27 December 2012

An Agent of Deceit

I read a lot of old stuff and don't always stay abreast of contemporary works. Recently, though, I came across Chris Morgan Jones' debut novel The Silent Oligarch (in the UK it is titled An Agent of Deceit). I'm not sure if a writer is complimented by comparison, but Mr. Jones reminded me of one of my all-time favorites, John le Carré. There's enough intrigue and simmering tension in The Silent Oligarch to please the staunchest of le Carré loyalists, but you can get that sort of thing lots of places. What sets le Carré apart from the herd is his ability to create memorable and sympathetic characters. And what made The Silent Oligarch a great read for me was the same thing. The story centers around a Russian gangster and oil tycoon named Konstantin Malin who poses as a mid-level bureaucrat in the Ministry of Natural Resources. His billions are laundered in a byzantine array of offshore holding companies, managed by a small crew of well-paid corporate stooges. Only a handful of people understand Malin's true wealth and stature, and one of them, a middle-aged lawyer named Richard Lock, tries to find his way out of the life of white-collar crime that has ensnared him. A former journalist and now corporate intelligence specialist, Ben Webster, is at the same time investigating Malin and sees an opportunity to bring the big man down with Lock's help. While one man's life unravels, the other is drawn in too deeply and finds himself in a fight against powers much too big to confront. Lock thinks he wants freedom, and a clear conscience, but he discovers that he's driven by much more basic needs like reconciliation with his estranged wife and daughter. Webster thinks he wants justice, but finds out that he likes the spy game too much, that playing with the big boys has its own thrills that pull him in despite the danger. Not to spoil it, but neither man gets what he wants. Despite the dramatic dénouement, Jones keeps the ending somewhat ambiguous, with no simple solutions and neat resolutions, much in the style of le Carré. The Silent Oligarch is timely in its look at corruption, greed, and corporate evil, and paints a scary picture of the high-dollar, well-dressed, well-educated drones that put a seemingly legitimate public face on international criminal networks. Jones makes you feel that there are cadres of these button-down Oxford types (he's British) happily selling their souls to mafia dons, magnates, potentates, and modern-day shoguns all over the globe. They don't kill anyone or even get their fingernails dirty, but they are as crooked as Lombard Street, and their amorality is perhaps even more frightening than the big shots they shill for.

n.b. I changed the title of this post from The Silent Oligarch to An Agent of Deceit.

24 December 2012

Crazy People

Yesterday I drove through a blinding snowstorm. Literally, it was blinding. The windshield wipers on my 1988 pickup were feeble and could not keep pace with the snowfall. My buddy in the passenger seat had to roll down the window and reach out a grab the right-hand blade and bang it against the windshield to free the ice chunks that built up. I would do the same on the left side while trying to keep the vehicle on the road and not veer into the considerable drifts and snowplow berms. The defroster had to labor to keep the window clear on the inside, made worse by the two of us opening the windows and allowing fresh gusts of snow inside. Each of us had a cloth and we would vigorously wipe our side to keep ahead of the endless condensate. Visibility at one point dropped to nothing--we had to stop, get out, and scrape the windshield before resuming! Good thing my Toyota 4WD hugs the road like a tank. I did not have to worry about slipping and sliding. I've spent a fair amount of time driving on snowy and icy roads and my technique is pretty good. My buddy is a four-wheeling expert and he has given me many useful pointers and tips over the years. Suffice to say we made it safe and sound to the parking lot at Mt. Ashland Ski Area after that harrowing ten-mile ordeal. I was so keyed-up I ran straight to the bathroom through the howling wind to empty my tortured bladder. I was so in need of relief that I was oblivious to the swirling snow that stung my hands and face like bits of sand. Back in the truck, we suited up for our day on the mountain. The southwest wind would smack us around with gale-like force, but we managed to get our skis on and point them in the general direction of the chair-lift. The overcast sky hung low and made it difficult to see much past about twenty or thirty feet. The wind scooped up the fresh-falling snow and spun it around and tossed it back down again, obscuring landmarks just as you made them out. We took the plunge nonetheless and made our way mostly by feel to the roped off lift-lines, joining about thirty others eagerly waiting for the chairs to start loading. All I could think of at that point was that everyone standing there was a crazy person. Crazy to drive up the mountain. Crazy to strap on skis and boards. Crazy to get on a chairlift and careen down a slope. Crazy to "chase freshies." Because that is why everyone was there--the piles and piles of new snow. Powder, or pow-pow in ski argot, is something of a holy grail to the alpine thrill-seeker. Done right, a run through virgin snow ("first tracks") is akin to floating, much like riding a wave to the surfer or free-falling to the skydiver. Done by intermediate hacks like myself, it can be a futile, frustrating endeavor. You really have to be a crazy person to pursue this activity. I even said so in the line: "everyone here is crazy!" No one argued. They just nodded and went on. Fortunately my skiing skills have improved over the last few years and I really can get down in the deep stuff and make some nice turns and even occasionally look halfway like an advanced skier. My buddy, an outstanding skier, always reminds me that I can keep up with him so that must mean I'm pretty good. Bit of a left-handed compliment, that, but I'll take it. In the end, despite some on-going equipment issues, I had a good time. In the lee of the trees the runs were protected and the cloudbank lifted enough so we could see, and we put together some good stretches. I surprised myself with some very nice sequences and kept up with another fellow we know who is always up there and is a very accomplished powder-hound. My screaming quads told me to quit long before the weather wore me down. With thicker thighs I could have managed another few hours and been utterly indifferent to the appalling conditions. I wonder if that means I'm now one of those crazy people.

