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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review: Ruin Value by J. Sydney Jones

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

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

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

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

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

Generally Speaking by Lawrence Block - For Philatelists Only?

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

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

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

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Benghazi, Lebanon, and the GOP Convention

In 1983, a truck bomb, created by a group calling themselves the “Islamic Jihad”, was exploded outside the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon. 240 Marines were killed. Many others were wounded and some of those later died. This was “the deadliest single-day death toll for the United States Marine Corps since World War II's Battle of Iwo Jima, the deadliest single-day death toll for the United States Armed Forces since the first day of the Vietnam War's Tet Offensive, the deadliest single terrorist attack on American citizens in general prior to the September 11 attacks, and the deadliest single terrorist attack on American citizens overseas.”

Contrast that with Benghazi which featured prominently at the GOP convention, recently ended. Four Americans died. A tragedy, but nowhere near the carnage that happened in Lebanon. Yet Reagan continues to be celebrated by the GOP while screaming for Clinton, who was not even president at the time, to be incarcerated and pilloried.

Now, I have a lot of disagreement on issues like health care, foreign policy, etc. with Hillary Clinton, but for the GOP to focus on an event like Benghazi to the exclusion of other much more important issues seems foolish and short-sighted if not just mean.

Another disconnect was Trump’s speech which harkened back to those of Nixon and Pat Buchanan in its focus on “law and order” and the problems with education. Those issues are constitutionally left to the states, of which a majority are controlled by the GOP. Not to mention the U.S. House and Senate have been controlled by the GOP. On the one hand many in the GOP proclaim the value of states rights, yet refuse to take responsibility for the issues they insist are in horrible shape but for which they are constitutionally responsible.

The whole plagiarism issue was kind of silly. If they wanted to celebrate the words of Michelle Obama, and worthy thoughts they are, indeed, they probably should have attributed them, which would have been a nice gesture that takes nothing away from the value of the words. On the other hand, both women no doubt had speech-writers and the Trump speech-writers should have known better.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Review: House Revenge by Mike Lawson

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

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

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

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Review: Enola Gay by Gordon Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 08, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cover-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Blood Count by Robert Goddard

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

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

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

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