Sunday, November 23, 2014

No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal

No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes Finally we have a journalistic nonfiction big and detailed enough to show the humanity behind the war in Afghanistan. I knew it could be done, had been done in fact, beginning with Rory Stewart’s chronicle of his walk though Afghanistan in 2002 just as the Taliban government fell. That book, The Places in Between, stands as the clearest, most in-depth view of the people and places with whom America has been involved for a decade. This book by Anand Gopal goes in that class. I am eternally grateful to both men for finally exposing for us the beating heart of Afghanistan.

Gopal’s exceptional journalism didn’t take hold of me at first. At first I was cringing at what I know to be true: that our military, acting on orders from above, landed in Afghanistan like creatures from outer space. They were good people, all, but their mission was undoable. They had no idea what was going on, who to trust, and how best to fulfill their mission, i.e., to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. The people shifted. The mission shifted. Our soldiers struggled, and we got reports of raids gone wrong. No wonder. Gopal tells us now how any American mission could never have worked in an Afghanistan as torn and bloodied as it was in 2001.

This is the absolutely indispensable companion book to other books recounting American involvement in Afghanistan. The confusion on the ground was experienced by everyone, not just soldiers: no one knew whom to trust, who to follow, who to support. If you ever wondered who, in fact, is in Guantanamo, you have to read Gopal’s chapter “Black Holes.” By the time you have finished this chapter, you must see the absurdity and madness in the fog of war. “You survived one way and one way only: through the ruthless exploitation of everyone around you.” Men under fire just act like men after all.
"Dr. Hafizullah, Zurmat’s first governor, had ended up in Guantanamo because he’d crossed Police Chief Mujahed. Mujahed would up in Guantanamo because he’d crossed the Americans. Security chief Naim found himself in Guantanamo because of an old rivalry with Mullah Qassim. Qassim eluded capture, but an unfortunate soul with the same name ended up in Guantanamo in his place. And a subsequent feud left Samoud Khan, another pro-American commander, in Bagram prison, while the boy his men had sexually abused was shipped to Guantanamo. No one in this group had been a member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda."

The most affecting portrait Gopal shares is that of Heela, the Kabul University-educated wife of a UN worker in a farming village in Uruzgan. Her story illustrates the confusion and prejudice suffered by provincial residents though the period of the first election in 2004. A changing series of governors, and officials, each murdered by the one before left in place one of the most ill-tempered and combative.
“this whole land is filled with thieves and liars…”--Hajji Zaman.

It takes one to know one.

Gopal gives us in-depth views from a Taliban leader, warlords, militiamen, fathers, husbands, wives, collaborators, militants, prisoners, and tribal leaders, but three portraits in particular: "Akbar Gul, a Taliban commander who quit after 2001, only to rejoin the movement and become an insurgent commander fighting against the U.S.; Jan Muhammad, who rose from humble origins to become a major warlord who worked closely with American forces; and Heela, a housewife from Kabul who fled to the countryside to escape the civil war."

These people we understand. Gopal allows us to see their motivations, their striving, their joys, their defeats. The dangers involved in the reporting is only mentioned in passing, but in a country where seismic shifts in alliances is everyday, it is a gift to have a journalist curious and capable enough to have done this work. An interview of Gopal with TurkeyAgenda gives his thinking about the book.


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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
”The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror.”

My great aunt lived to be 102 years old. She would often say, looking at the younger generations, “It’s wonderful to get old.” Gawande touches on this in his memoir chronicling the death of his father and in his discussion of dying well. Older folks have more moments they classify as happy than do younger folks. Oldsters generally experience less anxiety, too, perhaps from having “seen it all before,” but perhaps also because they know bad times do pass. Usually.

I still think my great aunt was being just a little facetious, since the rest of Gawande’s book tells us pretty explicitly that old age is not for wimps. In fact, as Elizabeth Gilbert suggested in her novel The Signature of All Things, we do better when we turn towards “the great changes that life brings” rather than turn our wills away. Gawande tells us how it is possible in some cases to choose less treatment rather than more when faced with life-threatening illness and experience a better quality of life in our final days.

