Thriller Writer Exposes U.S. Security Gaps

railway tanker carsReading up on how the nation’s security apparatus actually works would have spared the Trump Administration and several of its appointees some embarrassment in their first weeks in office. However, a failure of security imagination has a much darker and more dangerous side.

You may recall how, after 9/11, the Bush Administration’s CIA brought in Hollywood scriptwriters—professional speculators—to help them imagine terrorist scenarios. Using airplanes-as-bombs was not a new idea, not even an “unthinkable” one to thriller writers.

Right after 9/11 the momentum for developing anti-terrorism technologies was strong, some money was wasted, and some real improvements were achieved. (Here’s an excellent Atlantic article summarizing our post-9/11 security gains and gaps.) But that momentum has largely faded.

Along comes Matthew Quirk, author of the thrillers The 500, Cold Barrel Zero, and the recent Dead Man Switch, who thinks about our vulnerabilities a lot. He says, “We should spend our time and money addressing the obvious risks, not the hypothetical or concocted ones.” And he cites plenty of these risks. “I like to think my books are pretty tense, but they have nothing on reality,” he wrote recently in the Washington Post. “More than 15 years after 9/11, we have failed to take basic steps to address glaring threats that have already cost American lives.”

One example he cites are the risks from manufacturing, storing, and transporting deadly chemicals. The security of these facilities, he says, is simply “not adequately covered by the current mishmash of loophole-filled rules.” Rules facing potential rollback, it should be noted.

True security for our nation involves not just reducing our vulnerability to terrorism, of course, but also prevention and response preparation in the case of system breakdowns, emergence of new diseases, and, of course, severe droughts, flooding, wildfires, and other disruptions resulting from, oh, climate change.

The number and variety of these threats is huge, but for most Americans the most visible national security effort boils down to seizing manicure scissors from grandma during an airport screening. However, even the TSA faces significant cuts in the proposed Trump budget, with the “savings” diverted to building the wall at our southern border. The wall will neither improve security nor prevent illegal immigration. It’s a costly symbolic gesture that diverts attention and resources from real security risks.

*****Moonglow: A Novel

Tarot cards

photo: Meg Lessard, creative commons license

By Michael Chabon – It’s interesting Chabon labels Moonglow a novel right on the cover, because it’s also has one foot in the memoir camp. The character Michael appears, but the book is only tangentially about him, somewhat about his mother, and mostly about her parents. And what a fascinating set of grandparents he has! The story is based in truth—bolstered by footnotes as an occasional reality check—and leavened with humor. Yet many details and conversations must have sprung from Chabon’s impeccable imagination and his obvious love for two characters called only “my grandfather” and “my grandmother” throughout.

His grandmother, a beautiful and elegant Frenchwoman, survived World War II and the camps. With little more than a set of fortune-telling cards that would be springboards for stories she told her grandson, she emigrated to Baltimore. There the would-be Dolly Levis of the synagogue hoped to match her up with their young rabbi. The night they were to meet at a temple social event, the rabbi dragged his unwilling brother along, and a match was made, just not the one the women expected.

The Frenchwoman had a daughter already (Chabon’s mother), but his grandfather accepted her a hundred percent, as is. And “as is” was not easy. She suffered from severe bouts of depression that resulted in several hospitalizations, and the delusion that a skinless horse lay in wait for her. Nevertheless, they were a good pair. Keeping bad news away from her, as the grandfather insisted upon, “suited his furtive nature. She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand.”

The main story is the grandfather’s, and the premise of the book is that he was close-mouthed throughout life until the week before he died, when he told Chabon everything. “Keeping secrets was the family business. But it was a business, it seemed to me, that none of us had ever profited from,” Chabon says.

Chabon skips gleefully back and forth across time and space in recounting his grandfather’s World War II experience (where he participated in Operation Paperclip, an effort to snatch up the German rocket experts before the Russians could get them), his lifelong fascination with rocketry and model-building (NASA obtained some of his precisely detailed models), his prison experience, businesses built and lost, and a late-life romance in a Florida retirement village where a giant python was stealing the pets.

In short, the grandfather reveals and Chabon skillfully assembles and polishes a treasure chest of experiences, Dickensian in their variety, one to be explored with delight and wonder.

For very good reason, Moonglow (affiliate link below) was selected by numerous publications as a “best book” of 2016.

