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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Review: Relatively Guilty by William H.S. McIntyre

“He been stabbed through the brain.” That first line is guaranteed to grab your attention. Robbie is a lawyer in Scotland (just like his creator) whose client is Ilsa Galbraith, a sweet young thing, charged with the vicious murder of her constable husband. She hit him with an axe first, then stabbed him in the head repeatedly with a Phillips screwdriver. Sounds like quite a case until he gets home and discovers his brother, whom he hasn’t seen in three years, asleep in his bed (jet lag following a one-hour flight from London) who announces he has killed Cat, his girlfriend, and Robbie’s erstwhile squeeze (until he found Malky and Cat doing their own form of squeezing in his bed one day.) How could you not like a book that starts off like that in just the first two chapters.

It’s not long before Robbie is trying to extricate himself from a “passing counterfeit money” charge while keeping Cat’s father from killing Malky whom he blames for Cat’s death in the car accident and at the same time provide good legal representation for Ilsa by getting her off on a justifiable homicide since her husband regularly beat her. Or so he thinks.

I loved this book. Not only does it provide a bit of insight into the Scottish legal system (I have never understood the relationship between barristers, solicitors, and QC’s and all that), but Robbie Munro has such a wise-ass view of the system. He’s got a great legal secretary from the old school, Mary Grace, and a wet-behind-the-ears legal intern, Andy and a hot receptionist, Zoe. Punny title, too.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Why do juries not believe in God?

It’s a peculiar thing, but when juries, even the most evangelically oriented with a southern Bible-belt God-fearing judge, hear a defendant say “God told me to do it,” as has happened; those juries uniformly disregard the belief of the defendant and convict them. We have an insanity defense, but in a country that wants the Ten Commandments on the walls of buildings and prayer in the schools, there is no “God told me to do it” defense even though in the Bible it’s a common occurrence. So do people really have faith in their faith?

Review: The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-45 by Ian Kershaw

A man cuts some telephone lines he thinks connect the military bases one to another. He's seen by two members of the Hitler Jugend who report his actions. He's summarily arrested by the local police. The regional commander is summoned and a summary trial is conducted and the man executed. This scenario occurs just four hours from the town being overrun by the Allies in Germany. The question Kershaw asks and answers is why did local bureaucracies and systems continue to function so well as apocalypse was often just minutes away. Why continue to resist at a cost of inevitable total destruction. In early 1945, German soldiers were dying at a rate of 350,000 *per month.* It was a scale of killing that even dwarfed the First World War. British and American bombers were leveling cities and killing thousands of civilians, yet the populace and it's representative structure continued to resist and function.

I was confused in the beginning by what seemed to be contradictory points, i.e., that many in the general staff and lower ranks were very supportive of Hitler to the end while at the same time he cites numerous examples of terror shown to any kind of disloyalty or wavering on the part of civilians or military, especially after the Stauffenberg assassination attempt (an astonishing 20,000 German soldiers were shot as opposed to 40 British which would indicate to me a substantial level of defeatism or discord among the lower ranks). Special squads were created to enforce loyalty and the number of executions soared. At the same time he examines numerous letters and diaries showing support for Hitler among those soldiers and the civilian bureaucracy continued to function at a high level. I might argue that finding support for a position in the myriad number of papers left by the highly literate German people might be found regardless of the overall view.

Contradictions abound and just as one view was proposed, Kershaw presented evidence to the contrary. What’s much clearer is the entanglement of motivations of many different people for many different reasons. Partly, it was that Himmler brought his administration of terror from the East back to the Reich. Another was the personal loyalty of from those mignons at the top, Himmler, Bormann, Goebbels, et al, who derived their power from Hitler so it was natural they would remain fanatically loyal to the end. The extreme brutality of the Russian soldiers on the eastern front led to the desire to hasten westward where the Americans and British were perceived to be more amiable.

The slaughter at the end of the war is simply unimaginable and Kershaw doesn’t spare the reader. Hundreds of thousands died in the last few months of the war. Twice as much tonnage of bombs were dropped by the Allies in the first four months of 1945 than in all of 1943. Millions were left homeless and fled the approach of the Soviet Army eager to apply much of the same fearsome slaughter the Germans had inflicted on the Slavic people on their march east. Fifty percent of the German soldiers who died in the war were killed in the last ten months. A few deserted, most continued to fight. The machinery of the state continued and defeatists were murdered by Nazi death squads.

The failure of the Germans to give up when clearly all was lost may lie in the culture Hitler had created. The oft cited reason of allied demands for unconditional surrender Kershaw dispenses with, if not entirely convincingly. The German people had been so used to dictatorial and fanatic leadership that they were unable to do anything but follow orders and were suitably cowed and ripe for the leadership of anyone. Put broadly, the simplest reason may be that people simply “went along to get along.”

It’s a fascinating study. My only quibble is that I think the book might have been strengthened by a comparison with events in Japan, which, one might argue, were similar.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: Garden of Beasts, A Novel of Berlin, 1936 by Jeffrey Deaver

Paul Schumann is a mob hit man. He’s set up by the Feds and captured then offered a choice between working for them to assassinate a key Nazi official, Reinhold Ernst, or face the gas chamber. Sent to Germany under the cover of a journalist following the Olympics in Berlin, he’s soon involved in a serious cat-and-mouse game for a Nazi sympathizer has sent an anonymous note to the German High Command indicating that a “Russian” (Paul is supposed to use a forged Russian passport to escape following the assassination) will cause some damage to some unnamed important official.

Paul has been chosen because he speaks almost native German and is a very careful, precise hitman. But he doesn’t have the cultural background of Nazi Germany in 1936 and little things, like whistling for a taxi, which no German would have done, provide clues for his pursuers. Deaver must have done considerable research to provide details like the “Hitler clothing” that help provide a good sense of time and place.) For example: Morgan said softly, “Don’t use that word here. It will give you away. ‘Nazi’ is Bavarian slang for ‘simpleton.’ The proper abbreviation is ‘Nazo,’ but you don’t hear that much either. Say ‘National Socialist.’ Some people use the initials, NSDAP. Or you can refer to the ‘Party.’ And say it reverently. . . .

After Paul and his contact are forced to kill an SA agent, Inspector Kohl (a brilliant cop who expertly maneuvers his way across the conflicting SD, Gestapo, SA, and SS interference which threaten to muck up his investigation) enters the case and now Paul is being sought by multiple agencies sometimes working at cross-purposes. And can Paul trust his American handlers? Great plot, well executed.

Everything in the novel rings true except the conversations between Ernst, Himmler, Hitler, and Goering. A couple other minor things that bugged me. We’re all used to the phrases “Heil, Hitler,” and “Grüß Gott”, but here both are translated quite literally so they come out “Hail Hitler” and “Greeting God” which, ironically, rang very false to my ear. Better to have left them in their German form. But I quibble. Very engaging story.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Review: Cold War by Philip McCutchan

I’ve never been a huge fan of McCutchan’s Halfhyde nautical fiction, but McCutchan hits his stride in works dealing with the Royal Navy in WW II. Cold War is part of a series that follows the career of Cameron who had been on the Ark Royal when it was sunk near Gibraltar. Now he’s navigating officer on the HMS Sprinter, a frigate escorting a convoy to Russia and carrying two important officials, one a British Minister and the other a Russian general, so the stakes are higher than usual.

As is typical in wartime, nothing goes as planned and after the two VIPs, Minister of War Production Harcourt Prynne and Marshal Yurigin, had been transferred to the Sprinter in preparation for a fast trip to Murmansk, they have an engine breakdown, the captain is killed by a flying splinter, and the new captain is having eyesight problems. Cameron is now the Executive Officer, and everyone is tired of the bombasity of the new warrant officer Fasher, in charge of the guns, who loves applying punishment more than anything else. Adrift in a blinding snowstorm, their radar shows a large capital ship heading straight toward them on a collision course. In a surprising twist at the end, Cameron is ordered to do something totally unexpected.

The tension that appears in other works about the Royal Navy in WWI between reservists and regular Navy is apparent here as well and the title is clever, referring to much more than the weather on the Arctic convoys.