This is pretty grim stuff but Gawande is graceful, as graceful as he can be when the choices are so limited and so frankly horrible. When a loved one (or we ourselves) must make choices, it is wise, he counsels, to ask ourselves a few questions: What do we fear most? What do we want most to be able to do? What can/can’t we live without? What will we sacrifice so that we can accomplish what it is we want? Our choices may change as circumstances change, so one has to revisit occasionally, to make sure we (and our family and our doctors) are proceeding along the path we have chosen for ourselves.

It is almost, but perhaps not quite, enough to make one wish for a sudden, early death. We all must go through it, so we’re not alone. It’s just that medical knowledge, technology, and skill can do only so much, and after that we still have to face the inevitable. Gawande gives lots of examples of patients and of people he has known who have these choices thrust upon them. On balance, he concludes, those who accept, rather than thoughtlessly fight, a terminal prognosis have a better death.

This book is worth reading, maybe more so before you need it. Filling out the hospital’s required “health care directive” is actually difficult unless you have someone like this to explain what it actually means. No intervention may mean weeks instead of months; it may also mean calm instead of recovering from radical surgery. It may just be unbearably depressing. I get that.

One interesting study Gawande talks about is one in which people who know their time horizons are short, or who experience life-threatening conditions (e.g., living in a war zone, 9/11, surviving a tsunami) change their view of what they want out of life, their "hierarchy of needs" as defined by Maslow. People with unlimited horizons put a high premium on growth and meeting people who are interesting and influential. Those with foreshortened horizons look to their closest friends and family for sustenance and comfort. War zones may not grant you friends or family, but certainly intense, highly-charged, and memorable relationships result from them. Little is expected, much is granted. And I guess that is key. There is more generosity to go around when one is in the final days and it may be best not to occlude that blessing with a confusion of treatments that do not mean a better life.

Gawande addresses some of the most difficult questions we have to decide in a lifetime. It is not easy to read. But it helps, I think, to know what choices we can make when the time comes for someone we love or for ourselves.


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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Painter by Peter Heller

The Painter
"The way death is both near and infinitely remote, the way it freezes and somehow kindles the heat of something grotesque and maybe irresistible and sexy, which is life at its most desperate….this dark yearning is what happens when we idealize anything: the form of a woman, a landscape, a spiritual impulse. We move it closer to the realm of the dead, if not outright kill it."
Well. It’s a word Heller uses almost as punctuation throughout the novel, ending a thought, a conversation, a statement. The word has all the resonance of a bell, signaling the moment we must think for ourselves, decide its inflection, trust our narrator or not. Because we have here an artist who sees the world uniquely and reacts quickly, almost instinctively, to what he sees, to what he senses. He’s dangerous…until he is allowed to express and release his guilt and sadness over the death of his child, until he realizes he has a choice.

A couple of years ago I decided Heller’s debut The Dog Stars was one the best fiction books I’d read that year. After reading this novel I conclude that I am simply susceptible to his writing. His characters’ responses have a physicality so completely "other" from my own that I read his work with a deep curiosity. In this novel Heller addresses the nature of celebrity, the essence of evil, the knowledge of guilt, the awareness of choice, the balm of redemption.

A painter who likes to fish comes upon a man beating a tied horse. Meeting that man again in the dark while fishing a river, the painter kills the man.

I began by listening to this book on audio. I knew from the moment he began talking about fly fishing that I would read it, so I could go slow. Hot sun on cold water, a rushing river, a swirling pool, a limb casting shade…these things I must savor. When he mentioned cadmium yellow, I went out and got the paper copy.

Reading made this more accessible to me. When I saw the way the sections were divided, with gallery descriptions of paintings on display, and noted the spacing of paragraphs, everything slowed to the proper pace and got much more manageable. I sunk into this book like a lead weight through clear water. Heller hooked and played me, only to let me go at the end. It was fun; there is a little regret in being released.

