Want to join the CIA?

Plan on interviewing with the CIA? Let me give you some help.

The CIA interviews three potential agents—two men and a woman. For the final test, they bring one of the male candidates to a door and hand him a gun. “We must know that you will follow instructions, no matter what,” says the interviewer. “Inside this room you will find your wife sitting in a chair. Kill her.”

“You can’t be serious,” the man says. “I could never shoot my wife.”

Then you’re not the right man for the job, says the interviewer.

The second man is given the same instructions. Five minutes later, he emerges with tears in his eyes and says, “I can’t.”

Finally, the woman is given the test but with her husband. She takes the gun and enters the room. Shots are heard, then screaming, followed by crashing and banging. After a few minutes, she comes out and wipes the sweat from her brow. “You didn’t tell me the gun was loaded with blanks,” she says. “I had to beat him to death with the chair.”

The United States and Continual Warfare

Does it seem like the U.S. is continually involved in one war or the other, always engaged in conflict? Here’s what someone once wrote about that (identity to follow the quote):

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended. Its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war . . . and in the degeneracy of manners and morals, engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

— James Madison, April 20, 1795.

Paul Auster’s “The New York Trilogy”

Just finished reading Paul Auster’s The New York TrilogyCity of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room in the Penguin paperback edition. I liked the first and last more than the middle tale but all were highly original works, modeled on detective fiction and narrated with no false steps, despite being heavy on self-analysis and philosophical introspection.

A few quotes you might find of interest, all from The Locked Room:

Fanshawe, thought dead, sends a note to the narrator, a childhood friend and curator of Fanshawe’s legacy (which includes novels, plays, poetry, essays, and other scattered pieces). In the note Fanshawe says this about his work:

Writing was an illness that plagued me for a long time, but now I have recovered from it. (p. 281)

And two other thoughts that pass through the narrator’s mind:

In the end, each life is no more than the sum of contingent facts, a chronicle of chance intersections, of flukes, of random events that divulge nothing but their own lack of purpose. (p. 256)

Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists telling. To say that so and so was born here and went there, that he did this and did that, that he married this woman and had these children, that he lived, that he died, that he left behind these books or this battle or that bridge—none of that tells us very much. We all want to be told stories, and we listen to them in the same way we did when we were young. We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another—for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself. (p. 291)

And later:

Everyone knows that stories are imaginary. Whatever effect they might have on us, we know they are not true, even when they tell us truths more important than the ones we can find elsewhere. (p. 295)

Intriguing mysteries for those who don’t mind a detective who goes deeper than mere fact.

Free e-book of Nine Days in October

Time for a commercial break:

Amazon.com will be offering the Kindle e-book of Nine Days in October for free during the following period:

from 12:01 a.m. on Friday, October 19 to 11:59 p.m. on Monday, October 22.

Here’s the direct link to the e-book: http://www.amazon.com/Nine-Days-in-October-ebook/dp/B009MA9DBG/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1350593107&sr=1-1&keywords=ron+terpening+nine+days+in+october

Not my best thriller but some may enjoy it.

For those who want to read a review or two first, here’s a link you can visit:
http://www.ronterpening.com/novels/nine_days_rev.htm

Feel free to pass this on to anyone who might be interested in the book. And, if a person doesn’t have a Kindle, they can download the free “Kindle for PC,” which allows one to read the book from a computer.

Once this promo ends, I’ll be doing the same for League of Shadows and then Tropic of Fear. Amazon.com allows only one promotion at a time.

The Future Buddha (in a Past Life)

Most of us grow up (I assume) having heard the story of Jesus on the cross. If nothing else, the topic would come up in any course dealing with medieval or Renaissance art. But fewer numbers have probably heard the one-sentence anecdote about the future Buddha found in William James’s book on The Varieties of Religious Experience. So here goes (not a direct quote):

Reincarnated as a hare, the future Buddha jumped into the fire to cook himself for a starving beggar, having first shaken himself three times so as to save any insects in his fur from perishing.

That ought to make one smile!

I think the sanctity of all life (rather than just that of humans) is the message the East offers the West. I remember Richard Gere once saying that the Dalai Lama told him the first lesson one should teach a young child is that all life, even that of insects, is sacred. So don’t stomp on that ant! (Even a cockroach, caught under the flashlight’s beam, wants to live and does its best to escape death. But I can’t go quite that far. Death to cockroaches and scorpions!)

And we all know what kids do, seemingly by nature: they swing cats by the tail for fun; they shoot birds out of trees with bb guns; they fry ants under a magnifying glass.

Not to say what animals do to each other. As Leonardo da Vinci put it: Life lives off death. That, alas, is not only the human condition but that of all creatures.

I take that back. What does a tree eat? Or a blade of grass? Or a rose? Shoot! even that ugly vulture only eats what’s already dead.

So much for my philosophical thoughts for the day . . .

Do philosophers even exist any more?

The Great Impersonation and the British Spy

Okay, the heading to this post sounds like a thriller title, so thrillers it will be.

Recently, as a break from reading the early English novel, I read two 20th century novels dealing with spycraft–E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Great Impersonation (1920) and W.Somerset Maugham’s linked stories in Ashenden, The British Agent (1928), the latter based in part on Maugham’s experiences as a gentleman spy in World War I.

