A FOREIGN COUNTRY by Charles Cumming
St. Martin's Press (August 7, 2012), 368 pages
The plot/story-line in Foreign Country is a well-worn one in “espionage fiction”. A disgraced spy, wallowing in private life, is called back in for a job for which he/she is uniquely qualified – the first requirement being our unlikely hero is expendable. Add in a long hidden secret now exposed through a nefarious blackmail plot, mysterious disappearances and identities, a double murder and some international travel - all framed and constrained by the bureaucracy of MI6 – and one would be excused for shrugging, “Been there. Done that.”, and passing on this book – which would be a mistake. This is a neat, tidy, fun, engaging, well-written spy thriller, albeit a thriller in the John Le Carre sense, not in the mindless Vince Flynn/Joseph Finder sense. Nor is it stale as the Daniel Silva/Gabriel Allon series has become. There are some “split second” moments with car chases and gunfire, but mostly – just like Cummings’ previous books – there are well thought out plans and plots, as well as a cast of both likeable and believable characters. If you are looking for a fun summer/beach read – look no further. You’ll enjoy A Foreign Country.
Last Updated on Friday, 20 July 2012 18:36
TRUE BELIEVERS by Kurt Andersen
Random House (July 10, 2012), 448 pages
True Believers is an interesting book on several levels; a “coming of age” story, written by a man with a female protagonist – both “children of the 1960’s”. Focusing on that very turbulent decade – the Vietnam War, assassinations, religion, feminism, political protest, sex, drugs and of course, “Rock and Roll” – the author also indirectly shines a very bright light on our current times. This is a nostalgic journey that connects the dots explaining how we got to where we are today, and a case in point that the “good old days” really weren’t. As an “essay” or “exposition” proving “hindsight is 20/20”, True Believers succeeds brilliantly – as a novel, maybe not so much. Let me explain.
The plot is straightforward. Soon to be 65-year old Karen Hollander, a divorced grandmother and a successful lawyer/scholar, decides to write a tell-all book, specifically admitting to her participation in a “non-event” back in 1968. True Believers is “her story”, unraveling this not so suspenseful mystery. No one has asked Karen to “confess”, for although she is “well-known”, she is not “famous”. So it’s unclear as to what’s driving her need to spill the beans. And this is one of the book’s major problems or conversely, fascinating conundrums.
For as serious as Karen’s story is, at times it’s very difficult to take Karen seriously - she surely doesn’t. And what motivates Karen and many of the other characters to do what they do is at best muddled and at worst – nonsensical. (But then why do people today eagerly volunteer to appear on “reality’ TV? And why do so many of us eagerly watch them? Or is this the author’s maybe not so subtle point that narcissism is nothing new? ) For instance what drives Karen and her youthful peers is James Bond; a need to be like Ian Fleming’s literary 007, and not for God’s sake, Broccoli’s cinematic secret agent. And in the end Karen’s dream in a sense does come true, for she falls for a very – although acerbic - James Bond-like guy.
On May 15, 1941, the streak began. On that day, Joe DiMaggio went one-for-four with a run batted in against Eddie Smith and the Chicago White Sox. Until a night in Cleveland on July 17th and fifty-six games later, DiMaggio hit safely in every game, captivating the nation and setting a record that still stands as one of the greatest achievements in baseball history.
DiMaggio accumulated ninety-one hits in two-hundred twenty-three at bats during the stretch, batting .409. DiMaggio kept his streak alive through the All-Star break, (going one-for-four in the game), and the death of Yankee great Lou Gehrig on June 2. DiMaggio and The Yankees went on to win the World Series that season.
In the early morning of July11th, 1804, former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, (he of the $10 bill), and former Vice-President Aaron Burr, met on the banks of the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey to settle “an affair of honor”, i.e. they had a duel. Such confrontations were not uncommon in the testosterone laden atmosphere of early American history. Henry Clay fought in two and Andrew Jackson, three - Old Hickory carrying a bullet in his body for the remainder of his life as a reminder.
(Even Abraham Lincoln was challenged to a duel early in his political career after penning a biting “Letter to the Editor” with his soon-to-be wife Mary Todd. Lincoln was initially mortified with both the exposure as the co-author of the letter and the challenge itself, but after some quick thinking suggested broadswords as the weapon of choice against the much shorter challenger, James Shields. That duel never happened and Lincoln went on to put his pen to better use.)
By 1804 the bad blood between Hamilton and Burr had been brewing for years. Hamilton viewed Burr as an opportunist and in 1796 began publicly attacking him stating, “I feel it is a religious duty to oppose his (Burr’s) career.” In 1800 Burr got his hands on a private document written by Hamilton criticizing his fellow Federalist John Adams and had it published. In the subsequent Presidential election Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr – both on the same ticket – tied in the Electoral College, ousting incumbent John Adams from the White House. Hamilton steered his fellow Federalists in the House of Representatives – after 35 voting sessions - to put Jefferson in the Oval Office.
Last Updated on Friday, 06 July 2012 16:06
Singer/songwriter Joan Elizabeth Osborne was born on July 8th, 1962 in Anchorage, Kentucky. Best known for her “hit” One of Us there’s a little more to Joan as evidenced by the clips below. Earlier this year she released a version of Shake Your Hips – a Slim Harpo original and “covered” by the Stones on Exile On Main St. If Joan’s version doesn’t get your toe tapping – see a doctor.
Gen. George Meade Gen. Robert E. Lee
Gettysburg is the most famous of the Civil War battles. After three days of fighting Meade’s Army of the Potomac held the field. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia would never venture north again. First the numbers. When both armies made it to that small Pennsylvania town for those three days in July of 1863 a little over 90,000 Union troops faced just over 70,000 Confederates. The number of casualties suffered by each side was eerily similar – just over 23,000 for the Blue and the Gray respectively. A huge loss in manpower, but one the Union could replace and the Confederacy could not. The South was simply running out of men.
On the evening of July 3rd Lee took up defensive positions before retreating south. It started raining heavily on the 4th, a confirmation from the heavens that the battle was over. Word from the west would not reach the two armies until several days later, but also on July 4th General U.S. Grant had captured Vicksburg on the Mississippi River and the Confederacy was effectively split in two.
As the rain fell on the Pennsylvania battlefield, the grisly task of tending to the wounded and burying the dead began – a Union task now with Lee and his army gone. Four months later when Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address, graves were still being filled as politicians, state’s committees and veterans scrambled for prime burial plots for the fallen.
After the previous day’s attacks on both flanks of the Union Army had failed, Lee’s plan on July 3rd was to attack the Union Army dead center and break it in two. General George Pickett and his men would lead the charge.
Once again Lee’s second in command, Gen. James Longstreet, disagreed, believing such a plan was a suicide mission and tried to convince Lee not to make the attack –
“General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”
Lee was not convinced, ordered the attack, and the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg will always be known for “Pickett’s Charge”.
Union general George Meade anticipated this.
The attack was to begin early in the morning, but neither Lee nor Longstreet had ordered Pickett into position. Orders were finally given and Pickett’s men hurriedly moved to the front of the Confederate lines. They weren’t ready until after 12 pm. Longstreet, distraught during the wait, was having trouble looking his good friend George Pickett in the eye as the preparations were made.
An artillery barrage was ordered for 1 pm. It was massive, but largely ineffective as most of the Confederate shells flew over the Union’s elevated positions. Longstreet still could not give the order for Pickett’s men to charge and requested that the artillery chief, General Porter Alexander do so when he “thought” it was appropriate. Alexander balked – rightfully so – but he made it clear he and his men were almost out of ammunition.