Sunday, November 17, 2019

On a Day Like Today

Nothing lasts forever. We certainly don’t. The oldest fully documented human lifespan (that of Jeanne Louise Calment) was 122 years: 1875-1997. There have been claims of longer lives. Tom Parr of Shropshire supposedly died at 152 in 1635 after overindulging as a guest of Charles I. Odds are, though, he had claimed the birth record of his grandfather as his own because he enjoyed the notoriety of being old and hale. Record-keeping was hit-and-miss in the day, so it was an easier deception to pull off then. Even if accurate, however, 152 is short enough in the scheme of things.

Many people externalize fears about our own personal deaths by contemplating the end of humanity instead. Hence the popularity of apocalyptic literature, which in religious and secular forms is as old as literature itself. In his book The Day It Finally Happens, Mike Pearl writes, “But a certain breed of science nerd seems to take actual comfort in an ultimate and inevitable apocalypse – or if not comfort, per se, then a certain gleeful, misanthropic relish.” Indeed. Pearl doesn’t relish such thoughts, but they do preoccupy him. Pearl describes himself as suffering from an anxiety disorder that prompts him to be a writer: “it fills my head with ideas but I hate the ideas.” As a “coping strategy” he writes a Vice column “How Scared Should I Be?” for which he researches the actual risks of his various fears coming true and what the consequences would be. He finds the process soothing somehow even when the risks turn out to be rather high. The Day It Finally Happens discusses a score of those hateful ideas.

Some of his chapters truly do involve high order calamities such as nuclear war and the next supervolcano eruption. Others do not: for example “The Day the UK Finally Abolishes Its Monarchy.” That day, which he gives a 5 out of 5 plausibility rating, will not herald the end of civilization in the UK or anywhere else. (I avoid the subjunctive in deference to his possibly debatable 5/5 rating, at least anytime soon.) It will end the name “UK,” which will be replaced by a United Something-Else, but other peoples have survived the transition to a republic, and so will the Brits. Also unlikely to be world-ending is “The Day Humans Get a Confirmed Signal from Intelligent Extraterrestrials.” Whatever one thinks of his 4/5 plausibility rating for this one, such a signal most likely would be a stray indecipherable transmission from hundreds of light years away (or much much farther) thereby making any meaningful two-way communication impossible. More Heaven’s Gate-style cults might spring up here and there (invest in Nike?), but it is doubtful much else would change. Some chapters discuss two-edged swords, such as “The Day Humans Become Immortal.” This is a pretty good day from an individual standpoint, but were it to happen (he gives it a 3/5 plausibility rating, though not in this century) even a tiny fertility rate would crowd out the planet in short order. Actually, even if we somehow ended all deaths from aging and disease, we would not be immortal. Assuming we otherwise remain human (no cyborgs or engineered invulnerabilities), we will have fatal accidents, and sooner than one might think. Actuarial tables show that it would be the rare human who survives much beyond a millennium. (Population still would be a problem even so.) 1000 years is pretty good, though, Voltaire’s warning about lifespans in Micromegas notwithstanding. I’ll take it.

As mentioned, some of Pearl’s scenarios are legitimately scary such as “The Day Antibiotics Don’t Work Anymore” and (given the dependence we already have on it) “The Day the Entire Internet Goes Down.” Yet, Pearl is (despite, or because of, his anxiety disorder) fundamentally an optimist. All of his scenarios would be hard on at least some of us. A few would be widely horrific. Yet, none is an utter extinction event. His researches show that nuclear war, climate change, and supervolanoes are all survivable by some. This comforts Pearl. “I feel a very strong sense of revulsion when I imagine my entire species literally going extinct,” he explains. “Don’t you? If you don’t, I’m not sure we can hang…”

I’m not sure we can hang. I don’t dispute his survivability assessments for his scenario list. I just am sure there will be worse days than the ones about which he writes – including one that ends us all. Whatever we do or don’t do to our climate in this century, for example, earth in the longer term has lethal plans of its own. There was once a mile of ice piled on top of where I am sitting right now, and there will be again one day. Civilization will be a little tough to maintain in this spot. (No jokes, please, about whether civilization exists in New Jersey at present.) Astronomical events have all but wiped the slate clean on earth in the past and will again. The sun itself has a limited life span, and the planet will become uninhabitable long before the end of it. I don’t really worry much about it, and not just because probably none of these things will happen in my lifetime. If there were some way to collect the bet, I would bet our machines will outlive us. They have a better chance of surviving off-world for the long term – though, again, not forever. That’s OK. We accept our own ends. Why not Our own End? We’re here now. That counts for something – maybe everything. Right now, I quite literally smell the coffee. I’ll go pour a cup.

