Director's Cut

[Amazon Link]

I've been reading Roger L. Simon's Moses Wine novels since The Big Fix back in the 1970s. I'm glad to (finally) read his latest.

You could make the case I've been procrastinating: Amazon helpfully reminds me: "You purchased this item on February 5, 2010.". Yes, about 6 years ago. And it was written back in 2003. This is how up-to-date I am with my reading. Fortunately, my to-be-read pile never forgets, unless I want it to.

Moses has settled into domesticated Hollywood tranquility (and professional partnership) with his new wife Samantha. His connections with the film community land him a new gig: figuring out who is menacing the production of Prague Autumn, an "arty" film about the Holocaust and its echoes into the present day. And Moses jets off to—guess where—Prague, where the production is filming on location. Pretty soon, murder and kidnapping. Also some explosions. Unexpected events catapult Moses into an unexpected role.

We get a lot of information about the sausage-making involved in creating a movie and bringing it to the masses. Roger L. Simon is also involved in the film industry, so I assume he's leveraging some of his own experiences.

Moses has (sort of) followed Roger L. Simon's own political pilgrimage: from 70's radical to semi-moderate. (I don't think Moses has gone as far as Roger, who I think of as on "our side".)

Frankly, Moses seems outwitted and passive through most of the book; I usually prefer a different sort of private-eye protagonist. The book is also marred by sloppy proofreading. I noticed four mistakes, and I wasn't looking for them, so I assume there are more.


Bloodline

[Amazon Link]

Note that, judging by the book's cover, the title here could be Dick Francis's Bloodline. And Felix Francis, being his son, certainly would fit that bill.

Yes, it's another shake of the money tree, invoking the name of a beloved-but-deceased author to sell some books. This is Felix's second solo effort, although he and his dad co-wrote four previous.

Plot: Mark Shillingford is a TV sportscaster, narrating horse races at various British venues. At one fateful race, he notices what nobody else seems to: his jockey twin sister, Clare, holds her horse back just enough to come in second. This is a huge no-no, and Mark confronts her later. That goes unsatisfactorily, and before you know it, Clare has met her end in an apparent grisly suicide.

Unlike your normal Dick Francis protagonist, Mark doesn't handle this stoically. (His first-person narration tells us about his frequent weeping.) Still, he's determined to figure out Clare's bizarre behavior, if only to assuage his own guilty conscience. He must deal with his fractious family, a rumor-mongering gutter journalist, a lackadaisical police investigation, an irate husband he's been cuckolding, and—of course—a villain who's turned to murder most foul.

I didn't enjoy this book as much as I did Felix's previous effort, Gamble. The tone is uneven, I didn't find the protagonist particularly interesting or likeable, and the eventual revelation of the bad guy seems kind of arbitrary. (There are a bunch of likely suspects and it turns out to be … that one. Oh.)


The Devil's Pleasure Palace

The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West

[Amazon Link]

Encouraged by glowing reviews at numerous websites, I wangled the sainted Library staff of University Near Here to borrow me a copy of The Devil's Pleasure Palace by Michael Walsh, through the magic of the Boston Library Consortium.

Walsh's thesis (to the extent that I can understand it) is that the Left is not just full of bad ideas. It's fully of unholy ideas, their goal being to further the work of the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. Walsh doesn't (quite) mean this in the sense that Bernie Sanders literally shuffles off to a top-secret Black Mass every so often. (That would be neat, though, kind of the flip-side of the Republican gatherings portrayed on The Simpsons.)

Instead, the Left has (mostly semi-consciously) bought into Satan's side in his argument with God, succumbing to his false promises and temptations. Walsh frames this mostly as a takedown of the so-called "Frankfurt School" of criticism and philosophy, which sought refuge in America after fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930's. Their baneful influence goes from strongholds in Academia into various niches of pop culture, politics, music, and art, whence they wage war on tradition, morality, family, and freedom.

Walsh writes from the standpoint of a devout Catholic, and he doesn't make a lot of effort to phrase his arguments to appeal to those of us less-than-devout folk. Still, if you buy that Christian theology is speaking (at least) a metaphorically true story about good/evil human nature, and its relationship to the real world, you can find quite a bit of insight in the work.

On the other hand, as Walsh points out, one of the Left's heroes, Saul Alinsky, really did write about "the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom -- Lucifer." Your enemies can sometimes make your case for you.

It's also kind of a fun read. Walsh bases his argument not just on the Good Book, but also the epic works spun out thereof: Marlowe, Goethe, Milton, et. al.. If those are a little heavy for your tastes, don't worry: Walsh also throws in references to Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, and High Noon.

