Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Gave Up: "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" by Marisha Pessl.

Gave Up: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, 2006, audio download.

The blurb on Overdrive says, "Pessl's dazzling debut sparked raves from critics and heralded the arrival of a vibrant new voice in American fiction." Well, sure, if you like books that go on forever and nothing much happens. (Another reminder of the Del Amitri tune.)

College student, Blue, gets call from high school classmate that sparks Blue to write about her senior year in high school. Blue styles the work much like an essay by including notes on books.  Starting when Blue was seven-years-old she and her itinerant Professor father would move every semester as Professor Dad took a new visiting job at another mid- to lower-tier university. They would travel across the country with didactic dad delivering lectures.

Blue would rarely fit in at each new school and her brains were often taken advantage of by fellow students. Professor Dad would have new girlfriends every 4-8 weeks. On the approach of Blue's senior year Professor Dad announces he has taken a year-long job in North Carolina and that Blue can spend a full semester at one place in preparation for admission to Harvard.

Blue makes friends with the in-crowd through the benevolence of a secretive film studies teacher who hosts those students each Sunday at dinnertime. Blue hangs out with a couple other girls. Goes with girls to a bar that serves to underage people. Those girls pick up random dudes for sex in the women's restroom. Bizarre behavior. Blue then goes with other two girls to stake-out Mysterious FIlm Studies Teacher who picks up old men at a remote Perkins/Big Boy/Shoney's/Whatever takes them back to a No Tell Motel, kicks the guy out after sex, and spends the night alone.

Nothing much happens. I quit about halfway through.  Lots of teenage worries: studies, fitting in at school, unrequited lust, discomfort, why do adults act that way?, so on, forth. The only thing that happens was about halfway through when a drunk falls into a pool and drowns.

EDIT: I gotta say this was disappointing because Pessl's Night Film was so damn good. I'll try her new stuff out because of Night Film.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Stopped: "The Fever" by Magan Abbott

Stopped: The Fever by Megan Abbott, 2014, download.

I did not like the narrator. I stopped listening after two minutes.

I prefer to read Abbott's work anyway. I'll get to the print version later on, I have a stack of things at home.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Heard: "Devil May Care" by Sebastian Faulks

Heard: Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks, 2008, Overdrive download.

Narrated by the sublime John Lee. Set in 1967. Bond has finished convalescing after injury in a previous novel. Bond spent time playing tennis and traveling but is now ready to return to duty.  M sends Bond to investigate a drug company founder, Dr. Julius Gorner.  Gorner is suspected of smuggling heroin.

Bond goes to Paris where he and Gorner play tennis at and place high bets on their match Gorner cheats during the match, of course. Bond wins the match anyway, of course.  Bond also meets a seductive woman, of course. 

Gorner is both a former German and Russian soldier who switched sides during the war. Gorner's humiliating experience as a post-war student at Oxford leaves him hating the English so much that he is planning England's downfall. 

Gorner also has a bizarre deformity. The deformity is a hairy left hand described by M as main de singe, monkey's paw. Gorner's murderous sidekick is Chagrin, a Vietnamese man who fought against the French with the Viet Min and had a penchant for killing nuns.
Things happen. The seductive woman asks for Bond's help to rescue her sister who is under Gorner's employ and slave to Gorner after he hooked her on heroin.  Bond follows Gorner to Iran and discovers a huge float plane intended to skim the water and avoid radar. Bond is caught by Gorner and taken to Gorner's desert drug plant. Bond is sent into the desert in a try to kill him. Bond escapes death but taken back to Gorner's lair and told of Gorner's plan to attack Russia with a nuclear bomb and blame the English.

Bond wins out, of course.

1.  A fun listen. Nothing spectacular. I think I have read only one Fleming novel so I'm not sure how many of the standard character traits and plot points are from the books or the movies.  Car chases, beautiful women, torture, etc.
2. One character is a gay CIA agent blackmailed into working for Gorner. Or, was it the KGB? I don't recall. I thought that was a nice 1960s touch.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Final: "Stolen Souls" by Stuart Neville

Final: Stolen Souls by Stuart Neville, 2011, 9781569479834.

This showed up on my desk. I don't recall reserving it but there it was just the same. Third novel with Northern Ireland Detective Inspector Jack Lennon.

Recap: In the previous novels we learned that Lennon is a real shit. He got his Catholic girlfriend pregnant and dumped her. She lost her family by dating a government cop, fled to England and returned with a six-year-old daughter. Lennon did not much care. He ran up debt, drove an Audi and had free sex with prostitutes. When the former girldfriend died Lennon took his daughter in.

