Monday, August 14, 2017

Sputnik SweetheartSputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] I could hear the cats lapping up my brain. Three lithe cats, surrounding my broken head, slurping up the mushy gray soup within. The tips of their red, rough tongues licked the soft folds of my mind."

My third book by Haruki Murakami and the best so far. Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) comes with a misleading blurb on the back cover. It says "love story combined with a detective story" and is probably aimed at romantic mystery readers. There is not one iota of detective story here. Yes, we have a great love story, and there is a mystery, but one of a more serious, transcendent kind.

The story is narrated by K, a primary school teacher in his mid-twenties. He is in love with Sumire, but she - an aspiring writer and an unusual character overall, taken to calling K on the phone in the middle of the night and asking philosophical questions - treats him as a friend rather than a romantic interest. Sumire falls in love with Miu, a much older woman in the wine import business. Sumire and Miu go on a business/pleasure trip to Europe where Sumire disappears. K is summoned by Miu to a Greek island to help search for Sumire. All this is stated in the cover blurb so I am not giving any spoilers here.

The story is really interesting, well written, and captivating, but is likely just a shell to carry some deeper meaning. This is quite an enigmatic novel and I had thought it would be fun to attempt deciphering the author's design, but I failed. Let me explain: the following passage seems to be crucial in the novel: Sumire calls K before dawn and asks
"What I want to know is, what's the difference between a sign and a symbol?"
K explains that both sign and symbol refer to an equivalence relation between two things but then he describes the semiotic difference in a somewhat unconventional way: in the case of a symbol the relation points in one direction only.

Well, I spotted three instances of unidirectionality in the story: first and the most obvious one is of metafictional nature. Mr. Murakami constructs a sort of alternative reality in the novel. The reality is mapped to the story, but not the other way around. The second is the unrequited nature of the characters' love for each other: K loves Sumire and Sumire loves Miu (there is more, yet it is not essential), but the lovees do not love the lovers back. Third, there is quite a wonderful scene in the novel when one of the characters coexists with a sort of their alter ego, and their interaction is unidirectional. But none of these three cases has much to do with symbols, so my analysis is most likely poppycock.

My inability to "understand" the novel - if there is indeed anything to understand there; a work of art can be just about itself and not be a symbol for anything else - does not diminish the beauty and poetry of the story itself. If I were forced to define what the story is about, I would say it is a about a young woman who seeks transcendence in life and visits the other side. By the way, Sumire is an extremely well-drawn character, life-like and believable. So is K. Maybe not Miu, despite her mysterious past.

There are stories within the story, some fit the mood wonderfully, some less so, which includes the cats that I mentioned in the epigraph. Anyway, I have found Sputnik Sweetheart a very good read and I enjoyed the alternative reality feel, which is - as I understand - Mr. Murakami's trademark. Maybe one day I will read his longer works...

Three and three quarter stars.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

The Indian Bride (Inspector Konrad Sejer, #5)The Indian Bride by Karin Fossum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Later, she would never forget this. The last moment when life was good."

I had read Karin Fossum's The Indian Bride (2000) for the first time about 10 years ago, long before Kat helped me find Goodreads. Totally swept off my feet by the sheer emotional impact of the story I was unable to notice some weaknesses of the novel and decided it was a masterpiece of psychological crime genre. This time no five stars from me despite the fact that Ms. Fossum's writing resonates with my sensibilities like very few other authors' work. I admire her quiet, economical, unpretentious prose, her obvious compassion toward people, even the worst criminals, and her quest for understanding motives of human actions. (For once the abused word "resonates" describes the situation precisely: I receive literature on the same frequencies that Ms. Fossum transmits in her novels.)

Gunder Jomann is a fiftyish farm equipment salesman in a Norwegian village. There is something off-center about him: he is slow - not intellectually but rather emotionally - deliberate, stolid but determined, and he has not been following any of the "normal" life paths. It is only now that he has decided on the kind of a woman he wants to marry - an Indian woman. So he travels to Mumbai, finds a woman he fancies, which happens to be the first woman he meets there, and since she likes him too they get married. Nothing can stop them now from living happily in Norway ever after. The story so far has all sweet qualities of a fairy tale, as if it were happening in a magical storybook reality. Alas, the actual reality intervenes, and extremely brutally so.

