Monday, March 31, 2014

Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn

Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a MasqueradeThis very clever nonfiction mystery unravels the fifteen-year relationship the author, Walter Kirn, had with the noted con man Christian Gerhartsreiter, a.k.a. Clark Rockefeller. Kirn sets the scene in the beginning by relating several very funny and cringe-worthy examples of his own appalling lack of good judgment in his life and his career culminating in his meeting Clark Rockefeller. Why they remain friends over the years that follow is the mystery we seek to uncover. Kirn's tone at the start, the peevish snark of the perennially disappointed, changes to aghast uncertainty tinged with outrage, and then to something like a belligerent pride. In a very spooky finale we find ourselves staring into the eyes and soul not of Clark Rockefeller, but of Walter Kirn.

Kirn handles the material masterfully, telling his side of the several phone calls, dinners, and weekends he and Clark spent together over the years, giving us glimpses into his willingness to suspend disbelief: “he was interesting,” “he was powerful,” “I thought I might learn something,” etc. Kirn rolls into the details of Gerhartsreiter’s trial, relating court scenes and the feelings the facts aroused in him. He is dogged, obessed even, with uncovering what Gerhartsreiter was thinking when he entered into relationships with people. He describes Sandra Boss, the woman who lived longest with Clark Rockefeller: "Her shoulder-length hair was the blond that covers gray and in her ears were modest single pearls whose luster was that of money banked, not spent." He learns that Clark Rockefeller played on the “vanity, vanity, vanity” of his targets. This statement rotates in our heads as we mull the details.

Kirn reminds us several times that he is a journalist and a novelist, which is why we are startled at the end to discover that the man writing the story is a mirror, in some ways, of the man he is writing about. Which man is the cipher? Kirn can also be manipulative and sly and less than truthful: “I was acting much of the time…I was conning him. I betrayed him.” It is a beguiling tale, start to finish, and Kirn lives up to his reputation.

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi

Chicken with Plums
Satrapi relates the death of her great-uncle and celebrated musician Nasser Ali Khan with the cool detachment of a reporter. Her drawings and captions do not reveal how she views the events she shares with us. Her uncle took to his bed one day and decided he was going to die. It appears to have taken him eight days.

The explanation Satrapi offers us is that he lived for his music. When his beautiful instrument was broken by his wife in a moment of rage, he never imagined his talent would abandon him. But Khan believed he played so well because he carried within his heart an unfulfilled but requited love that sustained him and fed his talent. When he thought that love was withdrawn, he lost the will to live. Was he foolish?

I have heard that it is possible for a person to give up their will to live, but I have always thought it a conundrum: it takes enormous will to give up one’s will. I would not have thought it so common in majority Christian Western democracies to find such abandonment of will, but I believe the Asian countries have many examples of suicide by simply refusing to live, and now Satrapi tells us it is apparently not unusual in the Middle East as well.

It looks like a relatively peaceful, painless way to go, emotional trauma aside, if she describes it correctly. Since she wasn’t there, it’s possible it wasn’t quite as comfy as it looks. This observation is separate from the discussion about whether it was a good choice. I would have to say, in his case, with the information we have of his life, it was not a good choice. He seems to lack the maturity to make a reasonable moral choice on the matter.

Regarding the love affair: bosh! Unrequited love has been the impetus for, and subject of, many a grand piece of music. The more unrequited the love, the grander the music. Nasser’s old lover may still have loved him. We don’t know, and neither did he. But she’d been mature in making the best of what she did have. He should have, too.

I think his wife was right. He was a selfish bastard.

This book is what they call a "graphic novel." It is not a novel and it is not graphic, but it is called that none-the-less. Satrapi’s drawings, writing, and presentation of the issues are dead-on terrific and deserve much praise. That I don’t condone the activities described therein does not alter my praise of her skills. Nice controversial piece. She's a devilish one, that Satrapi. Keep your eye on her.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Vulture Peak by John Burdett

Vulture Peak (Sonchai Jitpleecheep #5) Burdett does something memorable in this episode of his Bangkok series (Sonchai Jitpleecheep #5). He introduces two of the most interesting character creations he’s had in years: the bipolar and incisively intelligent Inspector Chan of the Hong Kong police force, and the incomparably sophisticated Detective San Bin of the Shanghai police. Mind you, these two men are creations of a Western mind, but they are everything a reader wants in a detective: very smart and very sly, with an unparalleled streak of righteous vengeance and duty to protect.

