Watch Like Doc: “Mommy” (2014)

Doc recently had the opportunity to take in the film “Mommy,” a Belgian picture starring a whole bunch of Canadians.  How’s that even happen?

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Mommy‘ is, on the surface, a disarmingly simple study of a family’s mortifying dysfunction, mostly through the 15-year-old son’s ADHD and explosively violent behavior, blanketed with the mother’s efforts to show her brand of love while holding out hope for something better.  Anne Dorval is mostly very good in her portrayal of Diane Després, 40-something widow and mother to Steve, played with menacing-then-charming perfection by Antoine-Olivier Pilon.  The movie begins with Steve’s return home after being deinstitutionalized – after he had set fire to the cafeteria at the facility he was receiving care in (and injuring another patient there), Steve’s mom was given the choice to have him shipped off to the highly restrictive juvenile detention center (“That’s the beginning of the end…”) or bring him home to live with her again.  It is obvious from the start that Diane and Steve together are two highly flammable ingredients to an explosive cocktail, playing off each other’s emotions, each goading the other until the crescendo results in rather disturbing threats or actual acts of violence.  It is after one such outburst that the third main character, the odd next-door neighbor Kyla, played by the brilliant Suzanne Clément, is introduced to the pair, and rounds out the main troika that gallops through the film.

The bizarre chemistry between Kyla and Steve, and between Kyla and Diane, is more than simply captivating – it tends to draw the audience in.  Kyla, herself an audience member, has her own set of quirks – she has a prolonged stammer that entertains the asocial Steve, and is a recent arrival from Quebec where she used to teach high school but, for some unexplained (presumably dark) reason, quit her job and moved away with her husband and daughter.  At one point, we spy a framed photograph of what must be her young son, but who does not live in Kyla’s house.  As the film progresses, Kyla’s stammer becomes far less pronounced, but only when she is with Steve and Diane – and she finds herself with them often, apparently able to relax amidst (and in spite of) the tense atmosphere that the Després household often holds; in addition, since Steve’s home-schooling is beyond Diane’s ken, Kyla is asked to step in and provide her service as his teacher.

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The film demands a great deal from the audience.  The anger that lies beneath Steve’s every step is nearly tangible, to the point that we look for clues as to how he will react to any given stimulus at any particular point in the film.  That’s as much a tip of the hat to Pilon’s acting as to the film’s direction by Xavier Dolan.  Another demand is made right from the start, also by Dolan – the aspect of the film is reported to be at 1:1 – essentially a square or, if you will, a box in which each of the characters simmers or smiles.  The affect can be quite claustrophobic, and when close-ups are shot during scenes of violence, downright unsettling.  Finally, the audience is expected to sit tight and (presumably) try not to judge Diane, who obviously has been doing the best she can, given the hand that she’s been dealt – but almost all of her moves seem to be a display of rather terrible parenting.  She uses the word love in describing her feelings for Steve, but compassion and nurturing appear to be non-existent.  Trying to will a character to do the right thing when you can see things going downhill fast can take its toll on a movie-goer.  Twice or three times in a film?  No problem; it’s hard to have a plot without conflict.  But twenty to thrity?  Good lord.

ccIt can be argued that almost all of Steve’s problems in the story are either directly or indirectly linked to his mother’s actions.  We see it on the screen, when Steve is hectored into accompanying Diane with a male neighbor to a karaoke bar, where Steve is to be on his best behavior while Mommy and the neighbor wolf down drink after drink, discussing a pending lawsuit resulting from the cafeteria fire.  We see him trying, but we know it will end horribly.  The ensuing confrontations that night, as well as over the coming days, are heartbreaking.  We get the feeling that there is an unnecessary membrane of hopelessness covering Diane and Steve – Kyla can clearly see it, and we believe that she recognizes it doesn’t have to be that way.  The last straw comes in the final reel, when Steve is unwittingly brought to the juvenile detention facility by Diane in a display of surrender that she will not acknowledge.  That goes over exactly as we, the audience, felt it would, but by this time we are far too fatigued to shout at the screen.

When the credits begin to roll, we are left with so many questions.  For me, the main questions revolved around Kyla.  What happened to her son?  Why does she stammer?  What happened in school to make her have to quit her job (or was she fired?) and leave Quebec?  What makes her husband seemingly so aloof?  What attracts her to the drama-filled Després family?  Her character was enigmatic, the only character at first blush that seemed pure and unflawed, and yet we somehow know she isn’t.