The story now turns into a tear-jerker, so very sad that even though I had read the book before I was crying again. Ms. Fossum masterfully relays the heartbreaking plot in a sorrowful yet unexaggerated, beautifully quiet prose. The highly melodramatic content is conveyed without making the readers feel that they are emotionally manipulated. There is not a single false note in the prose and I immediately identify with the pain and sorrow.

Technically, this is a crime novel, so we also have a murder, several suspects, and a police procedural thread. Inspectors Sejer and Skarre make their entrance quite early in the novel. The murder is brutal, and when the crime is recounted later in the novel, the story is so savage that I found it hard to read, even though I know this is fiction and even if we are not sure the events happened exactly the way they are told. Ms. Fossum's avoidance of hyperbole emphasizes the horror of what happened. Inspector Sejer is again shown at his trademark slow, patient questioning. One might come to a conclusion that detectives in Norway have too much time on their hands.

Both the beginning and ending of the novel are outstanding. A young man comes home and roughly play-fights with his Rottweiler. This one-page passage masterfully teases the readers with clues, making them think they are so smart to figure them out. I also love the ending, as unusual as it is: it defies the reader's expectations in wonderful ways, which is the best thing one can say about literature in any genre.

Alas, the passages about the village residents reacting to the crime and investigation are weak and "unFossum-like" in sounding fake. Also, the thread that features the over-eager witness overstays its welcome at some point (but I understand that publishers may have some business guidelines about the minimum volume of a crime novel). To sum up, it is almost a phenomenal book, damaged by few weak scenes. I loved re-reading it. I can read Ms. Fossum's writing forever and ever again.

Four and a quarter stars.

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. FeynmanThe Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman by Richard Feynman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified - how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You only think you know [...] most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge and you really don't know what it is all about, or what the purpose of the world is [...] It is possible to live and not know."

This overlong epigraph illustrates Richard P. Feynman's main thesis presented in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999), a collection of informal writings by the famous physicist, a set that could be called "the best short works of Feynman." It includes his talks, official speeches and lectures, transcripts of TV programs, and even Feynman's "minority report" to the official Challenger disaster report. The Nobel Prize winner, a man universally acclaimed as a true genius, returns to his main thesis several times in this collection. His definition of a scientist is:
"A scientist is never certain. [...] all our statements are approximate statements with different degrees of certainty; [...] when a statement is made, the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false."
The only statements which can be proven true or false are statements of mathematics, which is one of the reasons that mathematics is not a science. I wish Feynman's words were required reading in colleges, perhaps even in high schools.

The author offers a sharp and convincing critique of pseudo-science where he uses examples of astrology and parapsychology, and returns to his famous "Cargo Science" case that originated from observations of tribal society's customs acquired after their interaction with technology beyond their grasp. Feynman also lambasts the practices of advertising industry and writes that commercials may constitute "scientifically immoral description of the products."

I exclaimed "Yes! How true!" when I read the following fragment:
"[...] we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television words, books, and so on are unscientific."
Feynman is lucky to have not lived long enough to witness the times of total misinformation that now exists thanks to the Internet. He would be horrified!

Feynman writes about other important topics as well. The last piece in the set is entitled The Relation of Science and Religion, where the author distinguishes three main aspects of religion: metaphysical, ethical, and inspirational, and argues that there exists an incompatibility between religion and science in the first aspect, and that there may be conflicts in the domain of inspirational aspect. This is a fascinating discussion, and as a true scientist the author emphasizes that he is not completely sure of his statements.

On a lighter note we have a long item where Feynman reminisces about his times on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. We read about hilarious pranks he pulled: safecracking, sneaking out of the tightly guarded compound, etc. The reader can find an extremely funny (and I mean it literally, "extremely funny") passage where the author is awed by the decision-making prowess of top-level military people: how they are able to decide in just five minutes on momentous issues about which they do not have the faintest idea!

