THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orlean

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(April 28, 1986 Los Angeles Central Library City Fire)

“Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance.

It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.” (93)

 

People can acquire many types of addictions.  Mine, happens to be books and libraries and it is a very difficult “affliction” to accommodate.  Despite the digital age, there are books everywhere.  New, old, they seem to proliferate mercilessly, the temptation seems to rise each day.  When I came across Susan Orlean’s new book, THE LIBRARY BOOK I knew that I once again had to confront my disease.  In the end, Orlean has written a wonderful ode to libraries and books.  Her subject revolves around the April 28, 1986 fire that destroyed about 500,000 volumes and damaged another 700,000 books, in addition to microfilm, special collections, and an unsettling amount of other materials at the Los Angeles Central Library.  Her narrative is a combination of historical fact, and a deeply personal emotional experience as she describes her own childhood visiting libraries with her mother and doing the same with her son.  Orleans provides a concise history of the Central Library and how the city of Los Angeles responded to the crisis the day of the fire, and how it tried to cope and rebuild from the loss.  As Billie Connor, a children’s librarian described after she and others entered the building immediately after the LAFD put the fire out; “they felt like they died and gone to see if Dante knew what he was writing about.” (34)

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For Orlean the motivating factor in writing THE LIBRARY BOOK was emotive as she realized she was losing her mother to dementia.  Her mother who had imbued her with the love of libraries is recognized as Orlean composes her narrative to try and preserve her memories of her mother from when she was a child.

Orlean’s approach is rather eclectic and comprehensive at the same time.  She provides wonderful character portraits which add to our understanding of the role that libraries play in our communities.  One individual stands out, that of John Szabol, the head of the Central Library system of Los Angeles who early in his career acquired the nickname,  “Conan the Librarian.”  Szabol views libraries as serving many functions in addition to the dissemination of books.  During disasters they serve as a community center to assist displaced people.  Libraries are one of the few places where the homeless are welcomed and given access to computers, the internet, and if they want “dally” all day.  Szabol dispatch of mobile bookmobiles to homeless areas are among the many programs to assist the public that went beyond the traditional library.

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Character portraits abound in the book.  Apart from Szabol is Orlean’s description of Charles Fletcher Lumis who became the head of the Central Library in 1905 because the library board fired his predecessor because she was a woman.  Lumis’ life is an amazing story in of itself.  Traveler, poet, historian, journalist his talents and life are a fascinating story.  Despite his unusual approach to administration he was responsible for many library components that exist today, i.e.; the photography and autograph collections; the California and Spanish history collections; among his many innovations.  Another library character that stands out is Glen Creason who began taking courses in library science in 1979 and is currently the longest serving librarian in the history of the Central Library.  He has become the library’s institutional memory and his career has spanned surviving the 1986 fire, the AIDS epidemic in which thirteen librarians died, the reopening of the building, and the adjustment to the internet.  Orlean’s approach is to discuss these somewhat obscure figures in a deeply personal manner and she gives them an enthusiasm and zest for what they have done and continue to do that is unimaginable.

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(The library today)

Focusing on a different aspect of her study of libraries, Orlean presents a history of book burning that appears to be the norm, rather than the exception throughout the centuries.  Orlean begins her discourse with a discussion of the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria, carrying forth through the 20th century as the Nazis committed libricide with their Feurspruches and Brenn Kommandos designed to snuff out all Jewish learning.  It seems that Heinrich Heine was correct, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.”  Hitler was not the only practitioner of libricide; Mao, the Khmer Rouge, Saddam, and the Taliban who continue the practice to this day. Further, Orlean even tries to replicate burning books by trying to ignite her copy of FARENEIHT 451, a task that was difficult and painful.

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Before the fire the library contained over 2 million volumes.  Orleans’ initial focus is how so many volunteers and businesses responded to try and salvage the 700,000 damaged books.  She describes amazing people and procedures to save them.  From freeze drying the books, to packing them up and transporting them to freezers at the fish market, hotel kitchens, and other food warehouses in order to stop the spread of mold.  The city’s response was incredible. Human chains of hundreds of people were formed as strangers worked together to save “knowledge.”  The fire itself was deemed as suspicious from the outset, and in a short time it became clear it was arson.  Since Harry Peake, an actor wanna be, fit the profile of an arsonist; white male between seventeen and twenty-five; in addition to being present at the library at the time of the fire he was immediately considered a suspect.  A month later, when someone identified him from a composite photo it reaffirmed that suspicion.

