The Gods of Guilt

[Amazon Link]

Continuing on the Michael Connelly project: this book brings us up to 2013! I'm still a little concerned that I'm not reading them as fast as Connelly is writing them. Oh well.

This is a Mickey Haller (aka the "Lincoln Lawyer") novel; his half-brother Harry Bosch makes a brief cameo. Mickey is at a personal low point. His daughter despises him for defending a drunk driver that went on to kill one of her friends. His ex-wife is pretty pissed about that too. He was defeated in his bid to be elected District Attorney. So it's back to his normal work, defending generally less-then-admirable people for crimes which they often actually committed. And he skates right up to (probably over) the edge of ethics and law in doing so.

(It's a tribute to Connelly's writing ability that Mickey remains a likeable character.)

But the main story here is the defense of a "digital pimp" accused of killing one of his prostitutes. He designs and maintains their "escort service" websites, and gets a cut of each, um, service fee. I must admit this path to riches did not occur to me when I was in the website game.

Irony: the pimp hires Mickey because he came recommended by the murder victim; Mickey defended her years back (and Mickey had thought she'd left the profession). The pimp maintains his innocence, but that's not too important to Mickey; can he come up with an alternate theory that might trigger reasonable doubt in a jury?

This is Connelly at his storytelling finest. I usually read at a reasonable pace, scheduling a few dozen pages a day. I ripped through this one like a madman, eager to find out what happens next.

Last Modified 2017-06-27 11:07 AM EDT

Hillbilly Elegy

A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

[Amazon Link]

What's an elegy? I had to look it up to be sure: It's "a mournful, melancholy, or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead." I believe the author, J. D. Vance, is referring to the culture he grew up in. It's not dead, but he's left it behind.

The book is pretty good. As I type, it's number seven on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list, and it's been on the list for forty-seven weeks. Many of these sales, I think, have been to parents giving the book to their kiddos: "See, as bad as you think we were, things could have been lots worse. Specifically, your mother will never demand that you provide her with a clean urine sample that she can provide to her employer as if it were hers."

J. D. Vance, the author, tells the story of his life so far, concentrating on the hillbilly family and culture in which he was immersed growing up. It's brutally honest, and makes no excuses for the various dysfunctions. And there are a lot: e.g., drug abuse, as noted above. Family ties are unstable; at last count, I think J. D.'s mom was on husband number five, and those husbands were interspersed with numerous live-in boyfriends. Paradoxically, family loyalty is strong; funerals, weddings, graduations are all well-attended by even distant relations. (J. D. distinguishes between his "nuclear" family, relatively small, and his "extended" family, which due to all the serial marriage is huge, fluid, and difficult to track.) Generosity is rife, even to a fault.

The hillbilly culture is prone to irresponsibility, short-term thinking, and short-fused conflict, both inside and outside family bounds. In the modern world, this makes long-term employment in non-menial jobs a rarity, and financial stability even rarer. (The generosity mentioned above can cause expensive mistakes.) Within families, psychological warfare seems unremitting.

And more. J. D. is observant and insightful at what makes him and his culture tick. His story is one of both escape and acceptance. Thanks to a loving grandmother (who I pictured as Margo Martindale playing a less criminal, but more profane version of Justified's Mags Bennett) who provided good advice without necessarily following it herself. J. D. (eventually) gets decent grades in school, joins the Marines, attends Ohio State, gets into (to his own surprise) Yale Law School, finds his eventual wife, and… wrote this book. Each step of the way is tricky, and things could have easily gone wrong. A cameo appearance is made by Amy Chua, the famous "dragon mom", who was J. D.'s contracts prof at Yale; her mentoring helped hugely.

OK, I said: good for parents to give their kids. But also… you can't help but notice that a lot of the "hillbilly" dysfunctions are working their way into white working-class cultures in general. That's cause for even more concern.

Under the Beetle's Cellar

[Amazon Link]

This book I got sometime back in the 90's, and now, probably 20 years later it worked its way to the top of to-be-read list. (Looking at that list gives me somber thoughts about mortality.) Probably I bought it because it was nominated for a bunch of awards, as the author's Wikipedia page shows. I seem to remember reading another book in this series by Ms. Walker, but if I did, it was before I kept track of my reading.