02 December 2012

Hoka-Hoka-HEY! and other tidbits

I'm revisiting Larry Marder's Tales of the Beanworld, a weird yet accessible comic originally published in the late 1980s. Beanworld is hard to describe. It's black-and-white with bold graphics and simple drawings, yet features an oddly compelling story that's part satire and part ecological fable. Hell, I'm not really sure what it is! Beanworld is populated by the likes of Professor Garbanzo, Mr. Spook, Gran'Ma'Pa, the Chow Sol'jers, Beanish, and the Boom'r Band. They live between The Legendary Edge and The Proverbial Sandy Beach, above The Thin Lake and The Four Realities. Below that is the Bone Zone, the Hoi-Polloi Ring Herd, and Der Stinkle. And a bunch of other stuff that makes sense when you are there. Highly recommended--pick it up in digital or hardcover.

We recently watched the excellent 1996 film The Whole Wide World about Robert E. Howard and his ill-fated romance with schoolteacher Novalyne Price.(It's based on her memoirs.) Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, was the biggest thing in the pulps yet lived with his parents in a small town in Texas and was viewed suspiciously by the locals for his eccentricities. It's a sad tale, of course, but an uplifting story, mostly because the actors (Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger) are superb and bring the characters to life. Add it to your next batch from Netflix, you won't be disappointed.

I came across a very nice used copy of A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad in a Mt. Shasta book shop. His poems are real gems and can be read again and again. His style comes across as quaint and old-fashioned but the insights are deep and thoroughly modern. His images are both dark and playful, and you seem to teeter on the knife edge in every stanza, never knowing which way you will fall. Like all great poets he turns the simple into the sublime with seeming effortlessness. Beautiful stuff--read it out loud during the holidays.

Finally, I just finished Pete Townshend's Who I Am (a birthday present!).  The old rockers are cranking out the tell-alls these days, it seems to be the new thing. I suppose they are all of that age where they can relax and reminisce. I loved The Who and was a big fan of Townshend's music, especially Tommy and Quadrophenia. The first 300 pages (yes, it is a huge book) are interesting, he's a candid and straightforward story-teller. I liked learning about the band and how their sound came together, and about "the scene" that spawned so many great acts. I also liked reading about Pete's musical influences and about some of the things that inspired his work. The final 200 pages are harder going, too much "and then this happened" that many autobiographies suffer from, which is why I generally avoid them. But it is still Pete, and his mates Roger, John, and Keith, and that's all good. I first saw The Who in 1976 when I was still in high school and they made quite an impression on my adolescent mind.

That's not all I'm reading or watching these days, just the highlights, but it's enough to write about. So, tell me, what are YOU reading and watching these days?