It's short, just slightly over 200 pages. If I had to quibble, it seems like a stitched-together book of independent essays rather than a coherent work with a sustained argument. People with a deeper grounding in classical literature and music than I will probably get more out of it than I did.


Night Vision

[Amazon Link]

Number 18 (I think) in Randy Wayne White's "Doc Ford" series of thrillers. The reviewers at Amazon are surprisingly brutal. I liked it fine, though.

Doc's buddy Tomlinson drags him to a trailer park mostly inhabited by illegal immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. It's to help out 13-year-old Tula, a girl posing as a boy. But they never get much of a chance to accomplish this, as an old drunk is attacked by a large gator. Ford and Tomlinson pull off a peril-fraught rescue, putting them on the bad side of Harris Squires, the park proprietor, who's deeply involved in illegal drugs (steroids, etc.) and perverted porn. In the confusion, Tula vanishes.

Unfortunately, Tula has witnessed Squires engaging in very bad behavior with a corpse. This puts a bullseye on her. But Tula believes she has a hidden ally on her side: she speaks with Joan of Arc. To the reader, that seems like a pretty thin reed to rely on for survival. Still, the plot works itself out in totally unexpected ways.

Oh, yeah: Doc gets a girlfriend. We'll see how long she lasts.

Unusually, only about half the book, maybe less, is told from Ford's first-person POV. The rest follows Tula, Squires, and Squires' nasty double-crossing retinue as they pursue their holy/unholy goals.

Quibbles: the book has that padded-to-meet-a-contractually-obligated-page-count feel, could easily have been cut down to half its length. The copy editor was sloppy: I caught a couple of howlers without looking for them. And Mr. White has an annoying habit of starting his narrative, then backing up a few minutes/hours to tell what happened immediately before, then continuing on. Please.

Still, an honest page-turner, and I enjoyed the unusual plot.


Worth Dying For

[Amazon Link]

It's been too long since I last read a tale of the exploits of Jack Reacher. This book (number 15 in the series) is set soon after the events of 61 Hours which ended with a Reichenbach-Falls-level cliffhanger. Did our hero escape from a seemingly certain demise?

Spoiler: yes, he did. And he's on the way to Virginia, smitten with Susan, the voice on the phone that was of significant assistance in 61 Hours. Unfortunately, that takes him to an unnamed small town in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska, where his natural talent for blundering by chance into massive deadly conspiracies seemingly kicks in yet another time.

The town is essentially owned, operated, and terrorized by the Duncan clan, three scions and an adopted son. They are assisted by a small band of ex-Cornhusker football players, ones not quite good enough for the NFL. (I'm sure the University of Nebraska loved the implication that one likely postgraduate career path for their football jocks is being a brutal thug for small-town crime lords.)

On the evening of Reacher's arrival, the Duncan son pops his wife in the nose (a common occurrance). She calls the local watering hole, where the local doctor is getting shitfaced on scotch (also a common occurrance). The doc doesn't want to get involved in an act of defiance against the Duncans, but Reacher shames him into a house call.

Things don't go well when the Duncans find out. Pretty soon Reacher is battling the Cornhusker thugs, trying to discover what's going on. Also solving a decades-old mystery. Also dealing with incoming professional enforcers worried about the disruption in supply of whatever it is the Duncans are providing.

At points, the choreography of the various characters make Worth Dying For resemble a French bedroom farce, except with armed criminals, no sex, and a high body count. But things sober up, as the Duncans' crimes are slowly revealed, and rough justice is delivered.


Foolproof

[Amazon Link]

Yet another shout out to the intrepid librarians at the University Near Here: I requested this book on Interlibrary Loan, but it turned out to be unavailable. So UNH ordered it for its own shelves, and put it on hold for me. This is pretty good service, especially when you consider I'm not a paying-customer student or a faculty member, just an IT droid from Sector 7-G. (But an intrested droid: please see my 2014 discussion of The Norm Chronicles for details on my interest.)

Hopefully, people with more serious academic needs will check it out in the near future.

The author, Greg Ip, is a writer for the WSJ, so it's not surprising that his prose is accessible and understandable to a wide audience. The book's subtitle is "How Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe". (Which you can see over there on the book's cover, unless you've blocked ads, which you shouldn't because they are completely tasteful.) Paradoxical! But, as it turns out, completely sensible. The pattern that Ip explores is (roughly):

  1. People detect a situation that puts their lives, health, or property at risk;

  2. Steps are taken to mitigate the danger;

  3. These steps make previously-risky behavior less risky;

  4. Lulled, people respond to the new less-risky environment by engaging in more of said behavior.

  5. But, since the risk was only mitigated, people still get bit! (Or, alternatively, get bit by a new risk that suppressing the previous risk revealed.)