My copy of The Great Impersonation was published by Pocket Books in 1943, so the publishers on the half-title page note that “In order to cooperate with the government’s war effort, this book has been made in strict conformity with WPB regulations restricting the use of certain materials.” And on the back cover, they have a note saying “Send this book to a boy in the armed forces anywhere in the U.S. . . . only 3¢ postage.” The book itself cost a quarter, although if you ordered it direct from the publisher, you had to include a nickel for “postage and handling.” A fun read.

There’s one great blurb (among several) that reads: “Mr. Oppenheim’s novel leaves us amazed that a writer can do so much with nothing more to work with than the elemental twenty-six letters of the alphabet.” The Hartford Courant

Shoot! Didn’t Homer only have 24 letters available in ancient Greek? And he did okay with the Odyssey. So that made for a good laugh even before starting the book.

As for Maugham, he has this to say about Ashenden: “He passed a good deal of his time in the bookshops turning over the pages of books that would have been worth reading if life were a thousand years long.” How true. My nearly 3,000-some life-time reading list, posted on my website (http://www.ronterpening.com/preface-lifetime_reading_list.htm), would actually take about three lifetimes. But best to have a challenge to keep one a motivated reader!

As an owner of golden retrievers, I also liked this comment: “It is never very difficult to get to know anyone who has a dog.”

Anyway, great characterization in Maugham’s thriller and a laugh-out-loud funny conclusion to the portrayal of an endless talker. After a guy named Mr. Harrington has run on and on for a whole chapter, the last four paragraphs read as follows, with Harrington speaking first:

“Well, I never would have thought that eleven days in the train would pass so quickly. We’ve had a wonderful time. I’ve enjoyed your company and I know you’ve enjoyed mine. I’m not going to pretend I don’t know that I’m a pretty good conversationalist. But now we’ve come together like this we must take care to stay together. We must see as much of one another as we can while I’m in Petrograd.”
“I shall have a great deal to do,” said Ashenden. “I’m afraid my time won’t be altogether my own.”
“I know,” answered Mr. Harrington cordially. “I expect to be pretty busy myself, but we can have breakfast together anyway and we’ll meet in the evening and compare notes. It would be too bad if we drifted apart now.”
“Too bad,” sighed Ashenden.

Articles I like in the Italian Constitution

The Constitution of the Italian Republic was enacted in late December 1947 and came into force on the first day of the new year in 1948. As a post-World War II constitution it contains several articles of interest. Among them, I especially like the following:

Article 3 (Equality)
1) All citizens have equal social status and are equal before the law, without regard to their sex, race, language, religion, political opinions or social conditions.

Compare that to the United States, where the states have failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (first proposed in 1923), which passed both Houses of Congress in 1972 and simply stated “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

How scary!

 Article 4 (Work)
1) The Republic recognizes the right of all citizens to work and promotes conditions to fulfill this right.

Maybe we need another New Deal agency, similar to the Works Progress Administration, which (to cite Wikipedia’s entry) “employ[ed] millions of unskilled workers to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads. It also employed artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. Writers documented local and state histories, artists painted murals and other works for new federal post offices and other buildings. The WPA provided food for children and redistributed food, clothing, and housing. Almost every community in the United States had a new park, bridge or school constructed by the agency, which especially benefited rural and western areas.”

Article 11 (Repudiation of War)
Italy repudiates war as an instrument offending the liberty of the peoples and as a means for settling international disputes 

Except that might have kept us out of the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq. Can’t have that.

Article 32 (Health)
The Republic protects individual health as a basic right and in the public interest; it provides free medical care to the poor.

Maybe that’s what Romney will propose to replace “Obamacare”—the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Yeah, right.

On Literary Style

Over the years, I’ve come across three simple two-word explanations for what constitutes style:
• disappointed expectations
• familiar defamiliarized
• perception prolonged

That first description might seem negative but of course it’s not (if well handled by the writer). One can surely derive pleasure from the unexpected.

Unfortunately some writers go to extremes that may displease. Let me give one example:

Last April I read Regina O’Melveny’s historical novel The Book of Madness and Cures. O’Melveny is a poet so, as expected, her prose is lyrical. But it’s easy to get carried away by the sound of words, leaving meaning behind. Let’s take one or two examples:

“Her gall-brown eyes dilated with a ferment that spilled from little wounds everywhere, invisibly issuing from the veins of lives, from the wall joists and the dark timbers of the ceiling, from the spaces in the perfect square of white lace that her mother desperately continued to lay upon her lap, from the cracks in the gondolas, from the sea itself.”

Some readers might find that evocative; I find it annoying. Eyes dilate with a ferment, and this ferment spills from wounds everywhere and thus issues from the veins of lives (!?) and even from spaces in lace, not to speak of wall joists and ceiling timbers, cracks in gondolas and the sea. The result is a nonsensical mishmash.

One gives greater latitude in similes and metaphors, where the unexpected is almost a requirement (such as John Updike’s description of the red tongues of expired parking meters–something I read over twenty years ago, in which book I’ve forgotten, though the image has remained impressed in my memory). Here’s an example from O’Melveny:

“. . . the hours drained like the waters of a wound.” Is the author thinking about what words mean or does she simply like their sound?

By way of contrast, let me cite an equally unusual simile that I found this week while reading Joe R. Lansdale‘s Sunset and Sawdust. Somewhere in there he described mosquitoes as thick as tacks in tarpaper. Unusual, beautiful, and relevant to the story’s ambience. He surely “disappoints” our “expectation” but does so to our delight!