Monthly Archives: September 2010

Who Cares about Sex Scandals Anymore?

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Is the sex scandal dead? That’s what Louise Roug wonders on The Daily Beast.

She points to Mark Sanford’s 55% approval rating, and the rebounds of John Ensign, David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, and Bill Clinton. Many, many others could be mentioned, including Newt Gingrich, who proposed to 2 of his 3 wives before he had asked for a divorce from his current wife. Perhaps if Gary Hart had messed around with Donna Rice today, it’d be no big deal.

(Roug does cite as an exception John Edwards, whom she says “bedded his way to oblivion and doesn’t appear in danger of emerging anytime soon”.)

Roug mentions how Ronald Reagan ended the taboo against divorce, and that fooling around with drugs in college days is now practically a badge of honor. Nobody cares if you smoked marijuana in college. She says Barack Obama may have actually exaggerated his drug use, to gain political points with his left-leaning, young constituency.

Roug suggests that while pundits and preachers still fuss over sex scandals, voters have moved on. They just don’t care anymore. There have been so many scandals that it’s become somewhat ho-hum. Such is the state of America’s moral fibre.

I found Roug’s conclusions sad, but probably spot-on.

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Book: “The Grifters,” by Jim Thompson

the-grifters-movie.jpg“The Grifters” is a 1963 book by Jim Thompson (published by Vintage/Black Lizard in 1990). It focuses on smalltime con-artist Roy Dillon, along with his girlfriend Myra Langtry and mother, Lilly Dillon, who are also con artists. There are no “good guys.” Everyone’s a crook.

The book has no plot, per se. We’re just dropped into their lives and watch things happen to them. You know events will lead up to a climax of some kind, but don’t really know what it’ll look like. Except that, this being Jim Thompson, there will probably be some dead bodies.

I’m not criticizing the book. It’s a very good book, without the psychotic people who normally populate Jim Thompson books. I really enjoyed it. It’s less than 200 pages and took me about three days.

In 1990 the book was made into a Stephen Frears movie starring John Cusack (one of my favorite actors), Annette Benning, and Angelica Huston. It as a good movie, a character study as much as anything. Donald Westlake, employing his darker Richard Stark persona, wrote the screenplay. I can’t remember the movie well enough to tell you whether or not it faithfully followed the book. But I recommend both the book and movie.

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Book: The Strain

the-strain.jpg“The Strain” is a 600-page collaboration between Chuck Hogan and film director Guillermo del Toro, published in 2009. It’s the first in a trilogy. Since del Toro is a big movie director (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy”), I wonder if they envision a movie trilogy? If so, they need to make it more interesting.

An airliner lands at New York’s JFK airport, and stops dead on the runway. All the power is off, the window shades down, no communication. It just sits there. Turns out all but four people aboard are dead, and those 4 are pretty close. Autopsies show a tiny slit in everyone’s throat.

It comes down to vampires. This is a new take on the vampire legend, and a very different one at that.

The protagonist is Dr. Eph Goodweather, who works for the Centers for Disease Control. After it’s discovered that everybody aboard the plane is dead, it is quarantined and Goodweather and his team are called in. When the survivors start “turning,” and the dead regenerate, things get hairy.

A variety of people come together, and are no doubt characters in the remaining two books. The most interesting character is a pawnshop owner who has been stalking vampires for years, and waiting for an occurrence such as this. He’s a Treblinka survivor who encountered a vampire there. He fills everybody in about these creatures.

The story is moderately interesting, and the book ended all set up for the second volume. But I’m not sure that I’ll read it. We’ll see.

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Book: “War,” by Sebastian Junger

war-book.jpgI’ve been reading quite a few books about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Most have been very good, and they’ve all been quite different.

“War,” by Sebastian Junger, is my favorite. Junger is best-known for his 1997 book “The Perfect Storm,” a phenomenal work which became an international bestseller. But he has proven himself as a war reporter in such places as Bosnia, Liberia, Cyprus, Kashmir, and now Afghanistan.

Junger is an amazing writer. When I saw that he had written a book on Afghanistan, I knew I had to read it. Likewise for Jon Krakauer, another master wordsmith, who wrote “Where Men Win Glory” (which I reviewed previously). I was blown away by the poetry of “The Perfect Storm.” While the writing of “War” is much different, it’s still brilliant.

For over a year, Junger and a photojournalist embedded with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in the remote Korengal Valley of Eastern Afghanistan, right along the Pakistani border (a bit north of Tora Bora and the famed Kyber Pass). They especially focused on Restrepo, a small outpost, which found itself in firefights on a regular basis.

