Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Library of Light and Shadow by M J Rose ***

The Library of Light and Shadow by M J Rose

Delphine Duplessi is a daughter of La Lune, a member of a long line of witches, each with their own individual magick. Her talent is drawing people’s secrets and futures when she is wearing her satin blindfold. Even under ordinary circumstances, she is sensitive to feelings and intentions by seeing auras. These capabilities bring her more difficulties than benefits. For example, her visions lead her to abandon her one true love and do not help her locate Nicholas Flamel’s ancient book of alchemy.

Delphine accidentally creates a shadow drawing standing over her true love, Mathieu, covered with his blood with the knife in her hand. To prevent this and save his life, she breaks up with him and leaves him in Paris and moves to New York. The curse of all daughters of La Lune is that they may only have a single love. This sacrifice to save him means she will never love anyone. The is the first mystery.

She kept a diary of her time with Mathieu and rereads her romantic and sexual encounters as consolation for her loveless existence. Warning: some of the sex scenes are explicit.

The second mystery is to find the book of alchemy hidden in a castle owned by a famous opera star. She uses her blindfold to draw shadow pictures of the castle. While she finds a famous painting (should be in the Louvre) and a hidden opium den, the pictures never lead her to the missing book.
In the end, I found the revelations of both mysteries to be predictable.

This is a Simon and Shuster book, so I feel it is fair game to point out inconsistencies that the editors should have fixed.

  1. While she is sensitive to almost everyone’s feelings, she completely misses that his fiance’s family (in 1920s New York) is anti-Semitic.
  2. When she arrives in France at La Harve, she quickly drives north to Cannes. Today Cannes is a 12-hour drive south of La Harve.
  3. Having been away from Mathieu for five years (about 2,000 days), she bemoans a 6,000-day absence.

If you are interested romance and an occult mystery, this is the book for you.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Half-Life by Frank Close ****

Bruno Pontecorvo was an important twentieth-century physicist, a student of Enrico Fermi, a member of the Manhattan Project, and central to neutrino research and the development of the Standard Model of particle physics. You might have two responses to this information. First, you might ask, “Standard Model? What is that?” In that case, this biography written by a physicist is not for you. The author assumes at least a passing familiarity with for quantum mechanics and particle physics. Second, you might ask, “Why I haven’t I heard of him?” or even, “Why didn’t he receive a Nobel Prize.” In this latter case, Half-Life by Frank Close is the book you’ve been looking for.

Bruno Pontecorvo escaped the Fascists in Italy by going to France. He escaped the German invasion of France, by going to the United States. He avoided the xenophobic Americans by moving to Canada. After World War II, he took British Citizenship and moved to England to avoid McCarthyism. Then, in 1950 while on vacation with his family in Italy, he defected to the U.S.S.R. with his Swedish wife Marianne, and three sons, Gil, Tito, and Antonio.

The first job he had in the United States was prospecting for oil in Oklahoma during the war.
“One-day Bruno was driving a truck full of geophysical instruments… the police became suspicious when they noticed the array of unusual instruments… they realized he wasn’t American and exclaimed, “Enemy alien!” … the police, who thought he was reaching for a gun, immediately immobilized him… the police explained that he had risked being killed.”
Soon afterward he moved to Canada.

Following Pontecorvo’s defection, the British and American security services examined their files in detail uncovering many humorous-in-retrospect incidents. In one case, a British file warned of the dearth of British citizens on the Canadian part of the Manhattan Project. However, history showed that the only British citizen was a Russian spy. In another case, they questioned a British intelligence officer for not consulting the Italians about Pontocorvo’s history as a member of the Communist Party.
[he sighed that] in 1943 Britain had been at war with Italy, so “consultation would have been rather difficult.”
On the science side of the story, there was a mystery for 40 years about the detection of neutrinos from the Sun. I remember reading periodic science stories about, first the building of bigger detectors, and then discovering a shortage of observed neutrinos. Pontecorvo ultimately helped to solve this mystery by explaining how some solar neutrinos changed on their way to the detectors. This was the first I’ve read about the solution to this problem.

This book was more of a history than a biography as there were few personal stories. One anecdote demonstrated how scientists view the world. Pontecorvo hypothesized that there were more beautiful women in Paris that Marseilles. He immediately suggested an experiment. “Just count the number of plain women that pass before an attractive one appears.” He was eighty at the time.

