Sunday, December 31, 2017

C is for Coprse by Sue Grafton ****

C is for Corpse by Sue Grafton is an early case for Kinsey Millhone, the private detective from Santa Teresa (aka Santa Barbara, CA). This case starts when the spoiled-rich, but sympathetic, Bobby Callahan hires her because he believes someone is trying to murder him. He believes he was run off the road nine months ago in an accident that left him with partial amnesia and paralysis. No one believes him, especially the parents of his best friend, Rick Bergen, who died in the accident.

Bobby has little support beyond Kinsey. His mother, a rich socialite, doesn’t buy the murder story. His step-father Derek, and his stoned, anorexic step-sister Kitty, are antagonistic. The police have closed the investigation as an accident. Ultimately, Kinsey solves the case.

Kinsey is a low-key PI with a dry sense of humor.
“I’d rather talk to you,” I said. He seemed surprised by that, as though no one ever preferred to talk to him.
Kinsey Millhone differs from other mystery detectives.  While Hercule Poirot see suspects and clues everywhere, Kinsey sees dead ends. Rather than this list of suspects growing, her list shrinks. It seems as each time she formulates a direction for the investigation, that possibility is closed. Eventually, the case is solved by accident, as when one of Bobby’s friends volunteers Bobby’s address book, or Kinsey has a unexpected flash of insight.

Observations from the 1980s include lots of pay phones and drinking. Practically everyone offers Kinsey a drink at all hours, and she always accepts.

Since this is a major publisher, I must note that shade is not spelled stade, and unload is not spelled unloaad.

This series continues to Y is for Yesterday The author died at the end of 2017 without leaving a manuscript for Z. She will be missed, but Kinsey Millhone will live on in the 25 mystery novels in this well-loved series.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Contact by Carl Sagan *****

Contact by Carl Sagan is hard Science Fiction with lots of real science, information theory, physics, mathematics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, etc. The story concerns a message from Vega (26 light-years distant) that includes instructions to build The Machine, which five scientists use to tour the galaxy. The main plot lines are SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence), and the nature of faith. The beginning emphasizes SETI and the conclusion is about faith.

The protagonist is Ellie Arroway, a brilliant scientist. The President of the United States is also female. A secondary theme is women’s rights. In addition to advocating for women, the book also supports individual scientists over institutions.
[School-age Ellie asked,] “How could anybody know that decimals go on and on forever?”
“That’s just the way it is,” said the teacher with some asperity.
“But why? How do you know? How can you count decimals forever?”
“Miss Arroway” – he was consulting his class list – “this is a stupid question. You’re wasting the class’s time.”
Thus, early in the book, Sagan established the dichotomy between this smart woman and an ignorant, but powerful, man.

Ellie chooses Harvard over MIT for college, maybe her only lapse in good judgment.

The first information decoded within the message from Vega is a sequential list of prime numbers. Echoing the earlier classroom incident, when Secretary of Defense Michael Kitz suggests that he will classify the message, Dr. Ellie Arroway, responds,
“You want to classify the prime numbers?” she asked, her eyes wide in mock credulity.
The author notes that all space flight is subversive. Viewed from space, the earth is small and political boundaries are invisible. This book, in favor of scientists of all genders and ethnicities, also intends to be subversive laughing at political and religious institutions of power.

If you are interested in science, especially SETI, along with the philosophy of religion, this is the book for you. The writing, science, and philosophy are all excellent.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith *****

For those not familiar with the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, it is in Gaborone Botswana. These books are the coziest cozy mysteries. For instance, in The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith, the lady detectives investigate four suitors perusing a rich lady entrepreneur, while also dealing with an incompetent auto repair shop and a high-pressure charity fundraiser. Note that these description sound more dangerous than the actual events.

Mma Precious Ramotswe, a “traditionally built” woman, owns the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Mma Makutsi, who received a 97% at Botswana Secretarial College, the highest ever, is her assistant. The office is adjacent to Rra J. L. B. Maketoni’s business: Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. He is soft hearted and a great mechanic, as well as Mma Ramotswe’s fiancé. Mma Holonga fills out the list of major players. She runs the local orphan farm.

The book is full of folksy humor and advice.
“The more books that Botswana had…the better. It would be on books that the future would be based; books and the people who knew how to use them."
“…and there was nothing better than a cake to facilitate agreement.”
“It is good just to sit sometimes. I like to do that, if I get a chance. I just sit.”
The most serious situation in the book, aside from the time Mma Ramotswe was not offered tea, is the treatment and rehabilitation of teen girls who ran away from the countryside to the big city, Gaborone, and became “bad girls.”

As a cozy mystery, the resolutions are always non-violent in the extreme. For example, when the owner of the incompetent auto repair shop confronts Rra J. L. B. Maketoni to “sort him out” for disclosing his shoddy work, the bully is put in his place when Mma Holonga threatens to tell his mother.

If you are looking for a pleasant sojourn away from the stress and challenges of the world, I can highly recommend a delightful vacation to Botswana where the biggest concern is finding the next cup of bush tea.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Happiness by Heather Harpham *****

Early in Happiness by Heather Harpham, the author is in an ambulance rushing over the Golden Gate Bridge, sirens screaming, to the UCSF Medical Center. Her newborn daughter cannot make red blood cells, a condition which has no name, but which can kill in a variety of horrible ways. The father, who has no interest in being a father, remains in New York,

Nurses are often the heroes. During the months in the Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Unit, one nurse (Bobbie Caraher) is singled out for understanding both the small patients and their frightened parents. In so many ways she eased the lives of children and families on the brink of death with humor and expertise. One in ten children dies.

