Monthly Archives: February 2012

Baseball Through Foreign Eyes

I can across a wonderful description of baseball in a book which, otherwise, I didn’t like. The book is “The Gordion Knot,” by Bernhard Schlink, a German author. The book finds a German citizen coming to America in search of a former girlfriend. At one point he goes to a game at Yankee stadium. He’d never seen a baseball game before. Here is how Schlink describes the experience.

“The pitcher throws the ball to the catcher, and the batter has to try to hit the flying ball with his bat and drive it as far away as possible, while he runs to a certain point before the ball is thrown there and caught by someone. The game keeps stopping, the players change their roles, and balls are thrown and caught by the players in the team as if for practice or fun. The fans root for their team, boo, clap, and howl, but don’t become rowdy, don’t smash things, or beat people up. Hot dogs, peanuts, and beer are sold.”

I suspect that Schlink didn’t know anything about baseball until he attended a game as part of his research for the book. What he wrote above is pretty much what he observed. It’s what he wrote down in his notebook.

Schlink forgot to mention the fact that the baseball players wear pajamas. I have trouble respecting athletes who play their sport in pajamas.

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Only the Strong Apologize

I don’t know why Americans think we should never apologize for anything. That’s not courteous, and it’s certainly not Christian. I was always taught that it takes the bigger man to make things right. I like to think that when it comes to morality, there is no bigger man on the world stage than America. People say apologizing is a sign of weakness. No, it’s a sign of strength.

Should we apologize for accidentally burning a bunch of Korans? Of course we should. We are guests (of sorts–we forced our way in, and no need to apologize for that) in Afghanistan, and we did something highly offensive in their culture. People are being killed because of what we did. If an apology helps calm things down, then do it (though it hasn’t done much good, apparently).

You’ll never hear Russia or China apologize for anything. But we’re bigger than that. We have more moral character. We claim to be based on Christian values. We can find it within us to say, “We made a terrible mistake, and we’re sorry.”

Rick Santorum, a man who claims Christian values, argues that since it was a mistake, we don’t have anything to apologize for. I’ve rarely heard anything so silly.

I apologize to people all the time for things I do accidentally. If I bump into you as we pass in the hall, I’ll say I’m sorry. If I spill coffee on your desk, or come late to an appointment because of something unforeseen, or mess up a song on Sunday morning, or forget a visitor’s name, or don’t understand what you said and ask you to repeat it–all the time, I’m apologizing for things I didn’t do intentionally. That’s just common courtesy. And sometimes we apologize for the actions of other people, actions we had no control over, like a waitress apologizing for a cook’s mistake, or a customer service rep apologizing because the warehouse sent me the wrong order.

We live in a courteous nation. I like that.

When we accidentally bombed and killed British and Canadian troops (on several occasions), you can be sure we apologized. No, we didn’t kill them accidentally. But we killed allied troops by mistake, and rightfully said we were sorry. We didn’t want to offend our friends by acting as if we hadn’t done anything wrong. But according to Rick Santorum, since it was purely accidental, there should have been no apology. Just tell the Brits and Canadians and their grieving families to let it go, because we did nothing wrong.

Now we have burned some holy books. But since it’s the Muslim holy book, it’s okay? Is that what we think?

You can bet there is an American military officer in Afghanistan, the guy in charge of whatever they were doing with those books, who has apologized profusely to superior officers for letting his men burn Korans. And probably apologized to his men for getting them in trouble. Mr. Santorum, are you saying this officer has nothing to apologize for–that it was just a careless mistake? And you shouldn’t apologize for a mere careless mistake?

A friend told me about an American Muslim woman who, whenever she stays in a hotel room, removes the Gideon Bible from the nightstand and places it in the highest location in the room. Why? Although she’s not a Christian, according to her Muslim culture religious books are sacred and should be treated with respect. Muslims burn American flags and hang our leaders in effigy. But, though I’m sure it happens, you don’t hear about Muslims burning Bibles. If they did, FoxNews would make sure we heard about it.

But people object, “Look at all the wrongs they’ve committed against us, and they don’t apologize.” So you’re saying, let’s throw out the Golden Rule? Declare that Jesus’ words don’t apply to us?

