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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Saturday, June 3, 2017

GoldwaterGoldwater by Barry M. Goldwater
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Society has become more selfish and, as a result, less dedicated to the common good. Millions hail a culture that is now more concerned with money and appearances than genuine accomplishment."

Strange as it may seem Senator Barry M. Goldwater played a role in shaping my youth in Poland, behind the Iron Curtain. In early fall of 1964 I was beginning my high-school education in Warsaw and I clearly remember the hysteria the Polish media (all six of them: the only TV channel, the two radio stations, and the three newspapers, all strictly controlled by the so-called Communist party) created about Sen. Goldwater candidacy for the President of the United States. According to the media this was the man who would inevitably start the global thermonuclear war to have all the peace-loving children in the world annihilated. I could not sleep and had nightmares of nuclear catastrophe. I was 13, the age when one tends to believe what one sees/listens to/reads in the media. Over fifty years later my connection with the late Sen. Goldwater is still strong. I chair a committee at my university that helps students apply for and succeed in getting the famous Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship - the most prestigious math, science, and engineering scholarship in the country - which the U.S. Congress had established in honor of the senator's 30-year career in Congress.

Goldwater (1988) is an autobiography of the senator, co-written with Jack Casserly. Already from the beginning pages I learned about my further connections with the senator. His grandfather was actually born in Konin, Poland, not that far from my place of birth. And Prescott, Arizona - one of my favorite towns in the States - was the senator's usual place to launch his numerous political campaigns.

The autobiography is an interesting read marred by meandering, chatty, and sometimes long-winded style; the authors are not always able to ignore immaterial details and focus on the crucial issues. Some readers may be put off by Mr. Goldwater's tendency to seek vengeance on his many political enemies. Just to mention a few: about R.M. Nixon the Senator writes: "the most dishonest individual I ever met in my life." Goldwater's utter contempt for L.B. Johnson is clear: "master of manipulation," "epitome of unprincipled politician," and "a hypocrite." The critique of R. McNamara and his policies in the times of the Vietnam War almost reaches the level of a charge of treason, for his incompetency and lies. J.F. Kennedy is characterized as "not a profile in courage." Senator Church's alleged political misconduct is dwelled on.

Senator Goldwater is an epitome of a conservative politician. The main motif of this autobiography is his unabashed support for the conservative movement and his deep pride of the progress the conservative ideology made in the 1970s and 1980s. Since Goodreads is not a place to proselytize about politics, let me just point out one aspect. While it would be ridiculous to characterize my views as in any way conservative, there are several areas that I agree with the senator: on uncontrolled growth of government, on honesty in politics, on the catastrophic influence of money and media on the political discourse, and the disastrous attempts of the religious Right's to legislate morality. The late senator would be horrified to see what Internet has done to destroy the truth in politics and human relations in general. And while I still disagree with him on most things, in particular on the role of government in all dimensions of progress and on Roosevelt's New Deal, having read the biography I gained strong respect for the senator for his honesty and straightforwardness. And I actually do believe that he never veered from his hierarchy of values: politicians should put the interests of the country first, then the interests of their state, and only then those of their own and their family. Hard to find politicians of this caliber today.

Three stars.


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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Blue HeavenBlue Heaven by C.J. Box
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"If twelve-year-old Annie Taylor had not chosen to take her little brother William fishing on that particular Friday afternoon [...], she would never have seen the execution or looked straight into the eyes of the executioners."

The first sentence of C.J Box's Blue Heaven (2007) illustrates the best thing about the novel that won the prestigious Edgar Award in 2009. The setup is mesmerizing and it is difficult to tear oneself off from the book for about 100 pages. Then the plot goes downhill to the extent that I am actually surprised about the high critical recognition. Yes, it is a good thriller, but not in any way remarkable. Maybe I am just jaded or spoiled.

The story is located in North Idaho, the "Idaho Panhandle", called Blue Heaven because many Los Angeles cops choose to retire there. Little Annie and William witness the execution and now they are pursued by the executioners. The retired cops are looking for the kids too, but they don't want FBI to get involved. Yet another retired detective from California arrives on the scene in pursuit of leads in an unsolved murder that happened during the Santa Anita Racetrack robbery. Potential connections between the executioners and the robbery begin to emerge yet the second half of the novel is not nearly as enthralling as the first one.

One thread is indeed outstanding: Jess Rawlins, an owner of a huge ranch is about to lose everything as he cannot afford the payments to the bank any more. Bitterly divorced, he is trying to keep the ranch that his grandfather and father managed but the new economic reality is brutal: he seems to have no chances in the market driven by banks and real estate. The reader will like Jess' character as it is vividly and believably drawn.

I have an emotional connection with the location of the novel. The fictional town of Kootenai Bay in Idaho is located in the real Kootenai country, close to the Pend Oreille Lake north of Coeur d'Alene. My wife and I were traveling there two years ago and I remember writing a review for Goodreads in a motel room not that far from Kootenai Falls on the Kootenai River that are in fact located in Montana, the neighboring state. These are amazingly beautiful places and there are some neat descriptions of the northern landscapes in the novel.

Alas, other than the enticing setup the thriller is mostly of paint-by-numbers variety and once the reader shakes off the strong initial impression there is nothing equally remarkable in the later parts of the novel. Some characters, like the mail carrier for instance, are implausible caricatures. The author's dropping of ominous hints is not exactly of Edgar Award caliber. The climactic scenes at the end are boringly predictable: salvation comes at exactly the most convenient time for the narration. The shootout scene is totally cliché. In the end the author carefully doles out death and life to the protagonists according to whether they deserve it or not. Lame!

To sum up: extremely good novel at the beginning, disappointing at the end. I recommend just browsing the second half of the book: life is too short for banal denouements.

Three stars.


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Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep ThroatThe Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat by Bob Woodward
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Why were you Deep Throat? What was your motive? Who are you? Who were you?"