Early in the saga, still in San Francisco, the author wondered how to care for her tiny child. In this case, another nurse came to the rescue.
"The thing the babies like best is to be tucked into your clothes, naked. Skin-to-skin contact"
"Won't she get cold?" I asked.
"Not as long as you're not dead," the Irish nurse said, and winked.
The author throughout drew strength from her friends and made new friends wherever she went.
I thought of the Auden quote, "Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common dominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh."
The author had medical insurance, so the life-saving transplant only required an additional $85,000. A co-pay of $85,000! Friends and friends of friends raised the money.

Life in the transplant unit was both intimate and distant. Many people urged parents to not make friends with the other families to not be traumatized by the inevitable deaths.
"She smiled at us with both warmth and distance. A don't-talk-to-me smile, a welcome-to-hell smile."
Throughout the book, the death of a child is constant.
"If when you've been a mother or a father and your child is now gone, there is no word for who you are. If you lose a spouse, you're a widow or a widower. But if you lose a child, you go on being a mother or a father. There is no word..."
As is so often the case, a parent's job is "to start seeing [our child] as a regular kid again, to try not to confound our fears with hers."

This memoir could have been sad, frightening, pathetic, but it was not. Throughout it all, the author finds details of wonder, friendship, and hope. This is a beautiful story of compassion and science.

Since this is released by a major publisher, I feel obligated to note typos. "Though all this he'd been holding his boy..." Through.

Check out for book recommendations.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher *****

Imagine Star Wars in the 16th century…not the setting for the story, but the setting for the production…no 20th-century special effects. Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher successful uses the production techniques of Tudor times. The result is a play which could and should be staged.

The obvious Shakespearean techniques of iambic pentameter free verse and clever wordplay are just the beginning of adapting Star Wars to the stage.

When Luke asks to leave Tatooine, his father replies, “Wilt thou here in the desert yet desert?”

Leia denigrates Han with, “A mercenary with no mercy, he.”

The author makes use of asides to forwarding the plot, remembering that many believe that Shakespearean actors just stood on the stage and recited their lines. A few of many asides…

R2-D2 explains: “If I go not with him, my foolishness / Shall render no one service. Thus, I beep.”

Later C3-PO explains, “Now if I can convince the human here / To purchase R2 too, along with me, / So shall I win the day!”

Luke evaluates C3-PO, “This droid, I see, is wont to prattle on, / Belike his mouth is faster than his mind.”

The chorus handles many of the films long cinematic shots and special effects…

“The fast landspeeder o’er the desert flies— / They go to find the errant droid R2.”

“Now mark thee well, good viewer, what you see, / Such varied characters are on display! / For never hath there been such company / As in Mos Eisley gathers day be day. / The creatures gather ‘round the central bar / While hammerheads and horned monsters talk, / A band compos’d of aliens bizarre: / This is the great cantina—thou may’st gawk!”

The transition to light speed... “Han grapseth quick the console in his hand, / Then suddenly the ship is bath’d in light. / With a roar of the engine—noise profound and grand— / The great Millenn’um Falcon takes her flight.”

Another fun part is Greedo speaking his alien pidgin in iambic pentameter, “Na Jabba w’nin chee kosthpa mutishan’ / Turying ye wanya yoshah. Heh heh heh!”

If you wonder about the scenes which pit spaceships against each other, an illustration shows stick puppets of the Millenium Falcon, Tie Fighters, and X-Wings.

If you like Elizabethan drama, this is the script for you with the dazzling special effects of the time, including asides, choruses, and puppets.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Tides by Jonathan White ****

Tides by Jonathan White is a combination of travelogue, anthropology, and science. Each of the nine chapters starts with a topic and/or a place and presents the science, history, sociology etc. with an emphasis on tides. The book opens with the Bay of Fundy,  and moves to Mont Saint-Michel and China. After a digression for Sir Isaac Newton, it proceeds to surfing, geophysics, and resonance. The book closes with energy and climate change.

When the author marveled at the "clean plate" regime of his Chinese guide...
"She [told him] that when she was a child and didn't finish all her food..her mother threatened to make her eat American food for a week."
"The oldest [Ming Dynasty 1368-1644] dike still serving its purpose is the fish-scale dike...of hewn stone bonded together with a mixture of sand, lime, and boiled rice...Mortar did not replace boiled rice as a bonding agent until 1940."
I found the explanation for lunar tides excellent. The moon does not cause high tides by raising the water under the moon. Rather, the moon attracts the water that flows horizontally across the earth's surface toward the moon. This mass of water rolling toward the moon causes water to pile up under the moon resulting in high tides.

An interesting anthropological observation: in a community where the people were served by both traditional healers and western medical doctors, the author met a lady convinced that her illness was caused by voodoo. The author questioned her as to why she still took the western medications. She replied (through a translator), "Honey, are you incapable of complexity?" [rim shot]

Some edit/design issues of this book from Trinity University Press.

The maps used a grey background for water and white for land. I found this confusing, mixing up the land and the water. Just to compound the confusion, most maps had an inset where the convention was reversed, making the land dark and the water light.

In a tutorial paragraph on frequency, Radio and TV frequencies were off by three orders-of-magnitude, middle C was off by 3%, hummingbirds and earthquakes off by a factor of 2-4, and the tutorial was concluded with this non-sequitur: "All these are high-frequency vibrations."

