Swimming with Warlords by Kevin Sites

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“If the central government doesn’t stay together,” he said, “I’ll have to find a way to protect my people.”
What he said was a bad sign. “My people” in Afghanistan means one’s tribe. Very few outside of Kabul thought of themselves as citizens of the country—as Afghans.

There is a lot to like in journalist Kevin Sites’s latest report from the front, Swimming with Warlords. Sites takes us from point to point on his journey through geography and history, offering a look at the Afghanistan of 2001 as compared to the Afghanistan of late 2013. He spends considerable ink on warlords, but not enough, IMHO, to justify the title of the book. And this is just as well, because the other elements he finds to report on are even more interesting. He notes the extant miseries, for sure, but also finds some flowers blooming in the rubble, offering the fragrance of hope. He looks at the condition of women, notes gains and losses, bright spots and expectations maybe not so bright as we might hope. He looks at what is likely to happen when the US leaves. One major element here is the conflict between former allies within Afghanistan. Of course, he has been back to Afghanistan several times in between, but it is the bookend experience on which he focuses here. What has changed between the time when American forces attacked in the wake of 9/11, and today, as US troops prepare to depart in 2014?

Sites has certainly seen a lot during his many years in the field, across the war-torn planet, working for major news organizations like ABC, NBC and CNN, and newer entries like Yahoo! News and Vice. He has written two books, In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars (2007) and Things They Cannot Say (2012). His bona fides are impeccable. He even teaches journalism these days in theUniversity of Hong Kong journalism and media program.

There are plenty of villains in Sites’s depiction of what has become a more-or-less permanent war zone, but there are a surprising number of heroes as well, some ambiguously so, others not. The place we know today as Afghanistan, which has been called “the graveyard of empires,” has endured seemingly constant invasions and internal conflict, from the days of Alexander the Great to the present. It seems like the entire place is a huge stadium in which Premier league teams have battled it out among themselves and with the locals, with some notable modern matches having been during the Great Game days of the British empire, the Soviet invasion of the 1970s and 1980s during the Cold War, and most recently, the Western invasion to oust Osama bin Terrorist and his Taliban hosts after 9/11. And it is a favored pitch in which Pakistan does its best to make trouble for India.

“The Taliban is really from Pakistan; they came here to destroy our country. That is clear to everyone,” said Jilani [a former Taliban member]. “In the beginning, I thought it was jihad against international troops, but I found out we were fighting for Pakistani interests—we were getting orders from Pakistan. Most of the leaders are not religious; they want to come to Afghanistan and tax the locals during the time of the harvest and take the money back to Pakistan. There is no jihad.” Jilani said.

I imagine banners being hung from the bullet-pocked remnants of rafters noting local championships triumphs. No 90 minute clock here, no four quarters. Like baseball, perhaps, the game continues until one team wins or one team tires of playing and leaves. The locals have nowhere to go, and all their skin is in the game. There is a very strong home-field advantage amid the crags, valleys and caves of this rugged land, but there is plenty of disagreement about where home actually begins and ends.

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Kevin Sites

The US entered the playing field in the 1980s by providing arms and assistance to locals and some foreigners in Afghanistan in an attempt to make life miserable for the Soviets. In a classic example of the Pyrrhic Victory, the removal of the Soviets led to a continuation of the pre-existing tribal warfare, this time with more and better weapons, the ultimate rise of the Taliban to power and their hosting of you-know-who. I wonder if Charlie Wilson would have voted for the $4 to $6 trillion cost of this seemingly endless engagement.

In retracing his earlier path, Sites notes bridges gone, landscape devastated, military remnants littering the paths that pass for roads, the many minefields, both literal and political. One of the permanent features in a place where landscape defines effective limits is the presence of warlords. Feudalism lives in Afghanistan, where inter-ethnic conflict is merely a superset of conflicts within each ethnic group. If there was ever a concept of loving thy neighbor as yourself, it is unlikely to have extended much beyond the borders of the fief in which one lives. Mistrust, born of centuries of conflict, has deep roots here. Every action taken on a national level is seen as somehow ethnically drive, whether or not it actually is. Cooperation is minimal, fear is ever-present, and allegiances are alarmingly fluid.

Sites looks in on some warlords, living and dead, and some others who function as warlords in fact if not in name. The camp of martyred Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud is now a shrine, and Massoud’s lieutenants have moved on to diverse and often dark occupations. He meets with police chiefs, who point out that they are powerless to enforce the laws as long as coping with the Taliban continues. And it is the police forces that suffer the brunt of the casualties in the fight. However not all warlords are alike. He spends some time with one who seemed to be doing pretty well in taking care of his people, improving their lives with ingenuity and managerial efficiency.

There are some darkly humorous moments, as when Sites recalls a 2001 lodging that, unbeknownst, included an unexploded 500 lb US bomb on the premises, fins up. Check please.

There are moving moments, including a weep-worthy tale of an Afghani father who had lost his daughter to a slightly off-target US incoming, yet betrayed no bitterness.

There are uplifting moments, when Sites talks with a woman who had started a radio station in order to get news and information to Afghani women, many of whom remain under lifelong virtual house-arrest for the crime of being female. Or in learning about Rahmaw Omarzad, an artist who returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban fell and established The Centre for Contemporary Art in Kabul.

There are delightful moments, as when we learn that an Aussie’s contribution of skateboards had grown into an island of hope in the form of an actual institution called Skateistan that includes instruction on far more than keeping one’s balance on wheels.

There are disappointing moments, when we see that many of those who had been educated, and were working on internationally funded development projects will be unemployed and maybe unemployable after the US leaves. Or in learning that Marza, the famed lion of the Kabul zoo, might have been somewhat less magnificent than reputed.

There are bizarre moments, such as learning that a fortress wall built 1500 years ago, the Bala Hisar, which legend holds has incorporated the bones of workers who died in its construction, might very well include some of the special extra filling.

And there are demoralizing moments, as when Sites describes an orphanage that would have been very much at home in the London of Charles Dickens. His report on drug addiction will strike a dark chord as well.

