A Long Walk Up the Waterslide

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This is (so far) the penultimate book in Don Winslow's Neal Carey series. My take on the previous entries in the series: here, here, and here. They're all fine reading; although seemingly out of print, they're available and inexpensive for Kindle.

In this installment, Neal is living in Austin, Nevada with the local schoolmarm, with whom he became enraptured in the previous book. He's on a well-deserved hiatus from doing odd (but always dangerous) jobs for Friends of the Family, a mysterious Rhode Island bank that caters to its ultrarich clientele. Neal's mentor, the one-armed Joe Graham, appears with an (apparently) non-dangerous but extremely odd job: the family-oriented broadcasting empire of Jack Landis and wife Candy is threatened by the accusations of trashy bimbo Polly Paget. She claims that, after a sordid affair with Jack, she tried to break up with him and was raped. (Think: Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye, and Jessica Hahn.)

Landis's partner, who is a client of Friends, sees Polly as a lever to take control of the lucrative Landis empire. Only problem is that Polly's heavy New Jersey diction and her scrambled bimbo brain make her completely non-credible. So she's gone into hiding, and Neal's task is to be Henry Higgins: smooth off Polly's rough edges and get her ready for a media circus.

But there are a couple problems there too: the minor one is that a sleazy skin-mag publisher wants Polly to appear in his publication en déshabillé (as one of the characters puts it) and hires a has-been alcoholic detective to track her down. The major problem: mobster Joey Beans wants Polly dead (for initially unexplained reasons) and hires a mysterious assassin nicknamed "Overtime" to do the deed.

All these people find it ridiculously easy to track down Polly in Austin, and Neal's job suddenly gets a lot more complex and dangerous.

This is a much lighter entry in the series than its predecessors. Winslow shows that he can be the equal of Carl Hiaasen or the late Donald Westlake in the hard-boiled comic crime fiction sub-genre; it's laugh-out-loud, read-to-your-wife hilarious in spots.


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Bourgeois Dignity

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The subtitle is: "Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World". It is the second volume in Deirdre McCloskey's exploration of how the bourgeois mindset caused the miracle of prosperity that has lifted much of the world out of abject poverty, and can do the same for many more, if we let it. My report on the first volume in the series is here.

The emphasis here is on varying explanations for the "astonishing enrichment" that occurred in many countries in a relative historical eyeblink. (E.g. Norway, where incomes went from $3/day/person in 1800 to $137 in 2006—and way more today.) As the subtitle implies, McCloskey argues this economic miracle did not have economic causes. Explanations need to meet various challenges: why did the miracle occur here and here, and not there, or there? Why then, and not before, after, or never? And (most important, and often missed) why a hockey-stick increase in prosperity, and not a "mere" modest 2-4% increase per annum? Instead, McCloskey says, the root cause was a flip-flop of respect and encouragement for the commercial professsions and the ideas and values that undergird them.

It's a little funny that this needs to be explained at all: the historical facts are pretty well known. Everybody had their eyes open at the time. Yet the explanations often come with the baggage of ideology (you've heard of Karl Marx, perhaps?). And others resemble the methodology of the blind men exploring the elephant: author A finds semi-plausible cause B, and flogs it mercilessly for a couple of academic papers or perhaps a popular tome that might crack the best-seller list.

So: McCloskey does a pretty good job of shooting down multiple alternative explanataions. It's clear that this is an ongoing academic debate. (And, caveat lector, we are only getting her side of the story here.)

As I noted about the previous volume, McCloskey's style is at the opposite pole from much academic prose. I will plagiarize myself: it's personal (lots of "I"s and "you"s) very funny in spots, fearless and aggressive in argument. Not condescending at all.

I'm not (however) totally persuaded. I tend to the "just dumb luck" theory of economic prosperity: a synergistic combination of factors that nobody intentionally combined or designed, not even obvious in retrospect. Certainly McCloskey's "dignity" revolution is one of those factors; but maybe not the only one?

But I'm a dilettante in this field, so I'm probably wrong. Or maybe I missed or misunderstood the part where McCloskey discussed this. Ignore me.