Fans of nautical fiction will enjoy this book. I intend to read more in the Cameron series and more in the line of nautical books published by Endeavour Books which offered me this book in hopes of an honest review which I am glad to do.

Review: A Blood-Dimmed Tide by Gerald Astor

Gerald Astor has done a masterful job of weaving together personal recollections from the different sides in the Battle of the Bulge. I really enjoy history that mixes context with oral history of the participants. Stories of the rank-and-file are always interesting. In one such example, Lt. General Bradley came up to the line and was miffed when the soldier didn't accord the proper respect with a salute and told him so. The soldier replied that with all the German snipers around, any saluting made the recipient of the salute instant dog food. That, the general understood, and thanked him. I wonder if Patton would have reacted the same. Probably would have been another slapping incident. Of course, no sniper would have failed to see the pearl-handled revolvers. That positive aside, with all the different characters and such a close-up of individual events, it’s sometimes difficult to get the broader picture.

Few of the German commanders were optimistic about the success of Hitler's command for the breakout to take Antwerp through the Ardennes. Training had been poor and the units thrown together collected the rejects of other units. Hitler had ordered that each unit send their best troops, but most commanders, not being daft, sent their rejects and kept the best for themselves. Field Marshal Model was quoted as believing that the attack had barely a ten percent chance of success. Ironically, Skorzeny's idea of dressing Germans as American soldiers paid off occasionally. In one instance a bridge that was to be blown to hinder German tanks, failed to go up because some of the “Americans” involved in laying the charges sabotaged the effort.

Things weren't much better on the American side. The brass were wildly over optimistic in their assessment of German strength and generally bought the air corps reports that the German war machine had been decimated, something we now know to be a fairy tale. German war production was actually up, although they were having some fuel issues. The army did not trust civilians so they disregarded OSS information gleaned from the populace. In addition the troops on the line, as the Germans intelligence had reported, had become a 9-5 army, keeping watch only until about an hour after sunset, then hitting the sack, returning to their observation points an hour before dawn. This lead some German commanders to want to cancel the proposed artillery barrage that was to proceed the attack arguing it would simply alert the American troops. They were overruled. Often, troops that had hardly been in any fighting were ordered to destroy their weapons and surrender. Given the incident at Malmedy, they might have done better to keep fighting. At least then they might have sown a bit more confusion among the German ranks. (I was shocked at how many soldiers were injured when they tried to destroy their rifles by smashing them on rocks only to shoot themselves because they had failed to unload them.) Sometimes paperwork and bureaucracy hindered soldiers in the field. One airdrop of food and ammunition was ultimately canceled because the C-47s, flying out of the UK (another mistake) was canceled when fighter protection hadn’t been notified and the appropriate maps remained undelivered.

It’s a wonder things went as well as they did for the Germans, given the poor training of the “volunteers,” and their own lack of faith in the attempt. Certainly the overly optimistic allies helped. Montgomery was convinced, “the enemy was in a bad way,” and had neither the transport nor fuel to mount an attack. The American front line was know as a 9-5 army, staying on guard until only one hour past dark, then heading back to their huts for sleep, returning to their posts an hour before daybreak.

But after the salient attacks on Bastogne, the push back from the Third Army was tortuous for the infantry. The Germans had specifically infiltrated English-speaking troops in American uniforms into their front lines and they had captured a lot of American equipment so sometimes telling who was the enemy could be problematic. The ground was frozen making foxholes almost impossible to dig, dysentery was rampant, and outfits shifted from place to place making the soldiers wonder just where they were and having no understanding for the total picture. “With all of our constant confusion, I couldn’t see how we were winning and the Germans were retreating. I wasn’t killing anybody. I didn’t see any Germans and their only manifestation was in their shells and machine guns.” Many were frustrated and the inevitable atrocities occurred. “They had nothing to look forward to—except a wound that would evacuate them or a coffin . . . . fighting mad after wading through waist-high snowdrifts for twelve hours to get to Herresbach. Some of our boys ran wild, shooting everything that moved in the town. The Krauts used up all their ammo shooting at our guys, then came out yelling, ‘Kamerad!’ Our troopers would reply with ‘Kamerad, hell!’ and a burst from a tommy gun.” Patton even remarked in his diary that he hoped no one would find out.

In the end, it’s no spoiler that the attempted German breakout was doomed to failure as the Allies’ overwhelming air superiority and materiel determined the outcome as did Hitler’s failure to provide support for the effort once underway. Probably not the best book to read for an overall strategic view of the battle, but excellent for detailed personal accounts.

By the way, Astor quotes Charles MacDonald, author of Company Commander, another excellent memoir of WWII that I have reviewed. (

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review: Tinfish Run by Ronald Bassett

Excellent nautical fiction. The Virtue is an old WW I destroyer assigned with several other small escorts to convoy four large tankers to Murmansk. The idea was to follow in the distant shadow of PQ 17, a convoy of more than thirty ships protected by battleships and newer destroyers. The idea was to trick the Germans into attacking the larger convoy and to ignore the more important one carrying the fuel.

Bassett follows several members of the crew focusing on seaman Ludd whom he follows in subsequent books. I was not familiar with Bassett but stumbled across him somewhere and then was offered a copy of Neptune Landing (which I had coincidentally already acquired, it being third in the Ludd series.) Endeavor Press is a digital publisher and has a number of interesting nautical books worth checking out for those of us of the nautical bent.

Read the introduction; it provides a lot of useful historical information.

Someone once said that the Navy’s wartime role consisted of ‘periods of intense monotony alleviated by moments of intense excitement’, but this is true only if the word ‘monotony’ is understood to mean week after week of heaving green sea, bitter cold and stinging rain, debilitating fatigue, poor food and cramped quarters. Soldiers and airmen, whilst their locations may have been remote and their duties arduous, usually had the consolation of a NAAFI canteen and similar off-duty distractions, and respite, even if brief, from a war environment. They were seldom long separated from civilian influences and those warming glimpses of domesticity without which values become blurred, language coarsens, and mental processes become locked into formalized channels.

Bassett served in the Royal Navy during WWII and the Korean War and knows whereof he writes. Perhaps not for those who prefer landlocked books, but for us nautical freaks, very nice. I liked it better than Alistair MacLean’s H.M.S. Ulysses, perhaps because it’s not quite as dark and the characters seemed a bit more realistic even if the setting is described less vividly.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: In Defense of Judges by AW Gray

Audiobook: Bino Phillips is an attorney with 18 years experience who normally would be at odds with most of the judges in his area, so he’s taken aback when a local judge asks him to be his attorney. Turns out that the only way to unseat a federal judge whom the powers-that-be consider to be too lenient is to charge him with a crime. That he might be innocent is irrelevant.

Couple that with the judge’s attractive daughter who has problems of her own, namely gambling and some rather revealing pictures, not to mention a really crazy ex-con, and Bino’s wise-cracking dialogue, and you have a enjoyable legal mystery. Well, it’s not technically a legal mystery in my book as there are relatively few courtroom scenes. An enjoyable listen well narrated by Joe Barrett.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review: Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson

This is the book the HBO series used for its basis. Contrary to popular myth, Atlantic City was not a summer playground for the rich but rather a working class getaway that catered to every illicit whim. Brothels and gambling flourished, but Prohibition really made Atlantic City famous and rich. Under “Nucky” Johnson, the “Commodore’s successor, anything nominally illegal elsewhere could be had in Atlantic City. “A naughty time at an affordable price.”

The short history of Atlantic City presented at the beginning of the book is really quite interesting. The land was bought up originally to develop a health spa, but then, in order to make it accessible a railroad was required to get people from New York and Philadelphia. But in order to compete with Cape May, summer playground of the rich, they tried to appeal to the working man so prices had to remain low. Soon there were four railroads delivering customers (in spite of swarms of green flies and mosquitoes that sometimes drove horses crazy - not to mention people.) To serve customers cheaply, labor costs had to be kept low, and poor southern blacks who had suffered as slaves and were then abused after Reconstruction was destroyed politically, migrated to Atlantic City to fill the jobs. Whites wanted nothing to do with them socially and soon the city was segregated into white and black ghettos. "[The] irony of it all was cruel to Blacks. They earned a respectable wage, could vote, and own property. They performed the most personal of services and were entrusted with important responsibilities, but they were barred from restaurants, amusement piers, and booths; were denied shopping privileges by most stores; were admitted to hotels only as workers; were segregated in clinics and hospitals; and could only bathe in one section of the beach, but even then had to wait until after dark."

