28 October 2007

Back Story, by Robert B. Parker


G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York. 2003. 291 pages



This is a Spenser novel, one of the series of thirty or more, featuring characters well-known to those of us who have read so many of these. Hawk, Susan Silverman, Quirk, Spenser, and yet another Pearl (I don't know what happened to Pearl I, in a novel I didn't read), the dog.

Spenser is a private detective living in Boston. Susan is his love, a respected psychiatrist. Hawk is a "criminal genius," a former covert operative of vague and mysterious roots, an African-American keenly aware of the tension between races in our society who will be reading impenetrable scientific literature in one scene, only to respond with the worst shuck-and-jive language ("sho nuf") in the next.


Spenser is nothing less than a Samurai. He is strong, brave, skilled at warfare beyond belief, and possessed of a powerful sense of right and wrong. People come to him who have been wronged, treated unfairly, by powers that they are too weak to overcome, and Spenser sets out to correct the injustice.

In this novel Spenser is approached by a young woman, Daryl, through the intercession of his adopted son Paul Giacomin. Daryl's mother was killed in a bank robbery in Boston in 1974; this story is placed somewhere in more current times, probably at the beginning of the twenty-first century. (My, it's strange to write that.) It was never discovered who exactly shot her mother to death, there is a cloud of mystery and a hint of cover-up over the crime. This is essential Spenser. He goes to work.

Through the story he unravels the facts of the case, not without risking his life and those of his friends, and killing several of the enemy who try to keep him from the truth. He uncovers a complicated intrigue involving organized crime and the FBI, which I will not explain out of a desire not to spoil the mystery for those who have not yet read this delicious book.

There is a strange and bittersweet ending, a sort of shifting of resolution that I found interesting, even realistic. But make no mistake, this is rich fantasy, pure escape fiction: There are no Spensers walking the face of this planet. No woman is as beautiful or tolerant as Silverman, no friend as powerful, connected and brave as Hawk. No cops (including the FBI) so impotent and frustrated, or at worst corrupt and evil, connected to the mob or mired in cover-ups of their own mistakes. There will be no resolution of this puzzle without Spenser's intervention.

At the end of the battle the Samurai sheaths his sword. The field is littered with dead bodies. The world is still evil, but he has inserted some balance, neutralized some threats. He has done what he set out to do, but we are not sure if Daryl will know the details of who killed her mother. She has, according to the formula, opted out, told Spenser to stop looking, she doesn't want to know any more. But Spenser did not stop once he had begun; he leaves no job unfinished.


This is escape fiction at its best, with a few thought-provoking threads woven through it. Parker has something to say about the hippies and the anti-establishment movement in the seventies, the dope-smoking culture, and the modern hangers-on who live in this past, rolling joints and cursing the Man. Over-simplified it may be, but he makes his case: if you want to change the world, you'd better be ready to get hurt and hurt some others, you'd better have a good plan and the means to execute it. Self-reliance is what Spenser is about: he knows exactly whom he can trust.

Parker is also interested in the discomfort we feel when we are inescapably faced with racial issues. He contrasts Spenser's invulnerable bond with the equally invulnerable Hawk, and their superiority to prejudicial thinking expressed through their black-and-white ribbing, their comedic take on the whole "what color am I" issue, with the stark hatred and rejection between whites and blacks that drives essential elements of this plot.

It is also important to mention that in this novel Spenser meets Jesse Stone, the police chief of Paradise, Massachusetts. Stone is the star of another excellent series by Parker, which has had some success adapted for television -- as did the Spenser series in the past.

If you haven't had the pleasure of reading Robert B. Parker, wait no longer. There is a pile of great reading here, you can't go wrong.

Some other than official Robert B. Parker Web Sites:

Bullets and Beer

A Parker Biography on Kirjasto (Pegasos, at www.kirjasto.sci.fi.)
A Parker Article at bookreporter.com
New York Times Article
Wikipedia Entry (includes more links)

25 October 2007

More Project Gutenberg -- Music

This is not news, as it happened at least a few days ago, but it's news to me. Project Gutenberg has, in addition to the things I recently described, sheet music.

I discovered this on Slashdot. There is an article (linked to the title of this post) there that summarizes, and explains, the source of and issues regarding the storage and publishing of public domain musical stores on Gutenberg.

Curious, I went over to the Project and had a look for myself. I was able to download a compressed file of the Second Brandenburg Concerto. When I extracted it I discovered that it consisted of files with .xml filename extensions.

The computer I used is running Ubuntu 7.04 Desktop. Using Synaptic, it took me about three minutes to locate, download, and install a program with which to read the score. The program I installed is called Noteedit and is, of course, free and open source.

Please understand that I don't have the skill (or the orchestra) to make any use of this, and furthermore, that I spent only a few minutes making a rudimentary investigation. I am sure there are other programs that could be used to read (and edit) the score, and there are probably other online repositories of public domain music.

