[Amazon Link]

Apparently the antepenultimate entry in Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series. Assuming I'm not forgetting how the alphabet works and haven't missed some announcement from Ms. Grafton about her post-Z plans.

And the title is, simply, X, not X is for Xenophobia or X is for Xanthan Gum. That would have been silly. But "X" does crop up in a couple places here.

Kinsey is multitasking: (a) an (apparently) wealthy woman hires her to track down a son given up for adoption long ago, who turned to a life of safecracking and bank jobs, and has been recently released from prison; (b) the widow of a shady private eye (bumped off in the previous book) has asked Kinsey to search his leftover files to help with an IRS audit, but Kinsey discovers some mysterious memorabilia and an encrypted document; (c) Kinsey's landlord, Henry, gets concerned with water conservation during a California drought, and new neighbors move in next door—Henry's his usual friendly self to them, but something about them raises Kinsey's suspicions.

After 23 entries in the series, I am by now used to Ms. Grafton's quirks. Most notable is the extreme prose-padding; Kinsey's first-person narration is full of irrelevant detail. (Example: she reports feeding a Wilshire Boulevard parking meter four quarters, two dimes, and a nickel for 15 minutes of time.) I suspect—I've probably said this before—that Ms. Grafton's publishing contract called for at least a 400-page manuscript, and she just adds stuff here and there until it meets requirements.

Not that this is a big deal, I love Kinsey despite her wordiness. Can't wait to see what happens in Y and Z.

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The End of Doom

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Despite my expectations this was not a Fantastic Four comic book recounting their final defeat of Dr. Doom. Instead the subtitle is "Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century". It is written by the estimable science correspondent for Reason magazine, Ronald Bailey. And thanks to the stunningly good efforts of the Interlibrary Loan department of the University Near Here, who worked a copy out of the clutches of Northeastern University.

Bailey's book is an antidote to the various predictions of near-term ecological disaster. Those have been with us since Malthus, I guess, but Bailey is more concerned with more recent Jeremiahs: e.g., Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, the Club of Rome, Bill McKibben, etc. Wolf-crying continues to be a popular and profitable undertaking to this day.

Most chapters deal with a subcategory of possibile global disaster: overpopulation; resource exhaustion; genetic manipulation; epidemic levels of cancer; anthropogenic climate change; mass species extinction. And there's an excellent chapter on the "precautionary principle" used by those who would thwart technological progress; its clever title: "Never Do Anything For the First Time".

Unlike a number of folks on this side of the libertarian/conservative divide, Bailey has been persuaded to believe in the reality of anthropogenic global warming. His chapter on the topic, however, gives plenty of respect to the skeptics, and no support at all to the notion that it's an excuse to hand worldwide governments extraordinary new powers of regulation, subsidy, taxation, and mandate. He argues, convincingly, that a lot of good would be done by elimination of existing fossil fuel subsidies without making the same subsidization mistake for "renewables".

If I had to quibble: the book at times seems to be stitched together from old Reason columns and various op-eds. Which is fine, but I'd welcome just reprinting those works, updating as necessary to reflect recent events.

Bailey's prose is OK, but he sometimes makes regrettable choices in what to include in the main text of the book. Endless studies are summarized, and sometimes no detail seems too small to omit. ("In Cartagena, Columbia, privatization boosted the number of people receiving piped water by 27 percent.")

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The Conservative Heart

[Amazon Link]

This book's author, Arthur C. Brooks, was one of the speakers at the "New Hampshire Freedom Summit" I attended last year; I thought he gave the best speech of the day, better than the host of professional pols that also attended. So I was favorably inclined to check out his new book.

This book's breezy, informal, accessible style reminded me of something… but what? Oh, I know: self-help books. Back when I used to read self-help books, this is exactly what they sounded like.

(Nowadays, I figure I'm beyond help.)

But that impression is pretty much on target: Brooks has written a self-help book for conservatives, libertarians, and the GOP. Brooks' thesis: For too long, these groups been satisfied with being right. Shouldn't that be enough? Brooks says no, instead they (we) have the responsibility of packaging their (our) ideas in ways accessible and acceptable to those who can be persuaded by them.

Would it work? Maybe. Among Brooks' suggestions, the one I liked best is for conservatives (et al.) to "fight for people, not against things". I.e., don't be satisfied with an abstract, reactionary response to progressive/socialst proposals: show how your ideas and values act to make peoples' lives better.

Quibble: Much of Brooks' argument involves alleviating American poverty. He (convincingly) argues that the best methods to help the poor is to wean them off government dependence, involve them with private-sector work, provide their children with school choice, and remove the barriers to entrepreneurship they encounter.

He's right. But to what extent is this the politically winning strategy he says it is? I have my doubts. The economic issues in recent campaigns (to the extent I've paid attention to them) seem to be aimed squarely at middle-class pocketbook issues, not poverty issues. Remember the "Life of Julia", a 2012 Obama campaign web presentation, designed to show how an imaginary woman was "helped" throughout her life by various Federal programs (and how Mitt Romney would gut those programs)? Well, there was no pretense that Julia was mired in poverty.