Louis Kuehnle, otherwise known as the “Commodore,” was soon running the town, but in a wise, if corrupt, manner. He focused on infrastructure, building water and transportation systems that functioned well, and paving the streets. “Commodore understood that Atlantic City’s business owners would gladly sacrifice honest government for a profitable summer and he gave them what they wanted. Kuehnle protected the rackets from prosecution and worked with the tourist industry to ensure its success. In exchange, the community let him call the shots.”

Unfortunately, following the election of Woodrow Wilson, the Presbyterian antithesis to anything fun and later president, to the NJ governorship cramped things. “Wilson was a crusader who saw things in black and white. Impersonal in his relations, he attracted supporters in much the same way people latch on to an abstract principle.” His attorney general went after election fraud and that resulted in Kuehnle’s imprisonment, opening the way for “Nucky” Johnson who was far more corrupt and even more controlling. Johnson got himself appointed City Treasurer, a non-elective office, which he held for decades and which held the key to all graft. The 18th amendment played right into the hands of Nucky and all during Prohibition booze flowed freely and openly as Atlantic City became a huge transit port for liquor.

Johnson had a gift for understanding people, their desires, and needs. He managed to control the city to such an extent that virtually everyone owed their jobs to him. “Crucial to his power and the control of the Republican organization, he learned how to manipulate Atlantic City’s Black population. He continued the Commodore’s private welfare system, but the assistance he gave Johnson went beyond what Kuehnle had done for blacks; come the winter he was their savior. Long stretches of unemployment in the off-season could be devastating. Johnson saw to it that the Northside had food, clothing, coal, and medical care. “If your kid needed a winter coat, all you had to do was ask—maybe it wouldn’t fit but it was warm. If the grocer cut off your credit, the ward leader told you where to shop on the party’s tab. The same was true if someone needed a doctor or a prescription filled.” Corruption as good government.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Review: Days of Killing: A Novel of Berlin by Peter Sasgen

After 18 months in an NKVD jail for “treason,” i.e. showing more intelligence than his commanding officer, Yuri Nosenko, is suddenly released, fed and treated medically, and given his old rank of captain back. He’s become far more cynical during the course of the war.

“His arrest by the NKVD after Smolovici exposed the treachery, the lies, the twisted logic of Party doctrine, its fear and paranoia. Stalin’s death mills came into sharp focus during his encounter with Soviet justice. Never more than after witnessing Colonel Antonov’s vengeful, fabricated testimony against him—dereliction of duty, disobeying a direct order. And how members of the tribunal hearing his case had, without a moment’s deliberation, returned a unanimous verdict. Guilty of all charges.”

Nosenko learns the reason behind his release is his knowledge of German and Berlin where he had been stationed before the war. The Russians desperately want him to find General Heinrich Müller (known as Gestapo Müller) who has escaped both the NKVD and American intelligence after faking his death during the fall of Berlin. He has documents showing the Russians had committed atrocities against the Poles at Katyn Forest (Nosenko doesn’t know this, only that the Russians are fearful the documents will fall into Allied hands. Müller is ostensibly negotiating with the Allies, but no one knows his location except it’s in Berlin somewhere.) It’s a seemingly impossible task.

To make matters worse, Nosenko’s old nemesis, General Antonov, is now his boss and wants him to fail. Nosenko’s search becomes a descent into never-never land, trudging through the ruins of Berlin, trying to stay ahead of Antonov, but forced to make daily reports. But just what can he report? If he didn’t report the hidden room at Seelingstrasse 509, it might prove useful later, though how he didn’t know. Failure to report it might prove dangerous if Antonov already knew about the room and was waiting to see if Nosenko had found it—a test. If Antonov knew about the room, what else did he know? Had the NKVD planted the wedding dress? The map fragment? If they had, it likely meant that Antonov and Fitin knew that Katarine still lived in the apartment. Another test?

There’s a scene to warm the hearts of all librarians in which Nosenko needs to find some files in the Gestapo archives. The Germans were meticulous record keepers and he believes the files will help him locate Müller. Unfortunately, Gestapo headquarters is a shambles and many of the boxes have been rained on. But he, with the help of another “reprieved Soviet” scour the files and after hours manage to locate what they are looking for. Were I to say much more, I would be attacked by the Spoiler Police.

The story and writing are above average except for short occasional passages of maudlin sentimentality that don’t fit. Great story.

Historical note: Müller is the only high command German who was never captured and whose death has never been confirmed. He had worked his way up through the police to become head of the SS counter-intelligence units and investigated the assassination of Heydrich in Czechoslovakia. He was last seen in Hitler’s bunker the day after Hitler’s suicide.

Why do we fear Muslims terrorists more than Christian shooters?

I've been listening to a lot of commentary in the past couple of weeks related to the San Bernadino shootings and in none of those conversations have we been reminded of the Planned Parenthood killings, nor of the church shooting by the KKK adherent (the Charleston Church Massacre), or the familial shootings like the one in Troup Georgia that killed 5 people. If you look at the 353 shootings this year tracked by you'll see only one that was related to Islamic terrorism. Couple that with the data that gun deaths are in decline (suicides are inching up) since the 90's and you have to wonder at the hysteria being created by Trump and the media. (

The Washington Post as an analysis at suggesting that Christian shooters are "excused" from the terorist label simply because Christianity is more familiar than Islam.

N.B. These numbers do not include the over 900 police shootings that resulted in death so far in 2015.

Review: The Nomination by William Tapply

Federal Judge Thomas Larrigan is being vetted to be the next Supreme Court Justice. While ostensibly having no skeletons in the closet, in reality he has several and he enlists the help of some ex-Marine buddies to take care of those skeletons.

One of those skeletons was his underage mistress, An Li, in Vietnam, who had a child that Thomas took from her and had put up for adoption. An Li, having escaped Vietnam at the end of the war to Paris, had become a well-known actress but is now suffering from a fatal degenerative disease and she happens to see a photograph of a woman she is sure is her daughter, May, now having adopted the name Jessie Church. She tried to contact Jesse who now is an ex-cop working as a P.I. and hiding from a mobster she had testified against so now she’s on the run again and drifting toward her biological mother in N.Y.

I have read a lot of Tapply and mourn his demise. This book is a stand-alone, not part of his regular series, and is a good story. Not great, but it has an intricate plot with well-defined characters. I would have to agree with some reviewers that the book doesn’t hang together as well as some of his Brady Coyne novels. The ending, in particular, seemed a bit haphazard. It was published after his death so I suspect it may have been completed by someone else. Humorous when you think of the ghostwriter character in the book.

A larger moral question is whether we should continue to condemn people for acts committed while young and in the midst of war. As we know all too well, war places enormous stresses on participants. Larrigan assumes he will be condemned and I guess his overriding desire to join the Supreme Court colors his judgment, but by all other appearances he has been a model person since Vietnam. I suppose you could argue that his morality is more than flawed by his initiation of the acts that result in several deaths, but had he simply revealed his actions during the war with a mea culpa shouldn’t his actions have been forgiven? Does no one believe in individual reformation anymore? Or are we to be eternally subject to retribution?

Monday, December 07, 2015

New Gun Rights petition fails at SCOTUS

In Friedman v City of Highland Park there was an attempt to expand gun rights beyond was was granted in Heller and McDonald, i.e. the right to own a hand gun in one's home for protection. The idea was that everyone would be able to own whatever class of weapon they desired. Today the Court refused to grant certiorari to the petitioners.

One of my Goodreads friends, an attorney, posted an excellent review of what that means:

"Today, the US Supreme Court denied certiorari in the case of Friedman v. City of Highland Park. The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit had affirmed a District Court decision upholding a municipal ban on assault weapons. The Supreme Court, in an apparent 7-2 decision, refused to take an appeal from the Seventh Circuit decision. Consistent with the Supreme Court's usual practice when it denies writs of certiorari, the majority did not write an opinion. However, Justice Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Scalia. That dissent is set forth here.