Orlean does a wonderful job integrating American history and its impact on the Central Library’s own progression.  There are numerous examples to support that conclusion.  Some of the most interesting is how the library administration responded to the demographic growth of Los Angeles, particularly after World War II.  New programs were added to meet the needs of the people, i.e.; microfilm and microfiche, teen departments and other innovations.  The library also tried to meet the concerns of the government as Sputnik and returning veterans created concerns for the public that needed to be met.  Finally, Orlean’s history reflects the sexism that was dominant in all libraries.  For decades only, men were allowed top administrative positions. That began to change with the appointment of Mary Jones, Mary Foy, Harriet Wadleigh, and Althea Warren over the years.

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By the last third of the book, Orlean began to alternate chapters dealing with the library’s history and the case against Harry Peake. The investigation of Peake’s actions at the time of the fire  was drawn out over a long period as Harry was a fabulist who could not keep his story straight.  With seven different iterations of where he was the morning of the fire, investigators had a difficult time creating other than a circumstantial case against him.  The bizarre case resulted in Peake’s law suit against the city, and the city’s counter suit against Peake.  The result was inconclusive and to this day one wonders how the fire came to be.

If there is a theme that emerges from reading Orlean’s work, it is how the Central Library has maintained its relevance throughout the last hundred years or so.  The ability to reinvent itself to meet the needs of their community and constituency whether rich or poor, or even homeless is truly amazing.  Reading Orlean is to travel and immerse oneself in the problems faced by libraries, and how miraculously in the case of the central Library it has overcome disaster and continues to flourish to this day.

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Perhaps  the most wonderful aspect of Orlean’s narrative is how she navigates the Central library and its branches and explain how they operate. Along the way she imparts numerous pearls of information to acquaint the reader of the wonderful world of libraries.  Her observations are priceless as she states that a library is the perfect place to become invisible.  It also has its own rhythms and sounds that are unique.  The Los Angeles system is best described “as if the city has a bloodstream flowing through it, oxygenated by books.”  Orlean has written a wonderful book that should satisfy the interests for all who frequent libraries and wonder how they evolved, and how they are constantly working to meet our needs.

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(Fire damage from April 28, 1986)

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THE CARTEL by Don Winslow

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(Jaurez, Mexico border with the US)

“Mexico, the land of pyramids and palaces, deserts, jungles, mountains and beaches, markets and gardens, boulevards and cobblestoned streets, broad plazas and hidden courtyards, is now known as a slaughter ground.

And for what?

So North Americans can get high.” (THE CARTEL, 314)

 

“Hard to believe that 2010, the annus horribiis of the Mexican drug war, has finally come to an end.

The final tally of drug related deaths in Mexico in 2010 comes to 15,273.

That’s what we count now, Pablo thinks, instead of counting down to midnight.

We count deaths.” (481)

 

Don Winslow’s second installment of his narco trafficking trilogy, THE CARTEL seems nastier than THE POWER OF THE DOG.  The cast of characters is similar, but new ones are introduced that seem to be derived from the depths of humanity, and in this case the pit that is known for its violent drug culture.  However, Winslow’s opening leads the reader to believe that the story line might go in a different direction as the reader is introduced to a bee keeper tending his bees in a monastery and during his free time he is at prayer.  One should not be fooled as the bee keeper is Art Keller, the hero of THE POWER OF THE DOG, a former CIA operative and DEA agent who has been fighting narco traffickers for over thirty years.  Once Keller is reintroduced so is Adan Barrera, narco kingpin and the bane of Keller’s and the DEA’s existence.  In fact, Winslow points out that Barrera is even rated 67th most powerful man in the world by Forbes  magazine. The latest version of Winslow’s trilogy has all the elements of the first, but it might be my imagination, but it feels more violent and a steeper climb into the underworld of drugs that seem to seep into every crevice of Mexican society, government, and justice.  In addition, it is also a tale of two major business organizations that fight to the death for market share – it is eerie how this story unravels.

The hatred between Keller and Barrera is heightened as Keller fakes the funeral of Barrera’s daughter to lure him into a trap that results in his arrest and imprisonment.  THE CARTEL is the perfect sequel as Barrera puts out a $2 million contract on Keller who is forced to live like a fugitive in Mexico and America.  From inside Puente Grande Prison, supposedly Mexico’s harshest maximum facility, Barrera is treated as a “king” and begins to rebuild his drug empire.  Business is booming, which fosters envy from all those narco kingpin wan bees who believed he was out of the picture – the result is civil war, revenge, violence, torture, all emanating from within the narco world, but also outside as many innocent people are killed.  The civil war becomes extremely convoluted as the cartels keep switching sides, making it difficult to follow who is killing who, and for what reason.

