Black Widow

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Amazon helpfully tells me that I bought this book back in July 2008. Yes, that's my backlog for some books in the to-be-read pile.

In this entry in the beloved Doc Ford series, Doc is trying to be the good godfather to Shay Money, about to marry into a politically elite family. The problem: Shay and her bridesmaids got a little—ok, a lot—naughty on a Caribbean last-fling vacation. And now she's being blackmailed.

This leads Doc down to the same island, where he works to uncover the sophisticated blackmailing ring. It turns out to be much deeper and more powerful than he imagined, and (of course) he finds himself in mortal danger. He meets a number of colorful characters on both sides of the conflict. There are also entries in Doc's continuing backstory: investigating the death of his parents, his relationship with his biological offspring, the ever-present comic relief of Tomlinson, who's always alternating between drug-induced brain damage and deep insightfulness.

A lot of people make comparisons between the Doc Ford yarns and the (sorely missed) Travis McGee series from John D. MacDonald. This one hits that target a little more squarely than the immediately previous entries, I think.

One mini-gripe: at one point the normally super-competent Doc makes a dumb mistake that even I saw coming. C'mon Doc!

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The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair

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Expecting to like this better. It is by Swiss author Joel Dicker, but it's set in the USA, specifically in my beloved New Hampshire.

Accentuating the positive first: the plot is good, in a twisty way. It's 2008, and acclaimed writer Marcus Goldman has a serious case of writer's block, totally unable to get any purchase on the followup to his first book. Worse, his equally famous mentor, Harry Quebert, is in trouble, for the corpse of a 15-year-old girl, Nola Kellergan, has been discovered, long-buried on Harry's property. Nola's been missing since the fall of 1975, when a neighbor lady reported seeing her being pursued through the woods by a madman. (And the neighbor lady is murdered herself a few minutes later.)

Casting suspicion on Harry is the inconvenient fact that he and Nola had a totally inappropriate relationship back in 1975. (Not quite on the Lolita scale—the relationsip is unconsummated, and Lolita was younger—but close.) The original manuscript of Harry's blockbuster novel was buried with her, together with an incriminating inscription!

Marcus decides to travel up to Harry's home in the quaint seacoast village of Somerset, New Hampshire to offer support to his old friend. He quickly decides to start his own investigation, which (it turns out) will unwrap a very sordid onion of perversion, corruption, and violence. The book shifts (mostly) between 1975 and 2008, revelations piling up in both time periods.

The problem is that this promising plot is explicated with cardboard characters, plastic dialog, and leaden prose. I am not a high-standards fiction gourmet by any means, but I found everything except the plot to be embarrassingly bad.

Part of the problem may be the translation from the book's original French; kind of like a wonderful Chinese movie getting ineptly dubbed by idiots who don't understand either Chinese or English very well. The book was apparently a "#1 international best seller", and the front matter has a lot of quotes from European sources attesting to its wonderfulness. So maybe.

Not that it matters, but I couldn't help but notice: the New Hampshire setting is very fictional. There's no "Somerset", and the geography described in the book doesn't seem to relate to any actual place. Some of the book happens in Concord, which is an actual place, and the book locates some state offices on Hazen Drive, true enough, but—bzzt!—puts Hazen Drive in the center of Concord, which it isn't.

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Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century (Volume 2)

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Spoiler: he dies at the end.

(Sorry. But I would like to think it's the kind of joke he'd appreciate.)

This is the second volume of the massive "official" biography of Robert A. Heinlein by William H. Patterson. (Sadly, Patterson did not see it in print: he died earlier this year at — gulp! — my own age. I hate it when that happens.) The full title is a mouthful: Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century: Volume 2: 1948-1988: The Man Who Learned Better. My impressions of Volume 1 from back in 2010 are here.

To recap from that post: back when I compiled a list of the ten most personally influential books Heinlein had two entries. And that didn't include Red Planet as the first big-boy book I read, checking it out from the Oakland, Iowa Public Library. So I'm more than a fan; Heinlein nudged my life in significant ways.

The book kicks off with Heinlein's third marriage, to his beloved Virginia ("Ginny"). The third time was definitely the charm, because Ginny became not only his wife, but also an unofficial business partner, secretary, critic, travel companion. And, at the end, caregiver. Their mutual devotion is perhaps the major theme of this volume. (There is a truly touching letter written by Ginny to her late husband in an Appendix at the end.)

The book is (like Volume 1) a little heavy going, with a hodgepodge of details, not all of them of equal interest. Want to know about the construction details of Heinlein's dwellings? Travel itineraries? Health problems (his and Ginny's)? Legal battles over Destination Moon? Squabbles with editors and publishers? It's all here, and much more. Would have much appreciated a "good parts" version.

