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Saturday, May 17, 2014

False Impression; Drift, the Unmooring of American Military Power; A Bend in the River; and The Prisoner of Heaven

Jeffrey Archer.  False Impression.  ©2006  Hand me an art history thriller, and I can’t put it down.  Add an evil banker who used to be a bagman for Ceausescu, a Romanian gymnast named Irma Krantz who took care of assassinations for Ceausescu when she grew up, an estate in Great Britain with centuries of tradition and the paintings to prove it, and a Japanese steel magnate, who is an informed collector of great art, and I’m really hooked.  Anna Petrescu emigrated to the US when she was 17, ended up with a PhD in art history from Penn and a job at Sotheby’s in New York.  When she blew a sale, because her boy friend passed on a confidence about the seller, she lost that job and went to work for Bryce Fenston, a Romanian émigré who took paintings as collateral for loans from his bank and then made sure the borrowers couldn’t repay their loans, sometimes by having Krantz kill them.  Anna didn’t know anything about the under belly of Fenster’s business, but she did advise a client that she could avoid foreclosure on her property by selling a Van Gogh which she had put up as collateral for a loan from Fenster.  This enraged Fenster, and he fired Anna.  Anna sorts everything out, with the help of an FBI man who initially tracks her, because he thinks she’s involved in the illegal side of the business.  It’s exciting and fun.  May 2014
Rachel Maddow.  Drift, the Unmooring of American Military Power.  ©2012  It’s hard to believe anybody can be this smart.  I thought I had followed current affairs rather closely during the 1980s and since then, but Rachel Maddow is in a class by herself.  The basic theme of her book is that starting with Ronald Reagan, presidents, including Clinton, have wrested the country’s war making powers from the Congress and made it their own.  She takes us through Reagan’s incredible views on ownership of the Panama Canal, the use of “Team B” to inflate Soviet military power to the point where he could justify enormous increases in defense spending – the deficit be damned, the unauthorized Grenada invasion to restore the luster of the US military, and the Iran Contra scandal.  Perhaps the highlight of that story is Attorney General Ed Meese telling Senator Inoue that the NSC was not an intelligence agency, so the Boland Amendment didn’t apply to it.  In the 1970s, General Abrams, having learned the lesson of Viet Nam, had reorganized the military, so that it would not be possible to launch a major operation without calling up the reserves and thus getting the population at large invested in the enterprise.  Private contractors had long been used for some support roles in military operations, but it was Dick Cheney, as defense secretary in 1992, who spearheaded the movement to privatize most of the military's civil logistics activities.  Using contractors to perform support roles made it easy to conduct military operations without calling up reserves and asking Congress for authority.  That end around was perfected during the Clinton administration with air strikes against the Serbs and troops on the ground as peace keepers.  Bush II eventually did drag a resolution out of Congress for his abortive venture in Iraq, but tried to avoid public concern about our troops by putting more contractors on the ground than US Military personnel.  A great read.  One thing that bemuses me.  How can Lynne Cheney write a biography of Madison and tour around the country with her illustrious husband to promote the book, when he did so much to subvert the war powers clause in the Constitution.  Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the United States Constitution vests in the Congress the power to declare war  in the following wording: [The Congress shall have Power...] To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.  It was Madison who wrote it, in the belief that this authority should be in the legislature and never in the hands of one man.  Cheney's book did get a good review in the Washington Post.  May 2014
V.S. Naipaul.  A Bend in the River.  ©1979    Salim, the narrator, is from an Indian Muslim family of traders that had migrated to the east coast of Africa from Gujarat several generations ago.  He buys a shop from Nasruddin, the successful head of another family of traders.  The shop is on a bend in a river – it has to be the Congo – in a town that has been ruined by revolution.  He trades with the local Africans in basic household necessities.  After some time conditions improve and a new section of town is built, the "State Domain," to showcase the President’s vision of a new Africa. The buildings are shoddy and much of it falls quickly into some disrepair.  Salim calls it a "hoax".  The Domain is soon converted into a university and conference center, and Salim begins an affair with the Yvette, the young Belgian wife of Raymond, the Domain’s director and a former counselor to “the Big Man,” who is clearly Mobutu and the unnamed country is Zaire.  Raymond is hoping to be recalled to the capital to take up his former position.  It doesn’t happen.  Salim’s affair with Yvette turns sour and he takes a six week trip to London to get reacquainted with Nasruddin’s daughter, who is sort of his fiancé.  When he returns to Africa, he finds his shop has been expropriated and Africanized.  There is a job for him there as manager, which means he does everything he did before but gets only a modest salary and has no future.  Without telling anyone, he prepares to leave and sets about accumulating some money in a form that he can take with him or deposit abroad.  He’s arrested because he has some illegal ivory and shaken down by the local police.  Ferdinand, the young commissioner in the town, who had been helped by Salim when he was a student, helps Salim escape.  Naipaul has been criticized for his depiction of the Africans.  Perhaps there are good reasons for that, but on the basis of this one novel, I’d give him a pass.  It seems to me he has expressed the prejudices of Salim and the Indian diaspora in Africa, and they may or may not reflect his own views.  May 2014
Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  The Prisoner of Heaven.   ©2012   This is the last of three novels centered around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  The others are the Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game.”  Perhaps they can be read in any order, but I’m glad I had read Shadow of the Wind before I started this book.  This one begins in the Barcelona bookstore, Sempere & Sons, in 1957 and then flashes back to 1940-41, when one of the principal characters, Fermin Romero de Torres, was in prison in the Montjuic Castle.   A man with a porcelain hand comes in to the store, buys a rare and expensive edition of  The Count of Monte Cristo from Daniel Sempere, inscribes it to Fermin and leaves.  This mysterious character is Salgado, who had been Fermin’s cellmate in the castle in the early 1940s before Fermin escaped in a canvas sack, just as in the Dumas novel.  The escape was arranged by the novelist David Martin, who was in the cell across from Fermin.  For me the overwhelming theme was that of the pure evil of the prison administrator and the Franco regime.  May 2014

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