Skeeter Davis – The End of the World

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Well, Maybe Not the Eve

1965 was one of the more notably transformative years for me personally. The year one turns 13 is for most people: one falls from the apex of childhood to the lowliest rank of teenager, a change commonly driven home by the start of high school. It was the year I became very self-conscious in both good and bad ways. Much of the “feel” of the year is still very real to me. I have many strong sense memories from the year including smells from such various sources as horse stalls, mimeograph paper, and (permeating nearly all interior spaces) tobacco smoke. My favorite album that year was Animal Tracks. (I still like Eric Burden and the Animals; I caught a concert by the septuagenarian last year.) To my classmates back then I pretended my favorite was Highway 61 Revisited because that was a cooler answer. I did, in fact, like that album (and Dylan in general), but not as much as more straightforward rock. (A quick look shows that the vintage Highway 61 Revisited vinyl is still on my shelf.) My first fumbling attempt at a flirtation was deliberately ignored or honestly unnoticed – either is possible. Meantime the world was turning on its head. To be sure, I was aware of the cultural milieu to the extent someone that age ever is, but it seemed normal to me. The fish, as the adage goes, does not notice the water in which it swims.

My mom noticed. I remember her saying in 1968 that in the previous few years “the world just went crazy.” This was from someone who had been a teenager during World War 2. Still, I knew what she meant. (By then I had evolved a little beyond a fish apparently.) The presuppositions of the very Leave It to Beaver era of my childhood (I even looked a little like Jerry Mathers) had shredded – quickly. Anyone who lived through the 60s knows just how distinct the two halves of the decade were. 60-64 were just the 50s amped up a little. “The Sixties,” as we usually think of them, were the second half of the decade, which spilled over into the early 70s. A minor example of the shift: compare the Beatles albums Meet the Beatles (64) and Sgt Pepper (67).

My mom’s assessment (stated somewhat more academically) is shared by many from across the philosophical spectrum.  Nicholas Leman, Professor at Columbia University, says that the 60s “turned as if on a hinge” in 1965. George Will independently uses the same hinge metaphor. Charles Murray in Coming Apart identifies the year as the moment when the country began to…well…come apart in the ways that are all too obvious today. Cultural critic Luc Sante (The New York Review of Books) comments that western culture reached some sort of peak in 1965 and has been in decline since. Even crime became qualitatively different (see my review of Evil by Michael H. Stone and Gary Brucato) as standards shifted. Major social changes don’t really happen without a prelude, and the roots of The Sixties are discoverable in the subcultures of The Fifties if you look for them. Nonetheless, politically, socially, and culturally the country reached a tipping point in ’65, and from there the rapidity of change was dizzying. We are still dealing with the aftermath in innumerable ways.

James T Patterson aims to capture those twelve months in The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America." The author, who was a 30-y.o. (as in don’t-trust-anyone-over) professor at the time, has a perspective different from mine (not a criticism, just an observation) but does a pretty good job covering many of the key elements. The title refers to a 1965 hit song that never would have charted just a year or two earlier. Patterson details a busy year for national and world events. President Johnson openly committed US combat troops to Vietnam thereby missing the last chance to avoid Americanizing the war. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (outlawing public and commercial discrimination “because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin”) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 took hold and promised real improvements. Yet on the street there were racial confrontations in Selma and all out riots in Watts. Great Society programs coupled benefits with unintended social consequences. Patterson writes of the role of youth culture, of student organizations such as SDS, of the generation gap, of the credibility gap, of sexual politics, and of the environmental movement. The easy confidence about the future that had been so much a part of American psychology for a century fled as political divisions deepened in ways that haven’t healed since.

The book is worth a read. If I have a reservation, it is the short shrift he gives to the apolitical (and, some would argue, more important) aspect of the counterculture that flowered (bad pun intended) mid-decade: the part about personal enlightenment and alternate ways of living. Timothy Leary: “When the individual's behavior and consciousness get hooked to a routine sequence of external actions, he is a dead robot, and it is time for him to die and be reborn. Time to ‘drop out,’ ‘turn on,’ and ‘tune in.’" This, admittedly, was a Revolution that failed (regrettably) in broader social terms, but it still has a legacy that matters on another level.

