29 December 2006

The Warlord's Son, by Dan Fesperman

December 29 2006 (07:28:00)

Borzoi Books, Alfred A. Knopf. 320 pages.

This is an adventure novel for our times. Set in Pakistan and Afghanistan late in 2001, the story involves a reporter named Stan Kelly, or "Skelly," and his "fixer," Najeeb. Najeeb is the character of the title. His father is a great malik in the mountains across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, but Najeeb is estranged from his father. Having been educated in America but brought up in the Pashtun tribal world, Najeeb is hired by journalists to interpret, guide, and protect them from dangers they can only partially understand. He is a fixer, and without a fixer a Western journalist will perish in this jungle.

Skelly is sent to Pakistan in the hope that he can get into Afghanistan and report on the developments there. Osama Bin Laden, that most wanted criminal of the Western world, is said to be at large in the mountains. This could be the story of Skelly's career, and he is excited to be after it. Skelly's been moldering stateside trying to live a more normal life than that of a foreign "hack." The life of a foreign correspondent, however uncomfortable and inconducive to success with one's family, has gotten into his blood, and he yearns to be back in the thick of danger and intrigue.

Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, couldn't be a more dangerous or intriguing place. This is the small, backward nation of warlords and the Taliban, the underdeveloped third-world country that -- in spite of its poverty and lack of modern technology, bled the Soviet Union for years as it tried to dominate this land. Afghanistan may have been a much more powerful force than the saber-rattling of NATO, Reagan, and the Free World in causing the demise of the hammer and sickle. But the United States of America, having suffered the unforgiveable obscenity of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, seemed to have no choice but to take action against the Taliban. The Taliban could be seen as the protectors of Osama, and as such they were a valid, organized enemy that could be militarily attacked and definitively beaten -- at least in theory -- while Osama seemed and seems today like a foul smelling cloud of smoke: offensive, harmful, fatal, yet elusive and impossible to grab, grasp, confine, or destroy.

Skelly and Najeeb manage to get a ride into Afghanistan with the rear guard of a returning warlord. Almost immediately they are involved in a firefight, things fall apart, and begin to get truly complicated. As the plot progresses, Najeeb's family is involved, old resentments are brought to the surface, and a layer of intrigue is added. Added to the mix is the presence of certain shady American characters, Hartley and Pierce*, who remind us of the involvement of our own political and industrial interests and the role they play in the larger tragedy engendered by Western Imperialism, the clash of cultures, and the disingenuous liars on all sides.

Meanwhile, back in Peshawar, Najeeb's girlfriend is trying desperately to escape the bonds of purdah and escape to rejoin her lover. A series of mysterious threatening notes to Najeeb and the death of a malang, a sort of Pashtun holy recluse, by murder, make another frightening subplot. And I haven't mentioned the involvement of shady characters from the ISI, a very loosely defined Pakistani intelligence-gathering organ.

I turned these pages rapidly, and enjoyed The Warlord's Son immensely. I see that Mr. Fesperman has written a few others. I'll have to give one or more of them a try.

*It's interesting to get a glimpse into the fiction writer's mental process. "Hartley" and "Pierce" are names given to certain electronic oscillator circuits. Mr. Fesperman may have a little engineering in his background, or perhaps it's just a coincidence. But the observation is just too irresistible.

For more information about Hartley and Pierce oscillators, read Sine Wave Oscillators, by J.B. Calvert, an article posted on the University of Denver's website.
More Information

* Pashtuns of Afghanistan, an article at Afghan-Network.net
* The Rise and Fall of the Taliban, an article at Afghanland.com
* Pakistan Maps, and Afghanistan Maps at the University of Texas at Austin

24 December 2006

Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

December 24 2006 (04:05:00)

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small,
And the ones that mother gives you, don't do anything at all,
Go ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall.
--White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane.

If you haven't read Alice and/or Through the Looking Glass, don't put it off. If you have read it, do it again. It doesn't take long, that's for sure. I found this old paperback on a rainy Sunday afternoon and was soon lost down the rabbit hole.

There's plenty written about these works and little that a person of my education and experience would be able to add to the critical analysis of Carroll's whimsical fiction. It's well known that these stories were written primarily to entertain children, some of them very specific children with whom Lewis Carroll (the pen-name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was acquainted, including young Alice (Liddell) herself. And it's also common knowledge that there are other levels, and jokes, to the stories, more accessible to adults and particularly to adults of the time, culture, and social class in which Carroll lived.

What attracts me to the story of Alice and her adventures in the Looking Glass world is that this is part of the quintessential English literature of childhood. Along with the Chronicles of Narnia, Baum's Oz classics, and others, these books find some place in most English-speaking children's mythology -- or at least I think they still do! -- and their landscapes and population are ever in our imaginations. When one sees an impatient, harried person checking his watch, one thinks of the White Rabbit: "Oh dear...I shall be late..." Imperious self-important tyrants always have something of the Red Queen about them, and who has not been in a conversation that reminded him of the one between the Hatter and the March Hare, with the Dormouse sleeping between them?

"Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter's remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English."

Through the Looking Glass, the second work, is said to be understandable as a complete chess game. It is also obviously rich with puns and inside jokes, and probably a great deal of humor at the expense of personages long deceased. This is all a great monument to the genius that called himself Lewis Carroll, but for me I value its capture of the time of life when we have the leisure and openness of mind to contemplate and observe the world that exists in our mirrors, when we think about whether the flowers mind being tethered to the ground, and when we have the imagination to conceive of a Rocking Horse Fly, "...made entirely of wood, and gets about by swinging itself from branch to branch..."
More Information and Where You Can Read the Books:

* The entire text of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, courtesy of the Gutenberg Project.
* This site is sort of an Alice fan-club site, I suppose; there's a lot of Alice-related information and much evidence of her influence on the world in which we live.
* Lenny's Alice in Wonderland Site seems a good resource for background and analysis of the work, nicely designed with great respect for the tales. Lenny is not above referring to the Disney movie that has no doubt been responsible for introducing millions to Alice and her adventures.

Gone, by Jonathan Kellerman

December 24 2006 (04:00:00)

This is the most recent I have read in the Alex Delaware series. In it, Delaware and Milo Sturgis are faced with a bizarre series of killings and an extremely strange set of people, all against the backdrop of Southern California's glitz and highways.

The romance between Robin and Alex seems to be rekindled in this story.

A good, entertaining read.

07 December 2006

Vanish, by Tess Gerritsen

December 07 2006 (00:54:00)

401 pages. Ballantine Books, 2006.

In the lunchroom at work we have a "free" table. Items placed on this table are free for the taking. I think there's a couple of t-shirts and a pair of shoes on it right now. Sometimes there's food. I have recently gotten some Jasmine rice and some tea there. Often people leave books. I frequently take advantage of the books. Once they've been read at home, I usually take them back for someone else. I try to make my own contributions to this table from time to time.

A couple of weeks ago I found Vanish on the table, and took it home with me. This is a very effective thriller, which I read in about 5 hours. Great literature, it's not -- but it has the quality of suspense and excitement that allowed me to suspend disbelief and criticism and get wrapped up in its plot and characters sufficiently to devour its pages in one long bite on a cold November Saturday afternoon-evening.

The story begins with a description of some illegal aliens from Eastern Europe being smuggled into the USA from Mexico. It then jumps to the city of Boston, where a busy medical examiner discovers a live person accidentally delivered to her morgue's refrigerated storage. It picks up speed, includes a very pregnant police detective and her FBI-agent husband who quickly become involved in the hostage-taking which is central to the plot.

I thoroughly enjoyed Vanish and will read another Gerritsen when I get the opportunity. I see that she is the author of Body Double. I assume that the film of the same name was based on that novel. I saw that film several years ago, and dimly recall it as a strange and suspenseful experience.

Having recently been roundly critical of another thriller that I didn't read nearly as fast as this one, I have to point out at least one defect in Vanish. While the mechanism of having the live person discovered in the morgue is certainly a frightening attention-grabber, I fail to see why it is a necessary part of the plot. Indeed, it's never really fully explained -- unless I missed that in my breakneck scan of the text. And what about the title? Surely a better one could have been chosen. The Die is Cast? Playing for Keeps? I don't know.

