Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Re: "THE MAN WHO SHOT Osama bin Laden. . .IS SCREWED" by Phil Bronstein in Esquire Magazine at this link.

It seems to me that the lifer sniper exhibits un-sniper-like impatience to run out from under cover. With sixteen years of service, he has four years to go, with at least four months of vacation during that time. He makes $60,000 a year, but after shooting OBL, he decides on a change in his life and....he leaves the Navy?

Good grief, that's exactly the wrong thing to do. Tired of risking his life?   Fine.   Put in for a transfer.   He is almost guaranteed perpetual promotion during the four years he has left.   There are a lot of cushy desk jobs the Navy would be willing to train him to do, making a lot of that four years he has left stateside 9 to 5 school-deployment where he can be with his family almost every night and every weekend.   All he needs to do is to write the request for a transfer.

Instead, his head apparently befuddled by the potentials of celebrity, he quits the Navy without properly putting in for his disability pensions?   That's just stupid.   Without joining the reserves?   That's also stupid.   Without applying for and waiting on a guaranteed civil service job which would bridge his time in the Navy and medical benefits for his family?   What is he thinking?  Apparently, the man's been listening to Rush Limbaugh too long and has become a dittohead.

He joined the Navy at 19, asking to become a sniper--because his high school sweetheart broke up with him.  "That's the reason Al Qaeda has been decimated," he joked, "because she broke my fucking heart."

He talks like he was responsible for tracking the man down, which is something he had little to do with.   But as the reporter says, he is an Alpha personality.   Me, me, me.

Perhaps what he should do now is re-enlist. They'll bridge his time. Put in for a transfer or a civil service job or at least disability pay. They'll put him near the front of the line, even though his buddy Republicans are railing against such entitlements.

Could be some rich Republican will see the story and give him a Joe the Plumb-dumb political job, which will take care of his money problems at least, while they make as much political hay with him as possible.  No matter who gets "the credit," The Man Who Shot Bin Laden, like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, incurred a karmic debt which might yet be rewarded with material riches or some political dividend but it remains an abyss too, particularly when it is glorified beyond healthy measure.

The helicopter team who went on the mission to kill Bin Laden deserves credit, but how much?   Compare them to the nondescript Coast Guard helicopter team who has braved a storm, with men who risked their lives diving into icy Atlantic waves to rescue nondescript victims--but whose names are lost to memory as soon as they are heard.   Which team is the most courageous?

In both instances, the teams are sent on a mission not of their choosing, but for which they have been trained--to do their duty as members of the armed forces of the United States.  Should we take better care of our veterans?  Yes, indeed.  But this looks like a case of a veteran who needs to wise up to what's available for him. 

As John Wayne says to Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, don't waste time feeling bad about it, but don't glory in taking credit for it either.   Just get on with your life.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Valentine's Day Reading and Marriage In The Movies

From Groundhog's Day thru Valentines Day, we traditionally spend a lot of time reading love stories and watching romantic movies.  As I've pointed out in this blog in past years, Hollywood sometimes does romance well, but rarely love itself.  And marriage?

Well, that's the subject of a new book by film historian Jeanine Basinger:  I DO AND I DON'T:  A HISTORY OF MARRIAGE IN THE MOVIES.  The author deconstructs the social history of marriages in what individual marriage films exist--and she finds more of them than I had ever imagined possible.  It occurs to me now that she missed Friendly Persuasion, with Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire, based upon the novel by Jessamyn West, but all of our other favorites are in here.

Last week, Two For The Road was on one of the local television channels.  I thought more of the film when I was younger.  Audrey Hepburn was eleven years older than Albert Finney, although you can't see that in the film.
Cooper in Friendly Persuasion

Basinger says that in Two For The Road, the married couple are staying together despite their ups and downs, and that the traditional marriage film formula of "affirm, question, reaffirm, and resolve" is challenged.  It is reconstituted as "question, affirm (in past tense), resolve, reaffirm."  She says, "It's a difficult form to make work despite its initial honesty.  It works against itself."