Ultimately, this is a bleak and cheerless film.  I find that it fits right into Dolan’s film-writing and directing oeuvre.  While his wunderkind reputation was further solidified with the release of ‘Mommy,’ met with a nine-minute standing ovation at Cannes, I confess that I find him pretentious, and that he lives up to his image as an ‘untrustworthy’ story-teller.  Needless to say, he has his fair share of admirers and critics alike.

I suspect Doc simply don’t understand Dolan’s message with this film, and because of that, I cannot fully appreciate what he’s presenting me with.  I appreciated the filmmaking itself, and believe the acting was some of the best I’d seen all year, but because it is ultimately a painful and frustrating film to watch, it is one I would not quickly recommend.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s gonna give this one a solid C-.  Great acting, miserable story.

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Doc Reviews “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” by JK Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

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This review is 98% spoiler-free!
Doc finished reading this snappy read about an hour ago. I haven’t really read any reviews of it, other than some of taglines like “So many twists!” There are no more twists to this story than any other Potter story. Perhaps the cruelest twist, then, is in expecting readers who have never read a play to hope it reaches them as emotionally as the first seven stories did.
Without the narrative and inner voice to accompany what is little more than dialogue and stage direction, the authors are forced into weaving slight contrivances into the dialogue to help shepherd the reader into understanding the motivation behind any given character in any given scene. In the end, it works, but I wonder how many readers get that far without becoming frustrated.
ccThe story centers around Albus Severus Potter – remember reading that name in ‘Deathly Hallows’ and almost being moved to tears at the significance behind it?  It seems that Albus isn’t all that interested in what made mom and dad name him that; in fact, his priority appears to be in coming to grips with being the son of Harry Potter.  Another of the main characters is a kid named Scorpius Malfoy – who also seems to be having issues living up to his own father’s best wishes.  Through a series of encounters, and early on in the story, we learn that Albus and Scorpius, who somehow have found themselves to be kindred spirits, are contriving to step back into the past with a Time Turner to right a wrong and make the world a better place.  It wouldn’t be much of a story if they succeeded in doing just that, so there’s all sorts of misunderstood actions and missteps along the way.  You don’t have to read too many books on time travel to know that sometimes things can really go wrong with the slightest of actions.  A temporal butterfly effect.
In true Rowling fashion, things get off to a bang, and there’s loss of life at stake (on a massive scale) depending on whether or not the Potter and Malfoy progeny can undo what’s been done.  Of course they can’t, not on their own.  And even then…
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There are some minor complaints about the writing – at times, it seems as though this is a story wrapped up in a Trivial Pursuit game; many names from the past are re-introduced, as can be expected in any series that has run this long, but often we are met with obscure names that may have been mentioned once in an early chapter of an even earlier story in the set – and that’s the only mention. Are the authors offering a nod to the true Potter geek? I didn’t consider these moments as roadblocks, but they were certainly distracting and seemed to be shoe-horned into the text in as unwieldy a manner as could be expected.
The story was very good, everything a true Potter fan could have hoped for. Among the best-written parts in the play are the redemption and acknowledgment of past courageous acts for a number of well-known characters; this seemed to also be a nod to true devotees who may have felt certain characters’ sacrifices, both known and assumed, went unappreciated for too long. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll leave that up to your imagination as to whom I’m writing about. Regardless, these passages could have been written in a ridiculously syrupy manner, and perhaps if this were a traditional novel, that would have been the case, but the stage is too swollen with action for characters or audience to dwell too much on them. The authors are, to paraphrase one exchange, planting acorns for the ride home and for the weeks to come.
One thing that stands out to the even mildly observant reader is that trying to stage this play as written would be a courageous endeavour. There are seemingly hundreds of scenes scattered through the acts, and the magic is deeply ingrained throughout – how certain actions could be translated to the stage are beyond me, but that’s happily not my job. It does make me want to see the play in person, however.
What would be even more interesting would be to see how it could be brought to the cinema screen. It would be interesting to see it happen, but it would have to occur with at least one major change in the cast – Alan Rickman’s passing would demand someone that could handle Snape’s lines – not much of a spoiler, since it’s already been revealed that the play involves a good deal of time travel.
So anyway, a good read, almost a must-read for the true Potter fans, with a gentle warning to approach with caution – remember it’s not a novel, there is a good deal of reading between the lines required in order to follow along without getting too frustrated.
On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s giving this one a solid A-.  Worth the purchase if you’ve already got the other books.  I hope this puts a nice final ribbon on the series.
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Watch Like Doc: “Life Itself” (2014)

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Doc tried to start writing this review about twelve times over the past four days.  It’s hard to know where to begin, because it’s a moving picture that reached me on so many personal levels; as a lover of films, a proponent of independent cinema, I feel …  No, that’s not how I’ll start this.

