Month: October 2018

Generic Secret Agents (TM)

There was a time when literary secret agents weren’t just generic characters from central casting.  Back in the sixties and seventies, they had personality and quirks.  James Bond’s womanizing was accompanied by a lot of internal monologue that today would cause shaken heads, furrowed brows and comments like “well, he was a product of his times.”  Jason Bourne was a killing machine before it became popular.  Smiley’s people were well-developed , flawed characters in well-written tales (not sure why, but there you have it).  The thing is, all these guys were different.

Now, everyone seems to be a spinoff  Jason Bourne.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Bourne is always an entertaining read, but it’s a truth that if you’re a secret agent in today’s world, you are either ex-special forces or trained up to be the equal of any ex-special forces guy you’ll encounter.  Even Forsyth falls into this pattern, probably because he has to stay relevant.

Why this reflection?

Pursuit of Honor by Vince Flynn

Because I recently ran across a book entitled Pursuit of Honor written by Vince Flynn.  I never buy books in airports, which apparently is the literary equivalent of living under a rock, so I hadn’t heard of him, but apparently, this is the tenth book in his Mitch Rapp Series, and Flynn himself is a best selling author.

I read the book and enjoyed it at the time.  It appears to be the perfect airport book (even though I didn’t buy it in an airport).

The problem is that, if you ask me about it in a year’s time, I’d have to read the back cover and then wonder whether I actually read it or not (generic tough American agents taking on generic tough Islamic terrorists isn’t exactly something that stands out from the crowd).

And that’s a pity because this book (I suppose the entire series) deserves to stand out.  In a world where everyone trends towards the bland and politically correct, Flynn goes the other way.  In this book, the smarmy whistle-blowing moralistic do-gooder gets caught in the very first scene and locked in a basement awaiting death…  by the good guys.  You have no idea how I cheered.

Sadly, apart from being violently antisocial onstage (as opposed to offstage), the good guys are otherwise from central casting, and that’s the reason I won’t necessarily recall the book.

But I’ll probably pick up another. I like it when the heroes defy social norms in ways that would cause raised eyebrows.

So yeah, beach reading or plane reading, but I enjoyed it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author.  His latest science fiction novel, Outside, is anything but cookie cutter; you’ll remember this one.  Check it out here.

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Looking Back on New York Royalty

Prince of the City by Robert Daley

There’s something about stories of corruption, especially corruption among police officers that makes for compelling reading (and in some cases, viewing, but we’ll get to that later).  Corruption is one of the most human of vices, and seeing just where the tipping point is in different individuals adds to the interest. When you combine that with the intricate warren of life that is woven together in the tapestry that is New York City, compulsion can quickly turn to fascination.

Prince of the City is the book written by Robert Daley about the corruption and ultimate testimony of Detective Robert Leuci, a New York officer who was part of an elite investigative unit.  It was a unit that helped put more criminals in jail than any other, with conviction rates through the roof and which did more to help society solve its crime problem than any other.

But it was also rife with corruption.  These cops, while cleaning the streets, would keep the change.  Percentages of confiscated money would disappear, busts that they knew wouldn’t lead to convictions were negotiated for cash, informants were paid with drugs.

Detective Robert Leuci

Unlike a lot of books from the eighties that dealt with problems inherently seventies in nature, this one became a bestseller, was filmed and is still in print today (although I think it’s only available as en ebook at the moment).

Why?

Because apart from being compelling for the human element, it’s well-written and expertly woven together (Robert Daley was already known to me as the author of The Cruel Sport, but he does just as well in this very different milieux).

That much we already knew, but there’s another element in the mix.  Though Daley only comes out and says it in a few cases, the feeling is that the cope involved in the inevitable fall all feel that prosecuting them was a mistake perpetrated on them by small-minded parsimonious bureaucrats, people so obsessed with the rule book that they can’t see the big picture.

And one is left with a sense, that they just might be right.  There is no doubt they were corrupt, but even with all the facts on the table, one is left thinking that they were doing more harm than good.  That they were essentially good men fighting crime in the most effective way they knew… and reaping certain benefits they felt they deserved.

I recommend this one to essentially everyone.  It’s a character study and a compelling story rolled into one… and even better, it will make you think at the end of it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of the well-received novel Siege, as well as several other novels and short stories.  You can find Siege here.

Away from a theory of a village so insignificant it isn’t even there creating a roadblock

There’s a major controversy currently underway in academic circles.  A study that attempts to expose non-scientific practices among major academic journals, where buzzwords and politics allegedly outweigh solid research, has the social sciences world abuzz.  Our contributor Stacy Danielle Stephens gives her reflection on the ultimate importance and consequences of the study.

 

Scene from Catch 22

-That sounds like a lot of crap.
-It is a lot of crap, Sir.

