Category Archives: Book Review

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy (Book Review)

The Crossing, the second book in Cormac McCarthy’s the Border trilogy, continues the trend of self-reflection in the aftermath of grief. All 3 books may be depressing in some instances, but this also gives them room to engage in lots of soul-searching reflection on the meaning of life.

In All the Pretty Horses we followed a young love struck protagonist into Mexico and marvelled as he made wrong decision after wrong decision as he allowed his boyish impulses guide him. For most our years of teenage rebellion pass with nothing more serious than the occasional telling off by an adult, but for John Grady his adventures lead him from prison to a stint as an outlaw trying to outrun the Mexican authorities. He is made to pay for every wrong turn instigated by his obstreperousness.

In the Crossing, however, we have a new cowboy in the shape of Billy Parham. Parham is as different from Grady as oil is from water. Both are cowboys, a dying breed in their times (around the Second World War), but where Grady only thinks with his heart and passions Parham on the contrary seems to be the level headed one, a characteristic perplexingly lost to him at the early stage of the novel when he makes a decision to go into Mexico.

Let’s backtrack for a moment and start from the beginning of the story: Billy is with his younger brother Boyd, who is more like Grady in that he is headstrong and capricious, when they meet a mysterious Indian on their way home – a humble homestead where their dad keeps horses. In a scene reminiscent of the opening of Great Expectations, the Indian asks for some food but then starts to dig for information on the family, do they have dogs out at night at their home etc. Billy is dubious but polite to the man and promises to bring him something to eat.

Meanwhile, the livestock starts to suffer when a pregnant wolf starts hunting them. Billy and his father set out to hunt the wolf with traps, but the wolf, smart as it is, evades all their attempts to catch her. Soon enough Billy goes out by himself in the middle of winter to try and eventually nabs her only to then feel pity for the animal.
It’s at this stage that he doesn’t think with his head, as I suggested earlier. Inexplicably, Billy decides to return the wolf to her home country and starts off on his journey to Mexico, crossing the border and continuing on toward the distant snow-capped mountains.
On his journey he meets with a country devastated by war where he as a white man is immediately conspicuous and is by turns both marvelled at and despised, especially by those who’ve taken up arms. On the other hand he will find with the ordinary citizenry, who’ve often found themselves displaced by all the fighting – he’ll find kindness and people who share what little food and shelter they have happily.

It’s this contrast of kindness and wickedness through his journey that makes for such a riveting story. Billy is still a teenager but has for all intents and purposes he’s adopted his captured wolf and is strongly attached to it and is highly motivated to return her to the wilderness.

He makes for a striking figure, this cowboy on a horse and leading a wolf by a rope, and then he meets with some armed men who want to buy the wolf off him. Billy refuses. By and by the wolf is stolen and Billy, still feeling a strong sense of responsibility toward the animal goes out in search for it and finds her being used roughly to entertain the locals in dogfights. The scene is brutal and Billy is helpless in the face of such callousness.

Finally he returns to America and finds his home desolate. Knowing a great tragedy has occurred he goes out in search for answers. Boyd is staying with some neighbours and he finds out that they were robbed and both his parents were killed, most likely by the Indian he and Boyd met with at the start.

Both orphans now decide to go after their father’s stolen horses. They cross the border, now Billy’s second time, and consequently come upon their horses and manage to take them back after a gunfight. Then as they start heading for home they come upon a beautiful young girl who is obviously in trouble.

Boyd convinces Billy to rescue her and together all 3 continue on. But while Boyd, recalcitrant and difficult to reason with, is enamoured by the girl, who is a revolutionary in the war, Billy is left to watch helplessly as his brother falls in love with her despite his warnings against it. Boyd is then shot through the chest by pursuing gunmen, leaving Billy to carry his dying brother on his horse in an attempt to get away.

He comes upon labourers in a truck, and when it seems his pursuers will not let up with their quest to capture he and Boyd, Billy hands over his brother to the men and rides in a different direction to lead off the gunmen.

After he shakes off their pursuers Billy comes upon a cabin where he meets a blind man and his wife. They talk about the nature of misfortune. The wife tells the story of her husband and how he came to be blinded by a vicious attack while in custody as a Prisoner of War. She goes on to say he wandered in his new darkness and came to a town where he met her, recently enduring her own misfortune and grieving for her father and brothers who were executed along with all the men in her village in a war where so many of the locals have lost so much.

She then goes on to tell of meeting a priest at the cemetery where she’s come to pay her respects and this priest discusses the unfairness of life. Just like the author of Ecclesiastes he reflects on how the wicked seemingly prosper in their wickedness, and, contrary to what is expected, also live long lives, while others die young. The priest advises her to keep her dead family in her memory for in her heart is where they should reside.

Her blind husband then speaks, and says that he believes the priest doesn’t see the whole picture and therefore his judgement is incomplete. He advises that life instead, rather than have you hold on to misfortune, actually demands you start over again. “For the world to survive it must be replenished daily. This man will be required to begin again whether he wishes to or not.”
In his third crossing over the border Billy, now fully rested from his ordeal in Mexico, goes back to look for his brother. He finds that Boyd recovered from his gunshot wound but then went on to join the revolutionary, the girl they’d rescued before, and was consequently shot dead.

