Monday, December 31, 2012

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman ****

In 73 CE, it was clear that the Roman siege of the desert fortress at Masada would be successful. Rather than be captured, tortured, and enslaved, the entire population committed suicide, even though this was against Jewish law. All ... except two women and five children.
The stories of women have often gone unwritten, and The Dovekeepersis [Alice Hoffman's] attempt to imagine those stories.
This book tells the stories of four women in a time dominated by patriarchy - cold and abusive fathers and lovers - and before modern medicine - painful, dangerous childbirths and sick children. In the midst of these challenges, Revka kills the four soldiers who raped her daughter, Aziza dresses as a boy to fight the Romans, and Shirah uses the old knowledge of herbs and outlawed goddesses to aid women in childbirth and love. These are stories of passion and power.

But to be clear, these are difficult stories to read. This is not a triumphant story of Jewish victory like Exodus or the many other stories recorded in the Old Testament. This is a historical story of tyranny defeating piety, faith, and bravery. Starting with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, this story explains some of present day Israel ... fulfilling promises to the 960 Jews who died at Masada on April 16, 73. Wikipedia report that the remains of those who died were reburied with full military honors in July 7, 1969 - almost two millennia after the fact.

One anecdote reports that fathers did not see their children until they were ten days old and suggests that the father did not want to become attached to a child who would soon die. In the same light, I wonder whether fathers (and some mothers) discounted the value of daughters because they couldn't bear loving someone who was destined to live as women lived.

A hard book to read and a harder one to forget.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson ***

It's 2312 and the billions still on Earth would be starving and worse were it not for the imports of food and resources from the settlements stretching from Mercury to Neptune, especially from the hollowed out asteroids called terrariums. The threat is from robots with qubes (quantum computers) for brains that pass the Turing Test, and planet killing attacks from space. The heroine is Swan, 113 years old, with her own implanted qube among other modifications.

Too clever by half. This newest novel by Kim Stanley Robinson - 2312 - is an ambitious work  of wide-ranging cultural and literary references along with creative imaginings of our possible technological future. True to much science fiction, the novel features long discussions among the gods (after all these characters are 300 years smarter than we poor readers) on history, philosophy, and human nature.

With a nod to Heinlein, 2312 presents some new answers to the sexual mysteries. Group marriages, separation of sex, child rearing, house keeping, etc. Since were 300 years in the future ... anatomical flexibility. Swan has been both a father and a mother. Warning: there is one big sex scene ... but true to the genre, most of the energy is expended on the engineering considerations of coupling two partners who have both male and female parts.

In addition to numerous erudite references to literary (Emily Dickinson is a favorite) and musical (classical is favored) references, the (unnumbered) chapters are interspersed with (numbered) Lists and Extracts - fragments on some topic which I imagined can be plumbed for some mystical knowledge. I skimmed them.

I highly recommend this book for its creative view of the future, but as a novel, not so much. The plot is totally predictable and just a framework for the technology and pontification.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

i am intelligent by Peyton Goddard *****

What is the relationship between mind and body ... between intelligence and communication? Consider Steven Hawkings, Dolphins, and Peyton Goddard. Peyton Goddard can not control her body (like Steven Hawkings) and cannot speak (like a dolphin),  I Am Intelligent is her memoir written with the help of her mother and FC (Facilitated Communication which uses a keyboard and an assistant).

The book's first half (prior to FC) chronicles the first  20+ years of Peyton's life. I found the  intentional and unintentional abuse so horrific that I needed to skip over parts of the first seven chapters, often reading as little a one or two sentences before turn to the next page and the next page again.

However, interspersed with these incidents of incompetence, insensitivity, and violence were also the efforts of her family and dedicated teachers to help Peyton. She was variously diagnosed (labeled) with aphasia, autism, low intelligence, communication deficits, and a variety of other psychological and neurological disorders. She was treated by a variety of amateurs and professionals and a pharmacopeia of medications including: Tegretol, Clonidine, Lithium, Miralax, Colace, Paxil, and antibiotics.

In contrast, the second half of the book (starting with Chapter 8) was inspiring and I often found tears, joyous tears, streaming down my cheeks, as I read this part.

On the one level, this book is a condemnation of the worst and a showcase for the best in special education and the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). On another level, it is about the dedication and challenges of parents with children in this system.

