Thursday Reviews: Our Man In Tehran By Robert A. Wright, It By Stephen King

Our Man in Tehran
Robert A. Wright

The Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980 is at the center of why the United States and Iran are literally not on speaking terms. When America’s relationship with the Shah is looked at, it’s not hard to understand why the Iranian people were upset. On the other hand, when the Shah was toppled, no one could have predicted that the Ayatollah Khomeni would turn out to be not only as brutally repressive as the Shah, but also not entirely stable. When the alleged reformer backs the invasion of an embassy and the kidnapping of diplomatic personnel, it’s amazing that six Americans who were not in the embassy at the time of the take over managed to escape.

The escape of six American “house guests” came about largely through the efforts of Ken Taylor, Canada’s ambassador to the United States. For the longest time, almost all the credit went to Taylor, who engineered the concealment and smuggling of the six American fugitives, as well as providing support for the failed Operation Eagle Claw intended to save the 53 Americans held captive.

But the story is more complicated than that. Taylor, as ambassador, was the public face of a series of maneuvers that only recently could anyone in the US, Canada, and Iran talk about. There were members of the CIA, the Canadian foreign service, and even some inside Iran not happy with the direction Khomeni was taking the country. While even the Soviet Union and China, while not supporting sanctions, expressed outrage that an embassy had been violated – considered sancrosanct even in mysterious, defiant North Korea – Iran simply considered those in the embassy not taken hostage as fugitives. Written by a Canadian journalist, and featuring reminiscences from Taylor, his colleagues in External Affairs and the State Department, and even Prime Minister Joe Clark and President Jimmy Carter, we get a picture of Iran’s revolution that shows, with no prejudice, that Khomeni had become corrupted by absolute power and religious mania. Instead of freeing the nation from the oppression under the Shah, they simply replaced the monarch with another monster pretending to be a man of God.

We also get to see what former prime ministers Joe Clark and Pierre Trudeau were made of. Clark and Trudeau faced off twice in national elections during the hostage crisis, and both men took great pains to conceal Canada’s role in rescuing the missing Americans. Clark showed admirable restraint in saying nothing about the eventual rescue during his reelection campaign and incredible political shrewdness in getting the cabinet to sign off on a one-time authorization for phony Canadian passports to allow the Americans to walk right out of the country in plain sight.

Jimmy Carter, who often gets blamed for much of the hostage crisis’ duration, comes across as the most screwed president in American history. Handed a badly botched policy on Iran, courtesy of the Nixon Administration, Carter found himself trying to restore relations with Iran where the public deeply resent American interference dating back to 1953 and where the CIA’s own intelligence was hamstrung by Nixon’s willingness to let the Shah’s brutal Savak security organization supply intelligence about Iran to Washington. The only thing Carter could do was blunder. Had Ronald Reagan been elected in 1976, he, too, likely would have been a one-term president over the Iran debacle. It was that inevitable.

My favorite parts concern a European spy for the CIA codenamed “Bob,” whose identity remains, as of 2011, classified. Yet Bob was a force of nature not to be denied when assigned to help the Canadians send their “house guests” home. If equipment failures and an accident had not wrecked Eagle Claw, it’s likely Bob would be known today as the man who saved 53 hostages.

It

Stephen King

The last time I read this book was when it came out in the eighties. I saw the miniseries which, except for the ending, I liked better. (The ending was next to impossible to do for a TV miniseries in 1989.) You can look at this two ways: It’s Stand By Me with a monster, or seven kids beat up a clown. How’s that for high concept?

Seriously, though, It ruined clowns for a lot of people, thanks to It’s homicidal form, Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Pennywise likes kids the way WC Fields liked them. Well, actually, WC Fields said he liked them roasted over an open fire. Pennywise likes them raw and screaming. Pennywise is a very old being that crash landed in Derry, Maine (because Castle Rock is too small for King’s purposes here) and feeds on fear. And flesh. Every 27 years or so, a horrific event such as a mass murder awakens It. It feeds. Then sometime over the next year or two, a catastrophe signals It to go back to sleep.

Only seven kids have noticed something’s not right. It begins in 1958 when stuttering Bill Denbrough’s brother is killed. Shortly afterward, he sees strange things in his late brother’s room, like his brother winking at him from a photograph. He’s not the only one who’s noticed. Weird things happen to spook Eddie Kapsbrack, Richie Tozier, Ben Hanscomb, Beverly Marsh, Stanley Uris, and Mike Hanlon. They band together and stalk It to its underground lair and very nearly kill It.

