Dirty Money

[Amazon Link]

Amazon reminds me how long it can take for books to percolate up to the top of the to-be-read pile: "You purchased this item on November 1, 2010."

And it gets worse: Dirty Money (© 2008) is the continuation of a tale beginning two books previous: Nobody Runs Forever (© 2004, I read it in 2005) and Ask the Parrot (© 2006, I read it in 2010). It's hard to appreciate plot continuity over a span that long.

Nevertheless…

Stark's perennial antihero, FNU Parker has (finally) made a semi-clean getaway from the armored car heist in the first book. And he's got some clean cash from the racetrack heist in the second book. But the $2.2 million from the armored car, stashed in an abandoned Massachusetts church, poses a problem, as does one of his former partners, a cop-killer on the lam. Also: a female bounty hunter with a deceased partner. Also: lotsa cops, a pleasantly ditzy innkeeper, a third-rate true-crime writer, a colorful money launderer, …

Through it all, Parker is slightly more honorable than his fellow criminals, unflappable in the face of betrayal, close calls with the law, and botched plans. And very, very violent.

This looks like the last Parker novel, as "Richard Stark" (aka Donald Westlake) passed away shortly after finishing it, and there are apparently no plans to pick up the series under a different writer.


The Affair

[Amazon Link]

It has been too long since I read my last Lee Child/Jack Reacher novel. As with a number of authors, I'm playing catchup with Mr. Child. As usual, I'm in awe of his skill in rendering a page-turner. (Well, I read it with the iOS Kindle app, so: screen-swiper.)

This is an origin tale of sorts, the sort of thing they do with superheroes. It's set in 1997, just before the events of Reacher #1, Killing Floor. Reacher is still in the Army, still (sort of) an MP, and he's sent undercover by his superiors to the small Mississippi town of Carter's Crossing, where the grisly murder of a beautiful young woman may be connected to the nearby Army base, inhabited by a secret team of Rangers flying in and out of Kosovo. (Why the secrecy? One of the Rangers is the son of a powerful US Senator.)

As always: Reacher has detective skills to rival Sherlock Holmes. He not only has to figure out the crime, he also has to deduce the motives of the various members of the military bureaucracy that sent him there. There's also a beautiful but mysterious lady cop who seems way out of place in Carter's Crossing. Eventually, rough justice is delivered. But as we know, it's life-changing for Reacher.


A Dirty Job

[Amazon Link]

Christopher Moore: another author I'm playing catch-up with. This one is © 2006; which puts me ten years behind. It is another wonderful concoction of fantasy, horror, and hilarity; all held together by Moore's wonderful writing.

The odds are against the "hilarity" bit, right from the start. Charlie Asher, the protagonist, is happy about his newborn daughter, Sophie. Unfortunately, his beloved wife, Rachel passes away unexpectedly in the hospital while being visited by a seven-foot tall black man in a mint-green outfit. Who claims that Charlie shouldn't be able to see him.

Never mind, Charlie is bereft. He glumly returns to his job at his second-hand retail store in San Francisco. But (as it turns out) he's been drafted into a new job by supernatural forces: a position he refers to as "Death Merchant". See the title: somebody's gotta do it.

What that job entails is difficult to explain (and the aforementioned supernatural forces do a pretty lousy job of making it clear), but it's a vital function to prevent the Forces of Darkness from taking over the city, and eventually the world. Epic battles ensue, involving Charlie's employees, his daughter, a couple of soap-eating hellhounds, and a 1957 Cadillac El Dorado with "two chrome bumper bullets that looked like unexploded torpedoes or triple-G-cup Madonna death boobs."

A lot of fun. It would make a great R-rated miniseries. Allegedly something's in the works, but like all those decent Heinlein movies "in development", I'll believe it when I see it.


Three Weeks to Say Goodbye

[Amazon Link]

A non-Joe Pickett novel from C. J. Box. Also (somewhat surprisingly) Mr. Box moves out of his wheelhouse, the great Western outdoors, and tells a tale mostly set in the city (Denver) and mostly indoors.

The plot springboard is one that will set a chill through the spine of any adoptive parent: Jack and Melissa McGuane have had their daughter since birth, nine months previous. Unexpectedly, through a botched adoptions process, the bio-father shows up to demand the child back. Worse, he has the law (and his father, a powerful Federal judge) on his side. Worse, bio-dad is weird and off-putting, in a sociopathic sort of way. And (yes) even worse, he enjoys playing mind games with Jack and Melissa, jerking them around in hopes that he'll relinquish his parental rights.

