Monday, March 28, 2011

My Log 246: I’ve been reading a raft of thrillers, mysteries and so on, and I report on what I can remember of them

Cover of "The Winter of Frankie Machine"Cover of The Winter of Frankie Machine In recent months I have read a large number of novels of what might be called the popular variety --- that is, most of them have been about crime or associated topics, thrillers, mysteries or the like. These books, so far as I am concerned, share the one characteristic that having read them, I immediately forget them, and when asked the day after I have finished reading one what was the subject, I am completely incapable of remembering anything, unless and until some trigger in the form of a theme or a character is supplied, when with luck it will all come flooding back.

Naturally, I often ask myself why I read these books: I suppose the answer is that it is because they are easy reading, do not require intense concentration to understand what they are about, and are pleasant to read.

(You might well interpret the foregoing as a comment on the ageing process: thirty or forty years ago I had no difficulty recalling the themes of books I had read, even months afterwards.)

A point that is worth making is that the writing of these sorts of books is often brilliant, the plotting precise and exciting, the hold on your imagination as you’re reading them is intense. In this category I have to name especially John Le Carré, the British author, Harlan Coben, Don Winslow, and Elmore Leonard, American writers of thrillers, and James Lee Burke, whose specialty is Louisiana and New Orleans, and who has written an excellent book on the aftermath of the Katrina hurricane in that great city.

I will deal with these books in order of the vivacity in which I can recall them:

The Winter of Frankie Machine, by Don Winslow: I finished this only today. It is a really excellent study of a man Frank Machianno who in his late middle age is running a popular bait shop near San Diego, cares very much for his daughter, his estranged wife and his mistress, and, as the book slowly develops from this idyllic opening, is a man who has retired from a legendary career as a Mafia hit man, to which he is being drawn back by the decisions of his Mafia bosses. He is old-style Mafia who believes in the loyalty oath and in doing what he is told by his bosses. But in these events he is cruelly betrayed by all those he has trusted. In his prime he was known as Frankie Machine, a name bestowed on him because he was always so phenomenally successful in the enterprises he undertook. The book suggests a close understanding between even the honest cops in the area and such old-style crooks as Frankie Machine, and the theme of the book is devoted to Frankie’s attempt to discover which of his bosses and associates should have decided to hit him when they summoned him to a meeting. And, of course, why. Eventually, inevitably, he faces the fact there is no escape from the fate they have chosen for him, but before he goes he delivers a remarkable message that resonates with me. I can tell you why, too. I often think of a book I read a few years ago called Gangster Capitalism, in which the author put forward the idea that all this stuff about organized crime had been invented by big business as a means of hiding the fact that the crimes of corporations are hugely bigger than anything done by the Mafia, a thesis that has been roundly endorsed by recent events, in which the global economy was brought to its knees by massive corporate frauds. Here is what Frankie Machine says: “Nilke pays twntynine cents to a child for making a basketball jersey, and then turns around and sells it for one hundfred and forty dollars. And I’m the criminal? …. You could take all the Crios, the Bloods, the Jamaican posses, the Mafia, the Russian mob and the Mexxican cartels and all of them put together couldn’t rake in as much green in a good year as Congress does in a bad afternoon. And you could take every gangbanger selling crack on every corner in America and they couldn’t generate as much ill-gotten cash as one senator rounding the back nine with a corporate CEO. My father told me that you can’t beat the House. And he was right. You can’t beat the White House or the House of Representatives, They own the game, and the game is fixed, and it isn’t fixed for us.”

I’m afraid that is only too true.

La Brava, by Elmore Leonard: Leonard’s mastery over his curious, stripped, bald prose seems to grow with each book. I have read a lot of them, now, and he has the gift of plotting, and keeping the plot alive until the last pages. La Brava is a sort of former cop who has remarkable commonsense and is also romantic enough to idolize a movie star of former days who he had found come to rest in a local hotel, under the care of a rich old man, Maurice. She is also vulnerable to the charms of a crooked waster called Richard Nobles with whom she dreams up a scheme to defraud Maurice. La Brava, in spite of his admiration for the woman, isn’t prepared to let her get away with it, and the plot deals with the working out of this story, which takes place in Florida. An excellent study of an unusual hero, La Brava, and of the usual street heroes and villains of a Leonard book.