Come from Away

ComeFromAwayLogoThe affirming new Broadway musical Come from Away is lively and warm-hearted, with a special tug at the heart for every American remembering 9/11. On that terrible September morning, dozens of planes carrying thousands of passengers were en route to the United States when the country closed its airspace. Those planes had to land somewhere else, and 38 of them landed in Gander, Newfoundland, the rock in the sea.

Suddenly, Gander’s population nearly doubled. The nearly 7,000 passengers and crew were from all over the world. They had all sorts of issues. They—and the 19 animals with them—needed food, places to sleep, their medications, phones, and . . . someone to talk to. Come from Away tells how the people of Newfoundland rose to this unprecedented occasion with amazing generosity.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the book, music, and lyrics based on hundreds of  interviews with the people of Newfoundland, as well as many of the stranded passengers. A cast of twelve plays multiple parts—both townspeople and passengers—and most have been with the ensemble continuously since its first production at the LaJolla Playhouse in 2015. The cast is uniformly strong, with good singing voices, good energy, and a well-honed ability to switch from one role to another so there’s never any confusion.

Although the production has many characters, there are definite stories and relationships. One is the experience of an American Airlines pilot. She wanted to fly since childhood, because when she flew, “nothing was between me and the sky.” She gets a job flying corpses at first, then corporate jets, and ultimately became the airline’s first female pilot. Now, to think her beloved airplanes were used as bombs, “something’s come between me and the sky.”

The music is provided by an eight-person band, split on either side of the stage and featuring instruments you might associate with Irish music—pipes, and the Bodhran (flat drum)—as well as guitars, a violin, and percussion. Occasionally, the musicians join in the dancing, and most of the songs are sung by the whole cast, with only brief solos. This creative choice emphasizes the show’s theme of community pulling together.

Christopher Ashley directed the 100-minute show, which is performed with no intermission. Ian Eisendrath is the musical supervisor and Kelly Devine, the choreographer. The simple and versatile set is by Beowulf Boritt, with costumes by Toni-Leslie James.

Come from Away has been performed at the La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Rep, Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, and, the program says, the hockey rink in Gander, Newfoundland. It’s now at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

“Because we come from everywhere, we all come from away.”

A Failure of Imagination about Climate Change

India, dawn, village

photo: Mario Lapid, creative commons license

Will future generations look back on the people of the 21st century and think we were deranged? According to revered Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, that may be the only way future generations can explain humanity’s feeble collective action in the face of climate change, global warming, and the violence of their likely consequences: drought, fire, famine, extreme storms, rising sea levels, extinction.

In a recent Princeton lecture, Ghosh said climate change is not just a problem of politicians, business leaders, and scientists, it is also a crisis of culture and thus of the imagination. His new book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, makes the case that literary novelists, with a few exceptions, are failing to recognize and address the coming cataclysm, the most profound challenge of our day, in their work. Thinking about such a future is left to the margins of the literary world—science fiction, fantasy, and the like. Here’s an example.

Fundamental to the carbon economy—in fact, so fundamental we don’t even notice it—is that it is a manifestation of power. Not electrical power, the “might makes right” kind. Ironically, while some U.S. military leaders are more candid than our politicians with regard to the security risks posed by climate change, the military is a huge energy consumer. While the generals and admirals may talk about the risks of climate change, they contribute mightily to it, as, he says, the U.S. military consumes more energy than Bangladesh, a country of some 157 million people. Changes in the international power dynamic may be some of the most disruptive and far-reaching.

By framing climate change questions as economic ones, he says, we mask the reality that they are an exercise of power. Economic frameworks emphasize personal choices and desires, just as discussions of climate justice boil down to “how much are you willing to sacrifice?”As long as people in developing nations want to live as Americans (especially) do, a desire fueled by consumerist media, their leaders can’t and won’t suggest these sacrifices come from them. “Why should we cut back? You’ve had your turn. Now it’s ours.” Yet the changes needed go beyond recalibrating the desires of individual citizens of any nation.

Ghosh says only Pope Francis is willing to talk about breaking this cycle of desire and the impact it has on the poor. This should be a matter of significant interest, if Ghosh is correct that “People living at the margins of society will be the first to experience the future.” It’s one very different from that depicted by our politicians and literary leaders.

His was a dense lecture with many innovative and compelling arguments. Only a reading of the book can give you an adequate understanding of his vital points!

