Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Long Goodbye (Philip Marlowe, #6)The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"I was still off balance when he hit me. He hooked me with a neat left and crossed it. Bells rang, but not for dinner."

When I had first read Raymond Chandler's The Long Good-Bye (1953), an acclaimed classic of the noir, hardboiled PI genre, I decided it was a masterpiece. I was quite curious about my reaction to the novel 45 years later. Well, I would not call it a masterpiece - in the noir genre I prefer Ross Macdonald's novels, all of which I reviewed here on Goodreads - but it certainly is a remarkable and memorable book, almost but not quite deserving the five-star rating.

The novel is too well known to need presentation of the set-up: the readers may even find an absurdly detailed summary of the plot on Wikipedia. What makes the novel great is the portrayal of friendship between Philip Marlowe and Terry Lennox: it far transcends the usual limited literary range of mystery/crime novels. This aspect makes the novel read like real, high-caliber literature. The friendship is so unexplained, capricious, strange that it feels utterly real. Can one ever forget the gimlets (half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice)? Some literary critics prefer Chandler's Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely, yet even though I read them about the same time as Good-Bye I don't have any recollection of these novels. On the other hand I have never forgotten the opening scenes of The Long Good-Bye, Terry Lennox, and the gimlets. Well, the author himself considers this book his best work.

There is some great prose in the novel. Obviously, the famous passage that begins with "There are blondes and blondes [...]" stands out as some of the most wonderful writing in the genre. Bravura and pure class! There are a few immortal chandlerisms headlined by the "Bells rang" phrase that I use in the epigraph. The reader is also bound to like
"He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel."
But certain aspects spoil the novel a little for me. First and foremost, Philip Marlowe is so cool and so macho that Chuck Norris would instantaneously pee his pants and mewl in submission to him. Mr. Marlowe, an island of honesty, honor, and character in the ocean of corruption, is a hard-to-take cliché. The gangsters, the beatings, the intimidations have quite a cliché feel as well.

I believe there is a lot of Mr. Chandler in the persona of one of the novel's protagonists, Roger Wade, a popular author suffering from a writing block. Mr. Wade's character rings true, perhaps more than any other character in the novel, other than Terry Lennox. And how could I (a crusader against books longer than about 200 pages) not love the passage:
"My books run long. The public likes long books. The damn fool public thinks if there's a lot of pages there must be a lot of gold."
The reader will also find several neat social observations like
"Sheriff Petersen [...] a living testimonial to the fact that you can hold an important public office for ever in our country with no qualifications for it but a clean nose, a photogenic face, and a close mouth. If on top of that you look good on a horse, you are unbeatable."
One can also feel the atmosphere of the times, the Communist scare of the early 1950s and the anti-Red hysteria; Lieutenant Ohls' rant against the rigged social system is memorable.

The novel feels a little dated, in fact more dated than some of Ross Macdonald's works from the similar period. Men wear monocles, etc., but mostly it's the language which dates the text. A "shamus" may wield "a gat" to make a bad guy "scram." The proponents of the PC mind control through restrictions on language will likely be unhappy with the 1950s phrases like "she's a dish," "he's a Mex," with calling women "girls," and with the "sexism" oozing from the magnificent "blondes passage". I hope they will swallow their unhappiness and will not try to follow Stalin or other tyrants by censoring the text, the true snapshot of its times.

Truly great novel! If only Philip Marlowe did one nasty thing, if only he showed one human weakness, I would have rounded the rating up. (By the way, as a Central European by birth and a resident of San Diego, I am enclosing two neat quotes after the rating.)

Four and a half stars.

"Only the nicest people. Absolutely no Central Europeans. Just the cream, the top-drawer crowd, the lovely, lovely people."

"San Diego? One of the most beautiful harbours in the world and nothing in it but navy and a few fishing boats.