In addition, Patterson seems to have made a concious decision to leave meaty discussion of Heinlein's writings to the literary critics. Which is (of course) his call, but for those of us who love a lot of his works, it's an absence.

Patterson is an admirer of Heinlein (and Ginny) right down the line. What emerges from the book is an entirely admirable portrait of a complex person. Example: Heinlein's devotion to the socialist Upton Sinclair in the 1930s was transformed into an enthusiasm for Barry Goldwater in the 1960s. (Heinlein himself didn't consider this a major shift, but come on.) He despised Ike. He became an ardent proponent of "Star Wars" (the Strategic Defense Initiative) in the early years of the Reagan Administration.

He was generous to his friends, and also to causes that struck his fancy. For a while he and Ginny were active participants in blood donation campaigns, an effort that the Heinlein Society continues today. Adversaries were seemingly few, but their spats were epic. Alexei Panshin, author of an early book of Heinlein criticism, especially drew his ire; his antagonism toward Panshin ran for a couple decades. American Maoist academic H. Bruce Franklin also comes off poorly here.

Overall, I learned that I was not alone: Heinlein affected a lot of people. I plan to put a few books on by to-be-read (in this case, to-be-re-read) pile, especially the "uncut" versions that have become available since his demise: Stranger in a Strange Land, Red Planet, and The Puppet Masters. (As it turns out, Red Planet was cut back in the 1950s because the publisher thought it was a little too gun-friendly! Plus ça change!

[And thanks once again to the Dimond Library of the University Near Here, who purchased this volume at my request. Even though I was, they admitted, the only person who had ever checked out Volume One.]

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A Troublesome Inheritance

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Yet another book obtained for me through the Interlibrary Loan feature of the University Near Here; so thanks to them, and thanks to the Tufts University Hirsh Health Sciences Library for shipping it up here.

The subtitle is: "Genes, Race and Human History". The author, Nicholas Wade, puts forth a provocative and (he admits) somewhat speculative hypothesis at odds with most "enlightened" present-day thinking: human genetics influence social behavior, and (hence) different genetics, including those genes specifying racial differences, might help explain different modes of social behavior, and (hence) help explain different historical paths taken by different cultures.

There you have it. Sensitive souls should avert their eyes.

Wade's arguments are plausible enough to me, especially since tentative words and phrases, such as "probably", "most likely", and "perhaps" appear throughout. He's most definite when refuting the "race is merely a social construct" assertion lacking biological basis (apparently an Official Position of the American Sociological Association). That just isn't reality-based.

Wade's book recalled my feelings when reading Thomas Sowell's works on worldwide culture, race, and history: a lot of this stuff is just the workings of dumb luck. And when explicating the "dumb luck" success and/or dysfunction of historical and current societies, you shouldn't ignore or dismiss anything. There are the various components of culture: religion, philosophy, public morality, custom, family and social structures. Set these against geography, climate, and (peaceable or violent) interactions with other cultures. Obviously, nearly all of this is beyond anyone's conscious control.

But Wade argues, again plausibly, that genetics and evolution is just another factor in this mix. (And, speaking of "dumb luck", the workings of evolution are as dumb as you can get.) And (furthermore) there are no simple explanations: everything interacts with everything else. (For example, obviously, family structure can have profound effects on which genes get preferentially transmitted to future generations.)

Put that way, and especially in the explicitly-speculative way Wade puts it, you might say: yes, so what's the big deal? Ah, but for some folks, Wade is treading on dangerously heretical ground. One shot across his bow was fired on the WSJ op-ed page back in June: "Race in the Age of Genomics" by David Altshuler and Henry Louis Gates Jr. which specifically referred to Wade's book as an "unfortunate development", and implied it was engaging in "rampant speculation and biased arguments". Altshuler and Gates are both Harvardites, and Altshuler is a well-known researcher in human genetics.

Apparently unsatisfied with that, Altshuler went on to co-sign an anti-Wade letter with "more than 100 faculty members in population genetics". They accused Wade of "misappropriation of research" and "guesswork". (Wade responded, again plausibly, that their letter was "driven by politics, not science.")

Of course, in an area so driven by "peer review" for publication, promotion, and funding, the mass-denunciation letter is a clear signal to would-be researchers: your "peers" will not look kindly upon any work that might support Wade's speculations. Venture into certain areas at your professional peril.

(Scientific American also fired a blogger who was complimentary toward Wade's book, although that might not have been the proximate cause.)