Whether your interest is world travel, physics, or anthropology, you'll find this book interesting, though depending on your interests, you might find yourself skimming over some sections.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon ****

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon: Linus Steinman is a Jewish orphan who has been placed in a British village with the vicar Mr. Panicker. Linus doesn’t speak, but his pet African grey parrot named Bruno recites poems of Goethe and Schiller. Most strange, he repeats sequences of numbers and everything in German. When a Mr. Shane is murdered while stealing Bruno, all agree that Bruno is the key to solving the crime.

Mrs. Panicker runs a boardinghouse and Mr. Panicker is jealous of Mr. Shane. Their son Reggie is an insolent teenager who thought of also stealing Bruno to sell for enough money to run away from home. Both are early suspects.

Mr. Shane was a recent arrival to the guesthouse. Mr. Parkins, a traveling salesman for milking equipment, is a longtime resident. Nearby is a dairy research center, which is revealed to be a British espionage center with any interest in Bruno.

DI Bellows is assigned to the murder case. He has an assistant DC Quint. These two think the other to be incompetent. The old man recalls working with DI Bellows’ grandfather before the old man retired during World War I. The old man ultimately solved the case.

Kr. Kalb from London runs a refugee organization that places orphans in the UK. He placed Linus.

Aside from the African grey being a valuable bird, several suspects were interested in the German numbers. If they can be decoded, they could yield valuable German intelligence. They could be Swiss bank accounts hiding Jewish treasure.

In keeping with the light tone of this mystery, the penultimate chapter is from the point of view of Bruno, the parrot. Flowery writing also reinforces this tone.
“[The Panicker vehicle’s] tiny windscreen and broken left headlamp lent it a squinting, groping aspect, like that of a drowning sinner asking an allegorical lifeline. Its steering mechanism, as was perhaps fitting, relied to a large degree on the steady application of prayer. Its brakes, though it was blasphemy to say, may have lain beyond help even of divine intercession.”
To spite the setting of World War II England, this cozy-style mystery is more about small-town boardinghouse gossip than the atrocities of the war. The people are aware of the events in Germany, but not directly involved or impacted. An enjoyable mystery.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Clownfish Blues by Tim Dorsey ****

It feels like “crazy Florida comedies” is its own genre. In addition to Tim Dorsey, Carl Hiaasen also writes in this genre. Tim’s home is The Tampa Tribune while Carl hails from The Miami Herald. Key to this genre is the serious issues presented within the hilarity. The current book deals with asset forfeiture, elder fraud, and unscrupulous landlords.

Other targets include psychopaths, as in CEOs are often psychopaths, lotteries, and reality TV.

The main characters are:
  • Two lawyers: Brook Campanella – a high-power lawyer who has decided to give away her services to the underserved, and Jacklyn Lopez ­– a self-defense instructor, who is also a lawyer.
  • Reevis Tom – A dedicate news reports who is forced to work with reality TV producers at FCN, Florida Cable Network.
  • Serge and Coleman – crazy and stoned.

Always, in the background is Florida, as when the pizza delivery guy is interviewed by the police.
“Did you notice anything unusual?”
“Not really.”
“Do you recall what they were wearing?”
“The thin one had a beauty contest sash, the chubby guy was in a panda head, and the dude tied up in the chair wore an orange safety cone on his head.”
“And all this seemed normal to you?”
“You must be new in town,” said the driver.
If you would like to laugh at Florida and enjoy broad comedy with a side of muckraking, Clownfish Blues by Tim Dorsey is the book for you.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Telomere Effect by Blackburn and Epel ***

Linus Pauling won the Nobel Prize and went on to many other fields, notably promoting Vitamin C as a miracle drug. He demonstrated that excellent work in one field does not guarantee the same success in another. The Telomere Effect by Blackburn and Epel is another example of a Nobel Prize winner expanding beyond their field of expertise. I imagine this book will join Linus Pauling's Vitamin C books-distinguished author, undistinguished book.

Non-fiction science books tend to take two approaches. The first is to review the research in detail. This is the best science writing, but it is hard to write. The second is to review the research in passing, and otherwise write about anecdotes and opinions. The Telomere Effect is a book of the second type.

This book is a monument to correlation implies causation with statements like...
"Clinical depression and anxiety are linked to (correlated with) shorter telomeres."
Various alternative medicine approaches are recommended with statements like...
"The mind-body techniques and practices here have been shown in at least one study (emphasis added) to increase telomerase in immune cells or lengthen telomeres."
The anecdotes and single study results are augmented with questionnaires/assessments on stress, social support, physical activity, etc.

Much of the scientific literature is used to support the authors' opinions with using statements like...
" a small but exciting study. Their results hint that..."
"...may play some role..."
By the end of the book, the authors have made sweeping statements about stress, cancer, smoking, pregnancy, parenting, diabetes, exercise, income inequality, and many other topics.

If you collect self-help books, you might enjoy this rehash of familiar advice to eat healthy, exercise, and avoid stress.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan *****

Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan held a special attraction for me because it includes a grown daughter estranged from her biological father. I have an estranged daughter (Facebook: Find Heather Jasmine), and like the girl in the book, her mother does not want to see a reunion. Like all other relationships in this book, this one has a happy ending, and I hope for a similar resolution for my story.

Polly lives in a lighthouse and runs a bakery on a tidal island off the coast of Cornwall (southwest England). She lives with her fiancé Huckle and a pet puffin named Neil. What is a tidal island? It is an island at high tide and connected to the mainland at low tide.

