Saturday, December 31, 2016

Trainwreck by Sady Doyle *****

"If you are a woman, and you make yourself visible in the world, they will always...insult you back into silence."
Trainwreck by Sady Doyle presents two conflicting ideas: (1) society conspires to exclude women, and (2) progress is being made. The first idea is supported with historical and contemporary examples. I found these examples so awful, that I could only read small sections at a time. The second premise is more an expression of faith.

Doyle suggests that people are considered to be trainwrecks because they are women, and to exclude them from power and influence. "We wreck people because they are women."
"Mental illness and addiction ruin women--make them sideshows, dirty jokes, bogeyman, objects of moral panic--but they only seem to add to a man's mystique."
The list of men and women to support this hypothesis is lengthy on both sides, convincing, discouraging, and depressing.

If you have to courage to read this book, it will give you a view of the subtlety and pervasiveness of misogyny. It shifts the blame from the obvious troglodytes--abusive husbands, predatory employers, pimps, and rapists--to all of us, men and women, with our unconscious assumptions about women.

Women who are reviled in life are often revered in death.
"...death neutralizes them. It removes them from the public eye, definitely and permanently. And it shows, as last, they shouldn't have taken those risks, done those things, said those words, lived that life. By dying, a trainwreck finally gives us the one statement we wanted to hear from her; that women like her really can't make it, and shouldn't be encouraged to try."
This book was released in September 2016. Given its dismal prognosis for women, you might have expected it to foresee the November 2016 election results in the U.S., but no.
"But in all the fury, the conspiracy theorists and angry men seem to miss one of the strangest facts about Hillary Clinton: Gravity works differently on her. You can trip her up or knock her over, but when Hillary falls, she falls up."
In retrospect, like the other attempts by the author to contradicts her dismal observations, this seems to be more of an optimistic prayer, than something related to the lived reality.

As Dante said, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Tribe by Sebastian Junger ****

Tribe by Sebastian Junger is a short (140 small-format pages) book about PTSD. Many conditions are on the increase in recent history. Examples include cancer, autism spectrum disorder, and, as this book explores, post-traumatic stress disorder. Explanations fall into two broad areas: better reporting or environmental changes. Junger comes down in the environmental change column.

Junger appeals to self-determination theory: humans require feelings of competence, authenticity, and connectedness. These outweigh beauty, wealth, and status, even though the latter three are more emphasized by modern society. The general lack of self determination can both explain the attraction of military service and the difficulty in returning from combat.

Echoing The Paleo Diet, the book argues that people evolved to live in tribes and connectedness, while today's society is about division, difference, and individuality. How bad is it?
"The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself... the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone... America's ugliest partisan tendencies could emerge unimpeded by the unifying effects of wars."
This is an interesting take on war and PTSD, but it seems long on problems and short on solutions.

One question in the 21st century is how to achieve equality? Income equality? Racial equality? Gender equality? Interestingly, the only proven method is a disaster, either human-made, such as war, or natural, such as a large earthquake.
"An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain," one of the survivors [of the earthquake in Avezzano in 1915 that killed 30,000 with mortality rates as high as 96%] wrote, "The equality of all men."
In war, there is more equality than in peace. In tribes, there is more equality than in cities.

Monday, December 19, 2016

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister *****

Who said this?
"I'll never run for office. I'm too aggressive, and nobody will ever vote for me."
As everyone realizes, this would have to be a lady, no man would ever say something like this. Regardless, as explored in All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister, much else is changing for women.
"In 2010, women held the majority of all jobs in the country, along with 51% of all management positions. About a third of the nation's doctors are female, and 45 percent of its lawyers. ... The percentage of not just bachelor's degrees, but also master's, law, medical, and doctoral degrees being awarded to women is the highest it has ever been."
In addition, women are delaying marriage and children, and thus accruing more power, wealth, and independence. Even with extensive references to the misogynistic conservative press, when published in March 2016, much of this volume supported the inevitability of a different result in the November election than actually happened.

As a baby boomer, I've had my personal confusion and anxiety with the increase in childless, single women. I highly recommend this book to anxious grandparents-in-waiting. It delivers the promise of hope, understanding, and empathy for these changes in the wrought by feminism.

This an exhaustive volume of history and analysis. Some topics are very optimistic: many important women have been single and/or childless. Other topics are very discouraging: progress is mostly restricted to affluent white women. As might be expected, history tends to be depressing:
"... the Cult of Single Blessedness [19th century]  ... women unmarried by chance or by choice had their own acceptable submissive purpose."
In addition to progress being restricted to affluent whites, it is also geographically restricted to large liberal cities like New York.