In Catch-22, Yossarian receives a medal for releasing his bomb load over the ocean. Realizing that both the target and the mission have no military value, whether considered strategically, tactically, or psychologically, he toggles his bombs three minutes before reaching the target, determined to avoid unnecessary civilian deaths. Because his plane is leading the formation, every bombardier in the group toggles their bombs on his cue. Yossarian’s insubordination is now mutiny, for which the commanding general wishes to bring Yossarian before a court martial. However, he immediately recognizes that a court martial will precipitate no small amount of negative publicity, much of which will reflect badly on Yossarian’s commander; that is, on the general himself. Luckily for both the general and Yossarian, there were no German fighters protecting the sea, and no flak defending it. Consequently, the group was undisturbed and in perfect formation, meaning their bombs fell in a perfect pattern. For achieving this perfect bomb pattern, Yossarian and several other officers of the group receive medals, and the general’s public image is enhanced commensurately.

Yossarian’s refusal to strike the intended target wasn’t cowardice or treason, but an awareness not only that the mission was pointless, but that his commanders were as aware of this fact as he was.

After the war, Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, attended both USC and NYU, and received a Masters in English from Columbia. He was also a Fulbright Scholar who taught at Penn State and later wrote ad copy full time for a small but successful agency. He spent more time in academia than in uniform, and didn’t just know bullshit inside and out, but was sufficiently proficient in flinging it to make a living, although selling the movie rights to an internationally successful novel is what made him a millionaire.

The day before Catch-22 premiered in theaters, Canadian-American psychiatrist Eric Berne was delivering the keynote address at the annual conference of the Golden Gate Group Psychotherapy Society. He had titled his address “Away from a Theory of the Impact of Interpersonal Interaction on Non-Verbal Participation,” and admitted midway through that the title was a sham. In that speech, he speculated that the reason people went into psychiatry was “that they’re not required to do very much except to have staff conferences to explain why they can’t do very much.” Anyone who has read or seen Catch-22 recognizes instantly what Eric Berne meant: You can only see the Major when the Major isn’t in.

After admitting to the sham title, he explained that he’d decided upon that title because psychiatrists were always presenting papers titled “Toward a theory of…” one thing or another, but actually several things conflated for importance; not an importance of content but of context and resonance. It had to sound like something it wasn’t, really, without being too clear about what that was. He also explained that he decided on “Away from a theory” because he felt that it was only when you stepped back from any theory, and got a good look at it from a clear vantage point, that you could make any sense of it. He also noted that in the real world, no one goes “toward” something. When you get on an airliner, for instance, the pilot never says, “We’re going toward Chicago.”

Obviously, the hypothetical supposition that nonsense which sounds good and flatters someone in authority can be accepted and even applauded had been tested and proven even before Sokal successfully rose to the challenge in the late twentieth century. That three academics could give new life to a classic Calvin and Hobbes strip by cobbling together some trendy buzzwords isn’t exactly the stuff of firestorms.

Calvin and Hobbs Academia

It’s actually more of a tempest in the tea party. Yes, four facetious papers were actually published. Out of twenty. And three more had been accepted. But the four published papers were not acclaimed as brilliant by readers; rather, they were spotted as nonsense, even if there was no initial presumption of disingenuous intent or bad faith. And the brilliant scheme to expose something ended by exposing only the schemers, who prudently chose to confess to their duplicity somewhat ahead of schedule.

The Chameleon of Spy Writers

A few years ago, I was bored, so I raided my father’s library for something to read.  Having already read through his collection of Ludlum books–my father likes his spy fiction–I chanced to find a book entitled No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth.

Unexpectedly, this one turned out to be a collection of short spy / secret agent / international terrorism tales.  Now setting aside the obvious question this poses (namely, could anything be more seventies than a collection of short spy stories?  Didn’t think so), I still vividly remember the plot and twist of the title story more than twenty-five years later.  That doesn’t happen to me very often (I read hundreds of short stories every year-only a handful stick with me).

So when I picked up a couple of Forsyth books published recently, I was expecting good things.

The Cobra - Frederick Forsyth

One thing I wasn’t expecting was how well Forsyth has managed to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to writing about modern espionage and international affairs.  Though his contemporaries (notably Ludlum) have died, I watched them fall a little behind; by their final few books the seventies espionage writers had mostly become dinosaurs reliving the cold war or trying to superimpose its values on more modern conflicts.  Still fun reads, but slightly off.

The Kill List Frederick Forsyth

Apparently Forsyth is immune.  The two books I read recently, The Cobra and The Kill List, treat modern issues with a modern approach.  Well, they are modern in the sense that the people and situations surrounding the main characters are described with an extraordinary sensitivity for how society at large feels about the issues.  Fortunately, however, the main characters are still Neanderthals for whom life and death are separated by a few bullets, which is a beautiful escape from a world which has become just a little too civilized.