Heller raises important questions about art, and the celebrity of art: does great art require emotional upheaval? He gives us his influences: Stegner, Hemingway, McCarthy, Beam (as in Jim Beam), Homer, Picasso, Delvaux. He answers the question he raises this way: Great art evokes emotion and the artist must be brave. Why brave? Because bravery is breathtaking, inspiring. Was Jim Stegner brave? Perhaps: not in the violence of his killings, but in his resistance to the characterization of criminal, of wrong-doing.
"Paintings [and novels] can take on a life of their own. It’s like stuff happens in them when you’re not looking. The crow and the horse started out as adversaries—I mean the crow would like to eat the horse, if he ever, say, jumped off the cliff and became a carcass. But instead they began to talk. I think maybe the crow cursed the horse. I told you that I thought the crow was telling the horse that he had a choice, that he didn’t have to jump after all. Well, I think that’s sort of like Eve biting the apple. You were talking about Genesis. I think it’s like that, the crow is like the serpent. He is giving the horse the awareness of choice. And with a full knowledge of choice comes a foreknowledge of death."
I can't let this review go without saying that Stegner's walk up to Ten Thousand Waves, the first sex scene with Sophia, and his description of a death-defying chase over mountains and through rivers felt positively lived. But the main argument--the grief-stricken father, the violence (thrice!), the celebrity--lacked some kind of convincing soul. I liked reading it anyway, but it struck me as a blue coyote.

Heller has the goods to write about nature, art, and us ordinary folk...what we feel when we feel deeply. We don't have to murder to screw everything up.

The audio is a Random House Audio production, read by Mark Deakins. The book in hardcover by Knopf is a lovely thing, printed as it is with the paintings’ description as section dividers. One may linger over those descriptions, getting a feel for size, for color, for sense.


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Saturday, November 8, 2014

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State Snowden and Greenwald were afraid the information they’d risked everything to expose would be ignored or shrugged off by the public, so inured are we to the pervasiveness of “threats” and its counterbalance “surveillance.” In one of the later chapters, Greenwald addresses the idea of privacy, and why we need it:
“Only when we believe that nobody else is watching us do we feel free—safe—to truly experiment, to test boundaries, to explore new ways of thinking and being, to explore what it means to be ourselves…it is in the realm of privacy where creativity, dissent, and challenges to orthodoxy germinate.”
This statement contains both the reasons for and reasons against the massive state surveillance program executed under the aegis of the National Security Agency.
“We shouldn’t have to be faithful loyalists of the powerful to feel safe from state surveillance. Nor should the price of immunity be refraining from controversial or provocative dissent. We wouldn’t want a society where the message is conveyed that you will be left alone only if you mimic the accommodating behavior and conventional wisdom of an establishment columnist.”

The last two chapters of this book are extraordinarily thought-provoking: Greenwald shares his thinking on privacy and the purpose of journalism, or "the fourth estate." He is clearly angry, but his anger serves a purpose. Greenwald won several awards for his reporting on Snowden, including being named one of 2013's Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine (along with Snowden). The last two chapters of this book tell us why.

Elsewhere in the book Greenwald discusses meeting Snowden and introducing him to the world and he shares some actual screenshots of the material provided to him by Snowden. Undoubtedly some of this material and the accompanying discussion of it will help bad actors realize the extent of U.S. oversight of their activities, and allow them to think of ways to evade detection. In that sense, this has undone some of what our security agencies have put in place.

But neither Greenwald nor Snowden are traitors in the absolute sense. Mass surveillance itself makes detecting and stopping terror more difficult. There is too much information. These two shined a light on that important caveat. Greenwald and Snowden also reveal how the machinery of protection can and is being used alternatively…to obtain economic, financial, and political advantages, e.g., trade data, negotiation talking points, private correspondences between a foreign leader and her advisors…and how it can be used to monitor us, should the need arise.

We may not feel the danger now, said the frog in the warming pot. But the danger is clear, all completely beside the fact that individuals within the surveilling organizations have access to the data, anytime, anywhere. “People are willing to dismiss fear of government overreach when they believe that those who happen to be in control are benevolent and trustworthy.” How many of us can say this for successive political administrations that change party affiliation?

