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.


[Amazon Link]

I really liked Frank J. Fleming's trilogy of political humor (blogged here, here, and here). So I eagerly looked forward to this science fiction novel. But as the nice Hispanic lady taking my blood pressure said: "Ees not good." And I say that with a heavy heart. (Heh.) I would have really liked to recommend it.

The narrator/protagonist is Rico; thanks to his genetically-engineered origin, he has heightened senses, quick reflexes, superior strength, and a quick mind. But he is also totally lacking a conscience, no ethical sense whatsoever. That particular combination of qualities makes him ideally suited to his profession: hitman for an intergalactic crime syndicate. He has his own spaceship managed by an AI named Dip, and he travels to various planets, rubbing out whatever victims his superiors finger.

But things go wrong on his current assignment. He accidentally thwarts a terrorist plot, becomes a local hero, and his cover story gets him affiliated with a pretty lady cop. In a plot twist you will see coming a mile off, she has her own issues. Nevertheless, their relationship deepens.

It's not impossible to write decently gripping fiction with a hitman protagonist. Lawrence Block did it. But Rico is humorless, monotonous, and generally devoid of any interesting traits. If your Roomba could write about its adventures in dirt-sucking, it would be about this interesting.

Also not helping: it's way too long. Amazon reports the print edition comes in at 300 pages. The idea here might support a novella. So I found it to be a slog.

But it currently has a 4.4 out of 5 rating at Amazon, so your mileage may vary.

It's a Long Story

My Life

[Amazon Link]

Billed on the inside cover flap as "the definitive autobiography of Willie Nelson", which invites a derisive comment: as opposed to those other non-definitive autobiographies?

Well yes. A couple pages in, on the "also by Willie Nelson" page, there's Willie: An Autobiography, published back in 2000 or so (but still in print). Given his copious cannabis consumption, he might have forgotten he wrote that one. Or maybe he just needed to shake the money tree again.

On the back jacket, one of the blurbs says Willie is "one of those rare American icons that you're just not allowed to dislike". Certainly, he has a lot of positive qualities: he's a prodigious musical talent, and is eager to share his success in collaboration with other musicians. The most entertaining parts of the book are about his early life, where he's scrabbling to make a career out of songwriting and playing. Everybody knows that's a tough career path, and there are detours along the way into encyclopedia sales, disk jockeying, and farming, all over the US and occasionally in Canada. There are endless conflicts with The Suits, who never buy into Willie's artistic vision of the moment, and are inevitably proved wrong.

Willie's generous with his praise of his friends and fellow musicians, and he's also quick to quote their praise of him. A close second in praiseworthiness is marijuana, to which Willie attributes his long life. (He gave up on tobacco and booze decades ago.) Why, did you know that Thomas Jefferson used hemp paper to draft the Declaration of Independence? If you didn't know that, you must not know any potheads; I think every one of them has told me that at some point. (But, yeah, probably not. Mamas, don't let your babies believe musicians trying to be historians.)

Willie's also quite religious, with a "spiritual" version of Christianity, infused with lots of Khalil Gibran, Edgar Cayce, astrology, and the like. Conveniently, his religion never seems to prevent him from doing whatever he feels like doing at the time. (He has apparently settled down with his fourth wife; they've been married since 1991.)

The book touches lightly on his political activism: pot legalization (of course!), his Farm Aid concerts, and a general willingness to believe any fool thing uttered by a Democrat. The book doesn't mention his 9/11 Trutherism or his anti-GMO activism. Maybe that would seem to complicate the story of someone you're "not allowed to dislike." .

Hayek's Modern Family

Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions

[Amazon Link]

If you're like me, your instant reaction to the title might be: best sitcom spinoff ever! Alas, probably not to be, but it's fun imagining possible characters and amusing plotlines.

The author, Steven Horwitz, is an econ prof at St. Lawrence University; as you might guess from a more sober look at the title, he's of a classical liberal bent, and his task here is to look at the past and likely evolution of family, marriage, and childrearing from that perspective.