The condition of women’s rights in Afghanistan comes in for considerable attention, as he talks with women about their lives under the Taliban and after their ouster. There is a segment on an American woman, Kimberley Motley , who had started a legal practice in Afghanistan, and another on a woman the Taliban had kicked out of dental school, who had resumed her training and established a national Dental association. It will come as no shock that there remains in Afghanistan a practice of buying and selling wives. And a related tale tells of young boys, bacha bazi, who are treated as sexual pets by the wealthy, a substitute for the females who are kept under wraps.

The book seems a compendium of articles about Afghanistan crammed into a forced structure. But that is not really a problem here, as the information you gain far outweighs any feeling of the structure of the whole being not quite as advertised. Yes, there is a look at then and now, but the strength of the book lies in the collection of individual reports.

GRIPES
There are at least two elements in a book of this sort, the information to be gleaned about the presenting subject, and some insight into the teller of the tale. In this case, the subject is what has changed between 2001 when the Western attack on Afghanistan began following the events of 9/11 in the USA, and the present of the book, the year or so before US troops were scheduled to depart, whether completely or mostly. The other element is the author, him/herself. When you go on a journey, when you will be spending some time with your guide, you would like to know something about him. Sites does offer a few nuggets, and one that is particularly unflattering, but overall the sense I got was that it was mostly name, rank and serial number. While his recollected war stories are indeed interesting, there seems a paucity of info/insight about him. That is an area in which Swimming with Warlords only treads water. At end, we do not really know much more about Kevin Sites than we did before turning to page 1. I expect this is a lot about reportorial discipline, keeping one’s focus on the news and not the reporter, which is certainly a reasonable approach. But in this context, a book, a memoir of sorts, there is a need to be a bit more subcutaneous if an author wants to engender any feeling of camaraderie with his readers. It may be that in his previous books, The Things They Cannot Say and In the Hot Zone there is more of that. Don’t know, have not read those. But there is not nearly enough about KS in this one. I found myself wondering how he got into journalism, how from journalism he got into in-field war reporting. Is his work about adrenalin or something else? What are his values, his ideals? What does he hope to accomplish? What does he do when he is not ducking ordnance in war zones, where and why? Does he have family who worry about him when he is away? You know, stuff. This is not so much a classical road to self-discovery. Sites had already learned a lot about himself and his profession in the years between visits to Afghanistan. This is more like a look at the same eye chart with the optometrist clicking between the younger and more mature lenses. Is it clearer this way, or this way?

The title of the book seems ill chosen. There is indeed one scene in which KS goes for a literal swim with an actual warlord, but the title would make one suspect that the entirety of the volume consists of KS visiting with warlords, and that is not the case. Yes, KS does meet up with a few of these guys, but there is a lot more going on here, and it is unfortunate to have our attention focused on the narrower topic. A better title would have let readers know that he is writing a comparison of then and now. There is an ironic title for one of the chapters in the book, regarding parachute journalism, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, which would have made, IMHO, a better, certainly a more descriptive title than the one that was chosen. Sites may well have been swimming with bearded sharks, but the macho-ness of it adds little in the title selection.

I would not call this a gripe, but the book could use an acronym list, which should include SNAFU and FUBAR among its entries. In fact, the place might as well be name FUBARistan for all the horror that has gone on there over the centuries. An index, a glossary, and a map would have been helpful. If Sites is retracing a path, it would be nice to be able to follow along.

There are plenty of books about Afghanistan out there, (there is a list in the Extra Stuff section below), but Sites’ work has the benefit of freshness. He was there not long ago, at least in book, if not live TV time, and there is an immediacy to his reporting that draws one in, and makes one wonder what might be happening right now. He reports on interesting elements of the current Afghan reality, and finds some informed opinions about what lies ahead. I would not call this a great book, but it is certainly interesting, engaging, and informative. Definitely worth pulling on a suit and going in for a dip, whether with a warlord, shark, or someone a bit less threatening.

Review posted 10/10/14

Pub date – 10/14/14

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google+ and FB pages

Articles by Sites on Vice

Some other reading on Afghanistan:

I have an Afghanistan shelf with 23 titles, mixed fiction and non. Within that, I heartily recommend the following to enhance your awareness of issues in the region

In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan

Seeds of Terror

Descent into Chaos

The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban

Ghost Wars

Charlie Wilson’s War

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Filed under Afghanistan, Journalism, Non-fiction, Reviews

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson

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…nothing was as it seemed

On learning that the southern member of their group hails from a place that stages an annual Civil War re-enactment, one with a heavy Confederate tilt, four UC Berkeley sophomores decide to engage in a bit of political theater and protest the event by staging a mock lynching. What could possibly go wrong?

A boy from the deep South who opts to pass on taking up shooting is likely to feel just a bit like an outsider in his small hometown.

…when young he had admired their sarcasm and sharp wit, his older female cousins—the misanthrope, the pyromaniac, and the exhibitionist—all obviously hated their lives, lives that would never recover the hope of their youth, lives now defined by their status as old maids, though barely thirty. They were stuck here, and the finality of that sentence pained him. It was impossible to have a conversation with one of them and not feel like he was addressing a ghost.

What’s in a name? D’Aron Davenport has them by the bushel. Not just the ones he was tagged with at birth, but the stream of names that attached to him through his brief life. Some of them celebrate achievement, some mark him as an outcast, some poke fun, and some offer respect. Some tell his history, and some hold a promise for the future. Many of these names will find their way back to D’Aron over the course of the story as he struggles to define himself in places where others seem intent on doing that for him. He would like to make a name for himself someplace other than Braggsville, Georgia. On graduating from high school, he gets as far away as he can.

