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."
Ugh.

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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Monday, July 24, 2017

Ill Wind (Anna Pigeon, #3)Ill Wind by Nevada Barr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Overbalancing, the insect stumbled forward a step. [Anna] stepped into the opening and rammed the tip of the baton into the exposed gut with all her strength and weight."

Ill Wind (1995) is my third novel in the Nevada Barr's National Park series: after Glacier National Park ( Blood Lure ) and Carlsbad Caverns NP ( Blind Descent ) Anita Pigeon now works in Mesa Verde. I couldn't wait to read this installment as this is the national park that I know the best (my fourth visit there was just 11 months ago) and the general area of Four Corners, where Mesa Verde is located, is one of my favorite places on Earth.

While this is a proper mystery/crime novel with a dead body and Ranger Pigeon's investigation there is also a deeper layer in the story. The reader will learn about the mystery of Anasazi people (the Old Ones, or - in current day politically correct parlance - the Ancestral Puebloans) who, some time about 1200-1300, suddenly abandoned the cliff dwellings and the territory they had occupied for many centuries. Some of the most famous dwellings are located in Mesa Verde. The mystery has not yet been convincingly explained by archaeologists and ethnographers. A few months ago I reviewed here David Roberts' In Search of the Old Ones where the abandonment enigma is discussed in depth and with a research bent. I am happy that Ms. Barr treats the topic seriously and with respect in this crime novel. She even mentions that the theories explaining the abandonment "change with political weather." True, and sad.

Anyway, Ms. Pigeon is now a ranger in Mesa Verde (the readers will recall that rangers are responsible for law enforcement on national park grounds). The main waterline is being renovated and the conflicts between the park administrators, contractors, rangers, and archaeologists provide an interesting backdrop of the crime plot. The story meanders a little to introduce the protagonists (and later suspects), we have a domestic dispute where the ex-husband mails his ex-wife a certain part of his body (no, not quite what one might think, but close), yet the main thread begins well past one-third of the book when the body of one of the main characters is found in a fire ring of a kiva. The author rather skillfully connects the criminal plot with the Old Ones' mystique: there are sightings of a mysterious "veil" - a "kind of iridescent shimmer" - and some park employees even suggest that the spirits of the original inhabitants of the dwellings manifest their presence, via sipapu portals. Ms. Pigeon finds an interesting correlation between the sightings and evacuations of sick tourists from less accessible parts of the park. I find the overall mystery well constructed and satisfying, even if the denouement is a bit implausible.

This would be a very good novel if not for the awkward prose. Compared to two other books in the series that I have read the writing is strangely incompetent: the author has a tendency to enumerate all the small actions taken by characters: sit down, stand up, take condiments out of the cupboard, put them on the table, drink Pepsi, pick up a potato chip, break it into small pieces, and so on, and on, and on. I did not notice it in the later novels so maybe Ms. Barr did not yet hit her literary stride in this early installment of the series.

Other than less than masterful prose I find the book very readable and, of course, I love reading about all these amazing places that I am beginning to know: Chapin Mesa, Far View, Cedar Tree Tower, Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and many others.

Three stars.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Deadeye DickDeadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] the things the National Rifle Association still says about how natural and beautiful it is for Americans to have love affairs with guns."

Just a few days ago I reviewed the outstanding Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors. I find it astonishing that his Deadeye Dick (1982), a seemingly similar novel, with similar motifs and narrative form, is so unremarkable. I almost love the former and I really don't like the latter at all. While Bluebeard is profound, Deadeye Dick is just occasionally amusing. The word "meh" seems to have been created for books like this one.

The novel is sort of an autobiography by one Rudy Waltz. He is 50 years old now and recounts his childhood and youth in Midland City - the archetypal middle-America town - in the archetypal middle-America state of Ohio. Rudy's youth was not typical at all, though: he and his brother were conceived in Austria,
"in a von Furstenberg bed, with a coat of arms on the headboard, and with 'The Minorite Church of Vienna' by Adolf Hitler, on the wall over that."
Rudy's father was enamored with Hitler's ideology and until World War II considered Hitler his friend.

But Hitler and Nazism are only incidental in the novel. We learn that Rudy had killed two people in Midland City. No, he is not in prison; he has not been punished by law and works as a pharmacist. But wait, there's more. At some point Mrs. Roosevelt - the wife of the 32nd President - visits Rudy's family and has a lunch of chitlins with them. Also early in the novel we learn that Midland City, Ohio, was the location of the nuclear blast, which killed one hundred thousand people but - since it was a neutron bomb - the houses, infrastructure, and personal things were not damaged at all. So we have a radioactive mantelpiece but also the dangers of amphetamine and brain cancer, and we have Rudy's brother who is the top executive of NBC. All these components could conceivably be combined to form a fascinating novel. Yet they sum up to an awkward and unfocused mess that does not make much sense, at least to me.

The motif of failure in life is closest to feel compelling: a failed painter, failed playwright and failed parents are essential components of the story, and since all of us fail in our lives in some way, at least this theme is highly realistic. The novel also carries a loud (yet too simplistic to be convincing) anti-gun message, but the bizarre plot saps all power from it.

The author attempts to enrich the non-linear but rather straightforward narration by the use of "playlets" written in the form of play scripts. I find this device a failure: the playlets do not blend with the text. Neither do the culinary recipes that are used as interludes, but at least the reader can try them out in practice, like the one for chitlins. Of all the unrelated threads in the novel I really like only one - the Celia Hildreth story: the vivid scene that portrays Rudy's brother's failure to get her to be his prom date is the highlight of the novel. I also like the last sentence of the novel and the author's private joke: a reference to Rabo Karabekian, the protagonist of Bluebeard. The greatness of that novel stands out even more when compared to the mediocre Deadeye Dick.

Two stars.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

No Colder Place (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #4)No Colder Place by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"There's no place colder than a construction site. [...] the chill that pulls the warmth from your bones while you're working, the wind that blows through steel and concrete carrying the ancient dampness of echoing caves."