Billy goes for his brother’s remains but again finds it impossible in a country much different from what he has been used to, for the locals have adopted Boyd, who they see as a freedom fighter, as their own and won’t allow his bones to be removed. In other words he now belongs to the people.

Billy, refusing to leave Boyd alone to rest in a foreign land, steals the bones from the graveyard, but is then tracked by locals who stab his horse in the chest. Here he meets kindness again in the form of a local healer who nurses the horse back to some semblance of health.
Billy returns to the United States, broken and destitute with no family and no money to speak of. It’s a different place from where he’s just come from. Now he needs money for basics where as in Mexico he was welcomed into any home, no matter how poor, to share what little they had to offer. But it’s also much safer from violent men and revolutionaries, and even as he reflects on his misfortune, probably considering the words of the blind man, whether to carry the dead in his heart or start over as life demands, he sees a dog, beat up, and not unlike the wolf that started his adventures not so long ago.

Billy shoos the dog away and is mean to it. He’s apparently changed – he will not help this poor creature like he did the wolf and be drawn into something he’ll have no control over. But change is hard and certainly in this situation not called for. He realises he’s wrong and goes out to look for the wounded dog to make amends. Upon not finding it he finally breaks down and weeps.

The Broken Sword – Book Review

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The Myth

In C.S Lewis’ God in The Dock the author explains of myth, “…the only realities we experience are concrete – this pain, this pleasure, this dog, this man. While we are loving the man, bearing the pain, enjoying the pleasure, we are not intellectually apprehending Pleasure, Pain or Personality… You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyse the nature of humour while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things?” He goes on to answer: “Of this tragic dilemma myth is the partial solution. In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.

From fantasy-faction.com
From fantasy-faction.com

The fantasy genre has time and again tried to help us experience as concrete otherwise abstract ideas. Take the most popular example The Lord of the Rings and you’ll immediately see not just how fine a story it is but also what this story might be trying to teach us. There have been arguments over the years on just how these stories should be read: should they be read as mere allegories, or should they be seen as simple stories that should just be enjoyed with no intended meanings lent to them. Is Frodo for example a picture of Christ or is he just Frodo – a construct of Tolkien’s mind, a hobbit alone?

Poul Anderson: Author of The Broken Sword

Over the years different authors have had different approaches to this, some leaning towards the power of the metaphor, others just towards telling a cracking tale with no moral or social commentaries attached. The Broken Sword was one of the originals, one of the first in modern fantasy; written by Poul Anderson – born of Scandinavian parents in 1926 in Pennsylvania, America – and published in 1954.

In Anderson’s foreword (The Broken Sword, Gollancz, 2002) the author seems to describe himself more as a historian, who won’t judge the truth or falsity of the tales he sets down, and less as a scientist or philosopher.

Anderson comments, “This is frankly a romance, a story of admittedly impossible events and completely non-existent places. Whether or not it is true must be settled by those scientists who argue the reliability of the annals of the faerie and those philosophers who are trying to settle what truth itself may be… For the benefit of the curious, however, it should be remarked that such parts of the story as deal with purely human beings are as accurate as the scanty records permit.

The authors of fantasy themselves may differ in their approaches to this genre and so inevitably will their readers. Whether you think fantasy tales should just simply be enjoyed as stories with no intellectual aspirations or you prefer to ponder deeper and regard them as allegories on life, stories like The Broken Sword will continue to entertain us for years to come.

The Story of The Broken Sword

Orm the Strong is fifth son of a great landowner. He decides early on to leave his inheritance to his brothers to prevent dividing their father’s sizable property. Orm instead goes out to look for his own fortune, saying to his brothers, “I will not be fifth man at the rudder, and so I will make you this offer: give me three ships, and outfit them, and supply arms to all who will follow me, and I will find my own land and quit all claim on our father’s.” (The Broken Sword, 2002, Gollancz)

He sets out, conquering at sea and acquiring more ships and more men to sail with him. Then he finally heads to land to seek a place of his own. The reckless Orm surrounds an Englander’s dwelling and burns it, killing the man, his brother’s and most of his household. But the Englander’s mother is a witch and survives the tragedy. She lays a curse on Orm that “his eldest son should be fostered beyond the world of men, while Orm should in turn foster a wolf that would one day rend him.” (The Broken Sword, 2002, Gollancz)

And so the story goes on to see Imric the elf-earl steal Orm’s newborn after spying the child suckling at his mother’s breast. To cover his tracks and prevent any from knowing what he’s done the elf-earl has a child of his own with a captured troll and replaces the human child with the changeling. The changeling looks exactly like Orm’s true son and no one notices the crime. He is called Valgard while Imric’s new foster child goes by the name Scafloc.

They both grow up to be powerful warriors, but while Scafloc does well with his new elf family Valgard is always ill tempered, and hated by everyone except Orm who overlooks his violence.