If you have an interest in the high-energy physics in the latter part of the twentieth century, and the cold war, this is the book for you.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

What do you care... by Richard Feynman ****

What do you care about what other people think? by Richard Feynman is billed as a sequel to Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman. Unfortunately, like many sequels, it is a disappointment. Surely you're joking is a classic and anyone interested in science should read this. It is undoubtedly one of the best books about the ethics and ethos of science.

If you are not familiar with Feynman, briefly he was a brilliant physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, taught at Caltech, and received a Nobel Prize.

This book divides into three parts. The first is the sequel the Surely you're joking with vignettes from Feynman's life, notably about his courtship and marriage to his first wife, who died very young. If you enjoyed, the first book, you enjoy this also.

The second section is a small collection of letters to and from Feynman.

 The third section chronicles his participation on the Presidential Commission that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. This is a combination of Faynmen stories like Surely you're joking and a report on the disaster. I personally consider it to be the definitive report. It is what I recall.

The Challenger section is also a nostalgic piece of a time when people trusted scientists and news reporters were interested in the truth.

If you've already read Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman, this is an enjoyable addendum. The other reason to read this book is for the excellent discussion of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster with some advice for technical managers.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore *****

NIGHTMARES. True-story horror. More nightmares. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore tells the story of poor, young women hired to paint radium (glow-in-the-dark) dials. They received radiation poisoning with no relief or protection from the government or their employers. Radiation poisoning is horrific - pain, disintegrating bones, cancer, and disfigurement.

The company commissioned an early investigation that identified radium poisoning as the problem. The company suppressed the report and instructed the managers to deny any risk and maintain an atmosphere of confidence.
"An atmosphere of confidence is just as contagious as one of alarm and doubt."
Arrayed against the women were more than just the companies making glow-in-the-dark alarm clocks (I had one when I was young.) There was a big pre-FDA medical treatment industry dosing people with radium in many forms. In addition, the military used these dials in many applications from watches for infantry to controls for avionics.

The case dragged on until the women were elated just to have the moral victory that declared the company was at fault. Most received no compensation and no one was punished.

More? The laws didn't really change until Eben Byers, "a world-renowned industrialist and playboy," died of radium poisoning. The Chicago Times wrote:
"The shoot to kill when it comes to cattle thieves in Illinois, and fish and fowl are safeguarded by stringent game laws, but womenfolk come cheap."
Imagine the tobacco cover-up: deceit, disinformation, and delay. The radium industry killed fewer people, but the arrogance and behavior were similar. Well researched and thorough. The author tries to end on a positive note, but the facts prevent this. Read it if you dare.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury ****

Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury is more a short story collection than a novel. Bradbury's low opinion of the human race (Americans) is demonstrated as different stories replay historical injustices such as the genocide associated with colonization, book burning (which he visits at length a few years later in Fahrenheit 451), Jim Crow era injustices, and ultimately the end of life on earth.
"What about the rocket? What about Minnesota?"
"That's right. Nothing. Nothing at all anymore. No more Minneapolis, no more rockets, no more Earth."
As was common for many early Science Fiction writers, Bradbury tends to get on a soapbox.

In "And the moon be still as bright" published by Standard Magazine, 1948, the target is religion.
"[Martians] knew how to blend art into their living. It's always been a thing apart for Americans... Art was something you took in Sunday doses, mixed with religion, perhaps."
"Yes. [Martians] knew how to combine science and religion so the two worked side by side, neither denying the other, each enriching the other."

In another piece, Bradbury satirizes Jim Crow laws with blacks all leaving for Mars.
"I can't figure why they left now. With things lookin' up. I mean, every day they got more rights. What they want, anyway? ... more and more states passin' anti-lynching bills ... They make almost as good money as a white man."
For all Bradbury's enlighten views, he suffered from one blind spot, along with many of the early SF writers. Women. In considering the heroic male colonists, he dismisses the women with a single line.
Everyone knew who the first women would be.
I'm pretty sure he did not mean scientists.