Surveys also indicate—sorry, Arthur!—that people don't consider poverty per se to be a major issue. Check Gallup; the "poverty/hunger/homelessness" issue is nowhere near the top of the list of concerns.

All in all, however, The Conservative Heart is a fine book, written by an insightful and entertaining thinker.

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[Amazon Link]

I'm getting pretty deep (in a geological layer sense) into my nonfiction to-be-read pile. This book, Consilience, by the famous biologist Edward O. Wilson, is from 1998. It seems I picked this paperback edition off a remainder table for $6 sometime after that. My motives for doing so are lost in the mists of time.

The book was written around the time Wilson retired from Harvard, and could be seen as kind of a farewell address. Although the research that made him famous was on ants, he quickly became interested in much broader fields, and that's more than evident here.

His thesis here is the "unity of knowledge". To use some labels he (admittedly) dislikes: reductionism and scientism. (As he says: "sins made official by the hissing suffix.") He pleads for the use of scientific insights to illuminate all fields of study: economics, sociology, anthropology, of course. But also the arts, philosophy, ethics, and even religion.

He makes a decent case, probably the best that can be made. His arguments on "sociobiology", applied to humans, argues how our genetic inheritance constrains culture, and made him some of the right enemies. (See this Wikipedia entry for examples.)

I wish he had devoted more space to an issue that's bothered me for a while: the probable finitude of intelligence. We don't seem to have any problems with applying this concept to animals; we don't try to teach calculus to dogs, even very smart, very good dogs. And yet we don't seem to seriously carry this observation over to human intelligence. There might be some things we can't know. There might even be things we can't even tell that we can't know. (In the same way your dog doesn't understand that he can't learn calculus.)

Wilson seems to brush up against this issue at points, but I didn't notice any serious consideration. And yet it indicates that there might be impassible barriers to the "unity of knowledge".

Wilson's style reminds me of Hayek's: gently argumentative with an frosting of sweet reasonableness, maybe a little too flowery for my tastes. Sweet reasonableness, at least until the last chapter, which (for me) kind of goes off the rails. In discussing what the likely future holds:

We will also come to understand the true meaning of conservatism. By that overworked and confusing term I do not mean the pietistic and selfish libertarianism into which much of the American conservative movement has lately descended. I mean instead […]

Oh, well. Never mind what he means instead. This kind of drive-by slur probably went over well at Harvard faculty soirées, but for me it's a signal that Wilson likes to pontificate in areas in which he really hasn't done his homework.

The last chapter also contains an environmentalist aieee-we're-all-gonna-die jeremiad, hitting all the scary scenarios trendy at the end of the previous century. Nearly two decades later, it seems more than a little alarmist. Weren't we all supposed to be dead by now?

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James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

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A biography of the founding father by Lynne Cheney (yes, Dick Cheney's wife). My interest was prompted by Charles Murray's recent book By the People; Murray calls himself a "Madisonian" therein, indicating his agreement with Madison's understanding of the strictly limited powers of the Federal government described by the Constitution. And there was a good review in the Wall Street Journal.

Madison lived from 1751 to 1836. For about forty of those years, he was deeply involved in the invention of our country; it's fair to say that we'd be a different, and probably worse, nation without him. His biography is pretty much a biography of the USA.

Just consider the résumé: an early advocate of American independence; member of the Virginia legislature (1776–1779); delegate to the Continental Congress (1780-1783); delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787; author of many of the Federalist Papers; member of the US House of Representatives (1789-1797); Secretary of State under Jefferson (1801-1809); and US President (1809-1817).

And then he took it easy for a while.

Mrs. Cheney's book is a pretty good history lesson for those of us whose last formal study of the matter was a dimly remembered high school course. I was surprised by a number of things, but mostly by Madison's fervent advocacy of the "national veto", by which the Federal legislature could nullify legislation passed by state legislatures. That idea (weird to my ears today) went nowhere in the convention, and Madison eventually dropped it. Obviously this defeat didn't stop him from becoming a fervent advocate of the version of the Constitution that was eventually produced.

Mrs. Cheney also deftly sketches the relationship between Alexander Hamilton and Madison, originally partners in getting the Constitution adopted, only to turn into ideological rivals over its eventual interpretation. Madison considered the enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8 to be strict limits on Congressional powers: if it's not in the list, guys, you can't do it. (This was also the reasoning behind Madison's initial opposition to including a Bill of Rights into the proposed Constitution; unneeded, he argued, since Congress was limited only to its enumerated powers.)

Hamilton, on the other hand, advocated for viewing the enumerated powers as (mere) examples, while the General Welfare essentially gave Congress a blank check for all sorts of not-expressly-prohibited actions. And, unfortunately, that's where we are today.

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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.

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The Night and The Music

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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.

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The Stupidest Angel

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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.

Last Modified 2015-09-28 3:39 PM EDT
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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
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If Not Us, Who?

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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.

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