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's All the President's Men - to me one of the rare books that really deserve to be bestsellers - portrayed the painstaking journalistic and political process that eventually exposed the so-called Watergate affair and led to President Nixon's resignation from office in August of 1974. As a first-class non-fiction suspense it was one of the most fascinating reads of my life. Mr. Woodward's The Secret Man is in contrast a rather quiet work with much narrower scope. Although the author once again recounts the events that exploded into the Watergate Affair, he focuses more on the Deep Throat persona. The author insists (and Mr. Bernstein confirms it in a sort of an afterword, titled A Reporter's Assessment) that the book had been written before the identity of Deep Throat was publicly revealed.

The story begins - in a strong novelistic beginning - with the first meeting between the author and Deep Throat, that is Mr. Felt, in the late 1969 or early 1970, a meeting that happened in the West Wing of the White House, where both men were summoned on separate and unrelated business. Since they had to wait for quite a long time they engaged in a conversation and from these accidental beginnings an acquaintanceship had grown that lasted for many years to benefit both men. Coincidence shapes people's lives, the reader is told and led to think that - without that accidental meeting - the Watergate affair might have never been fully exposed and the political history might have been quite different. Although indeed most of what happens in people's lives is driven by chance the meeting is such a clever device powering the story in literary sense that a cynical skeptic that I am might doubt whether it happened in exactly that way.

In fact, there is great storytelling stuff in this book. Some of it - particularly the stunning phone conversation between the author and senile Mr. Felt on January 4, 2000 - is so good from a literary point of view that it is almost hard to believe: "too good to be true," one would almost like to say. Yet it might be true and it is a perhaps more scary to realize how people die years before their bodies quit. But I digress.

Two aspects of the book seem to be the most important. First, the author's quest to understand Mr. Felt's motives of acting as Deep Throat. Mr. Woodward points to Felt's strong feeling of allegiance to the FBI code of honor, oath of office, and his respect to the ethos of J. Edgar Hoover as potential reasons for Deep Throat's actions. But he also mentions, however slightly, Mr. Felt's personal daemons, and alerts to the possibility that it was vengeance for being twice spurned as the potential FBI director that motivated Deep Throat. I appreciate that the author does not strongly point in either direction as to the motive.

And second: in persecuting political opponents the Nixon's White House was clearly violating the law. Mr. Felt's divulging of mechanisms of these violations was most likely illegal too. Was his violation of some laws excused by the violations of law that he was trying to expose? A worthwhile read.

Three and a half stars.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Mandarin Plaid (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #3)Mandarin Plaid by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] I am not usually strolling through here with fifty thousand dollars, looking for the right trash can to drop it in."

Now a disappointment from S.J. Rozan: I could not get into Mandarin Plaid (1996) and had to work hard to finish reading. Neither is the story particularly interesting nor are the protagonists - who were so refreshingly different than the usual crime drama clichés in my first contact with Ms. Rozan’s work in Winter and Night - fascinating any more. I have not even been able to find a single sentence that could serve as a fitting epigraph so I use a random one from the first paragraph of the book.

This is a Lydia Chin (Ling Wan-ju) story but obviously Bill Smith is a very close second as to the frequency of appearance. Lydia's client is Genna, a fashion designer and the owner of the Mandarin Plaid fashion line. Spring line sketches have been stolen from her office and she hires Lydia to deliver the ransom to the thieves so that they do not make sketches public thus destroying Genna's promising fashion career.

Three interesting things about the novel save it from the bottom one-star rating: the frequent mentions of "factories" - New York sweatshops where Asian women who have recently arrived in the country and do not have legal immigration status work sewing garments in demeaning conditions. This helps the reader maintain the right perspective on the glamour of the world of fashion. The compelling portrait of the New York Chinatown is well rendered. And the passages on differences between Mandarin, Cantonese, and Fujianese made me really wish to have more time to delve into the topic.

The rest of the novel is a cliché structure built of cliché components. The characters are one-dimensional: several are cartoon-level caricatures. For instance, there is no way that detective Krch or Mrs. Eleanor Talmadge Ryan could be real people. The "chemistry" between Lydia and Bill begins getting on my nerves and much of their inane banter is as bad as in TV sitcoms - customized for maximum sell and ignoring psychology and plausibility. The silly climactic scene with the presence of obligatory guns is worthy of a bad movie. Why would a writer who is able to create a well-developed female detective character stoop to ending the plot with gun play is beyond me, but let's stop beating that horse.

I wonder how much of my dislike of this novel is due to its actual weaknesses: maybe it's just my personal aversion to series of novels with recurring characters. I will definitely read more installments of the series, but am not planning to give the author too many chances.

Two stars.

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Monday, May 22, 2017

How to Get into the Twin PalmsHow to Get into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The fires were closer now. No longer in Simi Valley or the outskirts of the city. I could see rows of red and orange, fire lines down the hills in Burbank and moving closer to us, along the ridges of the mountains."

The Los Angeles county wildfires provide an unexpectedly fitting backdrop for a story of Anya, a 25-year-old woman who emigrated from Poland and settled in California having gone through refugee camps first in Austria then in Texas. Anya is struggling to find her place in Los Angeles: "a desperately sad study of loneliness and alienation" - this worn-out cliché best characterizes Karolina Waclawiak's How to get into the Twin Palms (2012).

Anya is currently unemployed and not particularly eager to look for job: she earns some money reading numbers for elderly ladies' bingo meetings and collects unemployment checks. She lives in an immigrant neighborhood near Fairfax predominantly occupied by Russians and Ukrainians. Twin Palms is a Russian night club next door from her rent-controlled apartment building. The only people with whom Anya has a semblance of human contact are a few of her neighbors and an 83-year-old woman from the bingo club.

Unable to find her place in the alien world Anya tries to reinvent herself and establish some sort of niche where she could exist. She desperately looks for human connection and clings to a somewhat shady Russian man, Lev, who is happy to sleep with her whenever it is convenient for him. Eventually Anya's Big Dream becomes reality: Lev takes her to the Twin Palms.