Twenty-seven years later, in 1985, It emerges again. Mike Hanlon, now the town librarian, summons the others back, opening a floodgate of repressed memories and driving one of the original “Losers Club” to suicide. But they’re not the only ones who remember. It remembers. It springs childhood psycopath Henry Bowers from a nearby mental hospital to stalk the adult Losers. As if that’s not enough, they’re now over 30 and down one person. They’re worried the childhood magic is gone.

It is an incredibly complex novel, different from The Stand and more like King’s later long work. The edition I read (a paperback from the 1990’s) checks in at 1100 pages. King is hit or miss with later efforts of such length, but It crystalizes what King’s work is all about. The relationship between the seven childhood friends and their fear, more of losing that childlike sense of wonder that defeated It originally. Really, It is the catalyst to push these seven together, to drive one to suicide and another to “marry her father” in the form of an abusive husband while another marries “his mother.” Plus, It fleshes out King’s fictional Maine in a way the earlier Castle Rock novels did not. But then Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot were really small town Maine. Derry stands in for Bangor, being portrayed as one of Bangor’s sizeable suburbs and drawing much of its urban character from Bangor. This could easily have been an expanded version of The Body (on which Stand By Me is based.)

But King is a horror writer before anything else. And Pennywise is one of his most frightening creations, a clown whose true form would make HP Lovecraft run screaming into the night and cause the Great Cthulu to curl up in the fetal position and whimper.

I would say this one is King’s second best novel, after The Stand. If the seventies and eighties were King’s classic period, then It marks a fitting end to that chapter of his career.

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How Bacon Can Save The World

In the Middle East, bacon is forbidden in many places due to dietary restrictions. Thus most people there have not eaten bacon. Should the clerics and rabbis lift the ban on bacon, peace will come to the Middle East.

Most wars America, Europe, and Russia fight are with people who do not eat bacon. Bacon keeps the superpowers at bay.

If Hillary Clinton took bacon to Pyongyang, North Korea would freely join the brotherhood of nations.

Americans eat bacon. Canadians eat Canadian bacon. You can get the American kind all over Canada, even at Tim Horton’s. You can get Canadian bacon on your pizza or at McD’s in the US. The US and Canada have not been at war since 1812.

Bacon makes people happy. Happy people do not fly airplanes into buildings and only blow stuff up when their favorite team wins. (See Lexington, KY; Detroit; Manchester, UK.)

Bacon! The path to world peace!

The Return Of Holland Bay

A couple of years ago, I finished what I half-jokingly referred to as my “magnum opus.” Then I put it in the drawer to ferment. The novel was called Holland Bay.

About a year and a half ago, I almost quit writing altogether. Nita expressed disappointment that I put so much work into Holland Bay, then did nothing with it. Suddenly, I didn’t look like I was serious about being a writer. Well, of course not. I up and quit. My agent had dropped me, and there was nothing to show for all those trips to Bouchercon and flailing since before my wife and I had met except an obscure PI novel put out by a small press that ceased to exist less than a year after the book came out.

At the beginning of this year, I kicked my own ass and determined to finish not one, but two projects on the slate – one crime, one science fiction. Over the course of the past few months, it became clear the original projects would not cut it. The science fiction novel evolved into something else while writing one of the short stories I used to develop it. The other…

So much for the screenplay-as-outline. Instead, I started rereading Holland Bay. And I liked it.

Sure, it’s complex as hell, and a lot of storylines will need to be cut. Some things will need to be rearranged. But then that’s why this 105,000-word monster is a rough draft. The more I read this, the more I realize it would be outrageous not to see this thing through. So out comes Holland Bay. And back in the drawer it goes while I think on it and work on another project.

It’s good to be back.

Stooges!

Three Stooges 2013

20th Century Fox

The Farrelly Brothers finally bring out their long-awaited Three Stooges movie. And the Farrellies’ Stooges are stuck in 1940 living in the 21st century. So how do they pull this off? They make a series of four shorts that comprise what essentially is a remake (reimagining?) of The Blues Brothers.

The Stooges are introduced as infants dumped off at an orphanage and discovered by Sister Mary Mengele (played sadistically by Larry David.) The first episode shows the boys growing up where they are little hellions doing what you expect Stooges to do – fighting and causing general damage.

The rest of the movie concerns Larry, Curly, and Moe’s efforts to save the orphanage from closure. They look like fugitives from the classic Stooges shorts plunked down into the present day. They get mixed up with a black widow out to murder her husband. The boys, looking for cash to save the orphanage, take the job. This, of course, leads to all sorts of predictable mayhem. The boys split up and somehow, Moe becomes the newest cast member of Jersey Shore. He eye-pokes, hair pulls, and slaps his way to stardom, even putting The Situation’s head in a microwave. (Sadly – spoiler alert – it’s not fatal.)