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(Mexico border at El Paso, TX)

While inside prison Barrera meets Magna Beltran, who becomes his mistress.  Beltran is just one example of the new characters that Winslow creates to carry his new novel.  She was arrested for drug running when she meets Barrera and he courts her as if they were on the outside.  She is an ambitious woman who realizes once her looks are gone, she will be discarded.  She worms her way into Barrera’s good graces and develops a drug business of her own and becomes a major narco player.  Other important characters include Osiel Contreras who heads the Gulf Cartel and the Zeta army made up of former special forces soldiers, deserters,  and police that is trained and led by a former soldier, Heriberto Ochoa.  Ochoa oversees the Zetas as they try and infringe upon other cartel territories.  Eddie Ruiz, a former high school football star who, as with most characters in the book becomes involved in the drug trade as he builds himself a small empire but is forced to join Barrera for protection from Contreras’ Zeta army.  It appears that each narco head has his own private army with the latest weaponry to go after each other and protect their investments.  Winslow is very astute or sarcastic as he points out that in the old days, the narco leaders would be at the forefront of the fighting, but now they send their own private forces to do their dirty work.  The violence becomes so bad that as cartel armies go against each other one gets the feeling they are in Iraq,  Syria, or Afghanistan.  In fact, the drug wars became terror wars with indiscriminate killing to intimidate and sow fear, rather than conquer targets.

Winslow uses Barrera’s desire to expand into the Juarez cartel as a vehicle to explore the socio-economic problems of Juarez, a city that lies across the river from El Paso as well as the inability of the authorities to provide protection for its citizenry.  Using Pablo Mora, a reporter for El Periodico as a tool to explain how the police have a difficult time solving crimes, the reporter explains why the structure of policing is inefficient, and why duties are distributed in such a manner that they overlap creating redundancy and incompetence.  With combinations of city police, state prosecutors and police, federal prosecutors and police, a grab bag of intelligence agencies from the city, state, and national governments, and of course the influence of the cartels which have their own police forces made up of current and retired officers it is amazing that the police can accomplish anything for the public good.  Mora’s work provides insights into cartel policies and their impact on Mexican and American society.  Mora is an important character as Winslow tries to integrate somewhat of a “normal” individual into the story, but he too suffers as his four-year-old son moves to Mexico City due to divorce.

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(supposed caravans unwelcome at US border)

Another exceptional character is Marisol  Cisneros, a physician who Keller falls in love with.  She is stubborn to the point that she puts her safety in question.  Refusing to back down to the violence wrought by the cartels in Valverde, her home village where she runs a medical clinic for the poor, her story provides further evidence for the ruthless behavior employed by the sociopaths that head the cartels.

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(The Author)

Winslow’s ability to invent unusual characters that capture the reader’s attention is limitless.  Two Mexican government officials, Louis Aguilar and Gerardo Veras begin working with Keller, but their loyalties are questioned making it hard to determine what their agendas are, and which one can be trusted.  Keller’s relationship with DEA head Tim Taylor reemerges and the results are interesting to say the least. Eddie Ruiz acquires the nickname of “Crazy Eddie,” or “Narc o Polo” and he eventually allies with Jesus “Chuy” Barajos, an eleven-year-old boy from the barrio who is trained as an elite soldier by the Zetas.  After a series of events he switches sides, joins Ruiz, and acquires the nickname “Jesus the Kid.”  It seems that Chuy found religion when he was picked up by a religious cult called La Familia Michoacana, led by a cult figure, named Nazario. The cult engages in good works for Jesus providing food, medical care, and housing throughout the barrios of Mexico and American border regions.  The problem of course is how this is funded, and you can guess it was paid for by the “meth trade,” whereby the family had built its own drug empire which of course had intruded on another cartel’s area of control.  Another family/cartel is headed by Diego Tapia, who along with his two brothers are allied with Barrera, until they aren’t.  If there is a common theme to many of the characters it is their fear of going to sleep, which brings them dreams about all the murders they have witnessed, covered, implicated, or for a few committed.  For Pablo it is “the dead, the dying, the grieving.  The dismembered, the decapitated, the flayed.” (559)

There are other characters and story lines that emerge for the reader to discover, but they all revolve around the drug trade, the domination of supply and distribution, particularly the burgeoning heroine epidemic in the United States, corruption of the Mexican government and law enforcement, and the violence as the cartels go to war with each other, with certain personalities continuing their vendettas.