If you imagine running a bakery on a small island, living in a lighthouse, and having a pet seabird, is just the cutest thing ever, you will not be disappointed with this book.
“…they were totally ridiculous, clinging to a rock in the middle of the sea and refusing to move to modern identical boxes on the mainland, all neat and tidy and squared away for the convenience of the NHS (National Health Service) and the local council and the postman and the people who picked up the bins (garbage cans).”
The book includes so many cute couples.

Awkward Jayden works in the bakery and wants to marry his shy girlfriend Flora. They are 23 and 20 respectively.

Bernard runs the nearly-bankrupt Puffin sanctuary and is sweet on Selina who makes jewelry and lives above the bakery.

Kerensa and Reuben are married. She was a charity student with Polly growing up. Reuben is unbelievably (literally) rich. She is pregnant.

When these couples are not being cute, there is time to find humor in the behavior of rich people (Reuben and his family).

The author is British, and the book includes a sprinkling a British terms and references. The most surprising term was mimsy, which from context the reader can infer means the same as the British slang fanny.

If you are looking for a happy Christmas story, I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Distant View of Everything by Alexander McCall Smith *****

A Distant View of Everything by Alexander McCall Smith is #11 Isabel Dalhousie novel. She is still married to Jamie. Charlie is four. Magnus is an infant. This is a cozy, cozy mystery. One mystery comes from her friend Bea, matchmaker, who fears she's set up a dinner guest with a man who preys on rich women. The other mystery from Eddie who works at her cousin Cat's deli. He is concerned that Cat has taken a girlfriend.

Isabel Dalhousie owns/edits a journal on applied ethics, and spends most of her time considering philosophical questions.

For instance, she ponders "whether religion is compatible with honesty."
"Because they ask you to believe things that are patently impossible. And that's the same as asking people to believe in lies, to say that lies don't matter."
Other advice:
"It's important to pay one's bills immediately. ... If one's going to start a passionate affair with a window cleaner, pay him first."
"The Ethics of Fridge Magnets"
"Should you display a fridge magnet that perpetuates inequality, or intolerance, of selfishness... People did, of course."

"Isabel liked that expression. She knew that lawyers used it a technical sense... but it seemed to her that it was a word that could be used in many other contexts...with one's friends...with a neighbor after arguing...the weather."
If you enjoy a world where everyone is nice, and nothing bad ever happens, this is the author for you. Also, consider the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Creative Spark by Agustin Fuentes ***

Many disciplines strive to answer questions like these: What makes humans unique? Why have they been so successful? Recent progress in evolutionary biology, anthropology, and other diverse fields have provided novel suggestions, but the answer remains as elusive as ever. However, the two-decade success of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond has made such books a genre of their own. The Creative Spark by Agustin Fuentes is one of the latest entries putting forward the premise that creative collaboration is the answer.

I divide the book into three sections. The first section introduces the premise that collaborative creativity explains the two million years evolution and success of homo sapiens sapiens with the well-documented examples of tools and food. This section presents a developmental narrative supported by a wide variety of research results. The description of stone tool making is detailed and fascinating, well worth the price of admission.

The next section is a series of scholarly expositions on war, sex, religion, art, and science. Here is where the target audience seems to drift from the popular science reader to an academic reviewer. The premise only needs to show humans are creative, so virtually all research supports this premise. Even where the different research results are contradictory and conflicting, they are all presented. The result is chaotic and often I imagine the author forming his arguments for specific academic reviewers. This section is interspersed with digressions on various social issues such as race, gender, and religion.

The final section (called Coda) is a sermonette full of advice and more opinions on lifestyle choices:
So that's the two-step signature of a creative human life:
Embrace diversity.
See failure as part of the journey.
Specific directions include avoidance of vegan, raw, and paleo diets, and a final lecture on gender.

This is a book for the hardcore non-fiction reader. It drifts across the line separating popular science and scholarly science, thirty-three pages of notes for 292 pages of text. If you really love the premise, the first six chapters, 126 pages might the perfect place to stop. You are human; we are collaborating; be creative.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie *****

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie is touted as the most widely read mystery of all time. I've taken a long time to get to it, but I can easily understand why it has been so popular. Hercule Poirot is a detective on a snowbound train where Mr. Samuel Edward Ratchett has been murdered. Pretty quickly Poirot discovers the motive. Ratchett is actually Cassetti who committed a horrendous kidnapping/murder. The question is who murdered Ratchett?

The book is presented ordinarily enough. Part One lays out the facts of the crime. Part Two interviews the suspects, everyone aboard the snowbound train. Part Three puts it all together. Part Three is full of surprising reveals but even after all these reveals, the final resolution is still surprising and satisfying.

The reader, like the detective, will find the mystery to be entertaining.
"In truth, this problem intrigues me. I was reflecting, not half an hour ago, that many hours of boredom lay ahead whilst we are stuck here."
M. Bonc, a director for the train company, is a foil for Poirot. He continuously voices the obvious conclusion, but while always reasonable, it is never correct. "It fits–it fits," is his refrain, always eager to jump to the end, while Poirot is moving slowly forward.

Some of the book offers interesting insights into the 1930s. The ladies all travel with dressing gowns. Everyone reads. Most men smoke. Cities which are regularly in the news today, are exotic: Kirkuk, Baghdad, Mosul, and Aleppo.

Any mystery reader will ask the same question I did. "Why haven't I read this sooner?"