This is a classic from the 50s, but I wouldn't move it to the top of my list.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Spirits United by Alice Duncan ****

It's 1924 and Daisy Gumm Majesty's fiance Detective Sam Rotondo has accompanied her to the Pasadena Public Library to resupply her family of voracious readers. This quotidian outing is interrupted by the discovery of a murdered librarian among the biographies.

In addition to being a delightful cozy mystery, Spirits United by Alice Duncan is a well researched historical novel. Of the many library books mentioned, I found the mention of the up and coming Virginia Wolff, Edith Wharton,  and Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb, three of the more interesting.

Daisy is interested in the next presidential election, as that will be her first presidential ballot.

Of the many fashion notes, including lots of different hats, was Daisy approval of all the 1920s fashion except the bust flatteners required by the popular straight-line styles.

Daisy was quite progressive for 1924.
"Sam didn't care much for Harold... a peach of a guy and one of my very best friends... Harold was a homosexual. It wasn't Harold's fault."
"I didn't like the notion of small animals sacrificing their lives so I could wear their fur."
"We knew what married folks did with each other. And I also knew ways to avoid pregnancy until we decided to have children."
There were many cars: Chevrolets, Hudsons, and even a Stutz Bearcat, plus washing machines with wringers, iodine antiseptics, mimeograph machines, and mascara.
"You see, that black strip is the mascara itself... You wet the brush, rub it on the black strip, and then apply the brush to your eyelashes."
This is a delightful cozy mystery with food by Daisy's Aunt Vi, an excellent cook, and the fashions by Daisy herself, an accomplished seamstress. An enjoyable read, highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan *****

Nina Redmond’s branch library closed and the main library is more interested in multimedia and the Internet than books. Whether she wants to move into the book-free future or not, there is little chance the new administration will offer her a job. The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan is a romance about Nina’s new adventures, life, and love.

The “Bookshop on the Corner” is a mobile bookshop, and much of the story is a paean to books and readers, with references to specific books and the joys and transformational qualities of reading. With the is an occasional nod to poetry, the emphasis is on fiction and novels. There is even a comment on the evil of banning books.
“You know,” he said, “when my parents were little, books were banned…”
The secondary theme is the idyllic life in the Scottish Highlands.
“[Kirrinfief] was an actual community, not just a long row of houses full of people who happened to live next to each other. There was a difference, and she had simply not realized it before.”
“…up here in the peace and the wilds of the great valleys and deep lochs of Scotland she had found something that suited her, that soothed her soul”
When someone in the village needed help, many people got together because “It needed doing, that was all.”

Since this is a HarpersCollins book, I feel justified to complain about edit fail. When Nina arrives in Kirrinfief Scotland, “She took out her phone regardless and check it. No signal.”

However, the next day, in an even more remote location, “She took a selfie of herself with the lambs behind her and sent it… Her roommate immediately replied.”

Somehow, overnight, this sleepy Scottish village was miraculously online.

This is a heartwarming tale of books and small towns. An enjoyable tale for all book lovers.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Cat's Pajamas by Ray Bradbury ****

The Cat's Pajamas by Ray Bradbury is a short story collection with a mixture of stories from the post-WWII decade mixed with stories from the first years of the 21st century. In his introduction, Bradbury discusses his short stories as metaphors. The core of each story is a metaphor. For example, The House (1947) compares marriage with a home improvement project.
“All married life you build – build egos, build houses, build children.”
Hail to the Chief (2003-04) imagines a dozen U.S. Senators gambling away the United States at an Indian casino.

The Cat’s Pajama’s (2003) is a love story in the style of O’Henry about two strangers who meet when they both try to rescue the same cat.

Sixty-Six (2003) is a story of cultural appropriation.

All My Enemies are Dead (2003) and The Completist (2003-04) are also surprise endings in the style of O’Henry. The first about friendship and growing old, and the other about parenting and growing old.

Most of the older stories hold up well, though We’ll Just Act Natural (1948-49) dates itself with the inclusion of phoning time ’to check if the clock is correct. I found the newer stories more engaging.

The twenty short stories vary between surprise endings reminiscent of O’Henry and enigmatic ones reminiscent of The Tiger, or The Lady? An enjoyable read in all cases.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Nature of Plants by Dawson & Lucas *****

An encyclopedic sourcebook on plant life. The Nature of Plants by Dawson & Lucas groups plants by environment: dry, wet, cold, etc. Additionally, special consideration is afforded to parasites, symbiotes, fire, salt, and the relationship with animals. There is also an excellent chapter on single-cell plants and another on evolution. Each chapter on a particular class of plants surveys those plants by specific worldwide geographic areas.

