Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Eiffel Tower Opened 126 Years Ago!

The Eiffel Tower debuted 126 years ago. It nearly tore Paris apart.

Stephen King: The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower (2004)

I can't do it!

I made it to page 60, but I cannot force myself to read any more of the 800+ pages of the seventh and final volume of Stephen King's Dark Tower series.

I don't give a shit what happens to Roland - or any of the other characters - and I don't care what happens when the Ka-tet finally reaches the Dark Tower.

At the start of this project, I considered omitting the entire series because I thought I would not enjoy its fantasy elements. But when I found used hard covers of the later volumes, I decided what the hell. I should have stuck with my original plan.

(P.S. This also means I won't be reading The Wind Through The Keyhole, which was published in 2012 and fits chronologically into the Dark Tower series between Books 4 and 5.)

Next: The Colorado Kid.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Death Merchant #40: Blueprint Invisibility

In October 1943, the United States Navy allegedly made a battleship disappear and reappear hundreds of miles away.

In Blueprint Invisibility, Joseph Rosenberger treats that story - known now as The Philadelphia Experiment - as fact, and has a U.S. agent, mind-controlled by the Red Chinese, steal the top secret file that includes the formula to duplicate the experiment, which "opened the portal to another dimension, another time-continuum or another universe".

In this book, Camellion hangs around the CIA's main headquarters in New York City, which is located on the 12th floor of the Payson Arms, on Payson Avenue in upper Manhattan - a short walk from where I lived for 15 years! (As far as I know, there never was a hotel on that small street.)

The CIA believes that ONI agent Mason Shiptonn, who lifted the file, was somehow seduced by one of the call girls working at Soraya Duncan's escort service; Duncan, who has ties to a couple of New York mobsters, also may be working for the Red Chinese. Camellion, in disguise as a southern gentleman named Jefferson Davis Hafferton, arranges a date with Duncan - and actually ends up in bed with her! Rosenberger, who so far has had no sexual content in the Death Merchant books whatsoever (outside of the DM having a lewd thought every 6-8 books or so), spends four pages on Camellion getting laid!

After surviving a shootout with the mobsters while trying to break into, and grab some files from, Duncan's office, Camellion decides to invade the a 26-room Manhattan brownstone that the Chinese are using as their embassy. They kidnap a few people for possible interrogation and escape in a helicopter, evading the New York police.

After drugging the embassy employees and questioning them for hours, they learn that Chinese scientists are close to finishing a working model of the invisibility device on Chelsworth Island, off the coast of Maine. An all-out assault is planned, with Camellion knowing it's vital that he and his fighting force of SEALs capture Dr. Chou Wen-yaun - a specialist in mind-murder - alive, so they can learn his mind-programming secrets.

During the final battle, we get narration which reads more like Rosenberger's outline than the actual story:
The firing of pistols and submachine guns! Coughing! Then metal clanging against metal! Shouts! Grunts! Groans! Now it was man to man, with neither side having time to reload, even though some of the Chinese and the three American gangsters tried.
Rosenberger also includes about seven pages of intense martial arts fighting - with every twist and turn described to within an inch of its life (including footnotes!):
[Camellion] used a left-elbow Empi stab to wreck the celiac (solar) plexus of Yeh Bo L'ang trying to come in behind him, a high Fumikomi front stamp kick that landed solidly on the sternal angle23 of Wang Wen-hung, one of the top men of the Red Chinese 3rd Bureau in the lab. The pain didn't do anything to Wang Wen-hung. The sudden shock did. It killed him. He was still falling when Camellion used a Mawashi Geri rear roundhouse kick that barely reached Nanki Hiso, who jumped back ... At the same time, as Camellion's left hand shot out to grab the wrist of Liu Ki Cho'i'pi, who was coming at him with a knife, he used his right hand in a very fast Seiken, the blade of the Deadringer slicing through the jugular notch of the man's neck. Blood spurted. Cho'i'pi gurgled, wished he had stayed home in China and started to fall into the final blackness.

23. The sternal angle is the point where the manubrium (the upper part of the breastbone) and the body of the sternum come together, about 2 inches below where the collar bones meet at the base of the throat. This is a weak spot in the sternum, and if attacked with a powerful blow to the "sternal shield" over the heart ... bronchus, lungs and thoracic nerves can be broken, producing intense pain and shock to the circulatory and respiratory systems.

Nanki Hiso, although an expert in Hsing-i and Shaolin - Chinese boxing - was no match for Bill Fieldhouse, who was not only a past master in Pentjak-silat (the national defense form of Indonesia), but an expert in Kun-Tao (Chinese: "fist-way") and in Okinawa Karate-jutsu. ...

