November 27, 2006
Magical Realism Visits the Middle East
Students of Latin American literature will be familiar with "magical realism," a technique of writing frequently associated with Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, the Nobel-prize winning Colombian novelist. Wikipedia notes some elements of magical realism, several of which are excerpted here:
* Contains fantastical elementsIndeed, Garcia-Marquez's novels contain all of these elements. The primum inter pares of these is One Hundred Years of Solitude (which has even made it into Oprah's Book Club, though it was first published in 1970). Garcia-Marquez's masterpiece contains such passages as this:
* The fantastic elements may be intrinsically plausible but are never explained
* Characters accept rather than question the logic of the magical element . . .
* Distorts time so that it is cyclical or so that it appears absent. Another technique is to collapse time in order to create a setting in which the present repeats or resembles the past
* Inverts cause and effect, for instance a character may suffer before a tragedy occurs
* Incorporates legend or folklore
* Mirrors past against present; astral against physical planes; or characters one against another . . .
* Open-ended conclusion leaves the reader to determine whether the magical and/or the mundane rendering of the plot is more truthful or in accord with the world as it is.
"The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point."What could possibly be realistic in these passages? As Garcia-Marquez knew, it was the inherent fantastic nature of daily life in places like Columbia that made nearly anything believable so long as it was presented in a plausible way -- and if the storyteller believed it himself.
"She was in the crowd that was witnessing the sad spectacle of the man who had been turned into a snake for having disobeyed his parents."
"'What day is today?' Aureliano told him that it was Tuesday. 'I was thinking the same thing,' Jose Arcadio Buendia said, 'but suddenly I realized that it's still Monday, like yesterday. Look at the sky, look at the walls, look at the begonias. Today is Monday too.'"
"Colonel Aureliano Buendia organized thirty-two armed uprisings and he lost them all. He had seventeen male children by seventeen different women and they were exterminated one after the other on a single night before the oldest one had reached the age of thirty-five. He survived fourteen attempts on his life, seventy-three ambushes, and a firing squad."
"As soon as Jose Arcadio closed the bedroom door the sound of a pistol shot echoed through the house. A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps, and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendia house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta's chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano Jose, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Ursula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread."
Such lessons are illustrated in Mark Bowden's tale of the hunt for and killing of Pablo Escobar, the most notorious cocaine smuggler in history. In Killing Pablo, Bowden describes the lunacy that results when Pablo negotiates his surrender with the Colombian police, on the condition that a special jail be built for him, at a location of his choosing, staffed with "jailors" on his payroll. The place was called La Catedral:
Not long after Pablo moved into La Catedral, the purity levels of cocaine on the streets of New York were restored and the prices dropped.
Lawyer Roberto Uribe visited him weekly and found the place growing cozier. At first the living quarters, gymnasium, and cafeteria had seemed like a real prison, but gradually the furnishing became more lavish . . . Anything could be brought in. The prison guards were no more than Pablo's employees, and the army checkpoints just waved Pablo's trucks through . . . To have plenty of cash onhand, Pablo shipped in tightly rolled American hundred-dollar bills in milk cans, which would be buried in the fog of dawn at places around the prison. Two of the cans, each containing at least $1 million, were buried under the soccer field. A bar was installed, with a lounge and a disco. For the gymnasium there was a sauna. Inmates' "cells" were actually more like hotel suites, with living rooms, small kitchens, bedrooms, and bath. Workmen began constructing small, camouflaged cabanas uphill from the main prison. This is where Pablo and the other inmates intended to hide out if La Catedral was ever bombed or invaded. In the meantime, the cabanas made excellent retreats, where the men entertained women privately . . . Food was prepared for them by chefs Pablo hired away from fine restaurants, and once the bar and disco were up and running, he hosted many parties and even wedding receptions . . .
It was not a normal prison in other ways. Pablo, for instance, did not feel obliged to actually stay. He rarely missed an important pro soccer game in Medellin . . . Pablo considered such excursions minor . . . he did after all, always come back. He had made his deal with the state and intended to honor it . . .
