Border Wars

Don Winslow is at the top of his game with his new bookThe Border

It’s cliché to say, “Ripped from the headlines,” but that’s what this final fictional novel in a gripping trilogy is all about. At turns violent, profane, and prescient, The Border is also an indictment; a deep look into the malevolent family relationships among the splintered Sinaloa Cartel, America’s Sisyphean War On Drugs, and criminal manipulation in the White House. Winslow’s book is not going to make him any friends in the current administration. But then, he didn’t expect that did he?

Spoiler alert—substitute bedding down with Mexico’s cartel bankers for cozying up with Russia early in our 2016 election. Winslow’s protagonist, Art Keller is appointed head of the DEA. What follows is unintended mayhem and the bloody spillover on America’s southern doorstep. Hard to put down, this final piece of Winslow’s trilogy about the numbing drug culture and its cost to both America and Mexico, is a fascinating read. Winslow’s reportorial talents are on display throughout the telling. Though his previous two novels in this three-part series—The Power of the Dog and The Cartel—are equally powerful, The Border ties up all the details in the lives of his main characters and poses a challenge to his readers about where we go from here. Not everyone will agree with Winslow’s answers, but they will have to reckon with this provocative tale.

Post Cold War Gem

The Other Woman by Daniel Silva, 2018, Harper Collins.

Yeah, I know, I’m a year behind in my reading. But if you could see my nightstand… Now chief of Israel’s secret intelligence service, Silva’s familiar protagonist Gabriel Allon, is involved in an important turncoat asset’s assassination in Vienna. Murdered under Allon’s eyes while trying to defect, the dead man is the possible victim of an allied intelligence mole. It’s up to Allon to uncover the double agent. Basing a key character in his latest novel on a fictional episode in the life of Kim Philby, once a trusted insider in Britain’s intelligence family, Silva weaves a layeredownload-2d espionage tale. Philby was actually a closeted communist dedicated to betraying the West. Along with a small fraternity of other Old School elites—the Cambridge Five—were traitors all. Russia’s SVR, before that the KGB, is up to its usual tricks. The Cold War’s legacy throws a long shadow across two continents, threatening the Anglo-American intelligence family. Silva weaves a mesmerizing story of Philby’s fathering a girl in 1963 with a fellow believer, a lover in Beirut before fleeing MI6’s clutches to Moscow where he later died. The child grows up in his malevolent likeness.

In his book, Silva pulls no punches when he writes of Russia’s current leadership: Like the tsars and commissars who came before him, Putin readily uses murder as a tool of statecraft. Putin, he says, “Is always probing with a bayonet…and when he hits steel he looks for softer spots elsewhere.

Full of his usual supporting cast of Israeli oddball spies, Silva’s latest is his signature Israeli super spy at his best. Take The Other Woman to bed, or to the beach, or to the lake place. You won’t be sorry.

Old Habit Surfaces

download-2I’m back to multi-tasking when it comes to pleasure reading. Friends ask if it’s possible to keep several books separate when reading multiple authors. It takes some mental gymnastics with two or more books but it’s certainly doable. On my nightstand:    John Sandford’s latest effort—Holy Ghost, the eleventh in his Virgil Flowers series about a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent with ties to Sandford’s Prey character, Lucas Davenport. Set in Wheatfield, a slice of Midwest America, Flowers arrives to hunt an elusive sniper terrorizing the small town. Coincidentally, the apparition of the Virgin Mary in a dying Catholic Church draws the faithful and jump-starts the town’s moribund economy. The mysterious shooter threatens both. Things escalate with a local matron’s killing in broad daylight. As usual, the lusty Flowers has his hands full and Sandford’s tale is stocked with a carnival sideshow of colorful characters on both sides of the law. Faster than usual read and a lower body count.

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Second in my stack is military historian Hampton Sides’s On Desperate Ground, a grim telling of the First Marine Division’s 1950 October-December invasion of Kim Il Sung’s North Korea. All had gone well in the beginning with September’s surprise amphibious landing at Inchon—a brilliant plan by General Douglas MacArthur to cut off the enemy and recapture South Korea’s capitol, Seoul. Covered with stardust, MacArthur returned to Tokyo’s spotlight after naming sycophantic general Ned Almond as X Corps commander and assuring President Truman that China would not join the fray. Off go Major General Oliver Smith’s 20,000 marines, one of three separate columns of UN forces—overwhelmingly American—that Almond orders into North Korea’s forbidding mountains. Led by the increasingly wary Smith, Marines march into a Chinese ambush at the infamous Chosin Reservoir. Battling 300,000 Chinese, Americans and their allies face a horrific fate. Cut off in sub-zero weather, the Marines run a bloody gauntlet to survive. Pages filled with gunfire, heroism, and frostbite tell of brutal primeval combat in an alien land, and Side’s description of the fighting is riveting.  download

Also reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, which has been on my wish list for at least one year. I want to discover if the author confronts Grant’s fondness for the bottle. Apparently, the general/president did not see fit to address the issue, a failing that publisher Mark Twain lamented.