Life Itself is a documentary about the life and final days of Roger Ebert, celebrated film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, author, screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and erstwhile bon vivant.  Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), it shares its title with Ebert’s 2011 memoir, and while it covers a lot of the same ground as the book, the film also picks up where Ebert left off – dealing with, among other things, the ravages of the countless surgeries Ebert endured in order to bring the jigsaw puzzle of his face back to what it looked like on the box.

The film starts out with a nice in-depth look at the chubby cub reporter and altar boy who grew up wanting so badly to be a newsman that, as a young teen, he started his own newspaper, which he also delivered to the neighbors.  From there, he wrote for his college (University of Illinois at Urbana) newspaper.  He found himself buried in his doctoral work at the University of Chicago and the job he had taken as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times to help pay for his doctorate, and decided to put his doctorate on hold in order to devote more attention to his work as a movie critic.

cbThroughout the documentary, we are shown Ebert in many versions throughout the ensuing years – partier, two-fisted drinker, pugnacious adversary, recovering alcoholic, sparring partner for Gene Siskel, husband, step-father, and finally cancer patient.  All of these pictures of Ebert are fleshed out through anecdotes and reminiscences from former colleagues, friends, family, and most notably, his wife Chaz.

Roger’s own reminiscences are provided through excerpts from his memoir.  One excellent device the director adopts is using Roger’s robotic synthesized voice during the real-time events of the movie, and employing “voicematch actor” Stephen Stanton for the narration.  Stanton was a brilliant find – a man capable of mimicking Ebert’s Midwest voice and cadence so perfectly, I initially wondered how the hell Ebert’s vocal chords were restored for these pieces of the film.

Ebert’s battles with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, and the subsequent loss of his lower jaw (and, consequently, his ability to speak, eat, or drink) have already been fairly well-documented, but Ebert allows director James to force us to look at the startling exterior.  Seeing the 2013 version of Ebert’s face filling the screen for the first time in the theater left many of us reflexively gasping or unintentionally whispering a soft “oh my God” into our popcorn.  We are shown a brutally long shot of Roger’s throat being suctioned clean after a feeding, which appears to be agonizing for the patient.  After the technician has finished the procedure, which Ebert obviously must endure many times a day, we try to settle back into our seats, having found ourselves somehow clenching our entire bodies into fists.  Ebert looks through the camera at James, indicating that he is proud to have had a part in committing that torture to film.  Roger’s good friend Bill Nack noted that “Roger was not just the chief character and star of the movie that was his life, he was also the director.”

caSeeing Ebert in this way, victim of the constant indignity of his boneless lower jaw lying agape, at times looking all the world like a startled puppet: it’s a good starting point for trying to allow the audience to more fully comprehend how much Ebert had suffered over the 12 years since his cancer was detected, and how, in spite of that, he was able to dedicate his time and efforts to mentoring young directors and young writers, all the while maintaining his wit and charm and love for his wife Chaz, and for life itself.

It’s a solid two hours, none of it wasted on fluff.  Because the time flies so quickly during the viewing, this viewer was hoping for more – there were still missing elements unfilled, Ebert’s relationship with Siskel’s “replacement” Roeper (who inexplicably never appears in the film) for just one example.  When it was over, I felt happy to hear many other pieces I never knew, and although I felt I had lost an old friend all over again, I felt I had enjoyed a celebration rather than a two-hour eulogy.  It’s a movie that I would highly recommend to any lover of cinema, and I would suggest that a perfect gift for a film lover would be the DVD of this documentary, packaged with the memoir.

On a scale of A to F, Doc has no option but to give this talkie two thumbs up.

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Doc’s Box: NetGalley

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Doc’s Box is a look inside some of the little treasures that keep Doc moving forward most days.  This week, we’re going to look at one of the best things around for book lovers, especially bloggers, reviewers, librarians, booksellers, or educators: NetGalley.

ceNetGalley is a honey of a website, with its current iteration launched in 2012, offering those of us with a voracious appetite for books the opportunity to get our claws on free reads, many of which are offered before publication.

The publications are digital, and come from publishers of every size and shape, including Harlequin, Penguin, Random House, Simon & Schuster and many others in the US, Canada, UK and Australia. Some books are immediately available, whereas others require approval from the publisher.