23 October 2007

Gutenberg Goodies

Something recently reminded me of Project Gutenberg.

This ambitious (and successful) undertaking set out some years ago to scan and electronically publish every out-of-copyright piece of literature they could get their hands on. From what I understand, they scan old books, magazines, and newspapers, and then use OCR software to put the text into ASCII format. Leagues of volunteer proofreaders check on the OCR and make corrections as necessary before releasing the electronic texts. I did this for a while: volunteered as a proofreader, but fell off the habit. This causes me a twinge of guilt; I may have to go beg for my old job back.

Not too long ago I wanted to see if any of Faulkner's writing had risen into the public domain. Apparently none has, although I did find this version of The Sound and the Fury online. But my quest for Faulkner led me to visit Project Gutenberg, and I couldn't help browsing here and there.

The first goodie I encountered was Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie's classic children's book. I looked at the listing and clicked on a link to read it, and then realized that (typical of me) I hadn't been paying close attention. This was an audio book. Available in several formats, one can download this freely (it's all public domain, and Gutenberg offers their transcriptions for free) and enjoy the excellent reading of this book (and many others) by volunteers who have done a terrific job. I didn't listen to the whole thing, I must admit, but what I heard was great. I hope that those of you who voraciously consume My Reading Life will do some research for me and let me know what you find. Both of you.

Next, I wanted to take a look at Dubliners, by James Joyce, once again. Not too long ago I looked up a copy of "The Dead" (the last story in the collection) for a friend, so I was fairly certain that the book must be in the public domain. It is, and this past weekend I found myself reading the whole thing again, for what must be at least the third time. It seems so obvious to say that Joyce was one hell of a great writer, but he was. His prose is poetry:

In the evening my aunt took me with her to visit the house of mourning. It was after sunset; but the window-panes of the houses that looked to the west reflected the tawny gold of a great bank of clouds.
From "The Sisters," by James Joyce.The stories in Dubliners are:
  1. The Sisters
  2. An Encounter
  3. Araby
  4. Eveline
  5. After The Race
  6. Two Gallants
  7. The Boarding House
  8. A Little Cloud
  9. Counterparts
  10. Clay
  11. A Painful Case
  12. Ivy Day in the Committee Room
  13. A Mother
  14. Grace
  15. The Dead
Having finished Dubliners for now, I've immersed myself in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. From that novel comes this beautiful bit:

Without waiting for his father's questions he ran across the road and began to walk at breakneck speed down the hill. He hardly knew where he was walking. Pride and hope and desire like crushed herbs in his heart sent up vapours of maddening incense before the eyes of his mind. He strode down the hill amid the tumult of sudden-risen vapours of wounded pride and fallen hope and baffled desire. They streamed upwards before his anguished eyes in dense and maddening fumes and passed away above him till at last the air was clear and cold again.
The Joyce catalog at Gutenberg also includes Ulysses and Chamber Music. Chamber Music is poetry; I think it could be accurately described as a long poem in 36 parts. I can't say anything about it, I'm very poor at reading or evaluating poetry, I fear I'm a little too stupid for it. Ulysses is one of my great loves, and when I've finished savoring Portrait, I'll probably dive back into Ulysses (1.49MB of ASCII text!).
Grey horror seared his flesh. Folding the page into his pocket he turned into Eccles street, hurrying homeward. Cold oils slid along his veins,chilling his blood: age crusting him with a salt cloak. Well, I am here now. Yes, I am here now. Morning mouth bad images. Got up wrong side of the bed. Must begin again those Sandow's exercises. On the hands down. Blotchy brown brick houses. Number eighty still unlet. Why is that? Valuation is only twenty-eight. Towers, Battersby, North, MacArthur: parlour windows plastered with bills. Plasters on a sore eye. To smell the gentle smoke of tea, fume of the pan, sizzling butter. Be near her ample bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.



Apparently they haven't gotten around to Finnegan's Wake.

14 October 2007

Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them, by Al Franken

Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them; A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.
By Al Franken.
Dutton, New York, 2003. ISBN 0-525-94764-7.
379 pages.

Although this book is a little out of date I'm glad I read it. Franken is, first and foremost, a comedian. But he is no slouch as a journalist, and does a forceful and effective job of pointing out the bluster, mendacity, and just plain bullshit that spews from the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and even good old George W. Bush.

He enumerates and debunks lies from the Bush campaign in 2000, the era up to and immediately after 9/11. He deplores the war in Iraq, even though he personally supported it at first -- as many liberals did, including Senator Clinton. I found his willingness to own up to his own erroneous endorsement of that effort refreshing in a political atmosphere where seldom does anyone admit to a mistake. He believed the WMD explanation, and feared an Iraq with nuclear weapons and Saddam Hussein in command.

