Sicily: Beyond (and Before) the Corleones – Travel Tips

Agrigento - Temple of Concordia

Agrigento – Temple of Concordia, public domain

Our two-week trip to Sicily ended recently, and what an interesting and beautiful region it was. The food was pretty spectacular too. We traveled with a British tour company called Esplora, and if you’re looking for a recommendation, this is one. Esplora and its founder Damian Croft, specialize in small-group tours of several Mediterranean countries, as well as Armenia, Georgia, and, soon, Iran.

There were a dozen of us on the tour, six Brits, an Australian couple, and four Americans. We had two charming guides (Chiara and Simona) and our irreplaceable driver/major domo, Carmelo. Our guides were language and art history specialists. How nice, I thought, in advance. How essential, I’d say now. Here’s why (and before I go on, I’ll tip you that we saw the impressive architectural remnants of all these civilizations.)

The earliest tribes in Sicily, the Sicani, documented to around 8000 BC, were followed by the Sicels and some minor groups. They lived in caves, and some of their caves are still in use for storage, as shelters for goats and chickens, and in extremis, habitation.

Sicily was a crossroads of the ancient world, and for at least some period, Siracusa was the most important city in Europe. This importance began with the arrival of the Greeks, who set up independent colonies in Siracusa, Agrigento, and elsewhere. Domination of the island was passed back and forth in practically nonstop wars between the Greeks, Romans (who established colonies under Roman authority), and barbarians, namely, the Germanic Vandals and Ostrogoths.

The Byzantines annexed Sicily in 535 AD, and were harassed by invading Arabs from Carthage (now Tunisia) in north Africa. Next came the Normans—yes, those same Normans who invaded England in 1066. This was a surprise! They established liberal government, tolerant of the many ethnicities and religions who lived on the island. That couldn’t last, of course.

Swabian Germans took over, followed by an insurrection to remove the French (Normans) and the people turned to the Spanish for aid. The Spanish Inquisition in 1492 resulted in expulsion of all the Jews from Sicily and other depredations. In the next two hundred years, the island also suffered devastating earthquakes, and the plague.

The Bourbons were next, with Sicily fighting on France’s side in the Napoleonic Wars. Guiseppe Garibaldi had a strong presence in Sicily in his successful effort to unite the separate regions of Italy into a united Kingdom of Italy (1861).

In the 20th century, assaulted first by waves of crime from the Mafia then invaded by the Allies in 1943, this little island of less than 10,000 square miles—not much larger than the state of New Jersey—was once again at the crossroads of history.

Historians will shudder at the elisions and probable errors in the above. Whole books have been written about this, of course, and here’s a really good one:

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Read my new short story in Quoth The Raven, an anthology of new works based on the style and sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe. For how to order it, click here.

****The Cypher Bureau

Enigma machine

PX Here, creative commons license

By Eilidh McGinness – This fictionalized history of the breaking of the Germans’ Enigma code methods in World War II is as tense as any thriller and more consequential, based, as it is, on true events.

Although readers around the world are familiar with the accomplishments of Alan Turing and the British code-breaking team at Bletchley Park—most recently popularized in the Benedict Cumberbatch movie, The Imitation Game—the substantial contribution of youthful Polish mathematicians to the unraveling of the Nazis’ coding system is less well known. This novelization of the life of Polish mathematician Marian Rejewski and his colleagues attempts to fill this historical blank spot.

As children, Rejewski and his two friends and fellow mathematics stars, Henry Zygalski and Jerzy Rozycki, lived through the German occupation and depredations of the First World War. Now, on the cusp of completing their university studies, war clouds are once again amassing on their country’s western border, and the Polish authorities are desperate to expose the Germans’ secrets and help foil their plans.