At times Winslow’s sense of humor emerges as he points out that NAFTA, does not stand for the North American Free Trade Agreement, but “the North American Free Drug Trade Agreement.”  THE CARTEL  is a bit longer that THE POWER OF THE DOG, but it packs an even greater punch and will keep the reader riveted as it expands its exploration of the drug trade from Central and South America feeding the habits of American citizens.  Winslow is a master of numerous story lines that eventually converge.  The reader needs to be on their toes not to miss a step as the author unveils his plot very carefully, i.e.; Keller’s off book investigation of the Mexican justice system after he helped ignite the cartel civil war.  The book is an eye opener and difficult to put down.  After I finished reading, I can only imagine what new twists and turns Winslow will introduce in the third installment of his trilogy due out this February, entitled, THE BORDER.

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TRUMP SUCCUMBS TO THE DIRECTORATE OF DICTATORSHIP (as opposed to the “Axis of Evil!)

 

I have been studying the balance of power in the Middle East since 1967. That being said, I believe I have some perspective as to what is in play in the region and how it affects American national security. Trump’s decision by tweet yesterday can only be seen as based on total ignorance(he probably thinks Lebanon is the city in Pennsylvania) and one has to wonder how the Directorate of Dictatorship, Putin, Assad, and Erdogan factor into the move. To say Trump is Putin’s “poodle” goes without saying, but to abandon our Kurdish allies who have fought and died to defeat ISIS is sad and extremely consequential. Historically, we have “screwed/abandoned” the Kurds before be it in dealing with Saddam Hussein or other parties, but because the Turks hate the PKK we have to kowtow to our supposed NATO ally. If any evidence is needed to see how Trump feels about his Turkish bro just look at how General Flynn tried to gain the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan blames for the coup against him, to Ankara.

Maybe I am reading too much into this. Perhaps it is Trump being Trump as he tries to remove the Russia probe, the disbanding of his foundation by the state of New York, and the parade of his former associates before the legal system and flipping from the headlines. By pulling troops out of Syria he somewhat removes his domestic legal problems from newspaper bylines as Pentagon officials, foreign policy experts, and even Republicans speak out against his inability to comprehend the needs of US national security. Trump can send two thousand troops to the southern border to meet the non-existent caravans of “drug runners and rapists” (by the way we don’t hear much about this since the midterm elections except when a seven year old girl dies), but we cannot maintain our presence in Syria to prevent a resurgence of ISIS. Trump has declared victory, I seem to remember another American president did the same thing on an air craft carrier a number of years ago.

Who is the winner here – very simple; The Directorate of Dictatorship, and by the way I believe the Iranians are having a chuckle. Who are the losers? American allies, the Kurdish people, and in the long run the American people.

Putin backs Trump’s move to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, says Islamic State dealt ‘serious blows’


Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow on December 20, 2018. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

December 20 at 7:45 AM

 Russian President Vladimir Putin praised President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, describing the American presence there as illegitimate and the Islamic State as largely defeated on the ground.

Putin told journalists at his annual year-end news conference that the Islamic State has suffered “serious blows” in Syria.

“On this, Donald is right. I agree with him,” Putin said.

Trump said Wednesday that the Islamic State has been defeated in Syria, although analysts say the militant group remains a deadly force. Russia — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally — turned the tide in the civil war in Assad’s favor and has maintained its military presence there.

Moments after Putin’s statement, Trump tweeted about his decision to withdraw troops. He noted the presence of Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces, also enemies of the Islamic State, and said the United States was doing their work for them.

“Time for others to finally fight,” he said in a follow up tweet.

Days before Trump announces victory over ISIS, officials were preparing for a long engagement

The Trump administration is planning to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria immediately. The president tweeted Dec. 19 that the U.S. had defeated ISIS in Syria. 

 

Putin said the U.S. troop deployment to Syria, by contrast, was illegitimate because neither Assad’s government nor the United Nations had approved the U.S. mission.

“If the United States decided to withdraw its force, then this would be proper,” Putin said.

Russia has been negotiating a political settlement to the civil war in Syria with Assad, neighboring Turkey and Russia’s ally Iran. The presence of U.S. troops was not helpful for achieving such a settlement, Putin said.

He cautioned, however, that Russia was not yet seeing signs of a U.S. troop withdrawal.

“The United States has been in Afghanistan already for 17 years, and almost every year they say they’re withdrawing their troops,” Putin said.

INF Treaty walked U.S., Russia back from a Cold War nuclear showdown

The United States’ plan to scrap this Cold War treaty raises fears of another nuclear arms buildup. 

Putin also — again — took Trump’s side in defending his 2016 election victory, which critics say was tainted by Russian interference (which Russia denies). He drew a parallel to Britain, where politicians are in a bitter fight over how to implement the referendum vote in 2016 to exit the European Union.