Four stars.

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Timothy FilesThe Timothy Files by Lawrence Sanders
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"They are both tight, private people, and they'd rather be sautéed in oil than say, 'I love you.' But, grudgingly, each acknowledges an attraction, a comfort with each other. It's a no-horseshit relationship with feelings masked by cold profanity, and intimacy shielded away."

Since I very much enjoyed Lawrence Sanders' McNally's Risk I have been hoping for an equally rewarding experience with his The Timothy Files (1987). Alas this novel is bland and unable to hook the reader with anything even remotely remarkable; in addition, the main and background characters are not interesting and psychologically implausible.

Timothy Cone is a "Wall Street dick", a financial investigator for a New York corporate intelligence company, used by principals in mergers, buyouts, and takeovers. The book is a set of three separate novellas, connected via Mr. Cone, his co-workers, and several recurring police characters. In the first story - the weakest one, I think - Mr. Cone investigates the subway station death of his office mate: he has no doubts that it was a murder connected to the financial investigation the victim was conducting.

The second story - the most interesting one - is about a modern fertility clinic that is on the verge of being bought out. Since Mr. Cone is offered a bribe to produce a positive evaluation of the clinic, he knows that something in the picture must be quite wrong. In addition he is contacted by an agent of the U.S. government who also suggests that Cone's evaluation should be positive. Alas the reader will find the government connection and the entire denouement implausible.

Finally the third story tells us about various members of one family - apparently siblings, cousins, etc. - involved in some kind of wrongdoing in several areas: investments, art sales, and import business. The third novella is rather light, airy, and kind of funny, although a murder is featured too.

The three plots are not completely uninteresting, though full of clichés and easy-to-predict turns. What dooms the book for me is the character of Timothy Cone, a Marine veteran from Vietnam, a lonely warrior in the world of financial crime, an uncompromising knight in white armor. He lives in a dilapidated loft with his mangy cat, often eats the cat's leftovers, and pretends not to care about anything but fighting crime. His boss, Samantha Whatley, is his "romantic interest" but their relationship (the epigraph describes it in the author's words) is to me psychologically implausible and the depictions of their frequent carnal couplings alternate between pretentiously overwrought and ludicrous:
"Their hard bodies are jangled with need, and sensation is not the answer. [...] they rend each other in a frantic effort to find relief. [...] they play their skin games, unable to yield to the heart's want, and settling for the satisfaction of greedy glands."

Two stars.

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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Spook: Science Tackles the AfterlifeSpook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"On a wall is a placard with the Human Energy Systems Laboratory logo: a heart, a rainbow, and a human form with its arms outstretched, expressing love or joy or the size of fish he caught, as people seem to do on New Age book covers."

For Christmas present in 1963 or 1964 my mother gave me the book Natural History of Nonsense by Bergen Evans. The book might have influenced my worldview the most of all the books that I've read in my life. This old volume (1946) viciously debunks various myths, urban legends, and beliefs that millions of people hold true. I owe being a skeptic in no small part thanks to Mr. Evans. Mary Roach's Spook (2005) is quite similar, with three differences. First of all, it is contemporary so it takes things like computers, Internet or cell phones into account. Second, it is not as vicious in the debunking - Ms. Roach frequently repeats the claim of having an open mind. And finally, it is way funnier than Evans' book.

As the subtitle of the book promises Ms. Roach takes on the momentous question: is there an afterlife, that is life after death. She attempts to answer the question using methods as close to science as possible, studying a wide variety of possible manifestations of purported afterlife. The author makes it clear up front that she is a committed skeptic and she needs "proof" to get convinced as to veracity of a claim. She means a "scientific proof," which is not a valid term: only mathematics provides proofs that make statements absolutely true, science can do no such thing. Anyway, we know what she means - she needs more than hearsay, more than reports of even many, many people, to become convinced. A rigorous scientific method has to be used, and then, rigorous statistical analysis.