[Fieldhouse] let Hiso have a right-legged Patagonian purr-kick, the piston of his foot caving in Hiso's left side and forcing broken ribs to stab into the man's left lung. Fieldhouse began using his legs and feet the way a boxer uses his fists. A blink of an eye! He powed Hiso with a left-legged Ko-ja dynamite kick that landed on the side of the man's head and broke his neck - spun with the speed of a top and kicked another Chinese full in the face, the rubber sole of the coral shoe breaking the goof's jaw, nasal bones and the orbital bones around both eyes. ...

Gene Thompson went to work on the other goon, landing a left-handed Haito ridge-hand chop to the man's right cheek. A right Seiken forefist to the man's stomach. And when Kung Ji Kang doubled over in agony, Thompson finished him off with an expert Tsumi-Saki tip-of-toes strike kick that landed squarely in the middle of Kang's solar plexus. The dog eater would be with his honorable ancestors within a few minutes.
In 1973-74, Rosenberger penned five books of a series called Kung Fu: Featuring Mace, which are apparently extremely light on plot and feature one fight scene after the next after the next after the ... I look forward to reading those later on.

Oops. Rosenberger uses the same phrase within a span of 13 pages:
"... sneered Oscar Yehling, a creep who would have wasted his own mother if the contract price were right." (86)

"He'd kill his own mother if the contract price was right, then lay bets on which way she'd fall." (99)
There is also some good stuff about Camellion, a superman who "could easily get by on as little as four hours sleep" and was "used to thinking in fourteen different languages". ... His breakfast: "black coffee, a small glass of honey, and two vitamin pills." ... Throughout the series, while explaining his seemingly-suicidal attack plans, Camellion often eats dried fruit: in two instances here, he is "eating kumquats and drinking cocoa" and later enjoying "candied apple slices".
"He was something else! There was an unreal unnatural quality about him, a kind of perternaturalism that made one sense he had done this type of covert work many, many times. What made Swain [Camellion's alias] so eerie was that he seemed to understand Death as well as Life."

"[T]here was that strange 'something' about the man named Swain ... a certain chill, a certain type of warning ... something alien there, something that didn't belong."
The Death Merchant is a 5th-degree black belt with "a very personal arrangement with the Cosmic Lord of Death". It is strongly implied that Camellion actually knows the time when he will die. "The Cosmic Lord of Death is active, but He'll stick to his agreement."
"The rap sheets ... were longer than the weekly grocery list for Boys' Town."

"He was an ugly as a ten-car pile-up ..."

One goon gets shot and falls across a desk. "He reminded the Death Merchant of a taco!"
"Gindow's body shuddered from the impact of the big bullet and he slumped dead, a large bloody hole in his lower right chest. He had eaten of bread baked in blackness and had paid the price."
(Joe Kenney of Glorious Trash reviewed Blueprint Invisibility here.)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Death Merchant: Fruits & Vegetables

Joseph Rosenberger's action-adventure books of the 1970s and 1980s are known for having pages and pages of intricately-described action - both firearms and martial arts - coupled with a commensurate amount of gore. In reading Rosenberger's Death Merchant series, I've found that he regularly used fruit and vegetables as metaphors in his extremely graphic - and sometimes darkly humourous - descriptions of the carnage a high-velocity slug can produce.

#2: Operation Overkill
"Man, I'd have to be a hermaphrodite to do that," Luther grinned - and put a couple of slugs into St. Clair's head, opening his skull like an overripe peach.
#3: The Psychotron Plot
Trying to draw a bean on Camellion with a pistol that resembled a German Luger, the Egyptian bodyguard looked incredibly alarmed when a couple of the Death Merchant's slugs burst his head like an orange that had been stepped on. Instantly, he found himself in the Mohammedan version of heaven, ogling the virgin Houris and wondering how in hell he had gotten there!
#5: Satan Strike
His best wasn't good enough! The Comité tried, failed and died when a .357 slug parted his Adam's apple like a pear split down the middle!
#6: The Albanian Connection
The Death Merchant's first two slugs knifed into the white-coated morons to his left. One slug opened its victim's head like a tomato hit with a ten-pound sledge hammer, while the second caught its man in his open mouth, blowing out the back of his throat and neck.
#7: The Castro File
He was about to make a success of the yell when he flopped over dead from the three slugs which had crushed his skull like a rotten tomato, exposing the convoluted windings of his brain ... some pink, others grayish blue.

There were no screams, but bone, blood, teeth, and bits of brains exploded with all the force of a rotten watermelon dropped from the top of the Empire State Building!

