Monthly Archives: January 2010

Books: Pop. 1280, The Transgressors

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Jim Thompson, who wrote most of his books in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, prowled the sewers of the human soul. His heroes were low-lifes, his stories pretty much devoid of people you’d want to take home to Momma.

Stephen King wrote in his introduction to Thompson’s “Now and On Earth”:

Know what I admired the most? The guy was over the top. The guy was absolutely over the top. Big Jim didn’t know the meaning of the word stop…..His novels are terrifying cameos of smalltown hurt, hypocrisy, and desperation. They are urgent in their ugliness, triumphant in their tawdriness….

Someone has to examine the stool samples of society; someone has to describe those tumors from which more cultured people shy away. Jim Thompson was one of the few.

I’ve read six Jim Thompson books now. I recently finished two. Like most Thompson books, they are published under the Vintage Black Lizard imprint.

“Pop. 1280” (1964) is set in a Texas smalltown, and told first-person by the town’s sheriff, Nick Corey. Corey presents himself as a lazy, cowardly fool–which he is. But he’s also a manipulative psychotic killer who conveys absolutely no guilt or second thoughts about his sins, which he carries out in a somewhat carefree way.

This book is a first-cousin to Thompson’s most famous book, “The Killer Inside Me,” which also stars a murderous sheriff. Actually, “The Getaway” and “The Grifters” are probably better known, but only because they were made into pretty good movies. “The Getaway,” with Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, was actually a great movie (which ended just before the book got really really dark).

“Pop. 1280” moved along quickly, the writing somewhat sparse, lacking (in a good way) at lot of imagery and atmospherics. I highly recommend it. Nick Corey is utterly fascinating, and you can’t guess what he’s going to do next as he leads you along in his own words, having a gool ol’ time.

“The Transgressors” (1961) also stars a lawman, this time a sheriff’s deputy, who ends up on the wrong side of the law, sort of. Tom Lord is not a terrible guy, like Nick Corey, but not a White Hat cowboy either. This one’s set in Texas, too. Lord does what he needs to do to avoid a world of hurt. It’s a pretty good Thompson book, not a great one.

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Obama Faces the Opposition, Pseudo British Style

Obama’s lengthy exchange with Republicans yesterday was pretty impressive. You may not agree with his answers, but you have to admit he’s got quite a grasp of the issues. He’s a smart guy, and has thought deeply about issues long before becoming President (as “The Audacity of Hope” shows). We need more of this kind of exchange. Need to get the Republicans engaged in governing (which the Dems in Congress seem to have no interest in doing).

The ability to pull off an exchange like happened yesterday is not a necessity in a President. Ronald Reagan couldn’t have done what Obama did yesterday, but he was most definitely a leader.

All things considered, I think Bill Clinton could have done it even better. He was as bright and obsessively immersed in issues as Obama, but not as…prickly? He would have turned on the famous Clinton charm, which Obama possesses in a smaller amount and which is usually hidden beneath his innate aloofness.

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Creative Shopping

My marriage is backwards. I enjoy shopping, and Pam doesn’t particularly. But in most marriages, if the stereotype holds, it’s the husband who gets totally bored while the wife is taking her time perusing every aisle in the store. So for those men, here are some ways to pass the time. And come to think of it, Pam could try these, too.

  1. Set all the alarm clocks in Housewares to go off at 5-minute intervals.
  2. Walk up to an employee and tell her in an official voice, “Code 3 in Menswear. Get on it right away.”
  3. Go to the Service Desk and try to put a bag of M&Ms on layaway.
  4. Move a “CAUTION – WET FLOOR” sign to a carpeted area.
  5. Set up a tent in the camping department and invite the children shoppers to join you if they bring pillows and blankets from the bedding department.
  6. Place boxes of condoms in other people’s carts when they aren’t looking.
  7. When a clerk asks if he can help you, begin crying, “Why can’t you people just leave me alone?”
  8. Look right into the security camera and use it as a mirror while picking your nose.
  9. While handling guns in the hunting department, ask the clerk where you can find the anti-depressants.
  10. Dart around the store suspiciously while loudly humming the “Mission Impossible” theme.
  11. In the auto department, practice the Madonna look using different sizes of funnels.
  12. Hide in a clothing rack and when people browse through, yell, “Pick me! Pick me!”
  13. When an announcement comes over the loud speaker, assume a fetal position and scream, “Oh no! It’s those voices again!”
  14. Go into a fitting room, shut the door, wait awhile, then yelled very loudly, “Hey! There’s no toilet paper in here!”
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Peggy Noonan on the SOTU

