Friday, November 28, 2014

True Yankees by Dane Morrison - Book Review

True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity (The Johns Hopkins Studies in Historical and Political Science) by Dane A. Morrison (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, 280 pages, $34.95) uses the voyages, writings, and experiences of American traders and sojourners Samuel Shaw, Amasa Delano, Edmond Fanning, Harriet Low and Robert Bennett Forbes during the period 1785 through 1840 to describe the expansion of American mercantilism in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in support of his thesis that their voyages helped spread the web of American influence and power while establishing the newly founded country's legitimacy and to develop the distinctive qualities of behavior and belief that firmly established the American character during a period where the existence and development of America a a nation and world power was still very much in question.

The five merchant world explorers in the book stand as representative of those pioneers in post-revolutionary America who sought to build their fortunes by following the China trade to build their lac (fortune) exploring far from their New England origins as they pioneered new routes to the Great South Sea, encountered new people, cultures, and economic opportunities for themselves while helping to build America's wealth back during a period of fragile economic recovery and weak international recognition. They “progressed” from seeking to trade in ginseng, cotton, seal furs and whale oils to Chinese silk, ceramics, and east Indian opium in a triangle trade similar to that between America, Africa, and the Caribbean islands in slaves. Because all five were skilled writers who shared their stories in personal journals, correspondence, and books, they established an extensive record of their activities, developing understandings of the world they functioned in, successes and failures. Morrison weaves their stories together into an intriguing period covering a little over half a century when the emerging American character was developed and established through the success of the efforts of people like them, picturing the excitement their voyages generated in the commercial and popular minds of Americans who were themselves on a voyage from being thirteen autonomous colonies toward a continent-wide nation of distinctive character and disposition. As we follow their voyages and writings, readers see the development from questing merchants following their needs and ideals to established world traders championing American exceptionalism manifested as prejudice and closed-mindedness.

The core of the book describes both exploring and trading. The explorations included some genuine discoveries, but a number of first visits by Americans to places where the British had already made bad impressions, making it more difficult to establish relations. The American traders saw the indigenous peoples of the Pacific islands as barbarians or primitive peoples who were somewhat less than human, manifesting little or no interest in the culture, language, customs, or religions of the people they encountered. In the late 18th century, when Samuel Shaw began his trips as supercargo on the Empress of China, the Pacific charts were inaccurate and travel extremely dangerous. Yankee traders had been preceded to China by a couple of hundred years of Portuguese, Spanish, and British traders. China, in order to protect itself from cultural mixing, had established a foreign trade zone in Canton, beyond which foreigners were forbidden to go. They had little incentive to wish to discover the real China, anyway. By the late 1830's, when Harriet Low, a New England spinster lived in Macao and Canton, attitudes had hardened as the Opium trade threatened Chinese stability. Low viewed this disruption through the narrow lens of New England superiority and fundamentalist Protestant judgment. Meanwhile, Forbes made his fortune as an intermediary representing traders being banned from China because of Opium.

Dane A. Morrison

Dane A. Morrison is Professor of Early American History at Salem State University in Salem, MA. He has published, written, and presented widely in this his specialty. He has been at Salem State for twenty -one years. This book is, essentially, an academic treatise with the kind of annotation and references you would expect from such a book. Nevertheless, it is a highly readable account of this important, but not widely known component of American History.

True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity (The Johns Hopkins Studies in Historical and Political Science) by Dane A. Morrison (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, 280 pages, $34.95) is an academic treatise written to demonstrate the thesis of Yankee traders in the development and nurturing of the expansion of American vision of itself, the establishment of the U.S. as a “major player on the world stage,” and the discovery of a unique national identity. The book is fully annotated and contains interesting illustrations. It serves well to fill a hole in the historical knowledge base of many interested in American history and makes a significant academic contribution while remaining highly readable. I received True Yankees as an electronic galley from Edelweiss and read it on my Kindle App.

