Monthly Archives: June 2009

Book: The Wheel Man

wheelman.jpegI picked up “Severance Package” at Hyde’s Bookstore. I’d never read anything by Duane Swierczynski (I had to copy and paste that name), but this sounded interesting. And it turned out to be a totally engrossing and very unusual thriller.

So for Christmas, I put Swierczynski’s other two books, “The Wheel Man” and “The Blonde,” on my list.

Pam got me “The Wheel Man.” And yesterday, I finished it. Took me just two days. 

The main character of “The Wheel Man,” Lennon, is a getaway car driver for bank robbers. The book starts with a bank robbery that goes bad, and that sets in motion a whole lot of mayhem. We follow Lennon around as he gets shot and beat up and abused in sundry ways, but keeps on ticking. 

The book reminded me of Mel Gibson’s movie “Payback,” where he plays a con named Porter (It’s based on a Donald Westlake novel, which I haven’t read). “Payback” is one of my favorite movies. You really don’t know what’s coming next. You can guess, but you’ll probably be wrong. 

“The Wheel Man” is like that. Whatever 90% of writers would do with a scene, Swierczynski does differently. It’s unpredictable. The plot never pauses; you just keep moving right along, helplessly. As a reader, I was magnetically drawn page by page to the end, which turned out to be satisfying and unexpected. Though by that point, I was expecting the unexpected.

I need to track down “The Blonde.” Swierczynski has a wicked imagination, and I’m anxious to read more.

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Book: Ludlum’s “The Cassandra Compact”

cassandra.jpegTwenty years ago, I devoured every Robert Ludlum book that came along. I started with “The Bourne Identity,” went on to “The Matarese Circle,” “The Acquitaine Progression,” “The Holcroft Covenant,” and every other book he had written to that point (including the sub-par ones under the pen-name Jonathan Ryder). Nobody wrote twisty thrillers like Ludlum.

But somewhere along the line, my tastes changed. Maybe the implosion of the Soviet Union did it. Ludlum kept writing, but I stopped reading. 

Over the weekend, having just read two Daniel Silva spy thrillers, I was in the mood. I decided to try another Ludlum book. So I went to Hyde’s, the best used bookstore in Fort Wayne, and discovered the Covert One novels. This series is under the Ludlum brand, but written by other people. Hyde’s had five Covert One books. Wanting to start at the beginning, I bought the one with the oldest copyright (2001), “The Cassandra Crossing,” by Philip Shelby.

As it turned out, “The Cassandra Compact” was second in the series; Hyde’s didn’t have “The Hades Project.” But no matter. I dove into this oversized book with big type, and it read like a rocket-fueled rabbit. Nothing artistic about it; even the worst Stephen King book is a verbal treat. But it was wonderful escapist fun. 

The protagonist is a guy plainly named Jon Smith. He’s a doctor, and works with a super-secret government agency called Covert One. Every Ludlum book has an agency like that, I think. Or several. Anyway, there’s a dasturdly plot involving smallpox which takes the reader to Italy, Russia, Hawaii, and into outer space. It was kind of a mindless read, but sometimes that’s what I want. So I’ll probably traipse back to Hyde’s and get the next four books in the series.

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Books by Daniel Silva: Mark of the Assassin, Confessor

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My reading pleasure has been focused on mysteries for the past several years, but I still love a good spy thriller. We had a couple books by Daniel Silva laying around, but I hadn’t read anything by him yet. So last week, I gave “The Mark of the Assassin” a try. 

That was one very good book. Not great. Not in a Robert Ludlum category (“The Bourne Identity” is still the best thriller I’ve ever read, and so much better than the movie, which was not too shabby). But satisfying.

Silva’s hero in this one was Michael Osbourne, a CIA guy who was pitted against a deadly assassin-for-hire. The plot relied on the government, including the presidency, being infiltrated by bad guys with evil agendas, and that usually strains credulity for me. But such are the tools of authors of international thrillers.

I decided to go straight into a second Silva novel, “The Confessor.” This one, set mostly in Italy with stops in other European countries (the US never entered the picture), involved intrigue in the Vatican. Here, the infiltration of bad guys involved the upper echelons of the Roman Catholic Church. The plot focused around the Pope’s silence during World War II as Jews in Italy were being rounded up and carted off to death camps. 

In this book, and in others by Silva, the hero is Gabriel Allon, an art restorer who, in his spare time, is a top-flight Israeli operative who had become legendary for carrying out numerous assassinations of Palestinian terrorists. 

Both books started rather slow, I thought, as Silva introduced an awful lot of characters. But I enjoyed the books, and will no doubt read more Silva thrillers. Especially ones involving Gabriel Allon.

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Thoughts on Michael

I’m trying to think of something profound to write about Michael Jackson. I don’t care to comment on his weird side, and it appears I was somewhat indifferent to his music. I liked his music, but wasn’t crazy about it.

There were certainly songs I really liked listening to. I always liked “Ben.” And “We are the World,” which was a collaboration. But on stage and in his videos, he was mesmerizing. To hear some of those songs by themselves on the radio–nothing special for me. But watching him move in those videos–that was always special.

