In Plain Sight

[Amazon Link]

Amazon's Kindle version helpfully informs me that this is "A Joe Pickett Novel Book 6" by the great C. J. Box. It is, as usual, very good.

Joe is beset by problems. A missing ranch matriarch has prompted a shovel fight between three feuding brothers that Joe gets roped into. (Although as a game warden for Wyoming Game and Fish he shouldn't usually need to get involved in shovel fights, it seems he is around when this sort of thing crops up.) His supervisor despises him, clearly looking for an excuse to fire him.

And, oh yeah: a sociopathic killer is on his way to Twelve Sleep County to unleash misery on the Pickett family and murder Joe. That's not good either. (There's a back story to that, and it would help to have read books 1-5 in the series in order to flesh out a few things.)

What follows is a page-turning (for me, actually screen-swiping) tale of suspense, action, and violence. Box does something unusual for genre authors in involving Joe's family deeply in the plot. Joe is a devoted family man, but all the Pickett are recognizably unsaintly humans. So the Pickett family has its internal frictions and misunderstandings. But they are decent and likeable. In particular, Joe's oldest daughter, Sheridan, is growing up into a solid, perceptive young lady.

And, without spoilers, this book "changes everything" for Joe. We'll see what happens next.

Bookmark and Share

The Night and The Music

[Amazon Link]

Consumer note for Kindle users: this is a pretty good deal, $4.99 for the K-version at Amazon.

It is billed as a (more or less) complete version of Lawrence Block's eleven less-than-novel-sized stories featuring Matthew Scudder, going along with the 17 novels. I've been following along with Scudder, the alcoholic ex-cop, very unofficial private eye, pretty much from his beginnings back in the 70's. So it was destined that I eventually check this out.

The Scudder novels are found in the mystery section of your local bookstore, but most of the stories here wander pretty far from the genre: by my count, only one is a straightforward whodunit. The remainder pick on Scudder's often bemused, often guilty, witness to people and their doings in the Big Apple. A couple stories are really just vignettes. But that's OK. As his fans know, Block is an utterly captivating writer, and knows how to make you turn pages. (Or, on the iPad, swipe the screen.)

In an afterword, Block tells his Scudder history, with some details about how the series could have easily stopped with the first three books. And then, after the fifth book, Eight Million Ways to Die, Block was in the position of having nowhere to take Scudder. But fortunately for us, he figured it out.

Bookmark and Share

The Stupidest Angel

[Amazon Link]

Subtitle: "A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror". And what better time to read a heartwarming tale of Christmas terror than early August?

The stupidest angel in the title is Raziel, and Christopher Moore fans have seen him before. (In fact, we've seen most of these characters before. But new readers shouldn't worry, this book stands alone well.) He's been sent to Earth to pull off a Christmas miracle, and he totally screws it up.

Part of his problem is trying to pull off the miracle in Pine Cove, California, long the scene of supernatural mayhem. But (good news), the residents of the town freak out significantly less than those of saner locales would. Hence the death toll, while nothing to be proud of, is kept to a practical minimum.

This would make a fantastic mini-series on one of the cable channels that can abide a little raunchiness and violence. FX? (There's a website for the movie, but production seems to be halted.) I was casting as I read: Seth Rogen for Theo, the once-and-future pothead local constable?

Only downside to a movie is there's probably no room for prose like this:

Theo looked at Gabe's ex-girlfriend, considered the heels, the stockings, the makeup, the hair, the lines of her suit, her nose, her hips, and felt like he was looking at a sports car that he could not afford, would not know how to drive, and he could only envision himself entangled in the wreckage of, wrapped around a telephone pole.

We've all been there, guys, amirite?

Aside, and sorry for the small spoiler: What is it with zombies and churches anyway?

Consumer note: I got a used copy in very good shape from an Amazon reseller, for far less money than the Kindle version.

Bookmark and Share


[Amazon Link]

Another entry from National Review's list of "Ten Great Conservative Novels". Five down, five to go. I was able to find a second-printing copy in the dark and remote shelves of the Dimond Library of the University Near Here; it appears to be out of print, but Amazon has a thriving used market for it.