It's a task well worth undertaking, given the proclivity of both left and right to proclaim the correctness of their views on those matters, and willingness to enlist the power of the state to enforce those views.

On the other hand, libertarians (which I tend to use interchangeably with "classical liberals", sue me) tend to either ignore such issues (especially those involving kids), or are clearly fumble-brained about the best way to approach analysis of non-state social institutions. Horwitz's effort is a welcome remedy.

The book emphasizes, for the unconvinced, that the "ideal" family of one male breadwinner, life-married to one female housekeeper, raising N well-scrubbed children in a detached single-family dwelling was only "typical" for a brief period of American postwar history. And even then 'twasn't that typical, as irrevocable trends were transforming it. Attitudes about sex, love, equality of the sexes, divorce, longevity, the nature of parenthood, etc., all push and pull on the surfaces of the institutions. Add in economic incentives, the availability of government-backed programs, tax policy, … Well, probably too many to list here.

As appropriate for an introductory inquiry, Horwitz probably raises more questions than he answers, but he knows the right people to quote: Hayek, of course, but also Deirdre McCloskey, Randy Barnett, and others who'll be familiar to libertarian dilettantes. (There's also a detailed advocacy of raising "Free Range Kids", based on Lenore Skenazy's book of the same name.)

Horwitz's basic recommendation: dynamic social forces have always changed social institutions like the family, and those changes will continue for the foreseeable future. Predicting the exact nature of the transformations is impossible; attempts to prevent those changes via government coercion, regulation or subsidy will be at best counter-productive. It's best to wherever possible trust in individuals to make their own choices, and the "emerging order" will certainly be better than whatever the social engineers of left and right attempt to force into reality.

Now: all is not perfect. Horwitz quotes McCloskey, but unfortunately doesn't write like McCloskey. His prose is academic-clunky; sentences and paragraphs go on forever, in small type and narrow margins. So it was kind of a slog. Still recommended though, because it might make you smarter.

Slow Burn

[Amazon Link]

I've said it before: Ace Atkins does a miraculous job of maintaining Robert B. Parker's Spenser character. Right up front, Spenser quotes the first line of a Yeats poem to Henry Cimoli, off the top of his head.

Yes, I had to look it up to nail down the source. I'm not as literate as Spenser.

The first chapter introduces the bad guys: a trio of losers decides to start fires around Boston, their loose justification being that it will bring increased funding for the Boston Fire Department. But that's a thin disguise for their pyromania. Spenser is hired (pro bono) by a firefighter who lost three comrades in a church fire he suspects was set.

Spenser has, over the years, negotiated an uneasy truce with the city's old guard gangsters. But his investigation runs him headlong into a relatively new kingpin, Jackie DeMarco. DeMarco just wants Spenser dead, thanks very much. I'm not too worried about Spenser; are they going to kill off the series moneymaker? But I'm not too sure that some of his associates won't wind up as collateral damage. (No spoilers.)

Bottom line: a fine addition to the series. Mr. Atkins has settled into Robert B. Parker's shoes, doing Spenser right.


[Amazon Link]

When my sister was in town a few months back, she enthusiastically recommended the "Monkeewrench" series, written by "P. J. Tracy", the nom de plume of a mother-daughter writing team. I was a little dubious, because "Monkeewrench" came off a little too tea-and-cozyish, Jane Fletcherish, maybe there would be a cat detective or two, and… Well, my tastes run elsewhere.

First clue that I was wrong: an inside-the-cover blurb from the late Robert B. Parker: "Monkeewrench is funny and convincing. P. J. Tracy's taut storytelling makes me jealous." OK, that's good enough for me. As it turns out, there's a grim and gripping tale at the core of book, and it's fleshed out well with interesting and sympathetic characters.