As might be expected, the book moves up and down from the joys, opportunities, and fulfillment of a single life, to the poignant sorrow of living alone. In one anecdote, a young lady went out dancing and injured her shoulder. When she finally arrived home, she had to sleep in her party dress as it buttoned up the back and she could no longer reach them buttons, ... and there was no one to help her.

Mini-rant follows: In a celebration of the inevitability of the rise of feminist success and power, an extensive section of the book reiterates every anti-feminist argument confident that these ideas will be swept into the dustbin of history along with those against suffrage, financial rights, same-sex marriage, etc.

In retrospect, I read this optimism as arrogance. The book foreshadows the November election with its emphasis on large cities and white affluence, never seeming to realize the implications of this narrow vision.

In the end, this book is as much a eulogy and a celebration.

Well written, well researched, and vaguely optimistic.

Who said, "I'll never run for office. I'm too aggressive, and nobody will ever vote for me?"

Why, HRC, of course.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Here Comes the Bribe by Mary Daheim ***

Here Comes the Bribe by Mary Daheim is a cozy mystery set at a bed & breakfast in the pacific northwest. The story opens when a wedding party checks in for a small wedding to be held at Hillside Manor B&B the next day. Unfortunately, the bride's mother dies that night and the ceremony is delayed.

The book starts slow as all the strange members of the wedding party are introduced. After the usual false starts, the mystery is solved with little surprise or satisfaction.

If you are going to enjoy this book, you most likely know who you are, as this is number thirty in the series. On the other hand, if you are new to the series, you can get the entire thirty book series on Kindle for a bit over $200 (December 2016).

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Grunt by Mary Roach ****

Some readers might recall NASA  celebrating their civilian contributions, notably Tang, the sad orange juice substitute. Now through Grunt by Mary Roach, the military responds with penis reconstruction, replacement, and transplantation. This seems to be such a fruitful field of work that they are willing to share the credit with others.
"The art of phalloplasty--craft a working penis from other parts of the patient's body--has come a long way (thanks in no small part to the transgender community)."
That gives you a taste of the fascinating subject of military R&D. Topics range from the seemingly mundane like clothing (camo is so popular, that the Navy introduced blue camo for sailors...why?..."That's so no one can see you if you fall overboard.") to the life-critical like bomb proofing troop transports and escaping from submarines.

All together this is a jumble of research reports by the author who managed to get invited into unlikely places like nuclear submarines, the Entomology Branch of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (bugs? right?), and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. Just the book for the hard-core military/science voyeur.

In addition to the hardcore science, the book is full of interesting trivia.

How do you rate smells? The positive responses might be (1) smells good, (2) smells edible, or (3) I would wear it as cologne. Interestingly, no matter how evil a scent might be, people can be found to choose all these descriptors.

Even though the military has a massive operation to design and test "everything a soldier wears, eats, sleeps on, or lives in," they draw the line at women's underwear. Women receive an allowance to buy their own.

Submarines use passive sonar. The do not send out blips; they only listen. Thus, submarines are blinder than bats.

A fun read.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen *****

Remember Alice's Restuarant by Arlo GuthieRazor Girl by Carl Hiaasen is the Alice's Restaurant the 2016 election. Like Arlo Guthrie before him, Carl Hiaasen unrolls a long, humorous story with a serious punchline. Highly recommended for both the journey and the destination.

If you're not familiar for Alice's Restuarant Massacree, briefly, it was a satirical anti-war song from the 1960s. Some say, you had to be there, but you're welcome to find it online if you missed it the first time it came around.

Carl Hiaasen writes zany satirical comedies set in Florida. This latest offering includes: Andrew Yancy, a detective kicked off the police force and now working as a health inspector checking out restaurants, Buck Nance, a reality TV star from Wisconsin who plays a bigoted redneck raising chickens and going by the name of Captain Cock, and Brock Richardson, a lawyer who advertises class action law suits on TV and is a victim of his latest target, an underarm deodorant that cures erectile dysfunction and causes phallus shaped growths plus other difficulties, ... among others.

That gives you the idea, but I can't leave out the title character: Merry Mansfield. Her specialty is to crash into cars to kidnap the driver or whatever. Her special twist is that when the angry driver gets to her, her skirt is up and she is shaving her bikini area. The distracts the victim...well you get the drift.

Like Alice's Restuarant, once everyone is relaxed and happy, a serious message is delivered. So there you have it, a trio of ambush artists: Arlo Guthrie, Carl Hiaasen, and Merry Mansfield.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Ancient Mesopotamia by Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat ****

Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia by Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat is a comprehensive volume on the dawn of civilization from 4000 BCE (and before) to the rise of Greek civilization (mid first millennium BCE). How comprehensive? Exhaustive.

