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A FOREIGN COUNTRY

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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.  

 

TRUE BELIEVERS

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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.

Last Updated on Friday, 20 July 2012 18:36 Read more...
 

THE STREAK

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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.

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HAMILTON-BURR DUEL

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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.

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JOAN OSBORNE

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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. 

Last Updated on Friday, 06 July 2012 16:06 Read more...
 

GETTYSBURG – THE AFTERMATH

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                     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.

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GETTYSBURG – JULY 3rd – PICKETT’S CHARGE

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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.

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Comedy Clips of the Week

KEVIN SPACEY

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Producer, director, screenwriter and Oscar award winning actor Kevin Spacey Fowler was born on July 26, 1959 in South Orange, New Jersey. He has starred in such movies as The Usual Suspects, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, L.A. Confidential and American Beauty. One of his many talents is uncanny impersonations of famous people. The clip below is from Inside the Actors Studio as he runs through his repertoire for James Lipton. Highly entertaining and what a mind Mr. Spacey has.

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HERMAN CAIN IS A VERY FUNNY FELLOW….RIGHT!

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If nothing else Mr. Cain has a future in improvisational/sketch comedy.

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Sports

JESSE OWENS

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On August 3rd, 1936 Jesse Owens won the 100 meter sprint in the Summer Olympics held in Berlin. This was the first of his four Gold Medals, which included the Long Jump, 200 meter sprint and as a member of the 4x 100 meter relay team. A record that wasn’t equaled until Carl Lewis did it in 1984.

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JOHNNY EVERS

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Second baseman John Joseph Evers was born on July 21st, 1883.  Known as “The Crab” for his style of play in the field, Evers is also remembered as one of the smaller players to make it in the major leagues, weighing in at 100 lbs as a rookie and never topping out at more than 130 lbs during his career.

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Classic Movies

UNFORGIVEN

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Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Jaimz Woolvett and Saul Rubinek, the film Unforgiven premiered on August 7th, 1993. So often with classic movies the plot here is a simple one, an aging and retired Old West outlaw/gunslinger takes on one more “job” to avenge the brutal beating and disfigurement of a prostitute.

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HANG ‘EM HIGH

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Directed by Ted Post and starring Clint Eastwood, Inger Stevens, Ed Begley and Pat Hingle, the film Hang ‘Em High premiered on August 3rd, 1968. Fresh from filming the Dollars Trilogy with Sergio Leone in Europe and known to the American TV viewing public from his time on Rawhide, Clint made this movie – which really wasn’t much of a stretch. Playing a man wrongfully lynched – he’s rescued by a US Marshall just in the nick of time – Eastwood goes to work for the “local” judge, (Hingle), as a Marshall with the goal of “finding” the men who strung him up. This theme of frontier revenge/justice one that Clint would “revisit” several more times in his career. In this movie we meet Alan Hale, Jr. – the skipper from Gilligan’s Island – and a young Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper. And even this early in his career Eastwood had an eye on the future; this movie was the first to be produced by Eastwood’s Malpaso Company.

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Dates In History

GULF OF TONKIN RESOLUTION

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On August 7, 1964 Congress passed what is now known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving President Lyndon Johnson “the power to take whatever actions he deems necessary to defend Southeast Asia, including the use of armed force.”  Although not a formal declaration of war, the Resolution was used by the Johnson Administration as the legal basis for the future conduct and escalation of the war in Vietnam.

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PT-109

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On August 2nd, 1943 the Patrol Torpedo boat skippered by future President John F. Kennedy was rammed and split in half by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. The PT-109 sank within minutes taking two of its crew with it. The remaining 11 survivors grabbed what they could and began swimming the 3.5 miles to the deserted Plum Pudding Island - in the Pacific among the Solomon Islands. Two of the crew members were badly injured, Kennedy towing one to safety by taking the injured man’s life preserver strap in his teeth while swimming. The crew was rescued six days later after a coconut with the crew’s location carved into it was passed along to a Solomon local who passed it along to the US Navy. The coconut with its SOS message was preserved and adorned the JFK Oval Office as a paperweight.

 

Music

LOUIS ARMSTRONG

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One of the founders of jazz; musician, singer, entertainer, and trumpeter extraordinaire, Louis Daniel Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Much has been written and said about “Satchmo” – genius, friend to many but close to few, comical, optimistic – whatever – to appreciate the man and his legacy listen to his music. Louis Armstrong was one of a kind.

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ADAM DURITZ

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Lead singer and founding member of The Counting Crows, Adam Duritz was born on August 1st, 1964 in Baltimore, Maryland. The son of two Jewish doctors Adam admits he is “impersonating African-Jamaican”, starting with the dreadlock hair extensions. In articles I’ve read Adam described as morose, tortured, melancholy and pretentious. And maybe he is. All I know is that when he and his band mates get together and make music something happens and it’s a good thing. The Counting Crows are still one of the best bands to see live for my money.

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Political Clips

HUNTER S. THOMPSON

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Hunter S. Thompson, the father of gonzo journalism, counter-culturalist, iconoclast, and someone who seemingly took Richard Nixon’s existence on this earth personally, was born on July 18, 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky. He was a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone, it was his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that combined all that made Thompson either loved or reviled – Drugs, alcohol, guns and contempt for authority – as the protagonist and his attorney make their way through Sin City. His follow up book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign trail ‘72, tracked that year’s Presidential election and Thompson’s ever growing hatred of President Nixon.

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NOT THAT JOE WALSH …THE CRAZY ONE

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I’ve mentioned our local (Illinois) collective Congressional embarrassment before –

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Crime

WILD BILL HICKOK

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On August 2nd, 1876, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was shot and killed while playing poker in a saloon in Deadwood, located in the Dakota Territory. Prior to his final stop in Deadwood, he’d been a Union soldier during the Civil War, specifically as a scout and a marksman. After the war he became a stagecoach driver and then a lawman in Nebraska and Kansas. After turning in his badge Hickcok had toured the East with Buffalo Bill and after giving an interview with Harper’s magazine was now famous as a gunslinger – Wild Bill claiming that he had killed at least 100 men. If the number seems preposterous, it should be noted no one argued with Hickok’s claim.

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PUBLIC ENEMY #1

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On the very warm Chicago evening of July 22, 1934, John Dillinger exited the Biograph Theater after watching “Manhattan Melodrama”, (a gangster movie), starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy. With Dillinger was his new girlfriend, Polly Hamilton, and her “landlady” Anna Sage—“The Lady in Red”—who was actually clad in orange that evening.

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