I am livid. Until the last 35 pages I felt this was a great book, one of the best books in the PI genre that I can remember. At least a four-star rating. But then the author resorts to the tired, cliché, theatrical ending that reminds me of the badly dated noir movies of the 1950s. S.J. Rozan's No Colder Place (1997) won the Anthony Award for the best novel in 1998: I wholeheartedly agree provided we remove the last 35 pages of the book. Why is the author - who is clearly capable of speaking with an original voice - determined to end most of her novels with a stock style of denouement? Why is the author defacing her great work?

The action takes place mainly on a construction site in New York. Bill Smith is subcontracted by another PI to investigate problems on the site: tools have been stolen, construction equipment has vanished, and one of the crane operators has disappeared. The owners of the construction company suspect one of the foremen and want to catch him at wrongdoing. Mr. Smith, who had worked as a bricklayer in his past, gets hired as a mason to watch the crew and find out what is going on. The tension on the site escalates when the body of the crane operator is found. Lydia Chin, Smith's partner and undying target of his romantic interest, is hired as a secretary in the construction site office to help with the investigation.

The story is interesting, moves fast, and - what's most important - is logical and plausible. But the best thing about the novel is that the plot is firmly grounded in labor relations conflicts, and additionally complicated by racial issues. The passages about the assault on the construction site conducted by the "full employment coalition" and its ramifications are the high points of the novel. The whole thread featuring the "Strength Through Jobs/Jobs Through Strength" organization that arranges busloads of rioting people is superb. It is indeed rare to find a mystery so attuned to rhythms of social issues. Even better: the author does not find easy solutions in the superficial political correctness.

I find the construction site scenes and the conversations between the crew completely believable (disclaimer: my labor experience, dating to 49 years ago, is from a steel mill rather than construction site). I have also enjoyed various references to crew members who might be "connected" (wink, wink, Italians in New York, capisce?)

This is my fifth Bill Smith/Lydia Chin novel and once again it is Lydia's character which is superbly drawn. Once again I can fully believe she is a real person. Bill is more believable than usual - the author does not cheapen the plot with references to his traumatic past. Another highpoint of the novel is the scene on the ferry and Lydia's rescue of Bill. Clever, sweet and funny. And no guns are involved! No guns! If only the author could maintain this good form until the end...

Three and a half stars.


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Saturday, July 15, 2017

BluebeardBluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Why should a real man stay home when he could be raping a virgin continent?"

Until about the middle of Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard (1987) I was finding it a worthwhile yet unremarkable read. And then, about page 170 of the paperback edition, either the author finds his stride, or - more likely - I finally begin to "get" the book. In the powerful and memorable second half of the novel Vonnegut's trademark pessimism explodes from the pages and the despicable nature of the human species is again exposed via bitterly sarcastic prose.

The novel is a fictional autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, an American painter of Armenian origin, one of the leading artists of the Abstract Expressionist school that includes such artists as Jason Pollock and Mark Rothko (Vonnegut is skillful in mixing fictional and real characters). The story of Rabo's youth and middle age is interspersed with an account of the current (mid-1980s) events, when he is 71 years old; the two threads elegantly connect toward the end. There is even a clever mystery in the novel: we do not know - although we can suspect - what object is hidden in a securely locked potato barn; the secret is revealed in a stunning finale.

Vonnegut is crystal clear about which of the two halves of the human race is the more wretched. Men are a hopelessly flawed gender as they are good mainly for participating in violence:
"[she] was surely way ahead of her time, too, in believing that men were not only useless and idiotic, but downright dangerous. That idea wouldn't catch on big in her native country until the last three years of the Vietnam War."
The novel is more effectively feminist than any manifesto of feminist activism. It helps that Vonnegut offers vivid, compelling portrayals of two women: Marilee, in the past, and the widow Berman, in the present. I feel as if I have known both of them!

The art of painting is one of the main topics; for instance, we learn that Abstract Expressionists want their art to be about absolutely nothing but itself and they refuse to participate in anything that has any ideological bent. Much discussion is about the inferiority of representational art and the reason for that is quite clearly explained. In Rabo's words such art is "just too [...] easy," (I bowdlerized the quote removing a particularly fitting gerund serving as an adverb) thus not worthwhile practicing. Realist painters are called "taxidermists who mount and varnish great moments in time." How much of the artist is in their art is another interesting topic. And of course the eternal discussion subject:
"'How can you tell a good painting from a bad one?' he said. [...] 'All you have to do [...] is look at a million paintings, and then you can never be mistaken.'"
There is a great scene of lovemaking between Rabo and Marilee, one of the best I have read, as it is funny, sarcastic (duh!) and totally non-erotic. It leads to a cute concept of "non-epiphany" and to showing how much smarter women are about sex than men. The novel is very funny in the bitter, ironic way. Here's the probably funniest sentence in the novel (other than the one I used in the epigraph):
"Here is the solution to the American drug problem suggested a couple of years back by the wife of our President: 'Just say no.'"
Four stars.


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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Wild Kat (Kat Colorado, #5)Wild Kat by Karen Kijewski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"KURIOSITY KILLS THE KAT; DEAD KATS TELL NO TALES; KILL KILL KILL; WATCH YOUR PUSSY, KAT; KATS DON'T HAVE 9 LIVES."

Karen Kijewski's Wild Cat (1994) is my first encounter with Kat Colorado, the PI protagonist of the Kat series. I am afraid that it may also be my last contact with the author as I do not like the writing style and have not found the novel interesting at all.

The story begins with Kat's visit to a hospital where she talks to Jude, a man whose life she saved after a freeway accident. However, it soon becomes clear that it has not been an accident, but rather an attempt to kill Jude's wife, Amanda. She acted as a whistleblower in a medical equipment company that has knowingly been selling faulty heart valves. Since the righteously determined Amanda cannot be stopped in her zeal to prevent patients' deaths and bring the company to justice the harassment continues and she is no longer the only target: Jude and Kat are also subject to threats, assaults, and property damage. This escalates to murder staged as an accidental death. Obviously Kat's investigation is successful and she manages to find the killer whose identity many readers may find surprising.