Current: Lennon works long hours and has been working to develop a relationship with his daughter while keeping the girl's crooked and IRA member family at arm's length. Lennon's daughter spends a lot of time with Lennon's neighbor and her daughter. Lennon and neighbor have a stop-and-start relationship that has not really started. Nascent is a good word for it.

Galya is a Ukrainian 18-year-old smuggled into Ireland on a Latvian EU passport and sent to work at a mushroom farm. Pretty young Galya is purchased from the people smuggling crooks by prostitution crooks. Galya kept in a locked room and stabs to death the crook who comes to rape her. Two other crooks wrap up the dead man and take the body and Galya to throw in the river.

More things happen with Galya escaping at the docks and Lennon called to the crime scene on Christmas Eve. The novel skips along with murder, torture, kidnapping, threatening, lots of cocaine, car crashes, child abuse, and generally weaselly behavior.

Heard, Listened, Read: "The Outpost" by Jake Tapper

Heard, Listened, Read:The Outpost: an untold story of American valor by Jake Tapper, 2012, 9780316185394.

I was listening to this on my Overdrive app and the damn title expired. I put it on hold, waited a while, and got the title back. Then the damn thing expired again. I reserved the book and read the last 80 pages or so.

Over 600 pages long. Tapper covers the foolhardy establishment of Camp Kamdesh in 2006 to it's renaming as Combat Outpost Keating, and the massive Taliban attack on Keating in October, 2009.

Tapper's Epilogue includes this sentence, "I did not write this book to convey lessons to be learned, I wrote it so that you as a reader (and I as a reporter) might better understand what it is that our troops go through, why they go through it, and their experience has been like in Afghanistan." Service members will have their own views on Tapper's success but I think he did a very good job.

By necessity Tapper has to cover larger issues because those topics effected the units that served at Keating. The lack of manpower and helicopters in Afghanistan. Poor planning and unrealistic expectations from the White House and Pentagon. But, Tapper focuses on the men who lived and fought at Keating and the surrounding bases and he interviewed over 200 servicemen and family members.

Here is the short form: The Army wanted to expand operations with a base in Nuristan Province. The spot they found was at the base of three mountains and bordered by two rivers and a dirt road. For three years the Army tried to form relationships with the small villages in the area. They tried to build a road to Keating but were constantly ambushed. The road effort was stopped and they had to rely on (too few) helicopters to move people and supplies to the base. Pretty soon the helicopter pilots refused to fly to Keating during the day because they had to pass below insurgents on the mountains and were sitting ducks on the landing zone. Heck, the landing zone was already a dangerous area to land in because of obstacles.  One soldier described Keating as being at the base of Dixie cup with enemy all around the rim.  The Army decided to abandon the base in 2009 and the Taliban organized an attack using several hundred fighters against 40 or so soldiers at Keating.The enemy attacked before the base was abandoned and eight soldiers were killed with 27 wounded.

So many parallels to Vietnam and other guerrilla wars.  Army units stuck in isolated bases trying to make friends with the locals. The enemy are already the friends, neighbors, and relatives of the locals.  The enemy are willing to murder locals who assist the US units.  Soldiers and Marines who spend 6-15 months there and then go home. The new Soldiers and Marines have to learn everything over again. The locals take advantage of the changes in command by saying "we were promised a bridge...a school...a well...a road" and asking for cash payoffs to ensure local security. Local troops with little motivation to fight and resistance to training. Enemy that slip back and forth over a national border with refuge in the neighboring territory.

The location was always awful and everyone knew it. The location was supposed to be temporary.
Soldiers could not go anywhere without getting shot at. The roads were crap and vehicles larger than Humvees would not physically fit and heavier vehicles would collapse the road's edges and slide downhill.  Helicopter resupply was tough because there were not enough helicopters and the insurgents would shoot at them.

Different Army units had different philosophies on how to fight the war. Some would be super aggressive and search the towns for enemy. Others would work to establish a local council of elders to start relationships through personal interaction and money.  Construction projects were a source of cash in a dirt poor area and the Army officers would withhold payment if the enemy attacked - they expected the locals to help keep the bad guys away.

