Open Season

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So after reading two standalone C. J. Box novels (the Edgar-winning Blue Heaven and the equally impressive Back of Beyond), I put all 16 of his other novels on my to-be-read list. This is his first book, written back in 2002, and it's another winner. I regret I didn't start sooner.

It is also Box's first novel with Joe Pickett, his series hero. Joe is a game warden, toiling in a remote county for Wyoming's Game and Fish Department. It's (literally) his childhood-dream job. Unfortunately, the pay is bad, his state-provided housing is small and shabby, and he's got two daughters with another kid on the way.

Also, Joe's trusting nature leads him to make a mistake. When confronting Ote Keely, a poacher caught (literally) red-handed, he allows his sidearm to be taken. This gets Joe (understandably) in some trouble.

But he keeps his job, and his life. Ote shows up again a few months later, murdered, in Joe's back yard. For some reason, he's travelled gut-shot for miles to Joe's back yard, only to expire by the woodpile. The only clue is an open cooler containing poop of unknown origin and significance.

The crime is immediately solved to the satisfaction of everyone except Joe. He makes a few inquiries, and the response is a multi-pronged attempt to get Joe to back off. Things escalate rather quickly, exposing the corruption of some of Joe's co-workers. And his family become the targets, which is harrowing reading.

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Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain

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I think I've mentioned my placement of Isaac Asimov's SF novels on my to-be-(re)?read list a few years back. Here's the latest entry, one I actually hadn't read before. For good reasons, it turns out.

Semi-interesting background: Dr. Asimov wrote the novelization for the fondly-remembered movie Fantastic Voyage back in the sixties. It was based on a screenplay written by someone else, and it told the story of the miniaturized submarine Proteus as it carried a life-saving laser to destroy a life-threatening blood clot in the brain of a defecting Soviet scientist.

Asimov was apparently long-bugged about the movie's total disregard for even remote scientific plausibility. (His book cleaned up some issues, but far from all.) Hence this "reboot".

There are a lot of differences. There is a handwaving attempt to justify the miniaturization process as a localized field where Planck's Constant (h) is reduced. So everything that depends on h (mass, atomic size, quantum forces, etc.) gets "smaller" proportionately. Cool!

It's set at some point in the 21st century, far enough ahead so there are permanent moon bases. Amusingly, although Asimov wrote this in the mid-1980s, much of the plot revolves around the rivalry between the US and the still-nasty, still existing, Soviet Union. The protagonist is essentially shanghaied to participate in a Soviet mission to recover the thoughts of a comatose Russian scientist. (He's comatose because—gulp!—a previous minaturization experiment went awry.) The crew is plagued by inner dissension and the many obstacles inherent in trying to find a likely brain cell that might be used to extract the right combination of brain-wave patterns.

The miniaturized vessel does not even have a name. Sigh.

The talk/action ratio is high, maybe higher than usual for Asimov. While the underlying science might be better, they all spend an unusual amount of time yakking about it. The result is not too interesting, let alone thrilling.

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The End of Power

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I put this book on my virtual TBR pile after reading an excerpt in Reason last year and a glowing review from Nick Gillespie. The good folks at the Unversity Near Here's library requested it from the MIT Dewey Library via the Boston Library Consortium, a service to which I've become addicted.

So: If you look up "conventional wisdom" in the dictionary, you'd think there might be a picture of Moisés Naím attached. His résumé is the epitome of mainstream respectability: he was editor in chief of Foreign Policy, an Executive Director at the World Bank, and Minister of Trade and Industry in Venezuela. You'd think he'd be a bland, non-boat-rocking kind of guy. But here he is, describing a current and ongoing decay in the traditional understanding of the way the world works. Go figure.

Naím methodically breaks down the concept of "power" into four "channels", somewhat glibly titled "The Muscle", "The Code", "The Pitch", and "The Reward". "Muscle", of course, is old-fashioned coercion; "Code" are those tenets of morals, tradition, mores, and expectations to which we subscribe, conciously or not. "Pitch" describes techniques of salesmanship and persuasion (very related to Virgina Postrel's book, The Power of Glamour, that I read awhile back). And "Reward" is refers to (sensibly enough) getting people to do what you want by paying them.