But don't let these minor details keep you from reading Vanish. I recommend it.

30 November 2006

The Templar Legacy, by Steve Barry

November 30 2006 (21:39:00)

480 pages. Ballantine Books, 2006.

I hardly ever read books that I don't like. If I do, it's usually for work or a requirement for some course I'm taking. I started out reading The Templar Legacy, and considered putting it down unfinished. What do real book reviewers do? I guess they finish whatever they're reviewing, whether they like it or not. And in many cases they may not. Partially as an exercise in feeling like a professional reviewer and also to satisfy my curiosity about the book, I did finish it.

Templar is a "thriller," that is, it's in the genre that includes books by Ken Follett and Robert Ludlum. In my mind, a thriller is not exactly a novel about espionage, or war, nor is it a mystery -- although there is usually some type of mystery involved -- or crime novel. Generally these books will involve unlikely people caught up in large events that may affect much of the world, if not all of it. International travel is frequently involved, and as a result the writers of these novels are often travellers themselves, and there will be much description of various far-off places, and a great deal of atmosphere imparted from various locations. Successful thrillers -- that is, successful in entertaining me -- include good, complicated, multi-dimensional characters that we become very involved with. Ludlum often uses "ordinary" people who get caught up in big events, events that force them to act heroically in dangerous, exciting conditions. There is suspense, and it keeps us turning the pages.

There's a mugging and a suicide in The Templar Legacy's first chapter, so the action starts right away -- after a disturbing prologue that describes some grisly events from the 14th century. We are introduced to Cotton Malone and Stephanie Nelle right away, and we begin to understand that there are major issues at stake. The plot has to do with an ancient order of monks who defended the route to the Holy Land after the Crusades, their lost treasure, arcane knowledge of the true nature of Jesus Christ, resurrection, and redemption. It's probably got something in common with The DaVinci Code but I can't say for sure, as I haven't read that book. But I sense that DaVinci has some pretty attractive coattails, and Berry wouldn't be the first writer to see such an opportunity and take advantage of it -- but that really isn't what I didn't like.

What I did not like about Templar is that the writing is just too thin. The characters are not believable, and I didn't feel involved with any of them. There is some real tragedy mentioned in the plot, such as the suicide (or murder) of a man who was husband to Stephanie, and the father of her son, Mark. Perhaps this is a reflection of excessive sang-froid on my part, but I just didn't care about them. Cotton Malone should be, during the reading of such a novel, like my old friend -- warts and all, but an old friend nevertheless. He wasn't. I just didn't care about him, either. They all reacted strangely, and their dialog was unnatural.

And how about the main bad guy? First of all, I couldn't help waiting for the punch line that must have been set up by his name: De Roquefort. The big cheese? Granted, I betray my pedestrian tendencies in pointing this out, but Mr. Berry would have been well advised to name his villain something that doesn't make me want to snicker every time I read it.

There are too many distractions in this book. Several times, Berry puts an illustration on the page of some mysterious tombstones and versions of a cryptogram that his characters eventually must decipher. If the cryptogram was as simple as he represents, it would have been solved five hundred years before and saved his characters a lot of work and trouble. Malone is, we are told, possessed of an eidetic memory. "Not photographic ... an excellent recall of details that most people forgot." But it seems that Mr. Berry forgot -- if this remarkable asset figures in the plot again after it is mentioned, I totally missed it.

I am learning something about book reviewing here: it is much harder to write a negative one. I really just didn't like the writing, but that's not a good thing to say. I need to show you exactly what I mean. So I have to go back through the volume now, looking for examples. This is a lot like work.

"He carried the book to one of several club chairs that dotted the store, settled himself into the soft folds, and started to read. Gradually, a summary began to formulate."(page 59)

"The first assailant lay sprawled on the floor. The other man was likewise prone and still... he spotted something at the back of one of the necks. He bent close and plucked out a small dart, the tip a half-inch needle.

"His savior was privy to some sophisticated equipment." (page 70)

Ideally in a novel like this I shouldn't really even notice the writing -- it should be hard-wired to my brain and I should be turning the pages too fast to analyze sentences and wrinkle my nose at phrases like "privy to some sophisticated equipment." Templar lost its grip on me too often, and I was too tempted to pick it apart.

"...'the mayor said the grave was in danger from treasure hunters.' She shook her head. 'So a few years ago they dug the priest up and moved him into a mausoleum in the garden. Now it costs three euros to see his grave ... the price of a corpse's safety, I assume.'

He caught her sarcasm. (page 113)

An easy catch.

There are loose ends in this book, a thing to be abhorred in a genre chiefly based on intricate, suspensful plotting. For example, on page 135, Malone and Stephanie Nelle read a note to the deceased Ernst Scoville that warns "prend garde l'Ingeneur. 'Beware the engineer...'" We are later introduced to an unbelievable and fantastic character named Cassiopeia who is identified to be this engineer. There is, however, never any reason to beware her, nor is this warning ever sufficiently explained.

I probably should have been taking notes while reading this book, it would make the task of explaining what's wrong with it much easier. The next time I decide to finish a book out of professionalism, I'll get a pencil and paper.

Don't pay money for this book, but if you need something to read on a plane and it's available for free, it's probably fine. Sorry, Steve Berry -- I'll admit up front that you're a better writer than I am, but then nobody's paying me.


27 November 2006

"F" is for Fugitive, by Sue Grafton

November 27 2006 (19:29:00)

Random House Audio, 2001, 8 CDs, approximately 8 hours. Narrated by Judy Kaye.

I listened to an abridged version of this book on compact discs. It's a typical alphabet mystery, I've read several of these. I have always had a problem with Grafton this way: I can't remember if I've read one of these or not, the titles are so interchangeable (to me, that is), so I don't know until I'm well into one of them if it's new to me or not. That's one problem this blog should solve for me.

I don't think the alphabets will be recognized by literary critics as great classic works but then I've been wrong before. They are generally entertaining and enjoyable, and as audio books they are ideal. I use audio books to keep from getting too bored when I'm driving. This makes me a more patient and I hope a safer driver, but there is a certain division of attention involved. What I find is that anything too heavy, complicated, or serious doesn't work in this environment. Fortunately I seem to automatically just tune the "book" out and concentrate on the driving when it gets heavy. If the book requires strict attention or mental gymnastics to follow, I will lose my place and need to rewind when I get a chance. So something light like an alphabet mystery is perfect. With some of my attention I can easily follow the plot and enjoy the entertainment, with the rest I can notice the moron following too closely behind me since I'm only exceeding the speed limit by five or ten miles per hour.

Having said all this I suppose Ms. Grafton could be insulted, in the unlikely event that this lowly journal should come to her attention. If such should come to pass, however, and should she take offense at my cavalier reduction of her labor to mere brain-fodder to keep me from falling victim to boredom and road-rage at the wheel, let me say that whether I am reading her in print or by ear, I have always greatly enjoyed these novels and I think that she is very talented. Grafton creates a world for me that I am loath to leave at the end of a book. I have no higher compliment for any writer.

In this mystery, Milhone is summoned to a small town on the California coast to help exonerate the son of a moderately wealthy but terminally ill man. The son is an escaped convict, imprisoned for the murder of a young woman many years in the past. Recaptured, it seems his only hope is for Milhone to discover who did commit the murder, and expose the fact that he was wrongfully imprisoned.

Kinsey Milhone gently but firmly takes the town apart, person by person, and exposes its past and how the principals in the intrigue are connected. Bit by bit she works the mystery to its dramatic solution and we are left as usual, in admiration of this modest young woman's skill and power.

If you haven't read "F," by all means, do so!

24 November 2006

Ride the Wind, by Lucia St. Clair Robson

November 24 2006 (07:17:00)

Ride the Wind, The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker and the Last Days of the Comanche.
By Lucia St. Clair Robson
Ballantine Books 1982, 595 pages.

This book is historical fiction, the life of a young girl kidnapped by Comanche warriors in the early 19th century. The girl's name was Cynthia Ann Parker, later named Naduah or Keeps Warm With Us by her Comanche family.

