Monday, January 15, 2018

Ghost Hero (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #11)Ghost Hero by S.J. Rozan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"If you stir the water vigorously enough, [...] you can drag mud up from the bottom. In all that swirling, muddy water, a lot of things might be able to escape."
(Lydia Chin concocting a Chinese saying)

Ghost Hero (2011) is the eleventh book by S.J. Rozan that I am reviewing on Goodreads. Certainly not among the better ones, although the historical background of the Tiananmen Square bloody events of 1989 gives the novel some weight and significance. I would rate the novel somewhere below the average for the author, far from the class of Stone Quarry or Winter and Night but luckily not as bad as the atrocious On the Line .

This is a Lydia Chin novel, which is a good thing because she makes a much more interesting protagonist than the amorphous and painfully clichéd Bill Smith. We meet Lydia as she talks to her client about new paintings of Chau Chun - known as Ghost Hero Chau - that have emerged in New York. Since it is believed that Mr. Chau was killed during the Tiananmen Square massacre the works must be fakes. Unless Mr. Chau is in fact alive.

The complications in the plot multiply fast. Mr. Chau's paintings were political in nature thus their sudden appearance may have been a result of some major political forces in action, possibly connected to anti-Chinese-government movement. Chinese gangs' involvement is another possibility. The plot complexity increases even more rapidly when Lydia learns that yet another private detective with Chinese roots, Jack Lee, is working the same case of Mr. Chau's paintings, but for a different client. And, ironically, while one client would love the paintings to be authentic, the other wants them to be fakes.

The setup of the novel is indeed very promising and the plot keeps the reader's attention up to quite late in the novel. There are too many twists towards the end, though, including a major one in the denouement. Ms Rozan seems to be following a clichéd template for a best-selling mystery novel: twist the plot so much that the reader is not able to see how implausible the whole thing becomes.

Yet again the reader has to suffer through the tired cliché of young genius hackers - Linus and Trella from On the Line appear again. I suspect that Ms. Rozan who is unfortunately rather close to my age is trying to pander to the "young adult audience," thus losing the mature readers. Even worse, though, we are served gross silliness when Mr. Smith affects a cheap Russian (Rooshin) accent, pretends to be Vladimir Oblomov, and manages to fool supposedly smart businessmen, or when Mr. Lee alters his appearance via make-up and ethnic clothing to impersonate an academic from the Central University at Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. So lame!

To be fair, I am happy to note that for once guns do not play a prominent role in the plot; alas the avalanche of twists and clichés almost completely cancels out the improvement.

Two and a half stars.

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Friday, January 12, 2018

What the Best College Teachers DoWhat the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Knowledge is constructed, not received."

Ken Bain, a professor and higher education administrator, had spent his academic career at Vanderbilt, Northwestern, NYU, and University of the District of Columbia, before he became the founding director of several major teaching and learning centers, currently the President of the Best Teachers Institute. His What the Best College Teachers Do (2004) is a bestseller and a higher-education classic. I have read the book with great interest as I have been teaching university-level math and computer science for over 35 years and in the distant past I was also involved in research on creativity and mathematical problem solving.

The text is the end result of almost a 15-year study which - as the author claims - was conducted observing all rules of the scientific method. The Appendix explains the methodology of the study. Mr. Bain's book does not disappoint even if the reader may doubt if it delivers on the promise of the catchy title. To me, the weakest aspect are the criteria used to select sixty-three outstanding college teachers as the subjects of the study. Outstanding teachers are defined as those who "had achieved remarkable success in helping their students learn in ways that made a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on how those students think, act, and feel." This is so vague that inclusion or exclusion of individual teachers is essentially arbitrary.