There are some pretty funny scenes in Welcome to Braggsville. A symbol of the cluelessness of the place he desperately wants to leave behind, a classmate, after D’Aron delivers his valedictory, misunderstanding a Latin phrase from D’Aron’s speech, congratulates him on his engagement. In his second semester at UC Berkeley, or Berzerkeley, (Johnson teaches there, so he knows of what he writes) as it is actually known, he attends a dot party (wear a dot where you want to be touched). Apparently the location he selects for his dot is deemed politically incorrect and he is shown the door by self-righteous alphas. He is not alone in his choice of dot location. The insight-free hosts have made three other attendees feel as welcome as Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman at Omega Theta Pi, and a bond is forged. They call themselves “The 4 Little Indians.”

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T. Geronimo Johnson

Charlie, a black from Chicago, has the physique of an athlete. Candice is a naïve, over-confident Iowa blonde, who professes Native American heritage. I couldn’t help picturing young Gwyneth Paltrow. Louis Chang, a Californian who exudes comedy and thinks of himself as a “kung fu comedian” will make you laugh. What kind of southern white boy can D’Aron be that he feels so drawn to the scary Gully, (the wrong side of the tracks at home) and did not see all the darkness around him in the safe side of town? How is it that D’Aron finds that he feels quite comfortable with black people, while feeling more and more alienated from his lighter complexioned peers in B-ville? At Berkeley, he has a stunningly beautiful bonding experience with a black counselor. Where does he fit in? Charlie has issues of a different sort that keep him from feeling too close to his peers as well.

A class called “American History X, Y, and Z: Alternative Perspectives” sparks the crew to action. After a failed attempt at making a political statement of outrage about the University’s treatment of Ishi, presumably the last wild Indian in America, at a Six Flags Amusement Park, a hilarious failure, the group settles on their larger, and more provocative project.

There is a lot more going on here than comedy. An outsider theme applies not only to these four as students at Berzerkely, but for them in other venues as well. Louis is not exactly heading in a career direction his family would sanction. Charlie is not exactly what he appears. And Candice may not exactly be in a comfort zone with her family either.

she’d once admitted that her family wasn’t close; that her father expressed a greater affinity for moths and fruit liqueurs and her mother a keen interest in civil rights. She dubbed them emotionally abusive.

Johnson extends the outsider notion to larger structures as well. D’Aron may be a fish out of water in Braggsville, but what of the residents of the Gully? An entire community that is not allowed much opportunity to get near the water, let alone jump in. You can guess the complexion involved.

Johnson has a bit of fun with how the media and political opportunists take advantage of the uproar in Braggsville. You will recognize the types of players involved, and appreciate the deft hand used in painting them in their true colors.

He also takes liberties with form. The introduction of D’Aron and all his names is inspired. He also includes a sort-of term paper as it might have been written by the four in which barbecue stands in for racism, an extended footnote that comprises Louis’s take on things, and other literary liberties as well. There is a freedom in this approach that is surprising in a good way and invigorating, reminding one of the creativity shown in A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Johnson is focusing his literary microscope on preconceptions, left and right, and then looking past the visual to what lies beneath. The political correctness of liberal mecca UC Berkeley comes in for some sharp edges. As does the yahoo-ism of back-water Georgia. What Johnson brings to this impressive novel is his ability to look past that outer layer of knee-jerk satire. What one sees here is not uni-colored. There is also sensitivity to what compromises good people must make to survive in an alien environment, and there is nuance, even to the awfulness.

In a large way this is a coming of age story for the group of friends, D’Aron most of all, and as such it works quite well, as D’Aron sees so much more than he had known was right in front of him. He gets to see how the real world operates and it changes him.

Johnson uses some interludes to offer a bit of history on slavery in Georgia. I was surprised at some of this. I expect you will be as well. An observation of race is one of the many strong seams in this marbled look at America today. Parenting, whether by parents or other adults figures large as well. Even concepts like what constitutes tragedy are given a look.

There are astute observations on a host of things. Here are a couple of samples:

Every organization, every single one, Daron worries himself, orchestrates a silent competition with the church; they want not employees but practitioners, apostles, acolytes—not workers, but worshippers. Between this observation and his reflections on school, he concludes that everyone advertises for the mind but expects you to bring the soul.

or

Did his parents also look at each other with resentment born of intimacy; did they want more than anything else to reach out to each other, to close cold space; did they say things to hurt each other first intentionally and then again, accidentally, even without meaning to, in the midst of apologizing? Did they inventory their intimacies? How did you look at someone and care so much for them and hate them at the same time, be so angry that you didn’t even trust yourself to have a valid emotion, so angry it couldn’t be real?

Links are drawn between the treatment of Native Americans and interned Japanese during World War II, between lynching of the traditional sort and a later day electronic equivalent, between anchors that ground one and those that keep you from moving, between being in one’s social bubble, and being in the world.

Start your 2015 top ten list here. Welcome to Braggsville is a stunning achievement. I was reminded not only of last year’s wonderful Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk for its brilliant and sensitive social observation, but also of Skippy Dies, one of my all-time favorite books, for its humor and warmth. It applies a sharp, satiric scalpel to diverse targets, but also peels back surfaces to reveal complication and humanity. D’Aron is a wonderfully realized lead, thoughtful, decent, engaging, struggling to find his place in various hostile universes. Eager to do right. This is a book that has at its core a racial tension, but there is so much more going on here. Head on over to Braggsville, pull up a chair, load a plate up with some barbecue, pop a cold one, and set a spell. Maybe talk to someone who is nothing at all like you. You will find your visit very filling indeed.

Review Posted – 10/3/14

Publication Date – 2/17/14

==================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

While the above links were live at the time I posted this, they are not all that current. I would expect that as publication date approaches Johnson will do some updating.

Johnson wrote a wonderful Behind the Book essay for Braggsville. It is definitely worth checking out.

An interesting interview with the author on the site of the publisher of his first book, Coffee House Press

Another fascinating interview, from a couple of years ago, on ZingMagazine.com

And yet another interview, this one at Late Night Library

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Sometimes the Wolf by Urban Waite

book cover Ok, I have to offer a sort-of anti-spoiler right up front. Sometimes the Wolf is a sequel to Waite’s first novel, The Terror of Living, but I have not read the earlier book, so cannot really bring to the table a familiarity with the characters who appear in both books. Nor can I comment on continuity of setting, theme or imagery. So I feel at a disadvantage. On the other hand, I am forced to look at StW as a stand-alone work, which may be a good thing, as most of us human sorts do read books one at a time. Just lettin’ ya know.

