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.

download-1

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.

2017-12-23 19.55.02

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.

Shoreline

Odd how it sometime takes “getting away” from routine in order to accomplish something. How does that work? Case in point: Wanted to do some serious writing, work through some key scenes in an upcoming book, and move the plot forward. Got away to one of my favorite spots…Lake Superior. Settled in for three nights in a two-person cabin built like a Scandinavian retreat. Surrounded by towering pines, birch and wildlife, writing takes on a new focus. I have my laptop, my only concession to technology, and my watercolors and pens. The waves remind me of the ocean. Hypnotizing and constantly changing direction, the swells wash a rocky shore. Perfect! Can’t wait to get back to the place that restores my soul.

2017-08-15 13.11.28

Cable Gold Miner

I stumbled on AMC’s cable series “Better Call Saul” at the behest of my editor. Thanks to her suggestion, I discovered a vein of gold. The acting is superb, but the writing carries the show. There is such a potpourri of excellent scripts on cable. Surely, this has to be a golden age of sorts for cable television. Put aside the dross of phony “reality” TV shows available on network and cable alike and think about top-notch scripts written for viewers who like to think about what they’re watching. The icing is the fact that you can’t find better acting than what happens on shows like “Better Call Saul.” Having originally skipped seeing “Breaking Bad” (more about that in another posting) my curiosity got the better of me and I sampled “Saul” (a prequel involving two of the main characters from the “Breaking” saga). My guess is that Vince Gilligan, major creative force of both shows, liked what he saw in actor Bob Odenkirk’s portrayal of flawed lawyer Jimmy McGill/aka/Saul Goldman, and decided to give him his own backstory. Glad he did. Everything clicks: the titles, the music, the photography, the acting and writing. Not to take anything away from the cast but the show belongs to actress Rhea Seehorn, who plays conflicted lawyer Kim Wexler. In turns a brilliant legal mind, faithful forgiving lover, caretaker and independent woman in the profession’s “Take no prisoners” arena, Seehorn manages to be witty, sexy and strategic…save when “Saul/McGill” is involved. As an actress Seehorn has her character’s facial “tells” down perfectly. She deserves to mine gold in a series of her own. Are you listening, Vince Gilligan?

Winston’s War

In the best tradition of popular historians like Doris Kearns-Goodwin, David McCullough and Barbara Tuchman, comes Candice Millard’s latest book: “Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill.”

JPBOOK-popup
Candice Millard

Millard, a young scholar with an eye for detail and phrasing, writes accessible history that reads like the best of contemporary well-crafted novels. If high school civics teachers and college professors alike could make history come alive the way she does on paper, there would be no dozing in class or cribbed essays. History is not dull. And in hands like Candice Millard’s the long-dead people she brings to life fairly leap from the pages. Her latest subject—young Winston Churchill at war with South Africa’s Boers, though officially a correspondent—is at once, imperious, egregiously egocentric, undeniably brave, and foolhardy to a fault. She captures his arrogance intact and presents the reader with a thrilling tale of Churchill’s brief time as a prisoner of war, a demeaning position for an aristocrat like him. Using generous quotes from Churchill and those who served with this staunch imperialist, Millard paints a complete portrait of self-anointed “Great Man” in training. Like her books on Presidents Garfield “Destiny of the Republic,” and Teddy Roosevelt The River of Doubt, Millard focuses on one particular chapter in each of their lives and delivers captivating—sorry, Winston—stories of each man. William Manchester’s three-volume biography of Churchill was a massive tome but also a popular work. By opting not to repeat the grand Churchill story, Candice Millard has spotlighted a particular chapter in the British statesman’s life and her audience is richer for her effort.