When the witch sees that Orm’s true son, Scafloc (now fostered by the elves), is prospering with Imric the elf-earl she decides to take her vengeance further. From his hunting, she lures Orm’s second son Ketil into a secluded house in the middle of a forest where she bewitches him with her love. Meanwhile his family begin to get worried when he doesn’t come back home and send out parties to look for him. Valgard, his brother (not his real one), preferring to work alone goes out in search on his own. He finds Ketil with a beautiful woman (the witch in disguise) and jealousy makes him want her for himself. They fight and Valgard comes off the better, burying his axe in his younger brother’s head.

He is in despair after he comes to his senses and hides the body. He goes back home and says to everyone that his search was fruitless. But Asmund, the last of Orm’s sons, does not believe him and goes in search himself. He discovers his brother’s body and brings it back home where he accuses Valgard of the murder.

Valgard kills him and when Orm moves in to avenge both his sons’ deaths Valgard also kills him. He then flees back into the forest to be with the witch, since now he has become a vagabond with no friends and family.

Now the witch reveals her true nature and also who Valgard really is – that he is the true son of the elf-earl, Imric, who substituted him for Orm’s real child, Scafloc. Enraged, Orm wants to kill her, but she convinces him to turn his rage instead on everyone else – on Orm’s family, because as it turns out they aren’t his real family anyway, and on the elves for using him the way they did. She then sets Valgard on a journey to make an alliance with the trolls who are enemies of the elves. It is in this alliance that he’ll find strength to destroy his enemies.

With nothing but sadness and bitterness in his heart concerning how he’s been used, Valgard takes the witch’s advice to see the trolls for an alliance. But first he must take the troll king, Illrede, gifts. He decides to use his sisters, Orm’s last 2 children, Asgerd and Freda, reasoning that they aren’t his real sisters anyway. He kidnaps them, killing the rest of Orm’s household, except his adopted mother, Aelfrida, Orm’s now widowed wife.

Valgard takes both his sisters to the troll King but then Scafloc, foster of the elves, attacks the troll stronghold – it’s just a routine campaign and a coincidence (one orchestrated by the hateful witch who cursed Orm) that he should attack the same place his sisters are being held.

During their escape Asgerd dies and thus Freda becomes the last (so she thinks) of Orm’s children. But she falls in love with her rescuer, Scafloc, and he seems to ameliorate her otherwise tumultuous life. And so the witch’s diabolical plan starts to reap its fruit at the union of Orm’s children.

 Tyrfing, The Broken Sword of Jötunheim

The trolls, meanwhile, make alliances with other races: dwarfs, imps, goblins, and winged demons from Baikal, and amass a force against the elves. Scafloc and his new love, Freda, thus find themselves in the middle of a great war. The elves are all but conquered and Imric captured and put in chains while Scafloc has no other option but to go into exile with Freda, leaving his doppelganger, Valgard, to reign over his captured lands.

Then Scafloc decides to use a sword that’s in the middle of the war between the Aesir and Jötun – mythical Norse gods. Tyrfing is that sword and it will turn the tables on the trolls. But the sword is evil and it is broken. So Scafloc sets out to Jötunheim, to the ice giant Bölverk who forged it. Bölverk repairs the sword but warns that the sword must draw blood whenever it’s unsheathed. So Scafloc sets back out to reclaim elf land.

Both he and Freda discover their true relationship as brother and sister, not husband and wife, and Freda, already overly burdened with the death of her family, flees from him. Scafloc, embittered, then engages in a bitter war against the trolls to reclaim all elf lands. He drives the trolls out of the land, in the process killing the troll king, Illrede, and setting his impaled head as his army’s standard.

In the final battle he surrounds Elfheugh, the last bastion of the troll’s defence in elf land, and confronts his dark double, the changeling, Valgard. This sets the scene for the final tragedy to be played out and the witch’s vengeance to be completed.

 Fans of Fantasy

Veterans of Fantasy will want to read this if they haven’t already, and it will also be a good one for newbies who may have finished Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicle of Narnia series and want some more books to read in this exciting genre. According to Michael Moorcock it’s “One of the most influential fantasy novels I ever read.” You can’t go far wrong if you add this to your reading list.

Sources: The Broken Sword (Poul Anderson, 2002, Gollancz. Originally published in 1954), God in The Dock (C.S. Lewis, 1971, Geoffrey Bles, London, This edition by Fount Paperbacks), The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R Tolkien), The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis)
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All the Pretty Horses (Book Review)

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Warning! This is a story of exhilarating and dangerous puppy love: John Grady Cole is sixteen and a cowboy who knows and loves horses. Grady’s grandfather dies and the ranch he was born on is to be sold.

Grady decides he’d rather be a cowboy in the wilds of Mexico where he can continue to work with horses than go into the city to look for work. Without saying goodbye to his dad, who’s sick, possibly from lung cancer, Grady leaves with his best friend Lacey Rawlins who’s just one year older than he is.

Together they leave the United States and cross into Mexico where they marvel at the beauty and wildness of the untamed countryside. As they ride they are soon aware that they’re being followed. They try to shake their tail, but whoever it is he’s persistent and he won’t give up the chase.

Finally, they get down from their horses and lay in wait for their pursuer only to discover a kid – just 13 years at most. His name’s Jimmy Belvins and he’s riding a handsome bay horse, which they guess must be stolen. Belvins swears it’s not, that the horse is well and truly his.