The amount of combat experienced at Restrepo and the surrounding outposts is astounding, a real eye-opener. For a while, the firefights occur practically every day. American soldiers die and are wounded frequently. Junger notes, “Most Korengalis have never left their village, and have almost no understanding of the world beyond the mouth of the valley. That makes it a perfect place in which to base an insurgency dedicated to fighting outsiders.”

The title, “War,” is interesting, as if it’s a book about war in general, rather than about a specific combat team in a specific place. But Junger does use Restrepo to generalize about warfare. He uses the experiences of soldiers in the Korengal Valley to draw analogies with previous wars and to cite various studies. We get
to know the American soldiers very well, and we get engrossed in the
life they lead in the Korengal. But through them, we learn what
soldiers in all wars, especially modern wars, experience.

In one fascinating section, he explains what happens physiologically to men during combat–pupils dilating, pulse and blood pressure approaching heart-attack levels, blood flooding the heart, brain, and major muscle groups. A high heart-rate makes it difficult to aim a rifle. At 170 beats per minute, tunnel vision and loss of depth perception occur. It’s fascinating stuff.

 The best way to tell you about this book is to use Sebastian Junger’s words.

“To a combat vet, the civilian world can seem frivolous and dull, with very little at stake and all the wrong people in power.”

“War is a lot of things, and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting….Soldiers discuss that fact with each other and eventually with their chaplains and their shrinks and maybe even their spouses, but the public will never hear about it. It’s just not something that many people want acknowledged. War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but for a nineteen-year-old at the working end of a .50 cal during a firefight that everyone comes out of okay, war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of. In some ways 20 minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else.”

“Pretty much everyone who died in this valley died when they least expected it, usually shot in the head or throat, so it could make the men weird about the most mundane tasks….The men just never knew, which meant that anything they did was potentially the last thing they’d ever do.”

junger.jpgOne soldier told him, “There are guys in the platoon who straight up hate each other. But they would also die for each other.”

Junger (right) says he never heard the soldiers question the validity of the war. That was a luxury for persons at the main bases, behind the lines.

He talks about “the insane amount of firepower” available to the Americans, like the big shoulder-fired Javelin rocket “that can be steered into the window of a speeding car half a mile away. Each Javelin round costs $80,000, and the idea that it’s fired by a guy who doesn’t make that in a year at a guy who doesn’t make that in a lifetime is somehow so outrageous it almost makes the war seem winnable.”

“Combat was a game that the United States had asked Second Platoon to become very good at, and once they had, the United States had put them on a hilltop without women, hot food, running water, communication with the outside world, or any kind of entertainment for over a year. Not that the men were complaining, but that sort of thing has consequences. Society can give its young men almost any job and they’ll figure out how to do it. They’ll suffer for it and die for it and watch their friends die for it, but in the end, it WILL get done. That only means that society should be careful about what it asks for.”

“Heroism is hard to study in soldiers because they invariably claim that they acted like any good soldier would have. Among other things, heroism is a negation of the self–you’re prepared to lose your own life for the sake of others–so in that sense, talking about how brave you were may be psychologically contradictory. (Try telling a mother she was brave to run into traffic to save her kid.) Civilians understand soldiers to have a kind of baseline duty, and that everything above that is considered ‘bravery.’ Soldiers see it the other way around: either you’re doing your duty or you’re a coward.”

He talks about how soldiers hold each other accountable, because sloppiness doesn’t just endanger them, it endangers everybody. “Once I watched a private accost another private whose bootlaces were trailing on the ground. Not that he cared what it looked like, but if something happened suddenly–and out there, everything happened suddenly–the guy with the loose laces couldn’t be counted on to keep his feet at a crucial moment. It was the OTHER man’s life he was risking, not just his own.”

“Humans may be the only animal that practices what could be thought of as ‘suicidal defense’: an individual male will rush to the defense of another male despite the fact that both are likely to die.”

“When men say they miss combat, it’s not that they actually miss getting shot at–you’d have to be deranged–but that they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life.”

If you’re going to read a book about the Afghan-Iraq wars, there are several I recommend highly. But this one tops my list.

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Books: Strega, Blue Belle, Blossom

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I recently polished off three books in the “Burke” series by Andrew Vachss. I was so engulfed in the environment he creates–the underworld and more sordid aspects of New York City–that I wanted to keep reading more. Burke and his friends–Max the Silent, the Mole, the Prophet, Michelle–live on the criminal edge as they seek to survive in the heart of New York City.