His face twisting in panic, the KGB agent raised up, just as another tornado of slugs hit the windshield, this time shattering it, several of the slugs blowing the driver's head apart, like a melon hit with a bust of shotgun pellets!
#8: Billionaire Mission
The stream of hot metal flowed all over Captain Weidamier, bursting him open like a watermelon that has lain too long in the boiling sun ... Yumio Nama followed a moment later. Cursing in Japanese, Yum-Yum lifted the Ar-16 rifle with amazing speed and snapped off two shots at Camellion, who jumped sideways and triggered the .45 M-3, the shower of slugs raining all over the Jap jackass, turning him into instant sukiyaki, but without the chicken and vegetables.
#9: The Laser War
The third man caught the third slug in his forehead, the steel opening up his skull and splitting his brain the way an axe would cleave a melon!
#11: Manhattan Wipeout
He blinked, look surprised, and fell on his back, his eyes wide open, a hole the size of a bean in the middle of his forehead. The back of his head resembled a burst pomegranate ...
#12: The KGB Frame
Dyudin's head exploded from the impact of the Super-Vel .357 slug that split open his skull like a watermelon kicked by an angry mule.
#13: The Mato Grosso Horror
Walther submachine guns roared! A 9mm slug caught Stein in the left hip. Five more hit him in the stomach and almost cut him in two! Three more opened up his chest and split his skull the way a macana would chop apart a kisva melon!
#14: Vengeance of the Golden Hawk
Kaouki died faceless and brainless. The Death Merchant's chain of 7.65mm slugs exploded his head, which flew apart like a rotten melon.
#15: The Iron Swastika Plot
The Death Merchant checked the luminous dials of his depth gauge - 492 feet. The E.P.E. and I.P.E. were working perfectly - Or I'd be dead! Crushed to death by water pressure - like an orange in a vice!
#17: The Zemlya Expedition
Bogaty's 7.62 mm slug burned very close to Camellion, but the big Russian didn't get a second chance to ice Camellion. His skull popped open like an overripe orange as Richard's two 9mm pieces of steel stabbed into his forehead and scattered his think-tank in assorted directions.
#19: Armageddon, USA!
Knowing that Kane's next smash would shatter his skill like an already cracked eggshell, Boggs pulled the Auto Burglar from underneath his coat ... The 20-gauge shell exploded, the weapon whoomed, and the charge blew a hole in Kane's midsection the size of a grapefruit.

One man caught several slugs in the face; the high-velocity steel erased his features, popped apart his skull like a cucumber hit by a sledge hammer and scattered his brain within a radius of two feet ...

McAulay's second P-38 Walther slug caught Teague far down in the left side of the neck, almost to the collarbone. Ordinarily a man so full of energy that he could hardly sit still, Teague dropped his two S&W automatics, his face looking as if his neck were trying to blow bubblegum!
#20: Hell in Hindu Land
Thinking that the coast was clear, Gitanjali shouted, "DON'T FIRE, MADHU! I'M COMING TOWARD YOU!" and began running toward the end of the cube, at the same moment that Suslev leaned around the right end of the parallelogram and stitched Dutt with a burst of 7.62mm slugs that splattered Madhu like a squashed melon against the side of the cube.

There was a big wooommmmm! A .44 JMP bullet hit Bublik between the eyes and exploded his skull the way a stick of dynamite would blow apart a head of cabbage!
#21: The Pole Star Secret
At the sight of the Death Merchant, two of the Russians stared at him as if petrified while the woman yelled "There are -" into the phone a fraction of a second before a .44 Jurras Hollow Pointed bullet bored into her temple and exploded her head like an overly ripe watermelon.

Neither man had a chance to fire. There were more tremendous BOOMs from the twin Auto Mags and two thudding sounds as though someone had hit a melon with a hammer. Camellion had split open the two skulls of the Russians, scattering their brains and head bones all over the place. Definitely an untidy mess!
#24: The Kronos Plot
The weapon sounded like a hand grenade; yet because of the Mag-Na-Ported barrel, there was very little muzzle climb and no loss in muzzle velocity. Proof was the man in the doorway. Very suddenly he was without a head. The .44 Magnum jacketed soft-point projectile had exploded his skull like a grapefruit hit by a blast from a double-barreled shotgun.

A stupid look fell over the German's face. The .44 Magnum projectile blew a hole in his chest the size of a grapefruit, tore out his back, and ripped all the way through six sacks of what could have been some of A&P's best coffee.
#25: The Enigma Project
Again the AMP in the Death Merchant's hand boomed like a cannon. There was a sickening plop, the kind of sound that resembled a sledgehammer hitting the side of a pumpkin. The man trying to raise the automatic rifle was suddenly without a face and without a rifle.