It’s dead easy to find a book you’d be interested in.  You can search by author or title; you can browse by genre; you can browse by publisher.  You can browse by available now,  available for request, and most requested.  Once you’ve gotten your hands on the title of your choice, you can download it in a number of formats, or simply read it on your computer or laptop screen.  The site maintains a bookshelf for you so it’s a snap if you want to gather more than one title to read and review.  There is a catch, however – the books come with a time limit, but relax!  You usually have a month or more to read your selections!

Hope you found this of some value.  I’m a nut when it comes to books, especially books for free.  This is better than your local library, because you can read your book on the go, and months before it’s officially published!  Check it out!

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Head on over right now!

Doc Reviews “Career of Evil” by Robert Galbraith

ceIn what must certainly be the literary world’s worst-kept secret, JK Rowling has made a name for herself writing thrilling crime fiction. And that name is Robert Galbraith. The magnificent “Harry Potter” author, under the Galbraith pseudonym, has penned three (and counting) books in the popular “Cormoran Strike” series of novels, and just like the Potter books, they keep getting better with every new release.

Here’s a bit of a primer if you’re new to the series. The protagonist, Cormoran Strike, is a private investigator who relies on common sense, intuition, and his training as a former Special Investigation Branch investigator with the Royal Military Police. To add to the mix, Strike is missing a leg due to an IED explosion in Afghanistan, is the illegitimate son of a famous aging rock-star father, and has set out to collect the horcruxes to finally put Voldemort away for good. Except for that last bit. That’s another series.

The book is told mostly from the point of view of Strike’s secretary-then-partner, a blonde-ginger named Robin Ellacott, who (at the time of the action of this novel) has been in Strike’s employ for one year. Robin’s equal to Strike in intuition and investigative savvy, but she’s also mastered the art of awareness, and appears happy to take a back seat to Strike’s ego.

Flash forward to this novel – Robin has started to receive shocking parcels and threatening letters, sometimes attached to human body parts – as small as a lip, as big as a leg. It’s obvious from the bad guy’s POV chapters that he’s got a grudge against Strike, and is doing his level best to eventually kill Robin, and have the police believe Strike was the culprit. In the meantime, our unidentified baddy roams the seedier streets of London, making every effort to top himself in the gruesome category when it comes to snuffing young ladies. Two things go without saying (but Doc’ll say them anyway) – one, this can make for some grim reading, and two, Ms Rowling’s a bit of a master with the pen; you’ll actually hear machete cutting through bone when you hit some of these passages. Yeesh.

For those who have read the first two books in the series, this volume offers a great deal of backstory on both Strike and Robin. We learn a lot about Strike’s relationship with his mother, a former flat-mate, and his unpleasant father. We also are introduced to rather disturbing information about Robin and her fiancé, Matthew; all of this information serves not just as juicy subplot, but are also excellent devices for moving the story along and offering the motivation for some of what could otherwise be written off as erratic behavior on the part of the characters.

Because Rowling is behind the wheel, we’re treated to a marvelously fleshed-out (sorry) laundry list of likely suspects, each more foul than the previous one. Needless to say, as the story progresses, Strike is accused of interfering in police work and runs the risk of being tossed into a cell. And because the press had a field day with the first of the grisly packages addressed to Robin, his clientele has shrunk, making the bank accounts quite tight. Forced to accept jobs of stalking ne’er-do-wells and cheating spouses, Strike often feels as though he’s letting real opportunities to catch the killer slip through his fingers.

cdRowling is nothing short of a gem. She has once again delivered the goods to a hungry reading public, with a masterful plot and perfectly good and evil characters, along with some iffy ones to boot. She also tackles some incredible issues here, such as rape, pedophilia, partner abuse, and incest, and delivers them unadorned. At one point, Strike is faced with evidence that a young girl may very well be directly exposed to a known child rapist, and appears to be reluctant to act. Robin is faced with the dilemma of going against her boss’s stated instructions to stay out of it, risking being fired, as well as irreparably damaging a police investigation, in order to act on behalf of the young girl. It’s a very touching scene, and (of course) directly impacts the book’s final chapters.

Another special treat for Doc was Rowling’s description of Yorkshire, particularly a visit to Betty’s Tea Room in Harrogate. It’s such a tiny, tiny detail that most readers would glaze over to get to the murdery bits, but since Doc lived in Harrogate a number of years ago, and has actually been to Betty’s, it was like coming across an old friend. Thanks, Jo, that was special.