Peggy Noonan critiqued the State of the Union Address in her Wall Street Journal column. Of Obama’s words regarding healthcare, she concluded:

The battle over the president’s health-care plan is over, and the plan
will not be imposed on the country. Waxing boring on the virtues of the
bill was a rhetorical way to obscure the fact that it is dead….The bill will
now get lost in the mists and disappear. It is a collapsed soufflé in
an unused kitchen in the back of an empty house. Now and then the
president will speak of it to rouse his base and remind them of his
efforts.

She ended with some quotes from a man whom she describes as “a friendly acquaintance of the president, a Republican who bears him no animus.” Here’s the final paragraph.

“I hope we have big changes in 2010,” the friend said. Only significant
loss will force the president to focus on spending. “To heal our
country we need to get the arrogance out of the White House and the
elitists out of the Congress. We need tough love. We need a real adult
in the White House because we don’t have adults in the Congress.”

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Cold Professional Contempt

Col. Stuart Herrington ran secret interrogation centers for the military from the Vietnam War through the early 1990s. He gave a speech about interrogation techniques, which Thomas Ricks mentions on his blog, The Best Defense.

Says Ricks, “One of the most striking aspects of his talk is the cold professional contempt he has for Cheney, Rumsfeld and others who not only encouraged a brutal approach, but were amateurish in doing so.”

Herrington said, “There was no room on our team for charlatans who believed in sleep deprivation, inducing hypothermia, stress positions, face slapping, forced nudity, water boarding, blaring heavy metal music, or other amateurish, ineffective and ethically flawed tricks.”

It’s a very interesting post. I suspect Herrington was as sickened as I was at reading “The Dark Side,” a superb piece of reporting about our descent torture, which will be remembered for decades as an American low-point.

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My Articles on UBCentral

I administer the United Brethren denominational news site at UBCentral.org. I wrote a number of articles regarding my recent trip to Honduras. In case you’re interested.

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Advice for US Troops in Haiti

Thomas Ricks is a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter who was formerly the military correspondent for the Washington Post. He’s well-regarded by the military, and has incredible access, as shown by his two thorough books on the Iraq War, “Fiasco” and “The Gamble.”

Ricks loves digging through obscure military documents and the writings of everyday soldiers. He publishes some of his findings on his blog on the ForeignPolicy.com site.

A few days ago, he published an article by retired Marine colonel Gary Anderson which gives advice to US soldiers doing humanitarian work in Haiti. It’s really interesting, common-sense stuff, and Anderson shows a lot of respect for the non-government relief organizations. Here are some excerpts:

Don’t be afraid to use non-traditional sources such as reporters, NGOs, and missionaries in the ongoing assessment. That angry reporter or Non Governmental Organization (NGO) worker, who wants to know why nothing has been done for village X, has just given you a piece of your assessment puzzle.

As soon as possible, get permission to fly non Department of Defense personnel in military aircraft. This…always gets overlooked until some overly officious Air Force Master Sergeant won’t let a desperately needed civilian doctor on an airplane.

Sea-base the operation as much as possible. Every American who spends the night on shore is one less Haitian that will get food or water that day. Ruthlessly weed out uniformed “tourists” who don’t have a real function.

Wherever possible, use local security forces to secure distribution sites. The last thing you need to have on CNN is American troops clubbing desperate villagers like baby seals at a relief distribution site.

Whatever you do, don’t do air drops–you are likely to kill more people than you help by crushing them with pallets or by starting riots.

Keep Your Relations with NGOs and IOs Professional. Most of these people are more likely to join the Peace Corps than the Marine Corps, but they are professionals in their own fields and will be as results-oriented as you are in their own way. Some have never dealt with the military before and may have an attitude when you first meet them. The best way to confront that is head on. Tell them, “We are both here to get a job done. Let’s leave our personal feelings at the door. You may even find that I’m not a war criminal.”