The result, Putin suggested, was a crisis of democracy across the West. Western officials say that fomenting such a crisis is in fact the goal of Russian propaganda and influence efforts in Europe and the United States.

“People don’t want to acknowledge this victory — isn’t that disrespect for the voters?” Putin said of Trump’s success in the 2016 election. “Or in Britain, Brexit passed and no one wants to implement it. They’re not accepting the results of elections. Democratic procedures are being weakened, they’re being destroyed.”

Putin was tougher on Trump on the issue of arms control. He said there are currently no negotiations with the United States on extending a soon-to-expire nuclear arms control treaty, raising the risk of a situation that would be “very bad for humanity.”

The New START treaty limits the numbers of nuclear warheads deployed by Russia and the United States, and it is set to expire in 2021.

“There are no negotiations on extending it,” Putin said at the wide-ranging news conference. “It’s not interesting or not needed — fine then.”

Putin has long sought to bring the United States to the table on nuclear arms control talks. Analysts say that is in part because it is one of the only international issues on which Moscow and Washington can face each other as equals.

But Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton, have expressed skepticism of the existing arms control architecture. Trump has already announced plans to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which bans the United States and Russia from having missiles with a range between 300 and 3,500 miles.

With the likely demise of the INF Treaty, New START would be the last major agreement limiting the world’s two biggest nuclear arsenals. If New START expires, “we will ensure our security,” Putin said. “We know how to do it. But this is very bad for humanity because it leads us to a very dangerous line.”

Opinion An Antidote to Idiocy in ‘Churchill’ In this season of giving, get (and give) Andrew Roberts’s brilliant new biography.

As a former educator and historian, though I do not think the term “former” should ever apply in this context, I have become more and more amazed at our lack of historical knowledge and how it impacts us on a daily basis. All we have to do is examine the first eighteen years of the 21st century to realize that the errors our leaders committed, could have been prevented had we explored history, and in particular cultures of areas we became involved in. What is even more disconcerting is to read Bret Stephens opinion in the NYT as he points to a 2008 survey in Britain that states that 20% of teenagers thought Winston Churchill was a fictional character, and that 58% believed that Sherlock Holmes was a historical figure. Further, I understand that the same survey produced results that authenticated Eleanor Rigby as real! This is scary. Perhaps we should all choose a history book, sit back and read and try and create a barrier that prevents the ignorance that our society seems to suffer from. Computers, technology, and the internet are wondefull, but I would ask educational administrators to think about the role of teaching history and the contribution it might make to “make America great (not again, because we are great)!”

Opinion

An Antidote to Idiocy in ‘Churchill’

In this season of giving, get (and give) Andrew Roberts’s brilliant new biography.

By Bret Stephens

Opinion Columnist /  New York Times

This year, the retired astronaut Scott Kelly posted a harmless tweet quoting Winston Churchill’s famous line, “In victory, magnanimity.” Left-wing Twitter went berserk, and Kelly felt obliged to grovel.

“Did not mean to offend by quoting Churchill,” he wrote. “My apologies. I will go and educate myself further on his atrocities, racist views which I do not support.”

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. Think of Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain and the hard-core Brexiteers. Or of what used to be called the Republican establishment and Donald Trump.

We also live in an era in which the counterexamples are few and far between. “In defeat, defiance” is another great Churchillian maxim, and it’s hard to name a single political figure today who embodies it — as opposed to, say, “in defeat, early retirement to avoid a difficult primary.”

So maybe it’s time to acquaint (or reacquaint) ourselves with the original, and there’s no better way of doing it than to read the historian Andrew Roberts’s “Churchill: Walking With Destiny.” A review last month in The Times called it “the best single-volume biography of Churchill yet written,” but it’s more than that. It’s an antidote to the reigning conceits, self-deceptions, half-truths and clichés of our day.

For instance: Being born into “privilege” is ipso facto a privilege.

For Churchill — who suffered as a child under the remote glare of a contemptuous father and a self-indulgent mother; fought valiantly in four wars by the time he was 25; and earned his own living through prodigious literary efforts that ultimately earned him a Nobel Prize — the main privilege was the opportunity to bear up under the immense weight of inner expectation that came with being born to a historic name.

Or: To be a member of the establishment is to be a creature of it.

Churchill championed free trade to the consternation of Tory protectionists. He supported super-taxes on the rich and pensions for the old to the infuriation of his aristocratic peers. He called for rearmament before both world wars against the hopes and convictions of the pacifists and appeasers in power. His great, unfulfilled political ambition was to create a party of the sensible center. Being at the center of the establishment is what allowed him to be indifferent to — and better than — it.