Rejewski, Zygalski, and Rozycki are successfully recruited to work for the Cypher Bureau, although, as invasion approaches, the danger of such work grows by the by day. They have successfully solved numerous important decryption problems, yet Rejewski longs for a chance to try cracking the Enigma—the coding machine the Germans considered unbreakable. Finally, he gets this super-secret assignment. Thanks to documents obtained by French intelligence and the lucky acquisition of an Enigma machine, he is able to reconstruct its internal wiring. Once that is accomplished, the method for determining the master key for a given day is the remaining challenge.

The insight that allows his breakthrough is not mathematical or technical, it is psychological. Having had German tutors in his youth, Rejewski knows how they think. As the author of the book on which The Imitation Game was based wrote about the Poles, “They had not broken the machine, they had beaten the system.”

Once Germany invades Poland, the code-breaking team flees, working its way across Europe, stopping briefly here and there to decode messages, deal with Germany’s efforts to make Enigma increasingly complex, and making hair’s-breadth escapes from the enemy. Although this book aims to be a true account and the writing style is never hyperbolic, its substance is akin to an action thriller.

The bravery and intellectual contributions of the Polish mathematicians and their team is clear. Equally so is the commitment of a great many people in Poland and elsewhere to keeping the secret of their accomplishments. Not one person ever revealed this information throughout the long years of the war, and the Germans never knew they’d been hacked. This in itself is an astonishing feat!

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Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus

Robberson, Cuccioli, & Cromer; photo: Jerry Dahlia

“A society drowning in violence and seemingly bereft of civil thought or action” is how the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey describes the setting for Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, now in a riveting new production, directed by Brian B. Crowe, through August 5. First performed January 24, 1594, it was one of the revenge dramas so popular among Elizabethan audiences and fans of the Death Wish franchise. Here, the desire for revenge trumps every other human feeling, with no possibility of compromise or negotiation.

It’s well worth seeing, not just because the opportunity comes about so rarely and not just because of Shakespeare’s thought-provoking content, but also because of the high quality of this production. The acting and production values are top-notch.

The title character (played by Bruce Cromer) returns to Rome a hero after his conquest of the Goths. His chained prisoners comprise their sultry queen Tamora (Vanessa Morosco), her three sons, and her advisor, a moor (Chris White). When Titus arrives, Roman brothers Saturninus (Benjamin Eakeley) and Bassianus (Oliver Archibald) are vying to replace their late father, the emperor. Given the opportunity to choose between them, Titus chooses Saturninus, who proceeds to claim his brother’s betrothed, Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Fiona Robberson). Skirmishes break out, but Lavinia and Bassianus flee.

Two of Titus’s sons were killed in the war, and the remaining sons demand the sacrifice of the Goth queen Tamora’s eldest son, despite her desperate pleas. Though she speaks honeyed words to Saturninus, her desire for revenge against Titus and all his children is clear.

The moor connives with Tamora’s remaining sons (Torsten Johnson and Quentin McCuiston) to kill Lavinia’s new husband, ravish her, and, so that she can’t reveal their identity, cut off her hands and cut out her tongue. Titus has lost five sons in the play so far, and his last son Lucius (Clark Scott Carmichael) is banished. He is devastated to see the wreck of his daughter. Only the counsel and forbearance of his brother Marcus (Robert Cuccioli) saves him from total madness.

Near the end of the play is a speech by Marcus that for me was the most relevant to politics in our own time: “O! let me teach you how to knit again this scatter’d corn into one united sheaf, these broken limbs again into one body; lest Rome herself be bane unto herself, and she whom mighty kingdoms curtsy to, like a forlorn and desperate castaway, do shameful execution on herself.”

Fine performances of Cromer as Titus, Cuccioni as Marcus, Morosco as Tamora, and her two reptilian sons (Johnson and McCuiston) were excellent. For me, though, the most moving performance came from Robberson, the handless, tongueless, young widow. And White delivers the moor with relish.

It’s fun seeing such a luxuriously large principal cast—16 actors—ably augmented by 11 members of the theater’s 2018 Summer Professional Training Program in multiple roles.