Monday, November 24, 2014

James King Concert in Westminster, VT: Review

We drove up route 12 from Keene and crossed the Connecticut River into Vermont on a cold, dark Friday night to attend the James King concert at a new bluegrass venue being used for the first time by Candi and Seth Sawyer, promoters of the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival, Westminster, VT may be the oldest township in Vermont, the first state to join the United States after the original thirteen, being admitted to the Union in 1791 as the fourteenth state. The Town of Westminster has a treasure trove of 18th and 19th century buildings, but little else to recommend it to a traveler. The Westminster Institute, built in 1924 as a result of a bequest, is a standout building along route 5 between Bellows Falls and Putney. Its small auditorium and stage provide an adequate space for the sort of bluegrass event that, along with rather small, regional bluegrass festivals, provide bluegrass music to those who seek out and find live music for entertainment. About 100 people showed up for this show featuring the James King Band with the Seth Sawyer Band providing the opening act.

The Seth Sawyer Band

 During the past couple of years, the Seth Sawyer Band has solidified into a regular quartet with Dave Shaw (on banjo, fiddle, mandolin, or guitar) and Dave Tex Orlomoski (on Mandolin and Guitar) each serving as capable harmony and vocal solists as well. The band has become increasingly popular at festivals around New England as it has solidified and become tighter. It specializes in performing classic bluegrass and old country covers as well as Seth Sawyer songs, some of which have been recorded by the Gibson Brothers. Here's one:

The Seth Sawyer Band - Long Forgotten Dream - Video

Seth Sawyer

Candi Sawyer

Dave Tex Orlomoski

I've always wondered how someone who's as much a product of New England as Dave Orlomoski became Tex. It seems that when he and Dave Shaw played in Bear Bridge Band, they decided there couldn't be two Dave's in a band, much as Bill Monroe wouldn't have two Bills, leading Bill Keith to become Brad (his middle name) when he was a member of the Bluegrass Boys. So Dave became, and remains, Tex, a valued member, with Dave Shaw, of the Seth Sawyer Band.

Dave Shaw

Dave Shaw is a talented multi-instrumentalist as well as a very solid high tenor singer with enough range to sing above Seth's powerful tenor voice. He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of bluegrass and country music.  Here he is with a Jim & Jesse song:

The Seth Sawyer Band - Congratulations, Anyway - Video

The James King Band

James King is ill. He has stage four cirrhosis of the liver and is in need of a liver transplant. He must keep performing, because it's who he is and helps provide a sense that he is working towards being able to afford the very necessary surgery. He arrived at the Westminster Institute in Westminster, Vermont on a bitterly cold late November evening on the first leg of a grueling four day three venue tour to Vermont, Connecticut, and in New York's Adirondack region. It's worth asking whether the very qualities have contributed to his greatness through the years are the ones that have also caused his current illness at the age of fifty-six. Bluegrass was a part of James' life from the beginning, as his father had played with Don Reno and Ted Lundy's band. After a stint in the Marine Corps, James launched his own career in 1979. He was a featured vocalist with Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys. His major breakthrough as an artist in his own right came when Rounder Records released "These Old Pictures" with a backup band featuring members of the Johnson Mountain Boys.  His latest album, Three Chords and the Truth was nominated for a Grammy award and he has been a multiple winner of the SPBGMA award as Male Traditional Vocalist of the Year.

James King

James is noted for wearing his heart on his sleeve, as he sings plaintive songs of love and loss, and spins musical stories of a hard life. His renditions of The Bed by the Window, Thirty Years of Farming, Echo Mountain, and Just as the Sun Went Down will be played and sung around the jam circle as long as folks sing bluegrass music. His duet of Lonesome River with Rhonda Vincent , which I recorded at Gettysburg two years ago, has been viewed over 20,000 times. James lives each of his songs every time he sings them. He's known to lose himself in a song so deeply that he tears up and has difficulty continuing. This availability of his deep emotional well to his immediate performance has made him a beloved performer for a generation. But at what cost? James is a man of big emotions and big appetites. He has overindulged all of these, leading to both his current illness and his reputation as a performer. His life and success have led to his current situation, which any fan or friend can only hope finds a successful resolution. A benefit concert to contribute to James' medical expenses will be held in Nashville on December 10th at the Nashville Palace. The winner of the 50/50 rally on Friday night contributed his entire $85 pot to James' medical expenses.