All of the Burke novels, from what I understand, deal in some way with child abuse. Vachss himself is an attorney and consultant who works exclusively with matters pertaining to children and youth–abuse, neglect, delinquency, custody, etc. He also founded an organization called PROTECT: The National Association to Protect Children. His wife, Alice, is a former sex crimes prosecutor who later became Chief of the Special Victims Bureau in Queens, New York. So child abuse is an area of enormous passion.

The titles of the Burke books refer to the main female character in that book. I had previously read “Hard Candy” (the fourth in the series, but the first that I read), and then “Flood,” the first book. Now I tackled, in quick succession, numbers 2, 3, and 5.

In “Strega,” (number 2) a woman who calls herself Strega seeks Burke’s help in locating a photo taken of her young nephew by a kiddie-porn ring. Along the way, you learn a lot about how sexual abuse affects its victims–a really good education on the subject.

Strega doesn’t come along until you’re well into the book. Before then, Burke deals with several other things, and we learn a lot of background (like how he ended up doing a very long stretch in prison).

Next in the series is “Blue Belle.” The title character is a dancer. Much of the first half of the book focuses on her relationship with Burke. The main plot involves a “death van” which prowls the New York streets killing young female prostitutes. Then there’s an expert martial artist who wants to face Max the Silent. Lots of other tangential things happen. The book doesn’t contain as much background information about Burke or other characters as “Strega” did, but I liked it a lot.

The fifth book in the series, “Blossom,” takes Burke to Merrillville, Ind., to help out a prison friend whose nephew is in hiding after being accused of multiple murders. When you take Burke out of New York City, you lose something. You lose his odd collection of friends, plus the atmosphere, the NYC underground. For that reason, “Blossom” didn’t really feel like a Burke book, an indication of how closely Burke is identified with New York City. Nevertheless, it was a really good mystery.

I’d say I’m pretty well hooked on the Burke series, and on Andrew Vachss’s writing in general. He’s different.

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Beck Lie Busted by the National Archives

I don’t believe anything Glenn Beck says because of the little lies he gets caught telling. If he lies about little things, how can I believe him about big things? I take that approach toward most people, so why would I omit Beck?

The best-known example is when Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg busted Beck for making up a story which cast them in a negative light. I was almost, but not quite, embarrassed for him as the ladies had him absolutely cornered.

During his 8/28 rally, he said, “I went to the National Archives, and I held the first inaugural address written in his own hand by George Washington.”

The Archives spokesperson says Beck didn’t lay a finger on any precious documents. “Those kinds of treasures are only handled by specially trained archival staff.”

And Glenn ain’t one.

Makes you wonder about those endearing stories he tells about his kids.

Do you think those conversations actually take place? I kinda doubt it.

He didn’t need to make that story up about the National Archives. It wasn’t necessary. But he can’t resist exaggerating for dramatic effect. My personal feeling is that the truth is always good enough.

The only remaining question is: why am I so doggone obsessed with this guy?

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Book: “Passport to Peril,” by Robert B. Parker

passport-to-peril.jpgYou may be surprised that Robert B. Parker wrote “Passport to Peril” in 1951. That’s because we’re not talking about the Parker of Spenser and Jesse Stone fame, but of Robert Bogardus Parker, who wrote three books before dying in 1955 at age 49.

“Passport to Peril” (a silly title) was republished by Hard Case Crime in 2009. It doesn’t really fit the imprint, because the book is more of a spy novel. Our protagonist, Blaine Stodder, is bound for Budapest, Hungary, now firmly in the grip of the Soviet Union. He’s looking for his brother, who disappeared in Hungary during World War 2.

But on the train to Budapest, he’s thrust into a plot involving a man who was murdered for the contents of a manila envelope, which now comes into his possession through an encounter with a beautiful women (all women in spy novels are beautiful). He doesn’t know what’s happening, just that a German named Schmidt wants the envelope, and Russians want it, a Polish countess wants it, and a couple of American agents want it, too.

Blaine makes his way through post-war Budapest, not sure whom to trust, eluding Russians, searching for that original woman from the train, and trying to figure out what the envelope is all about. The book was an enjoyable ride, but nothing great.

Of more interest to me is Robert B. Parker, himself. Working as a journalist, before WW2, he covered the civil war in Spain and the 1937 invasion of China by the Japanese. He accompanied the German Army on its invasion of Poland in 1939, rode with an armored division of Hungarians during the invasion of Russia, traveled with the Russian army, helped free European Jews from prisons, and had other adventures covering the war from the “other side of the lines.” All this time, he was also an operative for the American OSS (the predecessor of the CIA). Interesting fellow.

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How Christians SHOULD Act Toward Muslims

I’m not a fan of Keith Olberman, but when I turned the TV on last night after returning from a Tin Caps baseball game, that’s what was on (a vestige of watching Morning Joe earlier in the day).