The story begins in 1836 in Fort Parker, where a family of pioneer settlers from Illinois lives in the wild Texas frontier. A band of Comanche warriors raids the fort and amidst terrible violence kidnaps Cynthia, her brother, and some others. The book begins with action and gets our attention right away, but if one is at all queasy or sensitive it may also create a great deal of discomfort as there is much graphic description of rape and murder in the first few pages.

Naduah's story, told here and elsewhere, is one about the violent confrontation between the Europeans and Native Americans in Texas in the 19th century, and the adaptation of a child to a new culture and way of life. Pahayuca and his band, having captured her by force, commence to win her loyalty and love by treating her with love and respect. She is adopted by a childless couple, Sunrise and Takes Down the Lodge, who give her her new name and raise her as their own. She becomes one of them in every way except for the details of her birth.

Robson depicts the Comanche, the People, as a grand and ancient civilization that has lived on the plains of North America for many centuries. She spares us much sentimentality, depicting the People in what seems a very believable way. We can respect them but we can also see the violent and harsh manner in which they lived, and appreciate this as an adaptation to the unforgiving environment in which their culture developed and flourished.

Naduah became the wife of Wanderer, or Nocona, who became one of the last great chiefs of the Comanche before their effective destruction by the European invaders. The story of their life together, their children, and their love is certainly the product of great imagination on the part of Robson but at the same time seems to give us an accurate feeling for at least what it might have been like to be alive at that time and involved in this monumental upheaval and downfall of a civilization.

While the story is greatly sympathetic to the Comanche, it is also unafraid to depict the harshness of their ways. The Comanches in this book are kidnappers, keepers of slaves, fierce, warlike people willing to torture their enemies to death. At the same time they are strongly spiritual and at one with their country, the Great Plains. They waste little and ask for little except the freedom to roam the plains and hunt as they had done for centuries before the arrival of the "white eyes."

The Comanche, like so many other Native American people, were defeated by technology, disease, and the sheer population force of the European emigrants. Cynthia Ann Parker and her family provide a good factual historical basis on which to hang this story of that defeat, and with which to celebrate the humanity and greatness of many of the people involved on both sides.

We are indebted to our friend Trudy for loaning us this book, which we likely would have missed otherwise.

Internet reading about Cynthia Ann Parker:

Wikipedia entry for Cynthia Ann Parker.

Outlaw Women article on Cynthia Ann Parker.

Woman Spirit, by Julia White

Handbook of Texas Online article about Cynthia Ann parker.

Do your own search: put "Cynthia Ann Parker" in Google's text box, you'll see these sites and many more.

17 November 2006

The Neddiad, by Daniel Pinkwater

November 17 2006 (00:42:00)

Daniel Pinkwater is publishing his new book, The Neddiad, online, a chapter a week. It's probably considered a children's book, and I suppose it says something unattractive about me, but I've been enjoying it immensely.

The Neddiad is (so far) a story told first-person by a young fellow named Ned, who has a rather remarkable family. The story is set in the late 1940s, just after World War II. As it begins, Ned and his family set out for Los Angeles, travelling by first-class train. During the trip Ned becomes separated from his family in Flagstaff, Arizona, but is rescued by an actor and his son who are driving to Los Angeles by way of the Grand Canyon.

The chapter that I just finished has Ned, the actor, his son, and a ghost (yep), visiting the Grand Canyon. They take an airplane ride into the canyon and have a strange adventure with a passenger on the 'plane.

I don't think you have to be a kid to like this book. I eagerly signed up to get email reminders when new chapters come out.

06 November 2006

Clockers, by Richard Price

November 06 2006 (05:22:00)

Houghton Mifflin 1992 599 pages.

On the back cover of this book there's an endorsement by Scott Turow. Turow is the author of The Laws of our Fathers, among others. Of Clockers, he says "...its complete knowledge of life in our most reviled places, [is] riveting..." I point this out because Clockers picks up where Laws left off in its depiction of the drug-dealing underworld in the "projects" of a big city. Turow's novels are set in a fictional city said to be Chicago, Price's in another, Dempsy, New Jersey. Dempsy is close enough to New York City to be any of the minor urban areas that make up that megalopolis.

Two major characters from Clockers are Rocco, the police detective, and Strike, the budding career criminal. The novel has a lot to do with the relationship between the police and the broken, sick, African-American community in Dempsy, and the relationship between Rocco and Strike is in part a metaphor for this. In some ways it could be seen as the "good guys" hunting the "bad guys," but there's an element of interdependency here -- and I couldn't help thinking of the worn-out observation about prison guards and prisoners, how little difference there is between their lives.

Strike is an up-and-coming drug dealer working directly under a gangster named Rodney. Rodney is a type of godfather in this world of nearly universal drug addiction, poverty, and general deprivation. These people do not live like animals, animals do much better. Rodney has several children by various partners, and is a father figure to Strike and other members of his gang/enterprise -- but he's a cold, calculating, homicidal sociopath. He manipulates Strike into a situation where Strike must kill (or cause to be killed) a rival in order to advance his own position in the gang.

The situation becomes complicated when Strike's brother gets involved. Darryl, Strike's rival, is murdered in a parking lot, and Strike's brother confesses to the crime. It seems completely incongruous and even impossible, but suddenly Victor -- Strike's older and relatively straight-arrow brother, quiet, hard-working family man -- is not only involved in the sordid dealings of Strike and Rodney, but arrested for committing the murder that furthers Strikes ambitions.

Detective Rocco is another family man, married and a father somewhat late in life. He's an alarmingly heavy drinker who seems to be inoculating himself with booze against the disease that is all around him. Convinced that Strike is truly guilty of the murder (he is not, as far as we can tell) he pressures him with his brother's fate if his confession is accepted. While this does bother Strike a bit, the actual twisted mess that ensues on both sides is complicated enough to keep us reading to see what will happen next.

Price has certainly created a believable world, or underworld, here in Dempsy, NJ. I understand that this novel has sequels, and I may have to pick them up soon. I bought this book for about a dollar at Book World in Kent, WA, and didn't have high expectations, but I found myself quickly immersed in what I consider to be a very good work of fiction and an excellent commentary on our society. The American Dream has become something of a nightmare for the generations of impoverished people that have inhabited our cities in recent centuries.

Digging to America, by Ann Tyler

November 06 2006 (18:43:00)

Ann Tyler writes beautifully about families. Her families are always real and believable, made up of quirky, impossible people, suffering from pain and benefitting from love as real families do. She has the gift of putting the right words in their mouths, the right thoughts in their minds. She tells us the parts of their story that we want to know. I've never been disappointed in a Tyler novel, and Digging to America was another winner.

Digging is the story of two children from Korea adopted by middle-class Americans in the late twentieth century. It's the story of two families, the Yazdans and the Donaldsons, who meet at the airport when the babies arrive. Driven by the outgoing Donaldson family they stay in touch and a years-long relationship begins. Every year they have an "arrival party" to celebrate the day when they all met at the Baltimore airport. The novel follows the families as they change, grow, die, argue, fight and love.

Tyler has the knack of being contemporary and timeless at once, blending the interactions of human beings of all kinds, as they exist in families and outside of them, with external social and political issues and events. The Yazdan family are Iranian immigrants and their descendants. Iranian culture and Iranians living in America in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century becomes one of the themes of the novel, and we are treated to a loving yet realistic (one believes) look into the lives of these new Americans.

Digging to America includes death as well as birth, and has more than a little to say about what it's like to get old in this country. Ann Tyler's voice is gentle yet truthful, she looks on our people and their lives with a loving sense of humor, never failing to penetrate to the core of the human condition.

09 October 2006

Bangkok 8, by John Burdett

October 09 2006 (22:40:00)

Don't judge a book by its cover. The edition of Bangkok 8 that I read has a lurid one: orange, black, and hot pink, featuring a blurry image of a scantily-clad dancer in what might be a night club. Reluctant to be seen with my nose in such I placed it on a shelf for some time. I should have known better; the friend who gave it to me has great taste in books, and this was no mistake. Bangkok 8 has everything that makes a great mystery novel.