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré

Our Kind of Traitor, by Le Carré: These two books, written in 2008 and 2010, prove that Le Carré has made the transition from the Cold War, the subject of his earlier novels about spies, to the world of terrorism with scarcely a false step. A most Wanted Man deals with a strange guy who turns up from the former Soviet Union, takes up residence with a pair of Turks living in Hamburg. He is immediately suspected by the German security services of being a prospective terrorist. He has some claim to money that had been deposited years before, after some dirty tricks to earn it, with the father of a British bank. The son now running the bank decides to give it to him, and the plot, always rather obscure in Le Carré, rolls on to its conclusion. It was when I was two-thirds of the way through the second book that I decided Le Carré’s prose is indeed sublime, and that he must be the outstanding novelist working in Britain today. But within a few pages, as he plunged into one of those interminable confrontations and questionings that he has always specialized in, I had begun to change my mind, Our Kind of Traitor begins when a young British couple holidaying in Antigua run into a very odd Russian fellow, who follows up their brief acquaintance when they both go to Europe. The man has a team around him, although their function is never entirely clear, but eventually the fellow is persuaded to climb in board a plane headed for London, and surrender, with all his information, to the British Secret Service, who are salivating at the idea of interrogating him. There is a final denouement that sends the story into a sort of comic tragedy, a sort of Le Carré speciality, one might say.

Long Lost, by Harlan Coben: This writer began with a series of amusing books about his hero, a retired basketball player turned agent, and parttime investigator, called Myron Bolitar. He has since branched out into more substantial books, but in this he revives Myron Bolitar, a character who has always been supported by a strange, brilliant, violent sidekick called Win, who can always be depended upon to rescue Myron from his worst mistakes. This one is about an old girl friend of Myron’s who has disappeared for some years, but suddenly summons Myron to Paris to help her with something. Myron, of course, agrees to go, and he begins to learn the complex truth about his girl friend’s life, including that she once had a daughter who was killed in a motor accident (for which the mother blames herself), although it appears that this girl might be still alive. It turns out she is not alive, but a girl who looked very like her was created by a sinister cult who wanted unquestioning acolytes and created them from the beginning. An odd book, with a plot that gets too involved in the last few pages, when it becomes difficult to understand it.

The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke: I have long thought Burke one of the finest writers of English at work today. He has created a gallery of characters notable for their humanity, the fact that they are neither good nor bad but a little of both, and by their complexity. His detective, Dave Robicheaux is one of these complex characters, subject to unreasonable rages and spells of irrationality, but always interesting. He uses the destroyed city of New Orleans as the scene for this latest tale, which is, as usual with this writer, worth reading just for the pleasure of his prose.

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My Log 245: Canadians should welcome the possibility of a coalition to oust Harper and his mob

Ignatieff speaks. Canadians Against Proroguing...Image via Wikipedia

It is a pretty fair bet that a majority of Canadians would welcome a declaration from the non-Conservative parties that they are ready and willing to form a coalition government should it be required following the coming election.

So why is Michael Ignatieff so coy about it? He must know that dozens of countries are in the habit of electing governments made up by coalitions of their leading parties, that coalitions are a totally normal phenomenon in the political history of many countries, and that there is nothing at all wrong or disreputable about the idea of a coalition.

What is strange, and almost disreputable, is that on the weekend when Ignatieff took over leadership of the Liberal Party, arrangements had been made which would have handed him the Prime Ministership on a platter, but he showed a distaste for the idea which I think we can still hold against him as he now goes to the polls to try to become Prime Minister.

Although Ignatieff does not appeal to me personally, I would certainly welcome it if he were to become the next Prime Minister: anyone but Harper is my motto. To a certain extent I agree with the sentiment expressed on Saturday in an editorial in The Globe and Mail, which calls attention to Ignatieff’s intellectual gifts, and asks Canadians to cease attacking him on the grounds that his previous employment has mostly been in other nations. I once interviewed Ignatieff’s father, who was a remarkable man, a Canadian diplomat of considerable achievements, a man to be admired, generally speaking. So I, too, find the Conservative advertisement that seems to call the validity of the man’s family into question in extremely bad taste, besides being poor politics.

What I object to in the Conservatives is their wide range of antediluvian ideas, usually expressed by people of limited capacity, who are Harper’s Cabinet team. Some of these people should be drummed right out of politics. Men like the minister of justice Vic Toews, who, when he speaks of crime, sounds like he is coming from a couple of centuries ago; Jason Kenney, a man who routinely manipulates people and their beliefs in his own political interest; John Baird, an attack-dog whose only redeeming feature is that he apparently looks after his constituents diligently; the finance minister Jim Flaherty, now at work trying to turn Canada into a facsimile of the United States, after having tried the same thing in Ontario. And many others.

