Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane ****

1919: Boston, the hub of the universe, where paths crossed for MA governor Calvin Coolidge, DoJ lawyer John E Hoover, NAACP founder WEB DuBois, and Babe Ruth. With echoes of today, the news was about terrorists and civil rights, traditions and change, immigrants and Americans.

Against this dynamic backdrop, Dennis Lehane weaves a very human story of a family of Irish policemen and a black family from Oklahoma in The Given Day. While the echoes of current events add interest, it the the lives of a young black man and young white man and how they address the personal and societal injustice they experience that keep the pages turning. This is a narrative so well told that I could easily forgive when the 1919 police called from paramedics (a word invented in 1967) and when the hospitals delivered pain killers in IV drips well before their time.

This is a historical novel heavier on the novel, but with plenty of good historical musings.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robinson ****

Aspberger's syndrome might be the formal designation for nerd. In Look Me in the Eye, John Elder Robinson's memoir unfolds both the best and worst of nerdom. While occasionally tedious or even embarrassing, John Elder's biography is fascinating from dropping out of high school, to designing sound systems for Pink Floyd, special effects for KISS, and electronic toys for Milton Bradley.

One of my many favorite scenes was the time John Elder and some of his teen-aged friends built a tub of circulating gasoline to clean auto parts. Unfortunately the whole thing caught on fire. Imagine the scene as the fire department started unrolling hoses with John Elder's friend Jim shouting:
No! I'm telling you, water is dangerous on a magnesium fire! You need foam!
As you might imagine, the firemen felt no reason to listen to a couple of teenagers who started the fire in the first place. After the burning gasoline and magnesium exploded spreading the fire everywhere,
Jim politely reminded them it was their fault. "You should have listened to me. Look at the mess you idiots made!" [The actual dialogue was probably worse, since I read the paperback edition which has had its language cleaned up for use in the schools.]
I find myself retelling many of the stories in this book, drawn to the mixture of insensitivity and brilliance, compulsivity and creativity. It is a wonderful reminder of the triumphs and defeats in the life of a nerd.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland ****

1348 - The Black Plague has reached England and nine outcasts must band together to escape the pestilence as it chases them from village to village - this is the Company of Liars by Karen Maitland - musicians, an expecting couple, a healer, fortune teller, story teller, seller of relics, and traveling side show. Reminiscent of Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, the book mixes the lives of the travelers with stories and history. A wonderfully written and researched historical novel of the plague on a very human scale.

My interest in the Black Plague has always been in how Europe changed after the death of 30-60% of the population. The balance between land and labor changed dramatically: land became plentiful and labor became scarce. This was the death of feudalism and the rise of the middle class. Company of Liars is about the experience of the Black Plague with little reflection on the longer-term effects. However, even here, the future can be glimpsed.
Who'd have thought it? This time last year you couldn't piss without the blessing of a priest; now any Tom, Dick, or Harry, even a woman, can baptize you, marry you, shrive you, and bury you. And there's the bishop saying, Go ahead, do it yourselves, you don't need a priest.
A wonderful novel of human failing and mystery.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Long Lost by Harlan Coben *****

Myron Bolitar returns in Harlan Coden's latest installment: Long Lost. In this story Harlan is targeted by terrorists and interrogated (tortured) by an unidentified government organization. All this in response to his considerate search for an ex-girl friend's lost daughter, who died in a auto accident ten years ago, but she may be still alive, and maybe it wasn't an accident anyway.

As usual, he is accompanied by the wealthy and deadly Windsor Horne Lockwood III (aka Win) and the retired lady-wrestling, tag-team of Big Cyndi and Little Pocahontas. Big Cyndi is still Big Cyndi, by Little Pocahontas now has a law degree and a family and goes by Esperanza.

In the vocabulary of Netflix this is an action comedy in the mold of Jackie Chan, Bad Boys, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Indiana Jones. While the plot is has many twists and turns and involves every fertility issue imaginable, the tone in light and the reading very enjoyable. Harlan Corben is my new favorite author.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Serena by Ron Rash ***

In the midst of the Great Depression, George Pemberton prospered clear cutting old-growth hardwood forests in the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina. During a rare trip to Boston, he met and wed the mysterious Serena, rumored to have been raised in a rich lumbering family in Colorado, and when all her relatives died, she burned down the family home and moved to an New England finishing school. Immediately on the couple's return to North Carolina, George murdered the father of the teenager girl who carried his child - self defense.

Thus starts the story of Serena by Ron Rash. When introduced the the lumberjacks, Serena humiliates and fires the first man who fails to give her the respect she demands. Among supporters of a new National Park, timid partners, rattlesnakes, George's child by his mistress, carnival barkers, and disloyal employees, Serena find many enemies and many ways to get rid of them.

The excellent writing, especially the rich characterization, kept me turning pages waiting for the answer to two questions: Who is Serena? and Who will stop her?

In the end, the first question is never answered, and I found the second answer unsatisfying.