It's set in Minneapolis and small-town Wisconsin. Cops in both locales are mystified by recent nasty clue-free homicides. Also involved is the titular "Monkeewrench" clan, a secretive, brilliant, close-knit group of software engineers. They are wildly successful at writing educational software, but have decided to branch into games, specifically "Serial Killer Detective", challenging the player to solve murders that—oh oh—are being re-enacted in Minneapolis meatspace.

It's a page turner, all right. As the book winds along, it begins to be more than a tad contrived, with events working out just so to provide the requisite pulse-pounding conclusion. But I enjoyed it none the less for that.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed

[Amazon Link]

Reading Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test last month reminded me how much I enjoyed his writing, so I prevailed upon UNH's main library to borrow a copy of So You've Been Publicly Shamed from UNH-Manchester's stacks. It's pretty good.

Ronson examines the relatively recent phenomenon of people changing their behavior, losing their livelihood, or getting exiled from polite society due to negative attention, often ginned up via social media sites.

It begins when Ronson notices a spambot named "Jon Ronson" unleashed on Twitter, with his photo attached, babbling nonsensically about fictional gastronomic adventures. Ronson tracks this back to a couple of arrogant Internet wannabe-entrepreneurs who refuse to take down the bot when asked politely. Ronson organizes a mini-campaign of ridicule and abhorrence, which saves the day: the spambot is removed. Good news, right?

Well, in that instance perhaps. Ronson expands his investigation through various case studies: a journalist who gets caught making up quotes; the girl who made a stupid tweet about AIDS in Africa; the race-car executive whose fondness for sado-masochism was revealed; the girl (a different girl) who posted a Facebook photo mocking a "silence and respect" sign at Arlington National Cemetery; and more.

Details and results differ. To put it mildly. Ronson is somewhat bemused by his failure to find an overarching, universal, story. (Malcolm Gladwell would have.) Some shamees have their lives irretrievably altered; but some don't. Some handle it well, some don't. Sometimes the social outrage is well-earned, in some cases it's totally out of proportion to the offense.

That's OK. With Ronson, following him on his wide-eyed, open-minded journey is the reward.

Oddly enough: even though NJ's ex-Governor Jim McGreevey is profiled (he's now working in prison reform and ex-convict rehab), Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky are absent. Too obvious? What brought this to mind was Lewinsky's most recent career move: public discussion of public shaming herself, giving a Vanity Fair interview in 2014 ("Shame and Survival"); a TED talk in 2015 ("The Price of Shame") And a Guardian interview just the other day (" Monica Lewinsky: ‘The shame sticks to you like tar’")

Oh, wait. The interviewer in that last link is Jon Ronson. Never mind.

Last Modified 2016-04-25 5:47 AM EDT

Come to Grief

[Amazon Link]

Back around 1998 or so, I put the then-current list of Dick Francis novels on my to-be-read list. I'd read many of them; I wanted to make sure I'd read them all. This one features Francis's ex-jockey turned investigator, Sid Halley.

It's kind of a mystery, although we know the perpetrator practically from page one: Sid has accused a famous, beloved TV personality—think a male, British Oprah—of a horrifying crime. This brings down torrents of scorn and abuse on Sid's head. Things aren't improved when the accused's mother commits suicide (also page one) and the accused's father assaults Sid outside his house (page three).

What's going on? The story catches us up via flashback: a family with a cancer-stricken daughter has hired Sid to discover the perpetrator of an atrocity committed against the daughter's beloved horse. Who could do such a thing? Sid finds out, to his eventual peril.

The book reminded me of how much I miss Dick Francis. Sid Halley is a wonderfully-drawn hero/narrator: decent, modest, somewhat self-doubting. But when it counts, his core character is "tungsten carbide" (as one of his antagonists observes). I saw him here as Brendan Coyle, the guy who played Bates on Downton Abbey—the character's right, but unfortunately Coyle's a little too chubby to be believable as an ex-jockey.