By treating people like we want to be treated–even if there’s little hope of them returning the favor–we are modeling something for the rest of the world. We are modeling our Judeo-Christian values, upon which our country was founded. We are, in fact, according to Proverbs 25, “heaping burning coals” on the heads of Russians and Chinese and radical Muslims, who wouldn’t stoop to admitting wrong.

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you.

Why doesn’t Santorum want to heap burning coals on the heads of our enemies? Why is he coddling terrorists? (I jest, I jest!)

In my view, an apology for burning Korans was totally appropriate. It didn’t necessarily need to come from the president. But it was necessary. Because America is a nation of moral character and of strength.

If you disagree–well, I’m real sorry about that.

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Obama: The Good, the Bad, and Occasionally Ugly

I have disappointments about having voted for Obama, but no regrets. The choice was between him and McCain, and all things considered, I’m glad we didn’t elect McCain. However, I’m not an apologist for Obama; I feel no obligation to defend him or rationalize his decisions to justify my vote. I leave that to folks like Rachel Maddow, Keith Oberman, Al Sharpton, Paul Begala, and sundry others. I might vote for the Republican nominee this time. Haven’t decided this far out.

There are things I like that Obama has done, and things I dislike. I assembled, piecemeal, a list of each over the last few months. Let’s start with the dislikes.

  • Overall, Obama hasn’t shown strong leadership, with a few exceptions. His governing style goes along with what he wrote in “The Audacity of Hope,” letting Congress take the lead in legislating–and I really liked the vision he laid out in that book. But it hasn’t worked in reality, because the persons in charge in Congress–Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid–haven’t shared his approach. I realize now it was too much to hope for, too idealistic, in light of that dysfunctional institution. So we need to resort to strong leadership in the executive branch, and I’ve not seen it thus far. Disappointing.
  • Obama should have focused immediately on the economy in his first year. He did, to the extent that he averted a fullscale worldwide depression, he put some checks on Wall Street, and saved hundreds of thousands of jobs in the auto industry. But then his attention moved on to other things for several years. He should have kept a laser-like focus on the economy–not just for America’s sake, but for the world’s sake.
  • There are some good aspects to the healthcare bill, but overall I think it’s a mess; he shouldn’t have ceded the whole thing to Nancy Pelosi.
  • His abortion policies have been atrocious. Just terrible.
  • Way too many civilians are being killed in drone attacks (they have actually targeted funerals of terrorists, thereby killing numerous civilians while hoping to get a couple bad guys in the mix). I approve the increased use of drones. But in too many cases, it’s been indiscriminate, even to the extent of committing war crimes (way beyond the “collateral damage” excuse). Not so much different from Bush after all.
  • Why in the world did he squash the Keystone pipeline?
  • He’s made way too many speeches to the nation. Stop it.
  • He hasn’t done enough to cut spending (neither have Republicans). On the other hand, when Republicans nixed his very generous proposals (and which Boehner seemed to initially support), he should have gone after the Republicans tooth and nail. Stop playing nice, Mr. President.
  • Too many Wall Streeters on staff (again, just like Republicans do).
  • I’d like to see more religious diversity on the Supreme Court. Bush appointed two white male Catholics. Sonya Sotomayor is another Catholic. John Paul Stevens was the only Protestant. Elena Kagan, who replaced him, is a Jew. That makes 3 Jews and 6 Catholics. Nobody from the broad Protestant spectrum. Why?
  • The size of the Homeland Security department continues growing out of hand (read “Top Secret America”).
  • He hasn’t eliminated rendition.
  • He hasn’t pursued immigration reform.
  • Should not have ignored the Simpson-Bowles recommendations. This ticks me off. Their recommendations were tough, but proper considering our dire economic plight. If you appoint a top-notch group to do serious work, pay attention to them. Don’t just thank them for their work and then shelve their report. Obama did a disservice to the country, and a disservice to some quality people (though they were fully aware this could happen).
  • This controversy over the Catholic church and contraception was totally bungled. And he still hasn’t fixed it, in my view.
  • Obviously, the national debt has continued going up up up. It’s an insanely deep hole.
  • Obama has paid way too much attention to Planned Parenthood.
  • The whole guns for Mexican drug dealers was a fiasco.

Those are some of my complaints. On the positive side, I’ll cite the following. I recognize that with each one, naysayers can denigrate it by saying he doesn’t deserve the credit or it wasn’t a good thing after all, or otherwise write it off. But these are, indeed, things that have happened on Obama’s watch.