Bobby Drake is a deputy Sheriff in Silver Lake, Washington. There is an apple orchard in the backyard of the home he shares with his wife, Sheri. The home that used to belong to his father, Patrick, a former local police chief, who was sent away for 12 years for smuggling drugs. The orchard is no longer harvested. This is no Eden. Patrick is being released.

You might think this would be a happy occasion, but Bobby had to sacrifice a lot when his father was sent up, and hangs on to his resentment like a cocked gun. A DEA sort by name of Frank Driscoll does not think Patrick should ever have been let out, and makes it his business to keep his canines well lodged in Patrick’s case. Seems two federal agents lost their lives a dozen years back, and Driscoll knows in his bones that Patrick is responsible, evidence or no evidence. He also seems as flush with available time as Special Agent Dale Cooper. And add in two baddies, who leave a trail of bodies in their rear-view. (I was reminded of Mr. Wint and Mister Kidd of Diamonds are Forever, or, even more, of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in Fargo) in their quest for the usual, hidden cash. I imagine a sign – Welcome to Silver Lake – Population: declining. Like Ray Lamar, the returning prodigal in Waite’s last novel, The Carrion Birds, Patrick espouses a desire to just move on with his life. Fat chance.

The father-son theme gets a boost from the addition of a third generation, with Patrick’s father, Drake’s grandfather, Morgan, joining the scene. He is a tough and interesting old coot and you can see some of him in his progeny.

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Urban Waite – from his site

Waite tosses in a couple of females, one of whom figures in the story meaningfully, but this is very much a guy cast. The author is a fan of Cormac McCarthy and the red grimness of the environment here reflects what one might expect of McCarthy in a more southerly tale. In fact a whole “red in tooth and claw” notion is introduced early with a gutted deer and another new arrival to town, a literal lone wolf. Despite Waite having been raised in Seattle, and having attended college in Washington as well, it did not strike me particularly as a tale about the northwest. It seemed that it might have been as easily set in the southwest or northeast. But the locals do feel at home in their environment, and their sharp edges echo the woodsy chill of the region.

There are some items about the book that I felt could have been put to better use. The lone wolf is introduced immediately, but then does not reappear as an actual thing until near the end of the book. It would have been better, IMHO, to have reinforced the lone-wolf imagery at work here with a few more touches of the natural sort. A female Fish and Wildlife Service agent is also introduced early, with hints of a potential special connection to Drake, and is then disappeared, along with the wolf, until near the end. More could certainly have been made of that character. I cannot speak to Terror of Living, but his previous novel, The Carrion Birds seemed somehow heftier, like there was more going on thematically, which may or may not matter to you. Of course I projected more into that book than the author actually put there, and may be doing the same here. I was looking for wolfy elements, given the title. False threats yielding to a real one, crying wolf. But that did not seem present. There was, however, some fun with Little Red Riding Hood material as a dark sort stalks some prey.

He balanced the two coffees in the claw of his upturned palm

My, what large hands you have. And

His hair was slicked back and the suit was too big on his thin bones.

suggesting, to me, anyway, someone of the lupine persuasion donning granny garb. Instead of having to go through the woods to get to grandma, it is grandpa here. But I could be making this all up. Take it for what it’s worth.

Family loyalty comes in for consideration here, as it did in Carrion Birds. How much loyalty does Drake owe the returning Patrick? What can he do when what his wife needs from him is at odds with what his father needs? And where is the line drawn between loyalty to family and community? Can one remain moral and help out a criminal?

The author keeps the action moving, switching between Patrick, Morgan, the dark duo, and Drake. Sometimes the Wolf qualifies as a page-turner. Waite can certainly spin a yarn. You will want to know what happens, and will feel enough for Drake, in particular, to care. I will definitely be reading whatever he comes out with next. Urban Waite is definitely a writer worth watching.

Review posted – 9/20/14

Publication date – 10/21/14

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Google+ and FB pages

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Reviews

Heraclix and Pomp by Forrest Aguirre

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…what were the origins of the many pieces of Heraclix? He was like a puzzle to himself, an unknown being or beings, self-aware, yet unaware of the individuals from whom he had been constructed.

Where do we come from? Of what are we made? Who are we? How did we get to be who we are? Can we change? In the case of Heraclix, of the title, all the above apply. H is a big guy. Think Shrek with a bit less green. Usually the golem is a clay creature, but H is more of a group effort, being comprised of parts, a Frankenstein monster with better (than the film) motor skills, and a makeover. Heraclix is riven, as so many of us are, with a complicated nature. His is more physical in it’s manifestation, though. With one arm in particular eager for action, he reminded me a bit of Doctor Strangelove . In a nifty opening, he breaks out of a womb-like vat of liquid (not the last birth event in the book), and does what any newborn might do. He reads everything he can get his paws on. Doesn’t know where the ability came from, but really, really wants to get a handle on his world, and comes across Daddy his maker’s porn private, and very disturbing, notes.

Mattatheus Mowler is not your garden variety sorcerer. Sure he’s a few hundred years old, and is educated enough to animate dead parts, among other nifty tricks, but the boy has some serious ambition, not to mention an issue with aging, and is not to be messed with. That brimstone aroma that may be wrinkling your nose emanates the Faustian bargain he has made. He has a client list that would be the envy of any K Street operative. Of course, evil, connected genius or not, he is still human, more or less, and makes mistakes enough to allow for an actual contest. Not exactly your ideal re-animator, (or would that be assembler?) as daddy dearest rains blows and other abuse down on Heraclix’s large frame with abandon. But one day MM brings a sweet young thing to the lab, in a jar.