The real climax of the novel occurs a bit later and takes place in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. The dramatic, unexpected, and poignant scenes will linger in the reader's mind for a long time. On the backdrop of Simi Valley Fires, in the line of sight of the HOLLYWOOD sign Anya begins the final phase of reinventing herself and making her mark on the imperfect world.

The climactic scenes remind me of The Day of the Locust finale and if anything they are even more powerful. While Ms. Waclawiak makes a convincing point that a person cannot exist alone, the heavy-handed metaphor of the plot bothers me: trying to get into the Twin Palms signifies an attempt to assimilate with the alien society and the fierce fires that cleanse the desert provide a metaphor for rebirth. The molting, skin-changing metaphor is also too obvious. In addition I find it hard to be impressed with a choppy, first-person narration, a sort of staccato recitation of short affirmative sentences beginning with "I".

The immigrant's curse is portrayed convincingly. Being a Polish immigrant - although in completely different circumstances, ones of relative luxury - I can recognize in Anya parts of people of my ethnicity whom I know. I can recognize the guilt and the shame of Polishness. I understand the desperate struggle to escape the bigos and the pierogi. And I also recognize the fear of escaping the Polishness too far. Anya rejects the culture which she inherited but attempts to adopt one that is different but not different enough.

Three and a quarter stars.


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Friday, May 19, 2017

The Dawn Patrol (Boone Daniels #1)The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Like, the moana was epic tasty this sesh and I slid over the ax of this gnarler and just foffed, totally shredded it, and I'm still amped from the ocean hit, so my bad, brah."

The blurb on the cover of Don Winslow's The Dawn Patrol (2008) says "Ultimate surfing novel." False advertising! The book certainly fails to deliver on the promise of "ultimate" and - on the other hand - it is a bit more than a "surfing novel." All in all, it is nowhere close to the class of the four-star Savages , a really good book, and also not as good as three other novels of this author that I have reviewed here on Goodreads.

The Dawn Patrol is a group of five surfers hanging out on San Diego beaches, mostly Pacific Beach. This implausibly composed group includes an ex-policeman and a part-time P.I. Boone Daniels, three other colorful characters, but also an active San Diego PD homicide detective. Yeah, right! As if!

A stripper scheduled to testify in an important case is pushed out of a window to her death. Boone is hired by Petra, a beautiful attorney, to find the dead woman's workmate, and he begins a private investigation that parallels one conducted by the police. There are cliché references to traumas from the past, cliché matters of the heart, and utterly cliché treatment of male bonding and friendship. The original investigation mutates into something even more serious, which overshadows the original case. The morphed plot twist is completely implausible, in addition to being formulaic and naïve.

Several aspects redeem the novel a little bit: it provides an interesting panorama of the beach culture. Writing is pretty good, as usual with Mr. Winslow, and there are some cute language pearls as exemplified by the stunning:
But like ain't is,
Is is is.
The title is a double entendre, one of the best I've ever seen, and the quote from The Beatles' Strawberry Fields is painfully distressing. As an almost 35-year-resident of San Diego I like the passages that talk about history of some places in the area. Events happen in locations that I know well: in fact, my family and I used to live just a quarter of a mile away from one of the locations of the story on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach.

My main complaint is about how infantile the book is. Large parts of the text seem to have been written for the under-16 crowd. Some fragments are suitable for junior-high audience, like the passage where supposedly grown-up men discuss "which cartoon characters they'd most like to have sex with" or the scene that presents overeating and consequent copious puking. Only Monty Python can make explosive vomiting funny for adults.

So despite the good writing, neat puns, the surfbonics, the San Diego landscape, the painful motif of the strawberry fields, I am unable to recommend the book. Of course this quite readable novel may suit the tastes of hardcore surfing fans.

Two and a quarter stars.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The ProcedureThe Procedure by Harry Mulisch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"You must not break anything that you yourself cannot make [...]"

I so much wanted to be swept off my feet by Harry Mulisch's The Procedure (1998). I rated his The Assault just a quarter of a star away from perfection, yet in this book - while admiring the author's intentions and the sheer audacity of his literary endeavor - I am unable to appreciate the end result. Yes, it is a masterpiece in terms of ambitious design and intent, but I find the execution much flawed. Of course, it is possible that I am just too obtuse or cynical to fully appreciate the author's skill.

The Procedure is not an easy book to read: it requires continuous attention and deep focus. The effort pays off well, but - in my uneducated view - not well enough. The elaborate structure of the novel is intimidating in its precision: three "deeds" - Speaking, The Spokesman, and The Conversation - are subdivided into the total of 10 "documents." The narration, often interrupted by philosophical asides and digressions, is non-linear, but roughly proceeds from the distant past (late 1500s) to the present (1990s).

We begin with analysis of texts from Scripture, particularly from The Book of Genesis, including the references to the 22 letters of Hebrew alphabet and the meaning of their various configurations. The author says that "words consist of letters, as molecules consist of atoms [...]", which sets forth one of the main motifs of the novel - parallels between the physical world and the world of texts. We continue with the well-told story of Rabbi Löw in the late 16th century Prague who - at the request of Emperor Rudolf II - works on creating a golem, a living man made from mud. We jump to the early 1950s and witness the conception and birth of Victor Werker whose life is told in the second "deed" in the form of letters to his daughter. This part is emotionally most resonant and contains a powerful passage on death before life and its influence upon the living. Then we move to the third "deed," full of action, some real and some imagined, that happens to Victor Werker in the 1990s.

Each "deed" has a dominating scene: in the first part the dinner scene in the chambers of Emperor Rudolf II, with distinguished guests such as Giordano Bruno, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler, is wonderfully vivid and phantasmagorical. I doubt that any reader will ever forget the extremely painful scene of Aurora's birth in the second "deed" - not a usual birth, which is all I can say without spoiling. Powerful! The highpoints in the third part are the imagined conversations between Victor and Clara. The triplet of Victor's milk brothers is also a memorable concept.