Topics raised in Ms. Roach's book include: studies on reincarnation in India, the role of ectoplasm as a possible "link between life and afterlife," mediums communicating with the departed, ghost sightings, telecommunicating with the dead, etc.. Several topics relate to afterlife only tangentially: we have a pretty interesting historical study on human beliefs about the soul: how it enters the fetus, whether semen or egg are the vehicles carrying it, where it is located in the body, how much it weighs (the famous 21 grams that human body purportedly loses when the soul departs), and whether it can be seen (e.g. Kirlian photography), etc. The volume ends with an interesting bonus chapter - the author's discussion of near-death experiments at the University of Virginia Hospital, which reminds me the famous and atrociously bad book Life After Death by R. Moody.

The author seems to have worked hard on checking various claims as they are meticulously referenced: the bibliography takes 12 pages. Ms. Roach's first-hand experiences are engagingly portrayed: visit to India to briefly work with the reincarnation researchers (an interesting glimpse into life and culture of rural India), participation in the Fundamentals of Mediumship workshop, and involvement with the study of the effect of electromagnetic field on human brain. All that makes the book quite a solid work, despite several silly topics.

I am not saying what the author's final conclusions are - one has to read the book to satisfy curiosity - but I strongly recommend the book for the sense of humor. Ms. Roach's writing is generally funny, and absolutely hilarious in some passages. I used one such sidesplitting fragment in the epigraph and I burst out laughing whenever I remember the author's discussion of Dr. Dawson's use of word "motion" to mean the result of a bowel movement:
"Perhaps this is why the term 'motion pictures' was replaced by 'movies'."
I am now very much looking forward to reading Ms. Roach's better known book, Stiff. I hope it is as solid as this one but mainly I hope it is as funny!

Three and a half stars.

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Stone Quarry (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #6)Stone Quarry by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Thin razor-sharp wires of color were stretched across canvas, pulled so taut they broke apart; or, released, they bunched together in choking knots. [...] The colors twisted, tangled, pierced each other, bled; but the field they were on was luminous, and the color wires glowed against it like lightning against the sun."

How likely is it that a hard-boiled, noir PI plays difficult classical pieces on the piano in his free time? Well, not less likely than an engineer-turned-mathematician with limited command of English writes 600 book reviews on Goodreads. Having thus gotten over the implausibility hurdle - let's begin the praise. My seventh novel in the Smith-Chin series, S.J. Rozan's Stone Quarry (1999), is her best that I have read so far, even better than the great Winter and Night. And to think that I was worrying about the series after the weak Mandarin Plaid ! Stone Quarry has an interesting plot, great prose, and is a tribute to one of the masters of the genre (later about this).

Bill Smith drives to his cabin in upstate New York to meet with his client, Eve Colgate, who has her residence in the same county. The detective is hired to retrieve items that have been stolen from Ms. Colgate; we later learn these are valuable paintings. Mr. Smith meets with Tony, a bar owner and his long-term acquaintance. When Tony is assaulted by three bad guys led by a well-known yet somehow untouchable hood, Smith helps the victim defend himself. One of the bad guys is soon found murdered and Tony's younger brother, whom Mr. Smith once helped when he had gone astray of the law, is the main suspect. Not only is Bill facing the criminals, but his enemies also include a powerful local businessman and the local sheriff who hates Bill, "the asshole from the city messing in his county." Lydia Chin appears pretty late in the plot but when she does, to serve as a baby-sitter/ bodyguard for the client, the story switches to even higher a gear.

There are a few masterful passages of prose in the novel, where the quality of writing transcends the usually lackluster crime/mystery style. For instance, Smith's nuanced conversation with the owner of Antiques Barn would not be out of place in a literary work of highest caliber. True, the components of the plot are traditional clichés of the mystery genre and it is also true that the whole narrative structure of the story does not feel original. Let me now go on a limb and put forward a theory: the novel is Ms. Rozan's homage to Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar) and his magnificent Lew Archer series (I have reviewed all 18 Archer books here on Goodreads). To me Ms. Rozan's Stone Quarry, with minor changes of protagonists and times, could have been written by Macdonald. The same cadences of the plot, similar high quality of prose, and the all-encompassing understanding of human weakness and unusual warmth towards decent people:
"I wondered whether some people were born understanding the true nature of kindness, or if it was something you had to learn."
As good as the novel is, Lydia's character enriches it even further. I don't care for (neither do I mind) the inane, TV-sitcom-style banter between her and Smith, but even when playing only a secondary role in the plot, she somehow makes her appearances luminous. I have mentioned it at least once in my reviews that Lydia reminds me of a less bitter, sweeter Lisbeth Salander, in her strength and straightforwardness.