Land of Mine (Under Sandet)

Land of Mine, DenmarkThis multiply-honored Danish-German movie from Martin Zandvliet (trailer) also could have been titled Land of Mines, since it is based on Denmark’s real post-World War II program that used POWs to clear the mines the Germans laid up and down the Danes’ western seacoast. Apparently, someone in Hitler’s command believed the Allied invasion might take place there, and when the war was over, the mines had to go.

In real life, we’re told, some 2,000 prisoners were given the task of clearing the beaches of 1.5 million mines—a task New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott terms “intuitively fair and obviously cruel.” About half of these former soldiers, many of whom were mere teenagers, died or were seriously injured in the process.

This movie, which has subtitles, is about 14 such prisoners and not easy to watch. Lacking the Hollywood cues that typically signal when disaster’s coming and who will be next to die, every moment of training, every defusing of a mine, every run on the beach is tension-filled. Hardass Danish Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (played by Roland Møller) doesn’t think these prisoners should get by with a thing, and he works them hard. The story, then, is about how he gradually comes to see them as the young boys they are.

The Danes are justly praised for saving the vast majority of their Jews in World War II, despite the country’s occupation by the German army, but this almost forgotten episode shows a darker side. Not everyone is capable of compassion or of easy forgiveness. And where should the Sergeant’s loyalties lie? With his countrymen (and the rest of humanity) who have suffered at the hands of the Nazis or with the boys now under his absolute command?

The boys condemned to this excruciating duty, with its meager diet and the receding possibility they will ever return home, are portrayed by a fourteen young actors—including a pair of twins—who are utterly believable. Is their deadly task necessity or punishment? How much bravery is required just to persevere?

A recent Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Land of Mine was shot on location on the Danish coast. A real mine—one missed by the young searchers more than 70 years ago—was discovered during filming.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics rating 89%; audiences 89%.

Sedona Area’s Astonishing Copper Museum

Shell Casing Art, Copper Art Museum

Shell Casing Art, photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The tiny town of Clarkdale, Arizona, midway between Cottonwood and Jerome, in the outskirts of the much-visited Sedona region, hosts the not-to-be-missed Copper Art Museum. One of the first metals humans discovered—it and gold are the only ones that have a “color”—copper has been mined and worked for ten thousand years. Clarkdale was a company town for copper mining in the nearby mountains.

Through imaginative displays in the town’s former high school (built 1928), visitors see much more than art, they get a taste of mineralogy, astronomy, and history, plus the beautiful and varied ways copper has been put to use in architectural decoration, kitchens, winemaking, and war. Who knew?

On display are 525 brass (copper + zinc) artillery shell casings that World War I soldiers scavenged and transformed into one-of-a-kind artworks, startlingly intricate molds inspiring lavish desserts, religious works and paintings on copper, a wall of beer steins.

The extent of the collection suggests a seriousness of purpose, yet the curators have a light touch. They include yearbook pages from the high school, binding the current use of the building to its past. They include amusing and interesting “fast facts,” such as details about various copper-related crimes. They explain why copper is the desired material for certain medical uses, doorknobs, and in jewelry. And they provide a straight-faced set of definitions for carrot, caret, carat, and karat, for the confused. You make your way through the museum following copper footprints embedded in the floor.

There’s something fascinating and beautiful for everyone here!

Crime novels set in and around Arizona:

The Sinister Pig – A disused Mexican copper mine figures in this Tony Hillerman classic
The Blue Hammer – Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer and a leggy blonde in the desert
Rage Against the Dying – female protagonist takes on a serial killer in Becky Masterman’s exciting debut

Or pick your own mayhem at Scottsdale’s fantastic Poisoned Pen Bookstore, 4014 N. Goldwater Boulevard. Floor-to-ceiling mysteries, thrillers, and crime and 300 author events a year!

Detroit’s Music Museum: Hitsville: USA

Motown - Ted Eytan

photo: Ted Eytan, creative commons license

If the button for your car radio’s Oldies’ station is shiny from use, there’s a travel stop for you in Detroit.  The Motown Museum’s headquarters and studio, Hitsville, USA, contained in two connected American Foursquares at 2648 West Grand Boulevard.

Once success arrived, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., had offices and operations departments in seven houses he owned on both sides of the street, later expanding into a ten-story office building, and eventually moving his whole operation to Los Angeles in 1972. But these buildings are the original home of the Gordy family, as well as the enterprise that created the soundtrack of the 1960s and 19970s: Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, and so many more.

Gordie’s sister Esther Gordy Edwards recognized the importance of this original spot and founded the museum in 1985. When Gordy lived there, local kids who had a musical idea were welcome day or night, under the theory that “you can’t put a time limit on creativity.”