James King Band - I've Never Been So Lonely in My Life - Video

A characteristic James King's road band has been rapid turnover, much of it as a result of the chaos in his life. Recently, there have been three constants, which have added a measure of continuity to the band's performance. Fiddler Merle Johnson has been playing with James for three or four years, providing the kind of solid fiddle performances King's music requires. For the past several months, C.J. Lewandowski  (mandolin) and Dylan Scott (banjo) seem to have committed themselves to supporting James' efforts.

Merle Johnson

C.J. Lewandowski

Dylan Scott

Andre Eglevsky

 Dany Bureau

For many attending this show, it was a sad event to see James King in his current condition. Nevertheless, there is the possibility of help, should a liver become available and James be in condition to receive it. The provisions of the ACA and the possibility of getting insurance despite pre-existing condition increase the opportunities. Everyone associated with bluegrass music is pulling for James King.

The James King Band - Chisled in Stone - Video

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Gibson Brothers at SUNY- Plattsurgh

The Gibson Brothers Band

The Gibson Brothers appeared on Sunday afternoon in the E. Glenn Glitz Auditorium in Hawkins Hall on the campus of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh in a concert to benefit Bluegrass for the Next Generation, This program offers an "Introduction to Bluegrass" course in the Music Department, opportunities to jam, produce radio shows on the campus radio station, take lessons on bluegrass instruments, and  borrow CD's from the campus library, which has an extensive collection of bluegrass music. Four scholarships in the names of Kelley and Shannon Gibson, the Gibson Brothers' parents, have been developed. The scholarships require demonstrated interest in bluegrass music. Follow the links above for further information. The concert was attended by a good crowd of highly enthusiastic supporters of the Gibson Brothers, who are always at their best before their hometown crowd. Another opportunity to see the Gibson Brothers at home will be at Northern Adirondack Central School in Ellenburg Depot, NY on December 10, featuring the brothers, their family and friends presented by Ellenburg Senior Housing. Tickets for this Special Event can be purchased through Dick's Country Store & Music Oasis in Cherebusco.

Backstage in the Green Room
Shannon Gibson

Eric Gibso, Erin Gibson LaClair, Leigh Gibson

Eric & Corinna Gibson

Emcee Julie Hogan

The Gibson Brothers - The Sweetest Dream - Video

The Gibson Brothers have moved to Rounder Records, and their newest CD will be released on February 24, 2015, but they have begun singing a few of the songs at concerts and festivals. The Sweetest Dream, by the Blue Sky Boys (above) will be on the new release.  Titled "Brotherhood," the CD will include brother duets by the Everlys, the Louvins, The Monroes, The Stanleys, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Webster, Brewsters, Churches, Blue Sky Boys, Osbornes, and Glasers. This release is a change of pace concept album by the Gibson Brothers featuring bluegrass and pre-bluegrass material by other brother duos. Through the years, the Gibson Brothers have resisted the pressure to release a new recording every year, concentrating instead on assuring the highest quality material for each CD. This new release will, no doubt, exhibit the same thoughtful demands and loving attention to detail.

Eric & Leigh Gibson

Mike Barber

Clayton Campbell

Jesse Brock

The addition of Jesse Brock to The Gibson Brothers Band is proving to be a fine choice. Brock has long been recognized as one of the best mandolin players around, having won the IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year award in 2009, providing one of the two breaks (Sam Bush) in Adam Steffey's domination of this Award in the 21st century. He's also shown himself to be a fine baritone singer, increasingly contributing depth to the vocal colors available to the band and, again, demonstrating the Gibson Brothers' willingness to experiment in the name of improvement. Here's a sample:

The Gibson Brothers - Road to Columbus - Video

Sound for this concert was provided by Ryan Ghent, who once ran sound for Levon Helm. The warm room and Ryan's great sound helped in making the videos I recorded at this show reach new heights of quality.