Bottom line: well, see the title.

Since the psycho has the law on his side, it's not surprising that Jack and Melissa turn to shady, extralegal tactics to prevent the child-snatching. They turn to their longtime friends for assistance: a semi-rogue cop who's overfond of booze and tobacco, and a gay real estate developer. Jack himself is not perfect: he admits to having a volatile temper and occasional violent fantasies. Melissa starts hitting the vodka bottle pretty heavily. And the more they push, their story gets more sordid and bloody. It all serves to put the final outcome very much in doubt.


Coolidge

[Amazon Link]

I very much enjoyed Amity Shlaes' previous book on the Great Depression. This one, a biography of our 30th President, not quite as much, but that's OK.

Coolidge's life (1872-1933) is set against the background of a dynamic period of American history, of course. Growing up in remote Plymouth Notch, Vermont, he attended Amherst College, and settled down in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he became a lawyer and got started in local Republican politics. He held a variety of elected posts in Massachusetts, eventually becoming Governor. His handling of a police strike proved immensely popular, and he got the Vice Presidential spot on the 1920 GOP ticket with Harding. And then became President when scandal-ridden Harding died a couple years later. Elected in his own right in 1924, he chose not to run in 1928, giving way to technocratic Herbie Hoover, who presided over the beginning of the Depression. Coolidge passed away from a sudden heart attack, just a few weeks after FDR came into office in 1933.

Ms. Shlaes lays things out in strict chronological order. This can be a little jarring at times, juxtaposing (for example) a discussion of farm subsidies with a discussion of how Coolidge's wife got on with then-President Harding's wife (not well), then a description of "incoherent and hostile" articles Coolidge wrote for a women's magazine,… I know: life is like that, things jump wildly from one thing to another. Still, I would have appreciated a smoother flow.

Coolidge started out as a "progressive" Republican in the Teddy Roosevelt mold, but gradually became the penny-pinching fan of limited government we libertarians hold dear. His efforts to cut spending while cutting tax rates, extracting the US from the fiscal disaster of World War I, were remarkable then and now.

A few random notes:

  • Coolidge's Veep, Charles G. Dawes, was a pretty colorful guy. He (apparently) badly damaged the Coolidge Administration's relationship with the Senate by giving a needlessly fractious inauguration speech in 1925. Shlaes notes that Dawes was also "a gifted musician and had composed a tune, "Melody in A Major," that would later be heard in a popular song. I was disappointed that Ms. Shlaes didn't name it: "It's All in the Game". (Mark Steyn claims, not implausibly, that that could be the "most enduring vice-presidential legacy of all.")

  • Floods. Lots of floods back then. No wonder dams were so popular.

  • I was somewhat surprised by the pro-war fever that preceded WWI. Example: in 1916, the Amherst College student newspaper advocated that the school form "its own battalion" in preparation for conflict, something that other colleges had already done. That sort of thing happening today is unimaginable. Given the immense human and fiscal cost of the war and its dismal results leading to even worse carnage a couple decades later: it's just another item on the list of "when America got it wrong".


The Drop

[Amazon Link]

Gradually whittling down the Michael Connelly section of my to-be-read pile. The Drop came out in 2011. I hope I can manage to read them at least slightly faster than he writes them. I found this one to be a literal page-turner, ripping through it in just a couple days.

Harry Bosch is assigned two cases here. One is in his everyday wheelhouse: cold homicide cases, some dating back decades, examined with the latest forensic technology. Good news: the lab matches the DNA from a blood smear taken from a long-ago rape/murder victim to that of a known sexual predator. But bad news: the predator was eight years old when that crime was committed. Was there some sort of chain-of-evidence screwup, or is something else going on?

In the second case, Harry is recruited to investigate a very hot case: the son of Irvin Irving, Harry's longtime nemesis, has hit the sidewalk outside his seventh-floor room at the Chateau Marmont hotel. Accident, suicide, or homicide? Despite his Harry-hatred, Irving knows that if anyone can find out the facts, it's Bosch.

(It's interesting, somewhat, that the "Bosch" series on Amazon Prime takes place in a slightly different universe than the books. Irving's a much better person on TV, also blacker, and his son meets his demise in a totally different scenario.)