There are many reasons why the Supreme Court may not grant a petition for certiorari in any given case. The majority of the Court may agree with the lower court's decision. Alternatively, they may believe that the particular case does not present the issues in a form in which a Supreme Court decision would be particularly useful. Accordingly, it is difficult to read into this denial of certiorari what the majority actually thinks. Based on the account of the case in Justice Thomas's dissent, however, it does appear that the majority may not be willing to go beyond the specific holding of Heller, discussed above in earlier posts, that the Second Amendment prohibits the banning of handguns in the home for self-defense. This denial of certiorari portends the possibility, feared by Thomas's dissent, that Heller may be limited to its facts.

That said, we probably will not know the extent to which the Supreme Court is willing, or unwilling, to extend Heller until a US Court of Appeals holds a ban on assault weapons to be unconstitutional (a scenario that will certainly happen, given the conservatism of some circuits, especially in the South). That will almost certainly prompt the Supreme Court to take the appeal, just as it was forced to take appeals relating to the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") when some but not all circuits held it to be unconstitutional. Accordingly, we will not know the Supreme Court's final determination of these matters unless and until it takes one or more additional Second Amendment cases. Today's rejection of the Friedman appeal does not, however, bode well for conservative judicial activist proponents of an expansive meaning of the Second Amendment. One wonders whether the recent mass shootings in San Bernardino and elsewhere caused some Supreme Court justices to rethink their positions on such issues. It only takes four of the nine justices to grant a petition for writ of certiorari. Justices Scalia and Thomas were not able to persuade even two additional justices to grant certiorari in this case.

An article about this decision in today's Washington Post observes:

"The court’s action Monday continues a pattern. After deciding in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 that the Second Amendment provides the right for an individual to keep a weapon in the home, the court has avoided all cases that might clarify if that right is more expansive.

"Gun rights advocates say cities and states continue to put unreasonable restrictions on the constitutional right. But the court has not yet found a case it thinks requires its intervention."

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Review: The Harder They Come by TC Boyle

Audiobook: This book has to have one of the strangest titles, I kept trying to decide whether it was meant or be scatalogical or eschatalogical.

The first short section tried to define Sten who, while on a cruise ship side trip, kills a Costa Rican hood who was trying to rob him and some other passengers. Skip to back home where his son, Adam, a survivalist (and someone who kept reminding me of Holden Caufield which his strange mixture of bravado and naivete and world view) has hooked up with Sara, a local farrier and anti-government loner who refuses to wear a seatbelt and then disses the cop who stops her with inevitable consequences that fuel her anti-authority impulses. Adam refuses to be called by his given name, instead, trying to channel John Colter, after the real-life Lewis and Clark Guide who was an expert at living in the wilderness. Adam wanders in and out of reality (one might argue that Sara is equally delusional) and eventually commits a crime that makes him wanted by the police (Sara is, too, but for different reasons.)

It’s perhaps ironic (did Boyle intend this?) that Sten, who has survived Vietnam and seen horrible things, is normal, whereas his son, the advantaged one, is completely psychotic. As for Sara’s motivation, I’m not sure just how believable it was. She’s fifteen years Adam’s senior, had been a teacher in his father’s school, and now has adopted a freaky anarchical libertarianism.And then there’s the issue of guilt. What responsibility did Sten have for not dealing with Adam’s mental issues earlier? And what role did Sara play in the devolution into violence? The peripheral characters like Art and the Mexicans seem shapeless.

I hope I don’t sound too sarcastic in spots for the book is quite well written and brilliant at portraying the angst of the 21st century rebellious young. It’s sort of a Catcher in the Rye for the new century. There were a few things that bothered me, and perhaps it’s because I listened to, rather than read, the book: I failed to get a good sense of the geography of the place, the relationships between the several locations, i.e., Sten’s house, the grandmother’s house, and Adam’s “cabin,” and the roads that connect them. I also found switching POV’s a bit confusing as the characters moved around in time. If you are the kind of reader who must like a character to enjoy the book, you will most likely dislike this book. I have no such impediment and in spite of my dislike for all the characters the book certainly held my interest.

Based loosely on the case of Adam Bessler. See

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Review: East of Farewell by E. Howard Hunt

E. Howard Hunt. Now there's a name that brings back memories. And not particularly pleasant ones as a member of the “plumbers.” On the other hand, he served in the Navy during WW II on destroyers and as this book was written in 1942 while he was out there living the book.

It takes place on a destroyer on convoy duty. Each chapter is preceded by a short italicized section on preparing the ship, following by perspectives from members of the crew, each with a short bio. While clearly fictional, I suspect the characters had considerable basis from his experience.

Blacks had no place except as servants to the officers. Their world was “yessuh,” no matter whether they were seasick or had other difficulties. The captain was angry because their ship hosted the commodore who second guessed his every move. Others had come from farms. All felt the drudgery.

And I never realized until I went to sea how much you can hate something that you can’t beat … something that wins over you whenever you’re tired … something that won’t let you rest … where there is never anything but the feel of the spray and the shock of the waves and the blackness of night and the fog-gray days and always the sea. Always the sea and the tearing wind and no place ever to lie still while your heart pounds with the feel of the sea and your brain is tight with the smell of the sea and your belly is hollow with the fear of it, and always the ship goes on through the night and the days that are not day.

The theme and writing reminded me a little of Alistair MacLean. If you enjoy nautical fiction, you will like this book. Not up to Marley Mowat, or Herman Wouk, but good enough and of historical interest since it was written during the war it portrays.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Review: Crosskill by Garry Disher

Fourth in the Wyatt series, I suggest they be read in order. The series will appeal to fans of Quarry and Parker. Disher is just as good as Collins and Westlake (writing as Richard Stark) in portraying the amoral bad guy, each with his own peculiar code of ethics.

Crosskill continues the story begun in the earlier volumes as Wyatt tries to get his money from a holdup gone wrong back from the mob. Definitely not literature, but who cares. They are well-crafted stories showing a darker side. With all the things that go wrong, my only question is how Wyatt can keep going without getting totally depressed.

Lots of fun. I intend to read all of them and then move on to Disher’s police procedurals.

Immigration Rants

The United States is in a bind. As I listen to the reflexive anti-immigrant/refugee rhetoric I am reminded of some dire facts. The United States population replacement rate is well below what it needs to be in order to maintain a healthy and growing economy and to support the ever increasing number of retired and aged people. Generally economists estimate that a ratio of 4.5 workers between the ages of 20 and 60 is needed in order to support the current number of retirees with medical and social benefits. Just the opposite trend is occurring in industrial nations.

The “potential support ratio”—the number of people aged 20-64 divided by the number of people aged 65 or over— in many countries will plummet.
The ratio, the report authors noted, “can be viewed very roughly as reflecting the number of workers per retiree." In the U.S. the ratio today is 4.6, and it is projected to decline to 1.9 by 2100—fewer than half as many workers to support a retiree as there are now. Germany’s ratio will drop from 2.9 to 1.4. Rapidly growing nations will see even greater collapses: China from 7.8 to 1.8, Brazil from 8.6 to 1.5, India from 10.9 to 2.3. African countries face similar fates: Nigeria’s incredibly high level of 15.8 will sink to 5.4. (#2)

There are several ways to address this imbalance, most of them unpalatable. You can eliminate benefits like Medicare and Social Security for the elderly, a solution no one really wants, especially the elderly who form a strong voting block; you can increase the retirement age gradually until it reaches the average mortality age (when Social Security was begun the retirement age was set at 65 which was also the average age of death - ironically the SS Trust Fund would be flush with cash had not both federal and state governments unwisely borrowed against pension and SS trust funds to balance their budgets -- money that has never been paid back); or you can increase the number of younger workers, the easiest way of which is through opening up immigration. Of course this last course of action can lead to social upheaval as politicians play on the entropic fears of the general populace for whom change and perceived disorder are anathema. Stereotypical attitudes toward immigrants are not new to politics in this country, remember the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movement of the Know-Nothing party in the early nineteenth century, not to mention the vicious reactions to immigrants from Ireland and eastern Europe and Italy in the early twentieth century. There is always a grain of truth to stereotypes; you know the all-priests-are-pedophiles and all Italians-belong to-the-Mafia and all-Irish-are-drunks and all-Hispanics-are-drug-dealers kind of thinking.