Olberman was interviewing a Muslim pastor (or whatever you call him) and an evangelical pastor, Steve Stone, from the Heartsong church in Memphis, Tenn.

When Stone heard that a new Memphis Islamic Center was locating next to them, he put a sign on the street that said, “Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood.”

The video clip above shows the entire interview on Countdown. (If you’re reading this in Facebook, you’ll need to click on the “View Original Post” link to view the video.)

Heartsong even let the Muslim congregation meet in their building while the Islamic center was under construction.

Stone says, “This place doesn’t belong to us, it’s God’s place and we’re just sharing it.”

Over 100 Muslims would meet at Heartsong every night during Ramadan and put out floor mats to pray.

Stone said, “I understand the fear that people have about it, because if you don’t know somebody, the first thing you’re going to do is fear them….Our belief is let’s get to know these people and see who they are, and so far our experiences have been very positive.”

The interview on Countdown was superb, an example of what Christianity should be about. As Stone said, “The people across the street from us are Muslims, and Jesus taught us to love our neighbor, and they are our neighbors. We’re loving them, and they’re loving us back.”

This doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t try to convert Muslims to the true faith. But Stone’s attitude will go a whole lot further than the Quran-burning fanaticism of Terry Jones in Florida.

I was also impressed with the words of the Memphis center’s leader, Dr. Bashar Shala. Olberman mentioned how people in Muslim nations may assume that if the government doesn’t prevent Terry Jones from buring the Quran, the government must be in favor of it.

Dr. Shala, who has lived in Memphis for 20 years, replied, “If you don’t live in freedom, it’s sometimes hard to fathom what freedom really means. That’s the problem of communicating with those who don’t have what we have.”

Well said. And, Heartsong and Pastor Stone, well lived.

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Encounter at a QuickStop

awake-200.jpgI was at a BP station buying two large cappuccinos–french vanilla for Pam, a caramel for me. A young black gal wearing a dress, very pretty, came up beside me and stood there for a few second.

“Excuse me,” she said finally. “I have a magazine you might be interested in reading. It has some good articles about stress and….” She mentioned some other articles.

As hot liquid poured into a cup, I looked at the magazine. It was a small-sized publication called “Awake.” The page she held open showed the name “Watchtower.”

As I suspected, she was a Jehovah’s Witness.

“No thank you,” I told her.

I then continued filling the cups, and she continued standing there, waiting her turn.

“I’ll bet you’re from Jamaica,” I said. Pretty obvious accent.

“Trinidad and Tobago,” she said. “We’re not far away.”

“So I was close,” I said. “I’m sure you would recognize the difference in speech between a Jamaican and someone from Trinidad, but I can’t.”

We exchanged a few more words, the I headed to the cashier while she got her own cappuccino.

As I drove away, I felt the conversation had been incomplete in two ways: I hadn’t given a reason for my lack of interest in “Awake,” and I hadn’t affirmed her. Here’s what I wish I had told her.

“I’m an evangelical Christian. But though we share different beliefs, I want to commend you for having the courage to share your faith with other people. I don’t want to wish you success, but I do admire what you’re doing.”

Maybe next time.

So–what do you think would have been a good response to that young woman?

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Book: “Where Men Win Glory”–Pat Tillman Story

where-men-win-glory-324.jpgI waited a long time for Jon Krakauer’s book about Pat Tillman, “Where Men Win Glory,” to appear in paperback. My interest wasn’t so much Tillman as it was Krakauer, a tremendous writer whose “Into Thin Air” is among the best nonfiction books I’ve read. I knew that Krakauer would cover the story of Pat Tillman–a story shrouded in confusion–in a compelling, thorough way. And he did.

Pat Tillman, an NFL safety for the Arizona Cardinals, put his career on hold to enlist, for three years, in the Army Rangers. This happened a few months after 9/11, and was highly trumpeted in the press. Tillman never spoke to the press about his decision, but he did keep journals of his experiences. Many excerpts appear in this book.

The first part of “Where Men Win Glory” traces Tillman’s formative years. We see him as a youngster. We see his football heroics in high school. We follow him to Arizona State, and then on to the NFL. Throughout this, Krakauer jumps back and forth between Tillman’s life in California and Arizona, and Afghanistan, showing what was happening concurrently in that country–the Soviet occupation, the growing influence of Osama bin Laden, the Soviet withdrawal, years of civil war, the rise of the Taliban. It gives fascinating perspective.