I was also slightly disappointed by McCloskey's dismissal of Gregory Clark's argument that genetics might have some role in the human social behavior that underlies economic activity. Probably because I'd just read Nicholas Wade's recent book that treats that argument more fully and respectfully. McCloskey gets pretty rude, for example her gratuitous use of "Untermenschen" to caricature Clark's description of various nationalities. That's argumentum ad Hitlerum. Unworthy.

But whatever the details, the point remains: if you want a prosperous society (with all the attendant bells and whistles of peace, health, and opportunities for human flourishing), it's very important that the bourgeois virtues be honored, and the forces of innovation and trade be respected. What was done can be undone.

Virginia Postrel (of course) makes the explicit point better than I: the left wing political elite (including our President) thinks that it's deeply insightful to mock and deride business ("You didn't build that"). Also see Michelle Obama's unsage advice to avoid "corporate America" in your career plans. After reading McCloskey, those attitudes are, at best, a source of head-shaking despair about the future of our country.


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Nothing To Lose

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Number twelve in Lee Child's Jack Reacher series, from 2008. (Yay, I'm only six years behind!) My subjective impression: above average.

Reacher is meandering from New England down to San Diego, and this odyssey takes him through the southeast corner of Colorado, and two little towns named "Hope" and "Despair". Hope is nice enough, but before you can say "hey, is this a metaphor or something?" Reacher is tossed out of Despair on trumped-up charges of vagrancy.

So he resolves never to go to Despair again, and jogs a little bit out of his way to continue his trek.

Just kidding! Reacher (correctly) surmises that there's something shady going on in Despair. He resolves to figure it out. This involves him with a lady cop from Hope, who's got her own secrets about her life and family. There is much violence, and (unusual for this series) weird near-horror elements, as the citizens of Despair are revealed to be in total pod-people-like thrall to the town's mayor/owner.

Consumer notes: Reacher reveals strong opinions on religion (he's agin' it) and the Iraq War (also agin' it) and decent treatment of disabled vets (he's for that). I would prefer he remained above such common controversies, but it didn't affect my enjoyment of the book.

Kept waiting for the title phrase to show up. Finally did, right near the very end.


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The Black-Eyed Blonde

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Or: Someone in charge of the Raymond Chandler Estate apparently decided they could shake a few more bucks out of the fans of private eye Phillip Marlowe. And so British author Benjamin Black steps into Chandler's very large (gum)shoes.

And I'm one of the fans they successfully shook some bucks out of. I've read all the Chandler books, I've read Robert B. Parker's efforts at the sequel thing (not great), and I've seen most of the film/TV versions of Marlowe.

(Not that it matters but: IMDB has an impressive list of the actors who've tried to get Marlowe right: Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, Elliott Gould (a revisionist take), James Garner, Robert Mitchum, and more. To my mind, Bogie's in first place of course, but Powers Boothe came very close second in the 1980s HBO series he did.)

Marlowe is put on this case by the titular Blonde: the captivating Clare Cavendish. She wants him to find Nico Peterson, a guy who (it turns out) just about everyone thinks was killed in a grisly hit-and-run outside of the Cahuilla Club, a reputable Palisades nightspot. But Clare is pretty sure she saw him alive and well in San Francisco post-alleged-mortem.

Nothing about the case makes sense, but Marlowe is infatuated with Clare. And (since he's Marlowe), the trail leads him into interactions with all sorts of colorful characters. Also, he gets beat up, tied up, and nearly drowned. Just the usual thing.

Look on Amazon, and you'll see all kinds of love-it and hate-it reactions. I thought it was OK. It's been quite a few years since I read any Raymond Chandler, but it seemed to me that Black was able to write some very Chandleresque prose without sounding like a bad Chandler parody. That's hard to do. His Marlowe seems to be a little more introspective and vulnerable than Chandler's, but that's OK. Age will do that to a person.

Without spoilers: there are continuing references here to people and events in Chandler's classic The Long Goodbye. You might want to brush up on that before tackling this.


Last Modified 2014-09-30 12:53 PM EDT
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Black Widow

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Amazon helpfully tells me that I bought this book back in July 2008. Yes, that's my backlog for some books in the to-be-read pile.