The book is entertaining and funny, but I'm not sure how much actual good this type of writing does. I agree that Bob Jones University is a joke and that the facility with which the Bush administration will lie to support its positions is actually funny in a black sort of way -- but I wonder who has read and will read this book. Has it changed anyone's opinion? Would a neo-conservative pick this book up and read it, and evaluate the facts in it, and come to any conclusion; or would he be more likely to discard it after reading the title or the first few words?

I hope that Americans are still open to discourse, but the real climate seems to be more one of extreme polarity and commitment to political ideology that is more like religious faith (and is often mixed up with it) -- not to be questioned. If you are an American liberal or conservative today and someone presents an argument with one of the pillars of your ideology, no matter how well-reasoned or insightful, it seems to me most likely that you will take offense and consider that you have been personally attacked. There are very few of my acquaintances with whom I would be comfortable questioning such core beliefs. Those with whom I would feel comfortable are very close and trusted friends who would understand that any argument I present comes only from a standpoint of philosophical inquiry. Otherwise, I'd be afraid of making an enemy with whom I would have to deal in the future.

Mockery is a time-honored method for dealing with unpopular yet powerful institutions. Satire lets us laugh at the injustice and dishonesty that we see in our government. These tools have existed for centuries, and perhaps as long as they continue to exist no tyrant is safe indefinitely. But I sense that we live today in a climate of increasing fear of that with which we do not agree, and intolerance of those with opposing viewpoints.

Al Franken is an accomplished comedian and comedy writer. He understands the power in a well-timed, effectively-delivered sarcasm. I hope that he and others like him will continue to throw rocks at the monolith that rises in our midst.

For even if you don't agree with Al Franken's politics you must love the existence of an established and successful performer who openly taunts and ridicules the government in power for this is one indication that we still enjoy at least some of the freedoms guaranteed to us in the Bill of Rights.

On the last page of his book (before the appendices) he relates a conversation with a Methodist minister on an airplane.

"...'Do you know what God's punishment is for liars?' he asked me.
"Guessing wildly, I tried, 'They're turned into donkeys?'
"'No,' he said. 'God's punishment for liars is that they believe their own lies.'"
I went looking for a website featuring the author and his works, as I usually do when I write these reviews. I discovered that Franken is running for Senate in Minnesota. I have no idea how well or poorly he's doing, but I'll be interested to see how that goes.

05 October 2007

Cadillac Jukebox, by James Lee Burke


I've read a number of these Dave Robicheaux mysteries, set in Louisiana, and I've liked them all. This book was no exception. The mood is dark and swampy, some of the characters are as lowlife as they can get, the mystery goes back to the nineteenth century for some of its roots. This is essential, basic, James Lee Burke.

Along with the old history he includes some more recent. There's a character called Clay Mason, steeped in the Hippie culture of the 1960's, who bears a certain similarity to William Burroughs. There's some connection to a location in Mexico that could be Burroughs' ranch there.

Both the Governor-elect, Buford LaRose, and his wife, Karyn, are acquainted with Robicheaux, indeed it seems he has had a vague encounter with the lady in his alcoholic past -- and these people are incredibly corrupt as well as being drug addicts. If this is a reference to anyone real, let me know, I've missed it.

The case centers around a man named Aaron Crown, in prison for killing a major Louisiana civil-rights leader, whom Robicheaux is beginning to believe may be innocent. And there's Mookie Zerrang, recently released from prison, a psycho/sociopath. He may be in town just to kill Robicheaux. Or someone else. Or all of the above.

There's so many characters, and so much plot. What really happened to Aaron Crown, what did he do? And what's Jerry Joe's story, Dave's childhood friend? He was close to the LaRose family, worked on a place in Mexico that they owned, side by side with the young Buford. This is a hell of a story.

Just the names are enough. Mingo Bloomberg. Sabelle Crown.

"If you seriously commit yourself to alcohol, I mean full-bore, the way you take up a new religion, and join that great host of revelers who sing and lock arms as they bid farewell to all innocence in their lives, you quickly learn the rules of behavior in this exclusive fellowship whose dues are the most expensive in the world. You drink down. That means you cannot drink in well-lighted places with ordinary people because the psychological insanity in your face makes you a pariah among them. So you find other drunks whose condition is as bad as your own, or preferably even worse.

"But time passes and you run out of geography and people who are in some cosmetic way less than yourself and bars where the only admission fee is the price of a 6 A.M. short-dog.

"That's when you come to places like Sabelle Crown's at the Underpass in Lafayette."
Cletus Purcel ( a regular character in these novels). Brandy Grissum. Dock Green:

"...an agitated, driven, occasionally vicious, ex-heavy-equipment operator, who claimed to have been kidnapped from a construction site near Hue ... and buried alive ... His face was hard-edged, as though it had been layered from putty that had dried unevenly. It twitched constantly, and his eyes had the lidless intensity of a bird's, focusing frenetically upon you, or the person behind you ..."

Dock Green has Tourette's syndrome, just for good measure.

There is violence, mystery, and the Bayou. All in all, worth your time.