"War on the cheap." Everything went to Iraq. I agree with one soldier's comments that you could argue about the legitimacy of invading Iraq but that Afghanistan was a valid war meant to go after Al Queda and Bin Laden. But, all the men and helicopters went to Iraq. One guy took over an outpost with less men then the unit before and his unit was still listed as "overstrength". When asking the administration to increase the number of troops - they needed 30,000 more - the response was to ask NATO allies to send more people. The allies were much more pragmatic and recognized that the current situation was fucked up.

Who was right, who was wrong? Who planned well, who fucked up? Tapper seems to do well showing different views of what happened for the time the Outpost was there. The tactics of local commanders to sway the local Afghans, ideas on how to fight and where to fight. How Army units differed in temperament and philosophy. Each new unit wanted to do things their way. Each new unit was dedicated to the work but, heck, they were there for a such a relatively short time, however much they accomplished could be abandoned by the next unit that wanted to do things a different way.

Heck, I'm sitting at home, staring at a screen, petting the dog and my children are safe in their bedrooms. I wasn't there. I can pontificate about plenty of things but I'll stop here.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Heard: "Little Green" by Walter Mosly

Heard: Little Green, by Walter Mosly, 2013, Overdrive download.

Narrated by Michael Boatman. Boatman did very well as narrator. He's no John Lee, of course. But, John Lee is a narration God. Lee is to narration as Bill Crider is to blogs. I would be listening along to this novel and recall Boatman's work on Spin City and think of his vain, fastidious character, Carter Heywood. Heywood and Easy Rawlins are very different.

It's 1967 and Easy Rawlins wakes from a series of bad dreams. He's bedridden after a horrendous car wreck on the Pacific Coast Highway. Easy was thrown from his car which then rolled downhill into the ocean. Cops at the scene figured Rawlins was washed out with the tide. But, Easy's homicidal pal Mouse speaks to a witchy-woman who says Easy is alive. Mouse went to the scene, found Easy concealed by thick bushes, and brought him home to recuperate.

Easy feels like a dead man brought back to life and that thought is constantly in his mind throughout the novel. After a month or so of almost-coma his body is creaky and he has little energy. He drinks some mysterious made "Tiger Blood" concoction by Witchy-Woman that gives him bursts of energy before he crashes deep.

Easy says over and over in his narration, and aloud to other characters, that he is like a shark and needs to keep moving forward or he will die. Mouse recognizes this. Mouse asks Easy to help find a missing young man, Evander (Little Green), whose mother is very worried about Evander.  There is a weird unknown relationship between Mouse and the boy's mother (Mouse murdered the man's pimp father and the mom holds a grudge).  Easy takes the job. Easy starts to look for bookish, mama's boy Little who was last heard of when saying he was going to a club with a hippie chick.

Easy starts walking the streets and everything seems changed. Hippies, open drug use, and easy sex  surprise him. He was asleep in the staid '60s and awoke to the counter culture '60s. Easy discovers Evander is linked to a lot of cash and a lot of blood. Evander took acid and awoke with a half million bucks in cash. Easy starts to pull the strings apart to get to the center.

1. Recurring theme: Black man's anger at being treated like crap. Easy sometimes puts up with it, Easy sometimes doesn't put up with it. Easy is almost always on guard.
2. Violence is expected in Easy's life. He runs in rough circles both professionally and socially.
3. Mouse is Easy's best friend but Mouse will still kill Easy if he needs to. Mouse murdered his own father and his honorary father. Mouse has killed so many people he could not name them all. Evander learns Mouse killed Evander's father and Evander figures, "Well, I have to take revenge and kill Mouse."  Mouse is fine with this, to him that's the way to world works and if Mouse has to shoot down an 18-year-old then so be it.  At one point Easy mentions to Evander's mother how he knows she did not witness Big Green's murder because Mouse would have murdered all witnesses.
4. It's been awhile since I read a Easy Rawlins novel and I recall how Easy was always a little uneasy when around Mouse. Easy can be a hardass and won't back down to most people but he knows to be careful around a sociopath. This novel has Easy with a more relaxed behavior with Mouse. He knows to be careful - he won't mention huge sums of money with Mouse - but Mouse is not the dark shadow of death I recall from before.
5. Ever read that short story by Mosly, Archibald Lawless, Anarchist at Large: Walking the Line? That was outstanding.

Picked: "Killer Kane" by Andrew R. Finlayson

Picked: Killer Kane: a Marine long-range recon team leader in Vietnam, 1967-1968 by Andrew R. Finlayson, 2013, 9780786477012.

What?! McFarland published a military nonfic book? Unthinkable!