There are many long lists with detailed explanations and examples. For examples, the section crafts includes: carpentry, pottery,glass, textiles, basketry, leather, stone sculpture, seals, metals, jewelry, ivory, and songs.

In the interest of completeness, the editing tends towards redundancy rather then conciseness. For example there is a discussion of money...
"...silver, which now began to serve the three classical functions of money: as a medium of exchange, as a unit of account, and as a standard of value."
A mere seven pages later the following is offered...
"Currency has four difference functions: (1) as a standard of value, (2) as a medium of exchange, (3) as a means of payment, and (4) as a means of accumulating wealth."
Certainly the major contribution of this place and time was writing. By 1500 BCE much of civilization as we know it was in place, including recognizable government, religious, family, trade, diplomatic, judicial, and medical structures, as well as technologies for manufacturing, farming, housing, and transportation. Someone transported back 3,500 years might have little difficulty understanding society. Much from back then survives today.

Our base 60 math (minutes, seconds, degrees of arc) comes from these people.

Before we give these people too much credit, we also need to remember...
"Caution must be exercised at all times, since many facets of Babylonian technology have their roots in prehistory. For example... wool... the arts of bleaching, spinning, fulling, dyeing, and weaving were fully developed by the fourth millenium... pottery... metalwork... The potter's wheel was already widely used before 4000 BCE... We know even less about early metal, since it was melted down and reused."
If you want to know anything about Mesopotamia (except lists of kings and battles), this is the book.

A few more interesting tidbits, mostly centered around 1500 BCE.

Mesopotamian traders went as far east as India, into central Asia, north to Anatolia (Turkey) and the Caucasus mountains, west to the Mediterranean and Cyprus and Crete, and south to Egypt, both across land and by water. The counter-clockwise route from Phoenicia to Egpyt via southern Crete was well traveled at this time.

Visitors from beyond the this sphere were also possible, as records of European visitors have been found dated back to the 12th century BCE.

Common math knowledge included algebra for addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, squares, cubes, and Pythagorean theorem. Math focused on practical applications, such as inventories, land records, taxes, tariffs, and shares.

There is significant continuity from this period to today. Many roads follow ancient routes, and cities maintain their locations and names.
"Once a city was destroyed, the remaining inhabitants continued to live in the ruins, preserving the city's name through the millennia."
Society was divided into royalty, priests, land owners, freemen, and slaves. The was some mobility.

The efficiency of farming left time for recreation, including, polo, hunting, board games, toys, music (drums, lyres, flutes), and plays.
"Kingship began as a temporary office during times of danger. When the emergency past, the king no longer held power. Once war became chronic, the office of the king became a permanent position."
Famously Herodotus wrote of temple prostitutes.
"The most shameful of the customs of the Babylonians is this: every woman must sit at the shrine of Aphrodite once in her life to have intercourse with a strange man... She follows the first man who throws money and refuses no one... After... she... goes home... There is a similar custom in Cyprus."
An interesting device for flotation was the use of inflated animal skins. The head would be cut off and the skin sewed close to form a bladder. Three legs would be sealed, but the fourth was used for inflation by blowing into it and tying it shut. Such a raft might float down the river with occasional re-inflation for leakage. At the end of the trip, the bladders would be deflated and carried by mule back up stream for another trip.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Ancient Egyptians by Brier and Hobbs ****

So much of history, particularly ancient history, is about politics and powers. In the case of Egypt, this means the XXXIII dynasties of pharaohs. The Ancient Egyptians by Brier and Hobbs can't get away from all those pharaohs, but it also covers work, play, food, clothes, etc.

When archaeologists look back many thousands of years, many of their conclusions involve guessing. They are beyond the earlier archaeologists where the bias was to to confirm The Bible. Still today, when a chaotic city for pyramid workers is uncovered, someone can't help but suggest that  the large workers' encampment lead the Greeks to identify it with the labyrinth on Crete. Such is the innate human drive to rationalize and explain.

Egyptian had a limited palette of colors:black, white, blue, red, yellow, and brown.

Interesting to writers, beyond bookkeeping, Egypt left significant "wisdom literature," simply called "instructions." These still seem familiar today.
The respectful man prospers.
Praised is the modest one.
The tent is open to the silent.
This is an excellent references for anyone interested in ancient Egypt from grade 4/5 to adult.

Egyptian Food

Some interesting notes about Egyptian science.

Egypt had two medical systems. One was magical and the other clinical. Known issues, such a animal bites and broken bones were treated clinically. Other diseases, termed "unknown diseases," were treated magically. (Compare ancient "unknown" diseases to modern "idiopathic" diseases.) This is not so different from the present day situation, expect that we have fewer "unknown" diseases.