All four channels are declining in their influence; all sorts of "power" are becoming diffuse and decentralized, and the strong of yesterday are turning weak and constrained. Naím (once again, very methodically and somewhat glibly) identifies three forces involved: the "More Revolution", the "Mobility Revolution", and "Mentality Revolution". By "More", he refers to the increasing wealth of the middle/lower classes worldwide, which gives them the ability to avoid traditional barriers to power. "Mobility": more "small" people have acquired the nimbleness to do an end-around old-style power centers. And "Mentality": there's an increasing expectation that power can be defied and defeated. (I.e., people mad as Hell, and they're not gonna take it any more.)

Put it all together, and you have a pretty convincing argument. It's not that Naím is a wild-eyed libertarian (to the extent he reveals his politics, they're pretty much the same as your standard US liberal Democrat), but he's got facts and stats on his side.

The book's style is what I've come to think of as USA Today-ese, gee-whiz and somewhat dumbed down, which can be annoying in large doses. And Naím is convincing enough that he's identified a trend, but can the likely final result really be deemed the "End" of power? Doubtful.. My guess is that (sooner or later) we'll get to a new equilibrium: old-style power will be less, but it will be far from non-zero.

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I've long enjoyed Martin Cruz Smith's novels featuring Arkady Renko, the Russian detective. He's not exactly prolific; eight Renko novels, starting with Gorky Park in 1981. (Compare with Sue Grafton, who's knocked out 23 Kinsey Millhone books since 1982.) But the books are worth waiting for. Renko's life over the past thirty years has followed that of Mother Russia, from Communist totalitarianism to heady liberation, to today's corrupt kleptocracy. Renko endures it all with bemusement and mordant dark humor; his only desire is to bring a little bit of justice to the evildoers when and where he can.

Here, things kick off with three deaths: (1) a translator is biking on the lonely, off-season Curonian Spit in Kaliningrad when a killer in a butcher's van does him in; (2) a famous Russian mobster is gunned down by perpetrators unknown; (3) a hard-hitting female journalist, Tatiana Petrovna, apparently falls to her death from her apartment balcony.

These are all seemingly unrelated, but (of course) they aren't. Renko is especially drawn to the death of the journalist. The authorities want to write Tatiana off as a suicide, but witnesses report hearing a scream. Tatiana has been a thorn in the side of the powerful for years, daring to report stories at odds with the "official" versions, exposing incompetence, arrogance, and corruption. So there's no limit to possible suspects.

Renko is his usual dogged self, picking up unlikely clues, and following seemingly hopeless leads. Especially noteworthy is the translator's notebook, which apparently passed through Tatiana's hands before winding up in Renko's possession. Unfortunately, it's all in a private code, full of mysterious symbols in the translator's private language. Can it be puzzled out? Enter the lad Zenhya, the semi-feral chess prodigy to who Renko became a sorta-guardian in a previous book. He can see connections and make logical leaps unavailable to lesser mortals. But that (unfortunately) puts him in danger himself. Can he save himself and Renko too?

I really enjoyed the book. You can learn a lot, painlessly, about Russia simply by reading this series. Much is set in Kaliningrad, a Russian outclave on the Baltic sea, nestled between Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. A particularly amusing/depressing bit concerns the Kaliningrad "Monster", officially the "House of Soviets", widely thought to be the ugliest building in the world. Construction started in the 1960s, and was abandoned in the 1980s, and it remains unfinished. It was painted light blue in 2005 when Putin visited; according to Renko's guide, this was to make it as invisible as possible.

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Back of Beyond

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I can't say enough good things about this book. It's a well-crafted mystery/thriller with good characters, a spectacular setting, and a keep-you-guessing plot. I'd read one other C. J. Box novel before this (the Edgar-winning Blue Heaven); when I reached the end of this one, I put his remaining 16 novels on my to-be-read list.