Or: To be a champion of empire is to be a bigot.

In 1899, Churchill envisioned a future South Africa in which “Black is to be proclaimed the same as white … to be constituted his legal equal, to be armed with political rights.” He denounced the 1919 British massacre of Indian demonstrators at Amritsar as “a monstrous event.” He promoted social reform at home so that Britain could be a worthy leader of its dominions abroad. Churchill was a patriot, a paternalist, a product of his time — and, by those standards, a progressive.

Or: The moral judgments of the present are superior to those of the past.

One of the alleged crimes for which Churchill is now blamed is the perpetration of a “genocide” in India after a cyclone-caused famine in 1943. Evidence for this is that he used racially insensitive humor during the crisis. Except that Churchill did send whatever food he could spare, Japan was threatening India from Burma, the rest of world was at war, and difficult choices had to be made.

It is because Churchill made the judgments he did that his latter-day detractors live in a world free to make judgments about him.

Or: In politics, what counts are actions, not words.

“After those speeches, we wanted the Germans to come,” Roberts quotes one R.A.F. squadron leader as saying of Churchill’s speech of June 1940, following the deliverance at Dunkirk. “He makes them feel they are living their history,” a Canadian diplomat said of the effect of his words on the public. “It’s precisely the resolute and definite character of the British Government’s stance which has done so much to help the masses overcome their initial fright,” was the Russian ambassador’s conclusion.

“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” John F. Kennedy said (stealing a line from Edward Murrow) in awarding Churchill honorary United States citizenship in 1963. Of which leader now in office could that be said today — in any language?

Finally: Churchill, notes Roberts, was able to rouse Britain “because the battles and struggles of the Elizabethan and Napoleonic wars were then taught in schools, so the stories of Drake and Nelson were well known to his listeners.” That also cannot be said of us today. In Britain, a 2008 survey found that 20 percent of teenagers thought Churchill was a fictional character but 58 percent thought Sherlock Holmes was real.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We reconcile ourselves to the decadence of the present only if we choose to remain ignorant of the achievements of the past.

has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post. @BretStephensNYT • Facebook

 

THE POWER OF THE DOG by Don Winslow

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(Border checkpoint between Tijuana and the United States)

 

“A war on terrorism, a war on communism, a war on drugs.

There’s always a war on something.”  That is the human condition I am                                  afraid……”

Art Keller, San Diego, 1999

 

Don Winslow begins THE POWER OF THE DOG with the murder of nineteen people by Mexican narco-traffickers in the nation’s capital in 1997.  This is a signal to the reader that the tale that is about to unravel will not be for the squeamish, but also it provides a hint of what is to come.  In addition, it reflects how the drug trade operates, and it feels extremely contemporary.  If you choose to continue, Winslow will take you on an unbelievable thirty ride inside American law enforcement and narco traffickers as the drug trade in South and Central America is presented in a brutal fashion.

Winslow’s protagonist, Art Keller, is a DEA agent who had moved over to the agency from the CIA with a background in the Phoenix (assassination) Program during the Vietnam War. Keller’s presence in the DEA is controversial as the agency dislikes what they perceive to be “CIA Cowboys,” that results in a consistent theme of shutting Keller out from DEA policies.  Keller witnesses the murders of the men, women, and children, and blames himself for what has occurred because he had recruited the perpetrators of the murders, Adan Barrera.

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Winslow will turn the clock back to 1975 to provide context and a path to understanding for the reader by introducing Operation Condor, a plan to take down Don Pedro Aviles and his narco empire.  The novel focuses on the Sinaloa cartel at the outset and a joint US-Mexican operation to destroy the poppy fields and Aviles’ operation to take down the Mexican drug trade.

Keller’s background from growing up in the San Diego barrio without a father, his time in the CIA, and the attitude of DEA hire ups toward him help form his worldview.  For Keller, his goals are clear and the government bureaucracies that seems to get in the way are just obstacles to overcome.  When the DEA shuns him, he strikes up a relationship with the Barrera family; first with Adan and his brother Raul, then with their uncle, Miguel Angel Barrera (known as Tio) of the Sinaloa State Police.  These relationships form the core of Winslow’s narrative as Keller feels that Tio who he worked with to stop the drug trade used him as a means of taking out the Aviles network and create his own under the guise of the federacion.  Keller works diligently to rectify that wrong and assuage his guilt because of the murders.  However, since this is about Mexico and the narco trade they are not the only murders, and not the only examples of Keller’s revenge, a major theme of the novel.  Other themes include the narco civil wars between competing cartel factions, the corruption of the Mexican government, and the American obsession with anti-communism.