Why care about 1965 in 2019?  There is always something to be learned from watershed moments of the past. As Professor Joseph Wittreich (not Mark Twain despite the common misattribution) remarked, history doesn’t repeat but it often rhymes. A little prep work helps us to sing along.

Thumbs Up on the book – not way up but up.

Barry McGuire – Eve of Destruction (1965)

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Have Not

From movie commentaries, I knew that the 1944 film To Have and Have Not bore almost no relation to the 1937 novel of the same title other than featuring a fishing boat owner named Harry Morgan and the prevarication “Ernest Hemingway’s” in the promotional material. The movie is set in Martinique in 1940 when the island was still controlled by Vichy France. Not an adaptation, it is basically Casablanca reset in the French Caribbean though the dynamic between 19-y.o. Lauren Bacall and 44-y.o. Humphrey Bogart is different (on and off film) from that between Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the earlier film – so different that Bogie and Bacall became an item and eventually married. Even that gossipy aspect of the film makes a better story than the novel.

Hemingway is a towering figure in American letters, though the quality of his work varies a lot. (Whose doesn’t, one might fairly ask.) I’ve enjoyed most of his short fiction and a couple of his novels, but struggled to get through others despite his well-crafted sentences. When at long last I picked up To Have and Have Not last week, it was a struggle. Nor was this just my own reaction. After slogging through it, out of curiosity I checked the 1937 review by J. Donald Adams in The New York Times. He writes, “The expertness of the narrative is such that one wishes profoundly it could have been put to better use... Mr. Hemingway's record as a creative writer would be stronger if it had never been published.” Indeed.

Harry Morgan, married with children, is presented as a Have-Not even though he owns a charter fishing boat. In addition to legitimate jobs he smuggles contraband and people between Havana and Key West. He is crude, abusive, obnoxious, and racist, even by 1930s Florida standards. I suppose this is to reinforce his representation as a common man, but if the intent is thereby to make him sympathetic (could that possibly be the intent?) it backfires badly. A rich Have recreational fisherman charters Harry’s boat but cheats him of his fee. This leaves Harry stuck in Cuba without money, so he traffics with criminals and revolutionaries, commits murder to keep an illegal job on track, and undertakes to smuggle Chinese illegal immigrants into the United States. Instead, he bilks the Chinese and strands them on a Cuban beach. Somehow we’re supposed to feel sorry for him when things go bad at the end because he’s a Have-Not. We don’t. (At least I hope most readers don’t.) The Haves in the book are reprehensible, yet Harry behaves far worse than any of them. Further, he doesn’t take responsibility for his actions because of his social position. Hemingway was influenced at the time by the Marxism of his compadres in the Spanish Civil War, but if the intended message was pro-working class it comes across almost backwards.

Recommendation: Be kind to Ernest and skip this book. Opt for A Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls instead. Or watch the movie (screenplay by Jules Furthman), which is quite good.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

All That Glitters Is Not Silver

A couple weeks ago I advised passing on the latest blockbuster and walking down the multiplex hall to the indie film with three or four viewers. I neglected to follow my own advice when Under the Silver Lake was up against Avengers: Endgame last spring, but I made up for it yesterday by spinning up a DVD of the flick. *SPOILERS* of a sort follow, though more regarding the film’s subtext than text.

Anyone seeing this movie without any prior knowledge of it is likely to think right at the outset, “Oh, a David Lynch movie.” It’s not. The director is David Robert Mitchell (It Follows) whose homage to Lynch is so close as to be initially distracting; fortunately, enough transpires on screen for that reaction to fade.

The protagonist Sam (Andrew Garfield) is jobless, behind on his car payments, and facing eviction. He makes no effort at all to rectify this. So, at first glance he is a slacker loser. Yet this is not quite right. He is energetic and diligent at pursuing his interests. Those interests just don’t include the banalities of everyday responsibilities. He is charming enough to do very well with the ladies (including Riki Lindhome) despite his impecunity. He has enough boyish charm to keep viewers in their seats, too, even though he is often creepy and sometimes villainous. He spies on a topless middle-age neighbor even (driving home the Freudian element) while talking to his mother on the phone. When kids vandalize his car he punches them – hard. We see him commit homicide; granted, the fellow had shot at him, but retreat was very much an option. There is a dog killer stalking the neighborhood, and (though the killer is not identified) there is reason to wonder if he is Sam.

