Friday, May 29, 2009

A Case of Need by Michael Crichton *****

A Case of Need was published in 1969 under the pseudonym Jeffrey Hudson. This was before his best sellers and movie successes, so maybe he was still thinking of his medical career. The book was reprinted about 25 year later with one modification. The editors removed the steps in the chemical synthesis of LSD.

Regardless, the book is interesting because as a new writer Michael Crichton wrote a bit like Robin Cook with an over abundance of technical medical jargon. However, even as a new writer, this book has engaging characters and plots. I finished in in one day. Its probably hard to find, but well worth the effort.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Getting Rid of Bradley by Jennifer Cruise ****

First there is Lucy Savage Porter, the logical high school Physics teacher, with three dogs named Einstein, Heisenberg, and Maxwell, recently divorced from Bradley Porter, and looking for a radical change in her life.

Second, there is Zack Warren, the middle-aged, bachelor police detective, hot on the trail of John Bradley, embezzler of 1.5 million dollar in bearer bonds and probably his wife's murderer.

What is the connection between Bradley Porter and John Bradley, aside from their common name?

When ever Lucy and Zack are together, shots are fired and bomb explode. Which Bradley is targeting Lucy or Zack, and why?

Getting Rid of Bradley by Jennifer Cruise is a wonderful little whodunit full of humor and romance. Romance, you might wonder? Why romance? Well, the book is published by HQN, a Harlequin (We are romance) imprint. However, except for a very silly four-page sex scene, around page 200, the rest is a terrific read.
Zack touched her the way she'd fantasized, with the same intensity that he lived every minute. His mouth and hands were everywhere, hot on her skin, now light, now rough, until she writhed against him and forgot to feel anything but the need and heat and touched him with a hunger that she'd never conceived possible before.
Over four pages of this, but after that it returned to a tightly written, whodunit, full of humor.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Lewis Carroll in Numberland by Robin Wilson * * * *

Lewis Carroll in Numberland by Robin Wilson is a wonderful book if you still remember how to prove:
The difference of the squares of any two odd numbers is divisible by 8.
This delightful book, if symbolic logic is your idea of fun, combines the story of Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) and Charles Dodgson (Mathematician at Oxford). With lots of problems and puzzles (from Algebra to Zeno's paradox), the book is a mixture of biography and recreational math - for those that do not see recreational math as an oxymoron.

While many of the puzzles have been reprinted over and over since published by Lewis Carroll over 100 years ago, some were new to me. I enjoyed discovering the flaw in an almost convincing proof that all triangles were isosceles, and seeing, from an age before calculators, problems like:
What is the cube root of 673373097125?
Hint for the 21st century: Google cube root of 673373097125.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Thoreau You Don't Know by Robert Sullivan * *

Henry David Thoreau is one of those authors people think they know, announces the book jacket of The Thoreau You Don't Know by Robert Sullivan. More accurately, it might say that Thoreau is an author that Robert Sullivan studied for years, and, reasons only known to him, he expects you have done the same. His book on Thoreau is a meta-biography, not a book about the life of Thoreau, but rather a book about the books about Thoreau. This volume spends more time reviewing, analyzing, and critiquing what has been written about Thoreau than it does on the man himself.

We do learn something about Thoreau. For example, when Thoreau's publishing contract required him to purchase 706 unsold copies of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he placed them in his library and bragged:
I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred I wrote myself.
However, these glimpses into Thoreau's life are overwhelmed by debates with Thoreau critics - imagined and/or deceased, but certainly unknown to most readers. Unless you are a Thoreau scholar, I'd recommend another of the many Thoreau biographies.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint * * * *

So what did you imagine happens when you die? Grace Quintero wakes up in a her neighborhood, about a six block area around her apartment, Alverson Arms, together with everyone else who has died in the neighborhood in the last forty years or so.

What else? She can return to the world of the living twice a year, but ... but no one will recognize her.

What happens when she returns? She falls in love for the first time in her life. Well, not actually her life because she's dead.

The Mystery of Grace is a magical fantasy by the great writer Charles de Lint. I recommend this to all readers interested in magic realism, but they will have already read this. If you are a reader of mainstream fiction, try this for something different. I've already disclosed the weirdest stuff and the rest is a great novel of people and problems. Enjoy something different.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Palace Council by Stephen L Carter * * * *

This is the third historical-fiction novel by the the Yale Law Professor Stephen L Carter. Unlike other lawyers (John Grisham, Gwen Freeman), Stephen L Carter does not write about lawyers. All of his three novel (so far, and we're eagerly awaiting to see what he writes next) have been historical fiction centered around rich and powerful black families and their efforts to control U.S. politics, especially the President.

This offering spans the period from Brown v Board of Education (school desegregation - 1954) through the end of the Vietnam War (fall of Saigon - 1975). As usual the book provides a seamless mixture of historical events with the narrative. In this case, the mysteries involve a radical black woman terrorist (or not, nothing is clear cut), her two children, both missing, dead, underground, or not, and a group called the Palace Council which plans to control the President, successfully or not.

The protagonist, Edward Trotter Wesley Junior, is a famous writer, searching for his sister, the missing woman, who apparently left Harvard Law School to lead a black terrorist group, for many possible reasons, or not. Eddie goes everywhere (South Carolina, Vietnam, ...) unsuccessfully, either helped or hindered by Edgar J Hoover, Richard Nixon, an assassin who works for the CIA or a Senator, and several others.