Pomp is a pixie with moxie. She encourages H to stand up for himself, and overcome the self-loathing that accompanies his beatings. Mowler has dark plans for her of the sacrificial sort, but the plan flies to pieces, the premises succumbs to fire (always a risk when dealing with hellspawn), and a dynamic dimorphic duo is made.

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The author – please note the shooter on his sleeve

The motive force here is Heraclix trying to find out who he actually is. With information gleaned from Mowler’s premises, he and Pomp set off on a classic journey of self-discovery. They cover a fair piece of European landscape, beginning in Vienna, with stops in Prague, Istanbul, Budapest, and sundry locales in between. Along the way they pick up pieces of the puzzle, as in a video game, that lead them from place to place. The information is sometimes in the form of clues, in Mowler’s papers, say, or in writing along the side of a coin. More often it is in the form of stories told by Gypsies, Cossacks, wizards, an old man in an obscure town, sundry characters they encounter in their quest. As the pair travel, together and separately, they gain points knowledge.

Heraclix comes across as a likeable hulk. He has a pure heart (whomever it might once have belonged to) and is an honest seeker after truth. In trying to discover his true identity he learns a thing or two

…there was something in the quality of sorrow suffered at the hands of another that was different than the sorrow that one brought on others, whether through one’s own stupidity and neglect or by intentional acts of hatred. The latter carried the sharpest stings of guilt, regret, self-berating…

Pomp, while a very valuable partner, is not so much seeking truth herself as she is eager to help Heraclix. Hey, the big lug saved her, so she owes him. But she finds that she, as well, is challenged to consider her view of herself and the world.

Her life isn’t now about playing pranks all day every day. It isn’t about not caring. All this playing pranks and not caring isn’t fun any more. If she goes on like this, her life stays immortally, eternally…boring. Death is sad, but death makes life more worth living.

In addition to H&P there is a parallel story involving Holy Roman Empire royalty, a young lass, and a fair bit of intrigue.

There are some images and themes that run throughout. Birth is addressed multiple times, in both a biological and baptismal way. Heraclix is very clearly being born by breaking out of a watery enclosure in an early scene. There is what might be seen as a baptism by fire, and later in the book, he has what seems another aqueous bursting through or two. History figures large here. Pomp, when we meet her, has no notion of it, not understanding the concept of memory. Heraclix cannot remember anything and wants to find out who he is. The tale is told in a historical context, offering a look at the feel, if not much of the detail, of tension between the Holy Roman Empire and its foreign enemies. Eternal life is addressed in the wizard’s desire for it and in how Pomp, who has it, copes with and gives a lot of thought to the implications of life without end. Changing one’s life is also addressed on multiple fronts. A killer becomes a healer. Pomp is faced with potentially changing her orientation as well, getting to see in person the questionable wages of all-fun-all –the-time.

I am sure there are many references to folk tales I missed in here, but a visit to hell itself surely must conjure Dante. So be on the lookout for references to The Inferno. And heading to the basement certainly seems in synch with a Campbellian structure.

One of the things that most impressed me was the diversity and creativity of Aguirre’s imagination. Heraclix alone is a marvelous concoction, but there are many more. Phantoms haunting the one who killed them, demonflies from Hell, a Godzilla-like Beelzebub, some carnivorous clover, fairies up to no good, a demonized crow, some magic mirrors, a telescope for seeing magic. The list is considerable and the creations quite fun. While some echo familiar elements of fantasy fiction, there is an added layer of the new that gives it all some real sparkle.

Gripes were few. There are a fair number of characters, and it can be a bit tough at times keeping them straight. The ARC I read did not have a list of characters in it. I do not know if the final version might. I find it useful to make my own list as I read to help keep everyone straight. Also there was one escape I had a problem with. H manages to escape from hell, but it is not entirely clear to me how he got from underground to above..

Aguirre has established himself as a top-drawer, award-winning editor of speculative fiction, and a seasoned writer of sci-fi as well. Heraclix and Pomp demonstrates that he is also a confident, creative and imaginative novelist. The journey on which Heraclix and Pomp set out is a consistently interesting and engaging one, offering not only a look at a fantastical world, but adult consideration of eternal, real-world, existential issues. I am sure they would love for you to tag along.

Heraclix and Pomp was sent along by the author, a GR friend, in return for a fair review

Review posted – 9/12/14

Publication date – 10/14/14

This review has also been posted on Goodreads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google+ and FB pages

Aguirre’s blogspot page, Forrest for the Trees, includes a 24:47 sample of the audio book. Some items in the archives are worth a look, including a three-part sneak peek at the second adventure of H&P, and a piece on his writing process (no necromancy involved).

An interesting interview with Forrest on Shelf Inflicted, in which, among other things, he talks about how H&P came to be.

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction

The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

book cover

Stand very still. Breathe as softly as you can. See that little flicking movement? No, not over there, straight ahead, behind the bush. Keep looking. You will see it. I promise. There. Didn’t I tell you? Cool, right? Isn’t she beautiful?

One of the foundations on which the study of nature is based is to be still and watch. Yes, there is a lot more to it, but you have to find some inner quiet, clear your mental and sensory palate, stop fidgeting, and allow the images, scents, sounds and feel of the world cross your senses, settle in and register. Watching and noticing is an excellent place to start. In The Hidden Life of Deer, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has done just that. And she was able to learn a lot without having to look very far beyond her back door in Peterborough, NH.

book cover

The Author

Usually oak trees spread acorns over the landscape every autumn, but in 2007, in Thomas’s neck of the woods, they seemed to be on strike. Reluctant to see the local whitetails endure the particular hardship of cold plus starvation, Thomas took it upon herself to provide something that might help, corn. Deer had been visible on her land forever, but the feeding assured that there would be plenty of deer to watch.
There is probably more written about deer than any other animal. I found 1.2 million websites, 80 books in print, many more out of print and about 100 articles on deer. I really think they are the most studied mammals in the world, but nobody cares about their social lives. They care about the bacteria in their gut in winter, and things related to hunting them — but not what they really are or do. I wanted to just watch them and learn who they are.- from the Mother Nature Network interview

Thompson takes us along with her as she struggles with figuring out how to identify individual animals, and observing the dynamics of interactions among deer groups. There are nuggets of information scattered throughout the book, material that will make you smile as you add it to your accumulated knowledge of the world. Why, for example, do deer nibble and move, nibble and move, instead of chomping down a bit farther in a given patch? Why is food that is ok for deer at one time of year, useless in another? How can deer scat help you determine what direction the critter was headed? How dangerous are antlered buck battles? How can you tell a place is a deer resting spot? How have deer adapted to ways in which people hunt them?