It is all too easy to see the similarities between the fictions penned by Garcia-Marquez, the surreal nature of negotiating with terrorists such as Pablo Escobar, and the presumptions of American political elites who believe that by engaging Iran and Syria -- thereby admitting their involvement in Iraq's chaos -- that such chaos might be ended on terms favorable to either the US or Iraq. Such dreams are the stuff of our own variety of magical realism, but rather than resulting in pleasant narrative escapes, they will result in the irrelevance of the United States, whether one means its military power, its national interests, or its once-admired revolutionary Democratic ideals.
Negotiating with Iran and Syria, whilst they hold positions of strength, is likely to be only the first of the magically realist positions that the US political class breathlessly advocates. There will be more, and the ones to follow will be even sillier. In one episode in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the entire village of Macondo succumbs to an incurable insomnia, "the most fearsome part of which," was not "the impossibility of sleeping, for the body did not feel any fatigue at all, but its inexorable evolution toward a more critical manifestation: a loss of memory." Only through painstakingly going throughout the town and painting the names of objects upon them are the villagers able to remedy their memory loss.
With an inked brush he marked everything with its name: table, chair, clock, door, wall, bed, pan. He went to the corral and marked the animals and plants: cow, goat, pig, hen, cassava, caladium, banana. Little by little, studying the infinite possibilities of a loss of memory, he realized that the day might come when things would be recognized by their inscriptions but that no one would remember their use. Then he was more explicit. The sign that he hung on the neck of the cow was an exemplary proof of the way in which inhabitants of Macondo were prepared to fight against loss of memory: This is the cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee in order to make coffee and milk. Thus they went on living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters.While everyone forgets, we can begin to label the things we encounter today in the news, hoping that the values of the letters are not forgotten: evil, enemy, tyranny, appeasement, suicide, madness. The village of Macondo was saved from its insomnia-induced memory loss when a traveling gypsy magician returned from the dead and offered an antidote. Will something similar be conjured from history to redeem us?
November 21, 2006
In the mail: We Were One
"Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah"
Looks pretty good!
November 6, 2006
A Coffin for Dimitrios
While traveling over the weekend I read A Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler. Fans of Alan Furst's spy fiction will love this book. Ambler wrote it in 1939 and it was one of the most popular works he ever wrote.
The premise goes something like this: An Englishman who is a successful writer of detective stories is vacationing in Turkey and has a chance social encounter with the head of the Turkish secret police. While they are discussing another issue entirely, the Turk has to attend to a professional matter: dealing with the death of one Dimitrios, a murderer, spy, assassin, and drug smuggler whose body has just turned up. The writer, who has always written crime fiction, but never really witnessed the underworld up close, is fascinated by Dimitrios' life and decides to trace it on his own out of curiosity . . .
To tell more would begin to spoil things. Hopefully that's enough to whet your appetite. The book was outstanding and I'm adding it to the Adventures of Chester Bookstore. Put it on your Christmas list!
September 21, 2006
The Adventures of Chester Book Club
How many of you readers out there would be interested in participating in a book club? The parameters are:
-would read 1 to 2 books a month
-I would post twice a week or so on each book. Participants would be free to post their own thoughts in the comments to that post.
The first book I'm considering is Sir Robert Thompson's "Defeating Communist Insurgency". If you think you might like to participate, shoot me an email or post a comment here.
I'm just taking a pulse at the moment. Don't go buy the book yet! I'm working on a deal with the publisher. No promises.
August 9, 2006
Interview with Alan Furst
I've conducted a brief interview with Alan Furst, who has written several superb spy novels set in pre-WWII Europe. The interview is now up over at TCSDaily.
Furst's own site is www.alanfurst.net.
I have to tell the story of how this came about, cause it's pretty neat.
Mrs. Chester dragged me shopping one day and I ducked into a Borders in need of a reprieve. Browsing around, I moseyed over to the Mystery/Suspense section to look for Furst's new book, The Foreign Correspondent.