I heard that record exec Berry Gordy said something like this: “A Michael Jackson doesn’t come around once in a lifetime, or once in a century. He comes around once.”

Now THAT’S profound. 

You could say the same about a handful of other entertainers: Elvis, the Beatles (as a group), and I can’t think of anybody else.

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Neighborhood Proselytism Alert!

jws500.jpgThe Jehovah’s Witnesses are on the prowl in our neighborhood. Or maybe it’s the Mormons. In either case…Flee! Hide! Lock your doors! Save the children! Do not engage under any circumstances!

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Joe Scarborough Really Despises Olberman

On Morning Joe today, Mark Sanford’s affair was, of course, a major topic. But Joe castigated the “cable news pundits” from the previous night who took “unbridled glee” in Sanford’s fall. Scarborough said some of those pundits “are on this network.” And he likened them, in a way I haven’t quite figured out yet, as the Jim and Tammy Fay Baker of pundit class. Or something like that.

He’s obviously referring to Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow, the unabashedly liberal show costs in the evening lineup. I’ve heard him, at other times, criticize Olberman in particular, sometimes by name. 

Scarborough drips with disdain for Olberman. I’m not sure why, but I suspect it has more to do with style than politics. Yes, Olberman’s a liberal and Scarborough is a conservative (who just published a book about the conservative movement in which he strongly criticizes Barack Obama). But I think it has more to do with fairness. 

Olberman is a sensationalist who gets his jollies using his considerable verbal skills to criticize anyone who’s not a liberal. Scarborough, on the other hand, restrains his conservative leanings in order to treat guests fairly, and to take a balanced view of both sides of an issue. He regularly criticizes Republicans. This makes Morning Joe infinitely better than Olberman’s show, and is why Joe manages to draw such a broad range of guests.

This morning, after going on about this, Joe turned to Mike Barnacle and said, “Should we name names, or go to commercial?” 

Barnacle cautioned, “I would go to commercial, Joe.” And they did. I was disappointed, but I suspect Barnacle’s call was the prudent one.

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Book: The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts

inheritance.jpegI highly, HIGHLY recommend David Sanger’s book “The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power.” Sanger, Chief Washington Correspondent for the New York Times, really helps you understand the dynamics in dealing with various countries. We hear lots of posturing from political pundits on cable news, with simplistic, hardline answers to world issues. Sanger takes us behind the scenes, where we see nuance in all its complex varieties.

The book is divided into 8 parts, with 2-4 chapters in each part. The first five parts deal with a specific country.

A couple themes emerge:

  • In every chapter, we see how America was unduly distracted by Iraq. We lost opportunity after opportunity because all of our focus was on Iraq. 
  • Dick Cheney’s hardline influence dominated US foreign policy during the first six years of the Bush Administration. 
  • During his last two years in office, George Bush, having marginalized Dick Cheney, began getting a lot of things right. But in most cases, it was too late.

Part 1: Iran. The first chapter is a fascinating look at Iran’s nuclear program and its efforts to build The Bomb. There is a lot of spycraft here, as America (and other countries) tried to learn what exactly Iran was up to. And there were some incredible breakthrough. When it comes to electronic intelligence-gathering, the USA is GOOD. 

Sanger also tells stories about Ahmadinijad which show what an idiot the Iranian president truly is. 

Part 2: “Afghanistan: How the Good War Went Bad.”

davidsanger.jpegPart 3: “Pakistan: How do You Invade an Ally?” These chapters explain the double-dealing deceptions of Musharaff, the political and religious complexities of this country, and how Pakistan is obsessed with threats from India. We learn much about Pakistan’s nuclear program–how its weapons are secured, and how nuclear technology was given to other countries. 

The chapters tell about numerous diplomatic missions from the US, as we attempted to keep the regime on track and nudge them in certain directions. Sanger tells about US Special Forces attacks into Pakistan, and how the current regime is seriously threatened by its own internal Taliban.

Part 4: North Korea: The Nuclear Renegade that Got Away.” This section begins with the story of the Syrian nuclear installation that Israel destroyed in 2007. It was being built by North Koreans right next door to Iraq–but we didn’t know about it. Israel, on the other hand, had pictures from inside the facility. This section mostly illuminates the failed approach of the Bush Administration.

Part 5: “China: New Torch, Old Dragons.” This is a fascinating look at modern-day China. While we were bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, China was gobbling up and investing in resources throughout the rest of the world, especially in Africa. It’s a bit worrisome.

Part 6: “The Three Vulnerabilities.” Sanger goes deep in explaining how the US is vulnerable to nuclear attack, biological attack, and cyber-attack (triggering economic collapse). These are scary chapters.

The book represents excellent reporting, with behind-the-scenes stuff none of us have heard about before (and never will hear about on shallow cable news). If you really want to understand these countries, and the complexities of US foreign policy in dealing with them, I highly recommend “The Inheritance.”

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Husbandly Self-Concern

Last night, Anderson Cooper interviewed the husbands and a sister of the two US female journalists imprisoned in North Korea. The two women have been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.