Sam’s real interest is a common one in our secular world: a search for meaning beyond just drudgery and paying bills. As a friend remarks to him, “Where's the mystery that makes everything worthwhile? We crave mystery, 'cause there's none left.” Not everyone handles nihilism well; they frequently find some obsession (politics is a favorite) to divert themselves from it. Sam wonders if there is a conspiracy of in-people who run the world for their own benefit and have access to deeper revelations that they keep to themselves. This is his obsession. He begins to see secret codes everywhere by which the insiders communicate with each other. Some of his hypothetical codes are crazy even in the context of the movie (e.g. Vanna White’s eye movements), but some turn out to be real, such as messages recorded backwards on popular music. When a neighbor Sarah (Riley Keough) with whom he has a flirtation disappears, a symbol is left behind on the wall of her apartment. Sam’s investigation of her disappearance gives him real leads to the conspiracy, thereby putting himself and others in danger.

The movie makes no mention of the Illuminati, but in the real world there are people with views similar to Sam’s who do believe in them. Suppose they exist. Suppose that underneath their worldly machinations there is an occult purpose. What if, after arduous effort, you discovered the secrets of the Illuminati only to find they are as credible as those of the Nike-wearing Heaven’s Gate guru? Depending on one’s mindset, the revelation could be shattering.

FYI, there are a lot of self-referential hidden codes in the movie, but none of them are important. (Animal images share first letters with the title, for example.) Only bother with them if you enjoy puzzles of that kind for their own sake.

This surrealistic noir is definitely not for everyone. Yet there is more to it than will be found in the CGI battles of the spandex superheroes who dominate the box office.

Thumbs Up

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Villain of the Piece

Chuck Klosterman is a novelist, short story writer, and essayist. His essays (appearing in Esquire, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and elsewhere) most often are on popular culture, but sometimes they are just thoughts on the nature of life. He has the virtue of being non-dogmatic in these latter.  I disagree with a lot of what he has to say, but that is kind of the point of reading him. Klosterman is always at least interesting.

In I Wear the Black Hat Klosterman in a collection of essays muses on villainy including in himself. (Carl Jung would approve.) In the opening essay he explains: “When you’re young, the character you love most [in Star Wars] is Luke Skywalker (who’s entirely good). As you grow older, you gravitate toward Han Solo (who’s ultimately good, but superficially bad). But by the time you reach adulthood…you inevitably find yourself relating to Darth Vader.” His editor doubted the premise but published the book. [I’ve sometimes described Star Wars (jokingly – sort of) as the sad tale of a father trying to get ahead in the universe only to be betrayed by his ungrateful children.] Klosterman isn’t interested in out-and-out psychopaths or beyond-the-pale types such as serial killers, but in more complicated people who have (as we all do) a dark side – most dangerously present in those who don’t acknowledge it. He also muses about how we respond to villainy in others: overlooking some offenses (and offenders) and not others. Our responses, he notes, are not always scaled to the offense but to our own emotional natures. We’re sometimes willing to give a second chance to a charming murderer, for example, but not to some sports figure guilty of nothing more than a bad attitude or to a musician whose style we simply don't like.

Klosterman writes of the rogue in popular culture, such as the trope of the lovable con artist, e.g. Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve or George C. Scott in The Flim-Flam Man. (I’ve written a short story about a con artist myself: The Great Gaffe.) Klosterman relates how he once mentioned his enjoyment of such characters at a bar only to be schooled by another imbiber on how the fellow’s family was destroyed by such a person. Anyone who has been defrauded in a big way in real life, it is true, has no love at all for fraudsters. Klosterman still likes the trope, one can tell, but fully gets how the fictional representation differs from reality. He also discusses changing standards, so that what was, for example, a harmless joke in 1989 is villainous speech 30 years later. He seems OK with that evolution and with speech restrictions of like kind in general: a position that I find appalling (though I’ll ape Voltaire in defending his right to express it), especially by a writer who must know his own words are bound to offend someone. “The Constitution is awesome but overrated,” he says. The Bill of Rights is not overrated; it is underrated. The rest of the Constitution – which mostly just details the nuts of bolts of the governmental machinery – might well benefit from tinkering (and there is a process for that), but I don’t think that is what he means. Our difference of opinion in this matter helps make his broader point, however: that villainy is often just a matter of perspective.