Borodin tensed, his ruddy face, harsh and furrowed, becoming hard when Camellion said, "Now, pig farmer, we are going to have a truth and tell-all session." The Russian's face seemed to swell, as though it might burst like an overripe tomato.
#26: The Mexican Hit
Unconscious from the terrific impact of the bullet, the ugly-faced mobster dropped the .41, fell against one of the stateroom doors and sagged to the floor. With a hole in him the size of a grapefruit, Catura was only a few seconds from infinity.
#28: Nipponese Nightmare
Domei Mutsu was a man of courage welcoming his own death. He did make a feeble attempt to grab Brown's throat with a herbasami inside-ridge-hand squeeze, but Brown stepped back, jerked heavily on Mutsu's left arm, and, with his left foot, kicked the man between the legs, the end of his foot crushing the scrotum the way a sledge hammer would flatten a walnut.
#34: Operation Mind-Murder
One of the Death Merchant's Auto Mags roared and the head of the KGB man exploded with the kind of sound a hammer makes when it hits a watermelon.
#37: The Bermuda Triangle Action
In a low crouch, the Death Merchant fired the AMP and the Ingram. A swarm of 9mm Ingram projectiles erased Jose Matar's face and popped open his skull like a lemon hit by a blast from a double-barrelled shotgun.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Death Merchant #39: The Fourth Reich

This volume begins six weeks after the previous book, The Burning Blue Death, ended. Richard "Death Merchant" Camellion has destroyed the Transmutationizer, the human combustion weapon developed by the neo-Nazi group, The Brotherhood, that could turn a person into a small pile of ashes in mere minutes. Camellion also smashed the West German chapter of the Brotherhood.

When The Fourth Reich starts, Camellion is in Scotland. trying to rescue agent Loren Korsey from a ruined abbey. Korsey has infiltrated another segment of the Brotherhood, but has not reported in as scheduled. (This portion of the Brotherhood is led by a fanatic named Sir Hugh Kilsyth MacLean, who believes that the people of Scotland were also part of the Aryan race.)

After the Death Merchant rescues him, we learn about the Brotherhood's latest plans: triggering an atom bomb (twice as powerful as that used on Hiroshima) in Cairo, a blast which will be blamed on Israel. They also plan on assassinating the president of the United States using three Cuban pasties to implicate both Castro and the Soviet Union.

Right away, in the first five pages, we get several turns of phrase and asides that could only come from the mind of Joseph Rosenberger:
"Korsey reported that arms and ammo are hidden beneath the ruins of the abbey. Unless they are buried, that means some kind of room. And I'll wager that's where they're holding Korsey - if they haven't already killed him. Damn, it's quiet. I can almost hear my toenails growing."

"Kingman? He's a natural-born killer and a ten-carat survivor. He could take care of himself in the middle of south Chicago!"

"In spite of all the preposterous rubbish about the human species being gregarious, an individual was born alone and died alone - and if he has the sense God gives to retarded frogs, he'll realize that he lives alone."
The main plot of the book - Camellion hunts down MacLean and his henchmen (which includes a super-wealthy ex-SS officer who is bankrolling the plot) - unfolds like most Death Merchant books. Camellion assembles an attacking force of three other men and invades MacLean's mansion. This time, they are captured, but Camellion leads a wild escape that begins when he removes his handcuffs with the tools of the lock-picking Plan he keeps lodged in his rectum. The shootout throughout the mansion is one of the better action sequences from Rosenberger in the last few books. However, as they emerge into the sunlight, they see MacLean flying off into the distance in his private plane.

That simply necessitates another assault, this time on Bracadale Manor, a secluded castle that MacLean inherited from his late ex-wife. This is also the location of the bomb shelter where MacLean and his trusted aides will stay when the Cairo A-bomb goes off. (How many castles and/or manors has Camellion attacked/destroyed so far in this series? It seems like five or six by now!)

What is more interesting to me than the battle scenes - though the description of the gore is often darkly humorous and the hand-to-hand fighting is mind-numbingly detailed - are the unique asides that Rosenberger throws into his manuscript.

Camellion muses - as he did in the last book - that "the United States, along with the rest of civilization is doomed":
The 6,000 year old era was coming to a close. It was all a matter of cycles. Time cycles repeat because human nature does not change. That is why wars occur at regular intervals. For the same reasons, civilizations rise and fall.

Already the United States was in the Indian Summer of its culture, a "summer" that would be of very short duration. The time was drawing near for mobocracy, to be followed by dictatorship, by Caesarism.

All the elements were present, but Americans would never recognize them - of course, the human species is self-destructive. We can expect no less from Americans, who are emotional about petty things, addicted to hero worship, and are used to bosses and regimentation in their daily lives. Without realizing it, they permit themselves to be conditioned by government and corporate bureaucracies and indoctrinated by the standardized mass media. Gregarious, they join clubs, councils, leagues, associations, lodges, fraternities and societies. They follow but seldom lead. They do not realize that there is no deadlier form of self-deception that forcing the worthy elements of a civilization to become the servants of the drones ...

There were other signs of the approaching fall of democracy the savage class wars that would erupt between 1980 and 1985! A leader who was a naive idealist, who had convinced himself that only he knew what was good for the nation.