Let’s not fool around here. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a leg sent to your office, and 10 being roses and chocolates, Doc gives this book a solid A. Read the series if you haven’t; if you have, grab hold of this book.

I’m really looking forward to the BBC production of the first two books, but at the end of the day, I still miss Dobby.

Doc Reviews “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” by Stephen King

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Cover copyright by Scribner

 

This collection of short stories, most of which has already seen the light of day through being published in magazines or other media, is anything but rubbish. I told a colleague some years back that King appears to have hit his stride again. Yes, even for its ridiculous made-up-on-the-spot ending, even “Under the Dome” was a ripping read. “11.22.1963” was pretty awesome, “Doctor Sleep” likewise. So I walked up to the local library for my copy of “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” without any hint of trepidation, assuming that I would walk into territory that was not just familiar, but pleasantly so. For the most part, I was right.

The book seems to find its healthiest pulse-rate with two of the longer stories, “Mile 81,” about an evil car (beyond anything “Christine” could have hoped to do) and “Ur,” a happy little fantasy that King originally wrote to be exclusively available to the Amazon Kindle. Some of the writing is unashamedly predictable (“Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” and “Bad Little Kid”) but the writing is tinged with just enough of King’s tell-tale dialogue (think Quentin Tarantino without the mustard) and apparent joy for the writing, that the pleasure is in the journey, and not the destination.

The one downer for me was “Blockade Billy,” which was a novella published in book form in 2010. I read it back then, and perhaps because I was soured on the notion of publishing a tiny book with a Big Boy price tag on it, I really didn’t care for the negative tone of the writing. Re-reading it didn’t do anything to improve the experience for me this time around. I’m sure King will get over it.

This is a nice little collection of shivery reads, something nice to have on the shelf and take down every now and then, rather than all at once like Doc did. More of a treat if you spread your 20 slices of cake out over an extended period of time, rather than chew them down all at once. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a rainy day on the street, and 10 being a sunny day at the beach, Doc gives this effort a solid B+.

Doc Reviews “I Was a Cold War Penguin” by Dafydd Manton

ce.jpgA friend from my dark past, when I was working for the US Air Force alongside a number of RAF counterparts in the town once known as West Berlin, alerted me to the existence of a freshly penned book titled “I Was a Cold War Penguin.” The author was an acquaintance of my DPF (dark past friend) and we appeared to have shared a good number of similar experiences growing up (I almost wrote “maturing”) through our enlistment and training to work with languages in the armed forces of our respective lands.

There is so much that I could offer about this book, but I will try to narrow my fondness for it down to a few paragraphs. First, it is brilliantly and hilariously written. If Tom Sharpe and HP Lovecraft had a baby, that would be scientifically ponderous, but would have nothing to do with this book. But I digress.

Dafydd Manton (for the author is he) was our eponymous Cold War Penguin, serving in the RAF from the early 1970s, doing his part to keep an ear on the Soviets in their effort to rule the world. Manton artfully describes his life in the RAF during the Cold War, always with a style of humor that can leave the reader rolling the eyes, shaking the head, or laughing out (the) loud. Because our paths had crossed, just not at the same time, I found myself bumping in to friends throughout the book – Manton drops names like pygmy goats drop chocolate marbles – anywhere and everywhere, and with little warning. My poor wife would have to sit and put up with me cackling with laughter, then barking out names from my past that I had somehow forgotten. Part of my delight was reading some of the horrifyingly hilarious stories that went on a good decade before I started working with what I thought were clean-cut hard-working men and women. Well, they were, indeed, all that and (obviously) quite a bit more.

Manton is, if nothing else, an honorable gent when it comes to retelling some of these stories. He offers proper attribution when it comes to recognizing those who made contributions, providing entire anecdotes of their own as well as filling in some of the darker recesses of memory. He also withholds the names of those who, for any of a number of reasons, would not love for their families to tie them to some of the hijinks we are greeted with.

Along with a few groan-inducing shaggy dog stories here as well, all told this is a wonderfully packaged glimpse at a life not often described anywhere else. Men and women in similar careers from my side of the Atlantic will immediately find themselves at home with this book, and anyone who has lived through the Cold War – or for that matter, are simply curious as to some of the goings-on behind the scenes – will find this a great book.

The proceeds from the book go to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, a very worthy cause, whose charity provides financial, practical and emotional support to serving and former members of the RAF – regardless of rank – as well as their partners and dependents. The book is available through the usual online commercial services, in the standard formats – epub, mobi, lrf, pdf, html; if you’d like to take a sneak peek, you can head over to Smashwords.com and read (I believe) the first chapter. But do yourself (and the recipients of the RAF Benevolent Fund’s services) a good deed, and buy this book today. You’ll not be sorry.