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Saturday, August 26, 2017

David Hackett Souter: Traditional Republican on the Rehnquist CourtDavid Hackett Souter: Traditional Republican on the Rehnquist Court by Tinsley E. Yarbrough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] he's a very private person and by most modern standards, a peculiar person. He's so solitary..."
(Nina Totenberg of the NPR, on judge Souter's nomination to the Supreme Court)

Again I succumbed to my fixation on the workings of the Supreme Court. Tinsley E. Yarbrough's David Hackett Souter, subtitled Traditional Republican on the Rehnquist Court, portrays one of the perhaps lesser known yet very interesting Supreme Court justices of the recent years. Justice Souter was nominated by George W. H. Bush in 1990 to replace the famed William Brennan, and confirmed by the Senate by an impressive 90-9 vote. The book had been written in 2005 so it does not cover the entire judicial career of Justice Souter who retired in 2009 at a relatively young age of 70 (it feels so good to write the word "young" next to the number 70!)

This a serious, technical, and a somewhat lawyerly book, addressed more for professionals rather than for legal ignoramuses like this reviewer. Of course I appreciate that the gossip factor is kept at minimum and that there is precious little sensationalism in the book. I am just warning unprepared readers that the author occasionally uses terms that need to be checked for meaning.

We read a little about Mr. Souter's youth, about him being a serious, focused student yet not completely beyond engaging in pranks. While an undergraduate at Harvard he decides to pursue a career in law rather than in theology. Then come the Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, study of law at Harvard, and 10 years in New Hampshire Attorney General office, the last two of these in the top job. Judge Souter's straight upward career path continues with the Superior Court and New Hampshire Supreme Court judgeships to culminate with the highest judicial job in the country. Still, despite the relentlessly upward slope of the trajectory, judge Souter is called a "stealth candidate" at the time of his nomination because of slim paper trail of his legal opinions on controversial issues and lack of national exposure. (Let's not forget that the voluminous paper trail and national exposure, combined with the candidate's arrogance, greatly contributed to the famous failure of judge Robert Bork's nomination.)

During the nomination process the conservatives are worrying whether judge Souter is conservative enough, liberals are worrying that the liberal wing of the Supreme Court will be severely diminished, and the press raises the candidate's "reclusive bachelor lifestyle" (wink, wink, note the pernicious and ugly euphemism 'lifestyle'), his lack of experience with "the real world" issues, and even - in a hilarious supposition - compares Mr. Souter to Chauncey the Gardener, the protagonist of Kosinski's Being There , "a strange little man [...] suddenly thrust into the whirl of American politics."

Well, despite the "stealth" nature of his candidacy, Justice Souter soon becomes one of the most important members of Supreme Court. After his first year, mainly spent as a member of the conservative majority, Justice Souter begins to display quite an independent streak and gradually, yet inexorably drifts leftward, to eventually become one of the stalwarts of the court's liberal wing, along Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer, and a principal opponent of the "originalist political philosophy" espoused for instance by Justice Scalia. In constitutional conflicts between federal and state power Justice Souter has usually taken a nationalist position. He has become "the Court's most vigorous defender of church-state separation," and has consistently condemned viewpoint discrimination and threats to free speech.

My complete ignorance of constitutional law prevents me from detailed analysis of the author's theses. Anyway, based on the author's claims the things that impress me the most about Justice Souter are that he has never shown any influence of personal beliefs on his rulings, has always tried to base his opinions on the rule of law, and has invariably kept legal precedent in deep regard. Justice Souter has not been a crusader for any cause, and that's for me the highest praise of a public servant.

Three and a half stars.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Reflecting the Sky (Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #7)Reflecting the Sky by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Swiftly running water does not reflect the sky."
(A Chinese proverb)

S. J. Rozan's Reflecting the Sky (2001) is already my eighth novel in the Chin/Smith series and - although I quite like it - it is nowhere as good as Stone Quarry or Winter and Night , both winners of many prestigious awards.

The entire novel takes place in Hong Kong where Lydia Chin and her frequent partner Bill Smith are trying to carry out a task for "Grandfather Gao", the infinitely wise patriarch of the New York Chinese community, and a childhood friend of Lydia Chin's actual grandfather. Since another of Mr. Gao's childhood friends, a Mr. Wei, died in new York Lydia and Bill are supposed to deliver a letter and the ashes for burial to Mr. Wei's brother who lives in Hong Kong with the rest of the family. They also are carrying a keepsake for Mr. Wei's grandson, Harry.

