Tuesday, June 29, 2010

This Time is Different by Carmen M Reinhart & Kenneth S Rogoff ***

This Time Is Different is a heavy Economics book, full of dense text and graphs. What could possibly be learned from this academic tome? Three things: First, the financial crisis of 2007 and on-going is just more of the same as demonstrated from 800 years of data from 66 countries around the world. Second, that same crisis is on the large end of the scale and there is no reason to think recovery will arrive this year or next. Third, I was an Economics major in college because I find this stuff fascinating, something I have denied since graduation.

If you didn't just love the Economics courses you took in college, or if you didn't take any Economics courses in college, you can safely skip this one ... otherwise the graphs were scintillating and the time lines can keep you up at night. ROFL.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

9 Dragon by Michael Connelly *****

What's your least favorite plot device? As a father of two daughters and two granddaughters, mine is kidnapping daughters. I can see its recent popularity as a recognition of the increased value of daughters in the modern world. Daughters are no longer burdens or second-class progeny. Also, these story lines tend to have more competent fathers than the usual insensitive bumblers. However, regardless of these pluses, I still prefer not to see daughters threatened in any way. It seems like such a gross demand for emotions, up there with killing babies (baby animals included).

With that caveat, Nine Dragons is another wonderful novel by Michael Connelly. In a mystery centered around a liquor store murder in South LA and the already mentioned kidnapping of Harry Bosch's daughter in Hong Kong, the action is fast, investigation detailed, and the plot refreshingly logical. Also, the kidnapping, while ever present, is not over played and the daughter's jeopardy is mostly off page.

Michael Connelly is a brave writer who is not afraid to kill off supporting characters and an economical one who resolves subplots sooner rather than later. Both these keep the tension and pace moving quickly. Don't start this book if you have a lot of commitments over the next few days - perfect of a down weekend.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Pride and Avarice by Nicholas Coleridge ****

Have you ever read a book where you just wanted to shake the characters and scream, "No! Don't do it!" Certainly Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is one of the most popular and well-done of this genre. Pride and Avarice by Nicholas Coleridge is another, though beyond the character's inability to see the consequences of their action, nothing else seems to support the similarity of the titles.

Pride and Avarice tells the story of two very rich men, one evil and the other good, and their wives and children. This is a book of middle-school emotions and Sunday school morals. In the end, the good are rewarded and the evil are punished, and unfortunately, justice is meted out by the chance and circumstance, rarely by the direct actions of the characters, with accidents and illnesses playing a major role.

However, don't let the flat characters and transparent plotting deprive you of the joy of this fast moving and entertaining read. Anyone can enjoy the voyeuristic thrill of the rich as they compete in fashion, parties, recreation, and business. When the author is describing shooting parties, holidays in the Mediterranean, fancy dress, or boardroom intrigue, his eye for detail is precise and fascinating.

I also found a (guilty) superior pleasure being so much smarter than these ultra-rich. Well-written and fast, this is a summer read than can be enjoyed by all.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith ****

Botswana. What do you know about Botswana? Did you answer "Botswana? It's in Africa, isn't it?" I'm certain the answer would be more confident for the Kalahari Desert, which comprises the majority of the land in Botswana and featured prominently in the popular The God's Must Be Crazy. Recently Botswana was also popularized by an HBO special based on the charming books by Alexander McCall Smith.

From the first book: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency to the tenth: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, this series unfolds the tales of Mma Precious Ramotswe (a traditionally-build pillar of wisdom and tranquility) and Mma Grace Makutsi (a cyclone of perfection and innocent prejudice) as they solve the human mysteries in their corner of Botswana.

The books combine the charm of Botswana, with low-key, non-violent investigations into suspected infidelities, petty theft, and misunderstandings. Without the body count so prevalent in today's mysteries, the adventures of these two ladies hold the reader's interest while intertwining the culture of Botswana.

A pleasant read for all ages and a reason to visit Botswana as soon as possible, before it becomes like Kenya - a tourist trap of staged culture and high-pressure sales.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Alex & Me by Irene M Pepperberg *****

Irene Platzblatt and I were at MIT at the same time. We never met, but her autobiographical book Alex & Me reminded me how MIT manages to attract lost souls who are some how destined to succeed in spite of their alien, unearthly nature. But this book isn't merely a paean to nerds (aka tech tools); that is just an extra bonus. The star of this story is Alex.

Alex is an African Grey parrot who single-handedly, with the help of Irene (now Pepperberg, though divorced), changed to meaning of bird-brained and challenged to hegemony of primate (or mammalian) intellectual superiority.
"Want a nut." Alex was obviously getting more than a little frustrated. ... He looked at me and said slowly, "Want a nut. Nnn ... uh ... tuh."
I was stunned. It was as if he were saying, Hey stupid, do I have to spell it out for you?
A wonderfully written book about animal intelligence and science. I can not recommend it more highly.

Huckleberry Finished by Livia J Washburn ***

Huckleberry Finished by Livia J Washburn is pleasant whodunit that delivers on half the promise of Delilah Dickinson's Literary Travel Agency. It delivers a breezy, though possibly over-commercial, visit to Hannibal, MO - a current tourist destination for fans of Mark Twain and recreated kitsch. The product placements for museums and theaters are reinforced by an appendix swooning over these tourist fabrications along with their web addresses. I may be wrong, but I feel like these recreations (historical zombies) sponsored the novel.

As for the literary angle - my primary interest - the information about Mark Twain is limited to a few quotations, mostly already popularized to the level of cliches. It seems more is said about the Mark Twain impersonation business than the author himself.

A quick summer read for the omnivorous and indiscriminate reader of light-weight mysteries.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett ***

The real question about Unseen Academicals (Discworld) by Terry Pratchett is "Why is it cataloged as Science Fiction?" I feel it is more akin to literary fantasy, similar to Jasper Fforde, with its erudite word play and literary allusions.
The chant of the goddess Pedestriana is a parody of the wonderful poem 'Brahma' by Ralph Waldo Emerson, but of course you knew that anyway.
Or it might be just plain fantasy with its orcs, goblins, and magic and such. But, Science Fiction? The only hint at SF is Discworld, a place that is certainly not earth and might not even share the same laws of Physics, not that Terry Pratchett would feel much allegiance to any Laws of Physics, or any other laws, for that matter.

What Terry Pratchett delivers is irrelevant humor and fun, and this serving of this long running series pokes fun at universities and football (aka soccer). A fine read for the Pratchett fan or new reader. No reason to start the series at the beginning, just jump in and enjoy.