The one thing I like in the novel is the relatively cogent discussion of issues related to companies' liability for defective products. That the companies face balancing between costs of correcting the product and costs of settlements is well known. Less known is the need of the victims to balance between their individual interest and the public good: signing confidential settlements as opposed to going public with the complaint is at the heart of the issue.

Sadly, everything else in the novel is rather substandard. First of all, the whole concept of the never-ending series of childish harassment pranks after a murder has occurred is ridiculous. Bird feeder tipped, hummingbird syrup splashed out, roses in full bloom cut and petals pulled off? Anonymous messages in the mail? Fecal matter on the lawn? Dead rat in the mailbox? All that after killing and heavy bodily assault that borders on rape! Why not painting mustaches on family portraits and placing whoopee cushions on the chairs? Why not making scary faces or yelling "Booo!" at Kat?

Neither do I like the author's manner of writing: dialogues and inner monologues are interspersed with remarks and asides to the reader. Yet another literary gripe relates to the pretentious habit of preceding each chapter with a sample question sent to Charity, Kat's friend and a newspaper advice columnist. It's not that the questions are totally silly - which is to be expected - it's that the whole thing has no connection to the plot. In addition to the characters having no depth - a weakness that is acceptable in an entertainment read - they also talk in inane platitudes, using "written" rather than spoken language.

Not a good book at all, but at least the author should be commended for raising the lesser-known aspects of health care product liability issues.

One and three quarter stars.


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Sunday, July 9, 2017

Life ItselfLife Itself by Roger Ebert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"'Kindness' covers all of my political beliefs. [...] I believe that if, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. [...] We must try to contribute joy to the world."

Roger Ebert's autobiography Life Itself (2011) came highly recommended by a real-life friend of mine (Paine on Goodreads) so I expected a lot. And indeed, totally enraptured by the book at its beginning I was envisioning literary delights of the highest caliber. Then, quite suddenly, the tone of the book changed and I realized I was not that interested in reading any more. I managed to finish, alas with a feeling of deep disappointment, despite the wonderful words of wisdom that Mr. Ebert offers in the closing passages of the book (and quoted in the epigraph above).

The autobiography begins with an affecting collage of memory snapshots from the author's childhood: the reader can identify with a little boy facing the big, real world of the 1940s and 1950s. Mr. Ebert's love of his parents is evident and the reminiscences of his extended family are touching as well. He mentions the names of his cousins, aunts and uncles to let all these people exist a little before time dissolves them into nothingness. The nun-run grade school, then the Urbana High School, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and finally postgraduate study at the University of Cape Town are vividly recounted. On the backdrop of waning years of "the last generation of innocence" before the advent of the turbulent late 1960s the author writes about his first contact with movies and his loss of religious faith.

To me, the worthwhile part of the book ends when Mr. Ebert recounts the poignant and almost mystical experience of suddenly finding himself in harmony with the Universe at a cafe in Cannes. This is a brief moment of transcendence, a fleeting glimpse into an alternative universe of consonance and clarity, free from everyday struggles of the real world. The book goes downhill from there. And fast.

The mind-numbingly boring name-dropping and - in Mr. Ebert's own words - "place-dropping" begins about page 140. The readers will not find any transcendent, luminous passages on the remaining 280 pages; instead they can find gossip and trivia about The Famous People, particularly about their romantic and sex lives. Russ Meyer might be a great director, but why on earth would the reader need to know which women he slept with? How could this knowledge affect the reception of his art?

Mr. Ebert writes about his interviews with Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, and other stars. Some of these interviews achieved almost a cult status in the movie world and yet their claim to fame is based solely on the fame of the actors. If exactly the same dialogue transpired between Mr. Ebert and a random person off the street, it would not be worth memorializing. The pieces about Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Werner Herzog, and Gene Siskel are not as gossipy yet they are about the people rather than about their art. Is the reader supposed to care what kind of people the great artists are in personal life? What difference does it make to their art?

On page 332 of my edition I find the following literary pearl:
"Although some strange stories have gone around, it is not true to say Oprah and I ever dated."
My God! Why should I care whom Mr. Ebert dates? The only reason for including this sentence is that Oprah is An Extremely Famous Person, and this - in a way unclear to me - is supposed to make the dating information important to the readers. And yet another momentous revelation, 35 pages later:
"At Cannes we bought a chicken sandwich for Quentin Tarantino in a beach restaurant [...]"
So what, might I ask? Mr. Ebert has amply demonstrated in the past that he can write about the art of movies like almost no one else, so why all the tabloid fluff?

Roger Ebert's last eleven years were filled with the unimaginable horror of a losing fight against cancer of thyroid and salivary glands. Three major facial surgeries failed and the loss of jaw rendered him unable to eat, drink, and speak. I do not believe there are many people who have suffered so much and went through so much hell in the waning years of their lives. Yet the author's clarity of mind, his optimism, and understanding what is important in life shine in this autobiography written during his last years and published two years before his death in 2013. His manifesto "We must try to contribute joy to the world" rings loud and true. I wish his autobiography did not cater so much to one of the lowest human instincts, the obsession with famous people. The celebrity cult that the book is drenched in cheapens its message and hides it behind the avalanche of trite and worthless gossip.

A five-star book followed by a one-star mess. Three stars. Sorry, Paine!

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

McNally's Risk (Archy McNally, #3)McNally's Risk by Lawrence Sanders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"It would be indelicate to describe those gifts that qualified her for employment in a topless car wash. Suffice to say that she was well-qualified."

What an unexpectedly pleasant read! The third novel in Lawrence Sanders' Archy McNally series, McNally's Risk (1993) is a light, breezy, entertaining book. An unassuming trifle yet such an agreeable waste of time! The readers will not need to exercise their brains to enjoy the plot and the writing.