The weird thing about that: after publishing four novels in the 1990's, to (apparently) critical acclaim, Mary Willis Walker seems to have stopped writing. Why? I took a few whacks at Google-seeking the reason, but came up blank. 'Tis a mystery! But in any case,…

The book is more thriller than mystery. Right from page one, we know the terrible premise: ten kids plus their school bus driver have been taken hostage by a wacko apocalyptic cult leader, held prisoner underground in his heavily-armed compound.

I say "taken hostage", but that's not quite right. Their presence is being used to stave off an assault by law enforcement, sure enough. But the cult leader's actual purpose in holding them is worse than that.

Enter the hero, Molly Cates, a journalist for a Texas magazine. She had previously done a story on the cult, and she gets drawn into the standoff. Could she have knowledge that might illuminate the twisted psychology of the leader? Could she bring her investigative powers to bear to help find a lever that might be used to free the kids? (Spoiler: yes, and mostly yes.)

A very decent page-turner, all in all. Ms. Walker avoids a too-saccharine conclusion. So be warned about that, if that's the kind of ending you prefer.

Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve

What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing

[Amazon Link]

This is a fun book written by "statistician and journalist" Ben Blatt, who brings the power of Python's Natural Language Toolkit to analyze the writings of various famous (and some deservedly unfamous) authors. For example: people (like Steven King) will tell you to avoid adverbs, especially -ly adverbs; there are better ways to communicate. (Sometimes the advice is in joke form: use adverbs sparingly. Heh!)

But how well do authors follow that advice? Are there differences between authors? (Yes: Hemingway and Toni Morrison used relatively few. J. K. Rowling and E. L. James use a lot.) How about different books by the same author? (Also yes, and in many cases an author's more critically-acclaimed works have fewer adverbs than his or her others.) This is all presented with bar charts and tables. Cool!

Other queries: are there significant differences in male and female writing styles? How about between Americans and Brits? Do authors have "favorite" words? (Well, see the title.) How well do authors follow their own writing advice? Can you determine authorship of anonymous or pseudonymous works by crunching word use? (Yes, this was done convincingly for The Federalist Papers, showing that Alexander Hamilton got a little too enthusiastic in claiming authorship of some of them.)

And more.

Blatt doesn't seem to have carried out his investigations in any systematic way, just looking for answers to the questions that occur to him. Although he's not kidding about the "statistician" part—his Harvard degree is in Applied Math—there's not a lot of worry or discussion about whether the results he teases out of the data are significant. That's fine, it's still fun.

The Kings of Cool

[Amazon Link]

This is billed as a "prequel to Savages", Don Winslow's previous novel about mellow California pot dealers, Ben and Chon, who run afoul of a Mexican drug cartel. As I remember it would have been tough to make a sequel to Savages. And, although I'm a Winslow fan, I didn't care for Savages very much when I read it back in 2012. But… let's give this a try.

And I liked this one a lot. I'm not sure why, it has the same choppy style ("short sentences in short paragraphs, unusual use of whitespace, occasional passages are rendered in screenplay format"). It is an origin tale, mostly set in 2005 as Ben and Chon get into business and immediately run afoul of the Association, who would like to, um, acquire their enterprise.

There are also flashbacks to decades previous. It doesn't become clear why until near the end, but there's some real Ross Macdonald-style reasons for it. There are a lot of characters, and it will behoove the reader to keep them straight. Slight spoiler: people who have read Winslow's oeuvre will be pleased to note a couple cameo appearances from other books.

Overall, it's a sobering tale of how the War on Drugs corrupts and kills.

But conservatives and libertarians will want to read Chapter 35. It's hilarious.

Diving In

[Amazon Link]

[This "review" also published at Amazon at the author's request.]

I know the person behind the "M. Bleekis" pseudonym, and I confess I was expecting a globetrotting thriller involving nuclear proliferation with a two-fisted but brainy hero, something in the style of Lee Child or Tom Clancy.

As it turns out, I got some of that, but... things start out different. The protagonist, Ariel, is a troubled young lady. Her once-promising academic performance has inexplicably gone into the toilet. She once showed phenomenal athletic talent in diving, but suddenly gave it up. She cries a lot. At the urging of a friendly therapist, she enrolls at "Lily Academy", an all-girl boarding school up in the Great North Woods near Jackson, NH.

Just when you think: "this is like an all-girl version of Harry Potter, except no magic, and more Latin verb conjugation" it turns out that one of Ariel's classmates is a member of a family under Witness Protection. And there are bad guys who desperately want to use her as leverage. So, over and above Ariel's problems, there's a lot of nasty skulduggery and (eventually) violence.