Set in Thailand, the story starts out at a motorcycle-taxi pace with the murder of a police detective, Pichai, partner of Sonchai Jitpleecheep.This murder is committed immediately after the murder of an American Marine named Bill Bradley. Sonchai tells the story. The murders are gruesome and surreal -- snakes are involved. Pichai and Sonchai were unusually close friends (bound even closer by their vows as "arhat cops" as their penance for having murdered a drug dealer in their younger days) and Sonchai's determination to find the person responsible for Pichai's death and kill him or her is grim and powerful.

As W.R. Greer points out in this review, there isn't anything particularly unique in the idea of a mystery novel wherein a cop avenges the death of his partner. In many ways, Detective Jitpleecheep is nothing more than the hard-boiled detective in the hard-boiled novel -- but what I particularly admire is how John Burdett has used the religion, culture, and environment of this Thai detective to create what was for me a completely unique and refreshing book in this idiom. I haven't been so impressed since reading the novels of Elliott Pattison about his Chinese detective Shan Tao Yun, set chiefly in Tibet. Pattison's work is much different than Burdett's, but they both use the atmosphere of Buddhist culture and philosophy to enhance and deepen their plots.

In the course of the story we get a fair dose of modern Bangkok from the viewpoint of a native. We are introduced to a huge overpopulated city with extreme levels of overpopulation, pollution, and poverty. Corruption is quite literally institutionalized, especially in the police department -- except for our arhat hero and his deceased friend. (Sonchai and Pichai vowed to adhere to strict Buddhist principles of honesty in their police careers. In this way they hoped to avoid at least some of the horrible Karmic retribution that they incurred when they committed murder.) Farangs, foreigners, are a much-exploited resource in this city. Many farangs come to Bangkok for sex, usually purchased from the multitudinous variety of prostitutes that work there. We find that Sonchai's mother is a prostitute, and later in the book her desire to improve her business provides an interesting turn to the plot.

The sex trade is an important part of the mystery, and so is the involvement of a wealthy farang businessman. This man is named Sylvester Warren. He is seen to be highly connected to people in the US government, but at the same time he is a person of some interest to Bangkok-posted agents of the FBI. Sonchai works with some of the FBI people. This relationship provides a Western point of view so that we don't feel too much condescension as the story is, after all, written in American English, for American English readers. It also provides a romantic angle in the person of a female FBI agent who seems to have a little extra-professional interest in Detective Jitpleecheep.

The book is artistically done, skillfully executed, well worth your time. If you love detective fiction, it's a must-read. If you have any interest in the Far East or Buddhism, even more so.

I look forward to reading more of John Burdett's work. A quick search for the author's name with Google brought me to this website, where I am pleased to find that there are two more novels featuring Detective Jitpleecheep. You may perhaps soon read of them in this journal.

An odd coincidence: this is the second novel I've read recently that mentions the Karen people. The other was Saving Fish From Drowning, by Amy Tan. I had never heard of them before (my ignorance is boundless) but now have been introduced to them twice, in unrelated, randomly chosen novels set in Southeast Asia.

08 October 2006

The Agency Delta, by Blake Schwendiman

October 08 2006 (04:17:00)

I use gmail; I love it. One of its little features, or quirks, is a thing they call "web clips. " Web clips are little teasers about different things on the web, often news articles, new products, practically anything you might find on the Internet, which after all is simply practically everything.

Some time ago, I think early in September, one of these little clips sent me to The Agency Delta, by Blake Schwendiman, a book available online in pdf format for free. If you'd like to read The Agency Delta, visit Ms. Schwendiman's website.

I have a weakness for thrillers, mysteries, and to some extent, science-fiction. The Agency Delta is all three. It's a pretty well-done tour deforce set a few decades into the future, involving an incredibly rich leader of a giant high-tech corporation, his amazing yet unlikely discovery of a very peculiar phenomenon on the Internet, his evil competitors, and his very good friend, a man named Ramesh, who is unusually ethical.

It's a good read, very entertaining, and I am grateful to the author for making her work available for free. I'm not sure what the business model is going to be for writers in the future, but I think she may be onto something. New writers with novel-length works have a tough time getting published on paper these days. With the availability of inexpensive (even free) web hosting and software it is not a major feat for such an author to publish her work herself. How to publicize it and how to make a living are two very good questions, but Schwendiman has made a very good start.

I wish her well.

Saving Fish From Drowning, by Amy Tan

October 08 2006 (05:36:00)

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2005. 474 pages.

Amy Tan's characters are always drawn with exquisite skill. Tan's people and their stories are believable and genuine -- even when they are completely fantastic.

Saving Fish From Drowning does not lack fantasy: Its narrator, Bibi Chen, is dead. The story of her friends' trip to Burma, their kidnapping by Karen villagers, the chaotic search for them, are told from her perspective -- that of a ghost, the unquiet spirit of the woman who was to have been their tour guide who accompanies her friends on their trip as she was meant to in life. This omniscient observer makes for a unique sort of first-person/third-person narrative.

I don't mean to make it sound as if this construct were unwieldy or in the least bit intrusive. On the contrary, it is artfully done, entertaining, and comes off as the most natural thing in the world. Of course, Tan has delved into the invention of characters from the afterlife before.

The story of Bibi's friends unlucky adventure in Burma allows us to see these privileged Americans against the backdrop of one of the most benighted countries on the planet where they might actually find themselves. Tan has done a good job of illustrating Burma's plight. She does not sugar-coat the misery of Burma's citizens nor the heavy-handed totalitarian military dictators that rule them. As contemporary commentary this novel is excellent, but this does not detract from its literary excellence or simple entertainment value.

I have again been delighted by an Amy Tan novel.

17 September 2006

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe

September 17 2006 (19:36:00) ( 0 views )

372 pages. Bantam Books, October 1969.
On the cover of this timeworn paperback on loan from a friend (thanks, Doc!) is a blurb from a NY Times Review. It says "The best book on the hippies."

I'm not sure that this book is "on the hippies," but it certainly is "on" the Merry Pranksters, a loosely knit group of LSD aficionados centered around Ken Kesey in the 1960s.

Tom Wolfe's portrayal of the life and times of the Pranksters is poetic and appropriate. He uses some far-out prose tricks and insterted poetry to create the psychedelic atmosphere necessary to tell the tale of this subcultural bubble.

Kesey and his crowd were most assuredly heavy users of many drugs. Wolfe's recounting of the heroic consumption of speed in many forms amongst Pranksters and near-Pranksters is awe-inspiring in itself. Add to this the frequent, intense LSD trips, the constant consumption of cannabis, and the other psychedelic hors d'ouevres at this years-long party and one has a testimony to the durability of the human body in the face of diverse chemical assaults.

Wolfe quotes Kesey on page 4 from a letter to Larry McMurtry. Wolfe's description of the letters:

"...wild and ironic, written like a cross between William Burroughs and George Ade...written in the third person..."

From the letters:

"...this young...happily-married-three-lovely-children father was a fear-crazed dope fiend in flight to avoid prosecution...

"...Once possessor of a phenomenal bank account...it was all his poor wife could do to scrape together eight dollars...

"What...brought [him] to so low a state in so short a time?...


The book chronicles the many "Acid Tests," and long road trips in "Furthur," the Pranksters' bus. It's hard to really distill what happened on all these occasions -- it's hard to actually understand even while reading it -- this was some pioneering into alternative reality mixed with dropping out. Indeed, Kesey and the Pranksters disdained (and were disdained by) elements of the contemporary subculture that you might think they'd have been friendly with. But Kesey's country ways and directness were unacceptable to the elite among the Beats, and as he told the Vietnam Day Committee's rally: "you're playing their game."

Some time points:
1962: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
1964: Sometimes A Great Notion
April 1965:Kesey arrested for possession of marijuana
January 1966: The flight to Mexico to avoid prosecution
October 1966: Kesey sneaks back into the US, but is caught by the FBI near San Francisco.