However, it also raises such important question about intelligence and humanity ... enough so that it can be read by anyone who thinks about the human condition.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

In One Person by John Irving ****

It's 1955, William Francis Dean, Jr. (AKA Billy) is enrolled at Favorite River Academy, a all-boys prep school, in First Sister, Vermont. He is bisexual, and as the cliches and stereotypes demand, obsessed with his and everyone else's  (yes, EVERYONE else's) sexuality. Thus opens, In One Person, John Irving's 13th novel, but the first I've read.

In addition to the caricatures of teenage boys, the book is peopled with stereotypical gays, lesbians, transvestites, and parents. Despite this manage of (titillating?) sexual differences, the book aspires to literary heights with extensive references to the classical canon with special attention to Shakespeare, Dickens, and Flaubert. I was waiting for the sly reference to John Irving himself, but the author thankfully resisted this affectation.

However, this modesty is balanced by the strangely recursive plot where Billy is an author who writes of sympathetic LGBT characters to preach for more tolerance among his readers. In One Person is certainly an example of such a book. This structure makes the book both more of a heavy-hand polemic and a clever literary exercise.

The book has two parts. The first half is Billy's self-obsessed, sexuality-obsessed years in high school among incidents of sexual yearning, anxiety, confusion, repression, discovery and deceit. As if to balance the message of tolerance with the traditional cautionary messages, the second half kills off almost everyone, usually from the horror of AIDS, but car crashes and senility get their share of victims.

I felt this book missed it's boldly stated goal of promoting tolerance by including too many characters paraded like a circus sideshow, and not enough characters with enough depth to be sympathetic. As a final poetic demonstration of self-loathing the author biography highlight's John Irving's long wrestling career; wrestlers are given a special role in this book as a class including those with poor impulse control, and the often cliched homophobic homoeroticism.

Read at your own risk.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Growing Up Brave by Donna B Pincus ***

If you have a child suffering from excessive anxiety, Growing Up Brave by Donna B Pincus is the book for you. Whether your child is a toddler or a teen, whether your child can't go to sleep, exhibits OCD behaviors, is afraid of social situations, or has separation anxiety, this book has specific steps to recommend. Partially a handbook and partially an infomercial for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the book offers specific courses of action interspersed with case studies of children with probably more challenges than yours.

On the other hand, if you are looking for a more general overview of the childhood anxiety, perhaps you are a teacher or counselor, this book misses the mark. The suggested interventions are such that they should be restricted to licensed therapists and/or parents. Highly recommended for parents of children with anxieties, but few others.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver ****

In 1959, a patriarchal, abusive Baptist preacher moves his wife and four daughters to a mission in Belgium Congo. As the reader realizes that their previous lives in rural Georgia did not prepare them for the ordeal that follows, the reader understands that this dysfunctional family couldn't even function where they were born and raised.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is at it best when it details the family's experiences and realizations from the straight-forward discoveries, Georgia seeds won't fruit where there are no Georgia pollinators, and adjustments, learning the local languages, to the more personally intense and complex, like their varying appreciation for the dynamics of village life, and each daughter's appreciation of their father's evil - a lesson especially hard for daughters.

 But, the family is only half of this ambitious epic. In addition to chronicling three decades of this family, the book also covers the same thirty years following Africa's worst humanitarian and human failures of its post-colonial era. While this period is full of failures, Africa is a big continent and these failures are balanced with successes and heroes, such as Tanzania and Nelson Mandala. That the Conga was a confluence for greed, violence, and incompetence is without question, and that is the flaw with this book.

The second half of this epic moves from the character driven stories of these four girls to overly long discussions of political theories and alternates histories, reminding me of the worst info dumps  usually written in the worst science fiction.

Spoiler Alert: I recommend reading this book for the exquisite characterization and family dynamics, but as soon as one of the family dies, close the book. The rest is weighed down with politics, heavy-handed irony and smug hand-wringing. You can do this safely, being assured that nothing turns out well.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

DNA USA by Bryan Sykes **

My guess it that the publisher felt this was such a hot title, that the book needed to be published regardless of the content. DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America ends with the author Bryan Sykes's apology
the gallery has far too small a number [25!] of individual portraits for me to draw any statistically conclusions.
This is a good start, but there are possibly two more apologies that might be expected by any reader.

So the USA is really 25 people selected for various reasons, but most often convenience and availability, What about DNA? Well, the book discusses DNA in several places, in between a smattering of world history, USA travelogue, and miscellaneous anecdotes. Many of these were genuinely interesting, while others were redundant to an educated reader. Written in the first-person, much comes across like a narcissistic Oxford Professor.