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Power of Moments by Chip & Dan Heath *****

The Power of Moments by Chip & Dan Heath is an excellent example of many management books focused on motivation and morale. When I was in charge of Research & Development at a long sequence of Silicon Valey start-up companies, I read many of similar books. They all offer magic formulas but are better considered as a source of a few extra tools.

This book is based on one piece of solid research: memory is not uniform. Beginnings, ends, and changes are recalled more often and more strongly than the quotidian routines. Surprises leave an impression, while consistency is forgotten. If you satisfy a customer 100 times and mess up once, they will remember the one problem. The authors call these memorable occasions "moments." The goal is to create as many positive moments as possible.

One example is a company that works to create a positive moment on the employee's first day. The is an occasion which is often ignored, but which also provides a chance to surprise the person and create a moment that will benefit motivation and morale for a long time forward.

"Beware of the soul-sucking force of "reasonableness."
Moments require personal attention and individual effort. Once new employee orientation becomes routine and optimized, the moment disappears. Most employee recognition programs fall into this trap. The goal is to keep the moments fresh. One of the keys is to care about the individuals. Moments are not one-size-fits-all. I found this was true of most motivation and morale issues.

Everyone--managers, employees, teacher, students--performs better when considered individually. An illustrative example is an experiment done with radiologists. One set of x-ray was read in the normal way, while the second set included a picture of the patient along with the x-rays. The x-rays with faces, literally, were read more accurately. The book includes many examples, where a situation was treated as non-routine with positive results. That might be the message of the book.

This is the challenge presented:
Life is full of "form letter in an envelope" moments, waiting to be transformed into something special.
If you manage people, this book will give you some good ideas and inspirations to improve the performance of your team. This is not the whole answer, but it is a solid step in the right direction.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh ****

Ngaio Marsh is a New Zealand author and one of the Four Queens for Crime. Enter a Murderer (1935) might be the first occurrence of a real on-stage murder co-opting the dramatic scripted murder using the prop murder weapon. The deceased is Arthur Surbonadier, degenerate nephew of rich theater owner Jacob Saint. Arthur is part of a love triangle including leading-lady Stephanie Vaughan, and leading-man Felix Gardener. Since everyone saw Felix shot Arthur, the question is who replaced the dummy bullets in the stage gun with live ordnance.

The Scotland Yard Detective-Inspector is Alleyn. Inspector Fox and newspaperman Nigel Bathgate assist him.

As Alleyn observes:
“I’ve been thing that in difficult homicide cases you either get no motive or too many motives. In this instance there are too many.”
Midway through the book, the suspect summary totals a dozen and going on for several pages. Alleyn remarks that the task is difficult because “We’re up against good acting.”

Interesting 1935 vocabulary:

“Sorry to be a bit Hitlerish, but it’ll save time.”

“Why was he sent down?” — expelled from college

“Afterwards, when I took to the boards, he saw me in the first decent part I played — stage, theatre

“He’s been a cat’s-paw, and nothing else.” dupe (derived from La Fontaine's fable, "The Monkey and the Cat")

Many critics credit the Four Queens with the creation of the “cozy mystery” genre. If you are interested in a mystery without tough guys, sex, or violence, Ngaio Marsh is an author to investigate.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Woolly by Ben Mezrich *****

Reading and writing. The three-billion-dollar Human Genome Project established the technology to read DNA. While the first human gene sequence cost the aforementioned $3,000,000,000 in 2003, the same feat can now be completed for under $1,000. Woolly by Ben Mezrich explores the possibilities for writing DNA, also known as synthetic biology.

Returning animals from extinction has already been demonstrated. In 2003, a Spanish team cloned the extinct Pyrenean ibex. They started with a sample that had been preserved in 2000. The process has been demonstrated, the only question is finding an appropriate DNA source. Unfortunately, the further scientists reach back, the harder it is to find well-preserved samples. No one expects to ever find viable sample after 65 million years. Therefore, Jurassic Park will remain forever a fantasy.

The permafrost is a ticking time bomb for climate change. Enormous volumes of methane are trapped in the permafrost ("three times more carbon than all the forests on Earth combined"). If climate change destroys the permafrost, the result will accelerate additional climate change, a deleterious feedback loop. Leaving the winter snowfields fallow insulates the permafrost from the cold and allows the thawing process to progress. Churning the fields exposes the permafrost to the cold and rebuilds it.

Rebuilding the herds that lived in the coldest climates does this. Woolly mammoths are the animals most suited to save the permafrost if we could only find some. The four key traits for mammoths are: hair, small ears, subcutaneous fat, and hemoglobin. Mammoth hemoglobin works at a lower temperature than any know mammal hemoglobin.

The book has several fun characterizations of scientists, such as when Bobby Dhadwar crosses the U.S. border and when asked what he plans to do in the U.S. responds with
"I'm going to be implanting genetically altered DNA from naked mole rats into laboratory mice to try to reverse the aging process."
When the border agents became suspicious, he presented them with his Ph.D. dissertation (Yes, he had it in his trunk) to clarify the matter.

Another anecdote was when Dr. Church suggested he might need some "extremely adventurous female humans" to gestate Neandertal embryos, many people replied to volunteer.

If you were fascinated by Jurassic Park, you'll love this book which hypothesizes ways to return extinct animals without the terror of Michael Crichton's imagination, but with the benefits of forestalling climate change and improving human health.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck *****

Grapes of Wrath could have been a cautionary tale for the 1% and a “How to” for the workers, but that does not seem to be John Steinbeck’s style. The result is the reverse: “How to” for the 1% and a cautionary tale for the workers.