Since resurrection was a major Egyptian belief, autopsies were out of the question. As a result most anatomical knowledge came from butchering animals. Hieroglyphs for parts of the body all pictures animal parts. For example a uterus was a two-chambered organ, as in a cow, versus the single chamber found in humans.

Much medicine was based on the principle of similars. For example dehydrated pigs eyes were a treatment for blindness, Also mandrake roots which look something like male genitalia were prescribed for impotency and infertility.

On a more scientific note, many potions were mixed into a base of honey which has a proven antibacterial property. Also the pregnancy test of soaking barley in a woman's urine, has been shown to have a 70% accuracy.

The Egyptians invented the 24-hour day. The Greeks combined this with base-60 arithmetic from Babylon.
Thus, modern timekeeping is based on an Egyptian invention, which was standardize by the Greeks using a Babylonian mathematical system.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon ***

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon feels like LA Confidential updated to the early 1970s and written by Kurt Vonnegut, yielding an odd mixture of science fiction/fantasy and hard-boiled mystery about private investigator Doc Sportello.
It all began, apparently, some 3 billion years ago, on a planet in a binary star system quite a good distance from Earth. Doc's name was something like Xqq...
In the current time, Doc is simultaneously stoned and and an astute observer of the human condition.
"What I should only trust good people? man, good people get bought and sold every day. Might as well trust somebody evil once in a while, it makes no more or less sense. I mean I wouldn't give odds either way."
For a strange remembrance, reconstruction of the early 1970s, this might be the book for you.

Pynchon delivers on many levels with liberal doses of clever writing and obscure references to Los Angeles geography.
Back when Doc was still new in town, one day around sunset--the daily event, not the boulevard--he was in Santa Monica near the western end of Pico...
Two nerd notes:

The title is an obscure insurance term. Inherent Vice: An exclusion found in most property insurance policies eliminating coverage for loss caused by a quality in property that causes it to damage or destroy itself, which might be taken as a metaphor for Doc or LA or not.

The APRAnet plays a small role as a harbinger of 21st century Internet, but also as a harbinger of itself, as the novel is set at a time when the ARPAnet had maybe three dozen nodes.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Living in Ancient Greece by Don Nardo, ed. ****

History comes in two flavors: politics and daily life. Living in Ancient Greece by Don Nardo, ed is of the second type.While Pericles and Aristotle are mentioned in passing, the emphasis is on daily life with chapters on dress, food, education, crafts, and medicine.

It is full of interesting details, such that Greek pottery which is iconic of ancient Greece (500 BCE) traces it origin back to Crete 2,000 year earlier. One of the authors makes the interesting claim that that Euclid's volume on geometry (Elements) is distinguished because "no book except the Bible has enjoyed such a long subsequent reign."

While this book is a collection of excerpts from fourteen scholarly papers, it is short (around 130 pages) and accessible to intermediate, or advance upper elementary students, who might be reporting on ancient Greece, especially Athens.

One interesting aspect of Athenian law was that there were no lawyers. People needed to represent themselves. However, they could deliver a defense written by professionals. The happy benefit of this practice is that historians have access to transcripts of trials.

In an early experiment of "stand your ground" legislation, Athens allowed the husband to kill his wife's lover, but only if there was no other motivation, no monetary gain, and no other animosity.

Prior to killing his wife's lover, the husband reports during his trial that he said this:
It is not I who shall be killing you, but the law of the State, which you, in transgressing, have valued less highly than you own pleasure... Thus members of the jury, this man met the fate which the laws prescribe for wrong-doers of this kind.
This seems remarkably contemporary even though it happened almost 2,500 years ago.

In another contemporary echo, the original Hippocratic Oath prohibited abortion.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Because of Sex by Gillian Thomas *****

Because of Sex by Gillian Thomas opens with
"On February 8, 1964, an eighty-year-old segregationist congressman named Howard Smith ... changed the lives of American working women forever."
His proposal was to add the word sex after religion in four places in the Civil Rights Act. Though he had been a supporter of the ERA (Equal Right Amendment), his intent wasn't clear. Some though his purpose was to torpedo the Civil Rights Act. Regardless, his proposal passed as did the Act.

Thomas's book traces how fifty years and ten Supreme Court cases, have changed the workplace for women. So much has changed, that today it is hard to imagine the workplace 40 or 50 years ago.

Employment ads differentiated between Wanted Men and Wanted Women. Sexual harassment was not even a concept. Cases that were decided in the Supreme Court included a company that refused female applicants with preschool children, and another that required women to be surgically sterilized if they wished to keep their job.