But what is monstrously clear to me is large numbers of people involved in instituting and executing the series of programs revealed by Greenwald and Snowden believe they are “protecting the state,” when in fact they may be doing the opposite. In the past I recall wondering how mass delusion was possible. Isn’t this another case of the phenomenon? The convincing arguments about fixing security failures have given way to clever folks believing “collect it all” is in the public interest. How they can believe it day after day, year in year out must be that their education and their economic livelihood are tied up in it: all high tech entities are involved. The system becomes inescapable. And they can’t talk to anyone about it.

I think Greenwald makes an eminently reasonable argument when he says that we have made the threat of terrorism an argument for dismantling the very protections that make our system of government so unique and so exceptional and so universally admired. We go to the dark side on that path. We have other examples of countries that have made such choices, some still operating today. I do not think that should be our goal.

Greenwald defines the concept of the “fourth estate” thusly: “those who exercise the greatest power need to be challenged by adversarial pushback and an insistence on transparency; the job of the press is to disprove the falsehoods that power invariably disseminates to protect itself. Without that type of journalism, abuse is inevitable.”

Regarding journalistic objectivity, Greenwald is blunt: “The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who have none, a category that does not exist. It is between journalists who candidly reveal their opinions and those who conceal them, pretending they have none.” I admit that has been an issue that has bothered me for years, having discovered a remarkable lack of objectivity in newspapers even in choosing which stories to run and which to withhold.

The final chapter in this book is a mighty indictment of the powerfully connected U.S. media establishment and celebrity reporters and finally tells me why Snowden went to Greenwald with his information, as opposed to any other news organization. It also relaxes to a certain extent the tension I experienced at the beginning of the book upon learning of Greenwald’s adversarial and aggressive stance, though I can’t help but worry that I am now being managed by Greenwald.

I think everyone can agree that Snowden, Poitras, and Greenwald are brave folks. Whatever else folks have been calling them, that, at least, is the truth.


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Monday, November 3, 2014

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act In calm, clear, patient English McEwan presents a particularly agonizing example of the stunning success and haunting failure of a juridical system, indeed, of a well-tempered, well-disciplined judicial mind. A transcendently wise decision over a matter of life and death cannot save a vital, loving, innocent teenaged boy without concomitant fulfilment of the obligation to prepare him for the world. McEwan’s prose is precise, alluring, devilish, revealing in a paragraph a history, in a pause an acceptance. It is magisterial.

McEwan’s quietly devastating intellectual and legal thriller has the requisite two plot threads, but both occur within the confines of one character, Fiona. One thread traces the crumbling of a long-time marriage between two successful adults on the cusp of old age, and the other is defined by a case Fiona is handling in court. McEwan’s choice to make his central character a judge and a woman brings an undeniable tension to our reading. We are not accustomed to imagining the home lives of judges.

The dissolution, by silence and sighs, of a long-term marriage is distressing enough, but when neither party wants it, it is a kind of willful “suicide” and we are undone. The case that delivers the coup de grâce features a religious young man undergoing medical treatment for leukemia. His faith does not allow a life-saving blood transfusion and Fiona must decide whether he is to live with treatment or certainly die.

It is ungainly to pair the word “children” with “jurisprudence” by any stretch of the imagination, and yet that is something McEwan does here. It is something many family lawyers do every day, day in and day out, for their working lives. The tension created by the cool, educated rationality and judicial restraint exhibited in a hotly debated and divisive case of life-giving treatment versus religious scruple is stomach-churning and mind-roiling. Fiona makes a wise decision hailed by all litigants (view spoiler).

McEwan skillfully manages us by cranking up the tension and releasing it in unexpected ways. On the day Fiona visits the boy in her case to see if he is aware of the consequences of his decisions, she inappropriately experiences a thrill of excitement in contemplation of the hospital visit. Fiona "likes hospitals." She has good memories of her own hospital stay as a child. As she enters, the décor of the hospital parodies the ambiance of an international airport promising different destinations, PEDIATRIC ONCOLOGY, NUCLEAR MEDICINE, PHLEBOTOMY, in signs with motorway lettering. The absurdity of these observations helps us through our approach to the too-terrible-to-contemplate interview. The hospital scene is unexpected, surprising, life-giving--filled with tension and its not-quite release.