The book is organized into chapters that answer six broad questions about the practices of outstanding college teachers: What do they know and understand? How do they prepare? What do they expect of their students? What do they do when they teach? How do they treat their students? How do they assess the students' progress? I agree with virtually all conclusions of the author and if I am less successful in my own teaching than I would like to be it is because I am not conscientious enough to always adhere to all these practices. It is exactly as the author quotes:
"'When my teaching fails,' [...] a professor told us, 'it is because of something I have failed to do.'"
Exactly! Here's a selection of other great quotes from the text:
"[T]eaching is fostering learning and [...] it requires serious intellectual work [...]"
"You don't teach a class. You teach a student."
"Teaching is about commanding attention and holding it.'"
"'The most important aspect of my teaching,' one instructor told us in a theme we heard frequently, 'is the relationship of trust that develops between me and my students.'"

One of the non-obvious observation I particularly agree with emphasizes the difference between great lecturers - professors who use classroom teaching as an opportunity to display their intellectual brilliance - and best teachers who consider teaching an investment in students. I also commend the author for including the Decalogue of critical thinking: a list of ten reasoning abilities and habits of thought that deserves to be printed in large font, framed, and hanged over every teacher's bed.

One topic that I might consider under-emphasized is discussion of the best practices of dealing with largely non-homogeneous classes of students. I have struggled with the ways of individualizing classroom instruction for students of greatly differing levels of preparation and abilities throughout my entire teaching career. I also wish the text were more focused on teaching mathematics. While most of the general guidelines apply to math pedagogy, the discipline clearly has its peculiarities, which would need to be addressed in more detail. And, of course, I smiled when I encountered a reference to Richard Feynman. No book on great teaching can avoid mentioning the name.

Three and a half stars.

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Monday, January 8, 2018

McNally's Gamble (Archy McNally, #7)McNally's Gamble by Lawrence Sanders

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"I won't tell you where she held the mistletoe."

McNally's Gamble (1997) is the fourth installment of Lawrence Sanders' Archy McNally series that I am reviewing here on Goodreads and the least successful of the four. While the novel is quite strong on humor and the pleasantly flowery language is a joy to read the plot is not engrossing at all and the strange twists at the end seem artificial and lame.

After an awkward "criminal anecdote" only loosely connected with the plot the novel begins with Archy buying Courvoisier for his father's birthday. Of course Mr. Sanders' readers know that the father is the boss of a legal firm in Palm Beach, Florida, where Archy is the only employee of the Discreet Inquiries Department. One of the firm's wealthy clients, Mrs. Westmore, is planning to buy a Fabergé egg from a seller in Paris on recommendation of an investment advisor. Archy's discreet inquiries are focused on the advisor's bona fides and the soundness of the transaction. Later in the plot we meet Mrs. Westmore's adult children and we learn that the money she is planning to spend for the egg could be more productively used to finance her son's paleontology research on the origins of bipedalism. The plot becomes more serious when one of the characters marginally involved in the planned transaction is murdered.

Of course, this being an Archy McNally novel we cannot get away without some tactfully and delightfully told sex passages. Not only does Archy have a good time with his steady partner Connie, but we also are shown a glimpse of The Paroxysm of the Collapsing Cot that occurs during Archy's coupling with yet another fan of his manly charms. The reader will also learn about a rather imbalanced marriage between two of the characters in the plot, where an uxorious husband is juxtaposed with a concupiscent wife. Hey, three long words in one simple sentence! I am expanding my English vocabulary...

Unfortunately Binky Watrous also participates in the events: this slows the plot down and the meager comedic payout does not justify the many, many pages of text, dedicated to this least interesting of all Archy McNally regulars. Another weakness is the character of Natalie Westmore - totally implausible to me. On the positive side I love the reference to The Rule of Seventy-Two (I often mention it when teaching calculus) which is used for testing the legitimacy of a financial advisor.

The novel is worth reading only for the florid prose. To use the author's own phrasing the inanity of the plot gasts my flabber.

Two stars.

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Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Aunt's StoryThe Aunt's Story by Patrick White
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"But on a morning the colour of zinc old Mrs Goodman died."