It’s been awhile since I have visited Burdett’s world, and perhaps I did not choose an auspicious time. His somewhat loose narrative and rants about the sex trade in Thailand didn’t hold up well next to the heavy-duty nonfiction I have been immersed in lately, but gradually I relaxed enough to acknowledge the points he was making. I just finished watching the third series of Danish TV called Borgen, where the same questions Sonchai’s wife, Chen Mai, is researching for her doctorate are being considered, e.g., prostitution as a woman’s right rather than exploitation. So Burdett is quite topical, and not just in the tropics.

The bulk of this mystery, however, is about international organ trafficking, always a topic that arouses strong emotions and means money changing unsavory hands. For the first time our Buddhist hero, Sonchai, travels overseas: to Dubai, Monte Carlo (!), Hong Kong and Shanghai. We meet a pair of Chinese doyens who specialize in organs, transplanted or otherwise, and this adds to the unreality of the scenes he conjures. Undoubtedly some of the research is true (six-star hotels in Dubai, for instance) but it seemed just a little ‘out there’ for me to get scared.

Again, his character creations for Chinese cops are ground-breaking in my experience and I’d love to come across them again. It almost seems Burdett could colonize some new territory if he wanted to move to Shanghai, for instance.

A word about the ending, in which Chen Mai’s friend Dorothy features: seems a little ‘out there,’ and yet another figment of a western man’s mind. We learn more about Burdett than human nature, perhaps, but…ain’t it always the way?

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier

Hardcover, 367 pgs, Pub May 7th 2013 by Simon & Schuster (first published March 7th 2013) Original TitleWho Owns the Future?, ISBN13: 9781451654967, Lit Awards: Goldsmith Book Prize for Trade (2014), San Francisco Book Festival for Business & Grand Prize Winner (2014)

“To my friends in the “open” Internet movement, I have to ask: What did you think would happen? We in Silicon Valley undermined copyright to make commerce become more about services instead of content: more about our code instead of their files.

The inevitable endgame was always that we would lose control of our own personal content, our own files.

We haven’t just weakened old-fashioned power mongers. We’ve weakened ourselves.” (p.207)

This book is a labor of love. We humans are being gifted the secrets of our internet universe today. Reading this is little like a taking a course (a whole course) with a particularly beloved and brilliant professor who doesn’t hold back any secrets that we might be able to glean from his lectures. Lanier describes a late-night dinner in the shambolic Brookline house of one of his MIT professors, Marvin Minsky, which spurred him to great flights of thought and coding. This book is a little like those precious moments. This book is free information! and you must know by now, friends, that information is the gold standard today.

But more importantly, with this information you can participate in the discussion about how to manage scarcity and wealth in today’s society which is accruing unevenly and, according to Lanier, unfairly. It is a huge question at the center of how we interact, and who is paying attention to those interactions. His discussion allows us to understand a little better the causes of the effects we all notice in our online interactions, e.g., the stickiness effect of trying to leave or quit a provider, the quick rise and/or cannibalism of internet start-ups, the fact that often we are liable for every risk in using the computational instruments necessary in our lives, and yet the cost is ours as well. How does that work out? Well, some folks are making plenty on our interactions/information. It has something to do with “Siren Servers” and big data. Remember Odysseus and the songs of the Sirens?

This book has other life lessons as well. Another reviewer said she enjoyed it like reading a “shaggy, ambitious novel” and it is a little like that: a little sci fi, a little horror, a little mystery, lots of thrills…entertaining doesn’t quite describe it. It opens a world we may not have understood adequately especially if we work outside the computer field, but it still speaks to those folks as well. It points to a huge problem at the center of our world and asks how best to solve it. Lanier sets himself apart from those discussing “The Singularity” and remembers the human behind every optimal computer decision. He poses the beginnings of solutions to the problems he recognizes, but basically, he is asking for input and participation. Like the man says, any system we create always needs tinkering. It can’t ever be perfect. It can get better.

Lanier speaks so naturally, in this book and in interviews, of things that are mysterious to most of us…Siren Servers that pull information to themselves and create vortices of information and wealth. Lanier suggests creating two way information networks so that each of us is compensated for the value we create. It is a huge idea, but Lanier has a history of huge ideas. He may have lost me just a little at the end when he begins to talk about the logical outcomes of decisions made early on in the process, but the conceptual project as a whole I find intriguing and probably as possible as what we have done up to now. It’s mind -boggling and –expanding at the same time: a very cool feeling. I really learned things here.