The novel offers a wonderful picture of depression life in Appalachia, well worth the trip even if told from the point of view of the devil herself.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Texas! Lucky by Sandra Brown ****

Even with stock characters, telegraphed action and silly sex, Texas! Lucky by Sandra Brown is an enjoyable recreational read. This short novel (75,000 words) follows Lucky Tyler
And his mother expected him to treat every woman chivalrously, no matter how trashy she was.
from when he met Devon Haines (passionate, feminist, newspaper columnist)
There was going to be trouble, and, hell, he just wasn't in the mood for it.
through their first tumble
Then her fingertips grazed his turgid nipple, and his analysis ended.
through the inevitable happy ending. In between there are plenty plot surprises to keep the story moving. A pleasant way to spend a couple of evenings.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Dancing Universe by Marcelo Gleiser **

Kepler "was known to have taken only one bath in his whole life." Newton, "as far as we know, died a virgin." In The Dancing Universe, Marcelo Gleiser unfolds the history of Physics and Creation, showing how beliefs about creation effected the evolution of physics, and how the evolution of physics effected beliefs about creation. These fundamental scientific questions (physics, cosmology) are ultimately intertwined with basic religious questions (creation).

The book mixes enough anecdotes and biographies maintain readability while presenting basic physics (gravity, electromagnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics, big bang). Physics was not one of my big successes in college - squeaking by with a C in the fourth (required) semester of Physics in college - but I found the book very readable (considering the material), except for the chapter on relativity.

I highly recommend the book to anyone with a passing interest in science history, especially an science teachers.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Zeroville by Steve Erickson **

It's the 1970s and Ike Jerome so loves The Movies, he takes the long bus ride from Pennsylvania, only to discover that people in Hollywood are ignorant of the The Movies; they're into The Sound: Punk Rock. Ike Jerome, aka Vikar, has Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, in a scene from A Place in the Sun tattooed on his shaved head. Zeroville by Steve Erickson, written by an LA film critic for film geeks, is full of Hollywood inside gossip and fantasy with mentions for dozens of films, actors, and directors over the entire history of film making.
I'm more a Huston/Hawks/Ford/Walsh/Kurosawa man.
The main character is this barbarian-type in animal furs with horns on his head as played by this preposterous Austrian body-builder so muscle-bound he literally can't hold the sword, but his is getting blown on a semi-regular basis by one of the Kennedy women, rumor has it.
All this real and imagined trivia enhances the story. The story is presented like a screenplay in 454 fast-cut shots numbered by one to 227 and then from 226 back down to zero. Vikar is a film editor who believes that films exist outside of time and has a favorite expression: "F-ck continuity."

Two themes about art appreciation intertwine throughout the story. First: new, creative works initially elicit hate, but after many exposures, you learn to love them. And the second, sounding like the author's explanation to his novel approach to a novel:
He said the first ten minutes he thought you were completely incompetent but by the time he got to the end he knew that wasn't it. He said he has no idea whether the picture is working or any good but that every decision you're making is original as best and counterintuitive at the least. [Note: this is the original punctuation]
Certain not a book for the faint hearted, but if you'd like to read something different ...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Plum Spooky by Janet Evanovich ****

Plum Spooky by Janet Evanovich is of the fashion, food and friends genre. In this installment bounty hunter Stephanie Plum is after a mad scientist (think of a nerdy James Bond villain in New Jersey barrens) will plans to conquer the world by controlling the weather (seriously, well, not really, nothing is very serious in these books).
Diesel opened the back door and pushed [Stephanie] through. "Very funny. Keep in mind not everything I say is bullsh-t."
"What would you say is the bullsh-t percentage? Twenty? Thirty?" [she asked.]
"Thirty might be low."
[Lula] was wearing a pink sweater suit and sneakers. ... She didn't have any makeup on, and her hair was somewhere between rat's nest and exploded canary.
[Barium] is commonly used in X-ray imaging. And it's useful in making certain kinds of superconductors.
[Barium's] a heavy metal. Hard to find in pure form because it oxidizes when it's exposed to air.
[Stephanie] blew up a fuel depot, stole twelve rockets and made off with them in a stolen van, got kidnapped by a maniac, and had dinner with a guy who farted fire.
There it is: the sure-fire formula to enjoyable light reading: irreverent humor, odd characters, a little education, and a wild plot. These novels never disappoint.

See also:A Book for Today: Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven **

The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven is science fiction at its best and worst. The plot (of this squeal to the fantastic award-winning Ringworld - that I still remember as one of the great SF novels of the 1970s and all time) is based on the analysis of real engineers of the original Ringworld. (That's the kind of novel the original Ringworld was; it inspired real engineers to take out their slide rules - this was before Pickett dumped their made-worthless-by-cheap-calculators inventory into a land fill - to calculate forces and error margins.) The Ringworld Engineers plot revolves (pun intended) around the need for (previously omitted) attitude adjustment rockets to maintain the Ringworld's stable revolution around its sun.

However, combined with this detailed and accurate analysis are transport discs (ala Startrek) and enough other magical science to serve the needs of the plot. The resulting book combines tutorial sections on real physics with interesting sections of inter-species plot. Did I mention that most of the plot is the musings and analysis of inter-species conflict and cooperation, and don't forget rishathra - inter-species sex - which might have been titillating in those pre-Internet days. For the 21st century, the science is slow and the plot slower. If you're interestied in classic, do not miss Ringworld, but feel free to ignore this sequel.