What Kesey said about whether he would be writing any more: "I'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph." (p. 8)

Some of the Merry Pranksters:
Mountain Girl
Paul Foster
Neal Cassady
Ken Babbs
Black Maria
Doris Delay
George Walker
Freewheeling Frank

On the Prankster lifestyle -- life "on the bus":

"...suddenly it hits me that for the Pranksters this is permanent. This is the way they live... sailing like gypsies along the Servicenter fringes, copping urinations, fencing with rotten looks... they have films and tapes of their duels with service-station managers...trying to keep their concrete bathrooms and empty Dispensa-towels safe from the Day-glo crazies..." (p. 16)

Day-glo was a fond toy of the Pranksters, its use is frequently mentioned.

Kesey's family:
wife: Faye
daughter: Shannon 6
sons: Zane 5, Jed 3

Here's a website with some Prankster history, etc.

The Murder Book, by Jonathan Kellerman

September 17 2006 (21:16:00)

Ah, yes. Another Kellerman. Another Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis story, and absolutely fine from start to finish.

In this novel we learn about the split between Alex and Robin, which I discovered in a later novel with scant explanation. This is the penalty I pay for being a scattered and disorganized Kellerman fan.

The mystery of the "murder book" in the title, a scrapbook of ghoulish crime-scene photos sent anonymously to Delaware, takes us into Milo's past, uncovers a great deal of dirt in the LAPD at high levels (this is fiction, remember), and includes enough psychology to keep Dr. Delaware involved.

Alex and Milo in this story solve an old cold case from Milo's first months as a detective. It involves a young girl who disappears, and involves rich and powerful people in the Los Angeles area. Because of this, inquiries into the crime have been squelched in the past. But murder, as the bard said, will out, and people touched by the evil in this crime and the people around it eventually cause it to come to the attention of our two sleuths.

This was a great and entertaining read that lessened the discomfort provided by Delta Airlines in bringing me across the continent last month.

04 September 2006

Libra, by Don DeLillo

September 04 2006 (13:29:00) ( 0 views )

I've been neglecting this project for a while -- perhaps Summer can take the blame. I finished reading Libra quite a while ago, keep meaning to write a little about it, but something always stops me.

Today, I determined to get started on this as I have other books in the pipe and before you know it I'll be seriously behind. In order to get into the mood and steal some ideas I looked the book up on Amazon.com and found some capsule reviews. The interesting observation about Libra that I gleaned from these reviews was that the book may be -- at least in part -- a study of how a novel can portray reality, or history, and at the same time be a work of fiction. One of the reviewers more or less posed the question: Why should we allow a novelist to tell us what really went on?

The essence of real mystery during my life is certainly embodied in the events of 22 November 1963. I was a bit shy of twelve years old then: not a little child but not yet quite an adolescent, either. It was very strange for me to experience the muffled drumbeats of mourning, the funeral parade for that fallen President that seemed to travel from coast to coast.

My parents were (and are) Republicans and did not like Kennedy, but they were as I recall shocked by the assassination. Little did we know that it was to be the first in an ugly string including the President's brother and Dr. Martin Luther King.

In 1963 I don't think I was at all aware of the Bay of Pigs operation. I do remember the Cuban missle crisis. Having been brought up with air-raid drills in school, and bomb shelters sporting that funny nuclear hazard symbol (it always looks like a reel of recording tape to me) my peers and I were well aware that our country's enemies had threatened to destroy us. But my understanding of all that went on in that time was very limited -- starved for information and begotten in the mind of a child.

A few years ago I read another novelistic interpretation of the Kennedy assassination in American Tabloid, by James Ellroy. Ellroy painted a picture of ruthless criinals, international spies, and politicians coming together in what was (in that story) the inevitable death of the President.

While De Lillo's characters are seldom admirable, they are not unsympathetic. His Oswald is disturbingly attractive; Jack Ruby a down-at-heel businessman in bad health, recruited to do the dirty work for the real Bad Guys.

Oswald's astrological sign was Libra, at least according to one of those reviewers I mentioned earlier. I'm no astrologer, but I do know that Libra has something to do with balance. How that works in this story is beyond me, but it's an interesting thought. Oswald as portrayed in Libra is anything but balanced. The book is a tragedy, presenting irresistible forces that move hapless characters to perform acts that they are seemingly powerless to avoid.

In Libra we follow Oswald through much of his short life. His mother is a study in dysfunction, an overbearing yet under-protective force in the young man's life. We follow him in to the Marine corps and then to the Soviet Union where he sought refuge from Capitalism and a country that rejected him as an outcast and a freak. He marries, becomes somewhat disillusioned with the People's Paradise, and returns home to the USA.

Meanwhile we are treated to an interwoven narrative about the other players in this tragedy.

"Nicholas Branch sits in the book-filled room ... the room of theories and dreams. He is in the fifteenth year of his labor ..."

Branch is researching and writing the definitive CIA analysis of the Kennedy assassination, a book that will never be read. His depressive, soundless labor makes a loom on which this story can be woven.

"American kitchens... where a man named Walter Everett, Jr., was sitting, thinking ... He was thinking about secrets."

Everett, known as Win, lives in sundrenched suburban silence with his very compliant wife Mary Frances, and his daughter. Everett is a somewhat psychologically damaged retired CIA agent. Together with other disenchanted warriors cheated of the assassination of Castro, he is lead toward the unspeakable -- but the hint grows stronger and stronger as the story progresses. These shady characters are awkward and frequently seem very stupid in their actions, but nonetheless move history forward to the demise of the President, and Oswald.

Libra is a quiet, thoughtful book about a violent obscenity. De Lillo is a student of America; he strives to capture our sanitized world, the calm surface of our culture under which pulses limitless mayhem unleashed on anyone or anything that goes against its stubborn will. His language is elegant, spare, polished to brilliance -- he wastes no words. Libra is not comforting, but it is fascinating, and not to be missed.

28 June 2006

Crazy, a Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness, by Pete Earley

June 08 2006 (23:19:00) ( 0 views )

I've been putting off writing about this book because it's so very difficult to even think about its topic, and even more to write about it.

It is difficult to find words to adequately disparage the state of mental "healthcare" in this nation. If you doubt that there's a problem, I invite you to any large city. Walk around and ask why there are homeless people on the streets. Speak to any police officer, anyone who works in a hospital, jail or prison. Ask her or him if they have problems dealing with the mentally ill.

Pete Earley is an accomplished investigative journalist and writer whose life has been touched intimately by mental illness. His son suffers from bipolar disorder. Early's experiences trying to get help for his son inspired him to investigate the treatment of people with mental illness in this country. He did a thorough job, and the result is mostly disturbing.

One of the most frustrating aspects of having a loved one with such a disorder is that no matter how obvious or egregious their behavior and delusions may be, there is no good way to get them into treatment if they resist. And it is not unusual for a person with delusions, paranoia, mania, or depression to resist treatment. Indeed, many who suffer with these diseases feel that there is nothing wrong with them. It's the old joke, "I'm right, and the world's wrong." Furthermore, the effectiveness of treatment is inconsistent and undependable, which has led some patients to conclude that they are better off avoiding the "system" entirely.

Early's research includes a brief history of the last few decades during which we have seen the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, and its consequences.

"Tragically, deinstitutionalization [was a ] disaster. ...patients were discharged without any effort.. to link them to ... services -- if, in fact, there were any. President Kennedy's promise of $3 billion to create a safety net turned out to be a cruel lie... Congress never got around to financing community health centers.

"Chronically mentally ill patients -- psychotic and bewildered -- began appearing on street corners..."

The book is a very well written, unsettling chronicle of what we have done and not done about the people among us who suffer from disorders of the brain. Earley touches upon the many inadequacies of the legal system, the general ineffectiveness of the "healthcare" system, and the incredible apathy that this nation exhibits toward this entire subject.

We may look the other way, or cross the street, to avoid a deluded person wandering by, talking to voices we can't hear. We may think that it is a problem that "other people" have. But every one of us is touched by this in some way. The sheer numbers of mentally ill people around us -- both diagnosed and undiagnosed -- should be enough to make this a certainty. But -- as Earley reminds us -- what exactly makes any of us "sane" people immune? Who can say that he or she will never suffer from a mental illness? And if that happens, how then will we feel about this problem?