Klosterman writes about the transgressions (real or imagined) of various people from Yoko to Bill Clinton to OJ. “Writing about other people is a form of writing about oneself,” he says. That is true. I’m doing it here. We can understand (and either forgive or not) villainy in others only because of the potential for it in ourselves. The potential is what makes passing on its exercise praiseworthy. I typically avoid Nietzsche quotes because using them seems pretentious, but, in acknowledgment of the blog site’s name, I’ll slip one in anyway: “I laugh at those who think themselves good because they have no claws.”

On balance, Klosterman’s book is worth a read. Too infrequently does one encounter someone giving intelligent thought to first principles, so it is gratifying when one does. However, while I see some truth in the book’s premise, I generally don’t wear hats, and I’ll pass on Darth’s wardrobe altogether for one very good reason: I’d look silly in a cape.

Theory of a Deadman – Villain

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Comic Side of Things

Comic books rule Hollywood. Avengers: Endgame is the highest grossing film of all time, selling well over a billion dollars of tickets on just the opening weekend; in the U.S. tickets for Avengers: Endgame accounted for 80% of all movie tickets sold that weekend. More Americans know who Thanos is than know who Xi Jinping is. Avengers: Endgame is an extreme case, but less extreme than one might think. 2019 is not so very exceptional for the past decade. In 2018 six of the top ten grossing movies were comic book adaptations; all the rest were sequels or remakes. In 2017 five of the top ten were comic book movies; all the rest were sequels or remakes.

There is nothing new about Hollywood raiding comic books for movie plots. The comic book characters Buck Rogers (first appearing in print in 1928) and Flash Gordon (1934) were made into movie serials in the 1930s. Captain Marvel, Batman, the Green Hornet, and Superman were adapted to movie serials in the 1940s. What is new is the way comic book characters bestride cinema. Instead of being minor sideshows, comic book movies today are front and center. They are crucial to the studios’ bottom lines.

Not everyone is happy about this. Jodie Foster, speaking to Radio Times Magazine of superhero movies in particular, complained, “It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population and then ultimately the rest of the world.” Martin Scorsese said the Marvel movies are “not cinema.” An article in Liev Arts [sic] contends that the popularity of these films is a sign of childishness in modern culture: “The idea that we are now in a childish society is hard to be argued against: everything has become extremely infantile: from politics, where everything is black and white, to relationships and sexuality … almost every facet of today’s culture is defined by high immaturity.” This, I think, is a little harsh – not the assessment of the culture, which I think is spot on, but the assessment of the movies. Some of them anyway. Joker, currently doing a solid box office, shows that it is possible to have an adult and grittily realistic R-Rated movie even with a comic book for a source. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that Joker is an exception. The typical comic book blockbuster (or wannabe blockbuster) is a special-effects rich but otherwise simplistic popcorn movie.

Some of the original comic books on which the movies are based are surprisingly sophisticated: not most but some. The days are long gone when comic books were overwhelmingly aimed at kids and written accordingly. Nonetheless, the more complex comics are almost always simplified for the screen – and made less edgy to boot. Few moviegoers notice this since few read the original comics. Curiously, for all the success of comic book movies, sales of actual comic books continue to decline. Mainstream Marvel and DC titles (including those in digital format) sell a tenth of what they did in the 1960s and 1970s. This is part of the general collapse in recreational reading. (Young Adult fiction seems to be a minor bright spot in sales until one notices that older adults make up most of the readership; YA has drained readers from the adult shelves, but total fiction sales continue to drop.) It is not at all uncommon for movies that sell millions of tickets to be based on comic books with sales in the several thousands. Comics therefore are no longer the core business of comic book companies. Comic books, from a money-making viewpoint, are mostly just test beds for possible screenplays. (Marvel is owned by Disney and DC by Warner Brothers; Dark Horse is still independent though it does have working arrangements with production companies.)