And a hungry, irritable, bear. And a secret society of women (you'll note that this book is "Secret Sisters Volume 1"). A sly reference to the 60's British singing duo Chad and Jeremy. And more.

The book is self-published and there are some noticeable typos: e.g., one character's name is sometimes "Kincaid", other times "Kinkaid". And there's some confusion between "discreet" and "discrete". This didn't stop the pages from turning.


[Amazon Link]

Back in (gulp!) 2004, I put Isaac Asimov's non-collaborative science fiction novels on my cybernetic to-be-read pile. Nemesis is the penultimate book in that sequence. It was written in 1989, I bought my paperback copy (according to Amazon's flawless memory) back in 2015. And it finally percolated into my current reading.

The story: a few hundred years hence, mankind has split in twain: the still-earthbound billions, and spacefarers who inhabit "settlements", large space stations floating around the solar system. An astronomer on "Rotor" (one of the settlements) discovers a red dwarf only a couple light years away, heretofore hidden by an interstellar dust cloud. Instead of announcing this discovery to humanity, the folks in charge of Rotor decide to use a mumbo-jumbo technology called "hyper-assist" to leave Sol and hop over, secretly, to Nemesis.

Once there, there are more surprises: Nemesis is orbited by a Jupiter-like gas giant planet, which is (in turn) orbited by a moon they name Erythro. Erythro holds a strange fascination for Marlene, the astronomer's daughter; Marlene also has a near-ESP talent for analyzing people's facial microtwitches to discover what they are really thinking, behind their words.

Meanwhile, back on Terra, Marlene's biological father becomes caught up in the effort to discover what's happened to Rotor. And (oh, yeah), it turns out that Nemesis is on course to visit the solar system, and its approach will wobble Earth's orbit just enough to render it uninhabitable. Whoa.

It all sounds complicated, but each new plot twist is pretty well spelled out. As usual with Asimov, a lot of the book is just people talking to each other (with invariably stilted dialog). But he seems to be doing that a lot less here than he did in earlier books. The characters are not-quite-believable, also par for the Asimovian course.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself.

The Cake and the Rain

A Memoir

[Amazon Link]

I have been a Jimmy Webb fanboy for about 50 years, ever since I noticed that those sweet Glen Campbell songs ("Wichita Lineman", "Galveston", …) and a lot of songs off the Johnny Rivers "Rewind" album, and … whoa, Richard Harris's "Macarthur Park" were all written by the same guy.

So over the years, I've bought his albums, I've bought albums from artists who recorded his songs (Art Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, even Michael Feinstein, etc.). I've seen him in concert three or four times (I lose track). At one of those concerts, I even got his signature on a poster off his "Archive" 5-CD set.

I used to be kind of bashful about this, but the hell with it. "I celebrate the guy's entire catalog."

Well, actually, that's not true. There are some clinkers. But every songwriter has those.

In his concerts, Jimmy is quite the engaging raconteur, telling yarns about his encounters with Sinatra, Richard Harris, the city of Galveston, etc. He also displays this talent in a lot of documentaries: I'll Be Me (about Glen Campbell); Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?), The Wrecking Crew, etc. You can kind of think of this memoir as an version of those anecdotes, much expanded and R-rated. The book only covers his early life, up to 1973 or so. A hint is dropped at the end that there may be another tome in the pipeline.

I've been reading numerous memoirs from artists I've enjoyed over the years. Mostly musicians: Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Donald Fagen, Willie Nelson, and more. Looking for insights into the creative process, but about the only common threads I can discern: (1) mild mental illness; (2) substance abuse, usually illicit and multiple; (3) violation of one or more of the seven deadly sins. Jimmy's no exception; in his case, the most noticeable sins are lust, gluttony, and pride. He loves the ladies, including those married to other people. There are hilarious/horrible tales of drug use, including an episode at the end of the book (co-starring Harry Nilsson and John Lennon) that nearly kills him. And his tales invariably seem to involve dangerous levels of irresponsibility, stupidity, and (often) wretched excess.

It's not all glibly sordid, however. Jimmy tells some genuinely moving stories about his mom and dad, and his passion for gliding.

As noted, I would have liked to read a little more about his creative process, but there's not a lot of insight here. There is (on the other hand) a lot about the mechanics of songwriting: what songs are offered to who, the logistics of putting together recordings or concerts, dealing with disappointing reviews/sales, and so on.