Equally dangerous was the growing role of women that had led to many changes in public opinion. The desire for freedom had been replaced by a desire for security. As if freedom were compatible with security. Security can best be maintained in a prison. Or a hospital. There was the tendency to focus on the child; there was the youth worship syndrome, the desire to avoid risks at all costs, and the emotional personalization of issues and the high suspicion of individualism. The same as in ancient Rome, mused the Death Merchant.
I wish I knew how much of this was Rosenberger's actual opinion/outlook. Since slight variations of it appear in multiple books, I have to assume a lot of it is the author's belief.

Rosenberger also uses the gathering of nine agents to present some discussions on gun control, jail sentences, and idiotic liberals, with the German BND agents being "verbally outgunned" (as everyone eventually is!) by Camellion's iron logic and common sense. ... The Death Merchant eats a box of dried figs while he lectures the group.

"The TNT impact blew a hole in him the size of a Florida Sunkist orange."

"... stitched him from tailbone to tonsils"

"By ourselves, we'd have as much chance on the first floor as worm-eaten apples hanging in a high wind."

"The explosion made Camellion and the other four feel like they were locked in a metal drum while a dozen midgets pounded on the sides and each end with sledge hammers."

"... ten .45 caliber projectiles blew out Woofs stomach, leaving a hole big enough to stuff in a football!"

"Camellion muttered, "Your father passed out blindfolds when you were born!" and took out the German with a left legged Mae Geri Kekomi ..."

"The swarm of 9mm Parabellum missiles stabbed into Hahn's throat and chest, the tremendous impact spinning him around. The windmills of his mind turned to a billion splinters. Life and all reality became plastic models and the delusion ended."

"Today we learned again what the human race has known since recorded history, that every battle must have its dead. (And only the Cosmic Lord of Death is always the real winner!)"

Also: Some of the Scottish enemy are labelled "bagpipe boobs", while the Germans are referred to as "Hitlerheads" and "Nazi halfwits"; Rosenberger has done far better than this in the past. ... Camellion calls someone's Blackberry brandy "giggle-water".

Monday, March 16, 2015

Nick Hornby: Ten Years In The Tub: A Decade Soaking In Great Books

In the fall of 2003, Nick Hornby began writing a monthly column for The Believer magazine, talking about the books he bought and read each month.

The rules of the column were not all that strict, though, and so he also found time to write about films, football, and life. A decade of these columns was published a couple of years ago by McSweeney's as Ten Years In The Tub: A Decade Soaking In Great Books.

I absolutely loved reading this collection, so much so that for awhile I was thinking I should attempt some watered-down version of the same thing. There is something special about good writing that makes you want to write. Hornby's love for books is total, and infectious, and his writing style is like listening to a good friend over a few pints just shoot the shit about what he's been reading.

As far as Hornby's own books, I really enjoyed Fever Pitch. I've tried two of his novels: High Fidelity was fun, but began to feel like it was a screenplay masquerading as a novel, and I could not get into Juliet, Naked. (That may not be enough of a sample to make any definitive decision on his fiction, however.)

Here are some snips from Ten Years In The Tub (I could have easily picked a dozen others):

On Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude:
I loved Motherless Brooklyn, and I knew a little bit about his book before I started it - I knew, for example, that a lot of funk records and Marvel comics were mentioned by name. In other words, it wasn't just up my street; it was actually knocking on my front door and peering through the letterbox to see if I was in. ...

The Fortress of Solitude is one of those rare novels that felt as though it had to be written; in fact, it's one of those novels that deals with something so crucial - namely, the relationship between a middle-class white boy and black culture - that you can't believe it hasn't been written before. ... This is a painful, beautiful, brave, poetic and definitive book ... and although it has flaws, the right reader will not only forgive them but love them - just as the right listener loves the flaws in, say, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. They are the flaws that come from ambition, not of ineptitude.
On Charles Dickens:
Where would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes? Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where. (Did you know that Dickens is estimated to have invented thirteen thousand characters? Thirteen thousand! The population of a small town! ...) At one point near the beginning of the book, David runs away, and ends up having to sell the clothes he's wearing for food and drink. It would be enough, maybe, to describe the physical hardship that ensued; but Dickens being Dickens, he finds a bit part for a real rogue of a secondhand clothes merchant, a really scary guy who smells of rum and who shouts things like "Oh, my lungs and liver" and "Goroo!" a lot. ...

Dickens is having fun, and he extends the scene way beyond its function. Rereading it now, it seems almost to have been conceived as a retort to spareness, because the scary guy insists on paying David for his jacket in halfpenny installments over the course of an afternoon, and thus ends up sticking around for two whole pages. Could he have been cut? Absolutely he could have been cut. But there comes a point in the writing process when a novelist - any novelist, even a great one - has to accept that what he is doing is keeping one end of a book away from the other, filling up pages, in the hope that these pages will move, provoke, and entertain a reader.
On Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang:
I came across The Family Fang as a result of good old-fashioned browsing, an activity that the internet, the decline of bookshops, and a ludicrously optimistic book-buying policy (see every previous column in these pages) has rendered almost obsolete. I picked it up because of the great Ann Patchett's generous and enthusiastic blurb - "The best single-word description would be genius" - and it stayed picked up because, on further investigation, it appeared to be a novel at least partly about art and why we make it, and I love books on that subject. ...