Roaming Normandy

Peace Among the Bunkers

 

 

This past May, a busload of us, thirty Americans and one Brit ex-pat, visited widely scattered battlefields that witnessed D-Day. After the beaches where the invasion came ashore, we toured Longues-sur Mer command bunkers and coastal gun batteries. The Brits stormed the beaches below and swept the Germans before them. Had those big guns been able to operate the landing troops would have paid a terrible price. Popular with the French and other Europeans (Germans among them) this line of fortifications is crowded on sunny summer days. Arromanches, the seashore village below, is akin to a movie set with narrow streets, shops, and cafes. Swarming with tourists and local students on a field trip, the little town is an artist’s feast. Signs of the invasion here are evident despite the holiday atmosphere. At low tide, waves pound half-sunken concrete caissons, off-shore remnants of the Mulberry Harbor that landed men and materiel to crush the Reich. The breakers roll against a high seawall crowned by a carousel and flags of the Allies and it takes some doing to imagine the war for Normandy.

Normandy Memories

History on foot:  The coastal farm country still wears the scars of the “Atlantic Wall” and June6, 1944. The people are welcoming, the battle sites plentiful, and the fields dotted with bunkers and granite markers. This is, after all, hallowed ground. Made the obligatory stop at Pont du Hoc to explore gun pits, broken bunkers and cliff’s scenic overlook. How did the American Rangers make that climb in the face of fire? Will continue the tour with more on-site sketches and random thoughts…2017-12-23 19.52.40 Norman cows sport bovine mascara and curious natures2017-12-23 19.52.17Pont du Hoc’s central bunker, stripped of its big gun

 

 

Looking Back

Turning back pages from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Normandy and beyond with my son this year. Visited storied battlefields, towns and cemetery settings. Every inch of ground was bought with a price. Can almost smell the smoke; hear the artillery, tank treads and small arms fire. Will post more sketches made on site before the year is out. Flew to Paris and traded the capital’s trash, graffiti, and ugliness of its industrial underbelly for the pastoral countryside en route to the Norman coast. I’m more a southeast Asia man but this part of Europe was an eye-opener. We started with the beaches of Omaha and Utah and continued on to Juno, Gold and Sword. Reverent is the byword on these hallowed grounds. Not to be missed…though I had stayed away for seventy-plus years. Will continue to post more sketches and notes in the days ahead. The drawings, done in the field, are hasty because I did not want to be left behind by my fellow visitors.2017-12-23 19.51.25The heights above “Bloody Omaha” were windswept and chilly the day of our visit. The tide was in. Some bunkers remain off-limits, hidden by grass and foliage. There is a strip of smooth stones between the shore’s sand and the forbidding hills. Maybe a pleasant place on sunny days, but not today. Utah was equally sober, inhospitable.

Below: A German machine gun outpost/bunker on Juno, where the Canadians came ashore. The barbed wire is mostly gone, the sentinels ghosts, replaced by cheerful Canadian tourism interns and a first class museum. The beach remains a constant draw. The bunkers and static display of armor and artillery dot the shoreline.

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Word by word, page by page

At some point in my North Shore getaway the experience becomes a Walter Mitty moment. Not sure when this happened, but with laptop in hand, I become a world famous bestselling author working on deadline for my next widely anticipated novel. Freed from ordinary tasks my mind is free to eavesdrop on my characters as they trade dialog amongst themselves. The previous stumbling is replaced by a smooth path. The plot unfolds, line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph. Not even lunchtime yet and I’ve got 1,000 words. By evening, I’ve reached 5,000 plus and there’s no end in sight. Haven’t had an interruption in the last twenty-four hours. Allow me a warfare metaphor. Superior's inspirationI know this won’t last so I have to seize the moment before the candle burns too low. Charging ahead while I can still overhear my protagonists hammering out a solution to the latest challenge, I take down every word. With no time to lose, I fly across the keyboard, trying to keep up. There is no time to take prisoners. I will undoubtably tidy up the battlefield once I’ve taken my objective…that’s what re-writes are for. Don’t stop to correct the incorrect grammar or the mini-avalanche of adjectives in your wake. Press ahead. Always easier to go back and edit 100,000 words than it is to stretch half that number to fill the same space. There will be time to halt the advance, consolidate the lines, rest and refit, and then review what’s been written.