The Thursday Murder Club

[Amazon Link]

The WSJ's Tom Nolan put this debut novel from Richard Osman on his Best Mysteries of 2020 list. That's been a mixed bag so far, but this was a goodie. I started casting the BBC miniseries in my head as I read: Judi Dench as Elizabeth! Penelope Wilton as Joyce! Bob Hoskins as Ron!… oh, wait, he's dead. Well, you get the idea.

The Club is set up at a comfy British retirement village Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim get together to puzzle out unsolved cold cases from the past, provided from a retired policewoman's files. But soon enough they get a more modern crime dropped (nearly literally) at their doorstep. After an argument between the village's owner and his partner (both with criminal pasts) the partner is bludgeoned to death at his home. And an old picture is left at the crime scene…

Who done it? Well, it's complicated. And there are a lot of suspects. It pays the reader to pay attention to all the characters, you never know who's going to matter later.

The book is hilarious in spots. Each club member has talents that aid in their investigation. The cops assigned to the case are (of course) opposed to civilian interference, but are more or less forced to accept the club's help; it turns out that their methods uncover relevant clues before the police can.

But it's not all hilarity. Our heroes are old, and the book doesn't flinch from confronting what that means in terms of lost loved ones and loneliness.

I see that Richard Osman has a second book coming out in September. I'm in.

Live Not by Lies

A Manual for Christian Dissidents

[Amazon Link]

It's really two books.

  1. The stories of how (mostly) Christians survived and resisted (mostly) Communist tyranny in Russia and Eastern Europe in the bad old days. The author, Rod Dreher, visits and interviews survivors and descendents. These are valuable stories that need to be told.

    The title of the book is taken from an essay by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, released on the occasion of his 1974 exile from the USSR to the West.

  2. Dreher's warning against the "soft totalitarianism" rising in the US and Europe as we slide toward a Brave New World dystopia. That's also a promising subject, and Dreher hits a number of deserving targets.

There are a couple of big problems, though.

First, Dreher doesn't seem to do a good job of connecting up these two books into a whole argument.

Second, Dreher's critique of our modern age is fusty and illiberal. (He might take that latter adjective as a compliment.) He's very concerned about Alexa/Siri/Cortana listening in on our conversations, reporting them back to their respective mother ships. But also about declining church attendance, family stability, faith in institutions. Rising porn, drug use, cancel culture.

Fine, those are all arguably problems. (But of widely differing importance.) But do they really point to an inevitable decline into that soft totalitarianism? One where religious liberty will be put in serious jeopardy? I am unconvinced.

But (good news) Dreher quotes (partially) Solzhenitsyn's recommendations for people who choose to resist. One can't help but note their relevance today. The person who lives not by lies:

  • Will not write, sign, nor publish in any way, a single line distorting, so far as he can see, the truth;
  • Will not utter such a line in private or in public conversation, nor read it from a crib sheet, nor speak it in the role of educator, canvasser, teacher, actor;
  • Will not in painting, sculpture, photograph, technology, or music depict, support, or broadcast a single false thought, a single distortion of the truth as he discerns it;
  • Will not cite in writing or in speech a single “guiding” quote for gratification, insurance, for his success at work, unless he fully shares the cited thought and believes that it fits the context precisely;
  • Will not be forced to a demonstration or a rally if it runs counter to his desire and his will; will not take up and raise a banner or slogan in which he does not fully believe;
  • Will not raise a hand in vote for a proposal which he does not sincerely support; will not vote openly or in secret ballot for a candidate whom he deems dubious or unworthy;
  • Will not be impelled to a meeting where a forced and distorted discussion is expected to take place;
  • Will at once walk out from a session, meeting, lecture, play, or film as soon as he hears the speaker utter a lie, ideological drivel, or shameless propaganda;
  • Will not subscribe to, nor buy in retail, a newspaper or journal that distorts or hides the underlying facts.

Readers, that's a difficult way to live. But (as Solzhenitsyn says) it's the way of the "honest man, worthy of the respect of his children and contemporaries."

And I'm pretty sure the New York Times would go out of business pretty quickly if a lot of people started following that last rule.

Last Modified 2021-05-03 7:23 AM EDT


[Amazon Link]

The WSJ's Tom Nolan put the fourth novel in Joe Ide's "IQ" series on his Best Mysteries of 2020 list. But you know how it is with series: entry number N can contain references to entries N-1, N-2, …, 1. So I decided to start with number one instead of diving into 4.

Fortunately, Amazon had a sale on the Kindle version: a mere $1.99. A very good deal, no longer available!

An excellent deal, in fact. And it worked: definitely going to read more Joe Ide.

The narrative is a little tricky: two timelines, one in 2005-6, the second in 2013. The earlier is essentially the "origin story" of Isaiah Quintabe (IQ). His life is knocked off course by unspeakable tragedy, but also reveals his undeniable talents for observation and Sherlockian deductive reasoning. (The book claims it's really "inductive" reasoning.)