The novel is more or less about the process of creation. Similarities between making life and writing are illustrated, along with the discourse on God as a writer and writer as god. Victor, an eminent biologist, creates life from inorganic building blocks. We read a lot about DNA, and the amino acid language of genetics. The Procedure is an extremely serious book about the preciousness of life and the randomness of death, about the eternal embrace of creation and destruction.

Three and three quarter stars.

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Long Line of Dead Men (Matthew Scudder, #12)A Long Line of Dead Men by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Every man in this room, every man ever born, spends his life approaching his death. Every day he takes another step in death's direction. It is a hard road to walk alone, a much easier road to walk in good company."

From Lawrence Block's earlier novels, particularly the memorable duo of The Sins of the Fathers and Eight Million Ways to Die, I remember Matthew Scudder, an ex-cop turned unlicensed private investigator, as a "practising" alcoholic. In A Long Line of Dead Men (1994) Mr. Scudder has already been sober for a number of years: he religiously follows the AA philosophy, attends the meetings, sometimes more than one daily, and often talks to his sponsor.

The novel seems to endorse the point of view that there are only two kinds of people: people who know they are alcoholics and therefore they do not drink and people who don't yet know that they are alcoholics. While a tad extreme, this view is not far from an astute observation of human nature. Anyway, Mr. Scudder's struggles with the episodes of alcoholic cravings that still happen despite long years of sobriety are shown realistically, which adds to the value of the novel.

The setup of the "mystery" is also first-rate. Mr. Scudder is hired by a member of an exclusive and somewhat secret society - "the club of thirty-one" or "annual celebration of mortality club," as termed by Elaine, Mr. Scudder's partner. The club - which is supposed to have a tradition of many hundred years - works on the following principle: when there is only one man left of the thirty-one members, he invites thirty "ideal candidates for membership" and brings them together to an annual meeting. The members meet once a year, the list of members who died in the past year is read, and so on, until one member remains, where the cycle repeats. Cool setup, if one that would be termed sexist nowadays: aren't women mortal too?

One of the club members has noticed that too many of his clubmates have died in the recent years, many more than statistics would indicate; he hires the detective to investigate if someone might be contributing to increasing the death rates. As a mathematician I can confirm that the discussion of statistical aspects of the setup is on the level.

The denouement is clever and elegant but not at all plausible. The weaknesses of the novel include the tired cliché of TJ, the detective's youthful helper, who is a master of getting the "word on the street." There is an awkward thread that involves Lisa (maybe the author wants to "humanize" Mr. Scudder; which seems unnecessary - his alcoholism should make him fully human). I am unable to understand the inclusion of Mick Ballou thread with its completely incongruous stories: maybe the author deleted the text from another book and is unwilling to throw it away?

Still, a captivating read that appeals to the human fascination with secret societies and historical conspiracies, and a novel that accurately describes the life of a sober alcoholic.

Three stars.


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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd OdysseySaucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey by Nicholas Schaffner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"They weren't players - they were kind of concept artists, really."
(Pete Brown, British poet and lyricist, on Pink Floyd).

Nicholas Schaffner's Saucerful of Secrets. The Pink Floyd Odyssey (1991) is a well-told and insightful story of the famous British band, one of the brightest stars in the rock-music pantheon. They began playing together in 1965 and were active in recording studios or on tours until 1994. The group temporarily reunited for the Live 8 ("Live Aid") benefit concert in 2005. Mr. Schaffner's book covers the history of the band only until the late 1980s, the period of the band's most important creative activity.

I am a Pink Floyd fan, albeit not an usual one. I only like their earlier music, music that still carries the influence of Syd Barrett. Not for me is The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), one of the best-selling albums in the history of music, an album that was on the bestseller charts for unprecedented 741 weeks (yes, 15 years) and which I find a good piece of elevator music. Thus, I am very happy that Mr. Schaffner does not allocate his attention proportionally to the commercial "value" of the group's works: a significant portion of the book is dedicated to Pink Floyd's early years.

The band's origins are tied to the Spontaneous Underground, a 1965 community action project, connected with the London Free School, and carried on by the Indica Bookshop. This was an anarchic, intellectual, avant-garde movement: in some sense an alternative to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones commercialism. Syd Barrett was the heart and the soul of the early Pink Floyd, and it was his musical and artistic genius that allowed the band to emerge as a unique phenomenon. The author mentions the seminal concert in October of 1966, where Pink Floyd played along Soft Machine, another "alternative band" of the late 1960s that also stayed active for great many years, however on the art side of music rather than, like Pink Floyd, on the business side (see my review of Soft Machine's story here ).

Pink Floyd's first album, the wonderful Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released almost exactly 50 years ago, in August 1967. I doubt if many Pink Floyd fans would recognize the band's early sound, totally devoid of the overblown bombast, techno-overload, and fake pathos of their most famous music, but full of psychedelic charm and whimsy instead. I don't think the fans of The Dark Side of the Moon would like the first album at all.

In 1967 Pink Floyd were all about art, about being avant-garde, about being "far out". Starting in 1968 - 1969 they began to care about business and making money. Gradual disappearance of Syd Barrett and his descent into mental illness paralleled that process. Three further albums, Saucerful of Secrets, Ummagumma, and Atom Heart Mother still have some connections with their psychedelic avant-garde roots. Beginning with Meddle and peaking with The Dark Side and, in particular, The Wall, Pink Floyd went full blast into huge-scale commercial show-making.

The saddest part of the book, other than the testimony to the commercialization of art, is the account of the acrimonious split between Roger Waters and David Gilmour who replaced the irreplaceable Syd Barrett in 1968. The author of the book died many years before the two feuding musicians decided to play along each other at the Live 8 concert in 2005. I wish he were at that concert.

Very well written, informative, balanced, and extremely readable chronicle of (d)evolution of a famous band.

Four stars.

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Concourse (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #2)Concourse by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"This sort of thing is done in the not-for-profit world all the time [...] There's a lot of money floating around, and it's not terribly well-tracked. For everyone in this business for my naive, bleeding-heart reasons, there are half a dozen people here because they make a good living."

