Month: November 2014

Review: An Infuriating American

An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L. Mencken

Hal Crowther

The tone of this extended essay is established up front by a quote from the subject himself, H.L. Mencken:An Infuriating American

“To the extent that I am genuinely educated, I am suspicious of all the things that the average citizen believes and the average pedagogue teaches.”

Mencken, one of America’s finest journalists, was also a world-class iconoclast, and the tone and spirit of his work is captured wonderfully in this short study by Hal Crowther, himself an esteemed author (and 1992 recipient of the H.L. Mencken Award). Mencken should be required reading for everyone (particularly prospective journalists), and An Infuriating American is as good an introduction to the writer as you’ll find.

Crowther’s prose is fearless in tone and content. He is willing to editorialize and present Mencken in all his contradictions—and he doesn’t shy away from the difficult subjects, like racial discrimination. For all his bluster about defying popular opinion and pedagogy, Mencken was a sheep when it came to racism. His comments about Jews and African-Americans, as well as his complicated love affair with Germany post-WWI, are indefensible, and Crowther makes no effort to do so.

But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Mencken drew the ire of many and never held his tongue to avoid criticism. He was an elitist and, one could argue, a misanthrope. “Human progress was one of the myths to which Mencken did not subscribe,” writes Crowther.

I would say the evidence supports this decision.

The breadth of his thought is such that members of all political factions can claim Mencken as one of their own. Crowther establishes his proper place: “Certainly Mencken was a conservative by many measures, and died conspicuously to the right of the intellectual mainstream. But it’s a grievous insult and injustice to imagine him watching Fox News, or celebrating the wisdom of Rush Limbaugh and Ayn Rand.”

This is a wonderful book about a complicated man, and an important object lesson for anyone pursuing a career in journalism, writing or general rabble-rousing.

And during this political season of partisan blowhards and neutered media, is there anything more fitting (or even patriotic) than revisiting an era of bold journalism, back when it was a blue-collar profession of integrity, and not something best illustrated by the film Nightcrawlers.

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Review: The Perfect Kill

The Perfect Kill

Robert Baer

It was not hard to get me to pick up The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins, by former CIA case officer and best-selling The Perfect Killauthor Robert Baer. Advice on how to pull off a flawless assassination? From a CIA insider? Sign me up.

But before you start stockpiling your arsenal, don’t think of The Perfect Kill as a modern-day Anarchist Cookbook. This is an engaging work of military history—an insider’s view of the Middle East through the eyes of an assassin.

The assassin, though, is not Baer, but rather Hajj Radwan (aka Imad Mughniyeh), a notorious Lebanese terrorist affiliated with Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad Organization. He is the man responsible for the 1983 suicide bombings of the U.S. embassy and marine barracks, and Baer links him to a number of kidnappings, hijackings and assassinations in the 1980s and ’90s.

Despite being an international fugitive (he was on the “most wanted” list of dozens of countries) and the focus of numerous arrest and assassination attempts by the U.S. and Israel, Radwan was able to execute successful terrorist attacks for a quarter-century before being killed by a car bomb in 2008.

His ability to elude justice for so long is frustrating to fans of instant karma, but for an experienced CIA operative (Baer himself was in pursuit of Radwan), he authored a playbook for political murder.

While the subject matter alone is interesting, Baer’s writing makes this a thrilling read from start to finish. He has a narrative voice that is concise, informative and though he occasionally drifts toward the conspiratorial (which isn’t a bad thing), he tempers it by clearly defining what is fact and what is conjecture.

And Baer’s got the bona fides to back it up. He writes for Time and other news outlets; he has produced documentaries for the BBC; and he has authored nonfiction best-sellers like See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil.

Oh, and George Clooney played Baer in Syriana. Not a bad resume.

Each chapter begins with a “rule” for assassins, such as “The Bastard Has to Deserve It” (Law #1), “Every Act a Bullet or a Shield” (Law #4) and “Nothing Wounded Moves Uphill” (Law #20). Also included are “notes” to help one stick to each law and historical lessons (successful and otherwise) enforcing its importance.

But always, the primary narrative is the chess match between Bear and Radwan, and it is one that spans decades and continents. It’s a fascinating tale, and not surprisingly, the TV rights to the book were sold months before its publication.

I’m excited to see its adaptation, but there’s no substitute for the source. This is a stellar book that is a must-read for fans of history, the Middle East, the military and U.S. foreign policy.

Review: The Cutting Room

The Cutting Room

Ellen Datlow, editor

“With no dreams left to search for, I have only nightmares to anticipate.”The Cutting Room

This is one of the most haunting lines from the tremendous opening story, “The Cutter,” by Edward Bryant. It sets the tone for all the delicious horror in Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology, The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen.

Those familiar with Datlow’s work know that she is the go-to authority in the horror/fantasy world. The appeal of any anthology is the prospect of finding some good stories and maybe discovering new authors, but buyer beware: Anthologies themselves can be hit and miss, especially when the stories are crudely arranged with no thought to pacing or theme.