I definitely like his central conceit: that humans are the value in this equation. We just have to make it logical that some portion of whatever we have that big data values accrues to us. And I do love the discussion near the end when he is considering outcomes and tweeks, and makes the suggestion (he doesn’t actually suggest it, but the proximity of his arguments leads one to imagine he suggests) that derivatives markets and casinos—the networked, obsessive feedback loop—be sicc’ed on the carbon credits market: “it’s all in the timing.” He admits to issues with everything he is suggesting, but it is completely compelling none-the-less.
“A world in which more and more is monetized, instead of less and less, could lead to a middle-class-oriented information economy, in which information isn’t free, but is affordable. Instead of making information inaccessible, that would lead to a situation in which the most critical information becomes accessible for the first time. You’d own the raw information about you that can sway your life. There is no such thing as a perfect system but the hypothesis on offer is that this could lead to a more democratic outcome than does the cheap illusion of “free” information.” (p. 210)

At the very end, on page 300, Lanier explains that the old-fashioned way of handling discrepancies in the market, “regulation” of the powers that be, has not worked since late in the 20th century. He suggests that possibly his new system would take care of that…by allowing risk and cost to be shared with the polity, restoring, or at least correcting, economic symmetry. Part of Lanier’s thesis is that machines are not now as smart as humans, and without humans, never will be.
“…what we have to look at is economic incentives. There can never be enough police to shut down activities that align with economic motives. That is why prohibitions don’t work. No amount of regulation can keep up with perverse incentives, given the pace of innovation. This is also why no one was prosecuted for financial fraud connected with the Great Recession.” (p. 311)

This is huge; it’s a truly big idea. In some ways it seems completely crazy. And how much crazier does “The Singularity” seem to you? Lanier is offering an alternative to our current system which he believes will not have good outcomes. There are costs to consider, but in general, I think I prefer his approach to the alternatives.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

A Marker to Measure Drift
This astonishingly good story by Maksik tests our empathy levels. We live beside a homeless woman on a Greek volcanic island in the Mediterranean. Jacqueline her name is, named after Kennedy’s wife. It is hope, I think, that makes her parents name her this, for how can they know what she will become, how she will look, how she will act?

But Jacqueline lives up to the dignity of her name, living as she does in an ocean cave, or in parks under old cypress trees, or in abandoned buildings overlooking the sea. We walk with her when she buys almonds, or a peach and a tomato. We ache with her when she sleeps on concrete that gets cold at night, awaking bruised and aching in the morning. She does not think overmuch, but remembers in puffs, like smoke: the voice of her mother curling around her, smelling strongly of gin and lime but fading off into the air, leaving her bereft with lingering memories.
Nostalgia, her father said, is from the Greek. Nostros, to return home. Algos, pain.
Nostalgia, her father had once told her at lunch, is homesickness.”
This is the story of Jacqueline, who leaves Liberia during the civil war, who escapes her life but not her memories of that life. There is an almost unbearable tension in this novel, despite the languid, sunny days and lack of action. We recognize something in this lost woman, and in the kindnesses of strangers who see something broken in her that needs tending. We are drawn into this story and we walk the rest of the way on our own volition, much like Jacqueline does, not sure where she is going. It is very powerful writing.

I read this book on the recommendation of Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, who mentioned this title in an interview. In the Acknowledgements to this book is a nod: “To Anthony Marra, partner in writing what we do not know.” He also credits the journalist Tim Hetherington, among others, for his film: Liberia: An Uncivil War and his book Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold. Helene Cooper’s memoir, The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood was also a reference.

Maksik and Marra have done something that is not advised in writing programs: they write about what they do not know, have not experienced. That both brilliantly succeeded in this puts paid to that advice, with the caveat that the skills required here are extraordinary. Maksik wrote his story in the voice of a young black woman from an African country torn with strife. And he reminds us, just as Sonali Deraniyagala does in her eviscerating memoir Wave, that the way to rediscover ourselves after loss is to remember, not to forget.