The author, John Dos Passos (1896-1970), flirted with left-wingism in his early career, but was apparently too much of an realistic individualist to go full Commie. (His reaction to the Communist side in the Spanish Civil War caused a breakup with his former buddy Ernest Hemingway.) Later in his life he voted for Nixon and Goldwater; it's out of that mindset that Midcentury was written.

The structure of the book is (so-called) "nonlinear", with multiple stories intertwined with biographical sketches of actual people, and amusingly-juxtaposed snippets of news stories and advertisements (I assume also real). Dos Passos was a major developer of this technique; it must have been revolutionary at the time.

The biographical sketches are snappy and interesting. Some are famous (Eleanor Roosevelt, James Dean, Jimmy Hoffa…). A couple I had never heard of: Robert R. Young and William F. Dean. (I'm kind of ashamed about not knowing about Dean.)

The fiction bits mostly concern organized labor, with characters on both sides: an old Wobbly reminisces about his colorful life from the bed of a Veterans Administration hospital; a small businessman tries to set up a rival cab company in a small city. Dos Passos's picture of Big Labor is largely unflattering: a smattering of good eggs, mostly ground down by the corrupt.

Last Modified 2015-08-06 6:46 AM EDT
Bookmark and Share

If Not Us, Who?

[Amazon Link]

I got this as a freebie for renewing my subscription to National Review awhile back. (You can only have so many NR t-shirts or coffee mugs.) And it finally percolated to the top of my to-be-read pile. Written by David B. Frisk, it is a hefty tome, 438 pages of text, over 60 pages of endnotes.

And what's it about? It is a biography of William A. Rusher (1923-2011), the publisher of National Review for about thirty of those years, from 1957 until his retirement in 1988. In addition to his work at the magazine, Rusher was also a political activist, heavily involved in an effort to steer the Republican Party to a more consistently conservative direction. Although his early GOP efforts were in support of Dewey and Ike, he came around to a solid conservatism after being disillusioned with the Eisenhower presidency.

Rusher was considerably different from NR's famous editor, William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley was born rich, comfortable moving in sophisticated society, totally charming. Rusher was from a modest background, working his way into Harvard Law, very much the practical politician, obsessed with devising winning strategies. WFB was the golden retriever in the limo, Rusher the pitbull in the street.

It's surprising things worked as well as they did at the magazine. Frisk does a good job of describing the inner wangling factions at NR, often setting Rusher at odds not only with WFB, but also with such eminences as James Burnham. There were disagreements aplenty: what the overall tone of the magazine should be; which political candidates should be supported, which dumped; just how dismissive should the magazine be toward conspiracy theorists, anti-Semites, and other fringe-dwellers. (Shrinking the tent of acceptability is fine in theory, but once you start factoring in the loss of subscribers, contributors, and advertisers, it gets more difficult.)

Rusher was a huge Goldwater fan in the early 1960s, a major force pushing him into his 1964 presidential candidacy. Frisk reminds us that, like any sane person would be, Goldwater was unenthusiastic about running. He seems only to have embraced the process when it was clear he wouldn't win.

But the Goldwater campaign was successful at beating the liberal Republicans, and it hatched the political career of conservatism's most shining success, Ronald Reagan. Rusher was an active participant there too. He never liked Nixon much, and wanted Reagan to be the nominee in 1968.

Outside of politics, well… there wasn't much there to Rusher. Never married, a few close friends. Obviously his choice, but somewhat sad.

I can't recommend this book to anyone who isn't really interested in the history of the US conservative political movement. At times it seems that there's no memo so inconsequential, no squabble so trivial, that Frisk doesn't describe it. Still, it's readable, and will act as a lasting memory to someone who undoubtedly had a major effect on his times.

Bookmark and Share

While Drowning in the Desert

[Amazon Link]

The fifth and (so far) final book in Don Winslow's "Neal Carey" series, originally published in 1996. This is significantly more light-hearted than the first four.

My take on the previous entries in the series: here, here, here, and here. Although seemingly out of print, they're available and inexpensive for Kindle.

Neal is enjoying semi-retirement in a remote Nevada town with his fiancée Karen. Two problems: Karen decides she wants a baby. Like, right now. And his "dad", Graham, calls with an assignment: Neal needs to escort the aging vaudeville comic Natty Silver from Las Vegas back to his home in the California desert.