Let’s hope we can get rid of this mob.
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Friday, March 25, 2011

My Log 244: Richard Burton, instead of becoming the greatest actor of his time, became Elizabeth Taylor’s paramour

One of Elizabeth Taylor’s major achievements --- if that is the word --- was to solidify a tragic error made by her co-star, husband and obsessed lover, Richard Burton, which denied Burton the elevated status that lay before him as the greatest British actor of his time.

I remember seeing Burton play in a small London theatre early in the 1950s in a play by Lillian Hellman ---- Montserrat ---- after which T.C. Worsley, the eminent critic of the New Statesman magazine posed a pregnant question about Burton.

This remarkably gifted young actor stood at a crossroads, wrote Worsley, and now had to choose which path he would follow in his career: was he going to dedicate himself to becoming the greatest actor on the British stage, a role for which his talents suited him, or was he destined to depend on his personality tricks, and become merely a star? Was he, in other words, to become the latest in the line of pre-eminent actors that Britiain has given over the years to the theatre ---- from Irving, forward to Gielgud, through Olivier, Richardson, Redgrave, many others ----- or was he to take the easier path, depending on personality tricks, and thus become merely a star, rather than a notable actor?

We know the decision he came to: that great voice, that amazing presence, he directed towards Hollywood and the movies. And once there, starring with the beautiful Taylor, he chose, with bells on, to become the consort of the pre-eminent Hollywood star of his time.

That he drank himself to death in doing so would appear to indicate that he was not altogether happy in his choice. But the fact is, Taylor apparently so entranced him that he played the courtier to her queen as the major role in his life.

Thus, the British stage was robbed of a man who stood ready, with his superb gifts, to become its leader. Instead, he gave us some remarkable performances in films --- mostly notably, in the Edward Albee play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? --- but he frittered away his talents in a succession of other trivial films, while, off-screen, he frittered away the immense sums he made in gloriously vulgar presents to his lover, Elizabeth Taylor.

Ah, well, such are the decisions sometimes made by people who do not live up to the great gifts bestowed on them by nature. He no doubt became notorious for his extravagant lifestyle, but there was little evidence that he took much satisfaction in that status.

Mark up one success to the temptress whose larger-than-life persona has been so celebrated in recent days since her death.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

My Log 243: Conservative tough-on-crime doctrine an insult to public’s intelligence

The main cellblock taken by ghostieguide dec 2...Image via Wikipedia

I have read a shocking thing in the newspapers this morning that seems to impugn the intelligence of “the older voter”, and, as an older voter myself, I want to refute it.

Apparently the Conservative Party thinks it has appealed to “the older voter” because it has promised to build more prisons. It seems to me that only an idiot could respond to the naked vote-pandering represented by the promise to build more prisons, especially since the government has refused to give any indication of how much these prisons are going to cost.

Even leaving the cost factor aside, I would hope that older people have enough commonsense to know that prisons are not the answer to crime, that Canada is not in the grip of a crime wave, that no more prisons are needed, that what is needed is a more sophisticated system that would keep more people out of jail, not put more people back in, and that for the government to pretend to be “tough on crime” by building more prisons is an insult to the intelligence of the people of Canada.

Many years ago --- 1961, to be exact --- I interviewed the man who headed the prison system in Sweden. He told me that in the whole country only 2,500 people were locked up. In many of his prisons --- some of which I visited myself --- the prisoners had the keys to their rooms. He asked me, “You will be wondering what happens when someone walks out…. Well, it doesn’t really bother us. We catch them, and they suffer for having walked away.”

At that time Canada was decades behind the Swedes in the development of a humane system of punishment for crime. In the years since we have made some progress, I believe, although I have also visited some of the maximum security prisons we have built, and talked to inmates who were being literally driven mad, many driven to suicide, by the strict, authoritarian regime foisted on them.

I would assume that older people, having lived longer than most, will have had time to absorb some of the information about crime, punishment, incarceration and the like, and have come to the conclusion that, although it is a difficult area of life, the tough-on-crime school, as exemplified in the United States, does not begin to approach a solution. Surely most old people must be among those who would abhor seeing us join the United States as the country that incarcerates the greatest number of people in the world, creating huge numbers of people stained with the label of criminal, for often relatively minor offences for which they are jailed for many, many years. Ridiculous.