Mrs. Smythe-Hersforth, a rich Palm Beach matron with pretenses to class, hires Archy McNally to discreetly investigate the bona fides of a young woman whom her son is planning to marry. The client suspects that Miss Theodosia Johnson is not refined enough to be worthy of her son. Indeed, Archy quickly finds out that Theodosia is not quite what she claims to be, but then she is so beautiful that the detective immediately falls in love with her. The infatuation even reaches the level of physical consummation. However, this being a sort of crime novel, we soon have a murder, then another one, and the plot thickens to finally get untangled in an implausible, though not criminally so, denouement.

To me the best aspect of the book is the intentionally florid language which somehow manages to avoid sounding grandiloquent and instead comes through as subtly funny. For instance:
"I mournfully reflected that if mein papa was correct [...], I would be horribly disappointed and possibly take up the lute to express my weltschmerz in musical form."
The vividly drawn character of Theodosia provides another surprise. While all other characters, even including Archy, are closer to caricatures, the young woman seems real from the pages of the novel. Lawrence Sanders is not known for deep psychological insights or for mastery in conveying dialogue yet, for instance, the conversation between Archy, Theodosia, and her father sounds completely natural and convincingly contributes to the plot.

Of course, we have the usual plethora of clichés, the fictitious Palm Beach high society is depicted without much feeling, and the usual Archy McNally menagerie of characters (Consuela Garcia, Simon Pettibone, Lolly Spindrift, Sergeant Rogoff, Binky Watrous, and the one and only Prescott McNally, Archy's father, whom the son invariably addresses as "Sir") are annoyingly repetitive.

The novel is pure entertainment but after all one does need amusement and diversions from time to time. I am enclosing another funny quote after the rating.

Three and three quarter stars.

"I must inform you that anyone who attempts to make love on a sandy beach soon learns the meaning of true grit."


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Monday, July 3, 2017

The Rachel PapersThe Rachel Papers by Martin Amis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Thus I maintained a tripartite sexual application in contrapuntal patterns. This sort of thing: insert tongue, remove finger from ear; withdraw tongue, stroke neck, [...]"

Had I read Martin Amis' The Rachel Papers (1973) in my twenties I would have been extremely enthusiastic about the novel. Now, in my sixties, I certainly appreciate the author's phenomenally skillful prose, but I find the utter preoccupation with sex and focus on erotic techniques boring and the reading experience reminds me of a wonderful scene in Monty Python's Meaning of Life where a teacher and his wife demonstrate sexual intercourse to high-school students who are deadly bored and prefer to look out of the window.

Charles Highway is turning twenty. He is an aspiring writer, reads voraciously, and prides himself on skills of literary analysis. Charles is trying to get into Oxford and has to deal with preparatory courses and the entrance interview. Charles also despises his father: not only because hating one's father is an obviously fashionable thing to do, but also because the father is having an affair. But all this seems to be of secondary importance. Main motive of Charles's actions is sex and his entire being revolves around things sexual. Right now he is trying to seduce one Rachel Noyce, a girl he particularly fancies because she seems to be unavailable when they first meet.

Yes, I can vouch that this is how the disease of late adolescence manifests itself in a typical male of the human species who is in the final stages of building his persona to wear for life while at the same time dealing with the so-called "raging hormones." The "descent to manhood" - as the author aptly calls the phase - takes time (for many of us males a longer time than our lifespan) and manifests itself in self-obsession, self-centeredness, and frequent self-service in the bathroom or in bed. The accuracy of Mr. Amis' observations is top notch but I am unable to find much more than that in the novel. To use Charles' brilliant phrase I might ask
"Is that all it fucking is[?]"
The author's virtuoso writing reaches its apogee in a hilarious twelve-page passage that relates the consummation of Charles' lust: his first conquest of Rachel's charms. The reader may draw a rather obvious comparison to Nabokov's famous scene on the candy-striped davenport ( Lolita .) Well, also obviously, Nabokov's scene wins hands down! With equally skillful mechanics of writing, with the hilarious almost on par with the poetic, the literal is completely out of competition with the metaphorical. Another literary comparison the reader might make is between Charles Highway and Stephen Dedalus. While the latter searches for his soul the former finds his penis. Charles is an anti-Dedalus: not yet ready to look for real depth or meaning and fixated on reflecting on his feelings rather than on feeling them.

I suspect there is another reason why I do not much like this book - clever, hilarious, and extremely well-written as it is - it is probably because utterly shallow, callow, and egotistic Charles clearly reminds me of myself at that age. And this hurts.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Friday, June 30, 2017

Blind Descent (Anna Pigeon, #6)Blind Descent by Nevada Barr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Naked people of all shapes and sizes dangling from ropes over a pint-sized paradise; the picture so tickled Anna she had to think dark thoughts to keep from giggling."

Since I liked Nevada Barr's Blood Lure quite a lot I have reached for another book in the series, Blind Descent (1998). Each novel in Ms. Barr's Anna Pigeon series is set in a different national park in the U.S, which is music to the eyes of this ardent fan of the National Parks System. Descent is located in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but not in the developed and tourist-accessible part of the park, which - as Ms. Barr writes - feels like "a Disney creation," but in area of Lechuguilla Cave, the seventh-longest explored cave in the world (source: Wikipedia), open only to scientists and National Parks service personnel.

Anna Pigeon, currently employed in the Mesa Verde National Park, is called to Carlsbad Caverns National Park as a member of a rescue team to evacuate an injured caver. Ms. Pigeon suffers from a serious case of claustrophobia so she would not volunteer to participate in the rescue mission, but the seriously injured caver is Frieda, her friend from Mesa Verde, who insists that Ms. Pigeon be a part of the rescue. All this sounds rather implausible at first, but when we learn that Frieda suspects that her accident was in fact attempted murder, the setup of the plot becomes somewhat believable.