Gordie recruited a backup band from Detroit jazz clubs, that became legendary as the Funk Brothers (fantastic documentary about them: Standing in the Shadow of Motown). Likewise one of his girl groups, the Andantes, served as backup singers on dozens of iconic records, from “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” to “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” Gordy wanted music and lyrics that were upbeat. “Part storefront church gospel, part jazz joint on a Saturday night, part street corner symphony,” that was the Motown Sound.

Though many Motown performers became major stars, they started as neighborhood kids. They knew each other from living down the block or around the corner, and many of them weren’t out of high school yet. Gordy set up an “artist personal development” program for them, headed by talent agent Maxine Powell, who taught grooming, poise, and social graces, to give these young people the polish that would support their success.

Museum visits are conducted by tour leaders in small groups and include a brief film plus an opportunity to sing in the legendary Studio A, where so much great music was created. The costume display, sample records, and photographs of those early days are amazing, though your tour group will move ahead before you can begin to read all the captions!

From the Netflix Movie Vault

Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep, Postcards from the EdgeThese two interesting movies couldn’t be more different, though both are based on best-selling books and turn on the unlikely matter of insurance. The more fun was Postcards from the Edge (1990), which, through a horrible coincidence, arrived just after Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died. Postcards is based very loosely on Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel, and the obvious question is whether Reynolds was “really like that.”  Fisher said not and, suffice it to say, when Reynolds wanted to play the mother in the movie, director Mike Nichols told her she wasn’t right for it. (Nice Vanity Fair story here about the real mother-daughter relationship.)

I was apprehensive about sitting through another Hollywood druggie movie, even one billed as a comedy-drama (trailer), but in the first moments Meryl Streep walks into the frame, and I knew I’d be in good hands. Not only her performance as Suzanne Vale (Fisher), but Shirley MacLaine’s as Suzanne’s wine-drinking, self-absorbed, hyper-critical mother make the film worth seeing. Small roles for Annette Bening, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, and Dennis Quaid are fun too. The strength of the performances means the movie holds up, nearly 30 years after it was made.

After a disastrous overdose, a stint in rehab helps Suzanne get her act together, but the only way anyone will give her another role is if she lives “supervised”—that is, with Mom. Otherwise, the studio will never be able get insurance for her. Returning to Mom ain’t easy. While you can see she totally adores her mother, she fears being “sucked into her massive orbit,” as Hunter Harris said in Vulture. Despite Suzanne’s shaky grip on herself, Streep plays it so you can’t help rooting for her, and you know she’ll come out all right.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 90%; audiences 66%. (Interesting split there.)

In-The-Heart-Of-The-SeaBy contrast, 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea (trailer) is pretty darn depressing, if less emotionally engaging. It’s a seafaring adventure film about the 1819, real-life voyage of the Essex, a whaler out of Nantucket. While hunting whales in the South Pacific, the hunters enrage an enormous white sperm whale—virtually as long as the Essex itself—that takes its revenge on the ship, its whaleboats, and the crew. The Essex sinks, and the three remaining whaleboats struggle toward the coast of South America. Eventually, only eight crewmen make it back to Nantucket. Sound familiar?

The framing device of the story is that young author Herman Melville has an all-night interview with Thomas Nickerson, the Essex’s cabin boy and last surviving crew member. For decades, he has been keeping the secret of what actually occurred on the voyage and the desperate return trip. The ship owners, rather than have the world think whaling is too dangerous to invest in or insure (!) maintain the ship was lost when it ran aground.

But Melville is following rumors there’s more to the story, and by the time he leaves Nickerson’s company is determined to write what becomes The Great American Novel, Moby Dick (1851). In real life, both Nickerson and the first mate, Owen Chase, published accounts of the ill-fated trip, and these did inspire Melville’s book.

The film has exciting special effects—storms at sea, overhead views of the ship and the whales. Whale-killing is an unsavory business, and viewers can only be glad smellovision has not been invented. Good performances from Ben Whishaw as Melville and Brendan Gleeson as the aging sailor. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the Essex’s captain (Benjamin Walker) and first mate (Chris Hemsworth) very compelling, and I don’t know whether that was because of wooden performances or a bad script. Director Ron Howard clearly aspired for more here. As a fan of seagoing adventures, I wish he’d achieved it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 42%; audiences 53%.