  6. In either case, however: return to step 2.

Ip shows how this pattern develops in all sorts of situations: natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, fires, …); finance (personal, national, global); transportation (automobiles, airplanes,…); etc. Once you understand the process, you start to see it everywhere.

Note that "minimizing risk" is not a good option. People voluntarily taking on risk is a driver of prosperity; denying that path would make us all poorer.

Note also the involuntary assumption of risk: this happens mostly when government steps in, offering bailouts for "too big to fail" institutions, underprices flood insurance, or lends tuition money to womens' studies majors. As taxpayers, we're all on the hook for that stuff, and we didn't ask to be.

But Ip argues, semi-convincingly, that even the occasional bailout has its benefits, if it tides over an institution that can straighten out and fly right in the future. Moral hazard, sure. But if other options (again) make everyone else worse off, saying "well, at least we avoided moral hazard" is cold comfort.

I've been interested in this topic for years, and Ip's general thesis is not new. For example, I remember reading Aaron Wildavsky's Searching for Safety, a similar discussion, back when it was written in the late 1980's. In fact, my major quibble with Ip's book is that he doesn't acknowledge Wildavsky at all, and makes only a brief reference to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who's also done popular work in the area.


The Classical Liberal Constitution

[Amazon Link]

Let it be said that if I ever find myself needing a Constitution for a new country, I would try to get Richard Epstein to write it.

As always, many thanks to Dimond Library at the University Near Here for wangling this book on a loan from Williams College. Otherwise, getting it from Amazon would have set me back $52.50 (or $44.99 for the Kindle version).

It is a doorstop of a book, 684 pages in all, with 583 pages of main text. And it's not particularly easy going for those of us whose acquaintance with US Constitutional law is scattershot and amateurish. For just one example, I was stopped by the phrase ultra vires on page 130—what's that mean? (It means, as it turns out, "beyond the powers": the Supreme Court refusing to rule on the constitutionality of legislation, because the plaintiffs could not show they were directly harmed by the legislation, hence had no standing to bring the case. But I had to Google.)

The book itself is a sweeping analysis of contentious Constitutional issues over the centuries. Epstein's thesis is that the Constitution can be, and should be, interpreted in light of its philosophical underpinnings: specifically, the theory of classical liberalism as expounded by John Locke and the other thinkers influencing the original authors. Epstein shows that efforts by both progressives and conservatives to explicate other theories of constitutional interpretation have led us to our current muddle.

Epstein's primary target is the "progressive" side: the stretched-beyond-credibility interpretations of Constitutional clauses that have allowed the Federal government to legislate in matters properly left to the states, or to the citizenry.

Not all of Epstein's arguments will find favor with current-day conservatives/libertarians, however. For example, he reads the Second Amendment to limit the Federal power over state militias. (Noting the previous mentions of "militia" in Article I, Section 8 and Article II, Section 2.)

All in all, I learned stuff. Not as much as I could have, or probably should have. As I've said before (but about a different author): "when I say I "read" it, what I mean is: I looked at just about every page, honest."


By A Spider's Thread

[Amazon Link]

So about ten years ago, I got the bright idea to read all the Edgar Award "Best Novel" nominees for 2005. This was a stupid idea, as it turns out. I read the winner California Girl, back in 2006. I picked up another nominee, Out of the Deep I Cry in 2008. And now I've read another. Yes, it's good. But what was I thinking?

This book is the eighth entry in author Laura Lippman's series featuring Baltimore private investigator Tess Monaghan (since grown to an even dozen). Tess is the offspring of an Irish father and a Jewish mother; the latter heritage helps her here. Wealthy furrier Mark Rubin's wife and three children have vanished; since there's no indication of foul play, but Rubin's anxious to avoid public scrutiny, he hires Tess to track down his family. Rubin is very much an Orthodox Jew, even declining to shake Tess's hand at their first meeting. (Yes, that's a thing.)

There is, of course, more than meets the eye. Ms. Lippman uses third-person, multiple POV to tell the story, so we know that Rubin's wife is driving through the Midwest with the mysterious, malevolent Zeke. The kids are unwilling tagalongs, and Zeke's not above sticking the oldest boy, Isaac, into the car trunk when he gets obstreperous. Everyone's motives are mysterious, and are revealed only gradually over the course of the book.

It becomes clear to Tess that Rubin isn't being entirely forthcoming with his wife's history. Is that due to a desire for privacy or something more sinister? Nevertheless, Rubin and Tess develop an interesting relationship, to the extent that Tess is reluctant to honestly convey to him what she learns about the peripatetic Mrs. Rubin.