Clayton Campbell

Mike Barber & Jesse Brock

Eric Gibson

Leigh Gibson

The Gibson Brothers - If I Could See You One More Time - Video

Corinna & Shannon Gibson

At the Merch Table

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Fear Artist (Poke Rafferty #5) by Timothy Hallinan – Book Review

Question: When does a book reviewer who loves reading, thinking about, and writing about books turn into a rabid, uncompromising, blathering fan? Answer: When he goes online and buys all the preceding volumes in a series in hardback from a used book seller? Well, actually, there could be a more insane and impulsive step. I could have gone to ABE (the web site of the American Booksellers Association) and bought them all in mint, first edition in order to send them to Tim for autographing, but I'm not quite that crazy...yet. The Fear Artist (Poke Rafferty #5) by Timothy Hallinan (Soho Crime, 2012, 342 Pages, $14.95/8.97) is far darker and more explicitly violent than any other Hallinan book I've read before. It continues to provide insights into Poke's history and background, while never going so deep that the reader feels left out by not having read the earlier material. Nevertheless, I've been motivated to reach back to the beginning to explore Poke's life in all its richness. The last times I did that were for Robert Parker's “Spenser” series and for Patrick O'Brien's marvelous naval novels featuring twenty volumes following James Aubrey through his 18th century career. Incidentally, Hallinan's characters are much more nuanced and subtle than Parker ever managed with Spenser.

The Fear Artist finds travel writer Poke Rafferty alone in his Bangkok apartment painting it for his wife Rose and adopted daughter Miaow, who are visiting relatives in the north. Leaving the paint store, he runs into a man on the street just as a shot brings the man down. In his dying breath he gurgles out a name and a place while handing Poke a laundry ticket. Almost immediately, Poke is arrested and taken to police headquarters where he's roughly interrogated before being released. Thus begins a journey into the dark and tortured past of the war in Vietnam, Operation Phoenix, and the dark, violent life of the shadowy operator, Haskell Murphy, whose rage and twisted skill set provide the title and much of the action for this fine thriller. Bankok, throughout this tale, is drowning in a continuous tropical deluge spreading wetness and actual as well as metaphorical mold over all. In much the same way we turned our backs on Vietnam, some readers may prefer to avoid the skilled torture and violence Murphy can inflict, but they're necessary to fully understand the fear he inspires. Meanwhile, Poke continues to emerge as a complex and intriguing character worth spending time with.

Timothy Hallinan

Edgar, Shamus, Macavity and Lefty nominee Timothy Hallinan has written sixteen published novels, all thrillers and mysteries, all critically praised. He currently writes two series, one set in Los Angeles and the other in Bangkok.

His Junior Bender mysteries trace the adventures of a burglar who moonlights as a private eye for crooks. In its first eighteen months, the series has been nominated for both the Lefty and the Shamus for best mystery. The titles to date are "Crashed," "Little Elvises," "The Fame Thief," and "Herbie's Game."  In 2007, the first of his Edgar-nominated Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers, "A Nail Through the Heart", was published. "Nail" was named one of the top mysteries of the year by The Japan Times. Rafferty's Bangkok adventures have continued with "The Fourth Watcher," "Breathing Water," "The Queen of Patpong," "The Fear Artist," and "For the Dead." "Queen" was a Best Novel Edgar nominee in 2011. Coming in 2015 is "The Hot Countries."

In the 1990s he wrote six mysteries featuring the erudite private eye Simeon Grist, beginning with "The Four Last Things," which made several Ten Best lists, including that of The Drood Review. The other books in the series were well reviewed, and several of them were optioned for motion pictures. The series is now regarded as a cult favorite.