…a useful way to look at another life-form is to assume that whatever it may be doing—chewing bark, digging a tiny hole, wrapping itself in a leaf, sending up a sprout, turning its leaves to face the sunlight—it is trying to achieve a goal that you, in your way, would also want to achieve. In fact, you can be sure of that. The closer you are taxonomically to what you are looking at, the more likely you are to recognize what it’s goals might be, and the further you are, the less likely. Either way it’s fascinating.

Thompson does not fawn solely over deer for the entirety. There is plenty of subsidiary intel here on other forest dwellers. Turkeys come in for a considerable look and you will be thankful, I guarantee it. Bobcat scat (no not a form of feline singing) on a boulder has particular significance, and is not just evidence that the kittie could not make it to the usual dumping ground in time. (see, I managed not to conjure an image of the guy below leaving a deposit in the woods) In fact there is a whole section on varieties of woodland scat that you will not want to wipe from your memory. There is a description of oak behavior, yes behavior, that will make you wonder if Tolkien’s depiction of ents might have more truth to it than most have suspected.

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Not to leave all the consideration to the critters, Thompson offers some observations on human selection and characteristics as well.

suppose we had evolved in the northern forests, rather than simply arriving there as an invasive species. We certainly wouldn’t be naked—we’d be permanently covered with dense fur—and when our pineal glands told us that the days were getting short, we’d do a lot more than simply feel gloomy—we‘d redouble our efforts to find food, and we’d start breeding so that nine months later our young would be born in the spring. Allegedly we do eat and breed a bit more in the autumn, but if we were truly a northern hemispheric species, we’d do it in grand style…The reason we don’t have thick fur and a breeding season is not because we’re superior beings, but because we evolved where such things were not needed.

She also goes into some unusual hunting rituals humans engage in, wondering if the practices in question might extend into pre-history. She refers to such learning, handed down from generation to generation, as The Old Way, ( a subject she explores in depth in her book of that title) whether it is the passing of information by ungulates or homo sap.

In fact Thomas, an anthrolopogist, as well as a naturalist, has spent considerable time in Africa, living with and studying the Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari, writing about what she learned in The Harmless People, Warrior Herdsmen and The Old Way: A Story of the First People. She is best known for The Hidden Life of Dogs. She has also written about felines, in The Tribe of the Tiger: Cats and their Culture

Thomas is very easy to read. You need not be concerned with getting lost in scientific jargon. She is very down to earth, and very accessible. There is a spare beauty to her prose. She has also written several novels, (Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife most prominently) so she knows how to frame and tell a story.

For most of us, city-dwellers by and large, opportunities for wildlife observation are much more limited than they are for those living so much closer to actual wilderness. But we need not be starved for information, insight, lore and wisdom about the natural world. Just as Thompson provided corn for deer to help get them from one year to another, so she has offered, in The Hidden Life of Deer, knowledge and nourishment for the mind and the soul. You will learn a lot reading this, some of it very surprising. The book has been found by many readers since its publication in 2009. Do yourself a favor and hunt down a copy, then sit somewhere where no one can see you and read it very quietly. I advise against twitching your ears.

Review posted – 9/5/14

Publication date – 2009

This review has also been posted on Goodreads.com
=======================================EXTRA STUFF

A PBS Nature Video – The Secret Life of Deer

The Quality Deer Management Association, a hunters site, yes, really has a lot of info on whitetails

A Lovely interview with the author on Mother Nature Network

A Publisher’s Weekly profile of Thomas, Rebel with a Cause

An interesting youtube vid of Thomas talking about The Old Way

There are six parts to this Daily Motion interview with Thomas. Here is a link to the first of those.

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Suicide Game by Haidji

book cover Suicide Game, a first novel by the mononymous Haidji, is an oil and water mixture of intriguing concepts, impressive visual sensibilities, and, at least in the English version, a crying need for a professional, native-English-speaking editor.

The core element here is the Suicide Game itself, a privately run enterprise that takes in 8,000 contestants and produces a single winner, in a more or less contemporary setting. It does put one in mind of the scene in Glengarry Glen Ross when Blake, a bully sent to incentivize the sales staff at a real estate firm, says to them, “As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody wanna see second prize? Second prize’s a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” It might read here “First prize, fame and fortune, with treasures beyond your imagining. Second prize, you die.” In The Hunger Games participants were selected by lottery. In Suicide Game, it is voluntary. One might wonder who in their right mind would willingly participate in such a travesty.

Haidji has put together an ensemble cast. There are game participants, with contemporary and back-story people connected to each, the council that runs the whole thing, the arena designer, and a smattering of game employees. No one character occupies enough time to be considered primary. Oh, and add in a terrorist.

One can take this as a straight ahead story about a social abomination, and the individual tales that feed it, or take it as a metaphor for existing sociological madness. Choose the former and you may find yourself leaping into an abyss.