As you might have noticed, I did not feel the plot was as clear or comprehensible as the previous efforts, but the characters and scenes as so good, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, even as my confusion ebbed and flowed. If you are new to Stephen L Carter, even though each book stand on its own, I'd recommend you start with the first novel: New England White.

Smith College History (circa late 1940s), or not:
"Remember when we first met? The mixer at Northampton?"
"The Smith girls and their chaperons," he corrected lightly. "There were so many chaperones, you almost had one each."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Emile, or On Education by Jean Jacques Rousseau

God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil.
Emile, or On Education by Jean Jacques Rousseau is a classic from the 18th century, contemporary with the American and France revolutions.While the style is verbose and tedious to read, the content is both dated and surprisingly current.

On diet, he espouses the benefits of vegetable fare, with quaint references to acid, alkali, and worms, adding
use neither butter nor oil for frying.
On the subject of doctors, he agrees with my mother:
I will go farther, and will declare that, as I never call in a doctor for myself, I will never send for one for Emile, unless his life is clearly in danger, when the doctor can but kill him.

I know the doctor will make capital out of my delay. If the child dies, he was called too late; if he recovers, it is his doing. So be it; let the doctor boast, but do not call him in except in extremity.
Rousseau seems torn on the topic of tabula rasa. In one side, he believes infant are born with a natural language.
It has long been a subject of inquiry whether there ever was a natural language common to all; no doubt there is, and it is the language of children before they begin to speak.
He even supports his argument with the observation of grammatical mistakes made when children use their internal grammar instead of observing the exceptions in the spoken language. Such observations are discussed extensively by Steven Pinker, a wonderfully readable cognitive psychologist who writes extensively on this subject.

On the other hand:
We are born capable of learning, but knowing nothing, perceiving nothing. The mind, bound up within imperfect and half-grown organs, is not even aware of its own existence.
I was surprised how new age Rousseau seemed with his support for breast feeding, fresh air, vegetarian diets, and natural medicine.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson * * * * *

First let's introduce Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, in her first appearance as a freelance researcher for a security company run by Armansky:
Armansky was bewildered and also angry with himself for having so obviously misjudged her. He had taken her for stupid, maybe even retarded. He had not expected a girl who cut so many classes in school that she did not graduate could write a report so grammatically correct. It also contained detailed observations and information, and he quite simply could not comprehend how she could have acquired such facts.
Lisbeth Salander (90 pounds, 4' 11" with a flat chest) is a strong, complex female protagonist and when the movie comes out, she could well compete with Jason Bourne or Frank Martin in The Transporter.

Ostensibly, the story is a murder mystery. Thirty-six years ago, a teenage girl disappeared from an island when the bridge was out, thus limiting the list of suspects. What separates this book from the multitude of second-rate, formulaic whodunits is the richness of the characters and the intertwined subplots, any of which would make a fine novel in today's market.

If you only read one mystery thriller this summer, this should be it.

Translation note: This is obviously a British translation (gaol for jail, turnover for revenues). Also the original Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women. Other than that, I found the translation did not interfere with my reading enjoyment.

LGBT Book Watch: While much of the plot centers on the sexual abuse of women by men, there are brief scenes of gay, lesbian and bisexual encounters. The book might be marked down because these were passing liaisons and not stable relationships, but this is balanced by the tone of acceptance and normality used. Certainly, compared the the brutalization of women by heterosexual men so central to the story, the homosexual scenes were all idyllic and sweetness.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Carbon Age by Eric Rosten *

Remember that research report you were forced to write in high school? The one with the footnotes and the bibliography? What a mindless, senseless pain? Do you also remember that kid who turned in the thickest report, with the most footnotes and references? Not one of the science geeks either. This kid loved the process, probably didn't even know what the report was about.

The Carbon Age by Eric Rosten is one of those reports. Nineteen pages of footnotes! Thirty-nine page of bibliography! Fortunately only 226 pages of mind numbing, sleep inducing text. No pages of insight or clarity. For example, here is a summary of one of the five principles of evolution:
Biologists distinguish this universal cellular apparatus and that belonging to any particular organism of any particular species. Only populations evolve; individuals adapt. Living things evolve as individuals' selection and reproduction reshapes the gene pool.
Summarized as only someone who's so unsure of the the underlying concept that they dare not leave nothing out.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Story of Edward Sawtelle by David Wroblewski * * *

Edgar Sawtelle is fourteen and you might say he's having the worst year of his life. First, he discovers his father dying in the kennel where the family, since his great-grandfather, raises and trains dogs - Sawtelle Dogs. He is helpless to call for help to their remote farm in northern Wisconsin because he is dumb and can only communicate by sign language. As the story unfolds, he suspects his uncle to have murdered his father, but can't say anything to his mother because she has taken the uncle into her bed. One thing leads to another and he runs away from home.

The Story of Edward Sawtelle by David Wroblewski is a beautifully written coming-of-age story intertwined with a love for dogs and their proper training. I would have rated it much higher if the ending wasn't so weak, muddled, and depressing.
[The Sawtelle Dogs] had measured their lived by proximity to that silent, inward creature [Edgar], that dark-haired, shy-eyed boy who smoothed his hands along their flanks and legs and withers and muzzles, a boy they'd watched since the moment of their birth, a boy who appeared each morning carrying water and food and, every afternoon, a brush. ... they knew they had no home.