Let me give an example of how our system is still, in so many ways, inadequate. My son is a lawyer in Toronto. Recently he was called upon to defend a man who had never had a proper defence, although he had been arrested, charged, tried and convicted many times. This man, a black schizophrenic, was one of those unfortunate mental patients who have been left to wander our streets, having been turned out, many years ago, of our mental hospitals.

This man was held in jail for eight months awaiting trial. When finally arraigned, he was presented to the court wearing prison clothes, in spite of the fact that his lawyer had several days before delivered street clothes for him to wear before the jury. The prosecution team kept presenting him in prison clothes until the judge threatened to make an order demanding that he be given the street clothes. This was a pointer to the negative attitudes adopted to this unfortunate person by our established system of law.

In the end, he was acquitted by the jury on all charges. But that was not really the end of it. The authorities who had charge of him dumped him in the lobby of the courthouse. He was a free man, supposedly, but he had nothing except the clothes he stood up in: nowhere to live, no money, no support system, no one to care for him. His victory, not to put too fine a point on it, was a phyrric one. Is this justice? Is our legal system even about justice? Can we not conceive of a system that takes into account not only the rights of the victims of crime, as the Conservatives always say they are insistent on, but the rights and lives of everyone who runs up against the legal system?

When I was a young reporter, and required to attend courts to report the proceedings, I very quickly realize the world is divided into two classes: the people who know how to look after themselves, and that large segment of the population that just cannot look after itself, that has no idea how to run their lives, people who are constantly in debt, who are desperately shifting to keep themselves afloat, and who end up in the courts of law, and in our prisons.

It is an insult to the public’s intelligence for the Conservative government to pretend that they are dealing with the problems of these people by building more prisons in which to lock them up.

On that ground alone, the Conservative government deserves to be beaten in this coming election.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

My Log 242 : My months of relative silence caused by personal preoccupations, while the world around us all is turning to ratshit

The relatively few readers of my Web site will have noticed in recent months that I have written really little. That is because in the last 12 months I have been journeying around the world, having visited New Zealand a year ago, then Croatia, then twice to Austin Texas to visit my eldest son, then to Costa Rica for a month earlier in this year to visit my daughter, and just last week, for a week to Cuba with another of my sons.

That is the first reason for my silence, but there is a second: I have been working for the last few months over the text of a proposed book I am engaged in writing, and that has occupied most of my creative energy. The book is to be about a remarkable Canadian couple who, at the age of 25, arrived in England in the early fifties with $1,000 and the vague intention of opening a coffee house. They were not particularly qualified for that job, and had relatively little work experience of any kind. They had neither of them got through high school, but they shared a spirit, a sort of wacky optimism, and a remarkable flair which enabled them, within ten years, to have created in their Troubadour coffee house a place that attracted the enthusiastic loyalty of a wide range of all classes of people from lonely old people living in one room to the most creative artists of the realm, to the dropouts, eccentrics and dissidents who, now in their twilight years, are still insisting there never was a place like the Troubadour they knew and loved, and there never will be another place like it.

I am collaborating with the survivor of this couple, Sheila Van Bloemen, whose husband Michael died two years ago. I used to hang around the Troubadour a lot in the 1960s, when I was a correspondent for The Montreal Star
in London. But I left London in 1968, and was out of touch with its owners until after I read an account of Michael’s life on the obituary pages of the Globe and Mail.

Some of my old-time readers may remember I wrote a piece at that time on my former Web site about the coffee shop and its remarkable owners, and that led to my finding Sheila and her family of children and grandchildren, still living in Dubrovnik, Croatia, to which beautiful little town she and Michael had retreated when the very success of the coffee shop --- there were lineups every night to get into the place --- began to choke them. The story of their café is a story of how a place that was never run as a commercial enterprise could succeed in business (I am tempted to add the line from the American musical….without really trying.) At any rate, I talked to a 70-year-old man last week who told me: “I worked there for four pounds a week for years, and it never once occurred to me it was a job. It was just my way of life. There will never be another place like the Troubadour, believe me.”

So that has been occupying my energies for a few months, but progress is relatively slow, partly because both Sheila and I are in our eighties, but also because it takes time to re-connect with people who are still alive (many are not) who remember a place that was cherished by them half a century ago.

So, okay, that is my apology for having neglected what I believe I must now call my blog. I began this as a personal Web site 15 years ago, before the word blog was ever heard on earth. I regarded it as a sounding off board, a place where I could exercise my somewhat compulsive need to write, to write about anything and everything that fell to hand. I never thought about the audience, or even if there was much of an audience. Some wise person once said that a writer needs only an audience of one: I always knew I had at least that many readers, and was content with it. When blogs arose I did try to join them (although I was somewhat put off by a guy who wrote me “welcoming me to the blogosphere”, something I had never heard of and had no wish to join) but I found the technology too hard to master.