As an aside, I had promised that I would write this review as soon as I had finished reading it. It took me longer than usual for a book this size, not because of the complexity of the language, but because it is written in a number of bite-sized chunks, making it very much like the lead singer for the Velvet Underground – a great loo read.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being amazingly woohoo, and 1 being why-oh-why boohoo, Doc gives this book a solid A.

 

Doc Reviews “Against All Enemies” by Jeffrey M. Carney

cfDoc finished reading “Against All Enemies” by Jeffrey M. Carney several nights ago, and have been trying to put into words enough thoughts on the book to make a somewhat coherent review. Doc’s struggle comes from the fact that the Carney is not only a convicted spy, but also someone with whom Doc worked and, at one point or another, may have had a beer or two. True story. So I finally gave up trying to be coherent in the review, and will simply offer my thoughts. It’s still a review, of sorts. You know how Doc can be.

Bottom line up front: This is a well-written piece of historical fiction. In the book, Carney writes down his version of his life, from his formative years growing up in Ohio and Florida, to his enlistment in the United States Air Force, through his decision to illegally cross the border into East Berlin and begin a career spying for the MfS (what most of us know as Stasi) in East Germany. He details his arrest (“kidnapping,” in his words), his trial, and life while incarcerated at Quantico and Fort Leavenworth. There’s also a very brief glimpse of life after Leavenworth.

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Before getting into the details of the book, let me offer two observations that are apparent from the start. Jeff is a very good writer; I believe the book has not been ghostwritten – there is no indication in the book or by doing a thorough Internet scrub; I believe these really are his words, and he’s got a really good style for getting his writing to come off the page. This includes sprinkling his pages with some pretty dark but often brilliant humor. Describing one of the Special Agents from the USAF Office of Special Investigations during his trial, in which the SA appears to be rather full of himself and tries to project his importance by deepening his voice, Jeff describes the SA as reacting with surprise at how his voice sounds, comparing it to a dog hearing itself fart out loud for the first time. In the middle of a grim scene, this line just jumped out, and I laughed. There are comparable lines throughout.

Another observation is that this book was in desperate (and unrealized) need of a good editor. No, even a so-so editor would have done. Based on the lack of evidence of a publisher’s name on the copyright page, you can tell this isn’t even a “vanity press” publication – it’s self-published, and I am assuming that, back in the day, it was rushed to publication just a bit in order to cash in on the Manning and Snowden frenzy, which carried along with it the misguidedly gullible audience that believes these two people are somehow heroes. Perhaps I’m taking too great a leap. Regardless, the misspellings and awkward grammar can sometimes be forgiven, but punctuation errors gallop across the page like a gazelle with its ass on fire. You’re welcome for that visual.

For the most part, Jeff only uses first names and last name initials. Those who worked in Berlin during these years will no doubt recognize a lot of names and personalities. The dialogue Jeff provides, like narrative bubbles in a comic book, do not ring true, but that can be written off simply as poetic license. There are others (not co-workers) whose last names appear – I’m not sure why that decision was made, but it tended to slow me down, as I wondered if there was an agenda I was missing. No idea. For what it’s worth, Jeff has nothing overly negative to say about his Berlin or Goodfellow Air Force Base co-workers on an individual basis, at least for this publication.

ceA final observation on the publication before diving into the text: a number of sections, we are told, were redacted by intelligence agencies during the standard counterintelligence review to ensure no sensitive or classified information makes it to publication. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the redactions – Jeff leaves black spots where the cuts were made, and the majority of information represented by these spots are painfully obvious to those who worked with him. Cutting out the word “Tempelhof” or “TCA” or “Marienfelde” seems trivial and silly. I’ve seen this review process in action, and I don’t doubt that they honestly were the result of the review of a number of agencies, as Jeff says; these reviews rarely make much sense, and it’s not unusual to see the exact same information that had been redacted on page 122 to show up in all its glory on page 126. It can be distracting for the reader, but it can also be a bit of fun to try to figure out what puzzle piece goes in the blank.

Jeff’s account portrays him being raised by a sadistic bully of a father and a simpering victim of a mother, afraid to leave the brute she married for a number of reasons. Jeff eventually escapes after a series of episodes that, if true, are astonishingly tragic – even more so, since he is unable to rescue his two younger brothers from that nightmare of a household; he is able to enlist in the Air Force, and in short order finds himself enjoying the needed structure of basic training. Get used to that concept of “structure”. It pops up again and again throughout the book.