I have heard that California no longer requires high school students to read this book. Here is a link to an LA Times opinion piece declaring this Nobel-Prize-winning novel to be “Bad fiction and bad history.”

Synopsis: The story follows the Joads from Oklahoma over Route 66 to California where they pick fruit and cotton. They approach their life with optimism and trust but are met with exploitation and death.
“An’ kin we feed a extra mouth?”
Without turning his head he asked, “Kin we, Ma?”
Ma cleared her throat. “It ain’t kin we? It’s will we?”
Here we see two themes that run through the book. First, when the family is in crisis, the women are strong and take charge. Second, attitude is more important than reality, today is more important than the future.

For example, when pregnant Rose of Sharon bemoans that her husband has left…
Ma went on firmly, “You git aholt on yaself. They’s a lot of us here. You git aholt on yaself. Come here now an’ peel some potatoes. You’re feelin’ sorry for yaself.”
This ‘don’t get discouraged and solve the immediate problems’ attitude gets half the family to the end of the book only to face the winter with no prospects for work, no food, and no money.

When John Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize, the committee cited this book. Today it is a classic of American literature and relevant to the 21st century political and economic climate.

Here is another review from 9 years ago:

Chapters (* indicates background chapter)
1* Drought in Oklahoma
2 Tom Joad released from prison
3* Turtle making it way somewhere
4 ex-Preacher Casy
5* Tractor knocking down a sharecropper’s house
6 Muley Graves has gone crazy, but will not leave the farm
7* Used cars sales
8 Tom Joad’s family, grandparents, parents, brother, two children, pregnant Rose of Sharon & Connie
9* Selling junk to raise cash
10 Last day on the farm and setting west
11* Animals remains: cats, bats, mice
12* Highway 66
13 On the road, grandpa dies, meet the Wilsons, Sairy and husband
14* Sharing food on the road
15* Truckstop
16 Replacing the connecting rods on the truck
17* Camping society: rules and customs
18 Arriving in California, Colorado River, Granma dies, cross Death Valley
19* History of land ownership and conquest
20 Arrive in Hooverville, Connie leaves
21* Migrants to become serfs, small farmers bought up larger one and canneries
22 Central Committee of occupants runs Government camp
23* Recreation activities of migrants
24 The dance and foiling the attempt by outsiders to create a riot
25* Destroy crop when the prices drop, despite people starving
26 Last day in Government camp, Tom killed a cop
27* Cotton
28 Tom goes into hiding and then leaves, Al married, Granma dies
29* Winter means no work, no money, no food
30 Winter rains, floods, Rose of Sharon’s baby dies, shelter in barn

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K Dick ****

Transmigration is the movement of a soul into another body after death.  The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K Dick is a novel of philosophy and religion “inspired by a mystical experience that Dick had.” The story concerns the existence of an afterlife, and particularly souls returning after death. Against the backstory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, multiple characters die and return. The novel is set in the San Francisco Bay Area, following the death of John Lennon (8 December 1980).

Angel Archer is married to Jeff Archer, a perpetual student at UC Berkeley. Angel supports them working at a law office and candle shop. His father is an Episcopal Bishop who questions everything about his faith. His lover and assistant is Kirsten Lundberg. Her younger brother is alternately an obsessed auto mechanic and a schizophrenic committed to an asylum.

Timothy Archer begins to question his theology with the discovery of the Zadokite Documents which contain the central teachings of Jesus but predate Jesus by a century or more. This leads to several failures of faith, three suicides, and two resurrections. The only survivor is Angel Archer, a rationalist and agnostic, as if to say faith with intelligence leads to anxiety and misery.

Part of the challenge many of these characters face is a belief in absolute truth and values.
Tim said, “I would like Janis Joplin to sing Grace.”
“She died in 1970,” I said.
“Then whom do you recommend in her place?” Tim asked.

“I think what she’s trying to say,” Kirsten said, “is that no one will ever take Joplin’s place.”
Dick forsees “fake news.”
“But it is noise posing as signal so you do not even recognize it as noise. The intelligence agency call it disinformation.”
This is my favorite quote:
It strikes me as semi-meaningless to say, "You are only as old as you feel" because, in point of fact, age and illness are going to win out, and this stupid statement only resonates with people in good health who have not undergone...traumas.
One theme of this book is the danger of education.
That is the trouble with education, I realized; you have been everywhere before, seen everything, vicariously; it has already happened to you.
In another hint at the cause of these suicides, the suggestion is that a rush to a conclusion destroys life. Suicide is a rush to the conclusion of life.
What if a symphony orchestra was intent only on reaching the final coda?...The music is in the process, the unfolding; if you hasten it, you destroy it.
If you have an interest in theology and philosophy, this book is recommended. The bibliography includes: Dante, Goethe, Plato, Prabhavananda, Tillich, and Virgil, and more obscure writers. Note: As an indication of the times, the reference for Friedrich Schiller is the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Raylan (Book 3) by Elmore Leonard ***

Raylan Givens is a US Marshall assigned to northern Kentucky. The novel reads like three novellas stitched together. The first is about Layla, a transplant nurse who steals kidneys, followed by Carol Conlan, a tough, coal-company negotiator who includes murder as one of her tactics, and finally, Jackie Nevada, a college student and professional poker player. There is also Delroy who recruits strippers to rob banks for him. Everyone is armed and shoots to kill.