Is this movie worth a first-run ticket? That depends. I saw the movie with a theater full of families, and the little kids were giggling their way through the entire film. For me, except for the slow-paced first “episode,” I felt like I was watching the original shorts when I was a kid, waiting for the Saturday horror films.

And that’s all this exercise really is. Making kids laugh and bringing back the classic Stooge characters for new generations. The Stooges themselves are very well done. Will Sasso (Madtv, S*** My Dad Says) was an obvious choice for Curly, and he gets the voice down pat. Sean Hayes, however, really delivers with the toughest part. How do you imitate Larry? Larry Fine spent the Stooges’ career primarily reacting to Moe, Curly, Schemp, Joe, or Curly Joe. Hayes gets the voice down, but gives Fine’s original character a bit of warmth and sympathy to make up for basically not being Larry Fine.

It’s Chris Diamantopoulos, however, who cements the reboot of the original three characters. (Yes, I know Schemp was the original third Stooge, but he left before they moved into film.) He nails the voice and the look of Moe Howard. Naturally, Moe, like Curly and his successors, have a lot of catch-phrases, moves, and tics to make them standout (which makes Hayes’ performance all the more impressive.) But you have to do those catch-phrases, moves, and tics properly. The only post-Stooge comedian I’ve seen pull it off was John Candy in an SCTV skit playing Curly as an actor in a Roman Empire epic.

But is this great comedy? It’s okay. It’s fun. The kids love it, and the Farrelly Brothers clearly captured the heart of the Stooges. Plus Moe joining Jersey Shore and terrorizing everyone in the house is a great bit of cultural revenge on reality television. (Despite being the victims, the Shore crew seem to be having fun with it.)

But the rest of the cast… I like Jane Lynch, but her role as Mother Superior did not exploit Lynch’s dry sense of humor. However, Larry David as irate Mother Mary Mengele hearkens back to the typical Stooge antagonists of the past. But I was most disappointed in Sister Rosemary, played by Jennifer Hudson. Oh, she was a capable enough character, and we get to hear that fantastic voice. But Jen’s got a new bod, and they kept it buried under that nun’s habit the entire two hours. Yes. I know. I’m a bad, bad man for saying that, but Jennifer Hudson is, besides a gifted singer and decent actress, a babe. Still, it’s cool to see her in this, and great to hear her sing. Always great to hear her sing.

In the end, you need to flip a coin to decide if you want to see this in first run or wait for the on-demand showing. I don’t think you’d regret seeing it in the theater if you’re a Stooges fan or have a little kids. Otherwise, save the money. It’ll be just as funny in your living room.

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!

Favorite Musicians: Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton is not as flashy as Eddie Van Halen. He isn’t as loud as Kirk Hammett. He isn’t as flamboyant as whoever plays for KISS this week. But if Eric Clapton had never had his brief stint with The Yardbirds or formed Cream, none of these guys would have careers. With The Yardbirds and John Mayall, his innovation is subtle, but it’s earth-shattering just the same. That simple act of note-bending, and the fingering techniques that allow him to play lead, rhythm, and bass at the same time were all tricks he learned in the early 1960’s. They added to the thunder that made Cream as powerful as it was. (More on Cream in a later post.) But Clapton outshines his flashier colleagues for one simple reason:

No one puts more Clapton through the guitar than Clapton.

He spent the 1960’s innovating, like his friends and successors in The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. In the seventies, he got back to his roots. In the eighties, he started to sell out, only to get back to basics in the 1990’s and beyond. He spent the New Millennium playing alongside his idols and his friends: JJ Cale (who wrote “Cocaine”), BB King, and Buddy Guy. Then he really got back to basics, recording an album of songs by blues legend Robert Johnson.

I saw Clapton twice in the 80’s. The first was in 1984, when he toured for Behind the Sun. I never bought that album, but the show was fantastic. Clapton had used many of the musicians who had played with him in the 1980’s. At the time, he seemed skittish to perform anything from before his solo career other than the obligatory “Layla.” I should hope he’d play that. The song is about his then-wife, Patti.

The second was in 1986, and Clapton looked more comfortable on stage and with himself. He played “White Room,” “Badge,” and “Sunshine of Your Love,” as well as the Derek and the Dominoes version of “Crossroads.” He had Phil Collins on drums, and the band sounded tight. I prefer the 1986 show. Clapton let himself be Clapton and stopped pretending he sprang into being around 1973.