The Family Fang is pretty much the kind of novel you might dream of finding during an aimless twenty minutes in a bookstore: it's ambitious, it's funny, it takes its characters seriously, and it has soul - here defined as that beautiful ache fiction can bring on when it wants the best for us all while simultaneously accepting that most of the time, even good enough isn't possible.
On Gabriel Zaid's So Many Books:
Zaid's finest moment, however, comes in his second paragraph, when he says that "the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more."

That's me! And you, probably! That's us! "Thousands of unread books"! "Truly cultured"! ... I suddenly had a little epiphany: all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. ... [W]ith each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.
On Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare At Goats:
You have probably read those stories of how people in Iraq and Afghanistan were tortured by having American pop music blasted at them day and night. And you have probably read or heard many of the jokes made as a consequence of these stories - people writing in to newspapers to say that if you have a teenager who listens to 50 Cent or Slipknot all day then you know how those Iraqi prisoners feel, etc. and so on. (Even the Guardian made lots of musical torture jokes for a while.) Ronson floats the intriguing notion that the jokes were an integral part of the strategy; in other words, if you can induce your citizens to laugh at torture, then outrage will be much harder to muster. Stupidity is, despite all appearances to the contrary, a complicated state of mind. Who's stupid, in the end - them or us?
On Bob Dylan's Chronicles:
Chronicles ends up managing to inform without damaging the mystique, which is some feat. In fact, after reading this book, you end up realizing that Dylan isn't willfully obtuse or artful in any way - it's just who he is and how his mind works. And this realization in turn has the effect of contextualizing his genius - maybe even diminishing it, if you had a lot invested in his genius being the product of superhuman effort. He thinks in apocalyptic metaphors and ellipses, and clearly sees jokers and thieves and five (or more) believers everywhere he looks, so writing about them is, as far as he is concerned, no big deal. ...

What's so impressive about Chronicles is the seriousness with which Dylan has approached the task of explaining what it's like to be him and how he got that way ... [B]y the end of the book he has illuminated great swathes of his interior life - the very part one had no real hope of ever being able to see.
One theme of this collection is that Hornby is constantly discovering new writers - sometimes from randomly buying books - absolutely loving their work, and then wondering how he could have been so ignorant and unaware of these classics. In particular, he's astounded by many young adult novels, such as David Almond's Skellig ("one of the best novels written for anyone published in the last fifteen years"):
They've been very disorienting, these last few weeks. I see now that dismissing YA books because you're not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you're not a policeman or a dangerous criminal, and as a consequence, I've discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that's filled with masterpieces I've never heard of, the YA equivalents of The Maltese Falcon and Strangers on a Train. ... The world suddenly seems a larger place.
Hornby loses points for calling the Beatles "the greatest band in the history of the world", but I must thank him profusely for turning me on to John Carey, the author of The Intellectuals And The Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 and What Good Are The Arts? If you have ever wondered about the concepts of "high culture" and "low culture", how and when they were created and how they have evolved, and what they mean, you owe it to yourself to read these two fascinating books.

On What Good Are The Arts?:
It's rare, I think, for a writer, maybe for anyone, to feel that he's just read a book that absolutely expresses who he or she is, and what he or she believes, while at the same time recognizing that he or she could not have written any of it. ... I couldn't have written it because I - and I'm not alone, by any means - do not have Carey's breadth of reading, or his calm, wry logic, which enables him to demolish the arguments of just about everyone who has ever talked tosh about objective aesthetic principles. ... What Good Are The Arts? is a very wise book, and a very funny book, but beyond even these virtues, it's a very humane, inclusive, and empathetic book; as we all know, it's impossible to talk about "high" art without insulting the poor, or the young, or those without a university degree, or those who have no taste for, or interest in, Western culture. Casey's approach to the whole sorry mess is the only one that makes any sense. Indeed, while reading it, you become increasingly amazed at the muddle that apparently intelligent people have got themselves into when they attempt to define the importance of - and the superiority of - "high" culture.
And, then, finally, on reading:
One of the problems, it seems to me, is that we have got it into our heads that books should be hard work, and that unless they're hard work, they're not doing us any good. ... If reading books is to survive as a leisure activity - and there are statistics which show that this is by no means assured - then we have to promote the joys of reading rather than the (dubious) benefits. I would never attempt to dissuade anyone from reading a book. But please, if you're reading a book that's killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren't enjoying a TV program. Your failure to enjoy a highly rated novel doesn't mean you're dim - you may find Graham Greene is more to your taste, or Stephen Hawking, or Iris Murdoch, or Ian Rankin. Dickens, Stephen King, whoever. It doesn't matter.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Death Merchant #38: The Burning Blue Death

The Burning Blue Death's back cover states: "When U.S. Senator James Franklin Wilder is burned to death; when several months later a scientist goes up in smoke, with no explanation; when a key government employee in West Germany bursts into flames, and there is no official comment; when in eight months, twelve people, all connected to high government posts spontaneously combust, the Scientific Research Division of the CIA becomes concerned."