  • Got us out of Iraq (as promised, and according to the Bush timetable).
  • Returned our focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, and sent more troops to Afghanistan.
  • The world didn’t plunge into depression, which many economists said was a grave danger in 2009 (can’t prove a negative, of course).
  • Greatly amped up the use of drones, as opposed to boots on the ground. (Bush authorized 44 drone strikes in 8 years. Obama’s up to around 240.)
  • Ended Cowboy Diplomacy–“This is what America’s gonna do, and screw the rest of the world.”
  • Instituted policies to reign in Wall Street (though it’s politically bad for Obama).
  • Called attention (not enough) to climate change.
  • Boosted (but not enough) green technologies.
  • I like having an exemplary family in the White House.
  • We got Bin Laden, and Obama kept the whole operation quiet for 8 months while waiting for the right time (pretty amazing, in today’s climate).
  • The auto bailout was successful, at least short-term.
  • Passed legislation (over Republican objections) protecting women from pay discrimination.
  • Ended Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
  • Ended US-sponsored torture.
  • He has kept America safe. Many plots have been thwarted.
  • We’ve killed one al Qaeda leader after another, yet Obama doesn’t gloat and swagger like the Bushies did. I prefer this reserved, more dignified approach. More Reggie Wayne, less Terrell Owens.
  • Provided better body armor for troops.
  • Millions of children now have access to healthcare.
  • Hasn’t use signing statements (as Bush did promiscuously and, I believe, unconstitutionally).
  • Michelle’s been a great First Lady. Brought attention to health issues like exercise and wise eating habits.
  • Kept Republicans Bob Gates at Defense, Petraus at CIA, and Huntsman in China.
  • New restrictions on lobbyists.
  • His Cairo speech was excellent (read it).
  • Our dependence on foreign oil dropped below 50% for the first time in 13 years. (It peaked at 60% in 2005.)
  • There has not been a major scandal involving anyone in the administration. (Nor was there with Bush, if I recall correctly.)
  • We’ve been repaid a lot of the Wall Street bailout money.
  • Ended the stop-loss policy that kept soldiers overseas beyond their enlistment date.
  • I like the way we handled Libya–letting Europeans take the lead, and keeping US boots off the ground (we didn’t need to take the lead in yet another war).
  • Placed accountability standards on the scam of for-profit colleges (like the University of Phoenix) which exist almost completely on student loan money but do a terrible job of educating students (22% graduation rate).
  • Ghadaffi is dead.
  • Has greatly increased the use of special forces, and done it effectively (and quietly).
  • Instead of just giving companies bail-out money from We the People, We the People actually took a stake, a share, in companies. They can then buy us out, and have been doing so. But we’re not just giving out money with no strings (as Bush did).
  • The whole Arab Spring thing. Several dictators have been deposed.
  • Hillary’s been a superb secretary of state.
  • Strongly promoted women’s rights issues around the world.
  • The Somali pirate rescue.
  • Some progress on nuclear arms control.
  • Protected net neutrality against the wishes of Comcast and Verizon and other providers, who would have soaked users for more money.
  • Sensible rules are beginning to be applied in airport security (though at a snail’s pace).
  • Has done much to restore America’s reputation around the world.
  • Allocated more money to veterans’ health benefits.
  • Reasonable policies to open relations with Cuba.
  • Didn’t pursue war crimes against Bush administration people (over the objections of his base).
  • New SALT and START treaties.
  • Has extensively used JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) with incredible effectiveness.
  • Re-engaged the US with the rest of the world over climate change.
  • Al Qaeda is pretty much gone.
  • Paid for families to come to Dover AFB when fallen soldiers arrive.
  • Opened up the Freedom of Information Act.
  • FEMA has handled disasters (like tornadoes) well.
  • A nicely nuanced stand regarding the military coup in Honduras (I followed that one closely, having visited the country many times and written a book about Honduras).
  • Beefed up border security (but huge problems obviously remain).
  • Didn’t hesitate to violate Pakistan’s sovereignty to get bin Laden (Bush backed away from that twice). He said as much in the campaign and in his book.
  • Enabled fast-tracking of patent approvals for green energy projects.
  • Very clever cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear program.
  • Enabled Medicare to negotiate with drug companies on prices (overturned a Bush ban, saving hundreds of millions of dollars).
  • The economy IS getting better, incrementally. Considering how bad the US and world economies were three years ago, what are realistic expectations? Are we rebounding way too slow, or at a realistic rate? I don’t know. And if anyone claims to know, they’re lying. I do know that the people who think we should have returned to boom times already are just nuts. No objective person ever said prosperity would return quickly.
  • Removed restrictions on stem cell research.
  • Doubled federal spending on clean energy research.
  • Pushed alternative energy initiatives (hasn’t been in the pocket of oil companies).
  • Most diverse cabinet (including the most women) in history.
  • Stopped federal interference with states that legalize medical marijuana.
  • There are fewer anti-American demonstrations and tensions around the world.
  • More money for charter schools.
  • Appointed two more women to the Supreme Court, including a Latina (this isn’t an endorsement of their views, only of the diversity, as befits a diverse nation).
  • Ended the awarding of no-bid defense contracts.
  • Ended the Bush practice of letting White House aides rewrite scientific and environmental regulations and reports.
  • Cut tax benefits to corporations that outsource American jobs.
  • Ended some abusive practices of credit card companies.
  • Very good response to the earthquake in Haiti. We made a huge and critical difference.
  • Improved housing for military personnel.
  • Increased infrastructure spending (roads, bridges, etc.) after years of neglect.
  • Donated his entire $1.4 million Nobel Prize to nonprofits, and never acted like he deserved the award (which he didn’t).
  • Let his kids get a dog.
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Announcing My Engagement, 23 Years Ago