It is easy for me to see how important it is that we address the plight of the mentally ill in a meaningful way, since I have people close to me who suffer. I see the inadequacy of care, and the lack of understanding in society. I work for an organization that provides behavioral healthcare, and see the immense resistance it encounters while trying to do its work. As a nation, as a state, we are not willing to pay to take care of these people -- instead we pay billions to deal with the consequences.

We cannot afford to be complacent -- anyone may be the next person to be touched by mental illness, and may become woefully aware of the awful mess we have created.

I urge you to read this very interesting book, no matter what you think your level of involvement is. Whether we look at the question from a spiritual or pragmatic viewpoint, we are "our brother's keepers."

Here is a terrific review of the book at Blogcritics.org.

Searching for the Sound, My Life With the Grateful Dead, by Phil Lesh

June 28 2006 (22:01:00) ( 0 views )

In the attics of my life I remember buying a Grateful Dead LP that had, among other things, "The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion," "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," "Cream Puff War," "Viola Lee Blues," and a picture of Jerry Garcia wearing an Uncle Sam stars-and-stripes tophat on the cover -- oh wow... I was in love and it never ended. On through the years. I'm no Dead expert, and the 'net abounds with such, but I had the Skull and Roses, Workingman's Dead, American Beauty, Europe '72, Wake of the Flood, and Go to Heaven. I've been to a few GD concerts, although it's a long long time ago.

Sometime in the early 1990s I was driving through Seattle on my way home from a day on the road as a sales rep. I was wearing wool slacks, a dress shirt, maybe a tie, shiny shoes, the whole salesman outfit. I had samples, catalogs, order forms, paperwork and a cellular phone. I don't remember why but I went past the Seattle Center. I was only dimly aware that the Dead were in town doing a concert, and at that point in my life had little interest in going to such an event. With age my tolerance for crowds and random noise has really deteriorated.

I drove past sidewalks loaded with young and old people dressed in tie-dye and denim. Many hundreds of them. Long hair, headbands, suede vests. Girls in long cotton dresses twirling, crazy hippies with hand drums. Sandals, incense, and what's that smell? I had the strangest feeling of being thrown back into 1967. Dead Heads were everywhere. There were people there younger than me that looked like I looked when I was their age. And I'm sure if any of them looked at me in my air-conditioned car and Establishment uniform they thought the kind of thoughts that I would have thought back in the Summer of Love. It was a funny feeling.

And then not long afterward, again as I drove along on a business mission of some sort, came the sad news of Jerry Garcia's death. Now, I know that that was 9 August 1995, as it was very easy to Google. (When exactly that concert was is not so easy, but there are those of you out there who will look it up.) And it really, really hit me. It was physical.

I am not one to be involved with celebrities, but this was Jerry, and it was different. I loved the sound of his guitar, I loved his voice, and I loved the Grateful Dead. Sure, my love had taken a back seat as I became preoccupied in the rush of "adult" life and "important things." But it was still there, and I knew it was there when I heard that Jerry was gone. My sadness surprised me, and as I listened to the obligatory tribute plays of his songs on the radio I couldn't stop the tears. There I was, a middle-aged fat salesman peddling automotive products on the Freeway, crying for one of my rock 'n roll heroes.

Phil Lesh has written a 333 page book chronicling his time with the Dead, which is pretty much the whole life of the band. Phil joined Jerry, Pigpen, Bob Weir, and Billy Kreutzmann way back in the time of Haight Ashbury to form what became arguably the most innovative, quirky, loved, improvisational rock 'n roll band in the electric music movement of the late 20th century.

Lesh tells us of the early days of crazy camraderie, travels with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and the early involvement of Owsley as their sound technician. He takes us throught the whole story, through the 70s, 80s, and 90s. "What a long, strange, trip it's been."

His writing is only a little bit self-conscious. Phil is obviously a nice guy that I'd enjoy knowing and he's a fabulously good musician. The fact that he produced this book and that it is, after all, very readable and thoroughly enjoyable, is quite an accomplishment. And it's just un-polished enough to make me doubt that a "ghost" writer was involved.

The edition of the book that I read was a Back Bay Books paperback, and it includes two photo sections, which are delightful.

If you have enjoyed the Grateful Dead and have any curiosity about them, I'd strongly recommend you find a copy of this book. I found it to be a very pleasant nostalgic side-trip for a 54-year-old hippie with nearly no hair.

09 May 2006

Until I Find You, by John Irving

May 09 2006 (05:27:00) ( 0 views )

I don't want to start another post with " is one of my favorite writers," but it's hard not to do that with John Irving. I'm not sure where my admiration of him began. It may have been with The World According to Garp, published in 1978. Until I Find You, the subject of this entry, was published just last year, in 2005.

The novel is the story of young Jack Burns, his mother, father, and the many other people close to him in his life from infancy to adulthood. Jack's life begins in 1965, and moves into the present. He is the son of Alice, a tattoo artist, and William, an organist with music tattooed on nearly every square inch of his skin. William and Alice separate while Jack is very small, and the novel begins with Jack and his mother travelling from Canada to Europe in search of his father.

In 1969 "...his mother was full of surprises...Alice...would work her way through Northern Europe in search of Jack's runaway Dad...they would hunt him down and confront him with his abandoned responsibilities." William Burns' "abandoned responsibilities" become an important theme in the book.

After the epic journey to Holland, Denmark, Norway, and Finland (and I may have left out a country or two) Jack and his mother return to Toronto, very much without his father, and he begins to attend St. Hilda's school. St. Hilda's is a girl's school which, just that year, has begun to admit little boys. Thus begins Jack's many encounters with older girls and women. Some, such as Caroline Wurtz and Emma Oastler, become lifelong friends. And others, pointedly one Mrs. Machado, victimize this too-young good-looking boy, taking advantage of his precocious sexuality long before he can even begin to understand what's happening.

There is a lot of sex in this book, but it is not a sexy book.

If anything, it is a melancholy book, a meditation on so many of life's cruel tricks -- not the least of which is the elusive nature of happiness itself, even when one has everything for which one could ever hope.

Yes, there is wrestling. Jack (and his friend Emma, for that matter) becomes a wrestler, a lightweight. For the rest of his life (the part that is revealed to us, anyway) he eats little, always conscious of his weight.

I don't recall any bears. But certainly there is some Vienna? Well, there's Switzerland, anyway.

And tattoos. The world of tattoos, tattoo artists, people who are addicted to getting tattoos. If you don't know what "flash" is (I didn't), you'll figure it out from the context. You'll find out what a "scratcher" is.

Jack's career as a movie actor is fascinating, and ironically appropriate. Jack's mother predicted that he would be an actor, and he is. As a fictional American film star, he is cleverly interwoven with some very real people, personalities, and events. It is believable and unbelievable at the same time.

One of the many reasons that I will not be a great writer of fiction is that I lack subtlety. John Irving does not. As in a great drawing, the empty space is as important as the lines and shapes. The nuance, the pause between words, the choice of one word rather than another -- all this is the mark of a master. Irving makes his character an actor for many reasons best known to him, but it doesn't matter -- he is an actor, I believe it, and the story is best told this way.

I have been looking around for a passage to quote to somehow capture what I am claiming. Maybe this does it:

"Every young actor imagines there is a special part -- a groove in which he or she is a perfect fit. Well--Jack's advice to young actors would be: Hope you never get the perfect part..."

The entire fifth part of the book is entitled "Dr. Garcia," Jack Burns's psychiatrist in this last part of the story. Jack has, no great surprise, been deeply scarred (tattooed?) by his young life. His mother's singular personality, his father's absence, sexual abuse from the older women, loss and grief have all loosened him from the anchor which is sanity. In this last part, Jack strives to really find out who his father is, and was, and what really happened to him in 1969, at the age of four.

The true nature of Jack's mother and father are, of course, surprises that must not be revealed until you read this very well written work.

Don't rest until you find Until I Find You.

29 April 2006

Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross

April 09 2006 (04:47:00) ( 0 views )

I have a poor grasp of history. It was too much for my attention span when the overworked and underpaid employees of my high school were trying their best to educate me. So it's been a pleasure, and an eye-opening experience as well, to have read a few "historical novels." Neal Stephenson of course comes to mind, although I'm sure many will argue that his genre is more in the realm of historical fantasy I have definitely picked up more accurate history and curiosity about it from his novels than any other source I can recall today. (In youth, a short attention span. In my later years, a poor memory. Hmm.)