Raylan is a caricature, a movie role, and the crimes are novel. Many of Elmore Leonard books became books, and I get the impression that this might be better on the screen than on the page. (Raylan was the protagonist of a TV series.) The body count is too-many-to-count, but the narrative is more comedy than drama because people die quickly with a minimum of pain and suffering—or description.

An interesting dialogue between Carol Conlan, Ivy League lawyer, and Boyd, dim-witted local who is her gofer and stooge…
What he said was, “You know you ended a sentence with a preposition? You said, ‘She’s here in a nursing home we’re paying for’”
“Caught being ungrammatical.” Carol staring at his serious face. “How should I have said it?”
“She’s here in a nursing home,” Boyd said, “for which we’re paying the costs.”
Aside from the grammar rule being “something up which with I will not put,” this is out of character for Boyd who is otherwise a sincere simpleton, and the book which is mostly dialect, reminiscent of Mark Twain.

Two trivial things bothered me. The first was my problem. Each time I see UK, I think United Kingdom, aka England, but in this context, it refers to University of Kentucky. The book ended before I acclimated to this ambiguity. The other I only mention because this is a HarperCollins book: “a phone number in black marker witten on the palm, before it was smudged with blood.” WITTEN?

Raylon is cool under fire and never without a clever reply in backwoods Kentucky patois. Anyone interested in mayhem and murder will enjoy this collection of stories.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella *****

Laura Lington is at her 105-year-old great aunt Sadie’s funeral when her aunt’s ghost appears and convinces Laura she needs to stop the funeral and find aunt Sadie’s necklace. Thus, Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella opens to a madcap adventure of romance, mystery, and intrigue. Aunt Sadie might be 105 years old, but her ghost is stuck in the 1920s.

Not only is Laura being bossed around by a ghost, but her business partner has deserted her to sun on the beach with her boyfriend in Goa. Before the reader could become attached to this hard luck story, Linda proves to be her own worst enemy by responding to each challenge with a fabricated story that exacerbates her troubles. For example, when she decided to stop the funeral, she fabricated her aunt’s murder. She does this so often, I more often want to slap her upside the head rather than give her my sympathy.

The book borders on the historical genre and includes many details of the roaring twenties.
“My face is covered in pale powder, with a spot of rouge on each cheek. My eyes are heavily outlined in black kohl. My lids are smeared with a lurid green paste, which came out of a Bakelite case. I still don’ know exactly what’s on my eyelashes: some weird lump of black goo which Sadie called “Cosmetique.” She made me boil it up in a frying pan and then smear it all over my lashes.”
I loved the story and the resolution except for one point. The author believes old people really feel young inside. “They’re all in their twenties inside.” This is much like the nonsense that there is a thin person inside each heavy one. The foolishness is naïve, prejudice of thin, young people. I have retired and have no interest in reliving my 20s. The arrogance of youth and health is nothing to be proud of and mars this otherwise wonderful book.

Whether you like a good mystery where everything is revealed in the end and the bad guys get their comeuppance, or you are enamored with the culture and styles of the roaring twenties, this is the book for you.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Camino Island by John Grisham *****

John Grisham made his reputation writing legal thrillers. Camino Island is about a heist of the original manuscripts for F Scott Fitzgerald’s novels. As with his other novels, the action opens with black and white—good and evil—opposed in righteous battle, but by the end, the colors and positions blur to a murky gray.

Five men stage a clever heist from Princeton’s rare book collection. Two are immediately caught by the FBI. A remaining partner murders another. One leaves the country. That remaining thief does his best to turns the stolen goods into cash.

The insurance company traces the manuscripts to Bruce Cable, a bookseller on Camino Island. They hire, Mercer Mann, a struggling author with connections to Camino Island, to get close to Bruce Cable.

As a background to the main action of retrieving the manuscripts, a collection of authors talks about the publishing business: publishers, agents, sellers, book tours, and, of course, authors. The authors divide themselves into good and bad; literary and commercial; successful and struggling; drunk and sober.

Myra Beckwith writes romance/pornography. She was very prolific and commercially successful.

Her partner: Leigh Trane were one beautiful literary novel, which no one bought and is struggling with her next one.

Mercer Mann is like Leigh Trane: One well-received novel and years of writer’s block
Bob Cobb is too drunk to write anything acceptable to his agent or published. Andy Adam is also a previously successful writer, but too drunk now.

Amy Slater is a commercial success with vampire novels.

Jay Arklerood is a brooding poet and frustrated literary star.

The list goes on and on with clever dinner parties, allusions to sex, and plenty of gossip and sarcasm.

There is even a list of advice to writers:
1. No prologues
2. Not too many characters
3. Not too many big words
4. Use quotes for dialogue
5. Looks for sentences and scenes to cut

Let’s call this a writer’s procedural. As a writer, I enjoyed it, and as a John Grisham fan, I also enjoyed it.

I consider the distinguishing feature of Grisham’s writing is his ambivalent endings. As in his legal novels, the conclusion is not a victory for the virtuous and punishment for the evil, but a real-world realization that life goes on and justice requires compromise and acceptance.