From 1981-1993, I was editor of our denominational magazine, and wrote a monthly column called “Randompokes.” I used my May 1989 column to announce my engagement to Pam. I came across the column last night while doing research for a history book. I thought readers might get a kick out of it.

When it comes to my love life, the United Brethren church is filled with false prophets.

I’ve been dating this girl for three-and-a-half years. Her name is Pam Mize, HC Class of ’84, and she’s a staff accountant for a firm in Fort Wayne (halfway to CPAdom, and maybe all the way there after she takes the exam again this month). Three-and-a-half years is a long time to date the same person, and it’s a pretty good indication that there is a certain amount of mutual attraction.

So, everyone has assumed that we’re perfect for each other, that we should get married, that we will get married, that it is our destiny preordained from Creation, that the angels will rejoice and sing hosannas as soon as I pop the question. Which, being interpreted, means:

The sum total of Humanity has been trying to get me married off.

The false prophets arise at holidays. Like Christmas. Every December, people predict that I will put a ring under Pam’s tree. “I just know he’ll give her a ring this year.”

Ditto for Valentines Day, Easter, Pam’s birthday.

“Steve’s going to propose this time. I’m certain of it. I can feel it.”

Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Halloween.

“This is it. He’s going to propose.”

Labor Day, Columbus Day, Secretary’s Day, Groundhog Day.

“The time is right. I just know it’ll be this holiday.”

Woe unto you false prophets! You have been proven wrong again and again, yet you persist in your ways! A truckload of woes be upon your doorstep!

My coworkers, friends, and relatives were devastated when, once again, Christmas and New Year’s passed, and Pam’s finger remained diamondless. They were so sure the time was right. Presidents’ Day faded, and they pinned their hopes on Valentines Day.

“It’s Valentines Day for sure. Gotta be! I predict.”

On Valentines Day, various people asked me:

“Is this the day you make your announcement?”

“This would be a great opportunity to ask Pam to marry you.”

“You’re going to propose today, aren’t you?”

My standard answer: “Not a chance.”

Everyone predicted that I would propose on Valentines Day. But I refused to be predictable.

I waited until the next day.

That’s right Steve Dennie, confirmed and contented bachelor, staunch defender of the single life, is going to tie the knot, take the plunge, bite the dust, go for it. July 22. This final prophecy will be fulfilled, and then Christ can return….

Christians pretend to endorse singleness, and praise singles for the large amount of time they give to ministry and service. But once an eligible opposite enters the picture and marriage becomes a possibility, people suddenly change tunes. Forget about contented singleness and devotion to ministry. Marriage is a higher calling, a “blessing from God.” It’s better.