A Thriller Reading List for the Trump Administration

Mar-a-LagoDear New Trump Administration Members, Friends and Hangers-on:

I propose an easy, entertaining way to enhance your understanding of how the world of secrets actually works. Read (or watch) a few of the many highly regarded thrillers for key lessons. They may spare you more of the embarrassments of the past few weeks.

Trust no one.
The initial reaction of ousted Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to the possibility he’d engaged with Russian spies—“It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian Intelligence officer’”—was LOL funny to thriller fans. When you’re dealing with a power whose aims differ from yours, anyone may be a spy. To get his paranoia up, Manafort shoulda read:
The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry
The Increment by David Ignatius
John le Carré’s “Smiley” novels, newly relevant

There are no secrets.
If Manafort caused chuckles and head-shaking, the allegations against ousted National Security Agency Director Michael Flynn was jaw-dropping. Not because Flynn had premature conversations with Russians, not because he lied about them, but because he apparently didn’t know his conversations would be monitored, recorded, transcribed, and become fodder for a political debacle. Surely the head of the NSA would understand the reach of the nation’s security apparatus.

Leaving aside the debate about whether Snowden should have snagged our stuff, what about the content of his revelations? What does Flynn think NSA’s $1.5 billion data storage facility at Camp Williams, Utah, is for, anyway? He should have read—and maybe somebody over there still ought to:
No Place to Hide – Glenn Greenwald (non-fiction)

The terrace of a resort isn’t the best place to strategize about national security. (See above).
Technology’s ability to “listen” by supersensitive microphones and by monitoring phone traffic and to “see” via miniaturized cameras and screen captures of compromised electronics far exceeds what participants in that meeting apparently supposed. Do all the Mar-a-Lago wait and kitchen staff have security clearances? Do the members? Are tested for common sense? Apparently not, since a number of them recorded the confab. Worst was club member Richard DeAgazio, who posted a picture on Facebook of himself with “Rick,” the service member who carries the nuclear launch codes for the President—the “nuclear  football.” One hopes Rick, now identifiable by millions, has a safe new assignment.
Eye in the Sky – film by Gavin Hood
Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer and August Cole

AND, WHILE YOU’RE AT IT, DEVELOP BETTER POLICIES, BECAUSE . . .

Climate change is real.
Dewy-fresh EPA director Scott Pruitt believes the debate about climate change is “far from settled.” While  recent heavy rains have alleviated most of California’s drought for now, the long-term trend persists. A fight over water in the U.S. Southwest is not inevitable, but its ugly consequences can be prevented only if the problem is squarely faced through regional strategies, which are what federal governments promote.
The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

The War on Drugs is a loser.
This ill-conceived “war” has led to untold misery in Mexico and created a strong motive for illegal immigration. No wall will stop the drug flow. Fix this.
The Cartel, by Don Winslow
Down by the River, by Charles Bowden (non-fiction, not new, but harrowing. We’ve learned nothing.)

There, that should get the Washington newbies started. What would you have them read?

Lion

Lion, Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Another current movie that’s a fan favorite is Lion (trailer), well worth seeing for the heart-warming true story and excellent acting. Garth Davis directed and Luke Davies wrote the screenplay, based on Saroo Brierley’s book, A Long Way Home, and the movie was lovingly filmed in Kolkata and Tasmania by cinematographer Greig Fraser .

The story begins in 1986, when five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) becomes separated from his older brother at a train station. He falls asleep on a decommissioned train and can’t get off for several days. Meanwhile, it has traveled far from his home, reaching the sprawling city of Kolkata. At the time, Kolkata had approximately 10 million residents, including thousands of orphans, and was full of dangers for a child—especially one from a rural area who could not speak the local Bengali. Some effort is made to help him find his family, but he doesn’t know enough. Eventually he’s adopted by an Tasmanian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Only when Saroo is a young adult (Dev Patel) does the technology come along—Google Earth—that may be able to help him find home. The search becomes a secret obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and the parents who raised him. It’s worth the price of admission to see the happy-go-lucky Patel’s moment of overwhelming loss that starts this quest, triggered by the sight of the red jalebis he wanted as a child. With his hair grown out and shaggy, he even starts to look like a lion.

The story is rather straightforwardly about love, but what could have been overly sentimental is brought to a higher plane by virtue of the solid acting performances. Sunny Pawar, who plays the young Saroo is a marvel!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 93%.

Sunny Pawar, Barack Obama

Sunny Pawar meets Barack Obama