I couldn't find it, so I went to the help desk. There, I saw a stack of copies, along with the entire inventory of everything else they had in stock by Furst. "Are these all on hold?" I asked the staff. "No, we've set them aside because he's supposed to come in today and sign them. He's supposed to be here any minute."
Well, this was cool! So soon enough Mr. Furst did arrive and signed a copy for me. I went and sat down in the cafe. Then a thought occurred to me: why not a blog interview? I asked him and he agreed immediately, saying he loves reading blogs.
Anyway, I thought that was very kind of him and a pretty cool little backstory.
Furst's novels are truly fascinating. You feel as though you are really in Europe right before all hell breaks loose. And in some cases after it's broken loose too.
My favorite is Night Soldiers, probably because it's a bit longer than the others, which means all the more intrigue:
I've also read The World at Night and Dark Voyage:
Those were both excellent as well. When reading these works, the scope and depth of the changes that were afoot in Europe really begins to dawn on the reader. Most interestingly perhaps is that everyone seems to know that war is coming . . .
Loyal Readers here at Adventures will probably enjoy any of Furst's novels. Go check out the interview too.
UPDATE: Here's a previous post that references his work as well: Through The Looking Glass.
June 22, 2006
Prairie Pundit Review of Cobra II
Prairie Pundit has posted a review of Cobra II in which he takes the authors to task for several different reasons, namely, its description of the Fedayeen, troop strength debates, and descriptions of intelligence work at the operational level. As they say, read the whole thing, especially if you are considering buying it.
I can personally vouch for one of Prairie Pundit's criticisms:
In fact the Centcom staff and Franks came up with pretty good way of eliminating a large part of the Fedayeen on the way to Baghdad that Trainor and Gordon, again, do not even discuss. The intelligence analyst noticed that the Fedayeen would come back from their attacks and "puddle" around Baath Party headquaters or Iraqi intelligence offices in the towns along the route. Franks told the staff to bomb those buildings when the "puddles" were at their maximum. Reports on these attacks were usually limited to just saying that the building had been destroyed, because we did not want to tip the Fedayeen and let them know why we happened to bomb those building when we did. The authors never discuss this tactic of dealing with the enemy and write as if the Fedayeen survived to start the insurgency.Prairie Pundit is exactly right. Sitting in our ops tents one day in Nasiriyah right after the invasion, I was checking the MEF's Significant Events page, chronologically listing important things that were happening throughout the MEF's battlespace, along with a standard date-time group. At one point, something like this came up on an update:
SOF TM REPORTS 500 FEDAYEEN FIGHTERS CONVERGING ON SOCCER STADIUM IN AD-DIWANIYAH, GC XXXXXXXXAbout half an hour later, this was followed up with this:
SOF CONFIRMS DIWANIYAH SOCCER STADIUM DESTROYED WITH CLUSTER MUNITIONS @ DTG XXXXXXXLater, when my unit moved to Diwaniyah, I had an opportunity to visit the soccer stadium as part of a team sent to find humanitarian projects in the city which my engineer battalion might have been able to perform. Needless to say, the stadium was pretty screwed up (I may even have a picture of that somewhere . . .).
Anyhow, see Prairie Pundit's review for further discussion.
April 18, 2006
Bloggers as news-fixated mavens
Some time ago, I ran across what might be called an obituary for bloggers in the Financial Times. Here are some of the takeaway lines:
. . . but blogging in the US is not reflective of the kind of deep social and political change that lay behind the alternative press in the 1960s. Instead, its dependency on old media for its material brings to mind Swift’s fleas sucking upon other fleas “ad infinitum”: somewhere there has to be a host for feeding to begin. That blogs will one day rule the media world is a triumph of optimism over parasitism . . .Well that was quite a buzzkill. But it seems to make a number of assumptions about blogging that perhaps aren't quite true: that bloggers are seeking careers as bloggers, and aren't just enjoying themselves; that the infinitessimally short half-life of a blog post renders it meaningless in the grand scheme of things (even more so than journalism); that if blogs don't replace traditional journalism, they have failed, and so forth . . .