Pat Tillman, the book shows, was an absolutely unique guy who followed his own drumbeat. He constantly challenged himself physically; twice, while hiking in Arizona, he jumped off a cliff into the upper branches of a Ponderosa pine. Though a man’s man, he showed a tenderness toward others. At ASU, he would cry over missing his family and his high school sweetheart, Marie (whom he married shortly before entering the military).

Pat’s brother Kevin, then playing semi-pro baseball, enlisted with Pat. Throughout their military service, they were together–all the way to Pat’s death. They were as close as any brothers can be, and very much alike. Being such nonconformists, it was interesting to observe how they coped with highly-regimented military life. A system based on seniority, not merit, grated on Tillman.

Pat and Kevin TillmanPat (left) and Kevin Tillman.

As the book shows, Tillman’s military service was not a good experience. He enlisted in hopes of battling the terrorists who caused 9/11. Instead, he soon found himself in Iraq, a war he personally opposed. Even then, he and his fellow Rangers didn’t see action, but largely sat on the sidelines.

After that initial tour, the Tillmans returned to the States, where they aced Ranger School. Then they were sent to Afghanistan, a war Pat Tillman did believe in, and where he had hoped to go all along.

However, even Afghanistan was a disappointment, devoid of action. Pat had, by then, decided that in another year, after his three-year enlistment ended, he would return to football. The military frustrated him.

In April 2004, Pat Tillman died at the hands of fellow Rangers. Against all military wisdom, orders came to divide the Ranger patrol, all in an effort to salvage a broken Humvee. A few Taliban lobbed some mortar shells and fired their AKs, but from then on, it was basically one group of out-of-control Rangers firing at the other group. Krakauer describes everything in great detail. Tillman is shot three times in the head with a Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW).

Earlier in the book, during the Iraq section, Krakauer devotes a lot of time to the Jessica Lynch affair. Her supply convoy stumbles into an ambush, and she, badly injured in a vehicle crash, is taken prisoner. She did nothing heroic. In addition, in the aftermath of the ambush, another 17 American soldiers were accidentally killed by friendly fire from A-10 Warthogs, which made repeated bombing and strafing runs on American troops. It was a total mess.

The White House had created a special Office of Global Communications to manipulate public opinion about the lead-up to the Iraq War, and then to engage in “strategic deception” to shape public opinion in favor of the war once it started. A guy named James Wilkinson, a protege of Karl Rove, was put in charge.

pat+tillman.jpgWhen Jessica Lynch was captured, Wilkinson made up the story–which I clearly remember hearing–about how Lynch courageously held off attacking Iraqis with her M-16 until she was eventually shot and bayoneted. Nothing like this happened. This was followed by an extensive cover-up of the friendly fire deaths, which didn’t become publicly known for many years.

Krakauer told this story as a prelude to the outrageous cover-up following Pat Tillman’s death. The military released a story, told at Tillman’s funeral, about how he died heroically while leading fellow Rangers in charging up a hill at ambushers. General William McChrystal was totally complicit in this. Military protocol says that deceased soldiers are to be shipped back to the States with their uniforms, body armor, and helmets, all of which are considered forensic evidence. But Tillman was sent back naked; orders came down to burn his uniform in Afghanistan. The soldier who carried this out said his orders also involved burning Tillman’s final journal.

McChrystal drew up a Silver Star citation without talking to any eyewitnesses, falsifying information and never revealing to the review board the crucial information that Tillman was killed by friendly fire–a fact which everyone involved knew. Tillman died while hiding behind a hillside rock with another soldier (who survived), avoiding furious machine-gun fire from Rangers down below. But the military needed a combat hero, so they created one. The Iraq war was going badly; the first battle of Fallujah had just ended, and the Abu Graib mess had just broken. The Tillman story provided a distraction.

Numerous military protocols were broken, intentionally. A series of investigations were thwarted. The only persons penalized were low-level Rangers, not the officers complicit in the cover-up and deception (two of whom were soon promoted). The extent of the deception is breath-taking.

Krakauer describes everything in great detail, and it’s maddening. Pat Tillman enlisted to serve his country, and then his country hijacked his virtue and his legacy. And as Kevin Tillman notes, only the fact that Pat Tillman was well-known, coupled with the tenacity of the close-knit Tillman family in pursuing the truth, enabled the facts to come to light. If it had been any other soldier, the cover-up would have succeeded, and the truth would have been buried forever.

This isn’t the book I was expecting to read. But it was truly an amazing, hard-to-put-down book. And I’ll carry with me, for a long time, the uniqueness that was Pat Tillman. I encourage you to read the book if only to learn about this guy who continually challenged himself, did his own thinking, followed his convictions, was wildly devoted to his wife and family, and truly cared about other people.

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