Natty is a motormouthed jokester, delivering his patter and shaggy-dog stories to any willing listener. (And also to Neal, who's unwilling.) But there's more going on than Neal is aware of. Specifically, Natty is the target of a desperate Nazi arsonist who wants him dead.

Things eventually work out.

I don't know if Don Winslow has any plans for writing more about Neal. I, for one, would like to know how his life turned out, here nearly twenty years later. Did he and Karen have those babies? Did he ever get his English Literature doctorate? Is he out there teaching bored undergrads about his beloved Tobias Smollett? C'mon, Mr. Winslow, I bet there's a lot of people who want to know what happened next!

Bookmark and Share

By the People

[Amazon Link]

Subtitle: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission.

I am something of a Charles Murray fan. I think his 1988 book In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government remains the best introduction to libertarian philosophy I've seen. He's been a consistent advocate of the values I most appreciate: personal responsibility, humane individualism, mutual respect, and so on. I buy his books automatically.

By the People is a diagnosis and possible remedy of major flaws in modern American society and our government, combining history, sociology, and legal analysis. Murray considers the "Madisonian" vision of the founding fathers, and shows how that vision has been trashed over the past 8 decades or so. (Not that flaws didn't appear earlier with Wilsonian "progressivism".) Our legal system is a thick morass of vague rules that a sufficiently zealous prosecutor can use to make his chosen targets miserable. Ditto for essentially unregulated regulatory agencies. Our politics are systematically corrupt with both parties more than willing to play the "public choice" game, doing big favors for well-connected constituents, spreading the costs out to the unaware masses.

What to do? Murray suggests strategic civil disobedience, fueled by the (so far) imaginary "Madison Fund", designed to defend the flouters of unjust laws and stupid regulations. The theory: make it expensive for Big Government to force its pet policies down the throats of the citizenry. Essentially, he hopes, the most outrageous legal bullying will become totally impractical.

Murray describes why he thinks this might be a winning strategy, in his usual accessible prose. I hope he's correct about that.

Bookmark and Share

Under Tower Peak

[Amazon Link]

I was encouraged to pick up this book by a glowing review in the WSJ back in 2013. (Yes, it can take a while to get to items in my TBR pile.) Comparisons to Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and Jim Harrison were made. And I found it a pretty good read too. It is an auspicious debut novel for author Bart Paul.

The narrator and protagonist is Tommy Smith. He and his longtime buddy Lester work in the California mountain wilderness, wrangling horses and acting as guides for tourists who want to rough it in the outdoors. But on an expedition near a remote pass through the Sierras, Tommy and Lester happen upon a plane crash and the pilot's corpse. They remember news stories from months back about a missing billionaire, and reach the obviously correct conclusion: they found him.

Tommy wants to do the obviously correct thing: report the crash site and the body when they return to civilization. But Lester gets way too clever, grabbing the dead guy's Rolex and some loose cash. Tommy reluctantly refrains from doing the right thing. But things get worse: Lester and his girlfriend launch a crackpot scheme to grab some of the billionaire's family fortune in return for their knowledge.

Unfortunate choice, because (as it turns out) there are people who would just as soon keep the billionaire's death unrevealed. And if the only way to do that is to kill everyone who can say different? Okay, fine!

Tommy, just like Liam Neeson, has "certain skills" that might ensure survival. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse can't-trust-anyone thriller.

Bookmark and Share

The Shadow University

[Amazon Link]

Subtitle: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses. This book is © 1998, seventeen years ago as I type. (Yes, it took a very long time to get to the top of the to-be-read pile. Sue me.)

One author, Alan Charles Kors, is a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania; the other, Harvey Silverglate, is a Massachusetts lawyer. After this book came out, they founded FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, still going strong.

The book starts out with a particularly egregious example: 1993's persecution of Eden Jacobowitz, a student who yelled "Shut up, you water buffalo" out of his UPenn dorm window to a group of boisterous students below. Unfortunately for Eden, the targets of this shouted demand were mostly black females, who complained. Penn administrators demanded a disproportionate and unjust punishment. But unlike most students, Eden fought back. (Prof Kors was his advocate, to his good fortune.) Eventually, it became a national cause célèbre and Penn backed down.

Eden's case had a happy conclusion, but the drawn-out battle, wasteful, draining, and contentious as it was, was its own punishment. And, as Kors and Silverlate show, it was hardly an outlier.