The opening sentence is a grabber: "The night before Cody Hoyt shot the county coroner, he was driving without a purpose in his county Ford Expedition as he often did these days."

Cody is the main protagonist, and he's kind of a mess. He's a county cop, and divorced alcoholic; you get the impression that he's barely holding onto both his job and his sobriety. It doesn't help that when he's called out to investigate a fire at a remote cabin, he already knows the burned-up victim: it's Hank, his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, whose corpse is found next to an open bottle of Wild Turkey.

Everyone is convinced that the victim perished in a drunken wood stove accident. Cody knows it's homicide, although he can't convince his superiors of that. A computer's browsing history shows that Hank—or someone—recently checked out a wilderness trip into a remote spot in Yellowstone National Park. And (in a Dickensian coincidence) it happens to be a wilderness trip that Cody's son is being taken on by his ex-wife's fiancee.

We're then introduced to a second protagonist, 14-year-old Gracie Sullivan, who's on the trip with her slutty older sister, wimpy dad, and her wimpy dad's surprise new girlfriend.

It soon becomes apparent that a lot of characters have hidden motives and plans of their own. (Including the sleazy outfitter leading the trip and his employee/girlfriend.) Soon, folks start vanishing mysteriously from the trip. Back in Montana, Cody sets out in a desperate attempt to catch up with the group and save his son, but shadowy forces keep delaying him.

It's insanely readable. (I'd say it's a page-turner, but I read it on my Kindle. So it's a button-pusher.) Highly recommended.

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Vengeance Is Mine!

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So I got this book containing three Mickey Spillane novels, his first three in his famous Mike Hammer series. Because I'm a fan of private eye stories, and I like the hard boiled stuff, and who cares about the purists who look down their noses at lurid tales of two-fisted derring-do?

I read the first two novels in the volume years back; because I'm obsessive about this kind of thing, the third was finally chosen off the list by my book-picking algorithm.

What did I learn? That Spillane was not my cup of tea. Mike Hammer is kind of a dick, and I don't mean as in private. Frankly, I suspect he's got serious psychological problems, some strange mishmash of sadism, misogyny, paranoia, and anger issues.

On the other hand, Hammer is the kind of guy you'd want on your side in a scrape. (Unfortunately, the guys on Hammer's side, unless they are recurring characters, like Velda or Pat, usually wind up dead, in unusually unpleasant ways.) And the dames invariably find him dreamy, shedding their flimsy garments without a lot of provocation.

So: Vengeance is Mine! (With the exclamation point in the title). Mike wakes up in a hotel room from a whiskey-soaked bender and finds his co-bendee "dead as hell", his brains scattered by a bullet from Mike's .45. What happened? Mike would like to exact the titular Vengeance! but is hampered by a D.A. who pulls his PI license and his gun permit. Also by total lack of clues.

Lots of sex and violence, which must have been titillating back in the 1950s when it was written. Big surprise at the end (very last sentence, in fact) which (again) people back then might have found shocking and perverse.

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The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Wasn’t My Fault) (And I’ll Never Do It Again)

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P.J. O'Rourke's latest. Enough said? Probably, but this post would look pretty lame if I ended things here. I received this book as a Christmas gift from my thoughtful family.

The book's topic is especially appropriate: I, like P.J., am a Baby Boomer. Although our current political positions are roughly similar, we got there by wildly different routes. We grew up in the Midwest (him: Ohio; me: Iowa and Nebraska). We both wound up in New Hampshire (although in very different parts of the state). And he's a wildly successful author, and I'm a computer geek at the University Near Here.

One thing for sure: he consumed a lot more substances along the way.

But, heck, he speaks for me. Why not? Better him than me.

The book is also a memoir, wrapping P.J.'s observations about his generation around tales of his early life. It may be the closest he comes to writing an autobiography, although (as he admits) he's changed nearly all names, times, places, and incidents. But: "Only the most outrageous and unbelievable things in this book are recounted exactly as they happened."