The Company hires Richard Camellion, the Death Merchant, to investigate. Posing as a scientist named Justin O. Bystrom, Camellion places ads in newspapers around the world, soliciting information about the phenomenon of Spontaneous Human Combustion. (It is thought that some nefarious group (or nation) has figured out how to induce SHC and direct it at a specific person and these ads are merely a ploy to draw whoever is responsible for these fiery assassinations to Camellion.)

Thus begins a rather meandering story of tracking down the group with the SHC machine (later called a Transmutationizer). After we read about some Dutch goons attempting to kidnap Camellion in Amsterdam and watching the Death Merchant busts in on some IRA members being held in the basement of a tobacco shop, the story finally settles in on a neo-Nazi group known as the Brotherhood. In some underground rooms on the estate of Baron Fredrich von Hammerstein-Equord, a Nazi doctor is continuing work on a weapon he initially devised during Hitler's days that can turn a human being into a small pile of ashes within minutes.

While the overall story is somewhat flat, author Joseph Rosenberger (thankfully) is still Rosenberger.

After that aborted kidnapping effort, in which Camellion lays waste to seven of the Dutch goons, their deaths are reported in the newspaper as "murders", a description which irks the Death Merchant.
Killing another human being in the pursuit of preserving freedom for one's nation was not murder. Somebody had to protect American freedom and the nation's position in the world community. The jelly-backboned liars in Washington weren't doing the job. ... Washington was an expert at saddling people with more and more taxes and more and more invasion of personal privacy, not to mention giving the rich all sorts of tax breaks.
Besides the statement about the job of protecting American freedom being the exact opposite of what Camellion usually claims - he accepts jobs solely for the big bucks - the bit about rich people getting tax breaks is extremely amusing, because only 11 pages later, Rosenberger writes (in the mind of the CIA's Director of Operations): "Camellion made a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year from the Company - all of it tax free, since IRS wasn't aware of his services for the CIA; he earned another 100 Gs or so playing the stock market; using legal loopholes and reinvestment techniques, the clever son of a bitch payed damned little taxes on that."

Inconsistencies aside, Rosenberger is just getting warmed up, rant-wise:
There was a lot wrong in the United States, much of it due to stupidity, the power of payoffs, and hypocrisy. But how does one talk to people with closed minds, with millions who insist on treating certain subjects as sacred cows? All too often, honest criticism of the legitimate religions met with screaming accusations of religious "bigotry." To ask what church-owned motels, hotels and other numerous businesses had to do with religion, and why these businesses should not pay taxes was to invite fanatics to scream "Atheist!"

Camellion knew the real truth: The concept of religious tolerance had been stretched to the outer limits of stupidity, implying freedom from any criticism and from the payment of honest taxes. The right to worship can never be a justification for the suspension of all reason, he thought. The American people must stop equating religion with nonpayment of taxes, normalcy with numbers, sanity with conformity and individual eccentricity with craziness. Yet none of this is going to help me solve the riddle of the burning blue death.
(Yet none of this ... is going to be cut from the manuscript!)

Early on, Camellion also discourses on the dangers of smoking versus alcohol, gun control, Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, the rights of criminals, liberals ("a lot of them tinged with a commie pink"), and the death penalty - all in one page-long rant. "The way American society is falling apart, I seriously doubt whether we'll have a working nation twenty years from now." (This book was published in 1980.) ... After Camellion makes a bloody mess of the would-be kidnappers, Rosenberger says that Bystrom (i.e., the DM) "was about to vanish quicker than Carter's campaign promises".

About one-third of the way through the book, we get - completely out of the blue - some more of Rosenberger's weirdness regarding human auras, complete with a footnote:
By no means was the Death Merchant the risk-taking oddball that Reeder suspected he might be. Camellion had charged the trapdoor opening for two very good reasons. Earlier in the afternoon, psychic conditions had been just right and he had caught sight of Reeder's aura.1 The bioelectric emanations had been a pale blue, tinged with deep green and some yellow, this type of radiation indicating that Reeder would not die in the near future. Since Camellion would be with Reeder, he reasoned that hem, too, would be safe.