Bosch, of course, eventually gets to the bottom of everything. He not only needs to deploy his detective skills to the cases, but also to the "high jingo" of Los Angeles politics and inner LAPD workings. He also (potentially) gets a new girlfriend; we'll see how that works out.


The Time It Never Rained

[Amazon Link]

This novel was in National Review's Conservative Lit 101 list. Published in 2010, it contained ten novels written by Americans since the 1950s. I had read two already, and I put the remaining eight onto the to-be-read pile. Since then, I've tackled Midcentury by John Dos Passos; The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy; Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow. And now The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton. Four to go!

Kelton wrote a lot of genre Westerns, but this transcends the genre. It's set in 1950s West Texas, over the span of a brutal drought (spelled "drouth" throughout) that actually occurred. The central character is aging Charlie Flagg, a successful rancher of cattle and sheep. We get to know Charlie very well, along with his family (a sturdy wife, a feckless son), employees, and neighbors. He's a good-hearted man, albeit a tad paternalistic to the Mexicans that occupy the same space as the Anglos. His primary characteristic is a stubborn determination to live according to his principles, the main consequence of that being his refusal to be involved in any "aid" programs offered by Your Federal Government. (No doubt this is what caught National Review's attention.)

It's a big book, spanning years, and the backbreaking work involved in running a ranch is described in meticulous detail. The drouth makes everything worse, of course, and one by one the ranchers around Charlie succumb to one form of tragedy or another. Charlie sees his own enterprise gradually whittled away, and he carries on only by pride and fortitude.

It's not unremitting tragedy, however. The mock-insulting dialogue between Charlie and his buddies is hilarious.


Eminent Hipsters

[Amazon Link]

For some reason, now and then, I've been reading books by musicians. Previously this year: Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton. And now Donald Fagen, co-inventor of Steely Dan. If I'm looking to gain some insight into the wellsprings of musical genius, I'm coming up empty so far. Especially here.

Unlike the Clapton/Nelson efforts, this book isn't close to an autobiography. Instead, it's a collection of essays Fagen wrote over the years for various periodicals (Slate, Harper's Bazaar, Jazz Times, Premiere). Autobiographical details appear here and there, but they are haphazard and coincidental.

The first part of the book contains shorter works:

  • An appreciation of Connie Boswell and the Boswell Sisters, jazz vocalists from the 1920s-30s. Is it fair to say they are relatively unknown today? Well, they were totally unknown to me. But Fagen shows why you should have heard of them.

  • Henry Mancini. OK, at least if you're of a Certain Age, you've definitely heard of him, because his music was everywhere on TV and in the movies. Fagen describes his roots in jazz.

  • Veering away from music, Fagen provides an essay on his teenage science-fiction fandom. As one might expect, he was into the wacky Philip K. Dick, Jack Finney, A. E. van Vogt, Pohl and Kornbluth. (I was more of an Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein guy myself.)

  • Jean Shepherd, another guy best known for writing that movie they show around the clock at that most wonderful time of the year: A Christmas Story. Fagen was a fan of Shepard's New York radio show

  • A memoir of the NYC jazz clubs of Fagen's youth.

  • Remembering "Uncle Mort", one of the jazz DJ's that inspired Fagen's solo album "The Nightfly".

  • A brief interview with Ennio Morricone! We all know and love him from the inspired soundtracks behind Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns.

  • An essay on the genius of Ray Charles.

  • Ike Turner, also arguably a musical genius, turning himself into a monster/punchline.

  • In the closest autobiographical segment, Fagen lays out his (sort of) academic career at Bard College.

That takes us up to page 85. The remaining half of the book is Fagen's diary of his summer 2012 tour with "The Dukes of September", with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, and a host of talented backing musicians. Some Amazon commenters found this segment hilarious, but it's the kind of hilarity that doesn't involve laughing very much. Fagen comes off as mostly cranky, endlessly griping about his transportation, the accomodations, the venues, his access to pharmaceuticals, his various (physical and mental, real and imagined) maladies, the audiences. Oh, and a references of suicide, two actual, one fantasized.


Blood Trail

[Amazon Link]

Number eight in C. J. Box's "Joe Pickett" series. Publisher's Weekly deemed it "disappointing" (on the Amazon page) but it's unclear whether they were simply put off by the audiobook's narrator. I don't need to go the audiobook route just yet, and the Kindle version was just fine.