Ironically, I was irked by a different part of Wade's book. Right at the get-go, he takes pains to distance himself from the bad old racism of the bygone days, when the menace of "Social Darwinism", as invented by Herbert Spencer, stalked the land. Wade's intellectual history here is straight from the Gospel of the tendentious Richard Hofstadter. If you've read Jonah Goldberg or E.M. Johnson on "Social Darwinism", you'll know a more accurate story.

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Graveyard Special

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As I type, Graveyard Special by the one and only James Lileks is a mere $3.99 in its Kindle-only incarnation. That's a pretty good deal, so go ahead and click over.

Robert Thompson is the protagonist, a college student majoring in Art History at the University of Minnesota in the Fall of 1980. (The narrative is studded with real-world news: Ronald Reagan gets elected, John Lennon is murdered. Sorry for those spoilers.) It centers around "Dinkytown", a Minneapolis neighborhood attached to the University. Robert is a waiter at the "Trat", one of Dinkytown's 24-hour restaurants, most often working the "graveyard shift". Which turns out to be appropriate when an unknown assailant shoots Dick, the cook, who has just huffed a can of Reddi-Wip. (Robert initially assumes Dick is on the floor due to his huffing, but no, that's due to Pb, not N2O.)

From that beginning, you might take this to be a murder mystery, and it sort of is. There's a lot of political skulduggery and deception around; Robert makes a few tries at figuring it out, but realistically: aren't that what the cops are for? It's more Robert's complete narrative of a pivotal few months of his life. We meet his roommates, friends, the University of Minnesota hockey team, the zamboni driver for the hockey arena, an attractive reporter for the student newspaper, an attractive Russian teaching assistant, and many more. There is a lot of smoking (cigarettes and weed). There's a lot of talking, much at the college-student bullshit level. And as a sign of progress, the Trat gets an Asteroids arcade cabinet to compete with its pinball machine.

Eventually the murderer is revealed, but the plot is a thin clothesline, on which a lot of observational prose is hung. So if you're looking for a Lee Child-style thriller with a Jack Reacher-style hero set in 1980 Minneapolis: this ain't it. But it's what Lileks wanted to write, and that's good enough for me.

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Another very good (but see below) novel in C.J. Box's series with hero game warden Joe Pickett.

In his duties as game warden, Joe is used to the occasional hunter bagging an over-limit or out-of-season elk. But there's something very unusual about the mass wapiti carnage he encounters at the beginning of the book. For one thing, it's being done by Lamar Gardiner, an employee of the US Forest Service. And when Joe tracks Lamar down, he's run out of cartridges and is attempting to reload his rifle with cigarettes.

Unlike the near-superheroes encountered in other crime fiction, Joe makes mistakes in suspect handling. Here, Joe's assumptions about Lamar's docility are confounded when Lamar handcuffs him to the steering wheel of his truck and escapes. Joe tracks him down, but—oops!—someone has taken the opportunity to shoot Lamar with a couple of arrows and slit his throat.

In a seemingly unrelated event, the "Sovereigns", a radical anti-government group, have entered the area, bringing trashy Jeannie Keeley back to town with them. Jeannie is back for her daughter April, who she abandoned years ago, and is now foster daughter to Joe and his wife Marybeth.

Trying to avoid spoilers here: I've read a lot of crime fiction, and there are certain conventions. You get to expect that things will generally work out in a certain way. Those things don't happen here. No doubt Box did this intentionally, and he made me think about my fictional preconceptions.

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His Last Bow

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Coming near the end of my project of re-reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes yarns… His Last Bow is a collection of eight Holmes short stories. It also includes a short story with the title "His Last Bow". Poking around Amazon reveals that some "books" for sale only include the short story, and some differ on the ordering and contents. Caveat Emptor! I'm going with my Barnes and Noble collection (pictured) as definitive.

The chronology is confusing, too. The short story "His Last Bow" is set in August 1914, and it's the last recorded adventure. (In fact, Mr. Baring-Gould places it on August 2, 1914, which means I read the story 100 years to the day after the events it describes took place. Neat!)

But there are a bunch more stories that were published after those in this collection. (The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes) Although they describe events that happened pre-1914. Clear?

There's "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax", which (despite its name) is not about anyone related to the provider of used vehicle repair histories. Holmes serves his country in both "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans" and "His Last Bow", in both cases thwarting the espionage efforts of those who would wish England ill. "The Adventure of the Red Circle" has Holmes sniffing out the truth about a mysterious lodger. "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box": the box contains two severed ears, eek!

And a few more. All interesting and good and fun.

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A small effort at Pun Salad multiculturalism, inspired by a plug earlier this year from certified Smart Fellow Tyler Cowen. Decoded is a 2002 novel by the celebrated Chinese novelist Mai Jia, and it was translated into English earlier this year. (When I say "celebrated", I mean: he's famous in China; this is the only book that's made it into English.)

