Outcast

[Amazon Link]

This is how out-of-control my to-be-read pile can get: I saw this book (written in 1999) recommended somewhere, but that source is lost in the mist of time. ('Twas probably in a "hardcore right-wing radical" publication or website, see below.) Sometime after that, I must have found it on a remainder table somewhere, because there's a "Retail $24.00/Our Price $5.00" sticker on the front. And, now, finally…

Don't let my procrastination mislead you, it's good. The author, José Latour, is sort of a Cuban Elmore Leonard. He was a dedicated functionary in the Communist bureaucracy for years, becoming a full-time writer in 1990. He then got in a spot of trouble for writing a book (The Fool) that fictionalized the actual corruption in Cuban government. This book, Outcast, was his first effort written in English, and he got it published outside Cuba. Eventually, "seking creative fiction and fearing dictatorial repression", José moved to Spain in 2002 and now lives in Canada.

This book's hero, Elliot Stiel, is a lowly English teacher in Havana. His professional life is constrained by the perception that he's politically unreliable. He's divorced, drinks too much, going through the motions, waiting for the undertaker to come.

Unexpectedly, he's offered a new life by an obviously well-to-do American who claims to have known Elliot's long-missing father. All he has to do is rendezvous with an offshore yacht, and … well, double-unexpectedly, Elliot finds himself the victim of murderous betrayal. But he makes it to Miami, and starts working on his plan for vengeance. This requires some quick moneymaking, which (in turn) involves immersion in Floridian low-to-medium level criminal activities. Eventually, the super-twisty plot works itself to a conclusion.

Latour's depiction of post-USSR Cuba is honest, and therefore bleak. Not that he's all that easy on America: Elliot's observations of relative abundance lead him to conclude that It's All About the Benjamins here in the USA. That unsubtle conclusion is easy to live with, because Latour keeps things moving and interesting.


Our Republican Constitution

Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the People

[Amazon Link]

The good people at the Interlibrary Loan desk at the University Near Here waggled their magic wands and got this book all the way from the University of Wyoming in Larimie! That's far! And wouldn't it be nice if it were available from somewhere closer?

The author, Randy Barnett, is a law prof at Georgetown, and a longtime libertarian-leaning scholar of the US Constitution. His purpose here is to distinguish between two major conceptions of the Constitution: "Republican" and "Democratic". Guess which one he advocates? (Hint: see title.)

The Republican and Democratic Constitutions don't have any necessary connection to the same-named political parties. (Especially in 2016.) The contrast starts in the interpretation of first three words of the document: "We the People". The Republican Constitutionalist holds that this refers to people-as-individuals, that individuals are the referent here; the Democratic vision holds that it's, instead, the collective.

This difference leads (necessarily?) to the origin of basic rights: Republicans (following the language of the Declaration of Independence) view such rights to be "endowed by [our] Creator", or, in more agnostic language, inherent in the nature of humanity and the physical world. On the Democratic side, rights are granted by the state through (of course) the will of the aforementioned collective, which is held sovereign.

Barnett runs through our entire US history, showing how these Constitutional conceptions played out in Supreme Court cases over the years. The Democratic side has had some major victories, and may be seen to be currently ascendant (especially if Hillary wins and gets to replace a few Republican-appointed Justices).

He's particularly scathing on the concept of "judicial restraint", the notion that the courts should yield wide latitude to the elected branches of government. That's not so: the Framers intended the judiciary to be a major impartial check on the possible abuses inflicted by the executive and the legislature. There's every reason that they should use their full skepticism when reviewing the Constitutionality of (say) Obamacare. (And they failed in that.)

Barnett also demonstrates that "judicial restraint" is used mostly as an argument of convenience, not principle. When it stands in the way of (say) a progressive goal, the progressives don't hesitate to drop it.