Don’t get involved with the disposal of human remains. Think how you’d feel watching your grandmother shoved into a ditch by a Russian bulldozer. CARE and some of the other major NGOs are funded and know how to stand up ad hoc mortuary companies to bury people in ways acceptable to the local culture. This will also get some needed money pumped into the economy. They are also smart enough to keep an eye on the local entrepreneurs. At some point in the operation, they will start to run short of bodies. Gruesome as it sounds, some of these people in past disasters have dug up bodies to get paid for burying them multiple times. You would never have thought of that; leave that sort of thing to the pros.

Avoid going high tech. Mobile surgical field hospitals and reverse water treatment purification units are wonderful things, but you stand the risk of raising local expectations so high that they won’t want to part with them, and they wouldn’t be able to maintain them, even if you could leave them.

Sadly, those who will die from immediate injuries sustained in the earthquake will likely have done so by the time you get there. What will really be needed are internists with qualified interpreters who can treat the invariable gastrointestinal diseases that will follow from drinking bad water.

You can download the full article as a PDF here.

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French Terror Threat Levels

In the United States, we color-code our terror threat levels. The French are more specific.

Level 1: Run
Level 2: Hide
Level 3: In Fetal Position, Begging for Mercy
Level 4: Surrender
Level 5: Collaborate

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Robert Parker, Creator of Spenser, Dead at 77

robert-parker.jpgRobert Parker, one of my favorite writers, died on Monday. He wrote 37 Spenser mysteries, short books that take practically no time to read. He also kept three other series going–Jesse Stone, Sunny Randall, and a western series (from which the movie “Appaloosa” came).

I’ve got three Parker books sitting on my shelf, unread–the latest Spenser, Stone, and Randall books. I’ve read all of the others. Word is that several more books are finished.

Parker died writing his latest Spenser book. He was found at his typewriter, dead of a heart attack, by his wife Joan. They’d been married 53 years. All of his books were dedicated to Joan. Look it up.

Everyone calls him the successor to Raymond Chandler, and maybe he is. But Spenser bears little resemblance to Philip Marlowe, and Chandler produced only a handful of books. Ross MacDonald might be a better comparison, though again, the similarities are few. Parker reinvented the private investigator. Spenser himself may not be so unique, but having a sidekick like Hawk is certainly new.

A Chandler book can be savored, because of the clever writing, the funny turns-of-phrases which Chandler pull off. Parker is just as witty, but in a more character-driven way. For example: the sparse interplay between Spenser and Hawk. It’s delightful stuff.

Spenser, Hawk, Susan, Quirk, Rachel Wallace, and a variety of guys he could call on when he needed some muscle–these are fascinating, well-defined characters whom I’ve been reading about for 25 years (I read my first Spenser book somewhere around 1984). Spenser never aged during that time. Being a Korean War vet (like Parker), he should have been quite old by now.

Some things I picked up in reading tributes to Parker:

  • He wrote a total of 60 novels, starting with “The Godwulf Manuscript” in 1973 (the first Spenser book).
  • We never learn Spenser’s first name.
  • He wrote five double-spaced pages a day, 1,250 words, 6 days of the week (took Sunday off). At that rate, he cranked out a book every three months.
  • He never knew what would happen next in a book, and finished books without revising them. He didn’t rewrite, didn’t do a second draft, and didn’t reread it when done. He’d turn the manuscript over to Joan, then begin the next book.
  • In recent years, he was getting a $1 million advance per book (and doing three books a year).
  • Of the tributes I read, the best was in the Telegraph, from England.
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FactCheck.org – Biggest Falsehoods of 2009

FactCheck.org summarized the top falsehoods of the year in “Whoppers of 2009.”  It’s a month old at this point, but still interesting. The list begins with falsehoods from conservatives, then falsehoods from liberals, and then hits some individual topics. Some falsehoods that made the list:

  • Statements about “death panels” by Sarah Palin and others.
  • Claims that Obama is proposing a single-payer system like Canada’s, which none of the major bills have advocated (not that it matters at this point).
  • That the government would dictate which medical procedures doctors can perform.
  • Four different healthcare-related statements by President Obama.
  • Fear-mongering about the H1N1 vaccine (which, thankfully, didn’t develop into the health crisis which, initially, it looked like it might).
  • Continued nonsense from the birther people, who insist Obama wasn’t born in the USA.
  • Various unfounded statements that Obama would restrict gun rights in various ways.

It’s quite an interesting summary, and good to be reminded about what was and wasn’t true amidst all the things we heard in 2009.

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