She discusses marriage in television shows too, including Ozzie And Harriet and The Donna Reed Show.  But in Basinger's opinion, one of the finest shows ever presented on marriage was Friday Night Lights (with Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton), and she takes several pages to explain why she thinks so.  She says, "Friday Night Lights is not really a show about football.  It's a show about how marriage works when it actually does work."
Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn

"In all the movies about marriage I watched, I observed a constant attempt to find the best strategy...Satirize it, romanticize it, criticize it, idolize it.  Pretend the couple weren't really married.  Tell the story in flashbacks.  Reverse the roles so the woman was smarter, richer, higher ranked than the man.  Make it really about divorce...These constant strategies made it necessary to shape a marriage story into something constructed, plotted, designed."

"When I thought about all the marriages I viewed in movies--and television too--the Friday Night Lights marriage stood out for its lack of such strategies. . .  Over the five years it was on the air, there was no strategy for their marital story, no clever plot twists, no dream episodes, no other woman or man, no cheap theatrics or misunderstandings.  .  .she's loving, but so is he. . .The Taylor marriage was a marriage not governed by genre rules or assaulted by plot development."
Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Difference Between BOOKS TO DIE FOR And Mediocrity



Yesterday, the At The Scene of the Crime Blog engaged in an emperor-has-no-clothes rant against the Agatha and Edgar Awards, specifically against the books that get nominated for these awards.  The link is here.
Agatha Christie
The Agatha Awards seem designed to be won by Agatha Christie-like mystery novelists.  Since the sub-genre puzzle, cozy, and locked-room English mysteries are always less interesting to me than the more meatier American private-eye tales, I know in advance that they will not be my personal cuppa java--however, I also know that there are many readers who prefer such mysteries and some who read little else.  Why would anyone want to give a bad review to a book just because they haven't learned to appreciate that particular sub-genre?

Let the Agatha fans judge the Agatha Christie-like novels.

I sometimes give mixed reviews, but the reason I don't like any particular book usually has more to do with me than with the book at hand.  In my youth, there were books that I could not finish, or could finish only because it was assigned in school--many of these same books I now treasure and reread with pleasure.  The books have not changed, but I have.

And there are other books that I considered great back then, but which I now see as short-sighted and shallow.  We need to have a greater tolerance for other minds who might see the world differently.  How lucky we are that we have such a wide selection of novels to choose from, and a golden age of crime literature if there ever was one.

After all, there are many other sub-genre awards.

And his objection to the John Connolly and Declan Burke-edited Books To Die For seems especially misguided.  No one is going to agree with all of those authors, but without the prompting essays in that big volume, I might have missed several reading experiences that have made my life richer.

Some of the essays are lacking, as Michael Dirda pointed out in his
Washington Post review (link), but as Dirda also points out:

"...the general standard of the essays is high, most of them arguing for the depth and sophistication, the literary quality, of their chosen book or author. As the editors note in their thoughtful introduction, serious crime novelists do tend to be secret, or not so secret, moralists. In the headnote to Jo Nesbo’s rave for Jim Thompson’s “Pop. 1280” — chosen instead of the notorious “The Killer Inside Me” — Geoffrey O’Brien is even quoted as calling Thompson our “Dimestore Dostoevsky.”

Without a lot of fanfare, “Books to Die For” also points out that memorable European crime fiction existed long before Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell. Qiu Xiaolong champions the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, both as mysteries and critiques of Sweden’s capitalist society. James Sallis quotes enough from Jean-Patrick Manchette’s “3 to Kill” that I want to find it in French.

Cara Black proves comparably good on “120, Rue de la Gare,” by Leo Malet, whose novels are nearly as popular in France as those of Georges Simenon — who, in his turn, is represented by “Act of Passion.” According to John Banville, a score of Simenon’s novels “can stand beside, or look down on, the work of Camus, Sartre, or Andre Gide.” Perhaps my favorite essay of all is Elisabetta Bucciarelli’s on Friedrich Durrenmatt’s psychologically and ethically complex “The Pledge.” There’s a paperback in this house somewhere, and I really must find it.