Patrick White's novel The Eye of the Storm which I read over 40 years ago is one of the books I love the most, one that touched me in the strongest way possible and made me realize that great literature is the apex of all arts, encompassing both beauty and truth. Of course I need to re-read it, but the 600-page volume intimidates me. So instead I decided for now to read shorter works by Mr. White, the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1973. And I am ecstatic that I chose The Aunt's Story (1948), one of the earliest books by Mr. White. I am completely in awe of the magnificent prose and so very happy to assign the rare highest rating.

The novel, divided into three parts, relates the story of one woman's dissolution of identity and her descent into madness. We meet Theodora Goodman as a fiftyish spinster, an aunt to her sister's children. The first part recounts Theodora's childhood and youth. The story is so beautifully told that I was unable to put the book away. Theodora is a disappointment to her mother, the "old Mrs. Goodman" because she was an odd, sallow, and ugly child, and has not fulfilled the mother's hopes. Theo's pretty sister, Fanny, leads a comfortable and utterly conventional life. Theo takes care of Fanny's children and also of her aging mother. As she is socially awkward and unattractive, men are not interested in her; only one man courts her but he probably needs her only as yet another item on the long list of his material possessions. The closest she gets to love is when she has an epiphany of sorts during a concert of a Greek cellist - a sublimation of her needs to be close to another person.

The dreamlike, phantasmagoric second part of the novel takes place in Hôtel du Midí somewhere in Europe where Theo goes after her mother's death. She meets a number of strange and interesting characters in the Jardin Exotique at the hotel. Or does she? The hallucinatory atmosphere of unreality is so overwhelming that the reader will be right to ask whether all these people exist only within Theo's mind. Of course she herself may not know whether they are real. The boundary between her consciousness and the so-called real world has disappeared. The third part takes place somewhere in the United States, where Theodora is in the final stage of her journey into madness. Unable to adapt to any conventional norms of society she disposes of the last components of her external identity.

While the story is powerful and deeply affecting, it is the phenomenal prose that made a tremendous impression on me. Virtually on every page the reader will find a delicious nugget of truth packaged in a wrapping of stunningly original prose. In my long years I have never read a book so rich in fresh and vivid metaphors and metonyms. The following is one of the most extraordinary paragraphs of prose that I have ever read:
"All through the middle of America there was a trumpeting of corn. Its full, yellow, tremendous notes pressed close to the swelling sky. There were whole acres of time in which the yellow corn blared as if for judgement. It had taken up and swallowed all other themes, whether belting iron, or subtler, insinuating steel, or the frail human reed. Inside the movement of corn the train complained. The train complained of the frustration of distance, that resists, that resists. Distance trumpeted with corn."
(After the five-star rating I include three other fragments of Patrick White's breathtaking prose.) The novel is exactly 70 years old yet it does not feel dated at all. It could have been written last year. It reads completely fresh despite references to Hitler's annexations of countries in the 1930s or to Lenin and Kerensky from the times of the Soviet Revolution of 1917.

A magnificent novel!

Five stars.

"In Paris the metal hats just failed to tinkle. The great soprano in Dresden sang up her soul for love into a wooden cup. In England the beige women, stalking through the rain with long feet and dogs, had the monstrous eye of sewing machines."

"But Theodora did not reject the word. It flowed, violet and black, and momentarily oyster-bellied through the evening landscape, fingering the faces of the houses. Soon the sea would merge with the houses, and the almost empty asphalt promenade, and the dissolving lavender hills behind the town. So that there was no break in the continuity of being."

"She walked out through the passages, through the sleep of other people. She was thin as grey light, as if she had just died."

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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Murder to Go (John Putnam Thatcher, #10)Murder to Go by Emma Lathen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"To-oo Make Life Bright
Have Chi-i-cken To-oo-nite!