So not really USA, and not really DNA. What is the third apology. The third apology is alluded to throughout the book. This is that the topic itself and the crude analysis is inherently racist. In between explaining why older attempts at such analysis were crude and inaccurate and, therefore, racist, the author seems to miss the irony that the proffered book is just another racist analysis masquerading as the latest science.

My recommendation is that if the title intrigues you, don't read this book, but if you have a voyeuristic interest in up-to-date racism, this is the book for you.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith *****

For the perfect antidote to the divisive and  combative drama of contemporary politics, try Alexander McCall Smith's latest installment of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency: The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection. In a land far away geographically, socially and morally, Mma Precious Ramotswe and freshly married Mma Grace Makutsi solve mysteries in Botswana. This novel deals with corruption and flexible morality - when is it okay to lie for the greater good?

I want to assure all the loyal readers that all crimes and criminals will be brought to justice without an vindictiveness or judgement.In this Botswana fantasy land, there is no Old Testament "eye for an eye," nor any New Testament "turn the other cheek." Each transgression is rectified with the guideline of minimum pain, or even inconvenience, to all parties. Escape reading at its best for this political season.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil McGregor *****

Neil MacGregor has written the ultimate bathroom reader: A History of the World in 100 Objects. In 100 self-contained little chapters, MacGregor traces the history of the world from stone tools of the Olduvai Gorge to silicon ones manufactured in high-tech factories in Shenzhen.

Each chapter tells in interesting story illustrated with an object from the British Museum and insights from the long perspective of the British Empire.

This historical journey starts with a new definition with what it mean to be human. Gone are the old homilies about tools and language that have been discarded as natural scientists decode these behaviors among many other animals. The new criteria? Is the result more complex than necessary. Over design is what makes use human. Think about it.

Another charming example is the design of the first coins for a illiterate society. The largest denomination coin pictured a lion, and each smaller denomination showed less of the lion, until the smallest coins just had a lion's paw.

Juxtapose this with the archeologist's observation: "When a plate or a vase is whole it is alarmingly fragile; once it is smashed the pieces of pottery are almost indestructible."

Then there are the etymological gems. From the Taino, who first greeted Columbus on the shore of Hispanola, we get hurricane, barbecue, hammock, canoe, and tobacco. From the Nahuatl, who first greeted Cortez in Mexico City, we get tomato, chocolate, and avocado.

A simply wonderful book to be read in a hundred sittings, unless you get caught by the teasers at the end of each chapter taunting you on to the next chapter.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz ****

If you've always felt that the world needed another Sherlock Holmes story, The House of Silk is the book for you. With the blessings of Conan Doyle's estate, Anthony Horowitz has channeled a new Sherlock Holmes novel. Here you will find the baffled Doctor Watson asking all the questions and musing about the possible answers, only to have the brilliant Sherlock Holmes explaining with observation and logic how none of the good Doctor Watson's theories are correct.

The are also ample example of Sherlock Holmes deducing some one's history from observations of mannerisms and dress. If anything detracts from the novel, it is this familiarity and deja vu, only broken up occasionally by Watson's self-conscious recognition of himself as a parody of himself.

Unless, you really love Sherlock Homes, this one can be skipped. Of course, if the opposite is true, this is the book for you.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Gold by Chris Cleave ****

Zoe Castle and Kate Argall are track cycling racers. They compete for everything: one gold medal, one lover Jack Argall, and one daughter Sohpie. In Gold by Chris Cleave, life is a sum-zero game, neither woman can have anything she wants without taking it from the other. In spite these conflicts, they share the same coach and are something like friends.

Track racing is a different sport from the its more popular cousin: road racing. Lance Armstrong is a road racing cyclist, and even though track awards more Olympic gold medal than the other three disciplines (road, mountain and BMX) combined, it is the least well known. This book provides a wonderful view into track racing: how the races are run and and how the athletes train.

The conflict between Kate and Zoe reaches a climax when Olympic rule changes only allow one to them to compete in London 2012 and Sophie's leukemia returns taking her to the brink of death. The pressure heightens their personality differences. Zoe becomes more of a loner and a ruthless competitor, while Kate become more social and even nicer, which is hard to believe because from the beginning Kate already seems too nice to compete at the Olympic level.