Another gorgeous set-piece comes months later. Nowhere had McKwen even hinted at anything so crass as sexism in the high courts. But in one slyly telling scene he has Fiona on assignment in Newcastle, staying overnight without her husband in a drafty mansion with four other judges
“in dark suits and ties, each holding a gin and tonic, [who] ceased talking and rose from their armchairs as she entered.” At dinner, “after a hiatus of polite dithering, it was agreed that, for the sake of symmetry, Fiona should sit at the head. So far she had barely spoken.” During the dinner conversation about ongoing cases under adjudication, one diner solicitously interrupts Fiona’s closest dinner companion with “I hope you realize just how distinguished a judge this is that you’re talking to.”
Just in case you missed her significance.

Even when Fiona is away from court and home there is tension. She has set herself up to open Christmas Revels in the Great Hall, playing Berlioz, Mahler, Schubert on piano in front of colleagues where “standards were punitively high for an amateur affair…It was said they knew a bad note before it was played.” Her schedule permits little time for practice, but when she finally is able to schedule a practice with the barrister with whom she is to perform, he spends acres of precious time ranting about a case he is working on, while we listen and grow anxious.

The lawyerly rants seeded throughout the novel serve many purposes. The first crushes any notion of pure Justice. Any system of justice made by imperfect persons will be imperfect. We also can see the eminent reasonableness of the barristers in their struggle to serve justice. The rants increase the readers’ tension not only because they may be long and complicated but because we know any ruling will be fraught with dissent and division. These things place a judge in an intolerable position. Fiona recognizes in law concerning children “kindness…[is] the essential human ingredient.”

One cannot help but imagine a terrific movie being made from this carefully crafted short novel. Sections of it read like stage directions, so much do we learn from a glance, a setting, a situation. So much of the tension in the relationship between Fiona and her husband is manifestly visual and unspoken, so polite and yet so hurtful. And the boy. We want to see the boy.

McEwan writes with such economy, clarity, humor, and insight that it is always a joy to discover what he will to focus on next. The 2014 hardcover edition published by Doubleday is beautifully printed, and a pleasure to hold, to read. I even like the cover. The novel is a stunning success. Kudos all round on this one.


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Friday, October 31, 2014

World Order by Henry Kissinger

World Order This is a book that begs to be studied, not just read. Kissinger has spent his career thinking about world order and in this book he looks both forward and back, eliminating much of the static in the view we have of historical events. The result is a clear outline of national interests, power, and its balance through recent history, centered especially on the U.S. perspective, its intents and its perceived responsibilities.

The discussion is helpful, and useful. However, in eliminating the “noise” from the systems and structures he presents, Kissinger may lead us to think within the framework he has created. In looking forward, a new world order must be something outside any previous framework: “wisdom counsels that a different path must be chosen. To undertake a journey on a road never before traveled requires character and courage…” The cyber world developing around us changes everything.
A reconstruction of the international system is the ultimate challenge to statesmanship of our time.

Beginning with the Treaty of Westphalia after the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48 in which nearly a quarter of Central Europe’s population was decimated, we see the structure of world order based on national sovereignty:
The Westphalian peace reflected a practical accommodation to reality, not a unique moral insight. It relied on a system of independent states refraining from interference in each other’s domestic affairs and checking each other’s ambitions through a general equilibrium of power. No single claim to truth or universal rule had prevailed in Europe’s contests. Instead, each state was assigned the attribute of sovereign power over its territory. Each would acknowledge the domestic structures and religions vocations of its fellow states as realities and refrain from challenging their existence. With a balance of power now perceived as natural and desirable, the ambitions of rulers would be set in counterpose against each other, at least in theory curtailing the scope of conflicts. Division and multiplicity, an accident of Europe’s history, became the hallmarks of a new system of international order with this own distinct philosophical outlook. In this sense the European effort to end its conflagration shaped and prefigured the modern sensibility: it reserved judgment on the absolute in favor of the practical and ecumenical; it sought to distill order from multiplicity and restraint.