My third Chin/Smith novel within one month: the very good Winter and Night whetted my appetite for more adventures of the unlikely duo of private detectives. I put a few of early installments of the series in my random rotation and after the adequate but unremarkable China Trade , I expected a lot from Concourse (1995) as it won the Shamus Award. Well, it has been an exasperating read: brilliant aspects obscured by clichés, bad characterizations, and cheap ending.

This is a "Smith novel": now I understand that in the consecutive novels of the series the leading roles alternate. Smith's friend owns a protection company business where one of his men has been killed on the job. Smith's task is to find the killer: he is hired by the company as a replacement for the victim - a guard at The Bronx Home for the Aged, a care house funded and managed by a non-profit organization. The police suspect the guard was killed by one of the Cobras, a gang that owns the neighborhood and extorts money from the businesses. However, Smith's investigation uncovers real-estate improprieties and shenanigans.

Corruption in ostensibly charitable non-profit organizations is one of my hot-button issues, so I was excited to see Ms. Rozan clearly explain how people can profit heavily and legally from huge amounts of money floating in the non-profit world. The white-collar parasites suck the bulk of funds generated through generosity of donors. An illuminating conversation between Smith and a borough president's employee illustrates the mechanisms of corruption and is, to me, the highpoint of the novel. I find it refreshing when a crime writer has an ability to offer serious social insights without proselytizing and moralizing.

I have a serious problem, though, with characterizations in Concourse. Snake, the leader of the Cobras is a paper character, a cliché with no depth. Detective Lindfors is a caricature as well, with only the "on/off" button: the conversation between him and Smith sounds like a burlesque skit. The scene between Snake and a hospital patient - probably aimed at "humanizing" the former - rings particularly false and is probably aimed at making the reader feel good. Ida Goldstein and Eddie Shawn are also drawn with the faintest of brushes, but at least their roles are only to provide comedic relief. Even Mr. Smith himself does not come across as a real enough person - just a template of an extremely well meaning, noir PI with a heavy baggage of the past. Only Lydia's character is well written - I can imagine myself knowing her. Some of my earlier interest in the Chin/Smith duo was based on the ambiguity of their relationship: this thread of the series is handled well and I hope the author will gradually tell us more about the odd couple.

It could have been a great book and now, while I recommend it, it is with serious reservations.

Two and three quarter stars.


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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Straight ManStraight Man by Richard Russo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The world is divided between kids who grow up wanting to be their parents and those like us, who grow up wanting to be anything but. Neither group ever succeeds."

Either senile dementia has already softened my brain or Richard Russo's Straight Man (1997) is really a very good novel. A friend has recommended it saying "Great story! And very funny!" I am a sucker for funny and will even tolerate a "great story" in a novel as long as the writing is good and funny. Mr. Russo's writing is hilarious and the story is just a wrapping in which the author serves the reader quite some bits of wisdom. Not only is the novel an entertaining read but also food for thought for days and weeks.

This is a "campus novel" whose protagonist, 49-year-old William Henry Devereux Jr. (WHDJ from now on) is a professor of English, an interim chair of a deeply divided and completely dysfunctional department at a backwater public school, West Central Pennsylvania University. The school is located in a small town affected by unemployment and general blight. The specter of imminent high-education spending cuts looms in the background and there are insistent rumors that even tenured faculty will be laid off. Of course, the author exaggerates all symptoms to almost a point of absurd, but - as a university professor, albeit in a different field and in a department whose members love each other dearly (just in case my chair and my dean are reading this) - I can vouch that everything described by the author MIGHT happen, under the right circumstances. The campus climate, the faculty language with its mandatory phrases (like the "orshee" bit), the groupthink behaviors, the delusions of grandeur intermingled with fear are accurately depicted.

The plot is centered on various problems plaguing Prof. WHDJ: in addition to having to deal with his department and his superiors, he is facing numerous personal problems that involve his father (WHD Sr., an English professor of national renown), his daughter, his colleagues, his students, and his health. And the only weapon he wields is the Occam razor. Climactic events in the plot include the now famous goose incident: the accompanying speech that will remind the geezers of the equally famous "I am not going to take it anymore" scene from the 1970s movie Network sounds natural and plausible. Later in the novel, a traumatic incident in the area of human physiology is a source of hilarity as well.

Hilarity is always good but deep down there Straight Man really is a serious book. Every reader will likely find something different, fitting their individual beliefs, foibles, and fears: to me the most thought-provoking issue is the relationship between parents and their grown-up children and its roots in childhood. So many people's lives are destroyed by parents who either cared too much or not enough or by children who either hated their parents or hated themselves for failing in replicate their successes. There is a tremendously moving passage where a narrow-minded, bigoted father laments that his educated daughter is so different from him: "Where did I go wrong, little girl?" says he. Indeed, where? He gave her all his love and she is ashamed of him.

Another strength of the novel is the precise observation and diagnosis of ritualized behaviors: in academia, in marriage, in child-parent relationships, and in everyday life. And the fakeness of this all where everybody is permanently play-acting and those who can best play-act sincerity and spontaneity are the winners.

Great title! Great novel! Why not five stars then? I am not exactly sure. Probably because the plot is custom-made to the reader's satisfaction. The ending is too neat, too traditional in tying up all loose ends.

Four and a half stars.

Four wise and witty quotes:

"[...] it's hard to remain distinguished among people who know you."

"[...] one of the deepest purposes of intellectual sophistication is to provide distance between us and our most disturbing personal truths and gnawing fears."

"My colleagues are academics. They indulge paranoid fantasies for the same reason dogs lick their own testicles."

"A liberal arts dean in a good mood is a potentially dangerous thing. It suggests a world different from the one we know. One where any damn thing can happen."


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Sunday, April 30, 2017

China Trade (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #1)China Trade by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"A bright sunny day in Chinatown brings everybody out, even in the cold. [...] [The] music came from the words they spoke: the Cantonese and English I understand, the Mandarin and Fukienese and Spanish and Korean that I don't. The percussion was their footsteps slapping and tapping the pavement in syncopated rhythm."