Once in the USAF, Jeff seems to settle into a regime. His modest German skills allow him to move ahead in his training, and his sharp observations on life during tech school (English class, target language training, and his arrival to Goodfellow for his final round of training before his first field assignment) bring back a lot of memories for Doc. His description of his arrival in Berlin is similarly well-handled and allowed me to reminisce.

There are a lot of inconsistencies between Jeff’s recollection of events in Berlin and how they actually went down, especially when it comes to timelines. We both got to Berlin around the same time (I arrived the day before he did), and while a lot of events aren’t exactly chiseled in the stone of my memory, I still have a good grasp on the timeline and the outcome of most of them. There is no point in Jeff having made stuff up with the events in question, I think he may have either a) a faulty memory or b) simply shifted things around to tell what he thought was a more compelling story. Either option is not what you look for, however, when you’re reading a non-fiction book in search of facts or, for that matter, motive when it comes to little things like espionage. Still, I will give him a pass on this.

Searching for real motives is a tricky effort with Jeff’s version of events. In his words, he wanted to make sure that neither side had the advantage over the other in the race to destroy the world and everyone living in it. His work as a linguist in a classified facility helped keep the Warsaw Pact at bay, and the only way he could make sure the playing field was level was to engage the other side. There’s also a lot of “I was always misunderstood” and “my work and efforts are unappreciated” (along with, by his own admission, too much beer and self-pity) that strengthened his walk through Checkpoint Charlie.

The “impact” of one of the more telling episodes that he relates is brought up a couple of times in the book. He points to an example of what, in actuality, was standard operating procedure back in the day on the part of both Soviet and American military border “showdowns,” as well as those Warsaw Pact and NATO forces. In Jeff’s version, this was a massive one-off exercise on the part of the American cowboys in the White House and DoD that he knew would very likely trigger nuclear war; his breathless account of how he spent the day after his mid shift (when he learned of the exercise) trying to alert his handler is entertaining reading, and perhaps it really did go down the way he described it, but I can’t help but wonder why his handler didn’t laugh in his face at the information.

There are a number of timelines in his story that I was looking forward to reading in the book, considering I only had my own point of view as a frame of reference. When I got to those sections, Jeff did not disappoint.

cgFirst, the way he went about his espionage activities while assigned to Marienfelde. A lot of rumor (and some interesting OSI briefings) pointed those of us who worked with Jeff in the right direction, but the level of detail he’s able to provide (even with redacted parts) was impressive. Someone in my position cannot help but feel at least a little anger when reading the casual way in which he got away with his activities, and the pride with which he details their accounts, but at some point the mature reader has to set aside personal emotions and look at it, if nothing else, from a counterintelligence aspect and use it as an exercise in “lessons learned”.

Along the same lines, his work for the MfS at Goodfellow was also well-documented, including trips to meet with his handlers. It was nice to read of some of his intelligence failures, as well – the effort to replicate highly classified documents on microfiche is one example. Along these lines, the section detailing his circle closing in on him at Goodfellow, along with his desertion and arrival back in East Germany, was worth reading as well – he doesn’t provide specifics that explain why the lead-up events in Texas occurred, but he lets the reader in on the fact that he had obviously been acting in a manner that had his supervisors so concerned that he had been scheduled for a battery of psychological evaluations.

Another section of the book I was looking forward to was the run-up of events which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the impact that those events (along with reunification) had on his life in East Germany. It was at this point that Jeff reveals that he felt almost as betrayed by his bosses as he himself had betrayed his co-workers and country years before. He conveys the true sense of panic he must have been feeling when he realized he was headed down a rabbit hole, that he needed to give up everything he had been working for with the MfS and find a new home, a new organization that could use his skills. But with freedom sweeping across Eastern Europe at the time, his options were obviously quite limited.

The events leading up to Jeff’s capture are not accurately told, but it’s probably the official version that Jeff was given; this keeps a lot of good people from having their names published. The true story of his discovery and capture are probably classified, so I’ll leave it at that. Suffice to say, his capture and subsequent movement to the US, and inevitable incarceration, all make for an intriguing read. The structure provided by his incarceration, in very different ways at the Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force levels, also helped him keep moving forward and helped him survive. The book’s afterword (a Berlin-based dialogue between him and his son, after his release from prison) appears to be a contrivance, but I suppose I’ll never know if that’s the case. Either way, it’s not a bad couple of pages of writing, and its purpose is to cement your understanding of Jeff’s desire for a world free from the threat of nuclear holocaust.