The transition from page to screen can be gentle or jarring. Changes can be minor or can reverse the entire thrust of the original. Unlike in the movie, in Kick-Ass the comic, for example, (minor *Spoiler*) Dave doesn’t get the girl; instead, Katie’s new boyfriend beats him up. Big Daddy also has a major twist that was omitted from the movie. Considering that it condensed six volumes into one movie, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, while it shifts things around, isn’t so very different from the “all the world's a video game and all the men and women merely avatars”-themed Scott Pilgrim books. Quite a bit of the dialogue in the film is verbatim from the books. The 2007 TV series Painkiller Jane, on the other hand, bears almost no relation to the comics but for the character's self-healing abilities. Even the issue with Kristanna Loken on the cover has no connection to the show’s storyline. Jane is a Fed on the show but in the comics is a vigilante who would make Paul Kersey blush. Kingsman went the other direction: Kingsman is a private organization in the movie but a part of the UK government in the comic. Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel How to Talk to Girls at Parties ends when Enn (Henry) and his friends flee a party hosted by alien women. (There is a metaphor here.) This event happens only 20 minutes into the movie version, which then becomes a scifi romcom. The movie Wanted balks at the full cynical brutal nihilism of the comic, which even mocks the reader as a sucker for buying it. The assassins in the movie serve some higher cosmic purpose; they don’t in the comic.

Is there a pattern? Yes. Sharp corners are sanded down. Some of the comics (e.g. Mark Millar’s Wanted and Kick-Ass) are deliberately offensive, apparently out of a conviction that overly sensitive readers deserve to be offended, and should learn to just get over it. Studios trying to fill theater seats with millions of butts excise most of that for obvious business reasons. Movies that are modified less have printed originals (e.g. Scott Pilgrim) with fewer of those issues at the outset. Even a very violent movie (e.g. Kick-Ass 2) is likely to pull punches compared to the source. Anti-heroes in the movies gain more sympathetic backstories and contexts while their enemies lose all nuance, so the protagonists are just barely “anti.” Romances that go badly in the comics tend to go well in the movies. The central conflict almost always becomes vastly simpler on screen so the audience doesn’t have to think about for whom to root. So, there is some basis for the complaints of Jodie and Liev Arts.

One comic I’ll mention just for contrast is Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus Vol. 1, which is a case of screen to page instead of the other way around. Joss Whedon, who wrote the script for the 1992 movie but did not direct or have creative control, was famously unhappy with the result – and with Donald Sutherland who made up his own dialogue and changed the death scene. Joss did have control over the subsequent TV series, which was a critical success, but that movie still nagged at him. The comic is a prequel to the TV series that finally corrects the movie by covering the events of that time period the way Joss wanted; the result is more layered than the film – and better.

Since it doesn’t seem likely movie audiences will develop more sophisticated tastes anytime soon, comic book movies will fill theater screens for at least the next several years even as comic book sales drop further. Arguably this trend is no sillier than the Western genre that filled so many screens in the 1950s – though a few of those films (e.g. High Noon) had something to say. There are more important concerns in the world than questionable taste in movies. Still, sometimes it is rewarding to pass on the latest superhero bash-em-up and instead walk down the multiplex hall to the screen with an indie flick and only three or four people in the seats. The movie might be lousy or it might be a gem, but the odds aren’t any worse just because the actors don’t wear spandex.

Trailer for Painkiller Jane: amazingly unlike the source material

Monday, October 14, 2019

The Nightstand Front

 War loomed on my bedside nightstand last week. I commonly keep two books there (trading off to keep each fresh) for the stretch of time after clambering into bed before Morpheus pays a visit, which can be anything from 2 minutes to 2 hours. One was historical fiction and the other just history. “History” is frequently fiction, too, either by accident or design, but in this case the author at least made a real effort to be accurate.

**** ****
December 6, a novel by Martin Cruz Smith
The UK edition is titled Tokyo Station, probably because December 6 is a less ominous date on that side of the pond than on this one. Japanese attacks on British holdings began on December 8 thanks to the International Date Line. 12-07-41 was such a memorable date for my father, who had served on US merchant ships in WW2, that it was the combination to his attaché case. (The utility of a combination lock on an attaché case, which easily can be carried off in toto, is a question for another place and time.)

I have read and enjoyed a smattering of Martin Cruz Smith (including Stallion Gate and Nightwing) since 1981 when I bought in hardcover Gorky Park, the first of his Arkady Renko detective novels. I’ve since dropped the Arkady Renko series in favor of the Fandorin series by Boris Akunin, but I doubted I could go very wrong picking up December 6.