With this emphasis, too many people get married to marriage. They desire the state of marriage because they think—and everyone around them confirms—that marriage is necessary in order to be complete, fulfilled, happy, accepted. It is status quo. They want marriage so badly that they’ll make compromises and take shortcuts in order to “ascend” to marriage. The result is a lot–a lot–of bad marriages within the church. And because of our unhealthy exaltation of marriage, we have only ourselves to blame.

Too often, marriage is a result of two incomplete singles joining to form an incomplete marriage. I attended college with a lot of people like that. I decided a long time ago that I would avoid such persons. If I married, it would be to someone who had learned to be happy and productive as a single.

That’s Pam. She doesn’t need me. She has her own career, her own identity. Like me, she is a complete single in Christ.

I have greatly enjoyed being single. In fact in some ways I am being dragged clawing and screaming into marriage, because I treasure all the benefits of singleness.

I love not having to work my schedule around anyone else. I don’t have to be home at 5:30 because supper is ready, and don’t have to report to anybody if I’ll be late.

I love being able to devote so much of my time to my career. I can work until the early morning hours or even pull an all-nighter to meet a deadline, and I don’t have to feel guilty about neglecting anyone at home, because there isn’t anyone at home (except Maddie, my cat, and she sleeps all the time, so what does she care?).

I love eating what and when I want to eat with nobody around to scold me for not eating my vegetables.

I love solitude. For some singles, solitude translates into loneliness. But it fits my temperament

I love being able to prioritize job and church above family, since there isn’t any family.

I love not being responsible for anyone else’s well-being and happiness. Eliminates a lot of pressure and worry.

I love being perfectly content with a merely above-adequate home, with fairly good furniture and bare walls. Nobody else’s pride is at stake. It’s just me and Maddie, and we’re both easy to please.

I love being able to spend an entire evening reading a book or watching a couple good movies.

I love going into town on the spur of the moment to eat or shop or see a movie—without checking to see what another person wants to do.

I love being detached from the materialistic rat-race. Some people say singles are more self-centered, because they have only themselves to worry about. But I think that’s rubbish. From what I’ve seen, Christian singles are generally far less caught up in things than married people. We like nice clothes and nice (littler) cars, but that’s about it. Many, instead of spending money on spouse and children, give a larger proportion of their income to the church and others; ditto for their time.

These years of singleness have been wonderful years of growth and service. But God is directing me down a different path now, and though there is some clawing and screaming, there is also plenty of pulling and “Take me, I’m yours.” On July 22, I will make a lateral move, exchanging my single life for an equally good married life, during which I will continue growing as a person and as a Christian.

I know what you’re thinking: “Maybe Steve shouldn’t go through with this wedding. It doesn’t sound like he’s too crazy about the idea.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am crazy about getting married, because I’m crazy about Pam. I love her deeply. It’s a love built on common interests, shared values, commitment to Christ, and an intense friendship which evolved and matured over a period of five years. Plus a whole lot of “I can’t live without you.”

I’m in love with the single life, but I’m also in love with a girl named Pam. The twain met, and the girl won. And I’m not complaining.

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Notes on Agendas and an Abortion Forum

In doing some research last weekend for a book I’m writing,  I came across a note in our denominational magazine about an award one of my articles won back in 1987. The article, “Notes on an Abortion Forum,” took second place in the General Article category of the Evangelical Press Association’s annual awards contest. The General Article category typically had more entries than any other category, usually major feature articles. First place was a tie between Campus Life and Leadership Journal, and third place went to Moody Monthly, so I felt in good company.

“Notes on an Abortion Forum,” a lengthy article, remains one of the best articles I’ve ever written. In the 25 years since, I’d like to think I’ve written many articles that are better. But only a couple come to mind, and I’m not sure they’re better. I won two more awards from the EPA the following year, but those pieces pale in comparison to “Abortion Forum.”

I’d forgotten about the judges’ comments on “Abortion Forum.” Those comments were published in the magazine, in that note I ran across last weekend. In a totally self-serving tribute to myself, a congratulatory pat on my own back, here are those comments:

“It is even-handed, calm, and reasoned on a subject that makes many of us–and, I suspect, many of the author’s United Brethren readers–over-emotional and even irrational. The writer’s crisp, clean writing style presents the story of this abortion forum with the same dramatic tension that must have been in the air that night–short sentences, breath-catching silences, and pauses. I felt as if I were there. Given the topic and the denomination, I was, frankly, expecting the narrative to slide into a strong anti-abortion tirade at some point. That it never did was a pleasant surprise. The author rightly sensed that not every anti-abortion argument has to be shrill and vituperative. The writer’s skillful blend of the meeting’s highlights and his own private thoughts make it just as strong and persuasive.”