What to do, then? Barnett leaves his answer in a very short conclusion. He would prefer that an Article V Consitutional Convention be called, to propose a raft of amendments to clarify and strenghen Federalism and the proper limited powers of government. This shows no sign of happening, but … maybe.

Barnett's discussion is lively and blessedly light on the arcana of Constitutional law. I think it would be comprehensible to anyone with a good background in American history. (If you want less comprehensible, there's always Richard Epstein; love him, but he can be impenetrable now and then.)


The Martian

[Amazon Link]

I saw The Martian (the movie) about a year ago. At the time, I wondered: why bring a botanist to Mars? and speculated that it might be answered in the book. And it was, right on page 12! Good for Andy Weir, the author, for clearing that up.

Every sentient being knows the basic plot, but anyway: through a disastrous combination of events, a lone member of the Ares 3 manned mission to Mars, Mark Watney (the botanist), gets left behind while the other crew members make an emergency return to Earth. Mark is more alone than any human being has ever been, and has only the remnants of the mission to help him survive.

There are numerous ways Mars can kill you, and Mark deals with most of them. They range from passive (running out of food, water, or air) to spectacular (explosive decompression, surprisingly treacherous terrain, …). Mark deals with these issues with a combination of humor, bravery, and amazing geeky resourcefulness.

One thing, though: you're exposed to a lot more radiation on Mars than we are on Earth. As near as I can tell, neither the book nor the movie mentioned this at all. But I could have missed it. It definitely falls into the "not much Mark can do about that" category.

Reading the book got me thinking about the general differences between books and movies based on those books. It's very rare (in my experience) that both are high quality, and The Martian is one of those rarities. (Another: Lord of the Rings.) I kept noticing differences: book-Mark (heh) deals with a few more disasters than does movie-Mark. And the book is littered with far more f-bombs than is the movie, understandable for the movie's PG-13 rating. (Annie Montrose, the NASA spokesperson played by Kristen Wiig in the movie, is particularly potty-mouthed in the book.)

Bottom line: the book is very good, and it doesn't matter much, enjoyment-wise, if you see the movie first.


Last Modified 2016-09-24 10:26 AM EDT

The Given Day

[Amazon Link]

I became a Dennis Lehane fan via his Kenzie/Gennaro private eye series, set in Boston. But recently he's turned his talents to writing novels more likely to be found outside the "Mystery" section at Barnes & Noble. Which is fine, I can follow him just about anywhere. Unless he decides to write about lady time-travelers or something.

No problem here, though. Lehane sets this novel in mostly in post-WWI Boston. (I assume he has access to a time machine. His prose has the kind of evocative detail that is otherwise inexplicable.) There's a mix-in of historical figures: e. g., Calvin Coolidge, Babe Ruth, John (later, more commonly, "J. Edgar") Hoover, and more. But the action follows mostly two fictional protagonists: white Danny Coughlin and African-American Luther Laurence. The novel plays out against real-life history, and you may have a dim idea of the nastiness involved: a flu epidemic, anarchist violence, a Boston police strike, a deadly molasses flood, and the Babe going to the Yankees.

Speaking of the Boston police, Danny is one, also the son of one. If you think you have a dysfunctional family, odds are Danny's got you beat. His misadventures are legion: a seemingly doomed romance with the domestic help, conflicts with his brothers, father, and (very nasty) godfather, undercover exploits in the anarchist/Bolshevik underground, his attempts to get decent wages and working conditions for his fellow policemen, … most of this accompanied by danger, violence, betrayal, and heartbreak.

Luther doesn't have an easy time of it either. There's the general problem of being a black guy in an openly racist environment. He also makes some bad decisions, which cause him, eventually, to be estranged from his pregnant wife.

This is the first novel in a series of (so far) three. I hope to get to them eventually; even though I don't care much for historical fiction, Lehane makes it work for me. Lehane's politics are relentlessly left-wing—one of his acknowledgments is to that Howard Zinn book—so I had to discount that a tad.