The job seems straightforward, but Lydia and Bill face serious obstacles right from the very beginning. When they arrive in the Hong Kong apartment of the Wei family, they find the place ransacked. Harry has been kidnapped. The detectives' job becomes a monumentally difficult task and they get entangled with people involved in serious criminal activities and the Hong Kong police. They have to deal with greed, family obligations, the triads, and even the repercussions of Maoist Cultural Revolution. The plot is really complicated, but the author appears to have a tight control over it, and the complex chains of events are relatively logical and not overly implausible.

As usual for Ms. Rozan's the novel features accomplished prose. Clichés are unavoidable in a book series, but somehow in this installment they are not that conspicuous. The best thing about the novel is the splendid portrayal of Hong Kong. Reading the many descriptions of the city's landscapes and observations of the inhabitants' life I almost felt as if I were there on location. Three magnificent scenes stand out: the sea of thousands of Filipino women congregated in a small park close to the Statue Square. The text paints such vivid images that I felt the need to check the surroundings via the Street View on Google Maps. Lydia and Bill's riding the famous Hong Kong outdoor escalator provides another memorable scene. But the top honors go to the protracted scene that takes place in Mr. Lee's antique shop. Not only Mr. Lee's mysterious and somewhat sinister persona, but also the descriptions of various displayed items, particularly the burial art, will hold the reader's attention.

I suppose that a large proportion of the Chin/Smith novels' readers come back to the series because of the somewhat ambiguous, enigmatic nature of the relationship between Lydia and Bill. The readers will not be disappointed here. The novel contains quite a powerful and in my view psychologically plausible scene between the protagonists. Alas, Ms. Rozan's fixation on gun play in the denouement scenes continues unabated. I would like to understand the nature of that compulsion, particularly in this novel, where guns are not needed by the logic of the plot. So sad that a great author continually feels the need to spoil her work every time she writes a novel!

Three stars.

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Natural History of NonsenseThe Natural History of Nonsense by Bergen Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Irrationality must come close to being the largest single vested interest in the world. [...] In fact, everyone in our society not directly engaged in the production and distribution of necessities, transportation, artistic creation, elementary teaching or the maintenance of public order, to some extent, and more or less consciously, preys upon ignorance and delusion."

Finally I have had the opportunity to re-read the book that like no other - with the possible exception of some works by Stanislaw Lem - influenced my thinking during the teen years and helped shape my worldview. I first read Bergen Evans' The Natural History of Nonsense (1946) when my mother gave it to me as a Christmas gift in 1963 or 1964: it shook me and since then I have always tried to follow the lessons of skepticism with respect to a great number of popularly held beliefs.

The author himself calls the book "a study in the paleontology of delusion." His goal is to systematically debunk a wide range of common prejudices and beliefs and to be an advocate of skepticism, which he aptly defines as "the life spirit of science." Yes, the book is heavily dated, but before I discuss some of the prejudices and misconceptions exposed by the author, let me first point out how relevant the author's theses became with the ubiquity of Internet.

Mr. Evans recounts a hoax perpetrated by H.L. Mencken in 1917 when he had published an article about the 75th anniversary of "the first bathtub installed in America." In his article he wrote about the initial resistance of the society to the invention, condemnation as "a menace to health and morals," and the slow acceptance of the invention. Mencken's story was so catchy that it was retold and reprinted thousands of times, and referred to as fact by public authorities. Even when in 1926 Mr. Mencken confessed that the story was a hoax, not many people believed him. Even the second confession did not help. People repeated the story for years and years (it was used as late as 2008). One hundred years later the Internet gives us thousands of fake stories, nonsense, and pure garbage every day. And we do believe these stories. I personally know a Ph.D. in sciences who believes that the contrails of planes are really chemtrails sprayed by "gubmint." I know serious and intelligent people who believe that vaccinations cause autism. The power of nonsense has not changed over 100 years.