Murder to Go (1969) is my first novel by Emma Lathen, a pseudonym of a mystery-writing duo of economists, Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart. Alas, it is not a particularly auspicious introduction to the authors. I may try to read another book of theirs, but my interest has substantially decreased. Wikipedia tells us that all mysteries by Emma Lathen are situated in the world of business and that each novel deals with a different type of industry. While indeed the complicated business/finance/economics matters are presented in a way accessible to a layman reader like myself, I tend to be less interested in business activities than in watching gray paint dry on a gray wall.

John Putnam Thatcher is a senior vice-president of Sloan Guaranty Trust, "the third-largest bank in the world". The bank happens to be financing the Chicken Tonight company, a chicken dinner home delivery franchising operation that has been booming under the leadership of Frank Hedstrom. Mr. Hedstrom "built up a million-dollar business - almost overnight": he is a "boy wonder" in the business world and he is planning to expand into other areas by taking over an insurance company.

But then 72 people in six states are hospitalized with acute food poisoning and the health authorities quickly establish that Chicken Tonight is to blame. The seemingly accidental poisoning was in fact the result of tampering with the food ready be delivered. One of the victims dies so that the police and other government agencies now have to deal with murder. The authorities suspect a disgruntled employee. However, it is actually Mr. Thatcher who solves the case and uncovers business machinations that underlie the tampering.

We learn a lot about various aspects of franchising business and gain insights into the basics of finance:
"When trouble befalls a debtor, there is a period when he covers up, when he minimizes his predicament, [... when] he is the one who does the worrying. But let things go really sour and positions get reversed. The creditor does the worrying, and the debtor holds the whip hand."
The novel also provides slight comedy relief: one of the threads describes preparations to celebrate work anniversary of a high-ranking employee of the bank. The preparations are so elaborate that they virtually bring all other activities of the third-largest bank in the world to a standstill.

This competently written and somewhat engaging mystery might be quite interesting for readers interested in business intrigues. Certainly not for me.

Two stars.

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Friday, December 29, 2017

Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern WomanFifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"She's a phony. But she's a real phony."
(O.J. Berman, Holly Golightly's agent in Breakfast at Tiffany's.)

Funny how one (mis)remembers things. I vividly remember the place where I read Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's in summer of 1965, but I only vaguely remember the book. On the other hand, I do not remember, even roughly, when I watched the movie based on the book, but I vividly remember Audrey Hepburn in her iconic black dress and her long cigarette holder. Sam Wasson's Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. (2010) is an detailed story of making of that movie, and the title refers to the exact time and place when the shooting began on October 2, 1960. The book was awarded the honor of New York Times' Best Book of the Year so I am happy that I like it a lot too.

The reader will be impressed by the completeness of the author's study. In addition to obvious aspects like Capote's story on which the movie story is based, Audrey Hepburn's performance, and Blake Edward's direction, Mr. Wasson discusses a variety of other factors: Edith Head's costumes, Givenchy dresses, Mel Ferrer's (Ms. Hepburn's husband) meddling, Henry Mancini's music, the "Moon River" song, and many others.

Two aspects of the study appeal the most to me. The author succeeds in explaining one of the sources of the movie's success: the change in social norms and attitudes regarding depiction of women in movies that was happening between the late 1950s and the early 1960s. The author also stresses the movie's role in furthering that change in social norms. Before 1960s the women in films were portrayed either as "saints" or "sluts." Breakfast breaks with this stereotype: its heroine, Holly Golightly, is basically an expensive call girl, presented as a kooky plaything, sweet and very likeable:
"It was one of the earliest pictures to ask us to be sympathetic towards a slightly immoral young woman. Movies were beginning to say that if you were imperfect, you didn't have to be punished."
The other aspect I find very interesting is the author's clear understanding that making Hollywood movies is not about art, not about entertainment, and - of course - not about changing social mores and climate. It is ONLY about business, ONLY about making money. The actor's skill, the screenplay, the director's talent are just tools to make money for the producers:
"... the crude reality of supply and demand contends that great talent, no matter how awesome, must be a salable commodity marketable to its era..."
Creating a new star, creating a new look for women are a business. Even the famous Little Black Dress worn by Holly had to be appropriately "packaged" for ensuring maximum business.