This book is a combination of a legal thriller and civil rights history. Well written and fun to read. Highly recommended to anyone interested in woman's rights in the workplace, both the history and the future.

The Act allowed discrimination if there was a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ). Much of the legal wrangling concerned companies not hiring women and suggesting there was a BFOQ. This included many well paid jobs with law enforcement, in prisons, requiring lifting, etc. Usually under the guise of protecting women, they were refused employment. The general rule became that women could not be refused because of an assumption about all women. If someone was refused, the employers had to show that that women cold not perform the job.

If a qualification such as height and weight (that tended to disqualify women disproportionately) was put forth, there had to be hard data supporting it. This ploy rarely stood up in court.

It seems like the only BFOQ left is roles for actors, and even that may be problematic today.

How hard was this battle and how much has changed?
After all [in the late 1980s], the [U.S. Court of Appeals] noted, "sexual jokes, sexual conversations and girlie magazines" were always going to be part of the American workplace, and [the Civil Rights Act] was not meant to change that.
The book delivered a very positive story of the past, but ends with a depressing epilogue about how much of a struggle remains.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler ****

After retirement one has a tendency to reminisce and extract lessons to share with children and grandchildren and anyone who might listen. Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler is about Tess, a twenty-two-year-old from Ohio who moves to New York (City) and works in an upscale restaurant, making it a great book for foodies and New Yorkers, but what about the rest of us?

Much of Tess's story is the universal experience of growing up and finding, or not finding, one's place in the world, and hopefully someone to share that place with you. Tess struggles finding direction.

Is service work, well-paid service work, temporary or a career? Tess is smart and motivated. She studies food and wine and service. She becomes accomplished, but still can not figure out whether she is just a good student or on a road to her future.

The same is true for her personal life. New York nightlife is a challenge, but she figures it out. Again, this success is not all that satisfying.

Here I return to the retired point of view. Danler reminds me of the struggles on my own early twenties, so much so that I have no idea how I found myself, my career, and my partner. In the end, I felt more humility and gratitude, than any expertise to pass to the next generation.

Sometimes this is the result of literature and a welcome alternative when so much writing pretends to know the answers.

One of the lessons of service that Tess learned is, "People came back to the restaurant just to have that feeling of being taken care of," but the servers had to always remember...
"Regulars are not friends. They are guests. Bob Keating? A racist, and a bigot. ... he has no idea he's being served by an old queen. Never show yourself."
After a year in New York, Tess develops strength and attitude. When being accosted by a stranger in a bar...
"I know it is quiet at your job ... so I understand the need to impose yourself on whatever docile-looking female you find ... If you want someone to put up with you, may I suggest your waitress because that is lit-er-ally what you're paying her to do right now."
Tess grows up, becomes stronger and more independent, but is she on the road to happiness?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt ****

Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt Nathalia Holt intertwines two historical narratives: NASA space exploration and the women at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Both these stories started with missile development for World War II, but with the end of that war, the efforts transitioned to scientific missions.

In the beginning women could not be engineers, but they could be computers – women who manually performed the complex calculations required by male engineers. As bad as this discrimination might sound today, it was a great opportunity for women in the 40s and 50s when many engineering schools didn't even accept women. 

These were rigorous technical jobs were given to women with limited education, who showed promise and interest, sometimes right out of high school. Their success was what we might expect today, but shocked the people of their generation who didn't expect women to work, and if they did, the career choices were nurse, teacher, and secretary, not planning interplanetary missions.

Aside from the commonality of working on space exploration, the women were from different races, and some married, some divorced, some had children, some didn't. As today, this history shows that gender tells little about a person. 

This is a wonderful history of technical women and NASA.

In the beginning, and for decades, this group at JPL was exclusively female.
“It was a respected position, one that men eagerly applied for. It just so happened that their applications were all turned down.”
The job ads stated “no degree required,” which in those days was code for women to apply. However the ideal candidate was someone with a math minor. Women rarely majored in math as there were no female jobs using math. The minor simultaneously indicated aptitude and interest.

The women were responsible for calculating trajectories among other things. In the 70s this meant planning the path for the Voyagers to explore the solar system and beyond. Voyager planning was done in secret as Congress had only authorized as far as Jupiter.

On a personal note, I enjoyed the story of early computing machines, as I also worked with Friden calculators, and IBM 70x and 1620 machines.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Foreign Deceit by Jeff Carson *****

In Foreign Deceit by Jeff Carson Wolf is a deputy sheriff in a small town in Colorado. This book involves two cases, one of a high school boy who accidentally falls to his death and a suicide by Wolf’s brother in Italy. Without giving anything away to experienced mystery readers, both case turn out to be murders, as do all deaths in all mysteries.