When Datlow’s name is on the cover, however, you know the collection will contain the highest quality writing and arranging, kind of like listening to a Rob Gordon mix tape (or Rob Fleming, for those who prefer the novel version of High Fidelity).

The genius of starting this anthology with Bryant’s “The Cutter” is that:

  1. It is set in a movie theater
  2. It features a film projector, Mr. Carrigan, who cuts and splices the incoming films so that attendees at his theater have a different version of the film than the director intended
  3. It thrusts the reader into a world of altered reality, where nothing is beyond edit and where nothing can be believed or counted on besides death

Of course, I’m a little biased. Not long after I moved to Colorado, Westword profiled Bryant and his fiction, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Datlow refuses to let off the gas with the next tale, “The Hanged Man of Oz” by Steve Nagy, which plays upon the belief that an on-screen suicide is visible in The Wizard of Oz. I happen to share this belief, though it is denied by some. Nagy’s version gets even crazier, with the protagonist haunted by the scene, the film, the characters and his new girlfriend, who’d shown it to him.

There are also stellar contributions from horror legends, such as Dennis Etchison’s “Deadspace” (in which a small-time producer encounters big-time creepiness), and relatively new talents like A.C. Wise’s “Final Girl Theory.” (To enjoy a wonderfully haunting audio version of “Final Girl Theory,” visit Pseudopod.)

I’ve long loved the Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer tale “each thing i show you is a piece of my death,” which I first read in Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Two. While I love the meta-everything tone of the piece, I have mixed emotions about the title. It’s a line from my favorite Marilyn Manson song, “The Reflecting God,” and I appreciate the reference, but it’s such an obscure line (from neither chorus nor verse, but rather spoken beneath a wall of power chords segueing into an instrumental break) I’m not sure enough people will get the reference. Still, it’s a great story (and a great song).

Of a similar tone is Gary McMahon’s “Cinder Images,” which reminds the reader why many of us love horror in the first place: “You try to close your eyes but you cannot. You have to see—you need to see this. There are things that must be endured, sights that cannot be ignored.”

In fact, the idea of disturbing images and the blurring of reality is a common theme in this collection. Stephen Graham Jones’ chilling “Tenderizer,” for example, David Morrell’s “Dead Image” and the wonderfully titled “Filming the Making of the Film of the Making of Fitzcarraldo” by Garry Kilworth.

The final story, “Illimitable Dominion,” is a wonderful story I’d read before (in a Datlow collection dedicated to Poe), but was worth a second read. It re-imagines the complicated relationship between Poe and filmmaker Roger Corman (a creative relationship, that is, not an actual one). By one view, Corman did the world a service by keeping Poe’s stories in the cultural conversation via horrid retelling of his tales. By another view, he also bastardized much of the master’s works, in ways inconceivable to Poe fans.

Newman’s story offers an alternate view, one that loosely weaves fiction with history.

Like any anthology, it’s unlikely that every story will resonate with all readers, but as far as quality is concerned, The Cutting Room is a major success. Even if you only read “The Cutter,” this monster matinee is worth the ticket price.

Anticipate many nightmares within these pages.

Review: The Children Act

Ian McEwan

The Children Act

Given one word to describe Ian McEwan, I’d have to go with excruciating. The tone (elevated and eerie) and density of his novels (to a degree that will try passive readers) ooze with The Children Actanxiety. His protagonists suffer quietly, haunted by a single instance of poor judgment or an absent-minded transgression.

It’s all about moments and forbidden thresholds, the composed intellectual who discards dignity and custom to follow an animal impulse. Be it a father’s momentary lapse in The Child in Time, the sudden violence of The Innocent or the chilling cowardice in Amsterdam, there comes a dissociative moment in every McEwan novel in which a main character is forced to confront their darkest depths.

And then live with the consequences.

Such is the case for Fiona Maye, protagonist of The Children Act, McEwan’s latest novel. Fiona is an experienced judge on the cusp of old age who is questioning her lifetime of restraint (as well as her decision not to reproduce).

We enter her story mid-conversation to discover Fiona reeling from her husband’s proposed (and possibly in-progress) infidelity, just as she’s preparing for a high-profile case with a child’s life in the balance.

Cut to the courtroom, where the precocious teenager is refusing a blood transfusion on the grounds of being a Jehovah’s Witness. Invoking the Children Act of 1989, Fiona gives her ruling, the consequences of which ultimately lead to a spontaneous, classically McEwan mistake, one that risks undoing her marriage, her career and a lifetime of calculated decision-making.

The Children Act is a short, but dense novel, as is usually the case with McEwan. The man is a master of reflection and interiority. The opening chapter encompasses but a moment in a 30-year marriage, but lays bare its successes, failings and a lifetime of insecurities and second-guessing.

McEwan applies this level of care and detail throughout the novel, which may lack the sinister urge of books like The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers or First Love, Last Rites, but certainly channels the disquiet of Enduring Love and Saturday, in which the tragedies unfold in slow motion and a lifetime of torment is distilled into a bitter, lingering moment.