The Crossing

[Amazon Link]

I continue to consume Michael Connelly novels. Have I mentioned that he's a masterful storyteller? Only a few dozen times, I imagine. This is billed as "A Bosch Novel", as in Connelly's prime protagonist, Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch. But Harry's half brother, defense attorney Mickey Haller, shows up prominently too.

Harry is no longer working for the LAPD, thanks to a small mistake he made in the previous book that allowed his departmental enemies to wreck his career. Well, he was getting close to retirement anyway, so he's been working on restoring an old Harley-Davidson bike. But we know something he doesn't: his heart isn't in it.

Enter Mickey, who's famous for getting his guilty clients off on technicalities. But he has a sympathetic client he really thinks is being framed for a brutal murder. And his usual investigator, Cisco, has been sidelined by a nasty bike accident. (Except we know, from page 4, that it really wasn't an accident at all.)

Harry's reluctant; he would be "crossing" over to work for one of the LAPD's bêtes noires. But after a few looks at the evidence, he sees some loose ends. And there's nobody better than Harry at pulling at loose ends until the whole nasty mess unravels.

Yes, it's really good. Of course. Keep 'em coming, Mr. Connelly.


Last Modified 2017-10-17 1:32 PM EDT

Surfing Uncertainty

Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind

[Amazon Link]

I was encouraged to read this book (written by Andy Clark, professor of philosophy and Chair in Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland) via this post on Eric Raymond's blog, which pointed to this review at Slate Star Codex. I regret to say it's one of those "I looked at every page" books. It's not aimed at the dilettante or layman; I would expect that you would need a thorough grounding in neurophysiology and neural networks to fully appreciate it. Lots of references, endnotes, etc.

Professor Clark is (also) clearly articulating his own views here, engaging in a debate/discussion with people with other views. I have no idea whether the thesis he's expounding is actually on target, or if he's engaging in easily-debunked handwaving bullshit. I expect more the former, but don't take any bets on my say-so.

His thesis is, broadly, that the mysteries of consciousness, perception, decision, action, etc. are tied up with the predictive nature of the nervous system. That is, the whole shebang works its magic by building internal predictions of what outside stimuli will be incoming from our senses. This is never a perfect match, but when it happens, it sets off a bunch of nervous activity "error" events that look to obtain better information (for example, automatically pointing your eyes at different locations to figure out what's going on).

This activity involves neurons up and down the chain, and also back and forth. It's a very holistic view, and one that's been in development for years.

There are a number of telling observations that I could understand and appreciate, mostly involving optical illusions. For example, the picture here; seeing a cow may be a challenge at first, but once you see it, you can't go back to not seeing it. Funny how that works.

Bottom line, writing-wise, Andy Clark is no Steven Pinker. But he may be onto something.

The Tipping Point

How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

[Amazon Link]

I believe I put this book by Malcolm Gladwell in my to-be-read list a long, long time ago. Back during its initial hype-filled publication, circa 2000. After waiting for it to come off the reserve list at the UNH library (it never did, I think), I picked up the 2002 paperback. And it sat on my shelves until now.

And it did not age well.

These days, we would say it's a study of how things "go viral". Or, more soberly, how dramatic cultural changes can happen in a relative eyeblink. Gladwell's first example is how Hush Puppies shoes made a dramatic comeback in the mid-90s after dwindling to their near-demise. And then he moves on to the dramatic decrease in New York City crime, starting in the 90s. And (along the way) there are other examples, described in an attention-grabbing way (Gladwell's a good writer): Sesame Street vs. Blue's Clues; a suicide epidemic in Micronesia; the book Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. And many more.

Gladwell attempts to come up with a theoretical framework that would explain all these examples of sudden change. He describes three kinds of people that can set things off, change agents: "Connecters, Mavens, and Salesmen". He looks at the concept of "stickiness"; once people adopt a change (or catch a disease), it has to stick around long enough so that other people can "catch" it. And there's the power of "Context": how receptive the target population and the surrounding environment to the change.

Gladwell's examples, each interesting, seem at times to be round pegs that Gladwell tries very hard to pound into the square holes of his big theory. The predictive value of his insights seems to be negligible; the thing about "viral" outbreaks is that nobody sees them coming. True back when Gladwell wrote, true today.

