Saturday, February 23, 2013

India by Michael Wood ***

I'm planning a trip to India. This book turned out to not be what I was looking for.  India is Michael Wood's travelogue where he reminisces about his extensive visits to the subcontinent, but his desire to be a historian overwhelms the narrative with  long historical digressions ... heavy on adjectives and short on details.
It is a long and tortured story, full of splendors and miseries, of pride and greed, and of fantastic cultural crossovers...
I expect there are better travelogues and better histories. In trying to be both, this book falls short on both.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik *****

Any parent or grandparent of a child |age| < 3 should read The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, et al. This is the child development classic that replaces Piaget.

This is a book about infant development written about the scientists in the field. What kind of experiments do these scientists do? Consider the question of nature vs nurture and the hypothesis that baby are born recognizing facial expressions and with enough self-knowledge to mimic them.

Think about this for a moment. What is the thought process to recognize that someone has stuck their tongue out (at you) and to find your own tongue ans stick it out in response? The involves visual processing, face recognition and parsing, muscle control ... a computer program to preforms this task is certainly non-trivial.

How would a scientist this hypothesis? First is the test setup where the baby is videotaped with random stimuli (sticking tongue out, wide open mouth, control). Observers blind to the stimuli rate the babies responses. Standard science stuff.

Also required is the dedicated scientist who is on call 24x7 to preform this strange test babies during their first day, even one as young as 42 minutes. Now that is science and scientific dedication. Conclusion: this complex skill is innate.

In the first years of life,  babies learn the most fundamental truths. They learn the external world is separate from them, other people think differently then they do, and language.

This well written, easy to read, insightful book has a dual focus on the experiments of both child scientists and child development scientists. The results are fascinating. For example, babies are born able to recognize the phonemes of every language, but by a year they specialize in their own language, whether it be Japanese, Swedish or English. In the beginning a baby will offer everyone Goldfish crackers regardless of that person's expressed (nonverbal, since these are pre-verbal subjects) preference, but at some point (15-18 months), the child happily offers broccoli ... even tough all children themselves prefer the crackers.

What can parents/grandparents learn from this research? Most important is that nature/nurture is a silly question. Evolution has designed the parent(caregiver)/child system to teach/learn - nurture is nature. OK, everyone check their internal light bulbs, smack their forehead, and in unison say, "Duh!"

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo *****

In the small country of Norway, Mikael Bellman of Kripos (think FBI) is in a jurisdictional battle with Harry Hole of Crime Squad (think NYPD). The Leopard by Jo Nesbo is  a finely constructed fractal with interesting complexities at every level, so both men are also interested in detective Kaja Solness and she is torn between attractive brutality of Mikael and the angst-ridden ambivalence of Harry. Thus far this could describe any of a hundred ordinary murder mysteries, but this Norwegian thriller is anything but ordinary.

 Jo Nesbo is a novelist in the pattern Dickens - many important characters and significant subplots, but in the limit, it all fits together into one cohesive narrative, nothing out of place, and nothing extra. No cheap, irrelevant red herrings or zombie subplots. What a pleasure to read a novel with such depth and mathematical beauty that the reveals can be dispersed throughout without slowing the pace.

So what is this book about? It is a murder mystery; a serial-murder mystery; a brutal, psychotic, torture serial-murder mystery. The torture murders are a bit much for me and I would NEVER go to see a movie of this book, but the descriptions are a good balance of brevity and detail to get the idea across without dwelling on gore and agony. Most of the murders happen off-screen and are later described by through forensics.

The murder investigation climaxes over and over, as suspects are discovered, cleared, and, sometimes, discovered again. The careful reader will anticipate some of the reveals, but others are so convoluted that I doubt any readers put the clues together until the pattern is disclosed. Without spoiling the fun, I can assure readers that the clue are there.

One of the best mysteries and another reason to follow Nordic thrillers.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Prisoner's Wife by Gerard MacDonald **

The Prisoner's Wife by Gerard MacDonald (an academic from England) is a disorganized thriller the follows Shawn Maguire (ex-CIA assassin) and Danielle Baptiste (the prisoner's wife) on their quest to release Darius Osmani (the prisoner). This takes place in 2004, so all concerned can be confidently snarky about the Bush/Cheney administration. Even as a liberal reader, I felt this to be petty in 2012 (when the book was published) and fantasy in 2004 (when to story is taking place).

The couple teeters on the edge of sex or sexual tension, as they share chaste beds in the English countryside, Fez Morocco, and Peshawar Pakistan ... never tipping over into a relationship that the reader might care about. "Frequent flyer" Darius is shuttled from one prison to another to be interrogated and tortured, usually one step ahead of the valiant couple. The reason for this chase is unclear, and not helped by the steady stream of random flashbacks to Shawn's dismal professional and personal failures.

There are better thrillers, but if you want some explicit descriptions of torture, you will find them here.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Clockwork Angels by Kevin Anderson ***

Clockwork Angels is a novel based on the eponymous Rush album, both released in 2012. Collectively they both derive from the ever popular 18th century Candide by Voltaire about the wild adventures of a naive optimist. The author is the the prolific writer of other people's worlds and characters, such as Star Wars, Dune, DC Comics, and now Voltaire.

On the plus side this is an excellent steam-punk adaptation with much emphasis on steam engines and clockwork gears, but on the other side, Candide has been told over and over in the last 250 years, so don't expect many plot surprises. That said, Kevin J Anderson is an excellent writer, so the book is an enjoyable read.