What country would allow such a thing to take place? At least when nations sponsor the suicide game we call war, they attempt to offer at least the pretense of a reason. Not so much here. Why would anyone choose to participate in any contest with such poor odds unless they had nothing left to lose? And while the lure of fame and fortune might lead one to publicly humiliate oneself, as we see every day on reality programming, it is a whole other level to join a death march. And if one is seeking to kill oneself, the usual reason is despair. What possible appeal might there be to enticing participants with glory when they have already given up all hope? While there are some shenanigans involved in the legitimacy of some of the contestants, I found the justification offered for most of the competitors to be thin. Kinda tough to invest much in relating to characters if the reasons for their actions are unpersuasive. Why choose to die? Why not try to solve your problems? And if you are determined to snuff it, there are plenty of quicker ways to go about it. Why drag it out for several days, and do it in front of a global audience? Lost love figures large here. But then found love figures pretty large as well, with love at first sight a very unconvincing motivator. Maybe in this world there are no second acts, let alone third ones. They might take some advice from Ingrid Michaelson. All the broken hearts in the world still beat. Despite the rampant heart disease our culture breeds, people get over heartbreak, find new loves, new outlets, new satisfactions. I got the feeling that the characters jumping into the game could do with a good talking-to, or an intervention. “You schmuck, sit down! What the hell were you thinking?” Taking the USA as an example there are 39,000 suicides here annually, more or less. Cramming 8,000 of them into a four day span is, well, a stretch, suggesting that it must have been a really bad week when applications were being accepted, or a big week for immigration. I imagine the selection process was probably as selective as that used by the National Geographic Society for individuals nominated for membership. (Although George Bailey certainly deserves to belong.)

book cover

Haidji

In addition to an excess of telling over showing, there are elements there that hint at an eagerness to gloss over problematic details. It is as if the entire world existed in a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney film in which the neighborhood kids decide, “Let’s put on a play,” and magically a stage, set, costumes, script and time for rehearsal all appear as if out of nowhere. Just think it and it is so. For example, the management of the stadium decides to make a radical change in their food service, and it is changed during a break in the game action. Modifications to significant stage elements of the stadium are likewise implemented as if by divine command. A significant computer programming re-working is done in, it seems, nanoseconds. With over twenty years as a programmer, I can say for fracking sure, no bloody way. The romantic relationships also seemed to lack real-world substance.

Ok, if, however one takes this as a piece of social commentary, it becomes possible to look past the story-telling problems and settle in to a consideration of larger issues. One can look at the heartless exploitation of the participants by corporate entities, and not have to look too far to find contemporary equivalents. In the US, how the NFL treats players is pretty close to amoral disinterest in the well-being of the workers who create the value they are selling. I am sure there are plenty of equivalents in other sports. The entertainment industry offers many examples of people willingly putting themselves, their reputations, and maybe their health, if not their lives, at risk in order to gain their fifteen minutes in the media spotlight. The Suicide Game might be seen as an exaggeration of that reality to make a point. I do not think that major sports organizations descended to a level of exploitation where they process, package and sell bits of loser contestants. But would you really put that past the NFL, or our major networks? One element in all this is the dehumanization of the contestants by putting them all in the same uniform and having makeup artists remove remnant individuality from their faces. This surely speaks to the depersonalization inherent in much of mass media. Outside of committed fans, can you really tell who is wearing a particular football uniform on a given Sunday? Just as players are largely a production factor for corporate owners, parts that can be replaced as needed when they wear out, the suicide game takes the notion to an extreme, and succeeds in making a point.

My biggest gripe about the book is that the English is in need of serious repair. Haidji speaks English. We were pals on GR for a while (until this review was posted) and have exchanged our share of messages, so I can attest that her English is pretty good. But I cannot say whether this book was written in another language (she speaks several) and translated or was written directly in English. In either case, it is in great need of an editor whose native tongue is English. There are many instances in which it is possible to ferret out what the author meant, when the words used did not do that job well enough. Turns of phrase are sometimes simply wrong. Readers are expected to read between the lines for thematic or psychological reasons, but should not have to do so in order to simply correct the text. That said, it is a readable book. Just be aware that you may have to do some extra work to figure out what is being said.

If one can get beyond the language shortcomings, there is fair bit of interesting material tucked into the story. Haidji concocts an umbrella made of air alone that is pretty cool. The notion of making diamonds of the unexpected material cited here is a real thing. The stadium design has some elements that are quite fascinating. Her governing Suicide Game council applies a very unusual voting methodology. A court case involving Big Oil is also reality-based. An early scene involving a terrorist and 9/11 was one of the strongest elements in the story. On the other hand, use is made of a drug referred to as “milk of amnesia.” Such a drug does exist. I have been a personal beneficiary on multiple occasions. (Yes, it is legal, wiseass, and is used in medical work) But it does not act in the real world as it is shown to act here.

There are some mysteries in here as well that add texture. Who is actually in charge of the whole thing? How did a baby get loose in the stadium? Will the smitten connect with the actual objects of their…um…smit? Will everyone be blown to bits?

It is also clear that Haidji has a strong sense of the visual. Color and texture offer a strongly defined background against which the characters do their things. The game logo is wonderful. Candidates are in white face, dressed in shiny black, made up to betray no emotion. The logo is painted in orange. That hare krishnas are in attendance enhances the presence of that color. Ushers who clean up the bodies are dressed in gray. Makeup artists at the game wear matte black, and the game Hostess wears a red femme fatale dress. Designer names for clothing and footwear are rampant, which certainly does not speak to me. I had to look up far too many of these. But readers with more fashion knowledge (pretty much everyone) will have a better shot at appreciating the references.

There are problems for sure with Suicide Game. It really, really needs the assistance of a professional, native-English-speaker editor. There are issues with an overly simplified view of how relationships might progress and even how things work in the world. But if you can make a leap of faith to look past these, there are rewards to be had in the many fascinating notions that live in that world with them. You might enjoy Suicide Game, and without having to pay the ultimate price.

Review posted – August 29, 2014

I received this book from the author in return for an honest review.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google+, FB and Youtube pages

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Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

book cover In principio erat verbum

In the beginning was the word, (well according to John 1:1 anyway) but in the absence of someone writing it down, then printing millions of copies, you might never have known. So maybe in the beginning was the word but right behind it was the printer. Before Stephen King, Dan Brown, JK Rowling or AC Doyle, there was once a major global best-seller, the first one. It had an initial printing of one hundred eighty, and it changed the world.