In this entry in the beloved Doc Ford series, Doc is trying to be the good godfather to Shay Money, about to marry into a politically elite family. The problem: Shay and her bridesmaids got a little—ok, a lot—naughty on a Caribbean last-fling vacation. And now she's being blackmailed.

This leads Doc down to the same island, where he works to uncover the sophisticated blackmailing ring. It turns out to be much deeper and more powerful than he imagined, and (of course) he finds himself in mortal danger. He meets a number of colorful characters on both sides of the conflict. There are also entries in Doc's continuing backstory: investigating the death of his parents, his relationship with his biological offspring, the ever-present comic relief of Tomlinson, who's always alternating between drug-induced brain damage and deep insightfulness.

A lot of people make comparisons between the Doc Ford yarns and the (sorely missed) Travis McGee series from John D. MacDonald. This one hits that target a little more squarely than the immediately previous entries, I think.

One mini-gripe: at one point the normally super-competent Doc makes a dumb mistake that even I saw coming. C'mon Doc!


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The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair

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Expecting to like this better. It is by Swiss author Joel Dicker, but it's set in the USA, specifically in my beloved New Hampshire.

Accentuating the positive first: the plot is good, in a twisty way. It's 2008, and acclaimed writer Marcus Goldman has a serious case of writer's block, totally unable to get any purchase on the followup to his first book. Worse, his equally famous mentor, Harry Quebert, is in trouble, for the corpse of a 15-year-old girl, Nola Kellergan, has been discovered, long-buried on Harry's property. Nola's been missing since the fall of 1975, when a neighbor lady reported seeing her being pursued through the woods by a madman. (And the neighbor lady is murdered herself a few minutes later.)

Casting suspicion on Harry is the inconvenient fact that he and Nola had a totally inappropriate relationship back in 1975. (Not quite on the Lolita scale—the relationsip is unconsummated, and Lolita was younger—but close.) The original manuscript of Harry's blockbuster novel was buried with her, together with an incriminating inscription!

Marcus decides to travel up to Harry's home in the quaint seacoast village of Somerset, New Hampshire to offer support to his old friend. He quickly decides to start his own investigation, which (it turns out) will unwrap a very sordid onion of perversion, corruption, and violence. The book shifts (mostly) between 1975 and 2008, revelations piling up in both time periods.

The problem is that this promising plot is explicated with cardboard characters, plastic dialog, and leaden prose. I am not a high-standards fiction gourmet by any means, but I found everything except the plot to be embarrassingly bad.

Part of the problem may be the translation from the book's original French; kind of like a wonderful Chinese movie getting ineptly dubbed by idiots who don't understand either Chinese or English very well. The book was apparently a "#1 international best seller", and the front matter has a lot of quotes from European sources attesting to its wonderfulness. So maybe.

Not that it matters, but I couldn't help but notice: the New Hampshire setting is very fictional. There's no "Somerset", and the geography described in the book doesn't seem to relate to any actual place. Some of the book happens in Concord, which is an actual place, and the book locates some state offices on Hazen Drive, true enough, but—bzzt!—puts Hazen Drive in the center of Concord, which it isn't.


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Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century (Volume 2)

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Spoiler: he dies at the end.

(Sorry. But I would like to think it's the kind of joke he'd appreciate.)

This is the second volume of the massive "official" biography of Robert A. Heinlein by William H. Patterson. (Sadly, Patterson did not see it in print: he died earlier this year at — gulp! — my own age. I hate it when that happens.) The full title is a mouthful: Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century: Volume 2: 1948-1988: The Man Who Learned Better. My impressions of Volume 1 from back in 2010 are here.

To recap from that post: back when I compiled a list of the ten most personally influential books Heinlein had two entries. And that didn't include Red Planet as the first big-boy book I read, checking it out from the Oakland, Iowa Public Library. So I'm more than a fan; Heinlein nudged my life in significant ways.

The book kicks off with Heinlein's third marriage, to his beloved Virginia ("Ginny"). The third time was definitely the charm, because Ginny became not only his wife, but also an unofficial business partner, secretary, critic, travel companion. And, at the end, caregiver. Their mutual devotion is perhaps the major theme of this volume. (There is a truly touching letter written by Ginny to her late husband in an Appendix at the end.)