Not all photosynthesis is the same. Most plants use C3. Plants that need to conserve water use CAM, and plants that must endure high temperatures (such as desert ephemerals) use C4.

The largest family of flowering plants are daisies (Asteraceae) but may be displaced by orchids (Orchidaceae) which are now over 30,000 species.

What I call chaparral in California is also called maquis (French), matorral (Spanish), kwongan (Australia) or fynbos (South Africa).

The book would be even better if it had some maps, as geography is central to the information. The authors also have a tendency to use technical language without accompanying explanation.

There is a very interesting discussion of flower's relation to pollinators. Bees are red-green colorblind, so their flowers tend to be yellow or blue. Flowers for nighttime pollinators such as bats and moths tend to whites. Insects get the fragrant flowers and birds, with color vision, but no smell, get the brightly colored ones.

Did I say encyclopedic? This is the book for plant biology, ecology, geography, and evolution. An excellent resource for students and writers. Lavishly illustrated with full-color photographs throughout. (One caveat: the author supports climate change deniers - one place.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman ****

I was raised on Edith Hamilton's Mythology which will release its 75th anniversary edition in September 2017.  Mythology can be presented extensively (short descriptions of as many characters and stories as possible) or intensively (a few topics in depth). Edith Hamilton tended towards the former, while Neil Gaiman tends toward the latter.

While Greek Mythology has a vast pantheon, Norse Mythology tends to revolve around Odin, Thor, and Loki with an emphasis on tall tales, reminiscent of Paul Bunyon. The stories are full of huge appetites, powerful weapons, and supernatural ship and animals.

My biggest surprise was Loki. Loki is a shapeshifter and a trickster. I thought him to be similar to Coyote in the mythology of the American Southwest, and Fox is many other traditions. However, I discovered Loki to be much darker. It starts with Thor. When something goes wrong, his first thought is that it's Loki's fault. However, Loki is more sinister than just stealing Thor's hammer. Loki causes so much death and destruction that the gods ultimately punish him with eternal bondage and torture.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman makes a nice companion, as Edith Hamilton's classic emphasizes Greek and Roman mythology with the briefest coverage of Norse mythology. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin ****

A novel about the gossip and scandal surrounding a short story of gossip and scandal recounting the original gossip and scandal. A non-fiction novel about the popularizer of the non-fiction novel. The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin is a Russian nesting doll of Truman Capote and New York City high society in the 60s and 70s.

The main characters, Truman Capote and his glamorous swans, are people raised in modest circumstances who moved to New York City and hit it big with the attitude
"I'm different. I'm special. I'm more."
Truman Capote coupled this arrogance with a disdain for his roots.
"No one else in that dusty Alabama town knew what a writer was."
This success is shown to be coupled with a private desperation.
"It's not easy, you know, trying so hard to-to act as if everything is just fine."
The women subscribe to pre-feminist doctrines.
"Men, the dear boys, did need to be taken care of, and American women were particularly bad at that, so intent on having their own fun."
The story presents an almost humorous view of the super-rich. Babe Paley was served on her own private china in hotels which stocked it just for her, and her newspapers were ironed.

In the end, this is a cautionary tale of fame and fortune.
"Because being rich, she'd found out, wasn't really that much fun."
Like a Greek tragedy all the proud fall into an abyss of death, despair, and loneliness.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Death in the Dales by Frances Brody ****

It's 1926 and Kate Shackleton has taken her niece Harriet for a holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. A Death in the Dales by Frances Brody mixes the idyllic small village atmosphere with murder. Murders actually.

They stay are a deceased aunt's house. Ten years previous the owner of a public house had been murdered in front of his establishment. Someone was tried and hung for the murder, but the aunt went to her grave believing that the wrong man was convicted.

In addition, a local farmer was poisoned. Reminiscent of the previous murder, everyone agrees on the suspect, motive, and means.

As the astute reader of mysteries will expect, neither turns out to be the true culprit.