. . . Blogging will no doubt always have a place as an underground medium in closed societies; but for those in the west trying to blog their way into viable businesses, the economics are daunting . . .
. . . The dismal traffic numbers also point to another little trade secret of the blogosphere, and one missed by Judge Posner and all the other blog-evangelists when they extol the idea that blogging allows thousands of Tom Paines to bloom. As Ana Marie Cox says: “When people talk about the liberation of the armchair pajamas media, they tend to turn a blind eye to the fact that the voices with the loudest volume in the blogosphere definitely belong to people who have experience writing. They don’t have to be experienced journalists necessarily, but they write - part of their professional life is to communicate clearly in written words.”
. . . Which brings us to the spectre haunting the blogosphere - tedium. If the pornography of opinion doesn’t leave you longing for an eroticism of fact, the vast wasteland of verbiage produced by the relentless nature of blogging is the single greatest impediment to its seriousness as a medium . . .
. . . And that, in the end, is the dismal fate of blogging: it renders the word even more evanescent than journalism; yoked, as bloggers are, to the unending cycle of news and the need to post four or five times a day, five days a week, 50 weeks of the year, blogging is the closest literary culture has come to instant obsolescence. No Modern Library edition of the great polemicists of the blogosphere to yellow on the shelf; nothing but a virtual tomb for a billion posts - a choric song of the word-weary bloggers, forlorn mariners forever posting on the slumberless seas of news.
To the economic criticism, I'd say this: thus far, in most, if not all cases, I think bloggers have made money almost tangentially to the actual work of blogging. Making money is in other words, not the raison d^etre of most blogs, but make a little of it many do, often without trying too much, or at all. There aren't many other human activities where financial rewards (however modest) can be gained from decidedly unfinancial pursuits (readers are welcome to submit counterexamples). When I was on a panel about blogging in New York last fall, I knew what all the journos wanted to know: were any of us making any dough or not? Although it's a faux pas to discuss such things, I told them that with little effort whatsoever I'd made around $2000 in a year from all sources (Amazon links, Google Ads, BlogAds, and donations), which I considered to be not so bad for a hobby. Compare it to baseball card collecting, or hot air ballooning, or bowling if you like. Mrs. Chester is a soon-to-be MD and devours her US Weekly every week. Celebrity trivia is her escape. Mine is thinking about the big stuff. I've never taken out a single ad, and as far as I know, few bloggers have. If Pajamas Media is doing financially well, then that speaks very highly of the medium: have they even placed a single ad on, say, AOL?
But beyond all those petty economic considerations, I think the idea that bloggers will fail unless they replace newspapers is ill-conceived. Those searching for signs of that outcome will certainly be disappointed. No, something else is happening . . . but what?
Glenn Reynolds points to a Guardian article which notes something curious, since as we've read above, blogs have already peaked:
Bloggers and internet pundits are exerting a "disproportionately large influence" on society, according to a report by a technology research company. Its study suggests that although "active" web users make up only a small proportion of Europe's online population, they are increasingly dominating public conversations and creating business trends . . .How to square this with the Financial Times piece above?
Although unprompted contributors are generally younger and more vocal than the wider online population, they are increasingly important as opinion formers and trend-setters. Mr Smith says businesses, media organisations and advertisers reading blogs should be wary of making assumptions about their wider significance, but that their muscle cannot be ignored.
The immensely popular book The Tipping Point identifies three types of people who are necessary for ideas to spread: salesmen, connectors, and mavens. Salesmen are, well, good at selling a given idea. Connectors are people who know a variety of other people, disproportionate to the rest of the population. Think of that one person in your workplace who knows everyone, or the friend you have who has always been good at networking and is never shy to meet new people and make the most tenuous of encounters last -- these are connectors. According to Malcolm Gladwell, the author, mavens are those who by nature are very opinionated about everything. They hold strong opinions about the big, the small, the great events of the day, and even the trivial. According to Gladwell, ideas begin to spread when mavens recommend them because regular folk know that a maven has special knowledge of his topic(s). (Ideas also spread when salesmen sell them or when connectors spread them.)