But the fact remains that immigration is a very economical and fast way of maintaining or increasing the ratio of workers to retirees. (See #1 below for a study on the economic benefits.) Does it lead to competition for jobs, yes. On the other hand by legalizing as many as possible the underground economy that encourages sexual harassment and monetary exploitation is reduced and the amount of tax revenue increased. Even illegal immigrants pump substantial amounts of capital into cities and once withdrawn can devastate a community (see the fascinating studies of Postville, Iowa,** a town we have studied and where I know some of the county law enforcement officers.)

Unfortunately, the current political rants regarding immigration appeals to the underbelly of American society rather than encouraging a robust debate of the values and problems surrounding population, labor force, immigration, and retirement.



A sample of Postville articles and books:

Bloom, Stephen: Postville: a Clash of Cultures, 2000

Camayd-Freixas, Erik: US Immigration Reform and Its Global Impact: Lessons from the Postville Raid, 2013

Monday, November 23, 2015

Review: Saints and Sinners: Walker Railey, Jimmy Swaggart, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Anton LaVey, Will Campbell , Matthew Fox by Lawrence Wright

Wright has written a very personal examination of some religious trends in the United States. Fundamentalism, or Primitivism as some would call it, is certainly on the rise, a new "Great Awakening", if you will. Lack of an established religion, many have argued, creates the perfect medium for the development of cults and other fringe beliefs. It has also become " a patchwork of mysticism, hypocrisy, hucksterism, and violence, with an occasional dash of sexual perversity."

This book is not written from the perspective of a non-believer, rather as one who believes in the power of faith. “ I have seen it in prisons and ghettos as well as in boardrooms and chambers of power. I have often found myself admiring people who held views I strongly disagreed with—for instance, the Black Muslims, who believe that I am a devil because of my race but who have generated the moral power to bring order and dignity to prison life. Where addiction rules or where social values have collapsed, it is usually only those rare persons of faith who can survive and sometimes even transform their seemingly hopeless environments.”

Nevertheless, he takes a rather perverse look at the symbols of both religious and non-religious icons such as Jimmy Swaggart and Madolyn Murray O’Hair.

Wright first examines the tragic case of Walker Railey, his minister in the large Methodist Church in Dallas, a man who engaged in an affair with a member of his congregation and then probably killed his wife. Transformative faith?

None of these people is particularly nice even as they held considerable power over their faithful but each was engaged in his own kind of spiritual struggle and the author’s personal struggle. “The lesson I had drawn from Walker Railey’s life so far was that good and evil are not so far apart either. They were both inside Railey, warring for control—as they were in me as well. Whether or not Railey was guilty, he had caused me to look into myself and see the lurking dangers of my own personality.”

I must admit to being one of the gleeful watching the downfall of Jimmy Swaggart. I had watched his TV show on several occasions, mesmerized by his excessive sanctimony while attempting to strip his viewers of their bank accounts. I’ve always speculated that people specialize in their deficiencies so having him self-destruct in the arms of a cheap hooker virtually in plain sight suggesting his perverse desire to be caught was gratifying. “Sex is the great leveler, the shadowy companion of the transcendent spirit.” Swaggart had equally gleefully brought about the collapse of Martin Gorman, pastor of one of those mammoth churches. “Swaggart accused Gorman of having had numerous adulterous affairs. Although Jim Bakker [who was to have his own spectacular fall] took Gorman’s side and actually pleaded for his forgiveness, Swaggart muscled Gorman’s show off the PTL Network. The Gorman empire, such as it was, quickly collapsed. His church, his television stations, and especially his reputation were lost to him. He was reduced to preaching in a drafty warehouse in Metairie to a congregation of folding chairs. There he began to consider his revenge.” Sordid

Moving along to Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who sued the author, interestingly. She the most accomplished of the self-promoting, she made a fetish out of trying to protect everyone from every hint of religiosity. In the end she became nothing but an embarrassing spectacle, in my view, although one has to credit her with some important victories like that of O’Hair v Hill which prevented Texas (of course) from trying to institute a religious test for office contrary to the Constitution.

Ironically, the least interesting of the characterizations is that of Anton LaVey, the supposed father of Satanism. He just tried too hard to be something he clearly was not: “the evilest man in the world.” Having been a circus performer and carnival barker, his career in satanism seemed just a continuation of that former self. On the other hand, as he noted, Satan is probably religion’s best friend; without it religion would not have survived so many centuries. His connection to Jayne Mansfield was rather titillating.

Will Campbell is surely the most interesting of the bunch. A Baptist minister, reviled by the leadership of his church, he was a vigorous supporter of civil rights and good friend of Martin Luther King who ministered to James Earl Ray and other Ku Klux Klan members. He was one of only four whites who held hands with the little black girls in their attempts to integrate schools in Little Rock. His uncompromising positions earned him hate letters from both the Right and Left.

The book is easily read as separate essays and the only element that ties them together is the author’s personal journey and reactions to the individuals he interviewed. As such it’s of perhaps more interest for its historical value than a memoir. Wright’s more recent books: The Looming Tower and Going Clear are more important. If this review seems to ramble, blame it on the book.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review: The Deep State by Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a former GOP Congressional aide for twenty-eight years who has become disenchanted with several features of our current government. In “The Party is Over” he complains the sole purpose of Republicans elected to Congress is to shut down government or at least bring it to a standstill. They have often succeeded. He argues in this book that there are two governments in Washington: the visible one that is in the public eye with campaigns and elections, and the “deep” government that operates behind the scenes, often following its own agenda and never changes regardless of who might be elected. Ironically, I sensed much of this reading Robert Gates’ memoir “Duty.” It was clear that he, as Secretary of directions his president wanted to move.) Defense, often had trouble moving the Defense Department bureaucracy and military in directions he wanted (and I felt he sometimes thwarted or at least resisted.) The process has been a gradual one and not unexpected.

Much of the problem he attributes to the “beltline” mentality and the aggregation of agencies, foundations (there are now more than sixteen-hundred of these tax-exempt “ hordes of gun slinging grants man who tried to maintain a facade of scholarly disinterest are functionally as much a part of the ecosystem of the town is the lobbyists on K Street,) and agencies like Homeland Security, which, truth-be-told, would make much more sense after 9/11 to be dispersed throughout the country, but which instead is firmly entrenched in a former insane asylum retrofit, now ten years behind schedule and $1 billion over budget, but thankfully protecting us from shampoo-bottle bombers. Its first chief, Michael Chertoff, I suppose could be congratulated by the bureaucracy for his display of efficiency in turning DHS (doesn’t the word Homeland remind you of “fatherland” and cause a reflexive need to bring the right arm to sharp Hitlerian attention?) “into a contractor-infested replica of the DOD’s in only a few years. His post-government career has been single-minded attempt to cash in personally on his bureaucratic creation and his own notoriety.”

9/11 had an effect on all of this, of course, as military contractors rushed to merge and join the hoards of others with headquarters in Washington (thanks to generous tax benefits passed at taxpayer’s expense) sucking at the government teat.

For all the bellyaching that goes on throughout the country about out-of-touch bureaucrats, corrupt and unresponsive government, and how much everyone hates Washington, these visible signs of our increasingly intrusive and overbearing government did not fall out of the sky upon an unsuspecting public. The Deep State, along with its headquarters in Washington, is not a negation of the American people's character. It is an intensification of tendencies inherent in any aggregation of human beings. If the American people did not voluntarily give informed consent to the web of unaccountable influence that radiates from Washington and permeates the country, then their passive acquiescence, aided by false appeals to patriotism and occasional doses of fear, surely played a role. A majority of Americans have been anesthetized by the slow, incremental rise of the Deep State, a process that has taken decades. (p. 29)

Much of this “deep state” results from Washington group think. In the military it’s clearly more obvious, you have to get on board with the mission or go nowhere career-wise. In the bureaucracy the pressures are equally strong if not as apparent. And they know they’ll be around long after the flavor-of-the-day politicians move on. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The last chapter consists of Lofgren’s prescriptions for resolving some of the issues he has highlighted in the book. I would disagree with several of them. His first solution, “eliminate private money from public elections” has been batted around so many times. When has money never been a problem in campaigns? It always has and will always be. Public financing is hardly the solution. Do I really want my tax money to be used to fund the campaigns of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann? And is this only for presidential campaigns? It’s local city and state elections that often have more of an influence. I would argue for complete transparency but let people spend their money on campaigns as they wish, just make sure everyone knows where it’s coming from. PACS should be eliminated; all the money should go directly to the candidate but with full accounting and accountability.