True fact: "Macarthur Park" was originally offered to The Association, and they turned it down! Surely the course of world history was altered, the planet wobbled in its orbit, and empires fell because of that decision.


How Play Made the Modern World

[Amazon Link]

Steven Johnson is a gifted writer of history, with a real knack for pulling together oddball yarns from various sources, making unexpected connections, and drawing surprising conclusions. I was inspired to read his latest book by a glowing review from Virginia Postrel in Reason.

Not that I'm a Steven Johnson fanboy. The last book I read by him was back in 2005 and I was less than impressed. But this one is better.

It is wide-ranging, but the overall theme is expressed by the subtitle: a lot of what we see around us today, the technological miracles, unimaginable prosperity, and ongoing breakneck innovation, has its roots not in sober and dismal business backrooms, but in "play": people not searching for better ways to deliver the essentials of food, clothing, and shelter, but instead coming up with entertainments, luxuries, fripperies, pleasures, and general fun.

Johnson devotes a chapter to a subtopic: fashion/shopping; music; spicy food; illusion; games; and various forms of "public space" (e.g., saloons and coffeehouses). In each he relates various examples of how the craving for enjoyment, rather than more serious topics, drove innovation, trade, and breathtaking social change.

A particularly telling anecdote from chapter one tells the story of how ingenious mechanisms to simulate human movement had their origins in current-day Iraq (which, in turn, had swiped a lot of their inspriration from the inventions of Ancient Greece). A thousand years later, this resulted in mechanical dolls (close to robots), one of which is a lady who is programmed to walk across a room. Years later, the inventor takes an eight-year-old boy up to his attic for the still-functional Walker.

And that boy was Charles Babbage.

Good story, and the book is packed with them. And play-inspired events interact in unexpected ways. Example: Combine (1) the field of probability, birthed by gamblers looking to gain an edge on their opponents and (2) the coffeehouse, a wildly popular "public space" caused by the unexpected pleasures of tasty drinkable caffeine. The result: the first modern insurance company, Lloyds of London, born out of the realization that you could make a business out of betting on the likelihood of ill fortune.

Not that it's perfect, there are a lot of blind spots. Johnson talks about the drives at the dawn of modern capitalism, but doesn't mention Deirdre McCloskey. There are nods toward the concepts of cultural evolution, but I've read a lot about that recently from Matt Ridley, Kevin Laland, and Joseph Henrich; I didn't notice any citations of them in Wonderland. His discussion of how "open spaces" (fueled by booze and, often, illicit sex) could have used a nod to Thaddeus Russell. Also MIA: Virginia Postrel. There's no excuse.

Little White Lies

[Amazon Link]

The title, according to Amazon, is technically Robert B. Parker's Little White Lies, but the implied attribution of such lies to the late Mr. Parker is "honoring" him entirely too much. The (understandable) little white lie here is that he had anything to do with writing the book, and that's on the publisher, not Mr. Parker.

A more honest book jacket would say

Another Attempt to Shake Money
Out of the Wallets of Fans of

Robert B.


Spenser Novels



Hey, I'm not ashamed to admit: I am hooked. This is Ace Atkins' sixth Spenser-novel authorship, and it's fine. I just want to see what Spenser and his crowd are up to these days.

What he's up to this time: his sweetie-shrink Susan has sent over one of her patients, Connie Kelly, to see him. Connie's troubles extend beyond the psychological: her boyfriend, M. Brooks Welles, seems not only to be "a phony, a liar, and a two-timing, backstabbing, son of a bitch", but also a con man, making off with a cool $260,000 of Connie's savings.

Welles claims to have had an interesting, shadowy past: Harvard man recruited into the CIA, involved with all sorts of anti-terrorist, anti-Commie efforts. He's even a staple of right-wing TV news shows. And he seems to be involved with the local Massachusetts gun nuts hobbyists.

[I should point out that the politics in the book is mildly, simplistically, anti-conservative. Later on, there's even a phony church run by charlatans using Jesus as boob-bait. Tedious. I fast-forwarded through this.]

Hawk's here. Other characters from past books: Rachel Wallace, Tedy Sapp, Belson. No Quirk, I think he retired.

Finally, another consumer note: the unsubtle cover illustration might lead you to suspect that there's a money-laundering scheme underlying the plot. There is not. I swear, they must have had this illustration lying around and said: "What the hell, use it."