Hallinan has written full-time since 2006. Since 1982 he has divided his time between Los Angeles and Southeast Asia, the setting for his Poke Rafferty novels. (from Hallinan's author page on Amazon)

The Fear Artist (Poke Rafferty #5) (Soho Crime, 2012, 342 Pages, $14.95/8.97) is a thoroughly satisfying addition to my experience reading Timothy Hallinan. Either because I'm obsessive/compulsive or thorough (you choose) I've decided to go back to the saga's beginning. While this is certainly not necessary, it suits my approach to reading certain writers. We'll probably stash them in the trailer, where I'll read them serially as palette cleansers from other reading. Since these books can easily be read in couple of days, but beware.... First, the books will grab you hard and demand your attention. Second, they generate so much drive and tension that, at least for me, they require periods of putting them down for at least a few hours to cool off and let go a little before I can bear to return to them. I downloaded The Fear Artist (Soho Crime, 2012, 342 Pages, $14.95/8.97) to my Kindle app from the Keene Public Library. I gather that books borrowed from the library in this fashion will automatically disappear from the device after fifteen days. Interested to see.....

Thursday, November 13, 2014

I've Been Mostly Awake - Produced by Jon Weisberger with Various Artists - CD Review

Jon Weisberger has produced (with Dan Keen) a remarkable album of new songs co-written by him and a variety of singer/songwriters.  I've Been Mostly Awake  is the humorous phrase attendees at the IBMA's annual trade show World of Bluegrass and festival Wide Open Bluegrass say is really what IBMA means. Those who've had the pleasure of attending this annual extravaganza  can only smile knowledgeably when they hear the acronym. Featuring a backup band of fine musicians (Jesse Brock,Andy  Falco, Jeremy Garrett, Ned Luberecki, and Weisberger himself) the CD, available as a digital download from Amazon ($8.99). The physical CD is available through the album's Facebook Page.  All profits from this tuneful, varied collection will be donated to IBMA in support of its various programs.

Each of the songs in I've Been Mostly Awake, is written and features a top musician, most of whom are also noted as composers of at least some of their own work. The songs are filled with melody and thoughtful lyrics. Presented in a mostly bluegrass format, they nevertheless present songs that work well as country, pop, or jazzy swing songs, depending strongly on the influences creating the unique sound of each artist. These songs access a wide variety of hints and shades of bluegrass without becoming stereotyped. A listener can picture Claire Lynch leaning against a piano in a lounge singing her song One Mistake at a Time, while Tim O'Brien's Things that Still Remain capture his unique ability to capture direct emotion in his singing. Shawn Camp and Pam Tillis each contribute songs that fit well into the sub-genre that's now being called "real country." Never Go Back by the Gibson Brothers contains their characteristic thoughtful look at the future while examining their past in a song filled with determination to keep growing and becoming. Dale Ann Bradley's contribution celebrates the contribution of Momma and Daddy to the fulfillment of dreams in the present in Now and Then, which is filled with nostalgia.

Weisberger emerges here not for his own brilliance, but for his ability to work with individual performers to help them realize their own unique musical selves. Each song on the album captures the signature sound of a song the featured singer would write. There doesn't seem to be any hint that Jon seeks to dominate or impose his own sound or vision on the song. Rather, his work functions to help each writer capture and maintain a characteristic self. This makes him either a genius at helping people find their own voice or a chameleon without a signature sound of his own. I prefer the former. Eric Gibson remarks, "We have written a few times with Jon and were struck by how comfortable the process was. Each song was a true co-write with good give and take. Jon is a pro."  Other songs in I've Been Mostly Awake were co-written with Jeremy Garrett, Sara Siskind, Stephen Mougin, Kim Richey & Thomas Jutz, Jim Lauderdale, Sierra Hull, and Chris Jones. These major performers are supported by some of the best singers in the business singing harmony, including Steve Gulley, Del McCoury, Carl Jackson, Patty Mitchell, Thomas Jutz, Sally Jones, and Darren Vincent. The project was engineered and mixed by Ben Surratt at Compass Records studio, who also is listed as Associate Producer.