Unfortunately, IQ's circumstances lead him to partner up with drug-dealing Dodson, and (eventually) to a life of major burglary. This doesn't turn out well; horrifically in fact. But…

In the 2013 timeline, IQ and Dodson have gone straight, doing odd detective-type jobs (unlicensed) for folks in the hood. That doesn't pay as well as they'd like. But IQ's talents become known to a famous rapper, Cal. Someone's trying to kill Cal, and the initial attempt was unique: a giant pit bull sent to his estate to rip him to shreds. Who's behind this nefarious scheme?

The book is hilarious in parts, moving and somber in others. Pulse-pounding action at times. It's a super button-pusher (Kindlese for "page turner").

And a hook for the next book in the series right at the end. I was in already, Joe!

Last Modified 2021-04-30 6:29 AM EDT

The System of the World

[Amazon Link]

So, another book down on the reread-Stephenson project! It was pretty massive (892 pages). My take on my first read (slightly over 14 years ago) here.

OK, it's been 14 years, but I was surprised at how little I remembered of the plot. In addition to a mix of Phant'sy, history-mixed-with-fiction, detailed geography, cartography, lexicography, … there's a lot of humor and fun; action-packed duels (with a cello, Eliza?) (with cannons, Dappa?); scams, heists, jailbreaks, and escapes from certain death.

Next up, probably later this year: Anathem!

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

[Amazon Link]

Back in 2018, I enjoyed Alan Jacob's book How to Think. When I noticed he had a new book out, I checked Portsmouth Public Library… argh, no dice. (And my backup plan, ILL via UNH, is not an option until the librarians get off their desks on which they've been standing, shrieking "Eeek! A mouse! Also Covid!" for the past year.)

But PPL did have this slim volume from 2011. And it turned out to be a win.

The author is "Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University, and a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia." But don't let that scare you away. Professor Jacobs writes with minimal jargon, essential humility, insight, and considerable wit, for the layperson.

Reading the book is much like getting advice from a (very) learned, experienced friend on how to pursue your hobby/pastime/diversion of reading. At 150 pages of main text, it's more of a lengthy essay. Stretching it out over two weeks, my default reading period for library books, turned out to be a good idea: those 150 pages are dense, filled with ideas and observations that are worth mulling over, not gobbling.

Professor Jacobs is not a fan of what he calls the "eat-your-vegetables" approach to reading, where some authoritative sage provides a list of "must-read" books. (True confession: I actually have one of those books on my shelf: The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman. I gave up on Recommended Author #2: Herodotus.) Instead, he suggests relying more on what he calls "whim". Suggesting you'll do better by following your own preferences instead of some guru. (He generally declines that role himself: whenever people ask him for book recommendations, he declines.) (But he won me over by intimating that he enjoyed reading Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. Hey, me too!)

You (probably) don't want to spend your life reading pap. But what do you want to do? What are you trying to accomplish with your reading habit? Professor Jacobs teases out possible answers: knowledge, insight, joy, appreciation, character development. You can tame your "whim" by being more aware of your goals, of course.

In addition to the high-minded stuff, there's a lot of practical advice; if you're someone who like to annotate texts as you go along, for example, there are suggestions. Reading aloud versus silently? Reading books you've read before? How about poetry? Reading on a Kindle instead of a weighty tome? How to develop habits of concentration when your environment is full of "distractions"? (That's in the title, after all.)

Bottom line: if you like to read, but you have a vague feeling you'd like to read "better", Professor Jacobs is highly recommended.

One Fatal Flaw

[Amazon Link]

Yet another entry in the "Wish I'd Liked It Better" Department. I've been hitting a lot of those lately, usually because I trusted "recommendations" from a reliable source. In this case, Tom Nolan's compilation of 2020's "best" mysteries. Really, Tom?

It's the third entry in Anne Perry's series of novels featuring young earnest lawyer Daniel Pitt; he's the son of Thomas Pitt, who has a 32-book series! There are numerous references to occurrences (I assume) in those previous books, but that's par for the course, and didn't bother me that much.

It's set in 1910 England, and Daniel is wheedled by a young woman into defending her petty criminal boyfriend against a murder charge; the forensic evidence seems to say that he bashed in the skull of another criminal while robbing a warehouse, then set a fire to cover things up.

This sounds dubious, but Daniel enlists the daughter of his firm's head, Miriam, to importune a well-known forensic scientist to testify that the damage to the victim's skull could have been caused by the extreme heat of the fire; skull bones have been known to crack in such conflagrations. Reasonable doubt is established, the boyfriend goes free…

Only to wind up dead in exactly the same way. And this time, the girlfriend is accused of the crime. And demands that Daniel defend her.