Dick Block created a memorable set, featuring giant swords and an enormous warrior’s helmet, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Your Next Thriller: Idea Goldmine

The July 2018 issue of Wired is a treasure trove of ideas for thriller writers. Here are the ones that got my creative juices flowing.

satellite 2

photo: Alexas_Fotos, creative commons license

Space Wars and Daily Life
“The Outer Limits of War,” by Garrett M. Graff, which bears the provocative subhead “a new arms race is threatening to explode—500 miles above our heads.” A parenthetical factoid declares that 14 out of the 16 “infrastructure sectors designated as critical by the Department of Homeland Security, like energy and financial services, rely on GPS for their operation.” Things you might not expect, like ATMs, cellular networks, and credit card systems depend on GPS. And the satellite array that makes GPS possible is highly vulnerable to deliberate attack, not to mention the 500,000 pieces of debris, marble-sized and up, currently orbiting earth at up to 17,000 mph.

The All-Seeing Eye
In Steven Levy’s “The Wall,” Palmer Lucky’s portable surveillance towers use radar, cameras, and communications technologies to identify moving objects up to two miles away. The virtual reality component of the system tags objects as people or coyotes. Then it reports in to those who will do something about it. Such systems would have military uses, scanning the battlefield, and are being tested at the U.S.-Mexico border. Lucky’s virtual wall would cost about one-fiftieth of the proposed 30-foot high concrete structure under consideration at the border, with all its security, wildlife disruption, aesthetic, and property infringement downsides.

Bitcoins

photo: Mike Cauldwell, creative commons license

Cryptocurrency
“The Blockchain: A Love Story; The Blockchain: A Horror Story,” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. How the Tez went bad. Leaving aside the particulars of this long piece, a good thriller writer can expertly decode the most opaque problem. So I hope you’re working on a novel about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, so I can finally understand it.

Mission Possible?
Oh, and the Mission Impossible movie franchise technologies that have—and have not—achieved reality. Gecko gloves, yes. Covert subdermal implants, no.

That Plastic Gun Isn’t a Toy
Finally, check out this chilling video on the Wired website headlined “Legal Win Opens Pandora’s Box for Weapons.” Forget age requirements. Forget background checks. Forget gun control altogether. Thank you, DoJ.

The Catcher Was a Spy

The Catcher Was a SpyIt might almost be worth seeing the new movie Gotti with a sneering John Travolta in the lead, simply because it has received a (surprisingly) rare “0” rating from Rotten Tomatoes critics. Unanimity about a movie’s goodness or apparent awfulness is so rarely achieved that this may be a cinematic low-water-mark. A filmic Sahara. A future cult classic.

Last weekend, I went to another movie most critics have panned, because it is crammed with components I like: spies! history! Nazis! baseball! Based on a book by Nicholas Dawidoff, it recounts a bit of the true story of Red Sox catcher Moe Berg and was directed by Ben Lewin (who gets most of the blame), with a good script by Robert Rodat (trailer).

It wasn’t perfect, and maybe it’s slow for action film devotees, but the acting was superior. Paul Rudd played Berg, a man who loved baseball and had a great smile, but was hard to know. Through his Princeton connections, he was recruited to the fledgling OSS by its head Wild Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels), mostly because of his facility with languages and despite his somewhat ambiguous sexuality. He has a girlfriend in Boston (Sienna Miller) for much of the film, but that’s an on-again, off-again thing, first with his baseball travel schedule, then his work in Washington and overseas.

Finally he gets the kind of assignment he craves: the U.S. has the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon, and the Allies believe the Germans are attempting this too, led by Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). But they can’t be certain (sorry). Berg is teamed up with a military man (Guy Pearce) and a physicist (excellent work by Paul Giamatti) to find out. If these suspicions are correct, Berg is to assassinate him. Unlike so many celluloid spies, Rudd’s Berg seems actually to weigh the significance of this assignment.