The book is (like Volume 1) a little heavy going, with a hodgepodge of details, not all of them of equal interest. Want to know about the construction details of Heinlein's dwellings? Travel itineraries? Health problems (his and Ginny's)? Legal battles over Destination Moon? Squabbles with editors and publishers? It's all here, and much more. Would have much appreciated a "good parts" version.

In addition, Patterson seems to have made a concious decision to leave meaty discussion of Heinlein's writings to the literary critics. Which is (of course) his call, but for those of us who love a lot of his works, it's an absence.

Patterson is an admirer of Heinlein (and Ginny) right down the line. What emerges from the book is an entirely admirable portrait of a complex person. Example: Heinlein's devotion to the socialist Upton Sinclair in the 1930s was transformed into an enthusiasm for Barry Goldwater in the 1960s. (Heinlein himself didn't consider this a major shift, but come on.) He despised Ike. He became an ardent proponent of "Star Wars" (the Strategic Defense Initiative) in the early years of the Reagan Administration.

He was generous to his friends, and also to causes that struck his fancy. For a while he and Ginny were active participants in blood donation campaigns, an effort that the Heinlein Society continues today. Adversaries were seemingly few, but their spats were epic. Alexei Panshin, author of an early book of Heinlein criticism, especially drew his ire; his antagonism toward Panshin ran for a couple decades. American Maoist academic H. Bruce Franklin also comes off poorly here.

Overall, I learned that I was not alone: Heinlein affected a lot of people. I plan to put a few books on by to-be-read (in this case, to-be-re-read) pile, especially the "uncut" versions that have become available since his demise: Stranger in a Strange Land, Red Planet, and The Puppet Masters. (As it turns out, Red Planet was cut back in the 1950s because the publisher thought it was a little too gun-friendly! Plus ça change!

[And thanks once again to the Dimond Library of the University Near Here, who purchased this volume at my request. Even though I was, they admitted, the only person who had ever checked out Volume One.]


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A Troublesome Inheritance

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Yet another book obtained for me through the Interlibrary Loan feature of the University Near Here; so thanks to them, and thanks to the Tufts University Hirsh Health Sciences Library for shipping it up here.

The subtitle is: "Genes, Race and Human History". The author, Nicholas Wade, puts forth a provocative and (he admits) somewhat speculative hypothesis at odds with most "enlightened" present-day thinking: human genetics influence social behavior, and (hence) different genetics, including those genes specifying racial differences, might help explain different modes of social behavior, and (hence) help explain different historical paths taken by different cultures.

There you have it. Sensitive souls should avert their eyes.

Wade's arguments are plausible enough to me, especially since tentative words and phrases, such as "probably", "most likely", and "perhaps" appear throughout. He's most definite when refuting the "race is merely a social construct" assertion lacking biological basis (apparently an Official Position of the American Sociological Association). That just isn't reality-based.

Wade's book recalled my feelings when reading Thomas Sowell's works on worldwide culture, race, and history: a lot of this stuff is just the workings of dumb luck. And when explicating the "dumb luck" success and/or dysfunction of historical and current societies, you shouldn't ignore or dismiss anything. There are the various components of culture: religion, philosophy, public morality, custom, family and social structures. Set these against geography, climate, and (peaceable or violent) interactions with other cultures. Obviously, nearly all of this is beyond anyone's conscious control.

But Wade argues, again plausibly, that genetics and evolution is just another factor in this mix. (And, speaking of "dumb luck", the workings of evolution are as dumb as you can get.) And (furthermore) there are no simple explanations: everything interacts with everything else. (For example, obviously, family structure can have profound effects on which genes get preferentially transmitted to future generations.)

Put that way, and especially in the explicitly-speculative way Wade puts it, you might say: yes, so what's the big deal? Ah, but for some folks, Wade is treading on dangerously heretical ground. One shot across his bow was fired on the WSJ op-ed page back in June: "Race in the Age of Genomics" by David Altshuler and Henry Louis Gates Jr. which specifically referred to Wade's book as an "unfortunate development", and implied it was engaging in "rampant speculation and biased arguments". Altshuler and Gates are both Harvardites, and Altshuler is a well-known researcher in human genetics.

