir" stories related to specific cities, e.g., Richmond Noir, Philadelphia Noir, etc., although I see there is a recent one entitled "Grand Central Noir;" perhaps they ran out of cities. The books are an excellent way to discover authors writing in the noir genre -- if there is such a thing -- and I've already order some books based on stories in "Dublin Noir: The Celtic Tiger Vs. the Ugly American" edited by Ken Bruen.

Obviously, maintaining a consistent level of excellence is difficult with so many authors, and I doubt if I will seek out Jason Starr (very silly story). On the other hand, "Rope-A-Dope" by Craig MacDonald had a nifty twisted ending. One critique of mine is that I wish the editors had limited themselves to authentic Irish writers rather than include stories set in Dublin by non-native writers, e.g., Laura Lippman Personal prejudice. The real Dublin is, of course, much less noir."



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Reprobate - A Katla Novel (Amsterdam Assassin Series) by Martyn V. Halm | LibraryThing

Reprobate - A Katla Novel (Amsterdam Assassin Series) by Martyn V. Halm | LibraryThing:

My appetite for Halm’s Assassin series was whetted by reading his novellas.

Halm skillfully merges several story lines together in this entertaining novel. Unlike his short works,, here he has added several interesting characters: Deborah Stern, a DEA agent coming off a shooting who has been transferred to Amsterdam especially because she speaks fluent Dutch; Bram Merelyn is a blind man whom Katla is watching as he happened upon her in the gallery of a man Katla had just killed. They develop a relationship and there is a great scene where he, the blind man, takes her to a movie. 

Katla is hired by some drug dealers to kill an undercover DEA agent who has wormed his way into their midst. They happen to have a source within the police agency so they dare not kill him themselves and must have the killing look like it was done by a member from a competing gang. 
Books about assassins rarely work well if the character is just a superhuman killing automaton. Even Stark's Parker has a human side in his relationship with his girlfriend and Keller evolves into a father and regular citizen as Block's series evolves. So Halm begun to develop Katla, a professional in a bizarre professional. She nevertheless makes mistakes and has an emotional side. She has her own moral compass. Halm’s world is populated by very grey moral compasses. As he says, “In this world there is always room for smart immoral people.”

I will certainly read the rest of the series, and I’m hoping that the author focuses more on Katla, perhaps developing the relationship with Bram, both interesting characters. A minor gripe is that there were a couple of tidbits I thought to be extraneous. For example the mugging of Deborah Stern, her disabling of the criminal, and then the comments regarding the Dutch legal system ‘s apparent “coddling” of criminals. If the story was intended to be a critique of their system, it was completely defanged by the subsequent prank played on Stern by her colleagues. I’d love to hear a comment from the author regarding my observation on this.

It’s always fun to read novels set in foreign cities. For those interested in more Amsterdam stories, besides Halm’s, I can recommend Baantjer’s Dekok series. Dekok is a sort of Dutch Maigret.



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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett | LibraryThing

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett | LibraryThing:

This classic starts off with a bang. Henry Faber has two identities. The one in London is a quiet man who keeps to himself on the top floor of a house being sublet by a widow. She takes a fancy to him one evening and with her duplicate key happens to walk in on him just as he's getting the transmitter out to send messages back to the Abwehr. He has to kill her.

Faber (Called Die Nadel for his use of the stiletto) is an elite German spy, inserted into England before the war and now embarked on the most important task of his career, trying to determine the most likely landing point of the Allied invasion.

Follett shifts viewpoints between Faber and the British counter-intelligence team (the trick they used to determine Faber’s identity was quite clever,) and Hitler’s general staff   The book is all about deception:  Faber’s, the turning of German agents into double agents, and the Ghost Army.

Pillars of the Earth was amazingly good, this one not quite so, but well worth the time.



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Monday, March 03, 2014

Dead Giveaway by Simon Brett | LibraryThing

Dead Giveaway by Simon Brett | LibraryThing:

Charming send-up of the television industry. I listened to this as an audiobook and one always wonders whether the book is enhanced by an outstanding reader. In this case, especially, as this edition is read by the Simon Prebble so brilliantly.

Charles Parris is a failed actor whose agent gets him a job as one of the "professions" on a new game show entitled "If the Cap Fits." And so begin the puns and ridicule. (Cap, in addition to being a hat, can also be a diaphragm.) Virtually everyone associated with the industry is gently skewered, not the least of which are the lawyers who wrote "unreasonable" into the contract and then couldn't give a judgment on what unreasonable conditions might be, suggesting only a court could resolve that one.

Funny caricatures abound, and then the emcee drinks a glass of gin that has been poisoned and Charles is forced into playing detective once again as he searches for the killer.  Light, fun, listen.


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