Which brings me to the point mentioned above: Gladwell wrote at the dawn of the 21st century. And the closest he gets to writing about the Internet is his 2002 Afterword, when he muses on e-mail, and notes that he has a website: (gladwell.com, currently inactive).

In other words: before Facebook (est. 2004), Yelp (est. 2004), YouTube (est. 2005), Twitter (est. 2006), Instagram (est. 2010). I can't help but think that popular social media sites haven't irrevocably changed the landscape Gladwell discusses.

The Unlikely Spy

[Amazon Link]

Spurred by a John J. Miller article at National Review, I picked up a Kindle version of Daniel Silva's first novel for the unlikely price of $1.99! (Nowadays it goes for $4.99, which is still a pretty good deal.)

It's a World War 2 spy thriller, centered around one of the war's big secrets: where the Allies planned to invade France in 1944. The Germans are deeply (and correctly) suspicious of the quality of information they're getting from their existing spy network, so they activate one of their sleeper agents, "Catherine", a deadly and beautiful woman working as a nurse. She targets a young widower American engineer; he's been recruited to work on massive concrete structures, the Mulberry artificial harbors. The Nazis don't know what they're for, but if they figure it out, it could be an important clue, leading to the defeat of the invasion.

The "Unlikely Spy" is history professor Alfred Vicary, personally recruited by Churchill to ferret out agents like Catherine. What ensues is a cat-vs-rat thriller, eventually resulting in a high-seas shootout. Lots of violence, some sex, and a twisty ending you might not see coming. (I detected that there would be a twist, but didn't know what it was.)

There's an interesting mix of real characters (Churchill, Hitler, Himmler, Canaris) underlying the fiction. Much of the subtrefuge related in the book actually happened, too. (For example, Patton's First United States Army Group and MI5's Double-Cross System.) The fictional characters are well-crafted, even the Nazis are recognizably human. Well, except for Hitler and Himmler. Understandably.

Yes, we know how it comes out. Allies win. This doesn't detract from the book, it's still a fine page-turner (or screen-swiper).

Night Moves

[Amazon Link]

This is my twentieth Doc Ford book. I've already bought number 21, and I'll get around to it. I'm not sure I'll continue beyond that, it's getting pretty tedious. All respect to the author, Randy Wayne White. He's certainly found a niche, and he's writing his books the way he wants, more power to him. But I'm losing interest.

This one starts out well. Doc and his permanently drug-addled buddy Tomlinson team up with pilot Dan Futch to solve a real life mystery, the fate of Flight 19, five US Navy torpedo bombers that flew out of Fort Lauderdale in 1945 on a routine training mission. Is it possible they got really lost and crashed in the remote Everglades? They pile into Futch's plane to check it out.

Unfortunately, Futch's plane has been sabotaged, and they are nearly killed. Somebody's trying to kill … one of them, or maybe some combination of them. There is no shortage of suspects: Ford, of course, has any number of enemies that might have tracked him down. Tomlinson has been contending with a Haitian drug dealer, and he's also balling the estranged hot-to-trot wife of a zillionaire (who also has an in-law with violent tendencies). And Futch has problems with … I forget who his antagonists are, sorry.

And also appearing in Doc's marina is a mysterious, suave, Brazilian hit man. Is he after Doc? Or someone else?

Oh, and Doc gets a dog. And has woman problems, as usual.

So it's a complex story, and after that promising beginning, it just kind of meanders and bumbles around until it finally ends.

Rediscovering Americanism

And the Tyranny of Progressivism

[Amazon Link]

I was dimly aware that Mark Levin is a talk-radio host, and that genre is pretty far off my radar. But both Kevin D. Williamson and Andrew C. McCarthy wrote favorably at NRO about this book. That was good enough for me to fire up an Interlibrary Loan request at the University Near Here. And (eventually) the sainted ILL staff at Dimond Library wangled a copy out of Brandeis U.

After such authoritative praise, I was surprised to find myself a little disappointed. The book is not bad. I'm in agreement with nearly everything Levin has to say here. But it's pretty standard stuff, and not likely to change minds.

Levin's project is to outline "Americanism" as he understands it, grounded in the Founders' vision, as described in the Declaration, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and elsewhere: dedicated to the timeless transcendent principles of inalienable natural rights, and limited Federalist republican government.