Apparently unsatisfied with that, Altshuler went on to co-sign an anti-Wade letter with "more than 100 faculty members in population genetics". They accused Wade of "misappropriation of research" and "guesswork". (Wade responded, again plausibly, that their letter was "driven by politics, not science.")

Of course, in an area so driven by "peer review" for publication, promotion, and funding, the mass-denunciation letter is a clear signal to would-be researchers: your "peers" will not look kindly upon any work that might support Wade's speculations. Venture into certain areas at your professional peril.

(Scientific American also fired a blogger who was complimentary toward Wade's book, although that might not have been the proximate cause.)

Ironically, I was irked by a different part of Wade's book. Right at the get-go, he takes pains to distance himself from the bad old racism of the bygone days, when the menace of "Social Darwinism", as invented by Herbert Spencer, stalked the land. Wade's intellectual history here is straight from the Gospel of the tendentious Richard Hofstadter. If you've read Jonah Goldberg or E.M. Johnson on "Social Darwinism", you'll know a more accurate story.


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Graveyard Special

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As I type, Graveyard Special by the one and only James Lileks is a mere $3.99 in its Kindle-only incarnation. That's a pretty good deal, so go ahead and click over.

Robert Thompson is the protagonist, a college student majoring in Art History at the University of Minnesota in the Fall of 1980. (The narrative is studded with real-world news: Ronald Reagan gets elected, John Lennon is murdered. Sorry for those spoilers.) It centers around "Dinkytown", a Minneapolis neighborhood attached to the University. Robert is a waiter at the "Trat", one of Dinkytown's 24-hour restaurants, most often working the "graveyard shift". Which turns out to be appropriate when an unknown assailant shoots Dick, the cook, who has just huffed a can of Reddi-Wip. (Robert initially assumes Dick is on the floor due to his huffing, but no, that's due to Pb, not N2O.)

From that beginning, you might take this to be a murder mystery, and it sort of is. There's a lot of political skulduggery and deception around; Robert makes a few tries at figuring it out, but realistically: aren't that what the cops are for? It's more Robert's complete narrative of a pivotal few months of his life. We meet his roommates, friends, the University of Minnesota hockey team, the zamboni driver for the hockey arena, an attractive reporter for the student newspaper, an attractive Russian teaching assistant, and many more. There is a lot of smoking (cigarettes and weed). There's a lot of talking, much at the college-student bullshit level. And as a sign of progress, the Trat gets an Asteroids arcade cabinet to compete with its pinball machine.

Eventually the murderer is revealed, but the plot is a thin clothesline, on which a lot of observational prose is hung. So if you're looking for a Lee Child-style thriller with a Jack Reacher-style hero set in 1980 Minneapolis: this ain't it. But it's what Lileks wanted to write, and that's good enough for me.


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Winterkill

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Another very good (but see below) novel in C.J. Box's series with hero game warden Joe Pickett.

In his duties as game warden, Joe is used to the occasional hunter bagging an over-limit or out-of-season elk. But there's something very unusual about the mass wapiti carnage he encounters at the beginning of the book. For one thing, it's being done by Lamar Gardiner, an employee of the US Forest Service. And when Joe tracks Lamar down, he's run out of cartridges and is attempting to reload his rifle with cigarettes.

Unlike the near-superheroes encountered in other crime fiction, Joe makes mistakes in suspect handling. Here, Joe's assumptions about Lamar's docility are confounded when Lamar handcuffs him to the steering wheel of his truck and escapes. Joe tracks him down, but—oops!—someone has taken the opportunity to shoot Lamar with a couple of arrows and slit his throat.

In a seemingly unrelated event, the "Sovereigns", a radical anti-government group, have entered the area, bringing trashy Jeannie Keeley back to town with them. Jeannie is back for her daughter April, who she abandoned years ago, and is now foster daughter to Joe and his wife Marybeth.

Trying to avoid spoilers here: I've read a lot of crime fiction, and there are certain conventions. You get to expect that things will generally work out in a certain way. Those things don't happen here. No doubt Box did this intentionally, and he made me think about my fictional preconceptions.


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