Despite being number eight of a series, the book works pretty well on its own, without my having first read entries one through seven. There are some refrences to harrowing incidents in a previous book, mooning over an absent boyfriend, preparations for the upcoming wedding of a beloved aunt. That's to be expected.

I am not sure whether I will continue with my plan to read all the 2005 Edgar nominees. Not sure, either, whether I'll read more Laura Lippman. She's very good, but geez my TBR pile is really tall without adding eleven more.


The 5-Minute Iliad

[Amazon Link]

Another deep dive into the non-fiction TBR pile. (I'm really making inroads! Only 15 books on there now!) The copyright on this book is 2000, and I think I got it for a Christmas present sometime after that. Thanks much, to whoever gave it to me.

It is a collection of 15 brief parodies of literary works, starting with—guess what—the Iliad. Each is written (sort of) in the style of the parodied work. I had previously read 7 of the target texts, but this didn't seem to affect how much I was amused by Nagan's takes, one way or the other.

I found the results uneven, but I wouldn't be surprised if other readers were amused (or not) by pieces that left me cold (or found me chuckling). Humor is funny that way. In addition to humor being funny in the "ha ha" way.

For example, I liked this from the 1984 chapter:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
BUT DIAMONDS ARE A GIRL'S BEST FRIEND

… but I got all the way through the Sense and Sensibility chapter without cracking a grin.

Also good: The Divine Comedy written in limericks. The inscription on the gate of Hell:

COME THROUGH ME TO THE SORROWFUL CITY.
COME THROUGH ME AND FORGET ABOUT PITY.
    EVERY LAST DOPE
    MUST ABANDON ALL HOPE
WHEN THEY PASS ON INTO ETERNITY.

This made me wonder if Nagan had written anything else. Nothing I can find. Maybe he's living off the royalties of this book; it's still in print. He has a long-defunct website justmorons.com, and seems to have moved to Denmark. (Maybe he's researching a parody of Hamlet.)


Superforecasting

[Amazon Link]

Science fiction readers Of A Certain Age will remember Asimov's Foundation books fondly, which prominently featured Hari Seldon's "psychohistory", a subversive science that allowed the accurate prediction of the (dismal) future of the Galactic Empire. The brave effort to minimize the inevitable barbarism gave rise to many stories and novels.

This book says: we ain't there yet. We're unlikely to ever get there. But it is an excellent overview of the best current efforts to (at least) make predictions about the near future.

The book's primary author, Philip Tetlock, is a UPenn prof (in Psychology, Political Science, and the Wharton business school, impressive). The subject has been the primary focus of his research for most of his career. The secondary author, Dan Gardner, is a journalist, and probably punched up the prose and ironed out some of the academese. The result is excellent, very readable even for the layman. (As long as the layman doesn't seize up at an informal presentation of Bayes' Theorem.) It is full of insights, wittily presented.

Most popular "pundit" forecasting is sloppy: full of weaselly qualifications and vague time scales. (NYT columnist Thomas Friedman is used as an example.) Worse, pundits don't usually get called on their failed predictions. (Example here is from "our" side: Larry Kudlow, CNBC superstar, who was consistently, disastrously wrong about the 2007-2008 recession. Yet, he's still in the lucrative business of TV punditry.)

So it's easy to despair. Yet, Tetlock approached the issue as a rigorous science: let's ask for predictions precisely, with unambiguous language, and specific timescales. (Example: will Kim Jong-Un vacate his office by June 2015?) And ask for probabilities rather than yes/no: ("My forecast for Kim Jong-Un vacating by June 2015: 20%.")

Tetlock assembled a raft of volunteers who threw their brains into judging the likelihood of such outcomes. (Still ongoing. There's a website.) Result (although the book's title is kind of a spoiler): some forecasters did a lot better than others, even better than a dart-throwing chip would have. (High praise, as Tetlock shows.)

Then the interesting question becomes: What did the superforecasters have in common? A lot of things, as it turns out. Humility. Skill in breaking down problems into more-easily analyzed parts. Knowing where to get information is relatively easy; knowing what to get is vital. Math literacy helps, although few superf'ers applied math rigorously in making their predictions. A determined non-ideological approach is also a plus; if you "know" that the right answer is determined by your faith in capitalism/socialism/bureaucracy/democracy/etc. then you are likely to be way too confident in your guesses. And more.

So, highly recommended. If you don't believe me, and you shouldn't, the back cover has High Praise blurbs from some people you may have heard of: Daniel Kahneman, Steven Pinker, Robert Rubin, Tyler Cowen, and Jonathan Haidt.