And this is when Daniel smells a rat. About time.

I found Anne Perry's style in this book irritating and repetitious. Mostly it's people talking to each other. Which is fine, but interspersed between the dialog lines are lengthy descriptions of mental states: Why did they say that? What do they think about what they just heard? What did they look like when they said it? How should they respond? This way? No, that wouldn't be proper, how about this?

And then the next bit of speech is uttered. C'mon, Anne. Just tell me what they said.

I also found the plotting to be sloppy and not particularly believable. (Perhaps I'm cranky, because I came up with a theory of what was "really going on"; which turned out to be totally wrong.)

Anne Perry is a best-selling novelist with legions of fans. So your mileage may differ. She's not my cup of tea.

(Oh, yeah, did I mention the tea? I swear, there are more words devoted to tea in this book than to crime-solving.)

False Alarm

How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet

[Amazon Link]

I know the front cover says the author's name is "Bjorn Lomborg". I'm going with Bjørn, because my knowledge of how to deal with funny characters was hard-won. And still imperfect; so I need to practice when I can.

Lomborg has been lumped in with climate-change "skeptics". That's not really accurate; he thinks climate-change is real, due to our greenhouse gas emission, and likely to cause problems in the future. He has long been off the "alarmist" train, however (as long as we're slinging simplistic, semi-invidious labels around). He updates and extends his argument in this book.

I think he clarifies the argument quite a bit with an analogy in the introduction:

Imagine a similar discussion on traffic deaths. In the United States, forty thousand people die each year in car crashes. If politicians asked scientists how to limit the number of deaths to an almost impossible target of zero, one good answer would be to set the national speed limit to three miles per hour. Nobody would die. But science is not telling us that we must have a speed limit of three miles per hour—it only informs us that if we want zero dead, one simple way to achieve that is through a nationwide, heavily enforced three-mile-per-hour speed limit. Yet, it is a political decision for all of us, to make the trade-offs between low speed limits and a connected society.

That's an important, and very generalizable, observation about social risk management. The collective "we" have decided that 30K-40K annual deaths are worth it, in order to have a convenient, flexible, vehicle-based transportation system. Sounds more than a little cold-blooded when you put it that way, doesn't it? Yet it's true.

I think this applies a lot more generally, illuminating a number of public issues: the COVID-19 response, gun control, the war on drugs, and more. But Lomborg is talking about climate change, and we'll stick to that from here on out.

Lomborg argues that holding humanity to unrealistic climate goals is equally wrong-headed, even dangerous on net. Despite the doom-saying hoopla, of which there is no shortage, most actual scientific evidence says that climate change will be managable. Not without problems aplenty, mind you. But we would be far better off to have a richer world to deal with those issues. Instead of giving in to panic, totally shutting down the fossil-fuel economy, making us all poorer.

I said "making us all poorer" above, but that's not really accurate. Yes, most of us would be worse off, but in rich countries, we'd probably muddle through. But a successful fossil-fuel shutdown would really sock it to the poorer parts of the world, dooming them to (almost certainly) eternal deprivation and early death.

All the more reason why we need to come up with a panic-free realistic approach. Lomborg first advocates a carbon tax, one set optimally. Set too high, it will wreck the overall economy. Set too low, and it won't get much carbon reduction. Set juuust right, it will discourage low-hanging-fruit emissions and incentivize shifts to renewables while letting high-value fossil-fuel uses continue. That's why we have green-eyeshade economists: to play Goldilocks.

Realistically, the whole world won't go along. Lomborg realizes this, and discusses how that changes things.

In addition to a carbon tax, Lomborg recommends directed R&D on further innovation. That's tough, because innovation is notoriously unpredictable. But energy storage is a pretty vital thing we could (in theory) get a lot better at. (So we could save up the solar/wind energy abundant on sunny/windy days, and release it as needed.) Also: nuclear energy. And if there were some way to suck CO2 out of the air economically at scale, that would be pretty neat too.

But we should also bring thoughts to bear on adaptation. If we forget about chasing unattainable temperature-increase "goals", then we'll have a richer would in order to implement various methods of dealing with increased warmth. It's likely (for example) that flooding will increase; but flood control already works in rich countries, avoiding death and mitigating economic damage. It's not cheap, but probably worth it.

And then there's geoengineering: manipulating the environment on a macro scale to increase overall albedo. Lomborg examines the various schemes, and recommends that we keep those in our back pocket in case things get really bad.

But finally, Lomberg returns to the best tool for dealing with climate change: prosperity. We need to encourage worldwide economic growth through free trade (and, I'd add, free-market capitalism). That's the magic dust that will allow us to deal with climate problems as they occuur, and provide a cleaner environment overall.