A delight cozy mystery with enough delight in the British countryside and surprising plot twists.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning ****

Imagine that your mother has died and your father has an affair with your mother's illegitimate half-sister, who is the same age as you. This is the story of Martha Jefferson told in the historical novel: Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning. The half-sister is Sally Hemings, an enslaved person, given to Thomas Jefferson by his father-in-law. This is the same Thomas Jefferson that authored the Declaration of Independence and was the third president of the United States, but this book is about his daughter Martha. The "affair" lasted until Thomas Jefferson died.

Beyond this strained family situation, the time period is the 18th century. Women vow to obey and serve their husbands. Pregnancy brings the risk of either mother or child dying. Martha lost several children and her mother and sister in childbirth. Regardless, she had eleven children. As Thomas Jefferson appears to have understood, a doctor's treatment ould bring death as well as cure. This describes a life of privilege. The situation for enslaved people is unspeakably worse.

The book with its undertones of emancipation for enslaved people and rights for women often seems quite modern.  When faced with a public scandal, Thomas Jefferson realizes that any response would just fan the flames and increases the bad publicity.

Martha would be comfortable in the 21st century. She notices the asymmetry of marriage vows, the many explicit and subtle ways enslaved people are disenfranchised. She is concerned about families being broken up, enslaved women being raped, the arbitrary punishment meted out to satisfy the psychological needs of the white people and independent of any action be the enslaved people.

The author reconciles Martha's "woke" understandings and the historical record by presenting her a powerless, frustrated victim.

In the author's note at the end, she asks,
"Were there happy endings for anyone? You decide."
For me, I found the story to be a tragedy, an underserved tragedy without catharsis. The lesson I took away was not to be born in the 18th century.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally ***

There is a broad spectrum between fiction and non-fiction. Historical fiction is somewhere in the middle. Some historical fiction is predominantly fiction drawing on the historical record primarily for the setting. [Disclosure, I am writing a novel like this set during the Thera explosion of the Minoan era on Crete.] Other historical fiction moves very close to non-fiction with historical figures as the main characters. Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally is of the latter type, focusing on Elizabeth Balcombe, a friend of Napolean during his exile on St. Helena. This is certainly a challenge as there is much published, both fiction and non-fiction about Betsy, including other memoirs.

I found this novel to read much like non-fiction, and thought it might have been more enjoyable if I had been a better student of Napolean. In fact, I didn't know where St. Helena was located until I read this book.

Monday, May 15, 2017

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell *****

Consider the progress made by literary women in the 40 years between Pride and Prejudice and North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. In the latter, protagonist Margaret Hale is more concerned about social issues (hunger and workers' rights) than domestic issues (marriage and dances). Margaret speaks directly to the men and successfully negotiates between the factory masters and the workers. It is Margaret's brother who is marked for life from a youthful indiscretion. While the men around Margaret seemed eager to see her married, she is not interested and turns down offers with ease. She also has no problem inheriting or managing a sizable estate.

Central to the plot is a strike in the northern industrial town of Milton. The plight of the workers in the strike-breaking, union busting climate is, similar to today.
how we all had to clem [hunger]...yet many went in every week at the same wage, till all were gone in that there was work for; and some went beggars all their lives at after.
the strike...must end in...the invention of some machine which would diminish the need of hands at all.
Margaret views the situation around her in terms of power and economics, who controls the soldiers and who has the capital to survive. She also sees herself as a person who can change the course of events, sometimes subtly...
Margaret did not want to encourage him to go on by replying to him, and so prolong the discussion.
Other times more directly, as when she confronts an angry mob of strikers on her own.

She also declares...
I shall never marry.
In the end, she makes the surprisingly contemporary conclusion:
But she had learnt...that she herself must one day answer for her own life, what she had done with it; and she tried to settle that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.
While Austen might have written of the plight of 19th-century women, Gaskell writes of women with agency and courage. Here in 1855, Margaret is a strong, intelligent women who would not be uncomfortable in the 21st century. She is contemporary of Dickens (who lived and died with a few years of Gaskell). Her perspective of 19th-centruy England is well worth reading.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain ***

Have you read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? How about The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County? And Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court? If you still want more Mark Twain, you might try Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain.

But I do not recommend it.