A maven may be opinionated and knowledgable about many things or only a few things. He might be a crank or a busybody, or a pleasant fellow who just loves to talk about one certain thing. Those around him know him as a maven. Gladwell's example is of the day he spends with a certain professor at the Univ. of Texas business school, who has recommendations on what restaurant they should visit, asks the waiter to move them to a better table, and if memory serves, gives recommendations on automobiles to Gladwell during their lunch.
A long time ago, I read an inflight magazine article about the Weather Channel. The network had done detailed marketing research into its audience. It found that a large number of viewers just wanted to know about the weather in their area -- while they got ready for work or school, for example. Another very large number were
curious to know what the weather was like in areas where they had family or close friends. But the largest group by far fell into a category that they called "weather-fixated." They just loved watching the weather channel and learning about weather in all its forms. They were weather fixated.
Bloggers are news-fixated mavens. This explains our outsized influence on the rest of the world. The vast majority of people don't visit RealClearPolitics or Instapundit 20 times a day, or keep track of the intricacies of whatever it is that we keep track of. Mrs. Chester and I have this conversation a lot: most people just don't care that much about all this stuff. They just live their lives -- quite happily -- and only delve into current events occasionally, or with the shallowest sustained involvement. There's nothing wrong with this. They aren't mavens.
I'd say bloggers represent the 2% of the population who are news-fixated mavens. Blog readers who don't write themselves are perhaps another 10-20%. They are much better informed than the rest of the public and pride themselves on it. And when the rest of the uninterested public needs an opinion, they turn to those who pride themselves on their opinions.
It's no wonder then that blogs are having an unusual impact upon opinions and opinion-making. If you know of this crazy guy who always thinks and reads and writes about cauliflower, 99% of the time you are going to ignore him. But if there ever comes a time when you desperately, urgently need detailed information about cauliflower, then you certainly know where to find him.
My hypothesis is that a similar dynamic is at work with the blogosphere.
I once had a boss at work -- you know, the kind of guy who skims USA Today every morning for five minutes -- come up to my cube and ask me what I thought about Iraq. As I explained it to Bill Roggio in an email later, I gave my boss the "10-minute Western Anbar treatment." Not sure if he walked away informed, confused, or just thinking, "wow, I won't make that mistake again." But if he ever needs to know more, he knows where to find me.
October 23, 2005
[I've decided to continue what I've done the past couple of Sundays: review a book or two. So here are this week's reviews . . . UPDATE: Some of the Amazon links may be screwy below, as in displaying the wrong product. Sometimes it takes a few minutes for them to set themselves just right. I'll see what I can do.]
This week's theme is intelligence agencies.
Mrs. Chester loves to watch Alias, the ABC tv show, purportedly about the CIA, but really about a bunch of yahoos that chase shadowy cult-like worshippers of some would-be Nostradamus figure around the globe. At this point in its airing, it's really turned into more of a soap opera than anything else. No terrorism, no Al Qaeda, no Muslims. Here we are in what is widely deemed a "generational conflict" with militant Islam and ABC can't even include it in a show about the CIA? Forget it. Well, at least Jennifer Garner is easy on the eyes.
I have similar misgivings about the Fox series 24. I've only watched a few episodes, but it seems to rely more on soap opera plot devices, and outlandish terror plots, than anything comparable to what might actually be happening today. At least it includes Islam here and there. Nothing too memorable overall though.
The BBC TV series MI-5 however, is fantastic. This summer, when my hard-drive crashed and I was without a computer for nearly a month, I got pretty bored. So, having discovered MI-5 on the A&E network in the fall of 2003, and then always wondering why they quit showing it, I ordered it from Amazon. The first season was so good, I made short work of it and ordered the second season. Even better! I love this show!