As is clear from Chapter One, Box is putting his spin on the hunter-becomes-the-hunted genre. Although the hunter in that chapter doesn't really stand a chance, getting dropped by his stalker just as he's getting a bead on an impressive elk.

Impressive/horrifying embellishment: the murderer not only shoots human prey, but also does the skinning/gutting/beheading thing as well. (What happens to the head? Well, just keep reading.)

Joe Pickett is still the offbeat Wyoming governor's special investigator, and he's called in when it develops that this latest killing is just one in a series. In addition to finding the killer, Joe has to deal with (as usual) the incompetence/treachery of folks ostensibly on the side of the good guys. Added to the mix: an anti-hunting activist who uses the murder to drop into Joe's community and raise some ruckus. Could he be connected somehow?

I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but I see Alex O'Loughlin, the guy who plays McGarrett on Hawaii Five-O, as Joe Pickett in the miniseries. You saw it here first, unless you saw it somewhere else first.


Galileo's Middle Finger

Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science

[Amazon Link]

A century after Galileo's death, his body was exhumed from its undistinguished location (appropriate for a heretic) and moved to a more exalted site (appropriate for a scientific genius-hero). During the move, a fan took the opportunity to snip off a middle finger. (He also apparently took a thumb, index finger, and a tooth, but those aren't as symbolic as the bird-finger.) Today these remains are on display at the Florence History of Science Museum.

The author of this book, Alice Dreger, takes the Galilean digit as a talisman: if you are devoted to facts, especially facts that your peers view as inconvenient or reprehensible, you should be prepared to be branded as a heretic, as Galileo was. It's a daunting position to be in, and your response, should you be brave enough, could well be symbolized by this appropriate articulatory gesture.

The book is a rambling history of Dreger's history as a historian/philosopher of science, branching into activism and advocacy. It starts with her investigation of the surgical treatment of intersex (for old fogies like me: hermaphroditic) infants. Despite the fact that these babies are otherwise healthy, and little evidence that their unconventional naughty bits would cause major problems in later life, there was a movement to (more or less) guess what the "correct" arrangement of organs should be, and to use scalpels to approximate that in risky surgery. Dreger found herself as part of a movement to stop that. Pointing out that scads of doctors were performing unethical procedures that had no basis in sound medicine won her some enemies, and set her on the path to full-time hereticism.

After that initial struggle, Dreger found herself involved in a controversy about the psychology behind transsexualism, defending a researcher who claimed, well, there's more than one simple thing going on with that, at least for the men who want to be ladies. That view was anathema to a certain segment of activists, and the researcher was quickly vilified and smeared. In attempting to ferret out the facts of the matter, Dreger was subjected to the shitstorm herself.

Dreger also found herself in opposition, once again, to the administration of a drug, dexamethasone, to pregnant women in hopes of preventing masculinized genitalia in their female babies. Dreger alleges this treatment is risky, with potential harm outweighing any possible benefit, and the research was conducted without appropriate oversight and avoided appropriate ethical guidelines.

And more. Dreger makes a convincing case that the dispassionate search for truth in science and medicine can quickly go off the rails when matters like sex and politics intrude; then things quickly get nasty and personal, careers are ruined, reputations tarnished. She realizes that this modern-day inquisition is entirely a left-wing phenomenon.

Ironic, since she views herself as a solidly leftist feminist herself. She fails to extend her analysis to many controversies beyond the ones she was directly involved with. (Race and IQ are briefly mentioned, once; one can almost detect the here-be-dragons repulsion Dreger feels in even bringing it up.)

In addition, caution is warranted since Dreger is only telling her side of her various stories. (Google appropriately, and you'll discover a lot of naysayers.) Interestingly, one of those is Deirdre (used to be Donald) McCloskey, an economist/historian whose works I've found remarkably insightful and fun. I wouldn't put Deirdre and Alice alone together in a room full of weapons.

But Dreger's general thesis rings disturbingly true, and deserves to be underlined. In way too many fields, "scientific consensus" has been arrived at by relentless leftist squashing and silencing of heretics.

For example, from earlier this month, a headline at The College Fix: "Sex researcher’s article pulled from feminist website because it’s not ‘inclusive’"

The researcher: Alice Dreger.