In opposition, we have the source of all our political woes, the Progressive movement. Starting in the late 19th and early 20th century, they too-successfully championed a politics unchained from the dead-hand constraints of the past. They especially derided the lofty language of the Declaration, and desperately sought to reinterpret the Constitution in a way that might legalize governmental plunder intrusions into previously forbidden areas.

Okay, but we know all that. But I suppose I could recommend this book to the reader who (a) doesn't know all that, and (b) is open-minded enough to learn about all that.

Levin's style employs a lot of quotes, mostly historical. They come from good guys (Locke, Jefferson, Mill, Montesquieu, Berlin, Hayek, Friedman, Coolidge, …) and bad guys (Marx, Hegel, Rousseau, Wilson, Croly, Dewey, …). There are a lot of quotes, and they are long. (Do we really need to quote all ten amendments making up the Bill of Rights? Even the Third Amendment?)

Which brings me to my biggest problem with the book: its quoting style. Levin doesn't use block-quoting for most of his lengthy quotes. (Sometimes he does, mostly he doesn't.) Often there's just a sentence or two of Levin's own words stuck in between paragraph after paragraph of (for example) the tedious pomposity of John Dewey.

Cynical me wonders: what percentage of the words in this book are actually Levin's, and how much is just copy-n-paste from his sources?

Less-cynical me says (however): that's not necessarily bad. When your sources are saying something insightful or revealing, it's best to quote to quote them fully in context.

But I'd like to see things clearly demarcated. That's what block quotes are for.

Freddy and Frederika

[Amazon Link]

Another pick off National Review's 2010 Conservative Lit 101 list. Which has not failed me yet, this one is excellent. (I've got one left to go, No Country for Old Men. Someday.)

It is a massive (550 page) tale, set in a slightly-alternate universe, of the English monarchy. Currently, Queen Phillipa sits on the throne, kept company by her husband Prince Paul. But she's getting up there in age, and there are many concerns about the heir apparent, Freddy, Prince of Wales. Who is married to the lovely, but large-snouted, Frederika.

One thing you'll note right away, is that the Royal Family is a bit … off. They are not without their admirable qualities, but their environment, isolated from both commoners and budgetary constraints, has made them psychologically odd. Freddy especially is given to inappropriate humor and wacky causes. (He became aware that most published books were about mammals. Out of a desire for uniformity, he importuned a publisher to make him general editor of a series of books not about mammals. And so it came to pass, each book containing his introduction: "Though the volume that follows is by a mammal, it is not about a mammal, and a jolly good thing, too.")

But there's a strong (and justified) concern that Freddy might not cut it as monarch. Enter the mysterious Mr. Neil, who has allegedly been advising the monarchy for ages. His prescription: Freddy and Frederika must travel incognito to the USA and persuade them to rejoin the mother country. Piece of cake, right?

Well, although it takes until page 155, they eventually parachute into America (specifically, a fetid New Jersey swamp), and their quest begins. More, I shall not reveal.

The book is very funny, with frequent dodges into hilarity. The author, Mark Helprin, is not above low-brow humor (there's a lot of "Who's On First"-style dialogue), but you'll get generous amounts of middle- and high-brow entertainment as well. But how can you resist cracking a grin when Freddy's mistress's name turns out to be "Lady Phoebe Boylingehotte"?

Not that it's all funny. There are some dark turns near the end. All in all, it's a moving work as well as a comic one.

I kept thinking: "They should make this into a thirteen-part miniseries. And cast it with great British actors." Sadly, it's hard to see how such an effort could do justice to the book.

An Object of Beauty

[Amazon Link]

I've been a Steve Martin fan for … um … a real long time. "Just slightly before he became huge", as I put it in the past. I was first impressed by his work as a comedian. And two of his movies, Roxanne and L. A. Story, are solidly in my all-time favorites. Since he walked away from stand-up comedy, I was aware that he's gotten very good notices for banjo playing. I read his memoirs. I read (at some point) his short novel Shopgirl, which was OK. And I was dimly aware of his interest in collecting art. So this is not much of a surprise, a novel based in the world of high-end art dealing.

I got it off a remainder table at a very attractive price. Mr. Martin, if you're reading, I'm sorry about that.