I'm still trying to read through the piles of unread material I own but grabbed a few library books before our circ system was down for a few days. I recently bought a couple Vietnam memoirs and this is one, I'm not sure what the other one was.

Finlayyson graduated from t3h Naval Academy in '66 or '67, took a commission with the Marine Corps, went to Vietnam in '67and was a gung-ho commie killer. Finlayson's dedication to attacking the enemy scared his men and worried his superiors. But, his men had faith in Finlayson because he was a thorough officer who prepared his men, cared for his men, and properly planned his missions.

Finlayson is --- on his dedication to fighting communism. He was - and seemingly still is - a true believer. The kind of lifer mocked in other military memoirs. But, the guy did the work. He  took combat assignments for his full tour, not the six month ticket punch done by many officers looking to get a combat mark on their resume, and voluntarily returned early to Vietnam for his second tour.

Finlayson excelled in his training courses after graduation and on arrival in Vietnam was assigned to a reconnaissance company. The recon companies were elite units and assigning a fresh Lieutenant life FInlayson was a surprise. Finlayson was sent to the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company because they needed a guy with parachute qualifications.  Finlayson went on three "snap in" patrols as an observer and made sure to learn all he could from his fellow officers and the senior non-commissioned officers (SNCOs).

Most patrols would last from 3-5 days as the Marines explored enemy territory. Their tactics were the same as the previous Vietnam recon book I read, Death in the A Shau Valley. Patrols would insert via helicopter and sloooooowly move along. Some days they would travel only 300 yards through the thick jungle.  They were so outnumbered they had to be absolutely quiet. Patrols were supposed to observe and record enemy movements and radio in artillery and air strikes.  But, Finlayson's aggressive desire to kill the enemy had him setting small arms ambushes on small groups - usually three or less - of enemy soldiers.

These gunfights were a problem because the Marines were too few in number to be heavily armed. Each man would bring 300-400 rounds per rifle but could quickly shoot a lot of that off. If they got in a gunfight they would bang away as much as possible to beat back the enemy and their ammo could be quickly used up.  Sometimes they only brought rifles, no machine gun.  They needed to shoot, shoot, shoot and run to a helicopter landing zone for pick-up. Enemy troops would have to cautiously pursue because the patrols would call in airstrikes and artillery attacks and the jungle was so thick that rushing forward would put the enemy right into the Marines' muzzles.

Finlayson's time in Vietnam did not bring in much outside news. They had little access to U.S. papers and magazines and Finlayson was surprised that Americans objected to the war. The actions angered him at times , especially once he returned to the States. His assignment to the Marine Corps Barracks in D.C. - a very prestigious posting - had him dealing with politicians and bureaucrats on both sides of the issue. He experience the D.C. riots after MLK's murder. He worked close to the Johnson administration as an aide to the White House's events coordinator. He got into a slight argument with his sister's anti-war high school teacher when presenting to her history class. He was upset he did not get the homecoming greeting he saw World War and Korean veterans receive when he was child.

Finlayson's view of the war was all from the military side - his unit and others were attacking and killing the enemy. He saw the Tet Offensive as a massive failure by the NVA and VC. [I'll agree with shooting side of that opinion. The North's idea that the South's civilians would rise up was a failure. The North targeted plenty of civilians for murder. The NVA did not hold onto any land or landmarks.]

Finlayson remained a hard core Marine and when receiving a letter than some men from his former unit were injured in combat he felt great guilt and requested an early return to Vietnam. This led to a break-up with his girlfriend and major tension and worry for his parents.

1. Finlayson's academic pursuit of war, tactics and history makes me want to give comparison's to the current war Afghanistan and the Iraq War. I'll skip that except to say what other people have said, "The same mistakes over and over."
 2. Hearing the details of the patrols was interesting. I'd have no clue how to successfully join a patrol like that. It seems easy on the surface with a basic rule of "make no noise and move slowly" but I know there are hundreds of little details I do not know about.
3. Finlayson knew and spoke with plenty of people who supported the war. He argued that the press did not give an accurate representation of what happened there, that the press was looking for color, scoops, and always had an angle. That the press stayed in the cities and sent Taiwanese camera out to collect footage. That the press hung out at bars and spoke to desk bound staff officers.  I've read mostly good things about John Paul Vann but Vann was a malcontent who, like others, "harbored a grudge against the South Vietnamese or the U.S. government."
4. Finlayson refers several times to his second tour - with an infantry company, I think - and how that experience really changed his thinking on how to run the war. But, as he wrote, that's for another book.