What struck me as wierd were statements by Iain Clayton, husband of Laura Ling. Rather than expressing concern for his wife, he kept bringing it to himself, as if he was the one suffering.

  • He said he couldn’t imagine going through the next 12 years without his wife, that it’ll be very hard for him. He said nothing about what those 12 years mean to Laura.
  • He said his fifth anniversary is coming up, and he doesn’t look forward to spending it alone. He said nothing about how Laura will spend their fifth anniversary.

Iain: it’s not about you.

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The Iranians at Our Table Tennis Club

I spent quite a bit of time tonight talking to Tim and Tina, two Iranian immigrants who came to our table tennis club. I had talked to Tim before; he lives in Defiance, Ohio, about an hour away, and he’s a very good player. Tina, his sister, was visiting from Chicago. She came in her sweats, ready to play–and she wasn’t bad.

Tina came to the States in 1971, Tim in 1976. The Shah was in power; it was a dictatorship. Tina earned an Economics degree, landed a good job, and earned her US citizenship. Then, in 1979, she took a leave of absence from her job and traveled back to her homeland. She found work with a think tank of some kind in Teheran, working alongside eight Americans employed by IBM. 

But she became very worried about what she was sensing. “This is not good, what’s happening,” she decided. She warned her coworkers, said they needed to leave the country. But they weren’t worried. “Nothing’s going to happen. We’re perfectly safe,” they told her.

But Tina didn’t believe it. She could feel something ready to explode, and she didn’t want to be there when it happened. So she packed up and left. Two weeks later, Iranian students stormed the US Embassy.

She had given her card, with her address info, to the IBMers. Said, “When you get to the States, call me.” Some of them did. And I’m sure she told them, “I told you so.”

I asked Tim, “What is something Americans need to understand about Iranians? What don’t we understand correctly?”

He mentioned the culture being different, but then said, “Iranians are a peaceful people.” He paused. “But everybody is like that. Wherever you go in the world, people are mostly peaceful.”

I said, “I’m sure you’re fascinated by what’s happening in Iran now.” 

Tina said, “The people are MAD. It’s not about Ahmadinejad or the other guy. The people are just MAD. They’re tired of the way things are. They want things to change. You can see it in their eyes. They are ANGRY.” 

It was almost amusing how she kept emphasizing that. 

“The Iranian people want the same things we want,” she said. “And they want to vote, and have their vote count. They couldn’t vote under the Shah.”

I said, “Does it bother you when Americans talk about Iranians as being evil?”

She said without hesitation, “Well, Ahmadinejad is evil.” And she put the ruling clerics in the same category. She and Tim talked about how idiotic, incompetent, etc., Ahmadinejad is. They said the Iranian people are tired of his nonsense, of the stupid things he says, of the way he embarrasses the country. 

I mentioned the three Iranians who attended Huntington University in the mid-1970s. I said many of us wonder what happened to them. Did they go back to Iran and get caught up in the revolution? Did they die in the Iran-Iraq War? 

Tina said, “If they were here in 1975 or 1977, they didn’t go back. Why would they? Who would want to go back?” She figured they were still in the States somewhere. Like her. 

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Seeking Justice for the Wrongly Imprisoned

Justice is finally occuring for the 17 Uyghurs who have languished in Guantanamo’s prison for nearly seven years. But it’s very complicated.

Four Uyghurs were relocated from Guantanamo to the island of Bermuda. This angered:

  • China, which opposes releasing Uyghurs to anywhere but China. (We apparently allowed Chinese intelligence agents to participate in or at least observe the interrogation of Uyghurs at Gitmo. GWB sure had backbone!)
  • Great Britain, which didn’t learn about the deal until it was almost done. Bermuda is a British territory. 
  • Newt Gingrich, Sean Hannity, and other right-wing sensationalists who stupidly insist the Uyghurs are terrorists.

Most of the folks at Gitmo fought against the US in Afghanistan. A good number were part of Al Qaeda. But not all.

In 2005, the Bush Administration declared that the Uyghurs were not terrorists and shouldn’t have been imprisoned. Some were kidnapped by Pakistani entrepreneurs who sold them to the CIA, claiming they were Al Qaeda. Others were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong color of skin.

The Uyghurs are ethnic Chinese who, facing persecution at home, relocated to Afghanistan in search of a better life (most of us would not have chosen Afghanistan). Some may or may not have been seeking the overthrow of the Chinese government, as the Chinese government insists they were.

The first four to be released are now free men in Bermuda. The remaining 13 Uyghurs will be resettled on Palau, an island in the South Pacific. 

Fox News, of course, us up in arms about releasing the Uyghurs. They didn’t oppose releasing them in 2005, when Bush was in office. But now that Obama is President, they think releasing innocent Uyghurs to “a tropical vacation” is the worst of sins.

They were torn from spouses, children, and parents seven years ago. They’ve been unjustly imprisoned for seven years. They were uprooted from a land they had made home, and will now be forced to make a new life in a totally foreign country. As a Christian seeking justice for the innocent and powerless: LET THEM GO. 

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