The book is narrated by an art critic, Daniel Chester French Franks. But the subject is Lacey Underall Yeager, who Daniel meets in college. (They "had sex together exactly once", Daniel admits.) The book is reminds me a little of The Great Gatsby in having a bystander recount the life of an incandescent, but flawed, personality. (This comparison is made facile by the fact that I've never read The Great Gatsby. But I've seen both Redford and Dicaprio movie versions!)

Mr. Martin tells Lacey's story with sharp and insightful observation. Which occasionally veers into wit. (I was going to say the book is funny in spots, but that seems disrespectful.) As a nice touch, when actual artworks are mentioned, illustrations are provided. Classy!

The tale is interweaved with a lot of actual events: the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum heist, 9/11, the onset of the Great Recession. Lacey's quest for personal/professional success (some combination of money, art, and social position) is combined with her questionable ethics, to an extent which is only made clear near the end. Daniel, unfortunately, gets most of the eventual blowback from one of Lacey's schemes..

Y is for Yesterday

[Amazon Link]

There are 483 pages in Sue Grafton's latest book, her penultimate entry (assuming I'm understanding the alphabetical titling correctly) in her Kinsey Millhone series. I somehow think that Lew Archer, the other fictional detective based in Santa Teresa, California could have polished off this little mystery in 200 pages or less.

The main plot thread here starts in 1979, in an exclusive private school. Troubled (and troublemaker) young Iris doesn't fit in well, until she latches onto popular GPoppy, who shares her affinity for misbehavior, weed, and booze. But Poppy's academic performance suffers, and Iris makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to swipe an upcoming proficiency test and its answers to "help".

Skip forward to 10 years later (1989 is Kinsey Millhone's "present") and there's been an intervening homicide, a long incarceration, a videotaped sexual assault (or was it?), an apparent fugitive from justice, and other misbehavior. Kinsey is called in when the tape resurfaces in an extortion attempt.

In addition, there's a leftover plot thread from the previous book in the series: a serial killer's back in town, and indications are that he might be targeting our girl. And there are the usual members of Kinsey's circle of recurring characters.

Now, I'm into this series for as long as it lasts, having pledged my reader loyalty over 3 decades back, back when Ms. Grafton could wind things up in a couple hundred pages. Back in 2004, before I quit Usenet and started blogging, I called her the Queen of Pointless Description because of her endless word-stuffing for no apparent purpose. Especially interior decoration of various abodes she visits. Ack!

Anyway, that trait continues here. In addition, the characters seem particularly cartoonish, their dialog unnatural. The flashbacked high school kids are uniformly unlikeable, save one. Who bows out early, because that's the homicide victim, sorry.

I noticed a few indications that even the copy editor's eyes glazed over. Example, on page 396: Kinsey's cop friend notes that his homicide investigation "takes precedence over any confidentially [sic] agreement" between Kinsey and her clients. Oh, well. Maybe my copy will be worth big money someday, like the Ben Hur, 1860, Third Edition, with the duplicated line on page one-sixteen.

But (nevertheless) I'll put my order in for Z is for Zealotry (or whatever) when it shows. If you're reading this, Ms. Grafton, could I suggest that Kinsey and Lew Archer team up? That would be neat.

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

[Amazon Link]

So, back in 2009, I picked up a two-volume collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. Slowly (and not so surely) I worked through 'em, and over hiatus, finished up with this final collection of twelve stories, written between 1921 and 1927.

Although I had a good time reading them (for the first time since I was a teenager), I'll warn you that the Case-Book stories ain't popular among the critics. There were even suggestions that some stories therein weren't even written by Doyle. There are noticeable breaks with tradition: a couple stories are narrated by Holmes instead of Watson. One is even written in third person. There are plots kind of recycled from previous stories

Doyle's complex attitude toward his fictitious creation is obvious in his introduction to the collection. He points (seemingly wistfully) to his "more serious literary work". Fine, Art. Nobody reads those books any more.

There are numerous signs of the era's casual bigotry. I'm not particularly PC myself, but I'm not blind either. There's a cartoonish African-American Negro thug in "The Adventure of the Three Gables". In "The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place", the subject of Holmes's investigation is deeply in debt, which is referred to as "holding off the Jews" (once) and "in the hands of the Jews" (twice). Yeesh!

But those were different times. I didn't let it mar my enjoyment.