However, Rawlins has a dark portent of what allowing this child to accompany them might actually mean for them in the end and he doesn’t hide his distaste for the kid who also just happens to be a marvellous shot with a colt gun that also seems (along with the horse) to be too fine a thing for him to own and which he also insists he did not steal.

They continue to travel south and run into a severe storm that leaves the Belvins kid shell-shocked. Stripping down to the skin he runs in the rain insisting he has bad luck with storms and that he’s sure to be struck by lightning. He runs off and they continue on alone.

When the storm passes they find Belvins limping with only one shoe on. The horse, it turns out, ran away with his things and his gun. Belvins begs them to go into town to search for his property. Rawlins has a bad idea about that plan. Something about the kid just doesn’t add up. But Grady decides they should help and together they go into town. Sure enough Belvins finds his horse, which is now in the hands of somebody else, and with no way to prove it’s his horse.

Impatient, and against advice, Belvins steals the horse back. They all ride out with the men of the town in hot pursuit. Finally Belvins insists on separating from the other two to throw their pursuers off. He rides off leaving them alone. For the moment it seems fate has finally removed him from their lives.

Grady and Rawlins head further south where they come upon a hacienda and get a meal and ingratiate themselves with the owner of the Ranch, a Mexican aristocrat, Don Hector, when Grady shows him how good he is with horses. Don Hector is impressed by Grady’s understanding of horses and makes him a breeder and sets him to breeding some wild horses.

But Grady falls in love with the aristocrat’s beautiful daughter, Alejandra, and they both start an affair. Meanwhile, Alejandra’s grandaunt, Alfonsa, becomes aware of the affair and summons Grady to her quarters.

They dine together where she reveals her past to him, that she also was wild and untamed like Alejandra and was also a romantic and also fell in love with the wrong man – a Mexican revolutionary who fought during the civil war. She cautions him: falling in love with the wrong man in Mexico is an unforgivable act. Her family had prevented her own marriage to her lover and rather than sympathise with her great niece she’ll instead oppose their union.

Grady, though, is completely enamoured by Alejandra and can’t break himself free from her enchantment. Rawlins, meanwhile, begs Grady to get over his infatuation, there’ll be no good to come of it. But Grady is unable to, and refuses to forget about her.

Don Hector, when made aware of his daughter’s salacious rendezvous with his employer, takes Grady out among the horses and for a moment it looks like he’ll take matters into his own hands and kill the young man. In the end he relents and opts instead to hand him over to the corrupt the Mexican authorities who take both Grady and Rawlins away to prison where they’re tortured.

In the prison they’re reunited with Belvins. He also has been severely tortured and it seems his spirit has been broken. After he’d left them it turns out he went back to the town to get back his colt gun and was captured, but not before killing a man.

The captain of the unit, an amoral man known as Raul, tells the young men that the only way for them to get out of their predicament is with a bribe. Seeing that they are American he assumes he’ll make a killing from getting them, or their families back in America, to pay for their freedom.

Grady and Rawlins, both broke themselves, tell the captain that they have no money and that they come from poor homes back in America and no one will be able to pay a ransom for them.

Raul is unimpressed by their protestations and decides to move them to a bigger prison where the hardships there are likely to cause them to rethink their position on bribing him. On the journey to the prison the company stops to rest at an abandoned ranch. Raul has taken a bribe from a relative of the man Belvins killed and both Grady and Rawlins watch on helplessly as the young boy is taken away and shot dead.

Their journey ends at the prison, which is a no-holds-barred-free-for-all cesspit of the worst criminals Mexico has to offer. Grady and Rawlins stay together, but are harried and beaten severely over their first few days there. And just as they would give up hope they’re summoned by Perez, a wealthy and influential prisoner who advises that money is the only thing likely to save their lives. They refuse to pay him for their lives.

Then Rawlins is stabbed – presumable on Perez’s orders – and he’s dragged off immediately so that Grady doesn’t even know if he’s alive or dead. It seems the whole prison has their eyes set on killing both Americans. Now Grady knows it’s his turn and he steels himself for the inevitable encounter with death, which seems to be on every corner of that godforsaken place.

Grady acquires a shiv as a weapon. When the attack finally comes he’s in the cafeteria. Grady barely survives the brutal encounter and manages to kill the assassin. He’s taken to the prison hospital to recuperate where he’s reunited with Rawlins who it turns out is still alive.

As they recover from their wounds they both agonize over going back where their chances of surviving for a second time will most certainly be unlikely. Then they’re released suddenly and are left to ponder why.

Grady can guess who was responsible for paying for their release. Still stubborn, and still hopelessly in love, he makes up his mind to go back to the hacienda. Rawlins for his part has had his fill of their Mexican adventure and though it pains him he can’t continue on with his friend – he’s simply had enough.

Grady heads back for the ranch where he confronts Alfonsa. As he’d suspected it was she who’d paid for their release, but only after Alejandra had begged her and only on condition she never see John Grady Cole again.

Angry, Grady leaves in search for Alejandra. When he finds her they spend one more passionate night together, but that will be the last time they are together. Alejandra can’t or won’t leave her family. Her aunty and father’s hold on her is too strong and she refuses to run away with Grady.