Why not five stars then? I can't stand the mandatory climactic shootout scenes. Yes, I know, Macdonald used them too. And it is amazingly well-written scene for such a moronic and boring topic as a shootout. Still, I hope one day I will read a novel by Ms. Rozan that would not end with gun play. Otherwise the denouement - as monstrously complex as it is - is plausible and logical, at least for me.

Four and a quarter stars.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme CourtThe Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[Justice O'Connor] had single-handedly remade the law in the most controversial area of Supreme Court jurisprudence. And she had done it in a way that both reflected and satisfied the wishes of most Americans. No other woman in United States history, and very few men, made such an enormous impact on their country."

Another book about Supreme Court: I am a devotee of the subject and hope to read more and more about the institution that holds more power than the President. Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine (2007) is a great book and I enthusiastically recommend it! Only Cees Nooteboom's Roads To Santiago prevents it from getting the five-star rating: it is not exactly in the same stellar class of a non-fiction masterpiece as Nooteboom's work.

The subtitle of the book is pretty catchy: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, and it seems to promise juicy details about the highest court's workings. Luckily, the author manages to keep the "juiciness" to minimum and there is not much gossip to keep our attention away from deep analyses of the court's work. The book roughly covers the period of 1990s to mid-2000s, a time frame that included the longest period of stability in composition of the court in almost 200 years: no new justices were sworn in between August of 1994 (Justice Breyer) to September of 2005 (Justice Roberts), the final eleven years of the so-called Rehnquist Court.

The main theme of the book is the apparent failure of the conservative counter-revolution on Supreme Court that was supposed to happen when W. Rehnquist became the Chief Justice in 1986 and when seven out of nine justices had been nominees of Republican presidents. The author traces the emergence of "originalism" (the jurisprudence of the framers' original intention) and relates the Right's continuous attempts to correct the "liberal excesses" of the Warren Court and, in particular, to overturn the Roe vs. Wade (which ruling technically happened during the Burger Court).

That the counter-revolution failed - at least during the time frame covered in the book - is according to the author mainly the work of a few justices who did not perform on the nation's highest bench as they were expected to. First and foremost, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor: she is the main protagonist of the book and the most important of The Nine. A Goldwater-style conservative from Arizona evolved into a most pragmatic and effective persona on the court, the most powerful factor of moderation and reason:
O'Connor's extraordinary political instincts let her exercise her authority in a moderate way. [...] Her judicial approach was indefensible in theory and impeccable in practice.
As an enthusiastic supporter of pragmatism and non-believer in absolutism of any kind I admire Justice O'Connor. The author also emphasizes the role of Justice Kennedy, another failed hope of the conservative movement. Here Mr. Toobin stresses the influence of international contacts on the evolution of Justice Kennedy's judicial philosophy. Justice Breyer's role on the court is also recounted in quite a sympathetic way, despite his short tenure.

The two of the Court's conservative stalwarts, Justices Scalia and Chief Rehnquist, are also shown in positive light: the former for his intellectual brilliance and personal charm, the latter for his pragmatism, efficiency and high degree of professionalism. Justices Stevens (the third longest-serving member in the history of the court), Souter, and Ginsburg are also well presented and the readers might feel as if they know them personally. I also admire the author's tact and moderation when dealing with the remarkably modest achievements of the "Stable Court's" remaining member.

Of course personal portraits of the justices are not the most important aspect of the book. The presentation of major cases is, and the reader will find an amazing wealth of details and interpretations. Among a number of important cases we have an astute analysis of the 1992 Casey case, the Bush vs. Gore case, and the two affirmative action cases stemming from the University of Michigan lawsuits.

Four and a half stars.

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