A year or so ago I decided that maybe I could attract more readers by joining the blog, and my remote adviser, Doug Perry, of Vancouver, who has been a long-time, faithful reader, helped set me up in the simplified blogging system that now exists. So I switched from a free-standing Web site to (an outfit owned by Google, apparently, as like so much else on the Net), and I made the switch. Although so far I see no evidence at all that I am read by more people than before. Never mind, one will do….

Okay, while I have been disporting myself in these personal adventures, all around me the world is going to ratshit. I spent this morning looking at the videos on the BBC Web site of the tsunami as it hit Japan. What a terrifying spectacle, what a terrifying event. As one of my sons remarked, it turned the world into junk. As it swept through the works of human kind, it reduced everything to one common denominator: junk. Everything we have created was reduced by this wall of water just to meaningless stuff. Flotsam, as someone said on the BBC a few minutes ago, and jetsam, I could have added (always quick with a cliche). Great buses, cars, lorries, houses, telegraph poles, buildings --- everything that stood before it was simply destroyed and carried off until the wave of water itself --- black by the time it had passed through the cities ---- was scarcely discernable under the load of junk it was carrying.

I have to admit, when I was in Costa Rica for a month, living along the beach, the possibility of a tsunami was never far from my mind. It seems a tsunami is the most devastating natural event that could confront any human life --- simply the power of nature, sweeping us all before it. I recommend anyone who has not done so to view these videos on the BBC’s Web site. They are awe-inspiring. The latest news, given a few moments ago is that the death toll has reached 12,000, with many more still missing. And more than 400,000 people have been forced by the earthquake and the tsunami out of their homes into temporary shelters,. Quite evidently, it will take Japan years to recover from this drastic event.

At the same time I have been fascinated during these last few months by the events in the Middle East. Of course, these must have aroused different feelings in each of us. For me, the Egyptian revolution --- at the moment far from achieved --- and the extraordinary discipline with which it was carried out, put an end to any residual reservations I might have carried from my childhood about the capacity of Egyptians. I am sure many, especially older people, must know what I mean. When I was a small child, our brothers and friends were called from New Zealand to go to Egypt to fight the invading Germans. Of course, we were told, the Egyptians themselves were incapable of defending themselves, or doing anything else much that was of any value. In the common parlance of so many Western countries, the Egyptians were Wogs --- Wily Oriental Gentlemen, was what I was told as a child was the derivation of the name --- they were ruled over by a corrupt, fat King Farouk, and they were a useless bunch that had to be rescued by our muscular, upright New Zealand boys from their own incapacity.

The recent events in Egypt gave the lie to that calumny for ever. I was never able to believe the idea that the revolution they conducted was leaderless. It was too well disciplined, its spokespersons were too eloquent and organized, its amateur soldiers and adherents were too determined and focused. That their overthrow of the corrupt president should have led to similar uprisings around the Arab world is hardly surprising. One of its peripheral effects has been to reveal the hypocrisy of Western pretensions to be democratic (while supporting to the hilt the oppressive dictators who have ruthlessly enriched themselves and stolen from the people they have ruled), and this revelation comes on top of the meltdown of capitalism that has so affected the lives of people everywhere, that the very foundations of our society appear to have been shaken if not undermined.

Although not quite. On this subject, readers would do well to consult an article by the estimable Matt Taibbi in the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine, called Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail?
The answer, briefly, is that the same people who ruined the global economy are still running things, and have mounted a ferocious effort to destroy public sector unions throughout the world, a classic case of blaming the victims for their own crimes.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Link of the Day Mar 2 2011: Chris Hedges writes in truthdig that the key to changing the world lies with an aroused public, as North Africa and Wisconsin are showing right now. Read his article.

(“We are wasting $700 million a day to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while our teachers, firefighters and police lose their jobs, while we slash basic assistance programs for the poor, children and the elderly, while we turn our backs on the some 3 million people being pushed from their homes by foreclosures and bank repossessions and while we do nothing to help the one in six American workers who cannot find work. These wars have taken hundreds of thousands of lives. They have pushed millions into refugee or displacement camps. They have left young men and women severely crippled and maimed. They have turned our nation into an isolated pariah, fueling the very terrorism we seek to defeat. And they cannot be won. The sooner we leave Iraq and Afghanistan the sooner we will save others and finally save ourselves.”)

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