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From the outset Winslow fosters a narrative of distrust – who are the good guys?  Winslow also manufactures a realism as he describes the drug trade that seems right from the front pages of current newspapers.  His story line development is taught as he introduces people who seem very believable in the roles they are assigned.  Characters like Tim Taylor, Keller’s DEA boss; Bishop Jan Parada, whose life’s work is to help the poor and believes in liberation theology; the Barreras; the Piccone Brothers, who add an Italian mob element to the story; John Hobbs, CIA Station Chief for Central America who oversaw US pseudo enforcement and cooperation with the Cartels; Salvatore Scachi, a Special Forces Colonel, CIA asset, made Mafia wise guy, and a participant in the Phoenix program in Vietnam;  Fabian Martinez, a Tijuana narco wanna be;  Obop and Sean Callan who emerge as focal characters in the Irish mob in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and assassination experts; and Nora Hayden, sometime prostitute, sometime mistress, sometime US intelligence source who are all fascinating keys in what Winslow is trying to convey.  With a myriad of characters, the reader needs to pay close attention, particularly the juxtaposition of Keller and Anan Barreras as they begin as “friends,” but the relationship rests on each using the other to achieve their agendas.

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Winslow has excellent command of history and he integrates important events to enhance his story.  The discussion of the September 19, 1985 Mexican earthquake (8.0 on the Richter scale) that resulted in over 5000 deaths reflected the weakness of the Mexican government and emphasizes that apart from the US, the main source of aid would come from the Vatican and Narco bosses.  The insights fostered by Winslow’s discussion of the earthquake are important as it took pressure off the Cartel as Mexico City had to rebuild.  Another important historical theme is the role of communism and American foreign policy to Central America.  The Reagan administration was obsessed with the rise of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua fearing the spread of its socialist ideology throughout the region.  Reagan did not want to see another Cuban model  and supported the Contra movement to defeat the Sandinista’s.  The funding of the Contras would lead to the Iran-Contra affair later, but in 1985 the model was clear, the Mexican Trampoline where coke was flown up from Columbia to El Salvador, then transported to Mexico where it was shipped to Mafia bosses in the United States for distribution.  The Mafia paid for the drugs with weapons and military hardware for the Contras with the full knowledge of the CIA.  It is interesting that Barrera was funding Contra training camps in El Salvador for the CIA!

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The pseudo alliance between the CIA and the cartels to block leftist politicians and union leaders from achieving power is historically accurate.  Winslow points to programs like “Red Mist,” that applied assassination as a means of getting rid of any opposition, ostensibly creating a Phoenix program for South and Central America, and Operation Cerberus, a conspiracy to equip, fund, and train the Contras through the sale of cocaine.  Coordination involved hundreds of right-wing militias and their drug lord sponsors, a thousand army officers, a few hundred thousand troops, dozens of separate intelligence agencies, police forces, and the church.  American funding allowed the militias to carry out their mission that would lead to Death Squads in El Salvador and Guatemala resulting in the death of over 200,000 people. Later,  A disgusted President Bush finally withdrew US support for a program he was deeply involved with as Vice-President.  It is also interesting how Winslow blends the approval of NAFTA by the US congress to help bring Mexico out of poverty, so the drug trade needed to be kept off the front pages.

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(cartel drug deal gone bad in Mexico)

Winslow also takes the reader inside the cartels as they compete for “market share,” sources for product, and distribution networks.  The narco kingpins try and make it sound like a normal capitalist enterprise, however the corruption, violence, intimidation, extortion, murder is all part of their business model.  They own segments of the police, the justice system, cooperation of elements in the Catholic Church, and government powerbrokers as they bribe and coerce all components of society to achieve their ends.  Throughout the book there are numerous plot shifts and alliances that seem to change at the whim of the characters.  Each change is unpredictable and keeps the reader paying rapt attention.  The bottom line is that these interactions are despicable and produce feelings of disgust with American intelligence operatives and the deals they make – though in their own minds their rationalizations are completely justified.

Winslow has written a scary novel with a very believable scenario.  It is thoughtful, well written, and eye opening for those who are unaware of the depth of the drug trade.  For those who have become hooked on the subject matter, Winslow has written a sequel, THE CARTEL, with a third volume due out in February 2019, called THE FORCE.

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(border checkpoint between Tijuana and the United States)

 

THE PIANO TUNER by Daniel Mason

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(A French Erard piano)

 

Imagine you are an unassuming piano tuner living in London.  You are bespectacled, self-effacing and a master of your craft, particularly when it comes to a special type of piano.  Your wife Katherine thinks the world of your talent and you have a special relationship.   All seems well, then you are summoned to the British War Office in 1886 and you are told about a strange request from a Surgeon-Major who is stationed in the eastern area of Burma.  This scenario forms the basis of Daniel Mason’s exceptional first novel, THE PIANO TUNER.