Eric Clapton is one of those guys who write the soundtrack to your life. For me, those are Pete Townshend, Peter Gabriel, Gilmour and Waters from Pink Floyd, and of course, the twin pairs of Jagger/Richards and Lennon/McCartney. Even though the song really doesn’t appeal to me, you can see this at every Clapton concert when he goes into “Wonderful Tonight.” You will see at least three couples get out of their seats and slow dance in the aisles.

I discovered Clapton around age 12 when “I Can’t Stand It” came out. I had no idea Clapton was white when I heard it. To me, it was just a well-constructed song. I think “I Can’t Stand It” was the first song to grab me on a technical level. There’s nothing flashy about it, but everything from the vocals to the lead guitar to the drums were pitch perfect.

But a lot of his music grabbed me after I heard it live. “I Shot the Sheriff,” which almost didn’t make it onto 461 Ocean Boulevard, is very dramatic when he performs it live, especially if he’s using a bigger band. “Let It Rain” also has more power in an arena than it does in the studio. Plus, I think Clapton’s live version of “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love” is better than Cream’s. (Sorry, Ginger Baker, but I’d still pay to see you guys play it live.)

Moreover, Clapton has always portrayed himself as a blues man, but it was only after his album Journeyman that he started honoring that part of his musical heritage. With that album, Clapton had gained enough success that he had no need to give more than token tribute to the gods of pop who’d overtaken his music in the eighties. And since that time, he’s fully immersed himself in it, starting with his album of blues covers, From the Cradle.

But if you want to know what Clapton song has the most meaning for me, I have to go with “Let It Rain,” one of his first solo hits. It’s a song that really helps me see the light at the end of a dark tunnel sometimes.

How Winter Got His Groove Back

About a year and a half ago, I put up an obnoxious “I quit!” post and was planning on phasing out the blog and the Facebook page and just taking up my marbles and going home. Don’t bother looking. I took those posts down. Sort of sends a conflicting message when you’re trying to get people to buy your books and read your short stories. (Like Road Rules and Northcoast Shakedown, 99 cents and $2.99 respectively)

I’ll admit a big part of my disillusionment was a long layoff. Yes, I was doing contract work to pay the bills, but the sheer frustration dealing with idiot recruiters who think you should feel privileged in this economy that they offered you bag boy wages really puts a damper on your self-esteem and your mood. Plus, between extended commutes, a large school load, and the need to go job hunting, my writing production had dropped. Apparently my agent had dropped me without telling me, which didn’t make me happy at all. So I said “Screw it!” I had to concentrate on not just finding a new job, but changing careers. So long, publishing. I won’t let the door hit me in the ass on the way out.

And once I took that pressure off myself, I got the itch to write again. Not much happened during that cold, jobless January. I sort of lay dormant emailing resumes and watching James Bond movies. Towards the end of that, I caught the bug. I thought maybe I’d take three of the Bond continuations and script movies out of them. Obviously, I’d never be able to do anything with them, so that gave me even more freedom. I did an outline grafting Kingsley Amis’s Colonel Sun onto the Casino Royale continuity. (You will never read this, so don’t ask.) Stupid. Useless.

And fun.

At that time, I started playing around with science fiction. I had bits and pieces of a series idea floating around, and I started writing background material. Better. Most of it is just doodles and story outlines, but it’s a damn sight better than doing nothing. Or writing what amounts to James Bond fanfic.

My output, if you’ll look at the short story page, was sporadic in 2011. For 2012, I decided week nights would be for short work. When I finish writing this, I will finish a rewrite of my first SF short story (I’ve lost 5000 words off the original!). Weekends are for long work. If long work means reading a draft or working on an outline, or a short story gets finished, I work on a bogus rock bio that forces me to tell a different kind of story. I just looked at it the other night. It’s up to 75,000 words, and the dude – who is 65 as he “writes” this – is not even 20 yet in the story. Busy guy, and he hasn’t even banged his first groupie yet.

All that is to keep me writing prose. I may attempt a poem or two. Gerald So tells me I can actually write poetry without driving people screaming into the night. But the goal is to make sure a short gets subbed every month, and that six SF stories go out this year. Ideally, that’d be 18 stories, but the current short WIP required just a little trimming.

The thing I’ve found is that I’ve been able to slide into writing a story again. It’s gotten easier to feel my way through a story, to figure out what needs to be changed or where it’s gone off the rails.

Mostly, writing has become pleasurable again. Graham Powell, the brains behind CrimeSpot, mentioned that many of us who put out books in the mid-2000’s sort of sputtered and faded these past few years. Maybe that’s true. But somewhere during that insane time when I could still travel a lot, writing became a “hafta,” not a “wanna.”

Now I wanna. I haven’t felt that in a long, long time.