Left alone and with nothing left to lose Grady goes back in search of his horses and maybe a little retribution for his suffering. His, Belvins, and Rawlins’ horses are with the captain and his men. Grady confronts him, and after a shootout in which he’s shot he takes the captain prisoner, and then he’s chased across the Mexican countryside.

Grady considers killing the captain for the things he and Rawlins were made to suffer and for killing Belvins and just to be rid of him to make his escape easier, but in the end he doesn’t, and he comes upon some Mexicans who take the captain off his hands as their prisoner.

Grady is now free to return to Texas where he searches for Belvins’ family to return his horse. But no one knows Belvins and no one will take ownership of the horse. Then some men claim the horse is theirs and it was stolen from them. Grady is arrested and when he consequently stands trial he recounts his incredible story and everyone in court is mesmerised by the telling of his adventure.

Finally, the judge, who can’t believe anyone could fabricate such a story, rules in his favour and the horse is given back to him. Grady, though, can’t shake off all the evil that’s been done to him and that he himself has also done and seeks restitution. He goes back to the judge, this time seeking him in his house. They speak.

The judge asks him if anything he said in court was the truth and Grady confirms everything he’d told was the truth to which the judge consoles the young man:

Son, he said, you strike me as someone that maybe tends to be a little hard on theirselves. I think from what you told me you done real well to get out of there with a whole hide. Maybe the best thing to do might be just to go on and put it behind you. My daddy used to tell me not to chew on something that was eatin you.

Yessir.

There’s somethin else, ain’t there?

Yessir.

What is it?

When I was in the penitentiary down there I killed a boy.

The judge sat back in his chair. Well, he said. I’m sorry to hear that.

It keeps botherin me.

You must have had some provocation.

I did. But it don’t help. He tried to kill me with a knife. I just happened to get the best of him.

Grady leaves and resumes his search for Belvins’ horse’s owner. When he still doesn’t find the rightful owner he goes back to his own town and is reunited temporarily with Rawlins who confirms Grady’s dad is dead. Grady says he figured this was so as he had a premonition.

The last lines of the novel show Grady attending the funeral of one of his family’s lifelong employees. It seems all that would tie him to this country is now gone. As he’d said earlier when Rawlins had tried to convince him to stay, saying, “this is still good country.” Grady had replied, “Yeah. I know it is. But it ain’t my country.”

Then, riding on Belvins’ horse, he just goes on.

Style

The style is consistent with other McCarthy novels: the omission of quotation marks, the distinctive Southern American slang, and the use of polysyndetons, that is the repetitive use of conjunctions in a sentence.

Themes

Again, in keeping with McCarthy’s style, there is a deeply religious subtext and discussions of sin and wickedness. As with his other works it almost seems as if bad things happen to people until they take responsibilities for their bad actions. These themes are, however, not given as primary a role as other novels – the primary thing here is the romance between Grady and Alejandra.

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The Way of the World by Ron Suskind (Book Review)

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With all the competition from modern news outlets like twitter where information is doled out piecemeal and with such breathtaking pace as to make it almost impossible to verify the validity of sources traditional journalism has suffered and would seem a dead craft but for investigative journalists like Ron Suskind who seem to have carried on where legendary Watergate investigators Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein left off.

The Way of the World is Suskind’s 2008 book, which looks particularly at the Bush administration’s alleged reckless machinations as they made a case for going to war in Iraq. Amongst the allegations are two that if proven would most likely have led to the President’s impeachment, and they both involve Iraq’s then head of Intelligence, General Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti.

Allegation 1: Bush Knew There Were No WMD Before Going to War

In his book Suskind claims that the Bush administration, obsessed with going to war with Saddam Hussein, recklessly forged ahead with preparing for a military campaign even though a high-value informant MI6, Habbush, had informed the British that there were no WMD in Iraq.

According to Suskind the British, more adept at this kind of clandestine operation, had cultivated a relationship with the Iraqi Intelligence chief despite the obvious risks involved to both the informant, Habbush, and the spook who’d made contact.

Robert Richer, a CIA man and close to the Jordanian royal family, helped set up a meeting in Jordan with Habbush where he is said to have told his handlers that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction nor the capabilities or resources to acquire them.

There was reason to believe his claims: Saddam, feared in the region for using chemical weapons against his own people, was anxious to keep up the façade of a ruthless dictator with access to nuclear power who’d stop at nothing to gain dominance in the region.

Saddam was fearful of his neighbours Iran and knew how dangerous it would be for them to discover he was only blowing hot air, that he had no WMD, hence, he continued to play his deadly games with the United Nations and the United States all in a bid to cover his deception. It turns out there was nothing to the Wizard of Oz after all.

Suskind says that MI6 went to the White House with Habbush’s claims, but Bush didn’t believe their source. They wanted him to prove there were no WMD. But that is to prove a negative, something that you cannot do.

Meanwhile, the CIA was following up on another lead – that Saddam was attempting to acquire 500 tons of yellowcake Uranium from Niger’s mines – and made contact with an American diplomat, Joseph C. Wilson via their National Relations (NR) department.