Although China had little involvement with the world and no interest in the Westphalian system of order for centuries, it adheres to and calls on its principles now, when that system of beliefs is being eroded and perhaps even abandoned by the West. Kissinger points out that the Westphalian system of world order based on precepts of national sovereignty and non-interference in other nations’ affairs, is not working in the way it had been for centuries. Kissinger suggests that while in Asia states still adhere to the Westphalian model, the system is breaking down in Europe where economic and military interests are grouped while political power is based on the nation. Business interests of global corporations exceed national interests and boundaries. In the Middle East, a radical Islamic group seeks to operate regionally, ignoring state boundaries. Since 2001 the United Nations has adopted new responsibilities that directly challenge Westphalian principles: asserting the “the responsibility to protect and intervention as a duty of care” even within the boundaries sovereign states. The cyber world features asymmetric power imbalances in which one laptop outside the boundaries of a nation can disable powerful national and international systems.

Regarding technological changes that have changed our notion of speed, and information, Kissinger says
Cyberspace has become strategically indispensable…The history of warfare shows that every technological offensive capability will eventually be matched and offset by defensive measures, although not every country will be equally able to afford them, Does this mean that technologically less advanced countries must shelter under the protection of high-tech societies?...Nor is it possible to base deterrence in cyberspace on symmetrical retaliation, as in the case with nuclear weapons…In the end, a framework for organizing the global cyber environment will be imperative…
The dilemma of such technologies is that it is impossible to establish rules of conduct unless a common understanding of at least some of the key capabilities exists. But these are precisely the capabilities the major actors will be reluctant to disclose…In this manner, asymmetry and a kind of congenital world disorder are built into relations between cyber powers both in diplomacy and strategy. The emphasis of many strategic rivalries is shifting from the physical to the information realm, in the collection and processing of data, the penetration of networks, and the manipulation of psychology. Absent articulation of some rules of international conduct, a crisis will arise from the inner dynamics of the system.
I guess we have Snowden to thank for revealing that “all is known.” Warfare can now move to the psychological: What is it you think you know? There is perhaps no better time to think about the imperative for establishment of a new world order. Kissinger suggests that America must retain her moral compass but not abandon her sense of realism.
Society needs to adapt its education policy ultimate imperatives in the long-term direction of the country and in the cultivation of its values. The inventors of the devices that have so revolutionized the collection and sharing of information can make an equal if not greater contribution by devising means to deepen its conceptual foundation. On the way to the first truly global world order, the great human achievements of technology must be fused with enhanced powers of humane, transcendent, and moral judgment.
The suggestion that the technologists that bring us our systems for connection be involved in “deepening its conceptual foundations” is an interesting one. But perhaps more importantly, we need to move as the people of one nation to make that understanding of the internet's uses and abuses a part of our moral and ethical decision-making. These things can be taught.

The task ahead seems insurmountable, and the tasks addressed without knowing the outcomes of our choices. Kissinger reminds us that
the Westphalian system was drafted by some two hundred delegates, none of whom has entered the annals of history as a major figure, who met in two provincial German towns forty miles apart (a significant distance in the seventeenth century) in two separate groups. They overcame their obstacles because they shared the devastating experience of the Thirty Years’ War, and they were determined to prevent its recurrence. Our time, facing even graver prospects, needs to act on its necessities before it is engulfed by them.
Kissinger leaves us with a series of questions we need to ask ourselves in order to frame an outline to begin discussing this issue in earnest. It is a gift. Elder statesmen are rare beings, and whatever else he may have been called, Kissinger can claim that title. He is now an old man, an old man with long vision. He helps us by reminding us to get a grip, look within, take stock of our urgent responsibilities to our children, to be brave and take the steps needed to preserve and protect our country and our liberty.

To this point, I have addressed and quoted only the first and final pages of this book. In the rest of it, Kissinger gives us distilled observations, opinions, and insights from a lifetime of looking at historical underpinnings and the foreign affairs of nations, and of our own. There is no flab in these pages. It is enlightening. Kissinger was at his influence apogee in the Nixon administration and he speaks longingly of Nixon’s willingness and ability to think in strategic terms:
Nixon treated foreign policy as an endeavor with no end, as a set of rhythms to be managed. He dealt with its intricacies and contradictions like school assignments by an especially demanding teacher.
We have that teacher in this book, challenging us to lead.