The reader follows Ms. Pigeon's laborious underground trip to reach Frieda, crawling through miles of narrow spaces that barely allow to squeeze one's body through, almost one thousand feet below the ground. The description of the traumatic underground escapade is by far the best part of the novel. I have no way of knowing how factual the map of the cave printed on the inside covers is, but it is helpful in tracking the events and accompanied by well-written prose compounds the claustrophobic feelings in the reader. In addition to the sense of being buried alive we are treated to an underground rock slide - a vivid and realistic scene - and an actual murder.

While the underground scenes are great - worth at least four stars - the rather amateurish detective work by Ms. Pigeon outside of the Lechuguilla Cave is not that interesting and I have to confess to having skimmed some pages. The denouement is quite clever if perhaps not the most plausible but - unfortunately for me - it includes a standard, totally cliché climactic scene that would work better in a movie than in a novel.

The author offers the reader a richness of caving detail: techniques, folklore, terminology and while I am unable to verify how accurately all these things are portrayed, it certainly reads realistic, including the juicy details of what the cavers do with their urine and feces when they have to spend many days entombed in underground corridors just a few feet wide.

A good read, definitely recommended, but mostly for non-mystery reasons. I will look for further National Park installments of Ms. Barr's series.

Three and a half stars.


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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Best American Science Writing 2005The Best American Science Writing 2005 by Alan Lightman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Given that nearly half of Americans disavow evolution..."
(A really scary statistic from the preface to Darwin or Not by David Quammen.)

A disappointment! I expected much more from The Best American Science Writing 2005, the first volume of this apparently long-running series that I have read. I had an appetite for a good number of brilliant, thought-provoking, awe-inspiring essays on modern science, but among the 26 pieces in this set I found just one great essay, and only four or five strong ones, including a fascinating and quite curious non-science item. In my arrogance I think that several essays included here do not even deserve to be in a collection that has "best science writing" in its title.

To me Frank Wilczek's essay Whence the Force of F = ma from Physics Today clearly stands out. The Nobel Prize-winning quantum theorist uses short sentences, simple language, and refers to knowledge many of us get in a high-school physics course (F = ma) to discuss - on just five pages - the vagueness of the concept of force, apparently fundamental in physics. There is depth and grace in this piece and a tremendous pun on physics in its last sentence:
"A big part of the explanation for its [force's] continuous use is no doubt (intellectual) inertia."
On the opposite end of the spectrum I find the essay by David Berlinski, a famed philosopher, mathematician, and science writer. His overlong essay On the Origins of the Mind uses florid language that obscures the points I believe the author is trying to make, and lacking any depth attempts to dazzle with terminology instead. It also contains an astounding statement that "differential equations" "govern a flow of time." Huh?

Small Silences by Edward Hoagland, an incongruous piece in this collection of science writings, is a lyrical yet rich and earthy ode to the beauty of nature. The essay is even more fascinating because of its strangely sexual undertones - I am too obtuse to figure the point of these but even so I loved the non-scientific prose.

To briefly mention few other worthwhile pieces: Atul Gawande writes about the last cases of polio in a poor region in India and raises a momentous issue: eradicating polio may be a great human achievement yet poverty, hunger, lack of sanitation continue to kill many times more people. I have read the essay The Genome in Black and White (and Gray) with deep sadness about how the currently prevailing PC ideology prevents furthering research that could help people of all colors. The Biology of Hope cogently discusses the so-called placebo effect. Aging Research's Family Feud reads almost like a mystery: the dispute between two scientists is recounted in a captivating yet rather non-scientific way.

Many "meh" pieces or obligatory contributions towards ideology trends round up the collection. The Wilczek's essay and the Hoagland's prose will stay with me for a long time. I lost interest in reading any more writings of Dr. Berlinski. But the most important benefit that I have derived from reading the set is my awoken interest in checking whether the points the authors made 12 or 13 years ago are still valid. I will attempt to read current writings on several of these topics. The potential for stimulating the readers' interest is the only reason I marginally recommend the collection.

Two and three quarter stars.

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Kosygin Is ComingKosygin Is Coming by Tom Ardies
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"He decided that he has fallen into the hands of the Russian version of the Keystone Cops. They were the damndest bunch of idiots he had ever run across. Nothing they did or said made any sense whatsoever."

Exactly! The last sentence of the above quote from Kosygin is Coming (1974) serves as an apt characterization of the novel. Past a certain point in the story nothing that any of the characters says or does makes any sense whatsoever. In my naiveté I have again fallen prey to the Fake Beginning Swindle, where the author cleverly sets up the plot, builds some tension, introduces apparently interesting characters to then let the plot deteriorate to sheer idiocy. Welcome to the Mickey Mouse world of political assassination!

I read the first fifty or so pages of with interest: the plot seemed promising and the writing competent. The action begins in the Canadian War Amputees Association Club, where the amputees are not your usual veterans - many of them seem to be working for intelligence organizations. Interesting. But then something strange happens with the novel: the author begins creating plot twists. First batch of twists are still acceptable, but then there happen twists on twists and starting about page 80 the plot completely stops making sense and becomes a random sequence of events not connected to others in any way. Good bye logic! Good bye common sense! Good bye reason! All characters behave like complete idiots and - worst of all - the main character alternates between being a moron and a genius of survival. Deaths and escapes from certain death abound. One of the characters, a giant named Goliath (how inventive), lifts the entire engine block over his head and throws it into the water to help dispose of a corpse. Another character is named Bjsgrkowski - indeed Polish names have an overabundance of consonants, but certainly not these consonants. Readers may find it interesting to learn what a full colonel of a powerful national intelligence organization does while he is working - here it is:
"[...] he held his arms outstretched, pretending he was airplane, and he started running around the living room that way, making the sounds of the engine [...] 'Rrrrrr. Rrrrrr....' Suddenly he veered and dived headlong into the sofa. 'Ka-boom!'"
The novel could have possibly been funny - the unusual amputee setup is so promising - yet the humor is forced and involves caricature characters or lame jokes about human excrement.