Pope Joan is the account of the possible but unconfirmed rise to the Vatican throne of a girl, Joan Anglicus, in the 9th century. Whether or not the story is true, it's a great story, and a great job of painting the picture of what life may have been like in Europe 1200 years ago.

Joan is Joan Anglicus, born to a Frankish priest and his wife, a Saxon captured by the Christian soldiers of the Emperor Karolus. Joan's mother Gudrun is never completely converted to Christianity (small wonder, that conversion by the sword could cause superficiality) and teaches her daughter about the Norse religion and mythology and Saxon language -- although this must be done strictly in secret, for if the canon -- her father, a relentless and cruel religious tyrant -- discovered it, there would be literal Hell to pay.

Joan's life is hard, and her status as a woman is that of a subhuman being. In spite of her circumstances, she is obviously very brilliant and cannot be kept from learning to read and write, and from studying what paltry crumbs of knowledge in the form of books that come her way. She does encounter some wise and kind men who help her to learn and grow intellectually.

When her brother is killed in a Viking massacre, Joan assumes his identity and begins her life as a monk, passing for a man for the rest of her life.

The story of how she goes from the monastery to Rome, and into the Vatican is a well-told tale of intrigue, perseverance, and the triumph of an indomitable spirit. It is humbling to imagine how people lived in 842 with misery and hardship, living only half our normal modern life-span. Disease, cruelty, poverty, and war made it very unusual for people to live long lives in this time.

Although the setting is so very far in the past, the message is clear: many great minds and potential great leaders have been discarded by our culture because of their gender. Women then were no more than property, like animals or slaves. To have been a gifted intelligent female in these years would have been a horrible curse -- indeed, there is no doubt that many such were burned at the stake as punishment for being witches.

Pope Joan is an uplifting tale, a painless history lesson, and a very good read. I would recommend it to anyone.

30 March 2006

The Smoke Room, by Earl Emerson

March 30 2006 (06:27:00) ( 0 views )

Jason Gum is a young Seattle firefighter, the narrator of this novel. He begins: "Experts estimated the pig fell just over 11,000 feet before it plunged through Iola Pederson's roof." Now, that's how to get your audience's attention -- the first words on page one.

Earl Emerson has become a skillful writer of mystery and suspense. I've enjoyed reading his work, and I think I've missed few of his novels over the years. I especially enjoyed the Mac Fontana books. The last few of his novels have dealt with the environment he knows from personal experience: the city of Seattle and its Fire Department. Emerson is a lieutenant in that organization, so he knows what he's writing about. My paltry experience as a volunteer gives me enough basic firefighting knowledge to be able to nod my head at the accuracy of what he describes, including the powerful and not always pleasant personalities.

The Smoke Room is a novel about Gum's misadventures and involvement in the less-than-savory actions of two fellow firefighters. Gum's steamy involvement with an older woman that commences from the unlikely falling pig incident on page one causes -- through a series of circumstances -- him to be implicated in what could be the theft of a fortune in bearer bonds. Add to this complicated mess the fact that his mother is terminally ill, and Jason's life just starts falling apart, the way the first few tons of snow begin to slide in the beginning seconds of an avalanche.

Some of the characters are less than believable, sort of out-of-focus, and the story line seems unfinished, perhaps prepared with insufficient time, but I forgive the author on the strength of the many enjoyable hours he's given me.

This isn't Emerson's best work, but I found it well worth reading. At 308 pages it's a reasonable weekend read, or entertainment for a medium-sized airplane trip. It does become rather suspenseful toward the end -- at least in the sense that I truly wondered how Emerson would resolve such a tangled story in the few remaining pages.

If you haven't read any of Emerson's books, I would recommend several. He started out with the "Thomas Black" detective series, most of which are very good. Try Fat Tuesday or Yellow Dog Party, for instance. Of his most recent books, I thought Pyro was very good. But my weakest spot is for the "Mac Fontana" series. Black Hearts and Slow Dancing will serve as a suggestion, but you can't go wrong with any of them, in my opinion.

More information about Mr. Emerson, his books, and his personal appearances, may be seen at http://earlemerson.com/.


07 March 2006

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

March 07 2006 (05:38:00) ( 0 views )

I am not typically a reader of non-fiction. In fact, I think I could probably count all the non-fiction books I have really read on my fingers. (This doesn't include textbooks -- that's not reading in the sense I use it here. That's work.) I actually wonder if I'd need both hands.

But in this case, I read every word, every page. I looked at every picture. I read the introduction, looked through the notes, the illustration credits, and even scanned the index. This is a fascinating book.

I've never read anything else by Bill Bryson, and to flaunt my ignorance, I'd never heard of him. My brother-in-law Mike gave us this book for Christmas. And it's a handsome gift. It's a real doorstop of a book, with a hard cover and glossy paper, measuring 8 x 10 inches and 624 pages. It has 595 beautiful illustrations, including photographs, drawings and paintings. But nothing is as important as the fact that this book held my interest as tightly as any page-turner I've ever cracked. I'm just not used to that with non-fiction.

So what is the subject matter of A Short History of Nearly Everything? Well, nearly everything. It is divided into six sections. They are:

  1. Lost in the Cosmos. This is nothing less than an exposition of current theory and knowledge of the formation, composition, size, and state of the Universe in which we live. Among many other things, Bryson discusses our Solar System, the discovery of Pluto, and theories about asteroids.

  2. The Size of the Earth. Who knew that in 1735 "...people had lately become infected with a powerful desire to understand the Earth ..." to the extent that a party of "scientists and adventurers" from France travelled to Peru with the idea of triangulating distances in the Andes with the ultimate goal of calculating the size of the Earth?

  3. A New Age Dawns. The age of Einstein, Planck, Hubble, Neils Bohr. A time when "a graduate student ... named Clair Patterson ... using ... lead isotope measurement to try to get a definitive age for the Earth ..." discovered that the soil, air, the very rocks he was testing were unbelievably contaminated with lead -- "two hundred times the levels...expected..." which discovery lead him to understand that this was the result of adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline. Patterson embarked on "a hellish campaign" to expose the truth about this monstrous health hazard. Bryson credits him directly with the introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1970, and "the removal from sale of all leaded petrol in the United States in 1986." This fascinating story is one of many woven into the fabric of this section.

  4. Dangerous Planet. The nature of our globe -- what's inside, and what's on top. What's happening to our continents, what about volcanos? Did you know that Yellowstone Park is a volcano?

  5. Life Itself. Cells, DNA, Darwin. What was the "KT impact?" Dinosaurs roamed the earth much longer than we have to date. What's our life expectancy as a species?

  6. The Road to Us. The mysterious biped. Hominids, the Holocene era. Anthropology, archaeology. In Chapter 29 we read that "about a million and a half years ago some forgotten genius ... took one stone and used it to shape another... it was the world's first piece of advanced technology."

There is no way I can really do this book justice here. It is, after all, about "nearly everything." On the back of the dust jacket appear the usual testimonials from critics. They are all true in this case, but the one I want to excerpt comes from Tim Flannery, Times Literary Supplement:

"...schools would be better places if it were the core science reader on the curriculum."

A Short History of Nearly Everything is filled with stories of quirky scientists, and the often ironic fates they met. It seems almost a natural law of human history (and somewhere Bryson states it as such) that the wrong person will get credit for any major discovery.

The book is stuffed with material from which one may launch hours of heavy thinking and talking. Bryson quotes Ian Tattersall in Chapter 28, "The Mysterious Biped:" "'One of the hardest ideas for humans to accept ... is that we are not the culmination of anything. There is nothing inevitable about our being here." There is much about the origin of the human race -- what is known and what is not known. And there is little to make one confident that we are here for very long.

Bryson has accomplished what is, in my mind, a very unusual feat here. This book is not chatty or condescending, it is not oversimplified, nor is Bryson less than modest about its capacity to cover the ambitious scope he's undertaken. This is a starting place, but what an accomplishment.