In this novel, set early in December 1941, we meet Harry Niles who runs the Happy Paris nightclub in Tokyo. I don’t know, but I suspect that Smith while writing the book was influenced by the American nightclub owner played by Bogart in Tokyo Joe (1949). I couldn’t help picturing Harry as Bogie in any case. Few American authors are good at capturing the nuances of other cultures except from a The Innocents Abroad perspective of an outsider looking in. Smith did reasonably well with Gorky Park back in ’81, but Russia is, more or less, a Western country. Getting 1941 Tokyo right is a much harder task, and Smith was wise to make the protagonist a wayward scoundrel son of American missionaries who was raised in Japan. The one-foot-in-each-country personal history of the character allows for his deep familiarity with Japan while still accounting for missteps. We thereby get an interesting look from a semi-Western perspective at Tokyo on the eve of war – of an expanded war, that is. War with China had been in progress for 4 years – 10 if you count from the invasion of Manchuria. Harry’s romantic entanglements are also dual: the wife of a British diplomat and the very complicated Michiko.

Harry has connections in the Western embassies and in the Imperial Navy for entirely lowlife reasons. What he sees and hears alarms him, but his unsavory reputation keeps him from being trusted enough by any of them to heed his warnings about the coming conflict that in retrospect seems somehow both inevitable and unnecessary. The reader already knows how history on a grand scale turned out, but, as the hours tick past, Harry’s arc also involves intrigues of personal love and revenge: matters as fateful for him individually as the larger events are for the world.

Thumbs Up.

**** ****

The War for Africa: Twelve Months That Transformed a Continent – by Fred Bridgland
Conflicts that don’t directly involve troops (officially) from one or more of the major powers tend to be regarded as sideshows by journalists and historians from the major powers, when they are regarded at all. The conflicts are central to the people caught up in them of course, and they sometimes have a significance far beyond what is commonly recognized.

A very long and bloody conflict that mattered immensely both locally and broadly was the Angolan civil war that followed the Portuguese departure from Angola in 1975. Fred Bridgland (correspondent for Reuters, The Sunday Telegraph, and The Scotsman), was on scene at various times during it. In The War for Africa he gives a brief overview of the first decade of fighting, but concentrates on the critical period of 1987 and 1988, when Cubans ramped up their intervention on the side of the MPLA (the official government in Luanda: the MPLA military was called FAPLA) while the South African SADF intervened on the side of the rebel UNITA forces led by Jonas Savimbi. Most of the book is a military history of that year, though always in the context of political and diplomatic events. At the time, the MPLA, SWAPO (Namibian rebels based in Angola), and the ANC all were avowedly communist. (The ANC later modified its position and has been the governing party in South Africa since Mandela’s election in 1994.) Pretoria in the ‘80s regarded them as existential threats on the northern border of South West Africa (Namibia), which South Africa still administered. The Cuban interest was ideological while the Soviets played Cold War chess by sending supplies (and unofficially advisors) to the Cubans and the MPLA. The Western powers covertly supported UNITA, but were unwilling to align themselves openly with South Africa. Savimbi himself for obvious political reasons also long denied cooperation with South Africa, but for Machiavellian reasons in fact coordinated closely; there was little real choice. In truth, none of the players in the war was admirable (except sometimes in purely military terms), but the war had profound consequences.

Who won? That depends on how you look at it. The MPLA remained in power and remains in power today, so in that sense it prevailed. Yet it has abandoned communist ideology (it’s now regarded as center-left) while UNITA negotiated participation in a unified Angola as a legal political party. During peace negotiations in ‘88 a strongly reinforced Cuban/MPLA offensive checked the outnumbered SADF at Cuito Cuanavale, which does count as a success. Yet the SADF and UNITA inflicted heavy losses on their opponents and remained in control of core UNITA-held territory, so to that extent they succeeded. Meantime, the war was a serious drain on the already overburdened USSR, which sent the MPLA and Cubans large quantities of weapons including tanks, BMPs, and Mig 23s. The war thereby accelerated changes in Moscow. The 1988 settlement paved the way for the South African withdrawal from Namibia on terms they could accept, Cuban withdrawal from Angola on terms they could accept, and (indirectly) the end of apartheid in South Africa. It’s probably most accurate to say that no one won the war. Yet no one lost either, and in the end that proved to be more important. The civil war in Angola started up again in the early 90s (this time without major outside intervention) but was resolved in 2002 after Savimbi’s demise on terms similar to ‘88.

Since Bridgland had more physical access to the SADF and UNITA, most of the author’s perspective (though not always his sympathies) is from that side of the lines. Nonetheless, despite this limitation, the book is as detailed and fair an account of events as he could assemble.

Another Thumbs Up.

Trailer – Angola the War