I fully concur with his recommendations that we reduce military spending and stay of of the Middle East. Nothing we have done in the past sixty years seems to have worked the way we intended it to beginning with the CIA-Seven Sisters overthrow of the government in Iran. To quote him: “ISIS is undeniably a toxic gang of murderers, but our own disastrous intervention in Iraq formed the petri dish in which its diseased ideology could evolve.” I love that metaphor. Constant military interventions have provided the rationale for ruinous military spending which, in turn, empowers the shadow government even more not to mention increased the debt by six trillion and counting. His suggestion that much of that military spending be channeled to domestic infrastructure repair and building is admirable but would, ironically, continue to empower the shadow government in the form of additional bureaucratic structures.

He admits that many of his proposals sound utopian (not to mention Progressive) but insists that the United States has reformed itself several times in the past on equally grand a scale. I’m not so optimistic.

Lots of amusing, if cynical, lines in the book. For example, referring to the invasion of Iraq and its justification, “ the tongue tied George W Bush sorely needed the mellifluous double talk of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on the theory that nothing sells hideously awful policy as well as an Oxford accent (the American political class swoons on cue at gibberish delivered with Received Pronunciation.) I could go on with many other examples. But read the book and weep.

I enjoy Mike Lofgren’s work and was offered an “Advanced Reader Copy” of this book in hopes I would read and review it. I was happy to do so since I intended to buy it when it appeared anyway, although I would have much preferred an ebook copy for my Kindle (much easier to take notes and highlight passages.) The book is excellent but probably futile (I must be really pessimistic this morning.)

Friday, November 20, 2015

Review: Rules of Prey by John Sandford

Audiobook: Rules of Prey is the first in a long series of Lucas Davenport police procedurals set in Minneapolis. I’ve read about ten of them, not in order and for some reason never got around to the first, an oversight I have now remedied. The Sandford Davenport books are all quite good, although Lucas’s relationships with women I sometimes find superficial and irritating.

Lucas is independently wealthy having sold the rights to a software game he had developed and he drives around in a red Porsche. In this one, he’s been tasked with finding the “Mad Dog Killer,” a man -- whose predations and POV we are subjected to -- who is killing women.

One aspect puzzled and put me off a little. That was Lucas’s manipulation of the press. He’s sleeping with (and has impregnated) one of the star reporters of a local paper. She has no qualms about using things she has overheard during his private phone conversations even though she has been asked to leave the room. (His relationship with her is highly improper, in my view and hardly necessary since he’s sleeping with a victim of the Mad Dog Killer - also extremely unprofessional and irregular.) Then he uses a TV reporter (whom he regards as dumber than a rock) to leak all sorts of incorrect information clearly to irritate the killer. Whether that encourages the killer to kill in a different way I’ll leave up to the other readers. I understand that some writers feel it’s necessary for cops to break the rules to catch the bad guys but imho then they become bad guys as well. (Not a spoiler since we know who the bad guy is almost from the beginning, unfortunately participating in his depredations via his POV that become gross as the book progresses.)

Richard Ferrone does his usual brilliant job reading.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Review: Deathdeal (Wyatt #3) by Garry Disher

Wyatt is on the run. Everyone is looking for him following the mess-up of his failed attempt to hijack the armored car. He’s determined, in the meantime to get the money back from those who stole it from him (as told in Wyatt #2). As seems to be his lot, others have the same idea and he can trust no one.

The Wyatt series was written before his police procedural series features Hal Challis, a very different character from Wyatt who remains one of the more hard-bitten and amoral anti-heroes I’ve read. There’s very little humor here, just the struggles of a man who wants nothing more than to have his place in the country where he can hold up and rob a few banks every year. He has no interests, few needs or goals and in less capable hands the books would descend into mere shoot-em-ups. Disher instead has created a memorable character. If you like Westlake’s Parker (written under the name Richard Stark), or Collins' Quarry, you’ll devour the Wyatt series. On to #4.

Friday, November 13, 2015

"Natural Rights" is all Hooey

John Locke was an optimist assuming that humans could live together in a state of reason. Hobbes on the other hand, thought man existed in a state of chaos and that some form of structure is required to bring order to the chaos. Locke is describing what "should" be; Hobbes is describing what "is."

It follows that all notions of  "rights" will be determined by whatever scheme of laws a society will determine for itself, or be forced upon it, i.e., rights are generated by the human rule-book.  Thomas Jefferson can say whatever he wants in the Declaration of Independence, but just because he says them doesn't give them validity and in any case, again, they require government to enforce them. Ironically, even though I consider myself a form of libertarian strongly supporting the concept of individual rights, I understand that a reasonably strong form of government is required to enforce my "self-determined" individual rights

For example: Property rights exist only in the context of government without which the concept of property could not exist since government is required to enforce and codify them. The whole concept of innate or "natural" rights is basically a Lockean concept that appeals to many people, but which has little basis in reality. What rights you have are determined by whatever government you have. Some forms of government are more oriented toward collective rights that benefit society as a whole, the altruistic version, while other forms emphasize individual rights at the expense of collective rights. A classic example is the "individual" right to own slaves. Collectively, as a society, we decided that individual right does not benefit society as a whole (not to mention we decided that non-whites should be entitled to the same individual rights as whites) but, again, that right requires governmental enforcement and approval.

What we "should" do is determined by a constant refinement of ideas (which is why philosophers should get paid more than welders in spite of what Rubio thinks) and compromise.  There is a constant tension between the needs of the collective (traffic rules, if you will) and the wishes of the individual who assumes that because something he desires is attainable it must be good and a natural right. The difficulty arises when the collective determines that coercion is needed in order to protect the collective right. So there is again a constant tension between different perceived rights.  The Constitution is full of these tensions: the individual right to believe whatever you wanted opposed to the collective right not to have government enforce a particular brand of religious belief;  the individual right to a gun in order to promote the collective right through militias to prevent the larger collective from enforcing tyranny; the individual right not to quarter soldiers in the home opposing the needs of the collective in time of crisis; and the individual right of not incriminating oneself versus the collective's right to solve and prevent crime, to name but a few examples. 

Quoting Jonathan Wallace: "The natural rights debate leads us down a false road. The energy spent in arguing which rules exist should better be spent deciding which rules we should make. The "perfect freedom" Locke described "to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they see fit... without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man", does not dictate the existence of rights; instead it leaves us perfectly free to legislate them.
I prefer this freedom, which seems to me simple and clear: we are all at a table together, deciding which rules to adopt, free from any vague constraints, half-remembered myths, anonymous patriarchal texts and murky concepts of nature. If I propose something you do not like, tell me why it is not practical, or harms somebody, or is counter to some other useful rule; but don't tell me it offends the universe."

Monday, November 09, 2015

Review: Storm Front (Virgil Flowers #7) by John Sandford

Audiobook: A Lutheran minister steals a stela from a dig in Israel and returns back to his home in Mankato.  He has an incurable illness and then disappears. Virgil is asked by his boss, Lucas Davenport, to liase with an Israeli antiquities investigator who has come over to get the stella back.  Its importance soon becomes clear as the inscription on the stela seems to imply that King Solomon may have been an Egyptian pharaoh.  So, of course, everyone wants to get his hands on the stela for political and monetary reasons.  A couple of Turks, a Mossad agent, a gun-toting  (don’t they all?) Texan, an Indiana Jones wanna-be and a fake IAA investigator are all after this thing and to top it off “Fucking” Flowers has to deal with “Ma” Nobel a local institution who’s selling fake antique lumber and keep everyone from killing each other.