If I had a quibble, it would be with Lomborg's (relative) optimism. I get that he's advocating a path forward, but it relies on many governments doing the "right" thing. Something they've so far shown minimal interest in doing on this issue. But maybe if enough movers and shakers read this book…

This Is How You Lose the Time War

[Amazon Link]

Well, gee. Nuts. Yet another "wish I liked it better" book. Yet another "it's probably me, not the book" book. Because it won both Hugo and Nebula Awards for "best novella". (See the Amazon page for other encomia.) And (in theory, even better) it won a rave from Katherine Mangu-Ward on a Reason podcast back in 2019.

And I didn't care for it at all. Couldn't get interested in the characters or their stupid problems. Didn't like the obfuscatory "look. ma, I'm writing" prose.

But here is (as far as I understand it) the story: it's the story of two shape-shifting time-travelers, agents "Red" and "Blue", who are trying to alter the various time strands so their side winds up to dominate the eventual future. This involves a lot of gory slaughter. Red and Blue leave cleverly hidden notes to each other as their paths through spacetime cross. At first, they are taunting. Then admiring. And eventually, they fall head over heels in love.

They both use "she/her" pronouns for themselves, so it would be easy to call this yet another lesbian sci-fi story. (It would be my third recent one in a row; apparently it's a required theme to get attention of influential critics?) But that's problematic, because it's not clear that Red and Blue are even human. (I didn't get a handle on that.)

To repeat: you could very well like this book very much. But I think I'm going back to the old reliables for the foreseeable future: Heinlein, Herbert, Stephenson.

The WEIRDest People in the World

How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

[Amazon Link]

Whoa, big book. 680 pages in all, but fortunately "only" 489 of them are the main text. Lots of notes.

To get it out of the way: the WEIRD in Joseph Henrich's title stands for "Western, Industrialized, Educated, Rich, Democratic". In other words, us. (Well, me, anyway. Probably you.)

Henrich believes that our brains work significantly different from the rest of the world, and this difference has been accumulating over the past couple thousand years. (He is properly scornful of psychology researchers who try to pass off their experimental results as broadly applicable, but only really apply to their research guinea pigs, typically American college undergrads.) He supports this thesis with a raft of data drawn from his own work (he's chair of the Human Evolutionary Biology Department at Harvard) and disparate social sciences: history, economics, anthropology, sociology, etc.

What happened to make us this way? Christianity, mostly, specifically the Catholic Church. Their efforts over centuries to impose their "Marriage and Family Program" (Henrich acronymizes this to "MFP") turned the flock away from mankind's usual tribalism. Other things happened too, of course, but Henrich finds this to be the biggie. It's plausible: the MFP reverberates thoughout Western society, causing culture to evolve in unexpected and unintended ways. But mostly it changed our brains in a WEIRD way…

Fortunately, there's a diagram:

[The Big Picture]

[That's, um, borrowed from this site; if you're interested in a much more detailed summary of the book, click over.]

While reading, I kept wondering "What would Deirdre McCloskey think about all this?" One of the primary themes here is the development of modern capitalism, after all, right in Deirdre's wheelhouse. There is but a single footnote to one of Deirdre's books here. Surprising!

Henrich's style is mostly dry, but not without occasional flashes of humor. Example: on page 273 he's discussing how the MFP's encouragement of monogamy affects testosterone levels in men. "Here, you're seeing how the Church, through the institution of monogamous marriage, reached down and grabbed men by the testicles." Ha! (Although I think I crossed my legs when reading that.) I suspect this and other zingers are a crossover from Henrich's undergraduate lectures at Harvard; even those bright kids can get their attention perked by a good joke.

Clean Hands

[Amazon Link]

This book made Tom Nolan's Best Mysteries list at the WSJ. Not my cup of tea, sorry Tom. Wish I liked it better.

It's not awful, just OK. It starts out with an everyday pickpocketing in a New York subway station. A lowly lawyer at a prestigious corporate law firm has his iPhone grabbed. Unfortunately, it contained critical evidence in upcoming multi-million dollar litigation. Elizabeth, the lowly lawyer's supervisor, calls in Valencia, an ex-CIA operative to retrieve the phone and secure the documents. But the firm's own investigator looks at the video of the theft and it looks a little sketchy to him. Could it have been prearranged? The book follows the twisty trail of the iPhone, a bewildering array of characters good and bad.

Wait, did I say "good"? Well, there aren't very many "good" people here. Everyone's morally compromised. The closest "good" character is Valencia, and mainly because she's so dogged and ruthless in tracking down the perps and the phone. She's not picky about breaking laws to accomplish her mission. Or apologetic, either.

At a certain point I realized I didn't care about these tedious people, and I didn't care how they resolved their problems. Page turning was not motivated by "Gee, I wonder what happens next", but instead "Let's get to the end so I can move on with my life".

It doesn't help, frankly, that a key development relies on Valencia and her crew never having seen Speed.

Last Modified 2021-03-19 7:39 AM EDT