This short book starts with his famous description of the fabulous life of steamboat pilots on the Mississippi. The description of the training and prestige is fascinating. However, after the saga of the steamboat pilot, the remainder of the book is a hodgepodge of short anecdotes and histories of various towns along the Mississippi. The latter often include tedious listings of demographic and economic statistics. The dull reporting is mixed in with classic Mark Twain digressions, such as a rant against Walter Scott and a discussion of the lagniappe tradition in New Orleans, which was recently the subject of an NPR podcast.

Mercifully short and of mixed interest.

The final chapter has a great description of the Twin Cites in the late 19th century.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton ****

I imagine authors expected most (New York state) voters to be able to read Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton. These eighty-five essays in favor of the U.S.  Constitution were published in various newspapers between 8/27/1787 and 5/28/1788. The authors assumed the readers were familiar with European, Greek and Roman history and could follow legal arguments.

In some cases, the authors were prescient when they addressed the issues of the subtleties of corruption, concerns about fake news and deceptions, the size of the federal government, and the power of the courts. In other cases, the were naive and idealistic where they assumed a homogenous population of voters who were patriotic and concerned about integrity and reputation.

If they returned today, they would be most surprised by our mass communications. Underneath many arguments is the assumption of geographically local communities and the difficulty of know someone who you do not meet face-to-face. On the other hand, I doubt they would have been much surprised by the civil war or the various states rights conflicts.

The other surprise would be how much the federal government has acquired dominion of so many governing functions. The writers of these papers mostly thought of the federal government as doing that which could *ONLY* be done by a central authority (war, treaties, interstate conflicts) and little else.

Still a fascinating read.

Closing caveat: Do not put these documents on a pedestal. They close with strong statements against term-limits, the bill of rights, and specific protection for freedom of the press. All of these things happened and most agree they were important.

Trivia: Just as an example, they mention the difficulties for a widow to control her husband's assets, not as a problem, but as a common practice that all would be familiar with, just like the history of Rome.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Flashbacks by Morgan Smith *****

Along with Benjamin Franklin, Anne Frank, and Henry David Thoreau, you should add Morgan Smith. Flashbacks by Morgan Smith has the two key attributes of a "must read" memoir. First, it is placed in an interesting time. In this case, the 1960s. But most important, a fascinating person has written it, one who is simultaneously unique and universal.

The author's grade school education (elementary through high school) encompassed the 1960s. As she recounts her life, she casts a bright light on the not only her cohort but also the cohort of her parents. People decades older than the author will recognize themselves, their parents, and their children. On one level this is a memoir of the 60s from the point of view of a precocious child. This is a story of the childhood that many wished for.

In kindergarten, the author organized a mini-protest against an antisemitic teacher. Here is a story of the ur-demonstration of civil disobedience organized by innocent children. Her mother's response?
"She emphasized that I did the right thing by not listening to Teacher and standing up for Justice, even if, normally, disobeying Teacher would be wrong."
Isn't this the story we all wish we could tell, and we all want to celebrate we live in a world where this story can be believed.

To add to the idyllic story...
"Life in my home operated on two basic principles: Benign Neglect and Books."
For a celebration of intelligent, independent children, this is a memoir for the ages.

If you read Summerhill by A S Neill, this is the practical companion to the theory of child-directed education. This is the case for free-range children.

Through the author's formative years she has magical memories. Memories all might wish for themselves, their children, or anyone.

Her mother advocates for justices, her father for science, and she herself navigates all counter-forces with compassion and humor.

When her friendship with another girl is challenged by a bigoted classmate, she formulates the perfect response:
"If I refused to be friends with everyone who is prettier and smarter and more talented than me, I'd be a very lonely girl, wouldn't I?"
Somehow in an environment of freedom and books, the author grows up confident and capable.
"No one doubted for a moment that I wasn't perfectly capable of it."
These examples could go on forever. Just read the book and add it to your list of important memoirs.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear ****

Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear is a historical novel leading up to September 30, 1938, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain infamously appeased Adolf Hitler and gave his "peace for our time" speech. The protagonist is Maisie Dobbs who is temporarily convinced to become a British secret agent and go to Munich under an assumed identity to rescue a boffin (technical expert/inventor) imprisoned by the SS and Gestapo.