Life and Fate

[Amazon Link]

Once every few years, I take it into my fool head to read a big, ponderous, Russian novel. It's an eat-your-vegetables thing, a reaction to a self-induced guilt trip about having too much reading fun. So this book went on the to-be-read pile a few years back; it had been sitting on my shelves since 1987 or so.

Its pedigree is pretty good. The author, Vasily Grossman, was a combat correspondent during the Second World War, reporting on the battle for Stalingrad, the fall of Berlin, and the Nazi's Treblinka death camp. He submitted the manuscript of Life and Fate in 1960 to a USSR literary journal. He was rewarded with rejection, and a visit from the KGB, who confiscated all known copies of the manuscript, plus the carbon paper and typewriter ribbons used to type it up. Grossman died a few years later. Eventually, a copy of the manuscript found its way to the West.

I'm sure this oversimplifies things massively: it's War and Peace, set during WW2. There's a huge cast of characters, all going through the agony of (a) war; (b) Nazi oppression; and/or (c) Stalinist oppression. The Battle of Stalingrad is described in all its grisly detail. Grossman pulls no punches on any front; most notably, he's absolutely chilling in detailing the nasty degradation of living under a totalitarian regime, living in fear that some innocent remark or decent act might get you ostracized or imprisoned. Did Trotsky politely praise an essay you wrote years back? Oh oh.

[By sheer coincidence, this book shares a near-identical scenario with the Chinese sci-fi novel I read slightly before this, The Three-Body Problem. In both, a physicist finds himself in deep political trouble for holding to "counter-revolutionary" interpretations of relativity and quantum mechanics. Thank goodness we don't politicize science here in the US these days … oh, wait.]

All in all, an arduous 871-page slog, full of those three-foot long patronymic names. (E.g., Yevgenia "call me Zhenya" Nicolaevna Shaposhnikovna.) I can't say it was fun, but it was worthwhile.


The Fractured Republic

Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism

[Amazon Link]

Gosh, I wish I'd liked this book better. I was really looking forward to reading it, wasted a Boston Library Consortium pick on it. It isn't awful, but not very good. I was encouraged to read it by Charles Murray's review at National Review, where he deemed it "a must read for those who wish to understand modern America." Um, well, maybe. I, for one, don't think my understanding improved much.

Yuval Levin says some insightful things here, especially near the beginning. He points out that both conservatives and liberals have a misty-eyed view of mid-20th century America. The conservatives like the strong families, the relative prosperity. Liberals point to the 91% marginal rate on the Federal income tax and the strong unions. All this is remembered through the eyes of baby boomers, the bump-in-the-demographic-python that has inordinate sway over interpreting the past, reporting the present, and guessing about the future. (Mea Culpa.)

Levin then takes us on a brief cultural/political historical tour of post-WW2 America, up to the present day. This is a short book, this tour is only a fraction of it, so it's necessarily superficial. But the trends are (according to Levin) unmistakable: centralization of power at the Federal level, an unexpected bifurcation in well-being between those working in high-skilled jobs versus those in low-to-medium skilled jobs, a weakening of family, community, and religious ties.

My own recommendation would be to (instead) read America 3.0. Or visit their website (which seems to be unfortunately inactive).

Levin's preferred way forward is to step away from (what he calls) hyper-individualism and excessive centralization, returning strength to the "mediating" institutions at more local levels: family, church, fraternal organizations, local governments, etc.

The latter part of the book is frustratingly vague and hand-waving. Looking for concrete proposals? I'm pretty sure you'll have to look elsewhere. Although there's a mention of increased early childhood education.

The latter part of the book is somewhat (I thought) repetitious. That term "hyper-individualism" appears over and over—and we know anything "hyper" is bad news. It's blamed for everything: weakening of the family, drug use, violent crime, and (probably) disco. It goes hand in hand with the other Levin boogeyman, power centralization.