Chris Cleave is a writer of intense research. He trained on track cycles and spent time at a children's hospital to experience the agonies of training and childhood leukemia. The result is an intense story when the comic relief is the Star Wars fantasies of Sophie as she struggles to cope with chemotherapy. Not for everyone, but rewarding if you'rer brave enough to enter.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway *****

What can anyone say about a book written in 1940 by a Nobel Laureate? I can imagine Ernest Heminway sitting in the great library in the sky, wine in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette in the other, watching the the creation of yet another review. He'd probably quote his Protagonist Robert Jordan, "Bring it on."

Like it is for much great literature, For Whom the Bell Tolls seems strangely current after over 70 years. Here is Robert Jordan again ...
Robert Jordan, wiping out the stew bowl with bread, explained how the income tax and inheritance tax worked. "But the big estates remained ...," He said.

But surely the big proprietors and the rich will make a revolution against such taxes. ... They will revolt against the government when they see that they are threatened ...," Primitivio said.

"It is possible."

 "Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here."

"Yes, we will have to fight."
In reading For Whom the Bell Tolls, it seems like every action film screen writer owes royalties to someone who wrote before they were born. Often the characters and the dialogue seemed cliched ... until I realized that this was written before these thing were cliches.

Certainly worth reading, rereading, just enjoying. The plots is not much, but the setting, characters, and dialogue might be 10% better than anything your read this year, ... or this decade, ... or ever.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Now You Can See It by Cathy N Davidson **

With the rise of the Internet, You can't tell a book by its cover has never been more important. For example, Now You See It by Cathy N Davidson is most like annoying link bait, promising brain science on the cover, but delivering an Internet-style memoir full of hyperbole, anecdotes, and opinion. With equal parts self-aggrandizing remembrances and paeans to Internet browsing and video games, this book demonstrates how the Internet provides a echo chamber where everyone can be a self-appointed pundit and hits are more important than facts or reason.
When you have all the possibilities of your imagination at your disposal for interacting with colleagues around the globe, why would you choose to replicate practices where those matters were fixed by the walls and rules of the industrial-age workplace? [You need a good imagination to even figure out what that could possibly mean.] That is the central question of this entire book. [Well OK then.]
On the Internet, experts proudly say things like:
I warned you that I wasn't going to be objective
...but I'm convinced...
in place of traditional data and analysis.

The irony here is that I am also an Internet and video game fanboy, but I believe the discussion needs to go beyond ADHD browsing to the issues of how the Internet is restructuring society. The impact of the Internet has little to do with chat, which predates the Internet (remember AOL and GEnie?) and hyperlinks (the storied invention of Tim Berners-Lee). Many of the important impacts of the Internet (search, online commerce, and other real-time application) owe their existence more to the twin, unsung technologies of cheap data storage and databases than hyperlinks and cables.

Much of the Internet's impact has been in areas of traditional efficiency, efficiency that has changed the structure of work and play. Banks no longer close in the early afternoon to allow the staff to update the books, and I can play game with my children even if they are miles away.

As I come to the end, I notice that I've said nothing about brain science, the topic on the cover and one in which I'm very interested. That is because the book has little to say on this subject either, much to my disappointment.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Book for Today: Blessed are the Cheesemakers by Sarah-Kate Lynch ****

Continuing with foreign authors, Sarah-Kate Lynch is from New Zealand, even though Blessed Are the Cheesemakers is set in Ireland, with some action on a primitive island off Australia and at a Wall Street firm in NYC.

In a optimistic and cheery kind of magic realism, where two old men, Corrie and Fee, run an artisan cheese operation at Coolarney House producing such fantastic cheeses, such as one that can cause two people to instantly fall in love. Much the story involves hiring personnel for Coolarney House. The first challenge is to hire a dairymaid. The time honored advert reads:
Must have short nails, a good singing voice and enjoy a strict vegetarian diet.
Part of the interview process is to listen to The Sound of Music for three hours. All of this seems unnecessary because Fee will know as soon as he sees the right girl. Incidentally, all of the hired dairymaids always turn out to be pregnant.

Fee knows everything from what bottle of wine Corrie will select for the daily wine and cheese, to the important news that he and Corrie have lost their touch and must be replaced by a new generation of cheesemakers.  As might be expected in a book like this, on that very day, Corrie's granddaughter Abbey from the aforementioned primitive island, and the disgraced Wall Streeter name Kit Stephens, arrive at Coolarney House. You might guess the rest from here.

This is a delightful tale, except for the plot twists, some of which seem not so much like plot twists but total surprises neither foreshadowed to explainable by anything that came before. Regardless, an enjoyable read.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Nightmare by Lars Kepler *****

The success of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series has opened the US market for Swedish authors translated into English. This is my second thriller by a Swedish author. The previous post (A Book for Today: The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell) is in many similarities to The Nightmare by Lars Kepler.