Classic Virgil Flowers and this may be the best of the series. Some of the dialogue is LOL funny.  I really like him as a character - I think his over-developed sense of compassion and wish to avoid killing people appeals to me especially -- and Eric Conger reads magnificently.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Review: Paydirt (Wyatt #2) by Gary Disher

One of Gary Disher’s creations is Wyatt, a rather nasty fellow, living in Australia who likes to rob things. He’s obsessive about never leaving a trace so all paperwork and contact with the cops is to be avoided at all costs.  His sometimes squeeze has told him about a sweet deal where a company has been hired to build a pipeline and has a substantial payday on a regular basis.  It’s a score worth contemplating.

There are several complications, the most pressing being there’s a price on his head of twenty-thousand pounds offered by the mob that he had ripped off in a previous heist. Not to mention that the team he assembled is fracturing and they are aware of the bounty.  Also to consider is that unbeknownst to Wyatt, there another group with a similar plan. 

Disher’s Wyatt is as good as Westlake’s Dortmunder or Collins’ Quarry but lacking the undercurrent of lightness.  This stuff is much darker.  But sometimes you need dark.  It’s all in fun and makes for a nice read.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Review: Vessel of Wrath by Robert Taylor Lewis

Marvelous book.  I challenge anyone to read the page 14 without rolling in the aisles. It was written in 1966, so some of his amusing comments regarding women and the right to vote in Switzerland don’t apply, but they amuse, nevertheless.

Carry Nation, or Mrs. Nation as he  calls her, is “sharply remembered as the apostle of reform violence, prime dragoness on a field strewn with the bones of sinners.”  She opposed just about everything including “alcohol, tobacco, sex, politics, government (national, state, and local), the Masonic Lodge, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Jennings Bryan.” Some of her methods were regarded as extreme even by her friends; it was one thing to threaten a man with a hatchet, it was something else to hit him with it. She regarded the distinction as overly subtle.

Insanity ran in her family.  Her aunt, during certain lunar phases, made repeated attempts to clamber up on the roof and convert herself  into a weather vane. A cousin, at the age of 40, unexpectedly returned to all fours, and was only restored to the vertical after heroic struggles by his minister. Mrs. Nation's mother suffered from  the illusion that she was Queen Victoria.  Carry often suffered visions involving snakes but those are no more suspect than those of Joan of Arc , both of whom showed an extraordinary interest in edged tools.  She wanted desperately to be shot so as to become a martyr to the cause and it's only probably due to the extraordinary western hospitality that she wasn't. Like Amelia Jenks Bloomer, who believe that all women should be stuffed into pants whether they like that or not, Carrie Nation believed that she alone knew what was best for everyone else.

Her father liked to move around a lot and following one move Carry came down quite ill. Assuming that the illness related to some petty thievery (the author doesn’t go into this much.) “It was thought necessary by the authorities that she get to a church as soon as possible, and after a few weeks more dead than alive, she was conveyed in a carriage to a nearby Sunday School, where the minister gave her a book was explaining that petty thieves are as monstrous as bank robbers in the eyes of the Lord. It did not explain the full cycle of larceny where in effect called tycoons work up to the level of stealing whole corporations, railroads, windows savings, gold reserves and even nations at which point the behavior became honorable, &, in fact, widely admired.”  :)

“History is replete with incidents to prove that a Baptist at full gallop is a fearsome engine of piety. It seems likely that no other religion extracts such a full measure of self-abasement from its practitioners. At various times and places, a Baptist could be arrested by a deacon, then find himself  in prison for riding a horse on Sunday; minor blasphemers could be administered 40 lashes; dancing and card playing where breaches of conduct were on a virtual par with murder.”

She had little luck with men. On the whole, Carry’s contacts with the male sex were enough to send the mildest of women smashing through the center of their recreation. “Many of the people with whom Carry tilted were as reliable as a grizzly with a toothache; she began to brace men on the streets - snatching pipes, cigars and Mexican cigarettes from the males that would have shot of fellow male for a careless slip of the tongue.”

Alcohol was a serious problem. Hard liquor was very prevalent and everyone drank  enormous quantities. There were also imitation alcoholic beverages. One was called “Blue Ruin” and it was regularly fed to slaves and servants;  those who survived consuming it over the years appeared to have a somewhat altered complexion, reminiscent of “a drowned corpse long in the water.”

“Crying babies were not a serious problem in colonial times; they were probably dosed with enough alcohol to shift them into a state of glassy eyed stupefaction, upon which the caterwauling dried up, to be replaced by pleasurable cooling or song, the intoxicated infants version of quote sweet Adeline.”

Interestingly Carrey's first foray into saloon destruction was in Kiowa, Kansas where she literally destroyed three different saloons. Ironically she couldn’t be charged with a crime since the sale of alcohol in saloons was prohibited by law so technically she was destroying something that was illegal. The novel solution of the town leaders was to simply ignore the damage as if nothing had happened.  From there she moved on to Wichita where she and her growing  acolytes of the WCTU adopted the famous icon forever attached to her name.

Was she crazy?  I’ll leave it up to you to decide. A fascinating tale, drolly told.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Review: Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle

Arguably the most important service a city provides is garbage removal. All city functions become virtually impossible when trash is not removed in a regular manner.  Not only that, but they are key players in fueling consumption and capitalism. Without regular disposal of consumed goods, there is no room for new goods to replace them.: "used-up stuff must be thrown out for new stuff to have a place."
The euphemistic sanitation workers are the real "invisible" men.  Workers are truly ignored.  They can stare, whistle, remark, clatter,whatever, with impunity because as far as the general public is concerned they are part of the background noise.  They are mere obstacles to be avoided. But an absolutely essential job, dwarfing most others in importance. And messy. Garbage from the trucks is taken daily to transfer stations, where “the smell hits first, grabbing the throat and punching the lungs. The cloying, sickly-sweet tang of household trash that wrinkles the nose when it wafts from the back of a collection truck is the merest suggestion of a whiff compared to the gale-force stink exuded by countless tons of garbage heaped across a transfer station floor. The body’s olfactory and peristaltic mechanisms spasm in protest. Breathing through the mouth is no help, and neither gulp nor gasp brings the salvation of fresh air; there’s none to be had.”  What we have forgotten is that all of that used to be all over the streets. “ Householders no longer [have] to keep their windows clamped shut all day, even in the worst heat of the summer, against the nauseating dust that billowed from the streets. (In the rain that dust became an unctuous mud with a repulsive smell. God help the man or woman who found it adhered to shoe soles or skirt hems; the stench permeated forever anything it touched.)”
It's not an easy job and a very dangerous one, vastly outranking police and fire in fatalities. (A check on the Internet listed them as fourth highest fatality rate behind loggers, fishermen, and aircraft pilots and flight engineers of all things --another source listed them as fifth, adding steel workers ahead of them.)  One horrific example involved a worker who had been on the job twenty-three years.  “It was the usual pile that awaited him at this stop, one of the last on the route. He tossed a load in the hopper and was just turning away from the truck when the blade bit through a bag and broke open a jug of liquid concealed within it. The resulting geyser that hit Hanly full on was a 70 percent solution of hydrofluoric acid. His funeral, which drew nearly two thousand Sanitation people from across the city and around the region, made the television news.” Then there are objects that don’t make it into the truck.  The compactor blade can do strange things when it hits solid objects.

“ Bolts, nails and screws, plastic bottles, cans, shoes, food debris, mattress springs, wood fragments, glass shards, become lethal projectiles. Workers tell routine stories of getting hit in the chest, head, back, arms, and legs. One man I worked with on Staten Island reminisced about the time someone had thrown away a bowling ball. When he tossed it in the truck and pulled the handles, it came back at him as if shot from a cannon, caught him in the belly, and knocked him out. The driver, who thought his partner was on the back step, didn’t notice that the fellow was missing until he’d turned the corner. When the driver went back to look for him, it took a while to find his unconscious body because he’d fallen into the tall grass by the side of the road.”