The Cobra deals with a creative and final solution to America’s drug problem.  It’s stunning, brilliant, violent, accurate and though I won’t spoil the ending here, I just wanted to say that I was rooting for the Neanderthal to get away with it all through the book.

The Kill List deals with the other major scourge of the era, terrorism.  This one is a bit less imaginative, perhaps, but it does what it’s supposed to: entertain from start to finish and kill a hell of a lot of people in the process.

So yeah, I’d take Forsyth over any number of newer writers.  He still has that magic that can make a story read as a teen still resonate years later.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, a science fiction tale that answers the question of what, exactly posthumanity might entail.  You can check it out here.

Celebrating the Human Need to Explain the Inexplicable

Umberto Eco

Ever since the first hominids developed language, humanity has felt the need to fill in those blank spaces on the map.  Whether that terra incognita was just across the next ridge or somewhere in the south seas, the profusion of legendary lands created to explain what might be there is stunning.

In fact, we still do it today: science fiction writers fill the darkness of space while, more metaphorically, spiritualists and fantasy writers try to satisfy people’s need to know what, if anything, happens when we die.

One of our favorite subjects here at CE is Umberto Eco (don’t believe us?  Look here or here or here) so we’re glad to say that he’s tackled the subject of legendary lands in his own inimitable fashion–namely in a medievalist and exhaustive way.

The Book of Legendary Lands - Umberto Eco

In The Book of Legendary Lands, he defines “legendary” as an inexistent place that, nevertheless, contemporary people actually believed in.  So you get an analysis that goes from the Garden of Eden to Hyperborea, from Atlantis to the Aryan kingdoms the Nazis wanted to believe in.

Now this is a hefty book, and Eco can often be quite… how to say this diplomatically?.. obscure in his wording when he wants to be, so I was expecting a long, plodding–albeit ultimately rewarding–read.

On that front, I was pleasantly surprised.  Eco, by his own admission, has a passion for the medieval that drove him in his career, and it comes through in his prose when working in that era.  The Name of the Rose became a bestseller not only because it was brilliant but because it was written in accessible (all things being relative, of course) language that allowed everyday readers to connect with the era and the characters.  It’s a beautiful book.

This one is also beautiful, with the added benefit that it’s lavishly illustrated.  As the text advances, you get contemporary illustrations, everything from medieval manuscript illuminations to paintings by Dante Gabriel Rosetti.  It’s quite the mix, but it works.

Of course, this is a book aimed at popular consumption, but it’s a scholarly work at the same time, researched by an expert whose loss the field won’t easily recover from.  Eco famously collected books of  what he called “fakes”, or things that were demonstrably untrue–this volume draws a lot from this.

Finally, perhaps most delightfully, Eco gives his own opinion on the wisdom of certain beliefs.  He’s understandably easier on the ancients–after all, science was still embryonic when they were creating Atlantis–but he comes down pretty heavily on Victorian mystics and Aryan cultists, as well as other modern actors.  Deservedly so.

In conclusion, find a copy of this book.  You will enjoy it, you will learn from it, and you will like the pretty pictures.  You can thank me in the comments.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of several novels set in places that don’t exist (or that don’t exist yet).  His novel of an Earth changed beyond recognition by humanity’s conscious choice to evolve, Outside, can be purchased here.

Continuing Brian Jacques

The Legend of Luke - Brian Jacques

Though he died recently, Brian Jacques’ books continue to bring pleasure to millions of youngsters (and not-so-youngsters).  I picked the first of these up while perusing a bookstore in Punta del Este, Uruguay as a teenager, and have since been entertained by them at every turn.

Jacques is a writer in the old style.  His children’s books in include the death of cute, furry and beloved characters, so you never know who will come out of it alive.

The latest one I’ve read is part of his Redwall series titled The Legend of Luke.  This is a high-seas swashbuckler, with evil pirates, noble adventurers and tremendous sacrifice which does exactly what I’ve grown to expect from Jacques.  Namely, that is to transport you to a bucolic world of pastoral innocence that, for reasons known only to the bad guys, it terrorized by one scourge or another.

For the time it takes you to read this, you are taken to a land where good and evil are clear cut and food is the most important thing in the universe (anyone who’s read Jacques will know what I mean).

This one follows young Martin the Warrior as he sets out to find out the truth about his father, the great Luke.  What he discovers is both inspiring and poignant, but the knowledge isn’t quite as important as the friends he makes along the way.

It’s another good one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s own foray into fantasy novelling doesn’t contain talking rabbits, but it does have a pink sea serpent and a mummified evil penguin, which he insists is even better… you can check it out here (paperback / Kindle).