Thursday, July 31, 2008

Love in Times of Chaos and Crisis

What to you think of northern California? San Jose - Rose Garden District? San Francisco - Hunters Point? Russian River - Vineyards? Yes, of course, but in 1989, it was the Loma Prieta earthquake.

What about New York City? Subways? Apartments?

In this chaotic love story and stylish first novel, Maynard and Jennica by Rudolph Delson, set in 2001, New York City is Ground Zero and September 11th.

This is one of those books that you will just enjoy reading for the naive and poignant characters presented in snippets of first-person confession and confusion. The book pieces together the romance between Jennica (escaped from San Jose to NYC, via Princeton), and Maynard (starving artist scion of a old, rich family - 21st century variation on the classic Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family).

Some excerpts:

Jennica's brother:
She unpacks all the bags and then throws them in the same trash bin where her corn husks and citrus rinds go, because they don't do compost in New York City
A NYC attorney:
And instead of being only a few inches high, our bonsai trees are over twelve feet high ... a to-scale replica of a planting of seven trees that was given as part of a famous dowry in seventeenth-century Japan.
Jennica: To summarize:
During the 1990s, ... I was definitively ... out of a relationship 68.53 percent of the time ... Obviously I am doing something wrong ... At least I have data.
A wonderfully quirky love story for anyone who as been single in California (northern) or NYC or imagined the romantic possibilities of these two most American parts of America.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Why doesn't Michael Chichton write Science Fiction?

Why doesn't Michael Crichton write Science Fiction? No doubt, many science fiction fans consider Michael Crichton to be a science fiction author. Including Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park and Next, many of his his novels deal with science fiction themes, but his publishers and publicists rarely connect his works with science fiction, and book stores rarely shelve his best sellers with the science fiction. What is going on here?

Allen Steele's novel Coyote provides part of the answer. If you've never heard of Allen Steele, he is a science fiction writer who has twice won Hugo Awards for novellas. He is a talented writer.

Coyote showcases some of the best and worst of the science fiction genre and provides some hints why writers like Michael Crichton might avoid the tag science fiction.

Bad News first: The novel starts with four pages of hard science: the history of the search inhabitable planets complete with name dropping and polysyllabic jargon. Only on page 5 is a character introduced! Only in science fiction are novels allowed to start with textbook extracts!

More Bad News: This novel is a loosely connected collection of novellas (written by an award winning novella writer). Again, only within the science fiction genre can a short story collection be marketed as a novel. For example, twice in the book humans meet intelligent life forms, and in both cases the encounter is brief and forgotten.

The Good News: The science is wonderfully creative from a planet that circles a Jupiter-like gas giant instead of the primary star (aka Sun) to a complete ecology of plants and animals that inhabit the planet.

More Good News: Within each novella the characters are are human and their problems are well explored from the scientists who steal an interstellar ship to escape a tyrannical government to a group of teenagers that run away into the unexplored wilderness of the new planet.

In terms of exploring the issues of governments and exobiology, Allen Steele is up there with the best. However as a novelist, this is book is awkward and disappointing. Such books might be why Michael Crichton avoids the label science fiction.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

NAPAP: National Association for the Purification of Art and the Press

[NAPAP: National Association for the Purification of Art and the Press] were pursuing the same purpose - to make life conform to the ideals agreed upon by the principle Christian Protestant denominations ... they would merely state to the representatives of the people what they wanted, and get it.

Does this sound like a reincarnation of the Moral Majority?

Are Christian evangelist scandals like those with Jim & Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ted Haggard recent phenomena?

Has the power of the Religious Right reached unprecedented heights?

80 years ago, "almost certainly the most systematic ... of all American novelists," Sinclair Lewis wrote about evangelist and fundamentalist preachers in America, especially the red states, the heartland, the Midwest. The book Elmer Gantry is of interest not only as a historical record, but as a commentary, reflection, and illustration of the strange mixture of religion, money, and politics today.

Sinclair Lewis received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, and this well-written book supports that honor. However, as this was written in the days before word processors and computer printing, and the author is thought to have been drunk while writing the last 100 pages, the editors were not as vigilant as today's protectors of the reader's time and energy. For example, unless you're a student of philosophy or religion, preferably both, you can skip the abstract discussion that occupies the entire 28th chapter.