Jon  Weisberger - Executive Producer

  Jon Weisberger, during his busy career in music, has worn many hats. As a writer, he's won IBMA awards for Print Media Person of the Year (2000), Liner Notes of the Year (2001) and Bluegrass Song Writer of the Year (2012) He co-hosts, with Del McCoury a program of traditional music on Xm/Sirius radio called "Hand Picked with Del McCoury. He plays bass with Chris Jones & the Night Drivers. He is a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts and currently serves as Chairman of the Board of IBMA. The present CD is the first production of Wise Kings Global Entertainment, in which Jon is a partner with Dan Keen, former ASCAP Vice-President and current professor at Belmont College in Nashville, .

Dan Keen - Co-Executive Producer

Dan Keen commented, "Our company is really a Publishing company. We decided to launch it with a benefit project for the IBMA based on several things. One is the First Fruits doctrine in the Scriptures. The idea is that you don't wait until you're successful and then give to God and others. You do that up front, trusting that your efforts will be blessed and you will be fine. 
In addition, Bluegrass music and the IBMA have been the creative center of our lives and we want to give back. Humbly, we are trying to set an example for others, encouraging them to think about things like this that they could do to contribute to and support the IBMA." Dan's major role in the current production was "to seek funding and other donations. Compass gave us lots of great advice and FREE use of their fantastic studio for example. I also am doing most of the Admin work such as licensing and permissions."

Jon Weisberger & Dan Keen

This is truly a fine production benefiting a worthy cause and will make a fine addition to your Holiday gift list. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev - Book Review

I fear that Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev (Public Affairs, 2014, 254 pages, $25.99/14.49) will not be widely enough read nor deeply enough covered by the main stream media to have it gain the sort of attention it deserves. This is an important book presenting the world of contemporary Russia in all the vivid complexity and corrupt duplicity which everyone should be aware of and seek to bring to heel. Since Russia is a land working without a moral compass, a place where how things look and are presented have become reality for those living and working there, its ability to morph to meet current circumstances and to insert itself into supposedly sacrosanct institutions in the “free” world like London banks, world fashion, film, and the NBA always gaining power and weakening free institutions, appears inevitable and almost unlimited. Pomerantsev, a documentary film maker, worked for Russian TV during the first decade of this country, writes with cinematic vigor and intense personal detail, using the reality of his subjects to document the moral and spiritual corruption of Russia's recovery from the collapse of the Soviet Union and Vladimir Putin's emergence as a new and ever more powerful twenty-first century dictator committed to restoring Russian power and influence.

Pomerantsev is a British journalist/film maker of Russian heritage who spent a decade mostly in Russia working as a producer for Russian TV network TNT, which is one of Russia's top five television networks specializing in portraying a light and humorous view of life. During his years in Russia, Pomerantsev produced a series which profiled the lives and experiences of the rich and glamorous Russians who emerged on the world scene among the beautiful and powerful people. His profiles of individual lifestyle and fashion leaders become increasingly dark as Pomerantsev realizes he's participating in helping create a vision of beauty, success, and happiness in a world dominated by corruption, greed, and an ethic emphasizing that PR, how things appear, eventually becomes the reality the masses believe in, masking the real abuses of freedom, power, expression, and liberty now dominating the reality of Russia and finding their greatest expression in the annexation of Crimea and the current efforts to reclaim ethnic Russian portions of the Ukraine. Perhaps the most frequently used word in the entire book is “corrupt” and its variations.

In Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, Pomerantsev describes the constant remaking of Moscow, historic buildings and neighborhoods torn down to replace them with series of cheesy upscale high rise towers mimicking the posh buildings of Paris, London, New York, and Monte Carlo. Young entrepreneurs, often former gangsters, live in luxury while always on the edge of having it all pulled out from under them if they stray too far from the currently emerging version of 21st century Russia. The power of Pomerantsev's writing lies in the vivid profiles he writes of a number of representative individuals who become metaphors for the corruption of the whole. He pictures unbelievably beautiful Russian girls who've come to Moscow to find a “Forbes” (rich business men who will enter their lives and make them over). Fueled by sex and booze in Moscow's steamy night spots, the girls, who are known as “cattle” to the Forbses, make themselves fully available and are cast aside when the next one comes along. He profiles Vitally, a former gangster whose school was prison. Vitally rises and falls at the Kremlin's will, but he is a chameleon whose colors change fast enough for him to, perhaps, survive. This isn't a portrait of a country in transition, but some sort of post-modern dictatorship using the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends. The horrors of double think and double speak bring Orwell's 1984 to life a generation after the year has passed.

Ruslana Korshunova

It may be that the most remembered part of this book will be the profile of supermodel Ruslana Korshunova and a cultish organization called Rose of the World, which promises new recruits a total remake of their lives as they gain control over themselves. Using group dynamics techniques which those familiar with the human potential movement in the U.S. during the sixties spawned, particularly a similar cult called est or Erhard Seminars Training offered by Werner Erhard and quite popular during the seventies, Rose of the World promised to help participants gain control of their own lives and those of others through intensive and harrowing workshops. Pomerantsev discovers this cult-like movement while investigating Korshunova's unexplained suicide in Manhattan soon after her participation in a series of workshops in Moscow. The susceptibility of post-Soviet Russia to salvation by cultish devotion centered on a prophet, coach, guru, leader who presents adherents with “the answer” to the doubts and fears plaguing them speaks volumes to the power of fundamentalist religion and belief in other parts of the world. The power of “optics,” how things look rather than how they are, is a central feature of the rise of a sense of Russian purity and power in this new world where public relations are more powerful than reality. The awkward leaps across the fence after elections in our own country mimic the kinds of changes typical in Russia today, and possibly throughout its history.

Peter Pomerantsev

Peter Pomerantsev is a TV producer and nonfiction author. His work appears in The London Review of Books, FT, Newsweek, Le Monde Dimplomatique, and other publications. He spent a decade in Russia between 2001 and 2010/2011 as an international development consultant, film student, and largely, a TV producer and director. He now lives in London and continues to visit Russia regularly.

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev (Public Affairs, 2014, 254 pages, $25.99/14.49) provides a first rate portrait of the Orwellian world that is contemporary Russia, written with a clear vision of the social contrasts and mind-bending contradictions between what seems and what is, who people say they are and what they really represent, and how they represent themselves in the kaleidoscopic world that changes every time the lens is turned, even the slightest movement. The world of entrepreneurs, oligarchs, politicians, and bureaucrats at the top of an ever-changing pyramid of power and influence is one which truly needs to be read and understood. Of course, Vladimir Putin does an excellent job of making much of it clear in his absurd posturing. I received the book from the publisher as an electronic galley through Edelweiss and read it on my Kindle app.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

For the Dead by Timothy Hallinan - Book Review

For the Dead (Poke Rafferty Thriller #6) by Timothy Hallinan (SoHo Crime, November 2014, 353 pages, $26.95/12.99) is the sixth entry in Hallinan's popular Poke Rafferty series, continuing to develop the adventures of the expatriate travel writer living in Bangkok. I was first introduced to Hallinan when I read Herbie's Game from the also successful Junior Benson series, featuring detective Junior Benson, who also happens to be a thief. I loved Herbie's Game and I loved For the Dead, too, different as they are in setting, tone, and theme. The only element joining the two books, and so, presumably, the series themselves, is Hallinan's exceptional skill in developing believable, likable, precocious young adolescents and his preoccupation with the idea of family. While I would rather get into a series on the ground floor, reading it from episode one, this has rarely happened for me. Thus, one of my criteria for enjoying my first foray into a series book is whether I can enjoy it without the benefit of familiarity with the back story. In For the Dead, I found the forward propulsion of the current story so compelling that I had little or no need for Hallinan to provide me with lots of prior information. He skillfully fills in along the way as this very engrossing thriller grabbed me and drove me through its 350 pages with remarkable speed. This is a good one!