Having just read S.J. Rozan's Winter and Night, the eighth novel in her Chin-Smith series and having liked it a lot, I was curious about the earlier books in the series. China Trade (1994) is the first installment and - while an entertaining read - it is otherwise completely unremarkable, quite unlike Winter which was the deserved winner of several major mystery/crime drama awards.

Lydia Chin (Ling Wan-ju, really), a young P.I., is hired by her friend, a member of a Chinese community organization, to investigate the theft of two crates of collectible porcelains that were prepared for an exhibition. Naturally, Lydia enlists the help of Bill Smith, another P.I. who is her frequent collaborator and aspiring boyfriend. Right at the beginning of the investigation, they learn about the murder of a young Chinese man with possible connections to the case. Lydia is severely beaten up: members of the Golden Dragons gang want to scare her off the case. In fact, two competing gangs are involved in the plot as well as the staff of a local museum, several art collectors and importers, and rich donors. Another murder occurs and the provenance of the porcelains (the use of the word "provenance" is sort of a running joke) may be the key to the solution.

The elegantly structured criminal plot progresses fast and the obligatory (sigh!) "twists and turns" stretch the limits of believability but luckily do not rise to the idiocy level. In the later part of the plot Lydia and Bill arrange a contract on themselves: the implausible but audacious device is used with some skill. This is quite a well-written novel that does not much rely on padding: as many as 200 of its 260 pages are really needed - a good score!

The colorful portrayal of New York's Chinatown enlivens the novel and the continuous banter between Lydia and Bill provides a counterpoint to the criminal line of the plot. Readers who watch sitcoms may enjoy the repartees: most of them are as inane as the ones on TV but a few are actually witty. Of course, the uncertainty about the actual nature (and the future) of Lydia - Bill relationship provides a sort of backbone for the whole "detective and the sidekick" template: the novelty here is that both PIs are on equal footing.

Alas, clichés abound. Instead of the usual "the hero leaps over tall buildings in a single bound" cliché, we have Mr. Gao, a wise and all-powerful Chinatown patriarch, who could change the trajectory of the moon, if requested, and quote several Chinese proverbs in the meantime. Yet despite the silly banter, the implausibilities, and the clichés, the novel somehow did not manage to irritate me too much. Good writing, I guess, is the secret.

Three stars.

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Friday, April 28, 2017

Somebody to Love?: A Rock-and-Roll MemoirSomebody to Love?: A Rock-and-Roll Memoir by Grace Slick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"When the truth is found
To be lies
And all the joy
Within you dies
Don't you want somebody to love
Don't you need somebody to love [...]
"

One of the few vividly remembered scenes from my teenage years: Warsaw, June 1967, I am taping Jefferson Airplane's Somebody To Love off the radio via mike onto my toy portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. I want to be able to listen to Grace Slick's mesmerizing, vibrating, powerful voice day and night. Airplane, a pioneering band from the San Francisco scene, was an important factor in my rock education, one of the first steps in the evolution from simple pop harmonies to progressive rock, and eventually to jazz and classical. And of course it was 1967, the Summer of Love. Music was the most important thing, music was love, music was the rebellion and the beacon of imminent revolutionary changes.

Somebody To Love? (1998) is a rock memoir of Grace Slick, the supremely gifted vocalist of Jefferson Airplane and the author of the groundbreaking song White Rabbit, with its "Feed your head" call to arms. A thorough chronicle, the bio goes over Ms. Slick's childhood and youth, and her association with Jefferson Airplane. It then recounts the pop "maturity" of Jefferson Starship, and finally, the complete sellout of Starship. Ms. Slick tells us a lot about her outsized love of drugs and sex, and about her never-ceasing search for actual love.

The parents' world of the 1960s is crumbling, hippies wear flowers in their hair, Haight Ashbury becomes the center of the Universe, and the memoir manages to convey a little bit - not enough - of the taste of those tumultuous times, despite the overflowing stream of trivia, juicy tidbits, and names of famous artists and performers.

The memoir is ghostwritten by Andrea Cagan: the authorship is obvious in that the prose is well structured, readable, yet kept in utterly sensationalist, name-dropping, gossipy and "cutesy" style. I would like to believe that Ms. Slick's real persona is well hidden beneath the tabloid writing. I would like to hope that one of the heroes of my youth is not as trivial as the book makes her to be. One can always hope.

Amidst the mind-numbing gossipy prattle are some worthwhile passages that elevate the book almost to the three-star ranking. The experimentation with peyote is reported in a dry and objective tone. I hope that the reported attempt to drug President Nixon in the White House is based on fact as the story is hilarious. Ms. Slick's exposition of her lyrics to White Rabbit sounds heartfelt and her recounting of love scene with Jim Morrison happens to be well-written and deeply personal: maybe Ms. Cagan let the singer write herself for a while?

To me the best thing about the book is the juxtaposition of three music festivals: Monterey Pop, when the music really took off, then Woodstock, the absolute peak of the era, followed by Altamont, where everything turned commercial: people wanted to cash on the phenomenon, and thus the phenomenon begin dying. The personal aspect of the stories makes the diagnosis more compelling. I wish the book were less "polished" with the syrupy, superficial varnish because the smooth read hides the potential depth. Still, I marginally recommend it for several worthwhile fragments.

Two and three quarter stars.



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Monday, April 24, 2017

FloatersFloaters by Joseph Wambaugh
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"She lay halfway up the steps on her back, her little skirt hiked above her red panties. A coil of intestine, pink as bubble gum, lay on her thin milky thigh."

What an exasperating read! Joseph Wambaugh's Floaters has an interesting and well-constructed plot, a richness of believable technical and procedural detail, and a solid grounding in external events. Yet the pedestrian writing and inferior characterizations prevent from considering this book a worthwhile addition to the crime drama genre.