When I closed the cover, I thought back on what I might have learned from reading the book. What stood out to me more than anything was Jeff’s sense of self-worth. I don’t doubt that he was viewed as an important figure to the East Germans, but I got the feeling that he viewed himself as the sun, the moon, and the stars to their intelligence collection efforts. I suspect that is far from the case, for a number of reasons. In addition, whether intentional or not, Jeff portrays himself as pretty much a prick. He’s often the smartest guy in the room, no matter who else is there, and that his emotions carry a hair-trigger – he explodes in fury when his concerns are dismissed or when he feels he is not being treated properly or in accord with his imagined sense of self-worth.

I think Jeff expected a lot more attention from the publication of this book than I imagine he’s gotten here stateside. I can picture him waiting for interviews from the major news outlets (he’s been interviewed on German television, but I expect Wolf Blitzer hasn’t had a chance to return his calls), and that the American public, once they hear his side of events, would be understanding and actually consider him a bit of a hero for keeping the world safe from nuclear war – but, to be fair, the American public hasn’t heard ANY side of events, not so much because the government wanted to protect all the damage from revealing the stuff he sold, but because he’s really not that big of a rat in the lab of espionage. He is not Ames, Hansen, Walker, Manning, or Snowden, not by a country mile.

Finally, I think he realistically knew that his former co-workers would not be lining up to tell him “Whoa! Now I get it! All’s forgiven.” He alludes to this a number of times in the book. The true betrayal in all of this was to the folks who worked with him, and whom he never gave a true chance to be a part of. But in one of his prison interviews with the military’s counterintelligence folks, he offers that if someone, anyone, had just reached out and said “Hey, Jeff, is everything okay?” that could have been the turning point, and he wouldn’t have turned out the way he did. Maybe I’m cynical, but I think that’s a nice convenient cop-out. Laying the blame on co-workers, even partly, is not only disingenuous, it’s chicken-shit.

Doc would recommend this book be read with an open but sharply-focused eye. And Doc recommends finding a library or otherwise free copy, because Doc doesn’t condone funding the chest-thumping of spies.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being shabby, 10 being snappy, Doc awards this book a B-.  It’s well-written, poorly-published claptrap disguised as non-fiction.

So this just happened.

Not sure how ol’ Doc’s gonna be able to sleep for the coming damned four and a half months.  I’m hoping (against hope) to get an advance copy to read of this particular book.  You’ll be the first to know if that’s the case.  But it won’t be.

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If you ain’t squealing like a baby piglet right about now, check your pulse.  This is huge.

Doc Reviews “This Census-Taker” by China Miéville

ccLet’s imagine a world in which Virginia Woolf and Neil Gaiman had a baby that they taught to write like Kafka. That baby, at least this go-around, is the blazingly brilliant China Miéville. Mr. Miéville presents us with a slim story about a boy who lives in a surreal land that is sparsely detailed but richly embodied, a boy who may or may not have witnessed his father murdering his mother. The authorities from the town in whose outskirts the boy lives are outraged, having apparently had bad dealings with Father before – but there is hesitation to arrest Father for two reasons – no body, and (possibly more importantly) Father is a local key-maker. The keys Father makes are not the sort to unlock doors, but are based on emotions, dreams, and desires; he crafts these into metal fetishes which he then sells to the citizens to satisfy their desire for love, a good crop, a healthy milk-cow, or revenge. He is eyed by the townfolk with suspicion, but no one wants to have this craft turned against them. The boy is sent back to live with his father.

The story is covered in a dream-like gauze, with more than one suggestion that our narrator (the boy) is not the most reliable reporter of the goings-on in and around home. But Mother is most decidedly missing.

Miéville has always had a knack for drawing me into a story; like Gaiman, he introduces a child-like voice that insists on being heard, and that begs to be protected. He also fiddles a lot with time and a seeming stream-of-conscious storytelling, presenting the narrator in first, second, and third person throughout the book. This is a book with puzzle pieces scattered at the entrance and all over the hallway, clear through to the exit. The climax is satisfying with a single read, but the volume is slim enough that it is worth your while to go back through that passage and look for all of the puzzle pieces a second time through. It’s definitely one to keep on the bookshelf for revisiting, over and over.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a punch in the nose by a surly drunk, and 10 being a gentle massage with a nearby snifter of tawny port, Doc gives this fine read a solid A.