 Allegation 2: The Forged Habbush Letter

The NR will make contact with Americans in the public or business sectors if they need something that would be much easier to acquire in the contact’s field of operations. Wilson was thus approached, as he was a former Ambassador to Gabon and still frequented the region for business.

Also a policy adviser for President Clinton in his role as Senior Director for African Affairs in the NSC (National Security Council), Wilson had vast experience in Africa, and so he agreed to help the CIA find out if the Iraqis had indeed attempted to buy any nuclear material from Niger.

Wilson’s investigations confirmed that there was no such purchase and that the claims were bogus for the very fact that Iraq already had huge amounts of unprocessed Uranium, but that also they just didn’t have the resources to pursue a nuclear program.

The White House and the Office of the Vice President (OVP) at this time were looking only for evidence to help them make their case for war, and Wilson’s findings were discounted. Afterwards they would out his wife, Mrs Valerie Plame Wilson, as a CIA case officer and claim she helped her husband get the Niger job, in an attempt to discredit his report as one made by an unqualified person who only went to Africa on the behest of a nepotistic wife.

Things were not looking good for war. Suskind claims the CIA was pressured by the OVP into bringing proof that Saddam had WMD. But there was no indisputable proof that would give the Bush administration their case for war. But the administration forged ahead in their preparations, and after the President’s 2003 State of the Union Address in which he included the 16 words that probably sent his nation into war: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” there was no turning back. And so this led to the second damning allegation in Suskind’s book: that a letter was forged to show a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.

Any links between Saddam and al-Qaeda had always been tenuous, but a December 13 2003 (incidentally also the date of Saddam Hussein’s capture) article in the Daily Telegraph of London seemed to show indisputable proof that Saddam’s regime had not only had contact with but had also aided the September 11 New York attackers.

The author of the article, the Telegraph’s Foreign Editor, Con Coughlin, claimed to have received a document from a “senior member of the Iraqi interim government.” The document in question, a letter apparently written by Habbush in July 2001, contained the following incriminating lines:

 Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian national, came with Abu Ammer and we hosted him in Abu Nidal‘s house at al-Dora under our direct supervision.

We arranged a work program for him for three days with a team dedicated to working with him… He displayed extraordinary effort and showed a firm commitment to lead the team which will be responsible for attacking the targets that we have agreed to destroy.

The timing of this document’s release was seen as somewhat fortuitous for the Bush administration who, after invading the country in March 2003, were yet to provide any WMD caches.

Conservatives quickly heralded the letter as proof the White House had been right all along, but it didn’t take long before the doubters stated emerging. A Newsweek article a few days afterward chronicled Mohammed Atta’s whereabouts in the period of 2001, according to FBI reports, and showed the 9/11 planner had been in the United States and not Iraq at the time.

Con Coughlin, while dismissive of Suskind’s claims, has gone on to admit that Ayad Allawi (then Iraqi interim Prime Minister) was his “senior member” source. Ayad Allawi is alleged to have visited CIA at Langley a few days before leaking the letter to Coughlin, according to reports by Joe Conason of Salon.com.

Suskind claims the letter was a forgery by the CIA on the behest of the OVP, though former CIA man, Phillip Giraldi, says this is incorrect and that the forgery was made by the Office of Special Plans, a Pentagon outfit created on the orders of then Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, to provide the White House with Intelligence on Iraq.

 Reactions to the Book

Amongst Suskind’s sources are Rob Richer (former CIA Deputy Director for Clandestine Operations), John Maguire, and Nigel Inkster of MI6. All men, while initially major contributors to the book, have since gone on to deny the books findings. Nigel Inkster called the book’s allegations “inaccurate and misleading”, and Rob Richer denied he ever received any orders from George Tenet to “fabricate a document… as outlined in Mr Suskind’s book.”

Meanwhile Tenet, the former Director of Central Intelligence, while initially stating of the alleged forgeries: “there was no such order from the White House to me nor, to the best of my knowledge, was anyone from CIA ever involved in any such effort”, adding: “The notion that I would suddenly reverse our stance and have created and planted false evidence that was contrary to our own beliefs is ridiculous.” – [Source from Wikipedia] – then went on to be severely critical of the Bush administrations handling of pre-war Intelligence in his 2007 published memoirs titled, At the Centre of the Storm: My Years at the CIA.

Suskind has since gone on to release partial transcripts of some of his conversations with Rob Richer that contradict the former deputy director’s denials. It seems to be telling that no legal action has been brought against Mr Suskind to date.

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the way of the world ron suskind

 Sources:
  • The Way of the World – A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism, by Ron Suskind
  • Wikipedia
  • Fair Game – My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, by Valerie Plame Wilson
  • Feature image from nydailynews.com

 

The Gunslinger

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Roland Deschain the Last Gunslinger

Roland Deschain of Gilead is the enigmatic title character in this, the first of King’s 7 novels in his Dark Tower series. The Gunslinger combines science fiction with the fantasy genre. According to King, the idea for the story came after seeing Sergio Leone’s The Good the Bad and the Ugly – the first in a trilogy of spaghetti Westerns, and starring Clint Eastwood. Roland then, like Eastwood, has his guns as his primary weapon, and shows an almost supernatural ability in the way he uses them, whether it’s to draw them from their holsters or reload them when the bullets are spent. Here Stephen King draws parallels with the fantastic characters of King Arthur’s roundtable, and like the knights Roland supposedly belongs to an order of skilled killers, the gunslingers.