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The core of the novel takes place in the far reaches of the British Empire where the War Office is concerned about French encroachment on Burma that could lead to issues in India.  The French are ensconced by the Mekong River close to Siam which borders on Burma.  There is growing discontent among the princes in the region, but the British have a special individual who seems successful in maintaining support for the British in this region called the Shan states.  The individual is Dr. Anthony J. Carroll.  The Surgeon-Major, his military title is a Renaissance type of person whose interests know no bounds.  He has been stationed in Burma for over twelve years and has become an expert in the fauna and flora of the region, the culture of the people, has conducted a myriad of medical research to help the Burmese, and possesses a love of music.  Carroll lives in a far-flung outpost in eastern Burma, called Mae Lwin, and among the natives he is seen as a poet-soldier.  One of the keys to Carroll’s success is an 1840 Erard grand piano which he had the War Office send him.  It seems music is a means of calming the people of the region who see it as having wonderful powers.  The problem is that the humidity and brigands in the region have reduced the piano’s efficiency.  Hence the call to London to dispatch a piano tuner to Carroll’s jungle fort east of Mandalay, Burma.  This is Carroll’s stated request, but his goals run deeper.  He needs his piano repaired, but he needs a kindred soul to help him maintain peace in the region without the dispatch of more British troops.

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(Colonial Burma)

The recipient of that request is Edgar Drake, a London piano tuner with expertise in repairing and tuning Erard pianos.  Drake is also a dilettante when it comes to knowledge.  Though he was not formally educated at the schools of the British upper class, his self-education places him on an intellectual level above most British prep school types.  These men, Carroll and Drake are the chief protagonists of the novel and their relationship, though unusual is the key element as the story evolves.

Mason introduces many characters, and for each one a picture forms in the reader’s mind as to their strengths, weaknesses, looks, and the personalities that are behind the mask which is their public face.  Mason conveys his story through several vehicles including letters from Drake to his wife, the writings of Carroll, as well as the myth and traditions of the Burmese people. Individuals like the infamous bandit, Twet Nga Lu; Captain Trevor Nash-Burnham of the British army; Nok Lek; a fifteen-year-old fighter who protects Carroll; Khin Myo, Drake’s female caretaker all have important roles to play.

The manner of late 19th century British imperialism is present for all to see.  The haughtiness and racism of British officers is clear as is seen in several instances as the Burmese people do not measure up to English standards.  Mason conveys the interactions between the British and Burmese people very carefully and the underlying feelings of each is easy to understand from the dialogue. Mason takes the reader on a journey that begins in London and takes Drake across the Middle East and Southwest Asia until he reaches Burma.  In so doing the sights and sounds of ocean and river travel in these areas are fascinating.  Once Drake has arrived, he experiences Burmese culture particularly the “puppet dramas” that are endemic to the region.  The topography of Burma is explored in detail and as the novel progresses one wonders if Drake will ever return home.

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Mason is a literary craftsman with elements of Joseph Conrad throughout the novel.  His sentences flow as do his descriptions and dialogue that easily capture the interest of the reader.  His plot moves at a very even plane, then it reaches a crescendo as Drake is placed in an untenable position as Carroll tries to implement his own agenda which British higher ups are totally against.  A key element to the novel concerns Carroll; what does he really believe, is he trustworthy, and in the end is he another “Kurtz” type figure from Conrad’s THE HEART OF DARKNESS or a Russian spy?

Mason’s own background makes the subject matter of the novel a perfect fit.  When he was a young medical student with a biology degree from Harvard, he studied malaria on the Thai-Burmese border and in northeast Burma.  In fact, he wrote the novel “between lessons at medical school.”  This makes him almost an authority on certain aspects of the region and contributes greatly to the success of the novel.  Mason’s ability to integrate the history of the region makes the violent nature of British imperialism as it tries to consolidate its hold on eastern Burma much clearer.  If there is a weakness to the novel it is the amount of time spent on Drake’s journey to Burma and what he experiences which take up almost two-thirds of the book, however this is offset by Mason’s expertise in the technical detail and methodical tuning of the piano and his discussion of malaria treatment once Drake becomes ill.

Whatever flaws exist, they are superseded by a dramatic and intense story that has left this reader excited to read Mason’s new novel, THE WINTER SOLDIER that deals with war, medicine, family, and the sweeping panorama of history surrounding World War I.

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(A French Erard piano)