Maisie is a wonderful female protagonist, especially in 1938. She accepts the conditions of her time, but also has great inner strength and confidence. This is her thought about being trained to shoot a gun.
"She always considered reason to be the most powerful weapon in any arsenal, ..."
When the embassy demands she "submit daily timetable," her response is "Well, we'll see about that."

An excellent historical novel of the rise of Hilter which somehow seems especially relevant in the current political climate.

The book gives a good presentation of the Munich in 1938 through setting, culture, and language. Every so often, the dialogue seems suspiciously modern, as in this case:
"Because after everything you've been told in this little meeting, if you say no, I'll have to kill you."

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What We Find by Robyn Carr ****

My first Harlequin Romance. Sure enough, at around page 100, What We Find by Robyn Carr includes a multi-page sex scene, leading 100 pages later to ultimate sex.
"When a man gives all of himself to a woman who gives everything she has, the bond is so powerful it can be the ultimate fulfillment."
The two main characters are Maggie Sullivan and Cal Jones, a brain surgeon and a defense lawyer, respectively. Both are going through traumatic life experiences and have retreated to backwoods of Colorado. I found the characters realistic, sympathetic and interesting.

An enjoyable read for all who appreciate Cal's mission statement: "I want to build a healthy, balanced family life in a beautiful place with the woman I love."

However, a few things kept bouncing me out of the story.

About every 50 pages, more or less, I ran into a sentence or two I had to read over and over to understand.
She sighed. "My dad says I have high expectations of myself," she said, when in fact it was she who carried those expections.
It was over an hour before it was their turn to appear.
I read this as "It was finished an hour before..." It should have been read as "It was longer than an hour before..."

These missteps reminded me that there were an author and editors between me and the story.

After this I imagined editors adding details that do little to the story except to satisfy a small number of picky specialists. This is from an exciting scene where our heroine is being lowered over a ledge. First, some editor required her to wear a helmet. Then some other editor required an explanation for the availability of the helmet. I hope they are happy.
"Someone else handed her a helmet, which was just dumb luck -- they didn't typically wear helmets on the trails."

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead *****

"Stolen bodies working stolen land"
Throughout the history of the United States from the Declaration of Independence to the present, black Americans have had to walk a line between life and liberty and violent suppression. Two authors have recently demonstrated this delicate balance with their writing. I reviewed Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly a few months ago and now I have The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Both books deliver an engaging story with small slices of terror and brutality slipped in between. Anyone who wishes to ignore the history of murder and abuse can easily do so, reading the books like I watch medical shows on TV. I close my eyes at any hint of blood. I will follow their lead with my comments. Slavery was horrific, now on to the story.

Whitehead chronicles the The Underground Railroad  by focusing on different people associated with it, including escaped slaves, railroad conductors, and slave catchers. However the main character is Cora who escapes from a plantation in Georgia and travels throughout the antebellum United States. One of the ways Whitehead lightens the story is by conceiving of The Underground Railroad as an actual underground railroad. The introduction of fantasy reminds me of Mary Poppins' spoonful of sugar.

Whether you want the brutal history and a fantasy, this is the book for you. The writing and storytelling are excellent.

In between the black and the white, the book is full of many subtle reminders of the ups and down of history.

At an optimistic rally, a negro leader gives the following speech that will be repeated again and again over the next two centuries.
"By proving the negro's thrift and intelligence...he will enter into American society as a productive member with full rights....We need to slow things down. Reach an accommodation with our neighbors and, most of all, stop activities that will force their wrath upon us."
The book is not above defending delusion.
"We can't save everyone. But that doesn't mean we can't try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth."
An excellent book regardless of your approach to it. A masterpiece.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson *****

An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson in a contemporary western about Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire. He is assisted by Henry Standing Bear, also known as the Cheyenne Nation, and undersheriff Victoria Moretti, usually called Vic. Vic drives an orange dodge that can go about 200 mph.

This is a book of clever nicknames and dialogue. The Cheyenne Nation's car is named Lola after the old girlfriend Lola Wojciechowski. Lola drives a gold '66 Cadillac DeVille. Walt's granddaughter Lola is named after the car. There are two bad guys named Frick and Frack. You get the idea.

Vic signs up for a skeet shooting competition.
I nudged her shoulder. "Scared?"
She barked a laugh. "Hell with that; I'm used to targets that shoot back.
Clever dialogue.