 Story of The Gunslinger

We follow the gunslinger as he embarks on a journey in pursuit of the man in black, a mythic creature that appears to be able to take on any form he wants. In one incarnation the man in black goes by the name Walter O’ Dim and seems hell-bent on making the hero’s path hard and full of troubles. Along the way he sets traps for Roland: in a town with a mad preacher who’s pregnant with a devil and who incites the whole town to murder him, and also with a boy who Roland becomes taken with and who arrests the warrior’s soul.

 

Roland will also encounter other colourful characters in his pursuit of his nemesis, like Zoltan, a talking bird, subterranean luminous creatures, pitiful in their existence but terrifying in that they seem to want Roland and Jake around for dinner, with those two being on the menu, or course, and a salacious oracle who will prophesy to the gunslinger only if he gives the lustful spirit the warmth of his flesh.

 

The boy who Walter O’ Dim sets on Roland’s path is Jake Chambers and he lived in the 20th Century in our time until he was killed by Walter O’ Dim, only to find himself trapped in Roland’s own reality. Roland’s not sure how the mischievous warlock will use Jake against him, but he’s unable to send him away because of his love for the boy. In the end he discovers the man in black intends for Jake to be Roland’s “Isaac,” and he must make a choice whether to sacrifice him or save him. If he sacrifices him then Roland will be given what he’s been searching for since his journey began and that is knowledge, knowledge of the tower. The series continues with The Drawing of the Three.

The Revised Edition of The Gunslinger

According to King in his introduction for the revised editions he had been approached by several people, not least an old woman who wanted to see the end of the series before she died. After he survived a horrible accident he decided it was time to get back to his series – one he has remarked is his magnum opus. But there was a need to revisit the original stories, mainly to ensure uniformity across the books. It’s for this reason The Gunslinger has had changes. In the foreword (2003) he wrote, “What I did want to do – and before the final volumes of the book came out, if possible – was to give newcomers to the tale of the Tower (and old readers who want to refresh their memories) a clearer start and a slightly easier entry into Roland’s world. I also wanted them to have a volume that more effectively foreshadowed coming events.”

So Which Edition Should You Buy?

This, of course, will be a matter of choice. The older editions may be cheaper and this may inform your choice. But if you can spare the extra buck or two I’d say get this one. Like Matthew Peckham observed in his 2003 article The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger on SFsite.com: “If you’ve never read The Gunslinger, this is the edition you should get. Is it better than the original? Without question, though as noted above, primarily because the story integrates better with the latter volumes. If on the other hand you’ve already read the original, you will still find the revised edition indispensable for its new revelations which affect the continuity of the latter books.”

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Sources:

The Gunslinger by Stephen Kind (copyright by Mercury Press for The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. This edition 2003.), The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King, The Good The Bad and The Ugly (directed by Sergio Leone, and starring Clint Eastwood, 1966), The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger by Matthew Peckham (SFsite.com)

Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy (Book Review)

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Outer Dark, a Cormac McCarthy Novel

The second novel in a distinguished career, Outer Dark was published in 1968 and is everything you’d expect from a Cormac McCarthy novel. The language used in the dialogue is rural and laidback – something I can appreciate being Igbo myself and from a pastoral part of the world with similar tastes in linguistic wit and poetry.

The scenes of the novel I also recognise: rustic, placid, somnolent fields at times, wild, untamed, eerie woodlands at others. There’s also that trademark violence that appears jauntily in scenes, seemingly at home in otherwise ordinary settings. This lends something of the unexpected to the story.

For me the pacing of the novel was faultless and the violence kept to a minimum, unlike in his other novel Blood Meridian where someone seems to die every other page or so.

 

Outer Dark by Cormac MacCarthy
Outer Dark by Cormac MacCarthy

Like Hemingway Mr McCarthy doesn’t waste words, no needless adjectives here. There’s economy albeit rich in complexity, the ease of the language of the American South sitting in stark contrast with his seductive prose.

McCarthy opts for showing his characters not through their thoughts or by describing their characteristics, but by their habits and their dialogue. Often with fiction a writer can find himself stuck on facial expressions having nothing left in a steadily depleting repertoire of phrases like “he smiled” or “she frowned” and so forth, but Mr McCarthy isn’t deficient in his understanding and use of gestures, something borne, no doubt, out of practised observation of his fellow man. Like Mr Guy Davenport said in his article in the New York Times (29 September 1968):

“…Mr. McCarthy waste a single word on his character’s thoughts. With total objectivity he describes what they do and records their speech. Such discipline comes not only from mastery over words but from an understanding wise enough and compassionate enough to dare tell so abysmally dark a story.”