Wolf is tough and observant and persistent. The plots move along in a believable and interesting way. This is one of those good books that read too fast and end too soon.

It was available as a free Kindle book as an introduction to the series. Try it, you’ll it.

However, there was a third plot line about sheriff’s office politics and promotions. I felt the resolution of this plot line was contrived for no other purpose than to leave a questions for the next book in the series.

Monday, September 12, 2016

21 Dares by JC Gatlin **

21 Dares by JC Gatlin opens when Abbie Reed was three and a half years old, and someone broke into her house and slit her twelve-year-old sister’s throat with a box cutter. Abbie never recovered.

Now fifteen years later, she is in college, in therapy, and isolated. She is being stalked by an incompetent stalker who is always obvious in the same coat and hat.

Her acquaintances throw her a surprise party and challenge her to 21 dares. Corpses pile up, but the plot never adds up. It was available as a free Kindle book as an introduction to the series. Try it, you might like it.

My concerns: The unbelievable plot resolution was overshadowed by Abbie herself. Abbie was a character who consistently made bad decisions. She seemed to consider a positive choice, but each time accepted pressure from anyone and everyone to make the wrong choice. She accepted every dare, no matter the source, and no matter the consequences.

When the murderer is revealed, that character’s motivation turns out to be as unconvincing as Abbie’s.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Forget Me Not by John Hemmings ***

 In Forget Me Not by John Hemmings Mark Kane and his assistant Lucy solve crimes in the Boston area. This case is about a lady, wife, mother who died of Alzheimer’s shortly after being reunited with her daughter who was given up for adoption before her marriage. She leaves half her considerable and personal estate to the daughter. Not surprisingly the husband and sons question the bona fides of the daughter. Enter our private investigator Kane and his assistant Lucy.

What follows is an ordinary investigation and mystery with the requisite plot twists and turns. It was available as a free Kindle book as an introduction to the series. Try it, you might like it.

Two caveats:

First, much of the opening chapters involve a convoluted setup to prevent DNA testing from being the obvious solution to the mystery about whether the daughter is genuine. This includes cremating the lady, having all her relatives predeceased, adopting the two sons of her marriage, etc. Thus the long introduction is more about setup than sleuthing.

Second, while several crimes are uncovered and solved, none of them are brought to justice. I found this odd. I did not see anything in Mark Kane’s character development to indicate that he would play judge and jury and decide to pardon everyone. This seemed to be a radical result from nowhere.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Third Girl by Nell Goodin *****

In the The Third Girl by Nell GoodinMolly Sutton is recently divorced and looking for an escape. She fell in love with a cottage on the Internet and bought it in spite of her rusty French language skills. She would have preferred a low profile but this plan was foiled by large breasts she had acquired at her ex's behest and the couple staying at her rental unit. They were parents of a local student who mysteriously disappeared.

As a nice change from most cozy mysteries, Molly is not a curious busybody. This is a very pleasant read, like a walk in through the country on a beautiful day.

I received this Kindle copy at no cost.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Foreign Affairs by Stuart Woods ***

WARNING: A key plot point is a young lady's ability to hide an iPhone inside her body. I did not find this interesting or plausible. You reaction might differ.

Foreign Affairs by Stuart Woods is a Stone Barrington novel about a young lady named Hedwig (Hedy) Eva Maria Kiesler who Stone meets on a airplane. She immediately moves in with him, and as a result she is kidnapped.

This novel had me thinking about superheros. I recall reading somewhere that superheros need interesting superpowers and a vulnerability. Consider Superman with his many superpowers and vulnerability to Kryptonite, or James Bond with is high-tech gadgets and a weakness for beautiful women.

Stone Barrington's superpower is his powerful friends such as the U.S. President Kate (Madame President), NYPD Police Commissioner, and various heads of national intelligence agencies. He also has inexhaustible staff and financial resources. Vulnerabilities? None worth mentioning.

As a result all problems are immediately outsourced, Stone himself is not that interesting, so not the best superhero.

This short novel predictably ends with her rescue and a teaser for the next installment. This novel is #35.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Make Me by Lee Child *****

On average we spend more days reading our least favorite books. This is because our favorite books are read quickly, while the others go more slowly. In general, I read about a book a week or around 50 pages a day.

Make Me by Lee Child is a longer book (400 pages) with smaller print and single spacing. However, Jack Reacher's mystery in the middle of a an Oklahoma wheat field only lasted for 2 1/2 days. Like I said, my favorite books are read quickly.