Between the names and the dialogue, the story flies by. An engaging page-turner. There is a mystery, but I think the fun is in the reading and the plot is just a bonus.

I rarely mention typos, even though they seem to be on the increase. I would never say anything about a small press or independent author, but this is a  Penguin Random House book, and the typo has to do with numbers.

The story revolves about time trials. The first time posted is 14.01 seconds. This time is beaten by 14 seconds flat. The final winner finishes in 13:59. 13:59, as in 13 minutes and 59 seconds? It should have been 13.99.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Doll-Master by Joyce Carol Oates *****

The Doll-Master by Joyce Carol Oates is a collection of horror stories for the 21st century. It opens and closes with more classical stories in the tradition of Poe, frighteningly evil characters with minimal affect, empathy, or conscience. However, between those two stories are a contemporary quartet of stories.

The first two are about guns and the after-effects of shootings. Oates' writing is so strong that even when the titles, "Solider" and "Gun Accident," might be considered spoilers, the impact is not reduced. The theme here is the pain and terror of the survivors, two very different shooters with two very different responses. Both are equally horrible.

The final two stories are about victimized women, actually a woman and a girl. Here again, the terror is real and long lasting. The author magnifies the impact with unresolved endings, so the reader is forced to continue to think about the story afterward.

If you haven't read anything by Joyce Carol Oates, you are missing one of the great living authors. This is a good place to start.

When writing about women, the author includes two themes.

The first is the control men exert over women, as a subtle, psychological power.
"Rarely was the wife able to withstand the husband's wishes."
The second is the fantasy women have prevents them from acting in their best interests.
"And he was her protector. He would not want anything to happen to her, surely?"
While one might wish that these themes were not applicable in the 21st century, these stories are too real and well-written to support that fantasy any more than the dangerous fantasies of the women in the stories.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Great Cat of R'a by Robert Muller *****

The Great Cat of R'a by Robert Muller is a wonderful alternate history set on the San Francisco peninsula in the current time, but the city is called Menmenet and it is part of the Ta'an-Imenty Republic (a country on the western side of North America), part of the new world empire of Kemet (Egypt).

This is a novel that combines Egyptian influences (different god, stick and bow combat, and language) with contemporary technology, Rusian mobsters, and money laundering. Come for the culture and stay for the mystery.

Highly recommended.

On another note, the design of the book is extraordinary. Here is an entire blog post inspired by the book.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Aegean Bronze Age edited by Cynthia Shelmerdine *****

Not for the casual reader. The Cambridge University Press offers this "Cambridge Companion," about 500 pages of independently written articles by authors with extensive academic credentials. As might be expected in an academic publication, there are plenty of maps, drawings, photographs, notes, bibliographies, and index entries. I imagine this book is assigned for a graduate archeology class.

Given that caveat, The Aegean Bronze Age edited by Cynthia Shelmerdine provides excellent background and detail on the Aegean Bronze Age. If that title is not clear or interesting, this book is not for you. This is not the introduction to anything. This is the graduate course. If you want the that, you've found it and at a bargain price (for a college text).

Some of my notes:

Over the years, the Minoan palaces have been characterized as centers of production and redistributions, but the latest research suggests that they were more centers of consumption. Note that this dichotomy is independent of the palace/political/king versus temple/goddess/priestesses dichotomy. Neither dichotomy has an established answer.

The initial settlement of Knossos goes back to the fifth century BCE. Note that the Knossos currently on exhibit is from the new palace era or the second century BCE.

Crete had few mineral resources. Of the precious metals, silver likely came from the area around Athens, and gold came from Egypt. Semiprecious stones were imported Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and all points in between. These included colored marble, colored lapis, amethyst, hematite, carnelian, and rock crystal.

"Traces of lightly incised guidelines on blocks suggest the oversight of a trained architect or work from actual architectural plans."

Mount Ida gets its name from the original Minoan.

The unit of liquid seemed to be 28-30 liters, with 32 units held by a large pithoi for storage. The unit of weight (the Minoan talent) was about 29 kilograms. The fascinating thing about this is that the standard liquid measure, when filled with water, weighed the same as the standard weight measure. Today this is true of liters and kilograms but was not established until the end of the 18th century, over 3,000 years after the Minoans.