Definitely something to read before the 2008 presidential election.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Chick Lit for the 21st Century (7th Heaven by James Patterson)

My wife hates the term Chick Lit, but I don't know another to describe those wonderful stories dominated by women. Some of my favorites have been Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsby Ann Brashares, The Secret Life of Beesby Sue Monk Kidd, and The Joy Luck Clubby Amy Tan. Like The Joy Luck Club, my most recent read is about four women living in San Francisco. However this book is by James Paterson (with Maxine Paetro). Now I sure those of you who are familiar with James Patterson would never group this master of the thriller with the women authors listed above.

However, I ask you to consider this latest addition to his women's murder club series: 7th Heaven (the 7th in the series, of course). Here are four women in San Francisco who support each other through life's important transitions such as courtship and birth. Beyond that, any similarity with The Joy Luck Club ends. These are women of the 21st century and this is not a celebration of the past, but a novel of the present. These four women don't play Mahjong or raise bees. They are Yuki, a San Francisco ADA, Claire, the Medical Examiner, Cindy, the reporter, and the protagonist, Lindsay, an SFPD homocide detective.

Regardless of the murder and mayhem, and thriller fans can be assured of a high body count with gruesome murders (no spoilers here), this is sisterhood of strong women. When Lindsay complains about an unwelcome shower of brains, the definitely-not-squeamish Claire responds with, "Warm gummy bears? Am I right?"

If you want an intelligent page turner (I read it in one day), without testosterone staining your high-thread-count, Egyptian-cotton sheets, this is the book to read with a nice glass of herbal iced tea on a warm summer evening.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I was out of high school before Harper Lee's book made it to the high school reading lists. What little social relevance they thought we might need was satisfied with Charles Dickens and the social inequities of 100 years previous.

Why, you might ask, should anyone read a book about race relations in the south during the depression? Why, you might also ask, should anyone read a book about race written before the civil right advances of the 1960s?

Because, if for nothing else, then to be reminded that great literature is timeless, and as topical as To Kill a Mockingbird might be, its characters go beyond the issues of the day. There is a short segment on Adolf Hitler that seems dated and preachy, but I imagine it was already dated and preachy when originally published.

I really enjoyed this book, not the least because I am strongly biased towards any book where the protagonist is a young girl who learned to read and write before kindergarten, no matter how unrealistic that might may be. If you ask, how many such book are there? I can one add one more to the list. Mathilda by Raold Dahl. I'd love to here of any others.

But beyond precocious girls, during a year when race is bound to be in the news, To Kill a Mockingbird still has much to say about race and class. Here is a an exchange between Atticus Finch, a sympathetic lawyer, and Tom Robinson, a black accuse of rape.
"Why did you run?"
"I was scared, [sir]."
"Why were you scared."
"Mr. Finch, if you were [black] like me, you'd be scared, too."

Here we see how difficult it is to walk in someone else's shoes. This election season we're going to hear a lot about this difficulty. Reading, even rereading, this book can remind everyone what we are up against, and why it is important.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Echelon by Josh Conviser

"Code buzzed through Sachs; terabits of information snapped by."

Echelon has everything that attracts a certain audience (cynically thought to be asocial teenage boys, but certainly a much wider demographic) to Science Fiction:
  • hidden conspiracies to control humanity through the use of information,
  • a super-intelligent culture deep in the jungle where no one wears a shirt and free-love is the norm,
  • resurrection and eternal life through the virus invasions of nanobot drones,
  • aliens (of course), and
  • the Internet (now data flow) described in mystical language.

Echelon also has everything that drives a large portion of the reading public (cynically thought to be frustrated liberal arts students who think the Internet is about Blogs and MySpace, but certainly a much smalled demographic, because recent grads don't read) away from Science Fiction:
  • characters with the personality of chess pieces,
  • long lectures on various technologies,
  • plot resolutions (deus ex machina) based on an endless stream of scientific miracles,
  • characters that would prefer to discuss their favorite Theory of Everything rather than actually do anything, and
  • a omniscient author that jumps from one character point of view to another lest the reader's interest in characters (all pretty much the same anyway) detracts from the author's technological brilliance.