The only other author I've encountered that writes this type of non-fiction is John McPhee, and Bryson cites his work more than once. McPhee has written such books as Basin and Range, which takes on the subject of plate tectonics, and Coming Into the Country, a book about Alaska that I read in the 70s (I think).

We live in a time when much money and work is expended on increasing our knowledge, yet how much of that knowledge ever touches most of us? Writers like Mr. Bryson give us the opportunity to have a look into the huge body of information that humanity has accumulated, and, having seen it, we know that we know very, very little about anything. In his own words, "We enjoy not only the privilege of existence, but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even ... to make it better."

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24 February 2006

Whiteout, by Ken Follett

February 24 2006 (21:46:00) ( 0 views )

I've read Ken Follett's novels for many years, remembering back to The Eye of the Needle, and The Key to Rebecca as two of the best thrillers ever. His writing has been quite diverse since, including such unusual yet terrific books as Pillars of the Earth and On Wings of Eagles -- the latter being a nonfiction account of Ross Perot's efforts to rescue his employees from the Iranian revolutionaries in the days following the overthrow of the Shah.

Follett has a knack for the thriller, and for the original. Both are well displayed in this novel, which is a great weekend's entertainment or just about right for a long airplane trip.

I must mention that I'm not really happy with the bio-terrorism angle of the plot in this book. It seems that both Mr. Follet's and my government have made enough hay on that theme without his help. But having said that, the plot is very well done and the book provides plenty of suspense along with sufficient character development to keep us involved.

The principal character of the book is Toni Gallo, an ex-cop now working as head of security at a medical research laboratory in Scotland. The abovementioned terrorists plan to steal a deadly virus that is stored in the lab, and the attempt is carried out during an unexpected blizzard that chokes the roads and makes every movement a challenge.

The story of how Gallo handles this situation and the other characters in her life as well is well thought out and believable.

31 January 2006

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

Going into this I have to admit that I am 100% hooked on Neal Stephenson. I think he's a bit younger than me and for that I'm thankful, for he may be around to write more books for a long time.

Snow Crash is far from his latest, but it's his latest for me. I've read a few of his others: Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. These are all excellent, as far as I am concerned. And so was Snow Crash, even if I may be so bold as to say that I can see the progress Mr. Stephenson has made since 1992 when he wrote this novel.

For a pretty good summary of Neal Stephenson's life and works so far, see Wikipedia.

As for Snow Crash, I'm glad to be an amateur critic. A professional wouldn't be able to take the time to read a 13-year-old book and then write about it in his column, he'd be too busy reading the latest stuff and forming opinions about it. But for me there are no such restrictions; as far as I know my readers are few (if any) and if they have come here to keep up on the latest trends in literature they are already sorely disappointed.

This was one of the most entertaining books I've ever read. Its vision of the near future (very near now, 13 years later) is provocative yet humorous enough to avoid extreme grimness.

Its protagonist, Hiro Protagonist (good heavens), is a hacker living in California in some undisclosed future year. He becomes aware that there is a very serious threat to both the "metaverse" and the real world from a virus called "Snow Crash," a reference to a blanked-out computer screen showing only what (in the old days of broadcast TV) used to be known as "snow."

In this whirlwind story he befriends a 15-year-old skateboard "Kourier" named YT, a street-wise young girl with an arsenal of high-tech weapons that she uses in pursuit of her profession -- which is basically delivering messages and packages by "pooning" vehicles and being towed at high speed through the maniacal jungle that California has become.

Other important characters include Uncle Enzo, head of the MAFIA; L. Bob Rife, televangelist and corporate emperor; Raven, an Aleut with a motorcycle, glass-tipped spears, and a nuclear warhead; Ky Nguyen, a bionically enhanced veteran of Vietnam; Da5id, friend and wealthy hacker who is injured by Snow Crash (it can crash both computers and programmers, as the latter have brains that have come to terms with digital language); and Juanita, Da5id's ex-wife, an object of Hiro's admiration and would-be affection, and religious mystic.

Did I use the word "whirlwind" already? Yes, I did. It was inevitable.

The story leads Hiro on a crazy chase, trying to run down and destroy L. Bob Rife and the evil virus that he's about to unleash on both the real and virtual worlds. Action takes place both in the "metaverse" (sort of a graphically-enhanced super-realistic Internet where people are represented by "Avatars," and interact with others according to how the metaverse code is written. NB: Hiro P. is one of the coders of the metaverse, an advantage not to be overlooked.) and in reality -- although the question is begged: which world is less real?

There is sword-fighting, love-making, motorcycle riding, and lots of heavy speculation about the significance of Sumerian myth and stories from the Old Testament as they might pertain to the present day. Hiro comes to the conclusion that the myth of Babel is really a story of salvation, when humans were freed from bondage to a type of machine language control that is never completely suppressed. It comes out at times in history as glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, as in the Pentecost, and Southern tent-revival meetings. Snow Crash is a virus written in this very old and powerful language, and it threatens to enslave the world, or at least California, to the whims of L. Bob Rife.

If you like computers and have ever thought about any of this stuff, read this book. If not, read it anyway. Stephenson is very habit-forming. His later stuff is nothing less than fascinating and I regret that I did not begin this project until I had read the abovementioned books. He is obviously very well-versed in all manner of history, and has given a lot of thought to the progress of humanity through the ages.

Thanks to William Lychack

My heartfelt thanks to Mr. William Lychack (author of The Wasp Eater, about which I wrote some inadequate words last year) for his very nice letter. He didn't even mention that I called him "John" in the title of that post. Please excuse the errors of the elderly, sir.

I am very gratified that what I wrote was pleasing to you, Mr. Lychack. Your book held me in its spell when I read it, and for that experience thanks are hard to express. When I find a book with characters that come alive in that way, that takes me into its atmosphere so completely and makes me care about what happens in its pages -- well, that is what I'm looking for when I read. The end of such a book always leaves me a little sad that I have to leave that paper world and search for another.

Furthermore I can't tell you how pleased I was that you actually read this little blog -- having been read by a "real writer" has gone irrevocably to my head and I shall be impossible to live with henceforth.

Please give us more, Mr. Lychack. And thank you, again.


09 January 2006

Therapy, by Jonathan Kellerman

The Alex Delaware series by Jonathan Kellerman has long been one of my favorites. Therapy, (2004) is a recent addition to the series.

Obviously I've missed one or two before this novel, as Alex Delaware is no longer with his lady of many adventures, Robin, the guitar-maker. Robin does appear briefly in the role of "ex," however, as does the bulldog, and the indispensable Milo Sturgis is still prominent in this story. Delaware's new lady, Allison Gwynn, is an interesting replacement. She is a teacher, a hospice volunteer, and a psychotherapist.

Alex Delaware is a child psychologist that over the years has formed a working relationship with the LAPD. Milo Sturgis is his good friend, and a homicide detective with the force. Together they become involved in the mysterious murder of two young people found in a parked car in the driveway of an uninhabited house.

The mystery is as good as any of the others that I remember. And so is the psychology. Another important character in this book is "Dr. Mary Lou Koppel," a psychotherapist who has a popular radio call-in show. Koppel once treated the young man who was found murdered in the car. The identity of the young woman found with him remains a mystery until much later in the book.

There's a tremendous amount of intrigue and plot-twisting in this thoroughly enjoyable book, and the resolution of "whodunit" is quite satisfying. Even more skillfully done, however, is the portrayal of all the characters. The relationship between Delaware and Sturgis is the foundation of all these stories, and here it is continued and well utilized. There are many psychologists involved, and a lot of "shop talk" that sounds very authentic to my ears. (I work in the mental health treatment industry, although I am not a therapist, I'm a computer geek.)

Delaware and Sturgis are involved in a complicated plot that takes us as far away as South Africa and Rwanda. They encounter some really surprising characters, and uncover very high-level corruption. I love stuff like this, and used to read Robert Ludlum just because of these type of plot twists. I finally gave up on Robert, though. He just wrote too much for me, I guess, and I couldn't keep up.

Jonathan Kellerman has never disappointed me in the past, and his record is perfect with this novel as far as I am concerned.