In a key scene early in the film, Berg signals the pitcher, but the pitcher waves him off. The opponent on first tries to steal second, but Berg manages to get the ball there in time to throw him out, ending the inning. Walking back to the dugout, he says to the pitcher, “Never ignore my signal when a man’s going to try to steal second.” Pitcher: “How’d you know he’d try?” “I just knew.” Berg’s skill in sizing up people was perfect for the OSS.

Rex Reed in the New York Observer said, it’s “a juicy story told blandly,” but still a movie worth seeing, and I agree. Maybe Gotti should get a second look.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 32%; audiences 67%.

****Beside the Syrian Sea

Beirut, street, watcher

photo: Jonhy Blaze, creative commons license

By James Wolff – When reading this British spy thriller, you may feel that, like the protagonist, you’ve gone for a stroll in a dangerous section of town and found yourself in over your head.

Jonas’s father, part of a church delegation visiting Syria, has been kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists, who demand a $100 million ransom for the 75-year-old cleric. Father and son have been a bit at odds, but despite that—or because of it—Jonas has vowed to rescue him.

Jonas did work for the MI6, yes, but in a desk job. His tradecraft is thin and contacts are few. Thus does Wolff put Jonas and his exploits in the realm of the doable. He makes decisions and takes actions an ordinary person, as opposed to an espionage superhero, might—a believable, somewhat erratic, and doubt-ridden character, easy to identify with and root for.

The story starts in a seedy Beirut bar, where Jonas seeks the help of the middle-aged former priest Tobias, who has previously negotiated the release of terrorist-held hostages. Jonas doesn’t tell him everything, wondering “how it had come to pass unnoticed that deceit had been worn into him like grooves in a record until all he could play were false notes.” Tobias is reluctant to get involved, but he has an interest in a woman named Maryam also stuck in Syria. Jonas says, if he helps, “we’ll get her out.” We?

Because this shaky rescue mission has no official standing, he’s unlikely to deliver on this promise, or on any of the commitments he ultimately makes with Hezbollah representatives, the espionage establishment, and anyone else he thinks can help him. You feel you’re mounting a wobbly tower made of playing cards, a fragile edifice that may collapse at any moment.

MI6 sends the tennis-playing Desmond Naseby to befriend and spy on Jonas and persuade him to give up his efforts. Naseby is quickly followed by CIA case office Harvey Deng. Deng is all business, aggressive and profane, but Jonas and Naseby banter amusingly. Says Naseby, “You can’t stand to be cooped up. Smell of the sea, bustle of the bazaars.” “Thwack of the tennis racket,” responds Jonas.

Edward Snowden taints the narrative like a malevolent spirit when it dawns on MI6 higher-ups that Jonas may have availed himself of some of the secret reports he’s been reading at his desk all those years. When it appears he is trying to trade a USB drive for his father, they give his case the operational name LEAKY PIPE and, well, panic sets in.

What keeps the pages turning in this highly entertaining tale, is that, like Jonas’s MI6 and CIA opponents, you can never be quite sure how much he really knows, what his strategy really is, or even if he has one. As a result, the outcome of his dangerous mission might succeed or, as seems much more likely, go disastrously wrong.

The King’s Choice

The King's ChoiceLet me guess. You know as few of the details as I did about how neutral Norway reacted to the invasion by German forces during three tension-packed days in April 1940. Well, now there’s Erik Poppe’s remarkable 2017 movie (Neflix!), based on true events, in which you’ll see a fine and memorable demonstration of courage and leadership (trailer).

As the Nazis hunt them, Norway’s King Haakon VII (elected as head of the constitutional monarchy in 1905) and his family, along with his weak-kneed cabinet, must flee Oslo. The cabinet had ignored the king’s warnings of possible German aggression and is in disarray. In any case, the king is the only person Hitler wants his envoy to negotiate with. The monarch faces agonizing decisions for himself, his family, his country. We are repeatedly reminded of how difficult it is to see issues clearly in a crisis, where imminent action is needed and no options are without substantial risk.