From Tennessee, Georgia himself Mr McCarthy succeeds in capturing the allure of the Deep South in his style. Indeed there are few novelists who’ve managed to capture the contradictions of the land as successfully as he has, right down to the showing of wickedness living right next to religiosity.  As in one scene where the protagonist Culla Holme is wrongly accused of murder. A preacher appears as tensions rise in the mob, but he isn’t the source of succour one would expect from one of his profession, and instead he engages in an inane debate over the right way to dispose of Holme for his perceived crimes.

The theme of religion resonates throughout the entire novel. Guy Davenport again:

“Though it pays its homage to Faulkner’s rhetoric and imagery, it is not a Faulknerian novel. It is much leaner, closer in pace and spareness of line to the Gothic masters Gertrud Le Fort and her disciple Isak Dinesen, and lacks Faulkner’s sociological dimension. Mr. McCarthy is unashamedly an allegorist. His responsibility as a storyteller includes believing with his characters in the devil, or at least in the absolute destructiveness of evil.”

There’s no escaping that the protagonists are being judged for their sins. And while Culla has a hard time of it right from the start, his sister Rinthy seems to be treated more kindly by people until she meets the tinker, a spectral eldritch character who took her baby, and has to face her own transgressions. 

Plot Summary

Culla Holme of Jackson County in Appalachia has a baby boy with his sister Rinthy. Ashamed of his incest and afraid of how the world will judge him Culla takes the baby as soon as it’s born and steals away in the middle of the night while his sister recovers from childbirth and lays the child out in the woods. A mysterious tinker has been following him through the dark and takes up the child.

Rinthy wakes up and asks for her baby and doesn’t believe her brother when he informs her of the child’s death. Rinthy goes looking for the grave and digs it to find it empty. She then sets out on a journey to recover the babe after confronting her brother for his actions.

Her journey will lead her to many dangerous eerie places where she meets weird locals, but they all treat her well and offer her food and board, unlike her brother, who sets out on his own journey after her: Culla finds bad luck everywhere he goes. His arrested, and at one point threatened with a lynching. And through it all he’s stalked by 3 mysterious otherworldly men who in the end will pronounce a terrifying judgement on him for his sin and bring the story to its unsettling conclusion.

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Sources

 

 

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Summary: It’s another end of the world story in Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds sang and the only solution for the human race is to embrace the science of cloning. But will this new technology solve all their problems?

Image from andscifi.com

 

WHERE LATE THE SWEET BIRDS SANG by HUGO WINNER KATE WILHELM

It’s the end of the world in Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Bird’s Sang. Grandfather Wilson is patriarch of the large and rich Sumner family and sees that man’s only hope of avoiding extinction amidst the disease, pollution, wars, climatic trauma, and most importantly, the sterility he faces is to start cloning.

 

THE STORY OF WHERE LATE THE SWEET BIRDS SANG

He entrusts his estate to his heirs: grandson David Sumner, and his own son Walt Sumner. Both start to work feverishly to perfect the cloning process and succeed in cloning animals and members of their family. But they soon find that the clones are not human in the strictest sense. They clones soon ostracise their creators in favour of a new community of clones, one that abandons the old ideas of the dead human world and think to start a new one where individuality is killed by embracing the homogeneous group instead as a functioning singular unit.

 

Things take a turn for the worse, though, when the community runs out of supplies and is forced to forage in the old dead world. They send out an expedition to the ruined city of Washington to scavenge for replacement parts for their ageing machinery. It’s during this time that the group, separated from the influence of their community of fellow clones, begin to witness for the first time their own uniqueness and individuality.

 

Thinking it a disease, they reject this call, deep within them, to singular identity. All of them except Molly, the only female in the group. She slowly begins to accept her uniqueness and passes this knowledge, this idea of the power of the individual, on to her child, Mark, just before she’s finally banished from the community.

 

The novel then follows Mark as he grows up and proves the inadequacies of a community that, in spite of its dependency on the old world’s technology, has chosen to despise the philosophies of their human ancestors and instead have opted for a new, brittle world of group consciousness where everyone shares every other person’s thoughts and ideas, and nothing is new, nothing is created. In this new world the ability to use one’s skills to think outside the box has been lost, and there is only the mindless conformity with what has been learned in the group. Mark then leaves and establishes a new community, one that can think for itself, survive on its own, and one that will create new technology to face the complexities of a post-apocalyptic world.

 

THE IDEAS OF WHERE LATE THE SWEEET BIRDS SANG

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is about aloneness – even the recluse Mark admits to not wanting to be alone during a solitary expedition. It’s about community, about individualism and the special abilities that may, albeit unknown to the community, benefit it in the end. Many books have dealt with the individual Vs the group, the fact that Kate Wilhelm won a Hugo for this effort shows that this ranks up there with the best of them.

 

The book does have its shortcomings, though: vegetation tends to thrive even though animals and insects – the main agents of pollination – have become extinct. There is a pseudo-spiritual idea of trees talking and having consciousness that is incongruous with the rest of the story, because the idea doesn’t quite lead anywhere. Also most of the characters do not have enough depth, and while this may have been done purposely to show the emotional shallowness of the clones it’s also partly due to the author jumping from one generation to the next at a pace too fast to thoroughly connect with any of them. Still don’t let these few misgivings put you off a story that, if not all the time compelling, is at the very least entirely thought provoking.

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