The quarter of a star that I am awarding is for the interesting beginning and for the mention of Squamish and its vicinity: long time ago my family and I spent a memorable night on a camping in this Canadian town on our way to Banff via Lilloet and Kamloops. Otherwise the novel - hailed as a "tightly wound thriller" in the cover blurb - is a disgrace to the genre and a complete waste of time for the reader.

One and a quarter stars.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert WyattDifferent Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt by Marcus O'Dair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...]Robert has achieved spectacular success by another definition: longevity without compromise. In politics as in music, he has become a byword for integrity [...] In fifty years of making music, there seems not to have been an insincere note."

For once I agree with the critics. Marcus O'Dair's Different Every Time: The Authorized Biography of Robert Wyatt (2015) won accolades from British music critics: it was selected as the music book of the year by Guardian and Times, among other British newspapers. Indeed it is an excellent book, extremely informative, well-written and captivating.

Robert Wyatt, "one of the greats of English music," is mostly known as the drummer for Soft Machine, the extraordinary British band, during their 1966 - 1971 period. The detailed history of Soft Machine can be found in another outstanding book Out-Bloody-Rageous , which I review here on Goodreads.

Different is remarkably rich in details: we read about the artist's bohemian childhood, how he met his future bandmates in the secondary school, and we learn about his interest in Rimbaud's poetry, Thelonious Monk's and Igor Stravinsky's music, and paintings by Georges Braque. In 1965 Mr. Wyatt becomes a member of Wilde Flowers, one of the founding bands of the Canterbury Scene characterized by "jazz-tinged, pastoral and very English psychedelic rock." In 1966 Soft Machine is born and the band creates some of the best music of the era (to me absolutely the best - but then I am heavily biased).

Yet soon the musical trajectories of Mr. Wyatt and Soft Machine diverge: in fact he is basically fired from the band. The separation is not all the band's fault - Mr. Wyatt has always wanted to play songs rather than the cerebral music based on jazz, avant-garde influences, and technical virtuosity. Depressed and suicidal he creates the Matching Mole band, its name being a superb pun, based on the French translation of "soft machine". He meets a Polish émigré Alfreda Benge, the woman of his life, but then a horrible accident happens: he falls out of a window and gets paralyzed from waist down for the rest of his life. Thanks to Alfreda he survives and spends 40 further creative years in a wheelchair making wonderful music - which includes recording eight successful albums - on the boundaries of pop and avant-garde.

While one needs to distinguish Robert Wyatt the artist from Mr. Wyatt a person, the biography makes it clear that certain amount of crossover cannot be avoided. Usually the artists' strengths come from their force of conviction and in Mr. Wyatt's case the conviction is mainly political in nature: he has always been a left-winger, and quite radical at that. However, even being myself on the left side of the political spectrum I am unable to understand Mr. Wyatt's long-time membership in the Communist Party of Great Britain. Joining the party in 1970s, when the extreme range and depth of Soviet crimes against humanity were well known, can only be treated as lunacy. The author calls Mr. Wyatt a "Marxist jazz fan" but to believe that any communist party is guided by any ideas other than grabbing and wielding total power is akin to hallucinating. Still, even if I am eager to call Mr. Wyatt a complete idiot for his communist sympathies, I admire his music and his singing.

A very good book, meticulously researched and referenced. A great source of information not only about one of the most important and serious artists of British popular music but also about the times from the early 1960s to the current day. No gossip, no tabloid stuff, no name dropping. A sincere and focused book in which the author is basically invisible: almost a five-star book - maybe I will change my rating over re-reading.

Four and a half stars.


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Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Bitter Feast (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #5)A Bitter Feast by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] threadbare and thin villagers choose cold, hungry, two-month trips in the lowest holds of cargo ships, all packed in the same windowless, rolling room, breathing stale air, never coming on deck, for their chance to work sixteen hours a day on the slopes of Gold Mountain [...]"

My fifth novel by S.J. Rozan - and coincidentally the fifth installment in the Chin/Smith series - has turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The amazingly good Winter and Night set the expectations bar pretty high and the next three novels that I have read and reviewed here on Goodreads were disappointments. Luckily in A Bitter Feast (1998) the author is back to form with an interesting, well-written, and almost cliché-free novel.

The plot opens with a strong scene: members of the Chinese Restaurant Workers' Union are marching for "Justice and a Living Wage" and picketing the Dragon Garden restaurant. Lydia Chin's friend hires her to look for four Dragon Garden employees who disappeared. Since one of them has been an union organizer it is quite likely that the disappearance is related to the labor issues. Other clues also point to a powerful Chinese businessman, H.B. Yang, as having connections to the case.

Soon the pace of the plot picks up, Lydia is assaulted in her office, her employment is terminated, but in a strange twist she is almost instantaneously re-hired by Mr. Yang himself to continue her assignment. Lydia goes undercover as a dim sum lady in the Dragon Garden restaurant. In the meantime a bomb explodes in the union headquarters, and some connections with government agencies begin to emerge. The ending is a bit hard to follow because of several meandering conversations, but relatively plausible until the cinematic climax occurs with its mandatory shootout. Why, oh why?

Despite the silly and pointless shootout I like the book quite a lot: there is much more in it than just a clever criminal plot. The reader is bound to appreciate all the hardships of Chinese immigrants' lives. The oblique, allusive, circuitous ways of Chinese conversations are portrayed convincingly and the reader can even learn a little bit about a dim sum place as seen from the waitress' side. But, most of all, Lydia Chin is a really compelling character who comes across as a real person, with her various quirks and biases. Bill Smith is more in the background in this novel, which is a plus because his character has so far felt not quite convincing. Had the author omitted the gunplay I would have rounded the rating up.