The Nightmare is the second in a series featuring Detective Inspector Joona Linna. As with most mystery/mystery thriller protagonists, he is single. It almost seems to be a rule of fiction, that adults are single and children are orphans. Also true-to-type, he is a martial arts expert and persistent. What I liked about Joona is his hybrid approach with equal parts of logic and intuition. When his logic fails, he falls back on his intuition to find a way to move forward.

The story is about a picture and a professional killer doing his best to destroy all traces of the photograph and  anyone who might have seen it. The refreshing twist is that Joona is overshadowed by Penelope Fernandez. While not possessing Joona's super-human fighting and deductive skills, Penelope has a strength of character that allows her to escape and outwit this professional killer over and over, while he leaves a path of death and damage.

A wonderful chase with surprises and clever twists. Don't start it until you have time to finish it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell *****

The success of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series has opened the US market for Swedish authors translated into English --- certainly an accomplishment in a such an insular and provincial market as the US. Well, Sweden has produced a number of excellent mystery/thriller authors. Consider Henning Mankell - author of the Kurt Wallander series.

Kurt is a detective is a small Swedish town (Ystad). Like many good literary detectives, he is single, persistent, and full of personal angst. I particularly like his balance between intuition and logic, and his emphasis on the team. He solves crime as much with leadership as with insight, a nice change in a genre known for individuals with a caricatured side-kick or two.

In The Fifth Woman, Kurt is after a brutal serial killer. Each murder is very different, but the killer's language of violence and cruelty ties the murders together. In spite of the torturous deaths of the victims, this is not some simple story of good versus evil. There is no black and white; both sides have a story to tell and that is what raises Henning Mankell above the crowd of mystery/thrillers writers.

If you are looking for a new series of mystery/thriller page turner, or something to make you think, this book is highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Black Stiletto by Raymond Benson ***

Martin Talbot's mother has Alzheimer's, so her lawyer figures it is okay to release her death-or-incapacitated letter to her son. This is how Martin learns that pre-women's liberation, his mother was a masked vigilante - The Black Stiletto.

In this first volume of the series The Black Stiletto  fights petty crooks, mobsters, and commies. First of a series? How can you tell? Well, The Black Stiletto by Raymond Benson, leaves lots of clues. This novel presents the first volume of her found diaries. The promotional material (a tongue-in-cheek newscaster, comic and movie covers, and even a 1950s-style jazz song) indicates a longer period of activity then covered in this premier effort. More annoyingly, Martin's daughter is introduced as a teaser for later volumes.

Beyond these hints, Raymond is the author of "several original James Bond 007 novels," so he certainly understands the value of a franchise, and can't not be faulted for wanting one of his own.

Is The Black Stiletto worthy of becoming a franchise? While this is an interesting read, I found the conceit and setup distracting in a middle-of-the-pack mystery effort. A pleasant read, but unlikely to be the next James Bond or, even, Austin Powers.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely ***

In The (Honest)Truth About Dishonesty, Professor of Psychology Dan Ariely recounts dozens of experiments ... mostly, I assume, on unsuspecting undergraduates. It seems that academic psychologists never tire of tricking undergraduates with various games that I imagine the psychologists take much more seriously that their subjects. After all the undergraduates are in it for a few dollars for beer and pizza, but the very livelihood of the academic depends on the papers derived from these activities.

CAVEAT: If you heard about this book on a NPR interview, don't bother to read it. As an avid NPR listener - I listen to many public-radio podcasts when I walk each morning - most of the book was familiar from these interviews.

The most interesting result was that
individuals who were more creative also had higher levels of dishonesty. Intelligence ... wasn't correlated ... with dishonesty.
On the other hand neither the amount to be gained nor the chance of being apprehended had much impact on cheating.

IRONY: One of the quotes of praise on the book jacket is from Jonah Lehrer, who was recently forced to resign from the New Yorker staff for fabricating quotes.

In the end, the author ponders, as academics have a tendency to do, how to stop all this cheating - especially petty theft. He makes an (unconvincing) argument that the cost of petty theft much out weighs the big headlines (e.g., Enron, Mortgage-Backed Securities). Without considering that there is little effort to curb petty theft, he jumps into a modern-day version of self flagellation.

A fine book for voyeurs who enjoy laughing at undergraduates and others who are not as smart as the reader or the author.