I received the award at a banquet in Washington DC. Receiving the award in front of my peers was fun. But my enduring memory of that night is the keynote message from Chuck Colson. One statement has stayed with me, and I’ve applied it many times to people who don’t share my priorities.

Colson said he was often criticized for not getting strongly involved in fighting abortion. He agreed that it was a terrible evil. However, he said, God gives different people different agendas. The agenda he’d been given was prison ministry, and he had thrown himself fully into that agenda. He applauded those who crusaded against abortion. But, he said, “That’s not the agenda God gave me.”

I found that very insightful. I took home an award that night, one I’m proud of. I re-read “Notes on an Abortion Forum” every few years, when I come across it; yeah, it’s good, very good. But Chuck Colson’s words stuck to me at a deep level, and often remind me to ask, “What is God telling me to do? What has he made me passionate about? What is my God-given agenda?”

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Book: “Savages,” by Don Winslow

Don Winslow’s novels, I can say after reading four of them, have these things in common: a southern California setting, very well-defined and distinctive characters, snappy dialogue, plots that aren’t predictable but tie up everything at the end, and first-rate wordsmithing.

Such was, as I expected, the case with “Savages,” Winslow’s contribution to crime literature in 2010. It’s not my favorite Winslow book. That still belongs to “The Winter of Frankie Machine,” my favorite book of 2010. But “Savages” is a close second, better than “The Dawn Patrol” and “The Death and Life of Bobby Z,”, and it deserves every kudo it gets:

  • “This is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on autoload”–Stephen King.
  • “Pure kamikaze…mega-cool.”–Janet Maslin.
  • A “marvelous, adrenaline-juiced roller coaster of a novel.” Sarah Weinman
  • “Super hip, wildly funny, supremely smart and sexy.”–Joseph Wambaugh
  • “Razor sharp plot twists, a cast of ruthless antiheroes….”–Janet Evanovich
  • “Blisteringly original.”–Jon Land

Ben and Chon are laid-back partners in a major marijuana operation based in Laguna Beach. They grow the best dope money can buy, using seeds Chon brought back from Afghanistan which were expertly altered by Ben’s genius botanical skills. Ben, the head of the operation, abhors violance. Whenever he can, Ben takes off for Africa or Indonesia or elsewhere to engage in humanitarian or environmental philanthropy. Not your stereotypical ruthless drug lord. Like I said, Winslow draws distinctive characters.

The ruthless part belongs to Chon, a former Navy SEAL. He’s a good guy, but has no aversion to violence. He is described as having “Post-Traumatic Lack of Stress Disorder.” Distinctive character Number 2. People don’t mess with the peaceable Ben, because they don’t want to tangle with Chon.

And then there’s O (short for Ophelia), the wild-child girl they both love, and who loves them both, forming a fairly strange but workable triangle. Distinctive character, distinctive relationship.

The Baja Cartel, headed by a pragmatically ruthless woman named Elena, wants to take over Ben and Chon’s operation. To force the issue, they kidnap O. Ben (especially) and Chon prefer to avoid violence, but here, it’s just not possible. And it goes from there.

The point of view shifts among the various characters, but primarily Ben, Chon, O, Elena, and Elena’s merciless strongarm, Lado. Ben and Chon will do anything to get O back. That pretty well sets the course for the novel.

The writing style is choppy, unlike the other Winslow novels I’ve read. Choppy in a good way. Very short chapters, occasionally nothing more than a word or two. Sentences that drift off without a period. Scenes suddenly put in the form of movie script dialogue. Avante garde stuff, but not too much so–not to the extent that it’s difficult to follow, pretentiously artsy, or just wierd.

Winslow tucks nuggets of humor, pop-culture references, and creative turns of phrases into nearly every nook and cranny. As a writer who appreciates really good writing, I didn’t want to skip or skim, because I might miss something brilliant. It’s as if, with every sentence, Winslow pondered, “How can I make this sing?”

For the faint of heart: the book is laced with profanity, sex, extreme violence (beheadings and more), and drugs. Ben, the good-hearted marijuana genius, is the only character with redeeming qualities, and with him it’s definitely a mixed bag.