The best use of a volume like “Books to Die For” may finally be to remind readers — and publishers — of the many important authors or titles that merit rediscovery. For instance, introducing “A Stranger in My Grave,” Declan Hughes declares that its author, Margaret Millar, was “the greatest female crime writer of the twentieth century.” Arguable, to say the least, especially when one thinks of Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell (all represented here). But Millar is partially neglected because she happened to be married to, again in Hughes’s words, “the greatest male crime writer of the twentieth century,” Ross Macdonald. Again very, very arguable, but at least Macdonald’s work is a lot easier to find at the bookstore. Don’t miss “The Chill,” rightly called a masterpiece by John Connolly. . ."

Mediocrity?  Hardly.  Dirda doesn't even mention my favorites in here such as Paul Johnston's essay on Philip Kerr's A Philosophical Investigation and Denise Hamilton's essay on Kem Nunn's Tapping The Source, both of which I read and blogged about.

Were Johnston and Hamilton self-promoting?  Not overtly, though their intelligent essays had me checking out their books anyway.  Was the rant against the Agatha Awards and Books To Die For simply a self-promoting scheme?  If so, to judge by all of the talk it has generated and the comments on his blog, it was a very successful one.

Why didn't I think of that?

Friday, February 8, 2013

THE DOGS OF WINTER by Kem Nunn: Friday's Forgotten Book

My forgotten selection for this week is Kem Nunn's The Dogs of Winter, a beautifully written mystery/thriller, a surfer novel which has deep literary significance as well.  It had been many years since I'd first read it, and this time I relished the unfolding of the plot and the beautiful prose even more.  The characters are like old friends and have stayed with me all this time.

Nunn has a small but vocal following of readers, many of whom prefer his first novel, Tapping the Source.  I happen to think that both novels are masterpieces with only minor flaws.  I'll shore up this argument momentarily.

Over at J. Kingston Pierce's esteemed blog, link, journalist and author Denise Hamilton made her case for Tapping the Source, an argument she greatly enlarged upon in the last year's published anthology, Books To Die For.  Another good review is at the Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog at this link.

Briefly, the plot of Tapping the Source has a young everyman searching for his lost sister, Ellen.  She's an Hellenistic character rumored to have been abducted and possibly murdered by a trinity of furies, led by a hound of hell.  The protagonist at first is repelled by the thought of the exploitation of young women, the drugs and other addictions, but he himself becomes seduced and addicted to the hedonistic surfer life, thus turning into what he despises.  When you look into the abyss, it looks back at you.  Or as Pogo once said, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Three years ago this month, the Spinetingler Blog featured Tapping the Source as its Forgotten Book at this link.  All of the references to the movie, Point Blank, are interesting, but down the page you should read the comments by Brian Lindenmuth and Terrill Lee Lankford.  The latter says that Tapping the Source "...had come very close to being filmed with Ridley Scott directing and Sean Penn starring, but Penn and the producers had a last minute salary dispute and the project fell apart. It was currently in limbo. Scott jumped ship and went over to a project called Johnny Utah which was similar enough to Tapping the Source that lawsuits were threatened. Scott eventually dropped out of the project and Bigelow/Cameron came in and revised it again and POINT BREAK was born."
journalist and author Denise Hamilton

The Strangely Connected blog has a nice review with quotes from Tapping the Source here, and an interesting, if limited, review of The Dogs of Winter here.  The blogger, Hugh McPhail, has some problems with Kem Nunn's style, with some syntax that needed editing, but more especially with the last line of The Dogs of Winter:

But then, he had come to the belief that all things were so ordered, from the steps a man took in time, to the tracks of a storm, the likes of which came with the season, exchanging their energies with that of a frigid and turbulent sea, and thereby raising waves as if they were themselves some variation on God’s erring Wisdom and so able to labor their passion into matter.

Let me unpack that.  We're creatures of spirit having a physical experience.  Our spirits are not made of matter, though we act like they are.  We take form like waves on the ocean or whirlpools in the river, and are under the illusion that we are solid, separate egos, only to dissolve back into the stream again.