The section on mechanical sweepers -- the drivers are called broomies -- had fascinating detail. The dials and readouts in the broomie’s cab rival that of a small airplane and learning just how much water to add, the angle of the brooms, and maintenance require vast experience. The annual celebration in Times Square that apparently involves enormous quantities of cut-up paper and other colorful detritus takes hours to clean up in the wee hours of the morning and incurs wrath when it’s not done on time.  But sometimes, nature makes it difficult. Rain and snow for example. “The mechanical brooms were churning the wet litter into a thick soup dyed pink by the metallic red cards that had long since disintegrated into the mash. It looked like oatmeal made with Pepto-Bismol. Mechanical brooms don’t do oatmeal. Workers with hand tools moved it into the gutters, but then the brooms trundled past and sprayed it back onto the sidewalks. The hand sweepers and blowers pushed it into the gutters once more; the brooms splattered it back. All over Times Square, mechanical brooms and sanitation workers were having the same exchanges of pink spray. Our boots and pant legs and jacket hems started to look like Jackson Pollock had been experimenting with them as canvases. The equipment wasn’t up to the conditions, but short of a large sump pump I’m not sure what would have worked.”

And all that is not even to mention snow removal, that bane of all mayors, which has caused more political defeats than sex scandals. It can be an almost impossible job when snow is falling at the rate of two-three inches per hour and the wind is blowing, maneuvering around stuck cars and with unrealistic citizen expectations. The drivers often have to work forty or more hours straight and conditions can conspire to make their jobs miserable.

A fascinating look into an essential job that few appreciate and most are reluctant to pay for having long forgotten the alternative.

Review: Driver by Mark Dawson

This, the third, in the John Milton series is the best yet.  Milton is now in San Francisco holding down two jobs:  independent taxi driver and ice deliverer.  He makes barely enough to get by, but that’s just fine. He likes to read.

One night he accepts a fare against his better judgment because he realizes she’s an escort and it’s illegal to participate, i.e., drive, someone who is about to commit an illegal act.  They arrive at a fancy house in a wealthy neighborhood.  He agrees to stay since he’s worried about her safety and when screams erupt from the house he investigates only to have her run out of the house and down the road banging on other doors, clearly high on something.  She disappears.

Milton has to walk a fine line in any interactions with the police but he feels a sense of duty -- more on that later -- and teams up with her boyfriend to try and find Madison, the hooker. Milton can’t afford to have the police look too closely at his identity because he’s still on the run from his former MI-6 handlers.  

Dawson does a nice job of laying the groundwork for Milton’s overly developed sense of altruism. One of the tenets of AA, which Milton attends regularly in an effort to stay sober (shades of Lawrence Block’s protagonist,) is to make amends, and Milton has a lot to make amends for having killed many people in his former job.

Well-developed story.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Open letter to Molly Ball of the Atlantic

I have enjoyed your reporting in the Atlantic and comments on the Diane Rehm show, but I was a bit dismayed by the dismissive attitude of you and your colleagues with regard to presidential debates being a “for-pay” event only.  Certainly this is something the media would want to abhor. Have we become so blase and cynical that no one cares any more that a substantial portion of the population cannot watch a debate among candidates running for elective office?  It would seem this is one area where pressure from the media would be non-partisan and a very important issue to promote. What I fear is that the debates formats have been devised in such a way to showcase the moderators rather than those running for office.  A well moderated debate will have watchers walking away discussing the candidates rather than the moderators, perhaps not even knowing their names.

If the media were really serious -- and I think you and some of your colleagues are -- about having substantive discussions, you need to organize and promote such an event.  Were I moderating a discussion, I’d have one or two questions prepared (a couple of examples are below) -- they could even be given to the candidates in advance -- and give each one 4-5 minutes to expound on that topic and then allow all of the others to weigh in on each other's proposals to create substantive give and take and to highlight differences. The role of the moderator would then simply be to make sure the candidates didn;t interrupt each other and everyone had a chance to speak.  I suspect such a format would separate the serious candidates from the rest very quickly.

You might argue that such thinking is naive at best, or would even create a boring show.  Perhaps, but if the “debates” are merely to entertain with gotcha questions for the twitter feed of the night, we’ve seriously lowered the quality of media and our democracy.  Let’s not always underestimate the intelligence of the American people.  Who but the media can hope to change the tone and character of these events? Surely not all of you have succumbed to the desire for easy fame and fortune through the celebrity route.

Some minor examples, I’m sure serious journalists could come up with better ones:

1.  The GOP would seem to be the party favoring allotting power to the states more than the federal government.  As president, what issues are properly the role of the federal government and which belong to the states? How would you go about making changes in that allocation of power.

2.  Key for any president is his/her ability to gain a majority in the House and Senate for legislation. What skills do you bring to the table in order to gain those majorities and what should the role of compromise be in that?

3.  Several former government officials have discussed the "shadow governments" that exist within our large bureaucracy, for example a rogue CIA or other department that manages to make its own policy.  How would you identify and address that concern?

4.  The president has to hire a lot of people and will have to delegate much of that role to others.  How would you go about making sure that the people you hire are on board with your theory of government?

Friday, October 30, 2015

"Maybe we are just chumps."

Here's an interesting comment from someone who posted on Timothy Egan's opinion page regarding the current GOP debates.  Jim from Virginia

"Here's a thought: maybe we really are bad people - Americans, that is. Maybe we've become so morally hollowed out by profitable wars these past 70 years that Wayne LaPierre and Ben Carson really do represent us. Maybe TV and fast food and the NCAA have finally gutted our self respect and we can't begin to imagine a wage so low that we wouldn't work for it. Maybe all those soldiers who died so the rich could pay lower taxes were in fact chumps. Maybe the Walton children really deserve more money, that 30 million workers and the social security recipients really are social parasites. Maybe it was all a joke after all - that talk about hard work and playing by the rules and sending the kids to college. Maybe the Republican Party reflects the best of the American heart and soul."

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Trickle Down Halloween

This year we're giving all the candy to the first 1% of those who come to the door and then let them share with everyone else.  That should work.

Re Debate moderators

I've been reading a lot about the moderators' performance at the GOP debate last night.  (As an aside the decision of CNBC to limit viewers only to cable subscribers was unconscionable.)  Much of the complaining  both from the people on stage and others has related to their "liberal" bias or whatever.  Leaving aside that CNBC  provided the inspiration for the Tea Party, it seems  to me whether the moderators were biased or not is irrelevant, since it's particularly useful to see how different people respond to a variety of "biased" points of view. That presents an opportunity for a candidate to really shine in how he/she answers a question. Attacking the moderator is rarely revealing, but something he/she could say is. "thanks for the question which I think relates to [policy position] and here's what I would do in regard to that."  If you want the moderator to simply throw softballs, my guess is we would learn nothing about the candidates ability to deal with the opposition he/she will certainly face from Congress.

On the other hand, the format is ridiculous.  Too many people on the platform and not enough time for anything other than simplistic answers.  The candidates should fight that. They should demand time for at least 3-4 minute answers, not that they would have to use up all the time and could certainly cede some of their time to others on stage if they wished.  We've certainly come a long way from the Lincoln Douglas debates where the two would often speak in great depth for several hours on issues.

As a general rule, it's been my impression that moderators often make themselves the issue which is precisely what they should not do. One should leave such an event thinking about what the panelists or candidates said, not how the moderator behaved.

Were I a moderator these are some questions I'd like to see asked of each of the candidates answer given each at least 5 minutes per question.

1.  The GOP would seem to be the party favoring allotting power to the states more than the federal government.  As president, what issues are properly the role of the federal government and which belong to the states? How would you go about making changes in that allocation of power.

2.  Key for any president is his/her ability to gain a majority in the House and Senate for legislation. What skills do you bring to the table in order to gain those majorities and what should the role of compromise be in that?

3.  Several former government officials have discussed the "shadow governments" that exist within our large bureaucracy, for example a rogue CIA or other department that manages to make its own policy.  How would you identify and address that concern?

4.  The president has to hire a lot of people and will have to delegate much of that role to others.  How would you go about making sure that the people you hire are on board with your theory of government?