If you love 21st century Science Fiction and the inevitable domination of humanity by information processing and maybe a little free sex, this is the book for you.

If you never really warmed up to Science Fiction, this isn't the book that's going to change your mind.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

What can be said about the book that won Thomas Mann the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929?

I found three things particularly interesting.

Second Breakfast

The characters in this novel regularly have "second breakfast." Since this was publish years before The Hobbit, et al, I can only wonder if this was the genesis of the Bilbo Baggins' strange and wonderful eating customs.

Business Practices

When Hugo Weinschenk is arrested, convicted and jailed for fraud, the book make clear that the only difference between Hugo the the other businessmen (they were all men in the 19th century) was that Hugo was caught. I think about this each time another round of business executives is convicted for some new corporate scandal (savings and loan, junk bonds, Enron, home mortgages, back dating stock options, et al). I imagine that these few people are convicted for what was certainly common practice among many companies and management teams. I find it interesting that even in the 19th century business people were convicted and jailed for commonly practiced business methods when those practices became widely known and the climate changed.


If you ever wonder why people are attracted to alternative medicine, you only need to look back to 19th century doctors. Dr. Grabow treats all illness with three responses: a description of the symptoms in Latin, an ambiguous prognosis, and " a strict diet, a little squab, a little french bread." While this is certainly better than cupping and leaches, it certainly doesn't demonstrate any benefit from consulting a doctor.

Interestingly, doctors still label diseases with Latinate symptoms, such as tachycardia which means "fast heart" and bronchitis which means "sick lungs." With the emphasis on full disclosure to prevent malpractice suits, doctors offer unreadable and ambiguous prognoses for any surgical procedure. If it was up to me, I'd prefer a little squab and some french bread.

In summary this is an epic novel of about 300,000 words, maybe three times longer than the typical "New York Times Bestseller." It was published in 1901, but the reads like a modern novel. Even though Thomas Mann wrote it in his mid-20s, it delves into topics of mid-life and old age with sensitivity and insight. I'd recommend it for anyone old enough to look back on their career and family life.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Secret Servant by Daniel Silva

Gabriel Allon is an art restorer with a photographic memory and extensive language skills. He's also an assassin for Israeli intelligence with the combat skills and the extraordinary tolerance for physical pain as might be expected of any super spy in the 21st century. Starring a repeat performance by Greg Allon, The Secret Servant is a well-constructed thriller about a kidnapping in northern Europe.

As might be expected, the body count is high, the plot twisty and turney, and suspense enough to keep the reader up all night rushing to the end.

A well-written thriller. A fast read.

But wait, there is something else. Two scoops of something else. One scoop of European politics (Muslims are taking over Europe, especially England) and one scoop justification for torture.

"Did it feel good to shoot him like that?"

"It didn't feel good. But then it didn't feel bad either."

"Look at those people over there. Many of them would soon be dead if I hadn't acted the way I did."

If can take your thrillers with a double serving of politics, this is the book for you. However, if the need to save Europe from Muslims extremists and the use of torture to accomplish goals might disturb your reading enjoyment, you might look for something else.

Family Tree by Barbara Delinsky

Do you miss Charles Dickens? Do you still think about Pip in Great Expectations? Do you read books for well-crafted characters? Human non-violent conflicts? Interesting plots and sub-plots? and all the pieces tied together at the end?

Well I found the book: Family Tree by Barbara Delinsky. In addition to being a well-crafted story, and it is an engaging story, a page-turner, Family Tree explores the issues of genetics (Nature vs Nurture) and race in America in the 21st century.

[This is being written in the summer of 2008: Obama vs McCain]

While news is full of remembrances of Martin Luther who was shot 40 years ago and the exciting candidacy of Barack Obama, little new is being written on race (racism) in America. Much is about civil rights and equal opportunity and progress, and little about empathy and differences that seem as important as ever.

Even as a college student from the sixties who marched for integration and against HUAC, I found this book had something fresh and intimate to say about racism without ever preaching: the importance of empathy when equality is impossible. Again I was reminded that each of us is unique and none of us are equal.

Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

A new John Grisham! A new John Grisham!

If you're a John Grisham fan, I'm sure you're always on the lookout for a new book by the master of legal thrillers. Well, he has published a nice little book called Playing for Pizza.

First the warning: This is not a legal thriller. The closest we get to a lawyer is the main character has some minor (as far as the plot is concerned) legal problems and someone might mention he has or needs a lawyer, but the lawyer doesn't get introduced. There might be another lawyer mentioned in passing (I don't want to give away the plot).

What is the other ingredient to a legal thrillers? Thrills, jeopardy, violence? Like the lawyers, there might be some hints of possible violence, but certainly not what you'd expect in a thriller.

Did I mention the book is about football and love and food and culture in Italy? There is some violence on the football field, but that's sports violence, not thriller violence.

This is a charming little book, a love story written by an accomplished writer.

I was disappointed by John Grisham's previous non-legal thriller (A Painter House). That book was autobiographical and not to my liking - however Playing for Pizza is delightful, and I'm not even a football fan!

Group Theory for (non) Mathematicians

Group Theory - the study of symmetry

Have you ever stood at an airport curb wondering what pattern predicted the arrival of your shuttle? Have ever bought a lottery ticket or visited a casino wishing you knew the pattern to predict the winners? Did you know that men and women are attracted to potential mates exhibiting the most symmetry? The same is true for many animals. We seem genetically programmed to find symmetries and patterns whether they exist of not. However is wasn't until the nineteenth century that mathematicians invented the serious study of symmetry - Group Theory.

Now 200 years later two books have been published about this branch of Mathematics that is only studied in college and only be math majors. Symmetry by Marcus du Sautoy (2008) and The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved by Mario Livio (2005) both provide introductions to Group Theory for non-mathematicians.

By introduction, I do not mean primer. After reading either of these books, you'll be no more prepared to do your Group Theory homework problems than before you started. These book are more about the history and philosophy than Group Theory itself. Think about Sex. These books are like biology books, lots of interesting background, but nothing practical enough to let you know what to do in bed.

Symmetry (Marcus du Sautoy) is more like a memoir or journal and gives a fine insight into the mind of a mathematician with a running commentary on Group Theory. However, Mario Livio (The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved) very successfully places Group Theory into an interesting narrative structure focusing on the interesting lives of the various mathematicians who created this important theory.

As a recreational reader, I enjoyed Mario Livio because he spent more time on the lives of Niels Abel and Nicolas Galois, two very troubled young geniuses who suffered for love and died young while still changing the face of mathematics forever. These stories are so compelling that both books spend significant portions on their lives.

The Voyage of the Short Serpent by Bernard du Boucheron

"I finally determined that the guilty should have one eye gouged out, a penalty harsh enough to discourage them from trying it again, whilst preserving the abilities they would need ... for hunting, fishing, herding or plowing."

Thus, the narrator in this short novel, translated from French, continues his report of his voyage to rescue the lost colonies of New Thule (Greenland I presume). This allegory, never clear as to time (middle ages I presume) or place (northern Europe I presume) dramatizes the brutal interaction between civilized, religious, arrogance and primitive inhabitants in a frozen world.

A seen in the opening quote the narrator, a Bishop, rationally follows his naive cultural assumptions to tortuous results. This is not a book for the fainthearted as gouging out of eyes is a minor part of the depravity that explicitly includes the complete range of imaginable and unimaginable sexual activities, much cannibalism, and other forms of mayhem and murder.

Do you want allegory about the disastrous effect of civilization on the primitive world? This is a good one, though I think this topic has been covered in so many historically accurate books, that I don't see the purpose of an allegorical novel at this late date. However, if you are of a mind to read this as a condemnation of self-righteous torture, you might find it very topical and entertaining. As the book was published in France in 2004, this reading might be justified.

Do you want a novel with climax and resolution? Well, I'd skip this one. The narrator is unchanged from his opening lack of empathy for the sailors suffering to transport him to New Thule to the closing when he watches the mother of his child being stoned on the beach as he leaves.