The only weakness of the book is that the selection of commonly believed nonsense is quite dated. Hopefully fewer people now believe that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, that lemmings march to their deaths, that there exist "piscatory downpours" (raining fish), that animals know when their death is near, that dogs can find way back home from thousand of miles away, that elephants have phenomenal memory, that children can be raised by animals, that weather conditions during conception influences a person's future, that the so-called "death rattle" commonly accompanies human expiration, that hair can turn white instantaneously, and many others.

While all these examples of nonsense may sound mild and inoffensive, Mr. Evans talks a lot about serious issues: prejudices about race, how physical characteristics presumably determine the intellectual ones, etc. He lampoons the 1940s racial stereotypes of blacks, Jews, Asians, and others. Now we know more about these prejudices, but in 1940s this writing must have been quite courageous.

Not only is the book a loud cry for rationality, it is also frequently hilarious. Some stunning examples: the author quotes a traveler to Java who writes that infants there throw away their cigarettes when they are ready to suck mother's breasts. My absolute favorite is the 1920 research article by Prof. Adolf Gerson who traces the development of human menstrual cycle to the lunar cycle and the fact that early men hunted for their females on moonlit nights. Also, I am not sure if the author used the following example on purpose or just did not notice the atrocious pun it creates: he writes about the hairy Ainus people of Japan who value hirsuteness in their women. I apologize for being offensive if I did not catch the joke.

So yes, it is quite a dated book but since the advent of Internet seems to have strengthened the global embrace of irrationality and confirmed the human propensity for nonsense it remains a vey strongly recommended text.

Four and a half stars, which I round up. I am happy about my first five-star rating in half a year (55 books ago).

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Firestorm (Anna Pigeon, #4)Firestorm by Nevada Barr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Raw, naked power blooming in red and orange and black. Tornadoes of pure fire shrieking through the treetops, an enraged elemental beast slaking a hunger so old only stones and gods remembered."

Firestorm (1996) is my fourth book by Nevada Barr in her National Parks series featuring Anna Pigeon, the ranger. After Glacier, Carlsbad Caverns, and Mesa Verde, Ms. Pigeon is now serving in Lassen Volcanic National Park as an emergency medical technician helping battle the ferocious Jackknife fire that blazes in that Northern California park.

Ms. Pigeon has been on the front line tending to firefighters wounds and bruises; when the spike camp is in the final stages of disassembly she gets a message about a medical emergency. One of the firefighters has suffered a complicated knee fracture on a steep slope and needs to be evacuated up the hill to a helicopter landing spot. Ms. Pigeon along with a few other firefighters and medical crew embark on the rescue mission and this is when they are trapped by a monster firestorm. They barely survive the hellish flames only to encounter a several-day-long period of catastrophic weather that makes rescue from outside impossible. Not only does the group include severely wounded people and victims of second-degree burns but also - guess what - they discover a murder victim and it is clear that the murderer must be among them. There are even signs that someone has tampered with the crime scene.

Like in Blood Lure and in Blind Descent the "nature" part of the story is superb while the criminal thread is weak. In Firestorm the contrast is particularly strong; I feel I am reading two different books: a great one about the wildfire inferno, about the nature dying and being reborn in the flames, and a mediocre crime story full of fake and unnecessary clues. A compelling portrayal of firefighters' lives on the fire frontline, complicated relationships in the camps, and the government bureaucracy of the National Parks Service and BLM are combined with amateurish, implausible, and just plain laughable investigation that Ms. Pigeon is conducting among the firefighting crew.

We again meet Frederick Stanton, a powerful FBI agent, and Ms. Pigeon's romantic interest. His character is not well developed and the reader will feel his main role in the plot is to produce information about crime suspects, which Ms. Pigeon is then using in her ruminations about who the guilty party is. Other characters' portrayals range from well-drawn to pure caricatures. Ms. Barr's prose is clearly better than in Ill Wind, still a bit florid, but the reader quickly gets accustomed to it.

I really, really like the non-crime part of the novel and wouldn't hesitate to rate it with four stars. I really, really dislike the "investigation" part and would rate it with four times fewer stars. Overall, I certainly recommend the book and readers interested in classical whodunits might like it much more than I do.

Three stars.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three and three quarter stars.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four and a quarter stars.

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four stars.

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two stars.

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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three and a half stars.

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