The novel opens with a couple of what look like mysterious gang murders carried off with professional precision. Fast cut to two street children, Challee and Dok, who discover an emaciated, almost dead, person wrapped in a too large coat. They bring the nearly dead girl to Father Bill's school where street children are being rehabilitated. Cut to Miaow, the thirteen year old adopted daughter of Poke Rafferty and his beautiful wife, Rose, a former stripper and prostitute. Miaow attends a fine private school with her friend Andrew, the dorky son of a Vietnamese diplomat. Andrew, in fear of his father after having lost his second cell phone in two weeks, allows Miaow to take him through her former haunts to a street shop selling cheap used, and probably stolen cell phones. It soon becomes clear that powerful forces are seeking Andrew's new cell phone, and the rescued street child wants to see Poke. All the children involved, except Andrew, as well as Rose, are people whose lives have been uprooted and nearly destroyed by the destruction of rural Thailand's agriculture and the burgeoning sex trade leading to children's being sent to the city as either sex workers or to exist on their wits in urban squalor. The setup for this story is complex, involving obvious corruption to the highest levels of the Thai government, and direst poverty at the lowest levels, all interconnected and hidden.

All this mystery revolves around Poke Rafferty, seeking to solidify his family, whose coherence is challenged by the difficult life situations from which they come. Miaow must cope with the typical insecurities of a blossoming early adolescent complicated by her former life on the street and the new image she's attempting to create for her herself at school and with Andrew. Rose, too, has an emerging secret. As Poke becomes increasingly involved in the murders, through his desire to protect his daughter and his wife, characters from his past emerge to involve him in ever widening complexity. The Thai policeman, Arthit, Boo, the former street person turned protege of Father Bill, and Andrew's diplomat father all become enmeshed in the action, which is fast, precise, and gripping. I'm interested in learning more about Poke, and have already downloaded the preceding novel from the local public library.

Bangkok is a bang-up place to set a fast-paced thriller. An ancient kingdom placed in a strategic location bounded by Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Malaysia with Vietnam and China nearby, Thailand is a cultural melting pot where clashing values and seething resentments abound. The role of white former colonizers only makes the whole mixture that much more explosive. Hallinan, who lives part of each year there, is well positioned to capture the environment: its heat and smells and crowds and tensions. Hallinan lives part of each year in southeast Asia, lending a high level of verisimilitude to his writing. Important themes emerging in the book and worthy of further explication are the exploitation of (especially) rural children in the world-wide sex trade of bustling Bangkok, the destruction of the rural farming environment which has been the base of Thai culture for centuries, and the official corruption rampant in the governing of this constitutional monarchy. Hallinan weaves these themes through the novel without preaching, except, perhaps, to explain the strategy used to destroy the farming economy. As an economically developing country without a substantial technological infra-structure, the roles of cell phones and computers are paramount in solving the murders in this story where the skills of children, their lack of requisite experience, and the risks they must surmount, often take center stage.

Timothy Hallinan

Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of the Poke Rafferty thriller series and the Junior Bender mystery series.After years of working in Hollywood, television, and the music industry, he now writes full time. He divides his time between California and Thailand.

For the Dead (Poke Rafferty Thriller #6) by Timothy Hallinan (SoHo Crime, November 2014, 353 pages, $26.95/12.99) continues this well-regarded thriller series through its sixth iteration. Despite not having read the first five volumes of the series, I found myself quickly drawn into this convoluted exploration of a society rampant with political corruption and sexual exploitation. Poke Rafferty, a travel writer, has brought together two refugees of the the exploitation and built a family of them, a family he is fiercely committed to defending and strengthening despite the heavy odds against him. I found the book to be highly entertaining, fast-paced, and deeply embedded in a culture both alien to me and endlessly fascinating. I look forward to reading many more volumes from this fine writer. The book was provided to me by the publisher as an electronic galley through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle app.