The reader will find many other fascinating observations and analyses: for instance, I love the fragments about how movie censorship worked in 1960 - from today's point of view the practices seem totally insane. Passages about the French author, Colette, noticing Audrey Hepburn and about the Givenchy's dresses are fascinating. And of course the never boring persona of Truman Capote is towering in the background. If not for the overly florid language, painfully pretentious chapter titles, and abundance of gossip tabloid stuff, this could be a truly great book.

Three and a half stars.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Helvetesilden (Inspector Konrad Sejer, #12)Helvetesilden by Karin Fossum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"It was always the small things, the links between people and where they could lead."

Another great book from Karin Fossum, one of my most favorite mystery writers. So far I have reviewed nine of her books on Goodreads, and rated two of them ( Black Seconds and The Murder of Harriet Krohn ) with five stars, a very rare rating for this very picky and fussy reader. Of hundreds of authors in the crime/mystery genre that I have read in over 50 years, Ms. Fossum joins only Nicolas Freeling and Denise Mina in the select trio of mystery writers for whom I feel a deep, total, and virtually uncritical admiration. They just seem never to have written anything that I wouldn't at least like a lot. (After the rating I am trying to explain the reasons why I love Ms. Fossum's books so much.)

As far as I know Hell Fire (2014) is the newest work by Ms. Fossum to appear in English translation. Inspector Sejer is on the scene of a brutal murder of a young woman and her five-year-old son. The story shifts to half a year earlier and we meet a single mother, Mass, living with her adult son, Eddie, who has not quite adapted to societal norms and is unable to hold a job. We follow the two parallel and interleaving threads: one of Bonnie and Simon, the future victims, and the other of Mass and Eddie.

Of course we know almost right away who committed the crime, but the mystery lies in the reasons and motives. Many readers will not be disappointed in the denouement, which is one of the most unexpected for Ms. Fossum. I prefer her usual unsurprising ones.

Bonnie is employed as a home health aide; to me the best thing in the novel is the portrayal of her work with the elderly and handicapped. The scene of cleaning Erna's house, after first dressing the table legs in multiple pairs of socks, is unforgettable. Erna, one of the background characters, is painted so vividly that I could swear I know her. Also, the novel is desperately sad. It shows, without being overtly didactic, the social consequences of broken families and unwanted children.

Translation is far from stellar. Not being a native speaker of English I have been able to spot numerous awkward phrases. I have doubts about several words: for instance, the alcohol that characters drink in the novel is likely the Scandinavian specialty, akvavit, for some reason translated as eau de vie. Sure, it means the same thing, but they drink akvavit in Norway, not eau de vie.

Hell Fire is certainly not a five-star book. While I loved reading it - I will probably never not love anything written by the author - there is not much in it that wouldn't feel as just another instance of a standard template of a Fossum's novel. It sort of reads as the author's manifesto "all my novels are like this."

Four stars.

(I revere Ms. Fossum's novels for four reasons. First, she is not much interested in the whodunit aspect of the story. People and their motivations are her main focus. This is precisely what interests me: I want to know why rather than trying to figure out who did it. Second, and perhaps most important: Ms. Fossum is never judgmental: even the brutal murderers of children are portrayed in her novels as human beings. It would be so easy to condemn the evil beasts that they are, but instead she tries to comprehend what made them commit the acts of brutality. To grossly oversimplify, I don't think she believes people are born evil.

The two other reasons for my adoration of Ms. Fossum's work are related to her writing. Other than the crime that sets up the plot, nothing much seems to happen in her stories. We do not have any "twists or turns"; we read about ordinary, everyday events, and ordinary life. Inspectors Sejer and Skarre thoroughly and patiently do their work, and Sejer then conducts his slow questioning of the accused. Finally, I love Ms. Fossum's quiet, understated writing style: no big words, no flourish, no hyperbole. Just the "small things.")

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