One might expect universities, of all places, to be champions of free and unfettered discussion, due process for accused misbehavior, and tolerance for oddball, unpopular views. But, as Kors and Silverglate show with sometimes mind-numbing recitations of case after case, exactly the opposite is true. Mostly drawing from the 1980s and 1990s, they detail arbitrary penalties and unfair procedures, mostly aimed at the unfortunate minorities deemed to be politically incorrect. They are predictably and justifiably outraged.

The roots of this behavior, the book argues, lie in the 1960s, where are generation of deep thinkers learned Herbert Marcuse's Marxist philosophy, with special attention to his theory of repressive tolerance: the notion that fair treatment of all ideas only benefits capitalistic domination of the masses. Hence, some ideas should be "more equal than others", and there's nothing wrong with people holding "correct" views suppressing rival opinions.

Now, to be fair, only a small (but very vocal) fraction of today's university personnel are true Marcusean social justice warriors. But the strident oft find allies with the spineless. In this case, go-along-to-get-along administrators whose primary interest is in keeping controversy and contention (with its attendant bad publicity) to a minimum.

The results, over and over, are episodes that seem like they could spring from a novel co-written by Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Ayn Rand: secretive and power-drunk villains deploy their full arbitrary powers against (at best) minor infractions and offenses. As in Eden's case, the good guys usually prevail, but only after excruciating legal procedures and publicity.

There are a lot of New Hampshire roots in the book, going back to 1942's Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, based on an incident that happened just up the street in Rochester, which generated the regrettable "fighting words" limitation on First Amendment rights. There was also Wooley v. Maynard, the irony-inspired case of the free thinker who got in trouble for taping over the "Live Free or Die" motto on his license plates.

New Hampshire's university system is also (sadly) well-represented here, going back to the 1950s, the state's efforts to hassle then-professor Paul Sweezy about his (acknowledged) Marxist views and associates is discussed. In more modern times, there was UNH's efforts to discipline Professor J. Donald Silva for allegedly creating a “hostile and offensive environment” in his classroom with his (um) colorful analogies and examples. Up north at Plymouth State, Leroy Young, a graphic design professor was summarily canned after allegations of sexual harassment of his students. (I'm not sure how Young's suit against Plymouth and USNH turned out.)

[Well after the book came out, UNH showed that it hadn't learned much about free expression by evicting a student who posted a satirical flier in his dorm's elevator. UNH continues to have a red light rating from FIRE for its unconsitutionally overbroad policy on "sexual harassment".]

So: while you might expect a 17-year-old book on then-current events to be dated, it turns out (regrettably) not to be at all. The mentalities and procedures it describes are still in vogue in American higher ed, as any look at recent headlines shows. (See, for example: here; here; here, all easily-found stories from the past few weeks.) Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, or as President Eisenhower [never actually] said: things are more like they are today than they've ever been before.

A relatively new wrinkle is the Obama Administration's aggressive (and probably unconstitutional, but what's new) push to force schools and colleges to cut back on due process and free speech via an expansive interpretation of its authority granted by anti-discrimination statutes, like the famous Title IX. This book doesn't cover that, obviously, but it's easy to see how it could be the source for Volume II.

Bookmark and Share

Wild Horses

[Amazon Link]

From 1994, this is probably my second-favorite Dick Francis novel (after Proof).

The narrator, Thomas Lyon, is visiting a dying old friend, a blacksmith who he knew long ago during a brief jockey career. Delirious from drugs and pain, the blacksmith mistakes Thomas for a priest, and incoherently seems to confess to a past crime.

Thomas is an up-and-coming movie director, and he just happens to be in the area making a movie. It just happens to be based on a fictionalized version of past events: the young wife of a horse trainer was found hanged in a stable. Was it murder or suicide? To this day, nobody knows.

But someone's apparently worried that the movie might illuminate how that death occurred. People are threatened, nearly killed. Including, since he's the Dick Francis hero, Thomas. The production is also in peril because the screenwriter doesn't like the changes Thomas is making to his version of the story, and badmouths him to the press.

So Thomas faces daunting odds: how to bring in the movie on time and budget, true to his artistic vision, while at the same time unravelling the mystery of what happened decades ago. Also, while staying alive.

Bookmark and Share