Three and a half stars.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined the Supreme CourtThe Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined the Supreme Court by John W. Dean
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"There ought to be a woman judge. Lots of women, and it's economic. I'm not for women, frankly, in any job. I don't want any of them around."
(R.M. Nixon, according to transcript of recorded conversations)

John W. Dean was one of the crucial figures in the Watergate affair of the early 1970s, the affair that ended R.M. Nixon's presidency. Of all the principal actors in the affair he might be the one who contributed the most to exposing the President's knowledge of all machinations. The Rehnquist Choice (2001) is not a book about Watergate, though. Mr. Dean writes here about President Nixon's other contribution to political history of the U.S. - one that that might have had even a more significant impact - the nomination of William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court in 1971. As Mr. Nixon said himself in a TV speech to the nation:
"Presidents come and go, but the Supreme Court - through its decisions - goes on forever."
Mr. Rehnquist eventually became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the author aptly summarizes the importance of President Nixon's decision:
"The Rehnquist choice [...] has redefined the Supreme Court, making it a politically conservative bastion within our governmental system. Rehnquist's many years of service, and his ability as a legal scholar, have brought about the rewriting of fundamental aspects of the nation's constitutional law."
The book contains extensive excerpts from the transcripts of the infamous "Nixon tapes" that eventually sealed the President's fate and forced his resignation in 1974 - recordings of conversations taped in the Oval Office.

The title of the book is a little misleading since more than half of the book recounts the history of all Nixon's nominations to the Supreme Court. Out of eight seriously considered candidates two were rejected by the Senate, two were deemed unqualified by the American Bar Association, one withdrew himself, and three nominations were successful: justices Blackmun, Powell, and Rehnquist.

The book is rich is historical details and I will focus only on its two main emphases. The author's first central point is that it was in fact he, John W. Dean, who sold the idea that Mr. Rehnquist should become nominated to Supreme Court to people who had significant influence on the President and the selection of nominees. One has to keep in mind that Mr. Dean's narrative may conceivably be biased. I have no way of assessing the veracity of the message: it might be true but neither is it impossible that Mr. Dean aggrandizes his role in history.

The other central idea is that Mr. Rehnquist did not tell the entire truth about his past judicial record during the confirmation hearings and that the truth did not come out because the entire process was conducted in haste. The author's argument is very strong but I am certainly not an expert to take sides. If the message is indeed true, it would make me less happy about the robustness of the confirmation process.

One aspect I do not like is that the distinction between transcripts of Nixon tapes and Mr. Dean's recollections of conversations that had not been taped is not made more explicit. The reader, knowing that most of the dialogues in the book come from tapes, may form an impression that Dean's private conversations are rendered verbatim. But, in fact, the author could have made them all up. I am absolutely not claiming that he did any such thing, I just regret that the distinction is not more clear.

The look behind the curtains of the nomination process, evidenced by conversations caught on tape, is quite revealing. One can really confirm the ugliness of the political process, things like catering to minorities: focusing on whether the candidate is Catholic or Protestant, African American, Italian, Jewish or Polish, and, of course, trying to nominate a woman. Let me quote another passage from President Nixon's rant:
"And she's the best qualified woman but she's not qualified for the Supreme Court. Jesus, that's great. That's great."
We may never know if other presidents tape their private conversations in the White House. If they do, I have no doubts that Mr. Nixon wouldn't be the only one with despicable quotes.

And finally, let me observe how extremely non-partisan the senators were in these times - often voting against the party line on both sides of the party divide. Nothing even remotely similar would be possible in today's polarized political climate.

Three and a half stars.


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Monday, June 12, 2017

Blood Lure (Anna Pigeon, #9)Blood Lure by Nevada Barr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] fog white as drugstore cotton began pouring down, feather-light liquid in stasis, from over the jagged mountain face to the east. Slow and silent in sinister majesty it cloaked the crags, slipped between them and flowed toward the meadows."

National Park system is one of the best things we have in this country; my wife and I have now visited 30 out of the 59 national parks in the U.S., several of them more than once, and we cherish the memories of our trips. So when I started reading Nevada Barr's Blood Lure (2001) and realized that the plot is located in Glacier National Park I got really excited. Indeed, the first part of the novel is, to me, absolutely spellbinding. Ms. Barr writes about places I vividly remember from two stays in the park: Going-to-the-Sun Road, Lake McDonald, Cathedral Peak, and others. Even Kootenai Pass makes its appearance, and I still remember the Kootenai country from Blue Heaven and from our Montana trip. The setup of the plot is absolutely first class and I was unable to put the book away until after 2 a.m.

Anita Pigeon, a ranger in the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, is "on loan" to Glacier National Park - the U.S. part of it located in Montana as the park has also its Canadian part - where she works on a project concerning grizzly bear DNA. Ms. Pigeon, accompanied by Joan, the researcher, and Rory, a young park volunteer, embark on a five-day hike to collect bear hairs from hair traps, set up new traps and furnish them with fresh lure, a smelly blood-and-fish-guts mixture. On the second night they have a dramatic encounter with a bear; the scene is really well written. Rory disappears and, having been alerted by the park's chief ranger, Anita and Joan find a body of a victim of a brutal attack, half of whose face is gone, "cheekbone and teeth [...] exposed, bone and enamel crusted brown with dried blood."

To me the first half of the novel was a totally compulsive read: not only was I captivated with the mystery of the ravaged dead body but the park's forbidding yet magnificent landscapes that I remember from the two visits, the nature, plants and animals, came alive on the pages. Then the author acknowledges that this is a crime novel after all, and begins creating and dropping a number of unusual clues. The criminal plot rapidly grows at the expense of the national-park component of the story. We have several suspects and Ms. Pigeon's investigation even involves such distant places as Florida and Seattle. All this is pretty mundane and ordinary and the second part of the novel has not really interested me that much. The denouement has a rather low degree of plausibility but I imagine it must have been extremely hard to reconcile and successfully explain all the numerous and often contradictory clues.