Last Modified 2016-09-05 5:06 AM EDT

Nowhere to Run

[Amazon Link]

Let's see now … this is the fifth C. J. Box book I've read this year. Adding in ones read in previous years, that makes thirteen. Eventually, I'll catch up.

Mr. Box continues to put his series hero, Joe Pickett, through the physical and emotional wringer. He's winding up his game warden stint in Baggs, Wyoming, looking to return to his family in his beloved Saddlestring. But first he needs to track down allegations of mysterious shenanigans in the Sierra Madre mountains: hunters harrassed, game stolen, petty vandalism. He quickly runs into two dangerous brothers with unconventional views on government. As in: they don't think it should apply to them. I sympathize. But things take a violent turn and Joe barely escapes with his life.

Things get more complex when Joe returns to civilization. (That's kind of a spoiler, but come on, you knew they weren't going to kill off Joe.) After a search, the local law enforcement can't find any evidence to support Joe's story. Did he just make it up? Do the brothers have anything to do with the recent disappearance of an Olympic athlete in the same area? What's the story with the FBI's interest in Joe's tale? And what's with the skinny dude who claims to be with the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation, who has a lot of questions? Who proceeds to vanish, and the DCI claims doesn't work for them?

Everybody wants Joe to just wash his hands of the mess and return to Saddlestring. You know that's not going to happen, though.


The Three-Body Problem

[Amazon Link]

I heard nice things about The Three-Body Problem recently. Specifically, I participated in a blog comment thread discussing the novel Decoded by the Chinese writer Mai Jia, which I'd read a couple years back. Somebody else in the thread mentioned this book as a better example of recent Chinese literature, and it did win the 2015 Hugo award for Best Novel. And (best of all) I still have borrowing privileges at Dimond Library of the University Near Here, it was available there, so…

It's a mind-blowing tale of interstellar chicanery, but first there's a horrifying tale of how China essentially went insane during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. This was also a plot point in Decoded—apparently it's allowed for current Chinese writers to honestly examine that period. (Don't get your hopes up; the censorship in China is still pretty bad. Tianmen Square? Fahgettaboudit.)

The Cultural Revolution smashes apart the family of Ye Wenjie. Her physicist father is killed when he refuses to renounce relativity, quantum mechanics, and the big bang theory. One of his denouncers is his wife, Ye Wenjie's mother. Ye Wenjie is an astrophysicist by training, but, politically suspect, she's banished to Mongolia to harvest timber. She gets into even more trouble there, involving a copy of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

Eventually, however, she's rescued, recruited into working on the mysterious "Radar Peak" military installation. Which turns out to be a Chinese effort to communicate with extraterrestrial civilizations.

Jumping ahead to the (roughly) present day, Wang Miao is a researcher working on nanotech. He gets unexpectedly recruited by a police investigation into a wave of suicides among physicists. He is led into playing the immersive virtual-reality game "Three Body", the origin of which is mysterious. The game itself is set in a nightmarish world continually thrown into chaos by its unpredictable orbital path around its three suns. In related news, it seems that the very underpinnings of physics are being ripped asunder. (I hate it when that happens.)

The book is not without humor. One of the other "Three Body" players is described: "The strangely dressed woman was a famous writer, one of those rare novelists who wrote in an avant-garde style but still had many readers. Your could start one of her books on any page."

I laughed out loud at that one.

Bad news: The Three-Body Problem is part one of a trilogy, and it ends in kind of a cliffhanger.


Last Modified 2016-08-22 8:57 AM EDT

The Cobweb

[Amazon Link]

Back in the mid-1990s, writer Neal Stephenson teamed up with his uncle, George Jewsbury, to write a couple of books. (The pseudonym they used at the time was "Stephen Bury". Recent editions de-pseudonymize Mr. Stephenson, while inventing a new pseudonym, J. Frederick George, for Mr. Jewsbury. I don't know why.) I read the first book, Interface, back in 2012. I liked it fine, but I enjoyed The Cobweb even more. Ostensibly a thriller, with heavy comic overtones. Think Carl Hiaasen, without Hiaasen's mean-spiritedness.