If you want quick and enjoyable read, here it is.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Eve of a Hundred Nights by Bill Lascher ****

Melville and Annalee Jacoby were reporters in Philippines in 1941. If you didn't immediately ask yourself, "Wasn't the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941?" you might lack the context to read this fascinating story of the open years of World War II in the Pacific. You might also want to refresh your memory of the battles on Bataan and Corregidor.

Eve of a Hundred Nights by Bill Lascher recounts the story of Melville Jaconby and Annalee Whitmore, two Stanford graduates interested in adventure, excitement and writing. Much like idealistic and privileged young people today, Mel and Annalee were free to follow their dreams, and ultimately succeeded through persistence, talent, and connections.

For example, Annalee wanted to be a screenwriter in Hollywood. In a short time, she had a seven-year contract with MGM and wrote five screenplays which were produced. Having achieved this goal, she quickly abandoned her contract to move to China, a move facilitated by her college friends and contacts.

Much like current college graduates, Melville followed his muse by putting together multiple part-time and freelance projects to support himself, until his network landed him the job of Time bureau chief for the Pacific, based in Manila.

The position is Manila was a mixed blessing. While it provided him with sufficient stability to marry Annalee, it also place the couple in Manila at the opening of WWII during a time when the U. S. "Eruope First" strategy starved (literally) the Pacific forces. Refer here to Bataan and Corregidor.

For anyone interested in WWII, this book will certainly offer some new view and insights into the Pacific war through the experiences of these two reporters.

Some interesting details: During WWII China sent pandas to the U. S. to build support. A national naming contest had the winning entries: Pan-Duh and Pan-Dee. The famous Pan Am Clipper was a Boeing 314 - a sea plane. A Japanese submarine shelled shelled California.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman ***

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman is a 19th-century historical novel about Camille Pissarro, French Impressionist. The story starts in St Thomas and ends in Paris. Hoffman writes poetically with a mixture of mystical fantasy and imagined memoir. The result is a protective fog blurring the social ills of the period, such as antisemitism, slavery, prejudice, and strict social stratification, which are integral to the story.

"Based on a real story" can be the biggest challenge to an author. One the positive side, the "real story" delivers many of the elements of a novel, such as plot, setting, and characters. However, real life is nothing like a novel. Reality tends to be chaotic and meaningless, while a novel is orderly and structured. This novel follows the life and times of Camille Pissarro, the reader might not.

Given the subject, the book could have been a harsh commentary on the brutality of the time, but instead it is a poignant love story. Page by page, Hoffman is a wonderful writer and a pleasure to read. However, I found the book a bit hard to follow.

We arrived in Marseille, where we spent a few days at a hotel on a bluff overlooking the cold Atlantic.
I can't imagine why this city was moved from the warm Mediterranean to the cold Atlantic.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Importance of Being Little by Erika Christakis *****

Early childhood education produces more anxiety among parents, teachers, and politicians than other child rearing topics. Somehow, we all feel that this is our opportunity to make a difference before the later years where the child's increasing agency, and our increasing impotence, dulls optimism and enthusiasm. By the time adolescence hits, they seem to be on an independent path and much beyond the influence of the previous generations.

The Importance of Being Little by Erika Christakis, by Yale Professor and Harvard honors graduate, with 20% of its pages dedicated to notes, bibliography, and index, dives into these fraught waters with ample references to history, politics, anecdotes, and personal experiences. Before you cross this off you list, consider Christakis' primary theme and recommendation: Get to know your child and appreciate their unique powers and capabilities.

From her lofty position, Christakis discounts today's ubiquitous early education standards, academic preparations, and skill training.
"the prime purpose of being four is to enjoy being four; of secondary importance is to prepare for being five." [... nothing about college entrance exams]
Do not be concerned if your child is not reading or doing math, and certainly don't fret if the child can not sit still and take notes while a the teacher lectures.

One of her criticisms is the packaged curricula, including my personal pet peeve: seasons. How foolish and irrelevant is it to teach seasons in southern California, with pictures of falling leaves and snow appropriate for New England. Southern California has seasons of rain and wind and fires with ample educational topics. Why use the foreign examples of leaves and snow?

She also points out the urgency of skill objectives. For example, when introducing children to clay, it is folly to start with creating bowls or animals or whatever project is in the lesson plan. Small children can benefit from spending days or even weeks just experiment with the material. The same is true for all materials from mathematical manipulative (what a terrible name, right?) to the various projects which seem to have more emphasis on something to put on the refrigerator than on child education.