I listened to the Penguin Random House Audio of this title, read with appropriate pacing and gravitas by Nicholas Hormann. Listening helped to bring some elements of the discussion into clarity. I supplemented listening with the text, published by Penguin.


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Thursday, October 30, 2014

For the Dead by Timothy Hallinan

For the Dead (Poke Rafferty Mystery, #6) The trinity at the center of this series, Poke, Rose, and Miaow, has our allegiance. I prefer to think of them as a triumvirate because of their power. Poke has soul, Rose is sexy, and Miaow has knowledge of the streets that no child should ever have.

The Rafferty’s use their powers together in this latest installment of the Poke Rafferty series to bring down a corrupt power broker hiding in the police force. They had a little help (well, okay, a lot of help) from Andrew, Miaow’s best mate and school chum, and his contacts in the Vietnamese embassy. Hallinan keeps us riveted as Miaow escapes the nets laid for her and Andrew demonstrates his computer wizardry. They are teens, with all the confusion, angst, and drama of teens, and we ache for them…and their parents.

Hallinan may be unsurpassed in character creation. Miaow, Poke’s adopted daughter from the streets, is brought into clear focus when we listen to her confidence when confronting the hitmen who chase her. She learned too early how to escape the traps of bad men. The personality quirks of Rose and Poke, and their patter together, have the comforting tension of two distinct, discerning individuals who nonetheless respect and love one another. It is a pleasure to see what Hallinan will choose to highlight in his novels, because there is always a ring of truth.

A powerful cop is setting up kills that benefit him financially and “solving” the cases with the help of coerced police lower in the hierarchy. Things start to unravel when Miaow and Andrew buy an iPhone 5 on the black market. In pursuing the aggressor, Poke is mainly impotent except for his rage…but he has intelligent friends with mythic powers, and as a team, they each use their special skills to resolve the issue satisfactorily. Moments of finely-calibrated tension are seeded throughout the novel impelling the reader to the nail-biting finish.

Hallinan introduces us to two unforgettable characters. One is a cop in a backwater precinct who is brought to Bangkok to work on this case because of her extraordinary computer skills. Her name is Kwai Clemente, part Filipino, and she has eyes that people cannot help but comment upon. Though she barely says a word except “yes, sir” in this story, but one cannot help but want to see her again. Writers, take a look at how Hallinan did this. Hallinan creates characters that actually think, breathe, and bleed so that we feel some kind of connection with them.

The second person we cannot forget is the Western bank manager who refers to Thais as “these people” and who, after ordering only for himself at a luncheon, strongly suggests to his dining companions what they should order. “Pink-faced and closely shaven,” James Kalmenson is “a finger-snapper and finger-pointer,” “indulges in…imperious post-colonial behavior,” and “has no obvious shortage of self-regard.” We don’t long to see Kalmenson again because his type is easy to find, alas.

One reviewer calls this series a literary thriller, and I agree with that characterization, though I would put the emphasis on literary. I admit to a short attention span for thrillers as a genre because the characters often seem like cut-outs whose purpose is to propel the action. Hallinan’s thrillers are the opposite. There is riveting action, but it is the characters we come to see.

Poke is a hapless sort. The one time he could have done some damage to a bad guy he didn’t have his gun. (view spoiler) But we’re riveted anyway because—and this is another of Hallinan’s tone-perfect choices--women and children might be victims, and that we couldn’t bear.

If you haven’t read Hallinan yet, you do not have to start at the beginning, though you may wish to go back later to sop up every delicious drop of this mystery series. The Fear Artist (Poke Rafferty #5), for instance, won all kinds of praise among taste-makers for its white-knuckled swerve into international espionage. Hallinan does it all.

You can start reading the series here. What you need to know is that Poke Rafferty is a writer who occasionally sidelines as a private investigator, Rose is a former Bangkok prostitute who has happily retired, and Miaow is a now-teenaged former street kid the two have adopted. This odd threesome has the love and joy and anguish of all the world within their encircling arms.


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