Hence, even though at the beginning I was certain this would be an above-four-star novel, my hopes have been shattered by the unremarkable second half. Still, Blood Lure is a good read, and the non-mystery bits are quite interesting, like the one about bears and their food sources that very rarely include humans but often the cutworm moths. One can even find a pretty insightful sociological observation (remember, this is 2001):
"Americans were happily forfeiting their freedom of choice for imagined increases in security. [...] People as individuals were giving up their decision-making power because they did not want the responsibility."
I have now learned that each installment of the "Anita Pigeon series" of novels takes place in a different national park. Wow! I have just found a new must-read author.

Three and a half stars.


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Friday, June 9, 2017

The Canary And Other Tales Of Martial LawThe Canary And Other Tales Of Martial Law by Marek Nowakowski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Must be two 'realities': one on the telly, the other in real life. It's unbearable. Here I am: I've just come away from 'life', I sit down in front of the telly, and a different world opens up before my eyes."

December 13, 1981. The imposition of martial law in Poland and the crushing of Solidarity movement. The first weeks and months of the "state of war" - as the martial law was called by the government - were deeply traumatic for virtually entire Polish society whose hopes for freedom from Soviet-influenced ideology have been dealt a devastating blow. Marek Nowakowski's collection of stories The Canary and Other Tales of Martial Law (1982) was written during these horrible first months of the government's war on society.

I lived in Poland during the entire year of martial law: Nowakowski's stories accurately portray the anger, the feeling of total defeat, the hopelessness, and the deep personal pain that Polish people were suffering at the time. Thousands of Solidarity activists were detained, riot police were controlling the crowds, many striking workers were killed, and military patrols were roaming the streets all over the country. In the beginning weeks the entire telephone system in the country was disabled - later the phone calls were possible but monitored - and only one TV channel and one radio station were available. The curfew was strictly enforced.

The pieces in Nowakowski's collection are snapshots of the grim reality, vignettes that reflect the many aspects of life under the state of war; people were in fact comparing the period to the times of German occupation of Poland during World War II. The scenes and sketches combine to form a picture of a defeated nation. Everyone who lived in the country at that time participated in or at least witnessed many situations shown by the author. Police harass elderly people who have lined up in front of a butcher's store well before 6 a.m. - the curfew still in force - because meat delivery was promised. Ordinary people, often the whole families, distribute underground bulletins in which the truth is told rather than the "alternative truth" one can see on the telly. Employees in all sorts of places - offices, schools, factories - are required to undergo a "verification" process: they may be fired just for having dissenting political views.

Two stories stand out: in one a student is forced to betray his friend so that he himself is not arrested, in the other one a father and a teenage son who have never had any meaningful conversation suddenly find out they share the hate for the common enemy - the government. But while the stories are truthful, honest, and totally realistic, I am unable to agree that they are well written, and the matter is certainly not with the translation. This is my first book by the author, a noted Polish writer in the so-called "little realism" genre, so I can't say whether it is the author's general manner of writing or whether the haste in composing this book while the suffering of the nation was the most acute is at fault. In many of the snapshots the author constructs a clever metaphor, one that will be quite obvious to even a less-than-thorough reader, and then he spoils the effort by explaining the metaphor "in simpler words."

Overall it is a worthy read, for historical and sociological reasons, and it provides food for thought: 35 years later one might venture an observation that it might be easier to survive very hard times in a society where 95% of people are of one mind than to live in better circumstances but where the society if bitterly divided about 50-50%.

Three stars.

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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Casino Royale (James Bond, #1)Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Then he slept, and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold."

In the olden days, when my wife and I were still interested in watching movies, seeing every Bond movie was a compulsion. For many people born and raised in Soviet-dominated Poland Bond films were associated with the anti-Soviet resistance and illustrated the "real freedom" to be experienced only in the West. So we saw all Bond movies continuing the tradition even after we had settled in the U.S. I felt it was high time to actually read at least one of the books on which the movies were - loosely - based. I chose the first installment, Casino Royale (1953), also notable because its movie adaptation was the only comedy among the series.

James Bond, the British intelligence agent, has the double O clearance, which entitles him to kill in the service. This time his task, while equally difficult, seems to be less bloody. He is supposed to bankrupt Mr. Le Chiffre - a Soviet agent and a gambler who defrauded money from French labor unions where he was employed as a treasurer - in a high stake baccarat game at the casino in Royale, France. The long scene of the crucial game, with stakes rising to 70 million francs (only about $200,000 in current money, how unexciting!), is well written and keeps the reader's attention. Of course the whole concept is utterly preposterous but the internal consistency of the plot is retained, and the story makes sense in the fantasy world of 1950s intelligence game.

We meet Vesper Lynd, a stunningly beautiful woman, the chronologically first "Bond girl", and we read about the somewhat unconventional love affair between her and Mr. Bond. The characters of M (Bond's boss), Miss Moneypenny, M's secretary, and Q are introduced. Felix Leiter, an FBI operative, makes his appearance as well. As do agents of SMERSH, the most "efficient organ of Soviet vengeance." So, in addition to high-stake games and love scenes, we also have a street bombing, a car chase, and extended passages of Mr. Bond being tortured. Most of these scenes are unexpectedly well written.

In general, I have been surprised by competent prose, and despite the fact that the novel is almost exactly as old as I am it does not feel that dated. Well, everybody smokes and what's more, cigarettes are not only good for you but also cool and chic, but then today we drink sweetened sodas and eat sweet snacks - activities that 65 years from now will be considered suicidal. What I like the most is probably the fact that Mr. Bond seems to be more human than in the movie adaptations: for instance he cries a little and he can "feel his armpits still wet with the fear [...]"

To sum it up, Casino Royale is a better novel than I had expected, and let me just finish with a quote in which I will omit the last word - read the book if you want to know how the quote ends:
"Bond awoke in his own room at dawn and for a time he lay and stroked his [...]"
Three stars.


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