One last thing to remember on those sleepless night...
"Studies of identical twins raised apart seem to put a damper on the idea that what we do for our children has much effect."
If you are a parent, this is a book to give you license to appreciate your child as they are, and help you through the stress of today's pressure cooker of early childhood education. Can not recommend this any higher for all parents of children through first grade. It is full of advice, examples, and encouragement.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Vanishing of Flight MH370 by Richard Quest ****

"Many people have asked me how I can write a book about MH370 when authorities haven't found the plane and the ending of the story remains unknown."
The Vanishing of Flight MH370 by Richard Quest is more and less than the story of the Boeing 777 that left Malaysia on March 8, 2014, never to be seen again. Without the main story, "What happened?" Quest (appropriate name, right?) fills his book with the stories of the families, the investigators, and, like Ouroboros eating his tail, the news reporters.

Richard Quest is a CNN aviation correspondence, and CNN was the news organization that invested the most resources and air time to this story. For a time, CNN was 24/7 on this story. Jon Stewart of the Daily Show mocked them, but their viewers loved it. At the time, many people accused to CNN of padding their coverage to fill the demands of 24-hours news coverage. One might say something similar about this book.

Given the task to report everything, except the resolution which is still unknown, the author reviews all the air crashes since Pan Am 103 crashed over Lockerbie Scotland in 1988. If you are a nervous flyer, this litany of accidents and deliberate events will not be helpful. However, taking a step back, we can be encouraged by the variety of conditions. There is no pattern, fatal crashes tend to be unique and not repeated.

As each crash tends to be unique, the governments, scientists, and airline executives are never prepared and struggle with the right balance of caution and disclosure. For example, over a year after the disappearance a piece of the plane (flaperon) was found.
"It was a very strange situation: everyone agreed that this was a 777 flaperon, but no one would say it was THE flaperon. Yet what else could it be? There were no other missing 777s in that part of the world.
Like the CNN viewers, many readers will find the book fascinating, with its extensive research, comprehensive reporting, and accessible treatment of hyper-technical topics. I certainly enjoyed it.

Friday, July 29, 2016

You May Also Like by Tom Vanderbilt ****

"I like this." What does it mean that we like something?
You May Also Like by Tom Vanderbilt makes it clear that that tastes are transient both for individuals and for societies. In the short term, our preferences are are consistent, but in the long run, they vary significantly. In experiments where people could not remember making a choice, that choice still influenced there preferences.
"We seem to have a preference that we prefer our preferences."
The act of choosing leaves a lasting impact on our likes.

A word on the title: You May Also Like. This title misled me to believe that there would be a lot about recommendation engines such as those used by Netflix and Amazon. There was one chapter (it was great), but most of the research was about food, beer, and cats. Much of this latter research is older and has been presented before.

As a senior citizen, I found myself thinking that the entire question of taste and style, identifying the best, and striving for excellence is a pastime of younger folks. I could not identify with the urgency and dedication to selecting be best beer or music. Could it be that the drive for comparison with peers is something that wanes with maturity? Or could it be that we've seen so many fashions come and go that the ebb and flow of style is no longer interesting?

This book is fascinating because tastes are so contradictory. Like rats, we are neophobic omnivores. We will eat anything, but are wary of new foods. This is balanced by food monotony, where we resist eating the same thing day after day (except for breakfast, and 3rd world societies). An enjoyable read with lots of stories of scientific studies and judging food, beer, and cats.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Starter Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer *****

The Starter Wife by Gigi Grazer appears to be a novel fashion and gossip set in the Malibu Colony (near the intersection of Malibu Canyon and Pacific Coast Highway). Readers looking for local color, hip dialogue, and Hollywood gossip will not be disappointed. However, Grazer also delivers genuine characters dealing with the life changes that come with age, changes universal beyond the cliches and stereotypes of Hollywood's cult of youth with its emphasis on maintaining a young appearance at all costs.

The story centers around Gracie, in her early forties, who is being divorced by her movie producer husband, and her two friends, Will who is gay, and Joan who is married to a rich, geriatric husband.

In between dealing with the challenges of age, clever dialogue provides comic relief.
"They're called Ugg boots," Gracie said, "because they're ugly and they're called boots. And Mommy needs to get a pair. We're living in Malibu now, Jaden. It's the law."
"You want to have dinner tomorrow night?" Lou asked.
Gracie just looked at him. "I usually have dinner every night."
On a more serious note, Gracie's friend Joan is being divorced by her geriatric husband. Both women are around forty. Her husband, previously thought to be closer to the grave than not, is leaving Joan for another woman.
"Someone older," Joan said, choking.
"How much older?" Gracie asked.
"She's seventy," Joan said. "How'm I supposed to compete with that?"
While this book is an easy read, light and breezy, with plenty of humor, it also explores the effects of age on all of us. Thus, it reaches beyond the trite stories of Hollywood to more universal truths of the limitations and compromises everyone must address as the years add up.