Executive summary: it's interesting and charming at the beginning, but bogs down near the end. And at the end, I found myself saying: "OK, so what was that all about?" But I am not experienced in the reading of Serious Literature, so it could well be that much went over my head.

I was looking for either a tale of cryptography or international intrigue. Both, preferably. A Chinese Neal Stephenson! Wouldn't that be cool? But no.

It is the story of Rong Jinzhen, mathematical prodigy, who gets drafted into a Chinese intelligence unit dedicated to the making and breaking of military-level ciphers. The early (good) part of the book details his ancestry: colorful, mostly sad, tales of his relatives and acquaintances and how they came to guide his unlikely birth and upbringing.

Rong Jinzhen turns out to be a master codebreaker, solving the riddle of PURPLE, a cipher that (it turns out) was invented by his teacher and mentor, Liseiwicz, who got out of China and started working for Israel and "Country X". (Amusingly, most of his co-workers think that Rong Jinzhen is just goofing off until he delivers the broken code.) But after PURPLE, there is BLACK. And his anti-BLACK efforts threaten to send Rong Jinzhen over the edge of sanity.

As a devout despiser of Communism, I was unimpressed with the book's politics. Mai Jia is no Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He stays away from anything that might offend the regime. (There is a brief fictional example of the lunacy of the Cultural Revolution, which I guess is OK to do these days.)

Consumer note: this NYT review claims that Rong Jinzhen's mother was killed in childbirth by his "freakishly large head". That's incorrect; although Rong Jinzhen's mother does die in childbirth (page 24), the freakishly-large-head death is on page 14, and it's when Rong Jinzhen's grandmother gives birth to his father. So there, mainstream media.

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The Glass Rainbow

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Another fine Dave Robicheaux mystery from James Lee Burke.

After his Montana "vacation" in the previous book, Dave investigates a possible serial killer preying on young women in his Louisiana parish. He is intrigued by the story told by an prisoner held up in Mississippi, the brother of one of the victims; he's no prize, but he tells Dave that (unlike the other victims) his sister was no prostitute. And he points his accusatory finger at a local pimp/dealer that Dave has long despised.

Nothing is ever simple though. (It's a long book.) The pimp turns up dead, unfortunately after Dave's friend Clete Purcell has beaten him up and threatened him.

In addition, Dave's daughter Alafair has grown into a young woman; she's moved into the orbit of Kermit, the scion of a local rich family. (And in these books, rich families always have a corrupt and sordid history that leaks malevolently into the present.) Kermit has an ex-con associate who's become a literary success with his tales of his previous life. Dave is appalled, and this drives a heart-breaking wedge between him and Alafair.

For Robicheaux fans, the plot trajectory will not be surprising: Dave is witness to various horrors, Clete's outrageous behavior skates on the edge of self-destruction. What's different in this episode is Dave's increased sense of his own mortality, symbolized by his hallucination of an old river paddlewheel out on the bayou.

A throwaway line reveals that Dave is 70 years old in this book. (Close to the author's own age.) None of us is getting any younger, but I hope to see Dave in a few more yarns.

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The Valley of Fear

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Continuing my project of re-reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes yarns… This is billed as a novel, but it's pretty short, and (in fact) is actually two longish stories, connected by a thin thread. But that's OK.

The first story kicks off when Sherlock is warned, via a mysterious encrypted note, that the crime syndicate led by the villainous Moriarty has designs on one "Douglas", at Birlstone Manor. (So it's set pre-Reichenbach Falls.) Near-immediately after Holmes and Watson decode the note, a Scotland Yard inspector shows up with news of a grisly crime: Mr. Douglas of Birlstone Manor has taken a couple sawed-off shotgun blasts to the cranial region, and it's quite a mess.

So Holmes and Watson head off to Birlstone Manor, and are confronted with the usual set of clues, suspects behaving oddly, and clueless cops. But (hopefully not a spoiler) Holmes cracks the case theatrically.

The second (Sherlock-free) story is a 20-years-previous prequel, set in the mid-1870s in a Pennsylvania coal-mining valley. This is the titular "Valley of Fear", as it is controlled by a particularly nasty organized crime ring through murder, extortion, and terror. It's very much plus ça change territory: not too much different than Whitey Bulger in South Boston, a century later, or Boyd Crowder in Harlan County Kentucky, a few decades after that.

The most notable thing in the second half is the overwriting. I found myself thinking: if Edward Bulwer-Lytton were reading this before publication, he'd probably say "Gee, Art. Don't you think you need to tone this down a bit?" But it's good fun for a short read, and Doyle really does convey the grime and squalor of that time and place.

Last Modified 2014-07-14 6:45 AM EDT
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