MI-5 tells the stories of several members of the British Intelligence Service, known as MI-5, or 5. There is just enough of a blend of character development and outstanding plot work to make you come back for more and more. The IRA, Al Qaeda, criminal organizations, all the bad guys who are . . . well, who actually exist, are included. Moreover, it contains all manner of ideas that ring true: bureaucratic turf wars with MI-6, bureaucratic turf wars with the US, bureaucratic turf wars with Scotland Yard, the many pitfalls that may befall one in the line of duty, the ways that being an intelligence officer is corrupting of one's personal life, of one's confidences, and ultimately, of one's morals.
One of the episodes in the second season foretells the London bombings of this summer. The creators do not pull punches in their portrayal of militant Islam within England, and that particular episode, which I watched in late July, was chilling when compared to the public statements of some supporters of the 7/7 bombers.
Even better: if you saw some of the episodes on A&E, you'll still get your money's worth because the original BBC versions run without commercials for 59 minutes, and had to be edited for American TV. So there's 15 minutes in each episode that you've missed out on.
Thus far, there's only been one minor detail that I would quibble with: the effective blast radius of one block of C4. I think they made it a little larger than it should be. But that's really pretty minor, eh?
I can't recommend this series enough. I don't think there's anyone who visits this website who wouldn't enjoy it. Even if it's way off the mark as to how MI-5 really is, and I doubt that . . . it's still good enough for me. Season 3 comes out January 31st! Can't wait for that!
Gideon's Spies:The Secret History of the Mossad is entertaining, and certainly does its best to cover all the bases: the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, the death of Princess Di, the Iran-Contra scandal, the Gulf War, the Munich Olympics, Robert Maxwell, the Israeli nuke program, the spy in the Clinton White House, etc etc etc. So there are few stones left unturned. But as to whether it's all true . . . I seriously doubt it. There's just too much here that counts as circumstantial evidence, or speculation. The author does seem to have garnered quite a few high-level interviews though, and used those to the best of his ability to piece things together. But I'm still left wondering. In the end, I dont' trust it, though I was entertained. If nothing else, it serves as a primer for the types of intelligence collection and covert action that might have surrounded a variety of key international events during the cold war. At worst its a pack of entertaining half-truths. So that's not too bad.
The work needed better editing. There are flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. When returning to where the author started a certain sequence, the reader is left wondering if all the background hindered his understanding of what's taking place. The author frequently uses poor analogies to illuminate the thinking of agents as well, which are painful to read.
One interesting tidbit: the Mossad supposedly keeps track of a large number of "sayanim" who are not agents, or operatives, just Jews all over the world who can be called upon to help out if needed. People working in customs, or shipping, for example. I thought this was an interesting concept. Distributed intelligence-gathering you might say.
All told, there are probably better books out there about espionage in general, but this one is at least entertaining.
Here's the disclaimer: I haven't finished Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy yet. Here's why: I can't stand it. The only reason to buy this book is to learn a small bit about the training regimen at The Farm, where new operatives are trained. Other than that, forget it. I don't think I've ever read a more whiny memoir, and I hope to never have to. The author is just plain awful . . . she is an insult to her profession and institution. Thank goodness she no longer works there. That's all the ink I'm wasting on this one. If you must know more, read some of the Amazon reviews.
More reviews next week!
October 3, 2005
Go buy this immediately . . .
. . . if you want an honest, well-written, thoughtful account of life as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps:
Fantastic. Superb. There is no whitewashing. It's all there, warts and all. Pick it up in the sidebar if you are so inclined. I bought it on Friday and finished Sunday afternoon. I loved this book. Time is short and I cannot review it in full. But it took me back. The last few dozen pages took me about four hours cause I took so many notes and found myself staring out the window frequently, remembering Iraq. Phenomenal. Outstanding. Here's another link:
April 12, 2005
A couple of new books in the sidebar
I recently polished off two great books about internet businesses, "The PayPal Wars" and "Under the Radar." I've just linked them in the sidebar and highly recommend each for anyone interested.