That, of course, is a very Cormac McCarthy type of statement, and in fact, the book rings with wonderfully Faulkner/McCarthy-like sentences, almost all of them more accessible than the one above.

When Kem Nunn was interviewed about The Dogs of Winter at this link, he was asked which writer had most been an influence, and he replied:  "As a writer you have to be in love with language.  I would have to say Cormac McCarthy.  His novel, Blood Meridian, is among my favorites.  You can trace the cadences of his prose all the way back to Faulkner."  Later he said it again in this interview with Denis Faye of the Writers Guild blog, link.

Yes, and it is not just the McCarthy-like prose we see in Kem Nunn's marvelous books.  The same gnostic/buddhist/christian/pantheist naturalistic spirituality is there as well, as Nunn himself has stated.  This same spirituality is also to be found in that other great literary surfing novel, Tim Winton's Breath, which I blogged about at this link.  Birds of a feather.

I love this quote from Tapping the Source:

"Everything coming together until it was all one thing: the birds, the porpoise, the leaves of seaweed and catching sunlight through the water, all one thing and he was one with it. Locked in. Not just tapping the source but of the source."

If you're looking for surfer novels with a lighter, more superficial touch, you might enjoy Tim Winslow's Dawn Patrol and its sequel, The Gentleman's Hour, which I reviewed at this link. 

(March 14th edit:  Steve Nester's review of Kem Nunn's Tapping The Source has just appeared over at the Rap Sheet:

Saturday, February 2, 2013

GROUNDHOG DAY, and EVERY DAY by David Levithan

Well, it's GROUNDHOG DAY.  Again.

I've got you, babe.  I've got you to walk with me, I've got you to talk with me.  I've got you to hold my hand.  I've got you to understand.  If we've got love, we've got everything, including a song that's sunny to share.

We've celebrated Groundhog Day on this blog before, at this link, and at this link.  We never tire of it.  Two weeks ago, my wife was making her first yearly batch of ginger Groundhog Day cookies, some of which were shipped out to relatives.

Originally, according to the backstory on the Groundhog Day DVD, the spiritual "It's A Wonderful Life" was slated to be showing at the town theater, but they changed it to a more jerky and materialistic Clint Eastwood flick.  Too bad, for Groundhog Day owes much to the Jimmy Stewart film, and of course, to Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

These stories celebrate free will, our ability to chose love and kindness over material things and self-agrandizement.  Our ability to chose the glass-half-full.

There are now derivative books and movies galore spawned by these works and their wider cultural influence, and I say the more the merrier.  I discuss time, Zola Budd, and the movie Run Zola Run at this link.

Which brings me to David Levithan's novel, Every Day (2012), in which an everyman jumps from body to body, a different one every day.  Just as in Groundhog Day, there is no concrete explanation as to why this is, it just happens, like life itself. 

The protagonist jumps into all kinds of people, but always into those of his own approximate age and locality.  He has to grapple with race and gender issues, with physical, emotional, and mental handicaps, and most importantly, with identity and ethical issues.  He has to decide whether to leave his temporary personage better off than he found it.  Complicating this, he begins to fall in love with a girl.

So, the story winds humorously around his dilemma, as he tries to cope with his always-temporary status, eventually discovering for himself the difference between a stalking, possessive love and actual loving.  We get love when we let it go.

David Levithan's Every Day seems to have made all of the Best YA Novel lists for last year, but it made some of the mainstream lists too.  It would have made mine, had I read it last year.  It deals with some YA issues, but at the end there is a maturity that escapes most adults in these United States.  Sometimes the best thing we can do for those we love is to leave them alone.

I thought the book's hardcover dustjacket a bit bland at first, but it has the white crosses on it like crossroads, dividing sections of a multiverse of lives.  And now that I reconsider it, there are clouds everywhere, from both sides now, clouds even on the frontiespiece.  Sort of like the opening of the movie, Groundhog Day