Even though this is not a legal procedural, John Grisham fans will not be disappointed. The characters and complexity are there. The author delivers the procedural details readers expect in the mechanics of writing, publishing, and rare book collecting, instead of legal issues. One might imagine, the author has left the legal profession so long ago, that this is now the world where he has the necessary expertise to write in his style.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Mercies in Disguise by Gina Kolata ****

Mercies in Disguise by Gina Kolata is two books. First, the science journey to understand Gerstmann–Sträussler–Scheinker (GSS) syndrome and related diseases. Two Nobel prizes were awarded along the way. Second is about a family's challenges with this hereditary disease, which strikes mid-life and is invariably fatal after a long downhill deterioration.

First the science story: GSS, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), Mad Cow Disease, and Scrapie (sheep and goats) are a family of diseases that are both contagious and hereditary. In the case of contagious transmission, exposure to the contagion and disease symptoms are separated by years or decades. In the case of inheritance, symptoms do not appear for similarly long times.

Ultimately, the diseases are not caused by any living disease agent. Not bacteria. Not viruses. Nothing that contained DNA or RNA. This was a totally new disease mechanism. A protein which is now called a prion. The genetic mutation for GSS was discovered through two years of DNA sequencing. Today, it could be done in two days.

While people can now be tested for these diseases, there is no cure in sight.

Second, the people story. If someone is identified with GSS, they will suffer a debilitating, fatal disease in middle age, and have a 50% chance of passing this disease on to their children. While there is no cure, science offers some alternatives for couples who would like to have children.

The couple can become pregnant and screen for GSS, much the same as couples screen for Downs Syndrome. If the baby has GSS, the couple can choose to terminate the pregnancy or not. The other alternative is IVF. In this case, before the embryo is implanted, it can similarly be screened and only implant those embryos without the GSS mutation.

Much of the drama of the second part deals with conflicts among the options provided by science and the dictates of religions. As if to emphasize the impact of religious doctrines, the couple is mixed Christian and Jewish. The families seem to have the same problems with the mixed aspect of the union as the genetic screening and terminations.

The first part of the book will appeal readers interested in the workings of medical research. The second part of the book is all about difficulties when religion and science offer conflicting alternatives. The book is helpfully divided into two parts for readers who are only interested in one of these two stories.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Harry Potter (Book I) by J K Rowling ***

Revisiting Harry Potter after two decades, left me surprised by its fame and fortune. The author once subsisted on government assistance and is now worth about one billion dollars. The protagonist (Harry Potter) is oddly passive, being tossed from one situation to another with little personal concern or contribution to the outcome. The book is a collection of elements from mythology and popular culture: British boarding schools, witches on broomsticks, dittany a medicinal plant from Crete, Cerberus the three-headed dog, and Nicolas Flamel, the famous alchemist.

Harry Potter starts as an infant, who somehow defeats the Voldemort. This sets a trend of unexpected and unexplained victories. Harry is a champion Quidditch player through no fault or effort on his own. He moves though the story with little knowledge of the danger, protected by a collection of protectors from Hagrid and Dumbledore to Hermione and Ron. With his vault of gold in Gringotts, he is the epitome of a “trust fund” child.

Harry position as a hapless passenger in his life’s voyage is supported by the third-person point of view that is nearly omniscient. When rare feelings are disclosed they are ascribed to a group than to Harry individually.
“So now they had something else to worry about…”
The book runs out a steam at the end and finishes in a flurry of clichés.
“As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all—the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.”
“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love…to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.”

Friday, September 1, 2017

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez *****

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, published in 1963, is a classic of Latin American Literature and Magic Realism. The author received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. What can I add?

This is a long book, a cross between Gulliver’s Travels and A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It covers a hundred years of history, but you can read it without knowledge to the actual events. Reality and magic are seamlessly mixed. Six generations of characters share a handful of names and many live over one hundred years. I found the book disorienting and fascinating.

The book starts with the founding of Macondo in the jungle at the edge of a swamp. In the beginning, the village was idyllic.
“We are so peaceful that none of us has died even of a natural death. You can see that we still don’t have a cemetery.”
Next came a series of rebellions between the conservatives and the liberals.
“Colonel Aureliano Buendia organized thirty-two armed uprisings and he lost them all. He had seventeen male children by seventeen different women and they were exterminated one after the other on a single night…”
Next came a period of prosperity and technological progress.
“How wonderful! We have a telegraph office in Macondo now.”
Finally came the colonization by the banana company. Everything ends with disaster, destruction, and death.

Most of the characters lived solitary lives, seemingly trapped in their personal world of magic. One lady corresponds with invisible doctors; a man dedicates his life to translating incomprehensible writings. Most relationships are fleeting and fraught. Engagements outnumber marriages. Most births are from short-term relationships. Women tend to be virgins.
“The women in this house are worse than mules.”
Men tend to focus on prostitutes (women who are hungry) or affairs. Relationships are temporary. Solitary and solitude describe everyone.

Much of this solitary behavior is ritualized and futile. One character makes intricate gold fishes, only to melt them down to have material to make some more.
“…the hereditary vice of making something just to unmake it.”
The book is full of astute observations about European manner.
“[She] was the only mortal creature in that town full of bastards who did not feel confused at the sight of sixteen pieces of silverware [at a place setting] …so many…were not meant for a human being but for a centipede.”
“she did not understand the relationship of Catholicism with life but only its relationship to death as if it were not a religion but a compendium of funeral conventions.”
This is a book to read and enjoy. Here are some of the author’s thoughts on literature:
“The world must be fucked up, when men travel first class and literature goes as freight.”
“…literature was the best plaything that had ever been invented to make fun of people.”
“[He] dedicated himself to peruse the manuscripts…with so much more pleasure when he could not understand them.”

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.