The plot is located in San Diego in 1995 and revolves around the challenger series to the celebrated America's Cup yachting competition: the winner of the series will gain the right to challenge the American team who are the cup holders. The story is composed of several intertwined threads: the main four plot lines feature the "Keeper of the Cup" - a member of the San Diego Yacht Club who travels with the cup where it is needed, two San Diego prostitutes, a group of officers from the San Diego Police Department, and two "water cops" - members of the San Diego Harbor Unit. The main premise of the story is an attempt to tinker with the regatta to prevent the powerful New Zealand team from winning the challenge. Meanwhile the cops are trying to set up a vile pimp for a fall, there are two murders, and the plot moves fast to keep the reader interested.

While plotwise the novel is a good read there are hardly any real people among the main figures: the characterizations are as thin as paper and most of them are just caricatures. For instance, detective Letch likes garlic in his food, and the odor of his body, mentioned twenty or so times, is almost all that we learn about him as a person. But the worst is the "humor." Crude jokes - like comparing some politicians of the era to the shape of human excrement - would be OK if only they were funny: alas the author fails in this respect. He also seems to be bent on titillating the reader with the "porn of death," as evidenced by the epigraph.

On the positive side the reader will learn a lot about the yachting community: the whole entourage of a major yachting competition and the "cuppie" culture (cuppies are groupies of the Cup) are believably portrayed. Since the author is a former member of the Los Angeles Police Department I hope that the procedural and technical details of police activities are as accurate as they seem in the novel. Having lived in San Diego for over a half of my life I appreciate the location of the plot - and a nice mention of my workplace of 35 years - although I wish the local character of this city came through even stronger.

Good plot, inept psychology, atrocious attempts at humor.

Two and a quarter stars.


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Friday, April 21, 2017

Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations With Gerald R. FordWrite It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations With Gerald R. Ford by Thomas M. DeFrank
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] the simple ground rules we'd already established: nothing he said could be printed until after his death."

Thomas DeFrank, the author of Write It When I'm Gone (2007), was a Newsweek correspondent and journalist when in 1973 he was assigned to cover Vice President Gerald R. Ford. At that time it was gradually becoming clear that Mr. Ford might soon become the 38th President of the United States. The relationship between the author and Mr. Ford - something more than a professional acquaintance, perhaps even friendship - lasted for one third of a century until the politician's death in 2006. The book, based on 16 years of interview sessions that had begun in 1991, is a memoir of Mr. Ford's political career viewed through the prism of his conversations with the author.

To me absolutely the best aspect of the book is that the only unelected Vice-President and the only unelected President of the U.S. comes across the pages as a real person. Not "an accident-prone bumbler" as portrayed in press and comedy (SNL) but indeed a "most remarkably guileless political figure." While not gifted with a commanding intellect, charisma, or communication skills, Mr. Ford appears to be a fundamentally honest and surprisingly warm person of goodwill.

The reader will learn a lot about Mr. Ford's short presidency troubled by his pardon of R.M. Nixon and ended by his defeat to Jimmy Carter in 1976. We also read about Mr. Ford's withdrawal from the 1980 presidential race. One should not expect to find any earth-shattering revelations in the book: for example, I have found only two fragments that surprised me. Mr. Ford makes a strong point to stand by the Warren Commission report (he was a member of the Commission) and seems to claim that all conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination are absurd, yet, at the same time, he "forewarns" that the report, so far unreleased in its entirety, contains "stories" that can be "harmful" to some people. How's that for equivocation? The other surprise is the extreme dislike that Mr. Ford had for Ronald Reagan, moderated only by the decency with which the half-term president talked about the two-term president at the time when the latter was dying of the Alzheimer disease.

Two items of personal interest: several conversations with Mr. Ford occurred when he was over 90 years old. Although physically frail, and perhaps not too eloquent, he was still in full command of facts. This should be a huge source of hope for us geezers. The other tidbit is just a tiny personal connection: at one point the book mentions the 1996 presidential debate which took place in the building that I sometimes lecture in and in preparations to which I participated, albeit in a totally minuscule way.

Well written, interesting book, certainly worth a read. I'm including two strong quotes after the rating.

Three and a half stars.

"He was an ordinary guy in the noblest sense of the term, a steady, solid Michigander whose old fashioned virtues were the perfect antidote for a nation desperate for stability and civility."

"He considered Reagan a superficial, disengaged, intellectually lazy showman who didn't do his homework and clung to a naïve, unrealistic, and essentially dangerous worldview."

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

LaBravaLaBrava by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"LaBrava got Nobles down on his spine, head hard against the wall to straddle his legs. Worked free the bluesteel revolver [...] and slipped the blunt end of the barrel into his open mouth. Nobles gagged, trying to twist free.
LaBrava said, 'Suck on it. It'll calm you down.'
"

Not an easy review to write as I am forced to demonstrate my own incompetence. Elmore Leonard's LaBrava received the prestigious Edgar Award for the best novel in 1984 and yet I have been unable to find anything remarkable about the book. While readers are not expected to fully agree with literary critics my disagreement with the Edgars' jury is rather vehement: LaBrava has a moderately interesting story, but then nothing else stands out. Flat characterizations, stereotypes, and uninspired prose. I have always believed that the art of writing should be the most important criterion when judging a book, not whether it tells a good story. Well, I might have been wrong.

The scene is Florida in the early 1980s, much changed for the worse in comparison with the golden times of 40 or 50 years earlier. We meet a once famous movie actress, Jean, her close friend Maurice, a professional photographer, real estate owner and manager, and Joe LaBrava, an ex-government operative with Secret Service experience. Two hustlers round off the set of main characters. The opening scene in a County Crisis Center is quite interesting: all characters appear here and the men are looking for Jean who overindulged in alcohol and caused a street scene. The author then takes about a hundred pages to leisurely build the criminal intrigue. It is only about page 150 that the reader begins to realize what the plot is all about. I did not particularly enjoy the denouement although it is reasonably elegant and not that implausible.