Back in Oslo, a Norwegian fascist plots to take over the government and negotiate with the Germans. His name was Quisling. And, instead of becoming the national hero he must have envisioned, his name became synonymous around the world with “traitor.”

Jesper Christensen is superb as King Haakon VII, Anders Baasmo Christiansen plays the untried but decent son, Kronprins Olav, and Karl Markovics is the frustrated German envoy, Kurt Bräuer, who truly wants to negotiate with the king, but who has very little time or sway with the fast-moving military machine.

The Norwegian countryside in late winter is as grim as the situation, snow on the ground, grey skies, almost as if the film were shot in black-and-white. It was Norway’s entry for Best Foreign Language film last year. Godfrey Cheshire on RogerEbert.com says it “deserves recognition for the excellence of every aspect of its making.” Subtitles.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics’ Rating: 84%; audiences 81%.

What Happened Next . . .

This is not part of the movie, but historian Lynne Olson praises King Haakon’s courage in her book, Last Hope Island, a fascinating–and previously unexamined–chronicle of what happened when King Haakon and six other European monarchs made their way to England and worked with the British government to aid the Allied cause.

King Haakon’s specific contribution to the war effort was that Norway’s Navy and Air Force and some army units followed him to Britain. Perhaps most important, he made available to the Allies the loyal 1,300-ship merchant marine fleet, the world’s largest and most modern, a prize the Germans dearly wanted.

****The Greek Wall

razor wire fenceWritten by Nicolas Verdan, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson –The European refugee crisis has been front-and-center in the news media for so long it’s become easy to tune it out. In award-winning Swiss author Nicolas Verdan’s literary crime thriller, all the horrifying consequences of what happens when groups of people are ripe for exploitation are on display. And he doesn’t stop there, underscoring how wide its ripples have spread in European society.

It’s 2010, and Agent Evangelos of the Greek National Intelligence Service is sent to investigate a severed head found outside the northern city of Orestiada on the border separating Greece and non-EU Turkey border. Is it the head of a Westerner? That’s what Evangelos’s superiors want to know, and they want the answer to be ‘yes.’ Something else to blame on the refugees.

Finnish members of the European Border and Coast Guard (Frontex) found the head near the bank of the Evros River. This strip of land is not only Greece’s border but that of the EU’s passport-free Schengen Area—in a sense, all of Europe. It’s the main crossing point for refugees into the European Union. Greek politicians want to build a Trump-like border wall there, and they want the EU to pay for it. Greece certainly can’t. (In real life, a 10-mile wall—actually a razor-wire fence—was eventually built.)

Verdan’s novel – his first available in English – is part political thriller, part police procedural, part mystery. A brief prologue offers hints regarding who has lost his head, but the circumstances are murky.

Much of this literary, sensitively written novel adopts the close-up point of view of Agent Evangelos, who takes the constant reversals of policy in stride simply by ignoring them. His focus is on solving the crime, and he moves doggedly forward, even when he’s told not to push his inquiry too hard. Novels based on current events risk becoming outdated, but the essential humanity of Verdan’s characters make this story timeless. An extra star here for humanity.

****Lincoln in the Bardo & ***The Sympathizer

Cemetery Angel

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

How many books can you read in a lifetime, or what’s left of it? (To calculate the limits on your literary throughput, check this out). Whatever the number is, it’s finite, so the books you choose may as well be good ones. Here are two prize-winners I recently ticked off my list.

****Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders – This, the first novel by Saunders, a highly-regarded short story writer, appeared on many “best books” list for 2017. “The bardo” is a Buddhist concept of a state of being between death and rebirth. The Lincoln in question is our 16th President.