For example, P.J.'s stint working at a Baltimore underground newspaper called Puddles is recounted. Anyone with rudimentary skills at the Google can discover that it was actually named Harry. However: one day the newspaper office was invaded by a local radical group, armed with a List of Demands. The name of the group was the "Balto-Cong"—and the name really was "Balto-Cong". P.J. explains: "It's the one name of any consequence that I haven't changed in this book. How could it be improved?"

As he notes:

That's not to say we're a selfish generation. Selfish means "too concerned with the self," and we're not. Self isn't something we're just, you know, concerned with. We are self.

And appropriately enough, the yarns and observations in this book are self-deprecating. P.J. is not nostalgic or sentimental about our generation. Although some of the observations may only make sense after a couple slugs of good scotch, because that's how they were probably written.

It's tempting to type in a lot more quotes. Instead, I'll point to an excerpt at the WSJ.

Last Modified 2014-03-06 6:21 AM EST
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Super Sad True Love Story

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I can't quite remember how this book got into my things-to-read list. It might have been this mention from Gene Healy at Reason, where it's billed as a "near-future comic dystopia". (And claimed to be a more likely future than, say, The Hunger Games books.) And, the library at the University Near Here owned a copy, so the only thing it would take is time. So…

It's the story of Lenny Abramov (middle-aged son of Russian immigrants) and Eunice Park (daughter of Korean immigrants). The tale is told in alternating chapters: excerpts from Lenny's diary and Eunice's "Globalteens account", the dominant social media site of this particular future.

Lenny and Eunice meet in Rome. She's on vacation, and Lenny has been sent by his employer, a life-extension company, to scout out HNWI ("High Net Worth Individual") customers. Lenny is immediately smitten with Eunice. This seems unlikely, because (even in his own telling) he is a desperate schlump, on the verge of professional failure, and way too old for the lovely young Eunice. But, unlikely as it sounds, they have a physical encounter; Lenny sees this as life-changing.

Eunice's side of the story reveal that, instead of the saint Lenny imagines, she's shallow, frivolous, foul-mouthed, and promiscuous. In contrast to Lenny, she views their brief sexual rendezvous as a one-off, something that she did because she could think of nothing better to do.

Unlikely as it seems, a relationship blooms between them when they return to America. Unfortunately, the US is in decline. It is broke, corrupt, dominated by international corporate interests, and reeling from disastrous foreign military ventures. "Anti-terrorism" measures have been cranked up, ubiquitous militarized checkpoints that are less about keeping the country safe, and more about keeping the rabble in line. But everyone's plugged in via their "äppäräts", supersmart devices that will (for example) instantly tell you (and everyone around you) your sexual and financial worth.

Eunice (it turns out) is very much a product of the crass and postliterate culture that surrounds her. She, like everyone, is bemused by the fact that Lenny actually owns and reads physical books. It's not illegal; it doesn't have to be.

So the country is going down the toilet. Eunice and Lenny are semi-aware of this, but they're also trying to make their relationship work, explain themselves to their respective families, etc. But (sorry for the spoiler, but see the title) there's no happy-ever-after ending.

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W is for Wasted

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I picked up a paperback of A is For Alibi by Sue Grafton in a long-gone Crown Books in Bethesda, Maryland back in the early 80's. I fell behind Ms. Grafton's chronicles of hardboiled female private eye Kinsey Millhone for awhile, but now I've caught up again. W is for Wasted is an above-average entry in the series. Kinsey is confronted with two deaths: one, a homeless guy named R. T. Dace has passed away on the Santa Teresa beach, apparently of natural causes acerbated by his substance-abusing lifestyle. But he has Kinsey's name and phone number in his pocket. And, to Kinsey's surprise, R. T. is a long-lost relation. (Kinsey's lack of knowledge about her family tree has been an occasional plot point in previous books.)

The second death occurred a few months previous: private eye Pete Wolinsky was shot for reasons unknown. Although ostensibly in the same line of work, Pete was as shady as Kinsey is honest. Numerous flashbacks describe the events leading up to Pete's demise. We learn that, although he is professionally slimy, he loves his wife dearly, and he's fond of feeding the pigeons.