Alix Christie has given us a look at how the Gutenberg bible came to be, and in so doing has illuminated the image we might have of this seminal work with portraits of the man himself, the era in which he lived, the politics of the time, details of the technical advances that went into development of the movable type press, and a look at the people involved.

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The finished product – from the University of Cambridge Library

When you combine the words Gutenberg with Bible, you might conjure an image of some monkish guy in a garage basement, or barn, banging away at his personal project until Voila! You might also think printing the bible was his first gig. Turns out, not so much. While it may not have taken a village to make the famous big book, it came close. Johannes Gensfleisch, the man we know as Gutenberg, (the name of the town where his mother had been born) had some help. There is no question that he was a genius, and that his notions of using movable metal type ushered in a new age. But he was also a very results oriented entrepreneur. Bit of a slave-driver too, as well as being someone of questionable ethical standards, and maybe not the guy you would want having your back in a critical moment. One of the joys of Alix Christie’s tale is learning at least some of the many challenges of all sorts that had to be met along the way from revolutionary printing notion to reality. She came on her less-than-glowing notions about Gutenberg as the sole source of the genius behind the press as a result of relatively recent research by several European scholars. She goes into details on the book’s site.

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The author – from her Facebook page


Our window into this world is his assistant. Peter Schoeffer, the apprentice of the title, was a scribe in Paris when Johann Fust, who had adopted him, summoned him back to Mainz (pronounced mīn(t)s) to work as Genfleisch’s apprentice. Fust had seen what Gutenberg might do with his marvelous new machine and committed a significant financial stake to the project. Part of the deal was for Peter to be an apprentice in Gutenberg’s shop. Fust’s intentions were not wholly beneficent. He wanted a spy on the inside. The story of how the bible was ultimately made is given by Peter, relating his history to a monk many years later. We step back and forth between the then (1450-1454) and the now (1485), of the story. This offers the author a way to present some views on Gutenberg from a more objective distance. Well, from a distance, anyway. JG is presented in a rather dim light as seen through Peter’s eyes.

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Johannes Fust and Peter Schoeffer

In the world of the late 15th century the Catholic Church was a particularly corrupt and oppressive force, impacting the world of earthly politics to an unholy degree. It was within the power of an archbishop, for example, to essentially quarantine an entire city if, say, the ruling council of that city went against his wishes. The Church was also busy selling indulgences, pieces of paper on which the church had incorporated its imprimatur, and which, once you filled in your name, would guarantee forgiveness in heaven for sins committed on earth. The 15th century variety was a way for the church to raise funds, for things like Crusades and large papal celebrations. As the mass production of these monstrosities could be stunningly lucrative to the church, those in charge had a considerable interest in the possibility of new printing technology. And Gutenberg had to be on his guard to keep the church from learning of his project too soon, lest they seize his entire workshop for their own purposes. Secrecy was paramount, and many tongues needed to be stilled for the project to proceed. This creates considerable tension in the story, even though we know that the book is eventually made. Christie also looks at the local politics of the city, the importance of guilds, and the political push-pull of the elders (think the one percent) vs the workers (in this case, guilds).

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The G-Man

The focus on the people involved in the time and place make this a tale of Mainz and men (sorry), and not just a tracking of technological innovation. There is a bit of romance in here as well, as Peter and a local lass become entangled. This offers Christie an opportunity to look at the status of women in the late 15th century and note the life-threatening aspect of childbirth that was much more a hazard then than it is today. Of course the tech stuff is fascinating, as it took considerable trial and error to work out the kinks. Christie is a master of these details. As she should be. She apprenticed as a printer and owns a working press. However, she is equally adept at portraying the many interpersonal tensions and complications in the relationships of the major players.

For centuries the ruling class had run the city like their private bank. They’d lent the council sums they then repaid themselves at crushing rates of interest. These bonds they then bequeathed to their own spawn, in perpetuity. Thus was the city fated to insolvency, like half of the free cities of the Reich. Each time the treasury was bare, Archbishop Dietrich would step in, prop up that rotting edifice, enact some other tax that only workingmen and merchants had to bear.

Contemporary issues resonate here. Just as the internet, a marvelous bit of technology, can be put to low or dark purposes, so could the original printing press. In fact an early money-maker for Gutenberg was the equivalent of a penny-dreadful. The selling of indulgences by the Church is echoed today whenever the Department of Justice investigates corporations for malfeasance. What remains clear is that tools, even miraculous ones, are only as good as the people who control them. The stresses between old and new, between powerful and less powerful, between religious and secular power comes through. BTW, one of the reasons Gutenberg opted to produce a bible is that a project that was in the works with church leaders to print a standardized missal fell through. I suppose one might call this an early missal crisis. I wouldn’t, but I suppose some might.

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The press

I expect Christie was hewing as closely as possible to the history she is writing about. Peter was a real person, as were all the major and maybe even minor characters in this impressive book. As the fictional Peter here tells his story to a monk many years after the events described, so the real Peter did the same. This is definitely an instance in which the historical aspect of this historical novel is a very powerful element. She even includes in an afterword a bit of what happened to each of the characters after the bible was completed. No, nothing on Dean Wormer.

I have two gripes with the book, neither of them major. I appreciate Christie hewing to history in her re-telling of how the great book came to be, but I did not find the steps forward to Peter’s telling the tale to a monk altogether necessary. Second, one thing you should know about Gutenberg’s Apprentice is that, as informative and satisfying as it is, it is a slow read. At least it was for me. You are unlikely to be taking this one to the beach to while away a few hours. But if you settle in for a longer spell, you will be richly rewarded.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice may not be the first book you have ever read, but it will definitely leave a lasting impression.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

An informative Wiki piece on Fust and Schoeffer

A nice video on the press. Ignore the word kids on the site. This is accessible and interesting, even if the documentary video cadged music from John Adams and is a bit amateurish.

A nifty wiki article on movable type

==================================AUTHOR

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google+ and FB pages

In addition, there is a lot of excellent material on Christie’s book site

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Reviews