It’s still the early days of the Civil War, yet death and the prospect of death loom over the country. Willie Lincoln, the President’s twelve-year-old son lies upstairs in the White House, ill with typhoid fever. Nothing can be done but wait. Then, nothing can be done. The funeral is arranged, the small still body is placed in its coffin, and the coffin is set in a niche in a borrowed tomb. Yet Lincoln cannot let go.

In the cemetery after dark, the spirits of the bardo emerge. Dispossessed of their bodies, they cannot accept that they are dead and resist the mysterious forces that attempt to persuade them that they are. These spirits counsel Willie on how to deal with his grief-stricken father.

Written in many voices, in snippets, like the libretto for a manic and desperate chorus of the dead, the story is full of humanity and sorrow, with flashes of dark humor and, ultimately, deep compassion for the grieving Lincoln. Overwhelmed by his son’s death, the President knows he cannot indulge his grief for long, with the chaos of war rising around him.

***The Sympathizer

Written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, narrated by François Chau. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Sympathizer opens with the chaos and terror of Saigon’s fall in the waning days of the Vietnam war. In the middle, the scene migrates to California, in the community of formerly powerful refugees, now consigned to marginal lives, and finally returns to the hostile territory of Communist-led Vietnam, where the first person narrator—“the captain”—is captured and interrogated. This book, readers are told, is his “confession.”

The captain early on declares himself a man with two minds, equally able to see both the tragedy and the farce of the war destroying his country. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” he says. Though he works for a general in the South Vietnamese Army, he is a spy for North Vietnam. Still on assignment, he accompanies the general in exile and reports on his continuing and hopeless plans to return to their native country to wage counterrevolution.

Filled with both nostalgia and cynicism, the captain undertakes various duties, some banal, some murderous, and the latter haunt him. His most irony-filled task is accompanying a Hollywood filmmaker to the Philippines to assure that “real Vietnamese people” have a role in the auteur’s shallow cinematic depiction of the war. In that process, he realizes the real Vietnamese people were no more than extras in the war itself. Like the movie, it was an American production.

For my taste, the interrogation section of the book dragged. Chau’s narration lacked the propulsive energy to carry me through nearly 14 hours of listening. Better in print.

Darkest Hour

Perhaps you feel about Churchilled out, what with Netflix’s The Crown and his memorable words floating over the disheartened British soldiers in Dunkirk, but director Joe Wright’s new film (trailer) is absolutely mesmerizing. I wish the film had gone on to present the whole rest of the war as vividly and thoughtfully, not just those desperate early days of the title.

Gary Oldman as Winston looks more the role than did John Lithgow, but the power of his performance comes from truly inhabiting the part and having a script by Anthony McCarten that shuns the clichés. Kristin Scott Thomas is brilliant as Churchill’s ever-supportive wife Clementine (resembling not a little Harriet Walter in The Crown). Lily James (Downton Abbey’s Rose, brunette this time) is sweet as his long-suffering secretary Elizabeth.

What this film provides that so many gloss over is scrupulous candor about the political facts facing Churchill. He was a compromise candidate for the role of Prime Minister, and people in his own party mistrusted him. They didn’t want him. The king didn’t want him. His predecessor, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), and a strong faction, led by Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), advocated a peace deal with Hitler, which Churchill adamantly opposed.

While today’s viewers may side with Churchill on the question of whether a good treaty could have been achieved with the dictator, Wright never over-eggs the pudding by weakening Halifax’s arguments. Both sides of this consequential debate are principled and passionate.

Churchill was new and shaky in his position, the entire British army was stranded at Dunkirk, the European countries were overrun, France was about to fall, and America could not help (yet). It was truly Britain’s Darkest Hour.  How the PM deals with it all reflected his genius. “If it’s a history lesson,” says reviewer Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com, “it’s one that plays like a tightly wound, pulse-pounding thriller.”

And Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography offers many nice touches, too. The slow-motion views of people in the street (which you realize is Churchill’s view as he passes in his car), the isolation of the elevators, the pockmarked French countryside from the air. Wonderful.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84% ; audiences: 83%.