1 Invisible electrobiochemical radiation, sometimes called the Od, Odyle or Odic Force. Although the human aura can be detected by sensitives and some clairvoyants, it was not until 1911 that W.R. Kilner devised ways of showing it experimentally: First by looking at the human body through a dilute solution of a dye called dicyanin; second, by looking at a very bright light through a strong alcoholic solution. The aura must not be confused with the etheric double, which is a part of the physical body, or with the astral body - the inner you.
The action stops a bit later so Camellion can have a pages-long discussion with Dr. Cottier of the CIA about SHC, "biorhythms", human auras, and various metaphysical thoughts. To wit:
The Death Merchant [said], "Would you agree that each human being is related to all life and, through the earth's magnetic field, influenced by changes in the electrical fields of the sun and moon?"

Dr. Cottier nodded vigorously. "Oh, yes. Definitely. We are indeed a part of the universal whole and are constantly being influenced by the ceaseless ebb and flow of the various energies of the infinite all."
And during the copious amounts of violence, we get a few anatomy lessons:
An eye blink later, Steinhauser was well on his way toward being turned into a dead man from Camellion's two bullets. One had bored into his upper chest, severed the left innominate vein and lodged against his backbone. ... the Death merchant had not missed the targets with his right browning. A bullet had slammed into Max Weill's right hip, shattered the ilium, then plowed its way through the descending colon and the jejunum, stopping only when it hit the inner side of his left hipbone. ... Weill lost his grip and started to fall backward, along with Fisher who had taken a Browning hollow-point in the right buttock. The high velocity projectile had passed through the large gluteus maximus and lodged in the ischium ... It had all happened in eight seconds!
When the Death Merchant's force finds the main entrance to the underground rooms in which the Transmutationizer is being developed, Camellion uses tetryl and termate to blow the metal doors off their hinges, and follows that by tossing in various types of grenades. Once Camellion and his forces are in the same large room as the Nazis, the usual violence ensues, pages and pages of gunplay and (when everyone's guns run out of ammo - all around the same time, oddly enough) hand-to-hand combat. Rosenberger notes that Camellion, in the heat of battle, thanks to his mastery of Oriental martial arts and Eastern Indian yoga techniques in breathing, remains "as tranquil as a sleeping oyster".

In the end, Koerber is killed and Camellion and Klaus Hahn of German intelligence have drawn weapons on each other, both wanting to claim an intact portable Transmutationizer for his government. However, Hahn realizes that there are times when a man must think beyond loyalty to his country and he and Camellion agree to destroy the machine.

At the book's end, Camellion remarks (again) that mankind will not survive another 20 years:
[In] the long scheme of things, you and I are going to live to see the end of civilization as we know it. This six-thousand-year era in history will close in less than twenty years, and there isn't anything that anyone, anywhere, can do about it. The destiny of the US, all of Europe, all of the Middle East and the Soviet Union is to become a radioactive wasteland.
"I'd just as soon put in a bullet in your belly as bounce a bedbug off a baseball."

"Balls of blazing bumbrush!"

"The Director had to talk like an Israeli trying to set up a bagel factory in Yassir Arafat's home town."

"Another big brrrooommm, and Barry Huttas got the perfect gift for the man who has nothing. His head exploded, and skin, bone, blood and scrambled gray brain matter went flying in every direction of the compass. Camellion pumped the Savage so fast it was a miracle the 12-gauge didn't jam. Brrooommmmm. 'Chuckie' Blomquest's head vanished like a pumpkin hit by a grenade."

"Both Auto Mags roared with all the crashing sound of two small cannons. A flat-nosed .41 bullet hit Koster in the chest and blew away his entire breastbone before it zipped through his torso, pulverized several vertebrae and tore a hole in his back the size of a Golden Delicious apple."
(The cool artwork on these books is by Dean Cate, about whom the internet knows absolutely nothing.)

Monday, March 02, 2015

FBI Disrupts One Of Its Own Terrorist Plots (Again)

Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept:
The FBI and major media outlets yesterday [Feb. 25] trumpeted the agency's latest counterterrorism triumph: the arrest of three Brooklyn men, ages 19 to 30, on charges of conspiring to travel to Syria to fight for ISIS. As my colleague Murtaza Hussain ably documents, "it appears that none of the three men was in any condition to travel or support the Islamic State, without help from the FBI informant." ...

For reasons I and many others have repeatedly argued, these cases are unjust in the extreme: a form of pre-emptory prosecution where vulnerable individuals are targeted and manipulated not for any criminal acts they have committed but rather for the bad political views they have expressed. They end up sending young people to prison for decades for "crimes" which even their sentencing judges acknowledge they never would have seriously considered, let alone committed, in the absence of FBI trickery.
Greenwald quotes former FBI assistant director Thomas Fuentes, who candidly revealed the FBI's terrorism strategy: "Keep fear alive."

Trevor Aaronson's The Terror Factory: Inside The FBI's Manufactured War On Terror is must-reading on this subject