This book was a pleasure to read (though it didn’t read like any of his other books). Not just because of the roller-coaster plot, or the engaging characters, but because Winslow took such care in putting words together. The writing alone entertained me.

I guess, bottom line, the book is about a relationship–Ben, Chon, and O. It didn’t end where I thought it would end. Not even close. But when I turned that last page, I knew I’d just finished something very, very special.

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Moses: a Tale of Two Ascents

I read Exodus 19 the other night, and found something curious.

Just before God gave Moses the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai, he told Moses to make sure the people stayed back from the mountain. God didn’t want them even touching the foot of the mountain.

Then God told Moses to come to the top of Mount Sinai. We’re talking 7500 feet, a mile-and-a-half straight up, but many many miles of hard walking to get to the top. Moses went.

When Moses gets there, still huffing and puffing from the climb, God says, “Go back down and tell the people to keep their distance from the mountain.”

Huh?

“I already did that,” Moses said. “We put limits on how close they could come.”

But God said, basically, “Go down and tell them again.”

You can imagine Moses being exasperated. “But I’m an old man. Do you realize how hard it was for me to get to the top of this doggone mountain? It took me days to get here.”

“I know,” says God. “But that’s what I’m telling you to do.”

“Can’t you tell them yourself? Aaron’s down there. Tell him to pass along the message.”

“No, Moses, I want you to go tell them personally. Tell the people to stay back, and then right away come back to the top of the mountain. I’ll be here waiting. And this time, why don’t you bring Aaron with you.”

The chapter concludes, “So Moses went down to the people and told them.” And chapter 20 says that while Moses was receiving the tablets, “The people remained at a distance.”

Of course, they were also making a Golden Calf. Maybe Moses should have added, “And while I’m gone, don’t go making no idols. I’m just sayin’.”

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Book: “Fun & Games,” by Duane Swierczynski

I knew without a doubt that I would love “Fun & Games” (June 2011). I’d already read three other books by Duane Swiercyznski, all action-packed and very twisted in a fun-funny way. “Fun & Games” fit right in with the rest, and satisfied all my expectations. As I expected.

Charlie Hardie, an tough but damaged ex-cop with a lot of personal demons, has spent the last three years house-sitting all around the country. Someone pays him to watch their house while they’re gone, usually a few months, and he spends the time getting drunk, watching classic movies, and basically vegging out. Something happened three years ago that threw him into a deep, deep funk. (Obviously, we’re gonna learn what happened.)

His latest gig takes him to a swank house in the Hollywood foothills. But somebody beat him there–an actress named Lane Madden who, that morning, was nearly killed by a secret guild of assassins known as The Accident People. They conduct their hits like it’s a film production, with everything scripted out and a believable narrative. Very obsessive in that way.

Lane, who escaped and took refuge in this house, initially thinks Hardie is one of Them. But then they find themselves under siege, with a three-person team of The Accident People surrounding the house.

And it goes from there. It’s a little bit madcap, quite unpredictable, always fun. Movie references abound. A perfect melding of plot, characters, and locale.

Out of the blue, Swiercyzynski throws in a brief chapter which he titles “Interlude with Mildly Famous Killers.” We’re now in Barstow, Calif., and the first line reads, “The psychopaths came out of the desert, looking for some breakfast.” They take control of a quickstop, apparently aiming to kill the few people inside. And then we go right back to Charlie and Lane…knowing that, somehow, we’re going to be reunited with those psycopaths, but not having any clue as to how it will happen.

During the course of the book, we learn Lane Madden’s backstory (involving Blonde Viking God) and why she’s being targetted. And, of course, we learn what scarred Charlie Hardie.

I’ve been a fan of Swiercyznski for several years, since reading “Severance Package,” a very unique book set almost entirely in a claustrophic office suite and involving some kind of government killers who are being decommissioned. Later I read “The Wheelman,” and more recently, the quirky “The Blonde.” Nobody creates plots and premises like Swiercyznski. He’s a one-of-a-kind.

“Fun & Games” is entirely in that vein, except that it’s book one of a planned trilogy. There comes a point, a ways from the end, where I go, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” Then the book ends with another surprise, and we’re all set up for the next book, which is called “Hell and Gone.” It’s available now, published in October 2011. I’m not sure I can wait very long.

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