I have a serious problem with characterizations: I don't feel the protagonists of LaBrava are real people - they are just vehicles to move the plot, instances of cliché templates of certain types of people. We have a "big hunk of a man with a tiny brain," a "small hustler short on imagination but long on criminal history" and a "basically good guy torn between his sense of duty and his heart." The plot includes many little side stories that may be interesting to readers who like to learn about how it supposedly is in the real world of crime, yet I fail to grasp how these stories contribute to the novel.

The intrigue - while ingenious - is just a movie plot. The novel reads exactly like a script for a potentially successful crime movie, but is this really enough to make the story a good novel? Let me paraphrase the viciously biting critique of an author (I am substituting Mr. Leonard for Mr. Crichton) offered by Martin Amis in his The War Against Cliché "Story is what Mr. Leonard is good at. People are what he is not so good at. People and prose." On the positive side, I quite like the clever connection of the plot with 1950s movies and the tastefully written love scene. The Florida sense of place comes across a little, certainly better than the psychology stereotypes. The characters talk in a language used by "people in the know", for instance, we hear them talk about "the coast" - only one coast is "the coast" in this country of two coasts.

Worth a read? Certainly, if one reads books solely for the story.

Two and a half stars.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Alfred and GuinevereAlfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Schuyler has a pitch-perfect ear for children's voices, and the story, told entirely through snatches of dialogue and passages from Guinevere's diary, is a tour de force of comic and poetic invention."
[from an uncredited blurb on the back cover]

James Schuyler's Alfred and Guinevere (1958), "officially" a novel, but a novella volume-wise, comes highly recommended by several literary critics and many readers as a charming story of a summer spent by two children - a bright window into the magical world of pre-adolescent siblings. Alas I am not as enthusiastic about this novel: probably because I have had the pleasure of reading Amelie Nothomb's masterpiece Loving Sabotage (as well as almost equally good The Character of Rain ). I find Ms. Nothomb's depiction of children's universe more insightful; it is in her books that I can find a little bit of the child that I used to be about 60 years ago. Mr. Schuyler's work, clever and charming as it is, does not come across as wonderfully natural and compelling.

The author never exactly states how old Alfred and Guinevere are, except that the boy is clearly younger than his sister. In fact, I find it one of the best aspects of the novel that we, the readers, may choose the kids' age: I chose Alfred to be seven or eight and Guinevere eleven or twelve. Their father leaves for Europe for business reasons, their mother follows him, and the children are left behind to spend the summer at their grandmother's house in the country. The author lets the reader see the adult world only through the children's eyes: the mechanisms of the grown-ups' universe are obviously opaque to the children. They create their own causal structure of events, which is influenced more by views of other people, adults or kids, than by the actual "facts." Mr. Schuyler succeeds in inducing a sense of some menace that lies underneath the innocent story of one summer, but it is we, the readers, who need to select the menace of our choice.

I like the circular structure of the book: it begins and ends with the bedtime talk between the kids, which sets up the axis of this generally plotless novel. The symmetries seem to go even deeper: I am curious about a mysterious piece of conversation between the children that appears on the sixth page: it is explained by the children's dialogue near the end of the book, exactly six pages from the end. I wonder if this was done on purpose by the author noted for his poetry, a genre that requires precision of literary structures.

However, I tend to disagree with the high praise for the author's "pitch-perfect ear for children's voices." True, many passages are indeed written in the way that children think - some of Guinevere's writing and most conversations between the children - yet other fragments sound awkward and too sophisticated even for precocious pre-adolescents or, in some passages, seem to be artificially infantilized.

Certainly a worthy read but - to me - far from a masterpiece that it is purported to be.

Three and a quarter stars.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Midnight Sun (Blood on Snow, #2)Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbø
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"I had to push the barrel of the rifle so deep into my throat that I almost puked [...] Suicide. The first time is the most difficult."
(my own translation of the Polish translation of Norwegian original)

I picked Jo Nesbø's Midnight Sun (2015, the Norwegian title is Mere blod) in hope that in the new series - the Olav Johansen novels - Mr. Nesbø will get away from the degraded quality of the later Harry Hole plots (see for example my review of Phantom . Nesbø is the author of some really good novels, for instance, The Redbreast is a solid four-star book, but quantity seems to have permanently vanquished quality in his work. Alas, despite a relatively interesting beginning, this novel again devolves into completely ridiculous mess.

Jon is on the run from the infamous Fisherman, an Oslo drug-trade boss for whom he has worked as an enforcer. He seeks to hide in Finnmark, the remote northeastern part of Norway, beyond the Arctic Circle. It is the land of summer midnight sun, inhabited by indigenous Sami people, many of whom are followers of Laestadianism, a conservative Lutheran movement. Jon meets a young woman, the daughter of one of the elders in the sect. She has just lost her husband and since it had not been a particularly happy marriage and since her son idolizes Jon she is not averse to spending time with him. Alas the Fisherman's people are in pursuit and soon they discover Jon's hideaway.

While the passages about life among the Laestadians, the culture of the Sami people, the nature north of the Arctic Circle are engrossing - I wish there was much more of the good stuff - the mystery plot deteriorates from moderately interesting, to quite silly, and then to outright absurd. When reviewing Phantom I was ridiculing the scene where Harry cuts the throat of someone who is cutting his throat. Mr. Nesbø achieved the impossible in Midnight Sun: he wrote a scene so utterly preposterous that he must either be making fun of his readers or holding their intellect in low regard. Not only is the scene ridiculous, it also caters to amateurs of death porn: the reader quite literally visits a decaying corpse and witnesses the little critters' feeding activity.

In the ending the author attempts to wrap up the story so that the plot holes are not too obvious and that the implausible yet somehow obligatory happy ending can be reached. Yuck! Still, to be honest, Mr. Nesbø's prose reads competent (in Polish translation anyway) and I enjoyed reading about the land beyond the Arctic Circle. The "romantic" thread is not that bad either, if a bit tepid. So the novel is not a complete failure.

One and three quarter stars.


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