Are these two deaths connected? Well sure. Sorry if that's a spoiler. Kinsey half-blunders into the connection (about a hundred pages after most readers will have seen it coming), but she follows things through to a satisfying conclusion.

The book is padded out to 480 pages; I assume this is a contractual obligation. In addition to the main plot, there's plenty of irrelevant and unnecessary detail, and side narratives involving Kinsey's usual acquaintances. (And there's a surprise appearance by a guy I thought was gone for good. No spoilers on that, but I hope we see him again in X, Y, or Z.

So I know much more than I did about the Beale Memorial Library on Truxtun Avenue in Bakersfield, CA. ("The interior was spacious and smelled of new commercial carpeting. The ceiling was high and the light was generous. I couldn't even guess at the square footage or the number of books the building housed, but the patrons had to have been thrilled with the facility. …" Sheesh. Sorry, I just don't care whether they were or not.)

But I just fast-forward through that stuff now. Rest assured that what's left is worthwhile: when Ms. Grafton is good, she's really good.

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J.J. Abrams is a hero in my book, for (among other things) the reincarnated Star Trek movies and Lost. So I was intrigued by what I read about this book, S., which he is credited with "conceiving". (The writing seems to have been mostly due to Jeopardy! champ Doug Dorst.)

And it's very cool. The book comes in a plastic-wrapped slipcase, which is the only indication of its actual provenance. The book (in turn) seems to be a library book titled Ship of Theseus by one V.M. Straka, written in the late 1940s. This fiction is carried out amazingly well: the due-date stamps on the inside rear cover and a Dewey-Decimal sticker on the spine.

Ship of Theseus itself is kind of a Kafkaesque paranoid fantasy with (no doubt) piles of symbolism and metaphor, and all that stuff that makes simple-minded readers like me tired. It's about an amnesiac who, after briefly wandering the streets of some depressing port city, becomes enamored of a briefly-glimpsed woman. Unfortunately, he's also quickly shanghaied onto a mysterious ship, where all but one crew member have their mouths sewn shut. Our victim acquires the name "S.", and this initial keeps popping up in odd places.

The "ship of Theseus", I dimly remembered, is an ancient paradox first put forth by Plutarch: components of a ship's structure are gradually replaced over years as they wear out or rot away. And eventually every part of the original ship has been replaced. Is it the same ship now, or not? If not, at what point did it stop being the original? A ripe metaphor for questions of identity and evolution, very suitable for undergraduate dorm rooms.

Anyway, that's just part of it. Because this library book was filched from a high school by Eric, a devotee of V.M. Straka. Eric goes on to become a graduate student in literature at Pollard State University. There, his personality collides with faculty bigwigs, and he becomes a persona non grata. For obscure reasons, he leaves his copy of Ship of Theseus in the library, where it is discovered by Jen, a soon-to-graduate undergrad. Jen and Eric soon start corresponding with each other in the margins of the book.

As it turns out, the identity of "V.M. Straka" is a topic of lively academic interest, as is Straka's relationship with the translator of his works, the equally mysterious "F.X. Calderia"; the translator adds an occasional wacky footnote to the mix. (And perhaps more?) Jen and Eric find themselves racing to sort out the clues offered by the book, in competition with the evil faculty member, Professor Moody and his henchwoman Ilsa.

What else? Oh, yes: there are items crammed into the book: a page of the Pollard State student newspaper; a coffee shop napkin with a scrawled map of the campus steam tunnel system; postcards from Brazil. Even a (so called) "Eötvös Wheel" (pictured here) which has something to do with decoding … something.

So it's all very mysterious. There may well be conundrums to unwind in the book. I didn't unwind any of them. (And I'm not sure the reward would be worth the effort. If you look around at the website linked in the above paragraph, you'll see that a lot of smarter people are working on it and I didn't notice any stunning revelations.) Still, it's an intriguing and impressive work.

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