It is mostly set in the leadup to the 1990/91 Gulf War; the primary action is centered around the fictional twin cities of Nishnabotna and Wapsipinicon, Iowa, home to Eastern Iowa University. (Stephenson lived in Ames, Iowa during some of his Formative Years.) A secondary location is the Washington, D. C. environs; there are also side trips to Kennebunkport and … well, I'd tell you, but it would be a spoiler.

The joint protagonists are Clyde Banks and Betsy Vandeventer. Clyde is a salt-of-the-earth Iowa county policeman, who's married to his formidable childhood sweetheart, Desiree, and who's looking to displace the current sheriff in the upcoming election. Betsy's in the CIA, where her hard work and honesty has begun to attract the attention of her superiors. Which is not an unmitigated blessing, because of the honesty bit.

Coincidentally, Betsy's brother, Kevin, is at Eastern Iowa U, struggling to get his Ph.D. in the massive (but corrupt) agricultural research organization run by Dr. Arthur Larsen. When offered a lucrative opportunity to jump up in the hierarchy—all he has to do is cut some major ethical corners, not ask any inconvenient questions, and not look too closely at some of the Middle Eastern students coming in, or what they're up to—he grabs it. To his eventual regret.

Now if you check out the book cover over there (you may have to disable your ad blocker, which you should, it's just an Amazon ad, nothing obnoxious or clickbaity), you'll see biohazard symbols and a gas mask. And if you remember the Gulf War, you'll recall the concern that Saddam Hussein might be willing to deploy bio-WMDs to avoid a certain loss. Could the mysterious doings in Wapsipinicon have anything to do with that? Hint: yes, but let's not go into details.

There are plot twists and turns, as Clyde and Betsy battle their respective bureaucracies and struggle to uncover the truth. There's a pulse-pounding climax.

A wonderful book, readers, highly recommended if you're into this sort of thing at all.

Without getting too mushy or overanalytical, what I've noticed in Stephenson's work over the years is: his books, through the actions of his characters, seem to champion the same values I hold dear. You'd think that would be more common than it is. It's not. So when it happens, it's worth pointing out.


Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me?

More Answers to Common and Not-So-Common Questions about Birds and Birding

[Amazon Link]

I was given this book as a retirement present by one of my wonderful (but now ex-) co-workers at the University Near Here. She's a knowledgable birder, while I … well, I have a bird feeder. It's about the only remotely interesting thing I do. Our conversation naturally hit on avian topics now and then, mostly her answering my "what the heck was that bird" questions. So this book was appropriate.

The author, Mike O'Connor, runs the Bird Watcher's General Store on Cape Cod This book is a compilation of his columns from The Cape Codder newspaper called "Ask the Bird Folks".

Mike is pretty funny—imagine if Dave Barry ran a bird-watching supply store. And I learned a lot. For example: if you've ever snuck up on Mourning Doves, you'll know they emit a high-pitched whistle when they take off. It turns out that's not their speaking voice—all they can do with that is coo. Instead, the whistle is emitted from their wing feathers when they are in bugout mode. Which is, apparently, different from the sound of a normal takeoff, so it's used as a danger signal.

Now I do have one minor gripe: Diane from Brewster, MA wrote in about a dead Blue Jay in her yard underneath a power line, wondering if the poor thing could have been electrocuted. As it happens, I've noticed that in my own yard. Every so often dead Blue Jays will appear directly underneath the power pole that feeds Pun Salad Manor. (I know: yeesh.) So I was eager to read Mike's response. Funny, but the bottom line is "I doubt your power lines had anything to do with it." Given Diane's and my common experience, I'm thinking that's wrong.

Also, Dave Barry would have pointed out that "Electrocuted Blue Jays" would be a pretty good name for a rock band.