It makes me hopeful, this work. The painful, jagged, soul-destroying story of Liberia at war, in the hands of Maksik, reminds us of what is possible when there are people like him holding up mirrors.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes

The Secret of Raven Point A novel by Vanderbes is always cause for celebration. She has only written three to date, each very different in subject matter. The first, Easter Island, introduced two generations of scientists, and was named “Best Book of 2003” by The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor. The second, Strangers at the Feast, is set in a single day, Thanksgiving, when a family gets together again at some cost.

There is always something shifting and ambiguous about the characters Vanderbes serves up to us, something which requires our full attention and our judgment reserved. We are forced to rethink our opinions of her characters as we move through the stories because they surprise us, but not in a fundamental way. Fundamentally there is always something true at the center.

Which bring me to what I like best about Vanderbes’ fiction: she does not skirt the truth. She nails the truth. It may not be what we would have wanted, or would have chosen for ourselves, but life is like that.

This is a book about war: World War II, in fact. So many novels have been written about WWII that readers are wily, knowledgeable, heard it all, seen it all. But war concentrates the mind wonderfully. And in this conflict, perhaps we haven’t quite seen it all. Vanderbes makes it new, placing the action in Italy away from news of troop movements and victories, and layering the work with untold, or underreported stories that stun us with recognition. The cruel and casual violence shows us the futility and destruction of war, even here, in the “good” war.

A young woman, Juliet, after receiving a letter from her brother who is reported to be missing-in-action, manages to get herself posted to Italy as a nurse in hopes that she might run into his regiment and learn news of him. The short section (Part I) introduces Juliet and her brother in South Carolina. I wish the novel could have begun with Part II somehow, lacing in the fore-story as it progressed. The explosive machine of war combined with Vanderbes extraordinary characterizations and insinuated truths make her story completely compelling.

Is it even possible to write a war story that isn’t about loss? Would we want to read it if it were? Well, this story is about loss but it is also about how we reconcile loss, how we go on living with that loss. We are given the arc of a woman’s life from teen to grandmother. Now she has seen it all: “…[she was] part of the collective walk, the unending march of history. Along the way things were dropped, others picked up…That was the arc of life, it seemed; the slow and grateful recognition of those who were, by chance or fate, simply with you.” It may not be what we would have wanted, or would have chosen for ourselves, but life is like that.
“I’m not sure if you made me believe in God, but you sure made me believe in people.”

He smiled. “Same thing.”

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie by Ranya Idliby

Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in AmericaIdliby felt compelled to take up the challenge of educating her neighbors and fellow Americans about Islam and its believers in order to protect her children against bullying in school and in their daily lives. In the process she educated herself. She navigated the treacherous waters that can be found swirling about [any] organized religion to uncover basic truths that help her to be a better person, citizen, mother. She did not duck difficult questions about Islam. If only we all looked at the underpinnings of our beliefs with such seriousness, I feel sure we would be finer examples of our species.

She discovers the roots of and addresses the issues we have all wrestled with when considering Islam and Muslim societies abroad: the apparent subjugation of women, and the literal interpretation of the Quran. She is careful but unyielding in face of the worst excesses of American hate-mongering. How completely disorienting it must be to awake and find oneself part of a newly-designated “outsider” group.

There is a very nice section at the end, when Idliby considers the marriage prospects of her children. I think she solves it admirably, eloquently, and the book is worth reading for that alone. Would that every child had a mother so thoughtful with her guidance, we would not have such intractable social ills.

I liked the chapter devoted to Samuel Huntington’s 1993 article in Foreign Affairs, which is still being discussed today: in this chapter she explains her discomfort when someone considers the “inevitable, preordained, historically predetermined” conflict of values, religion, and cultures. She asks, fairly, how that fits with her family living in America as good citizens and progressive Muslims. “It is more accurate today to speak of the complicity of civilizations.” It is an interesting point which extends the discussion with hope and direction, i.e., usefully.

This book would do well to go on school reading lists because it is so clear in its examples of thoughtless, heartless things all of us, but especially children and teens, think and say that really hurt others and hinder their development as responsible adults. (I am not talking now about her examples of TV Fox and Friends and Sean Hannity raves that are pure and simple uninformed hate talk.) Children need to be educated about their language and tone, and what’s funny and what is really not so funny. She is clear about this—how hurtful things make it difficult for discriminated groups to participate.

It is sad, but probably true that “Islamophobes make it easier for terrorists to find one more vulnerable recruit….radicalization in American-born Muslims is not caused by the Quran: rather it is rooted in alienation, where troubled youths embrace a radicalized prospective of the world, enabled and empowered by radicalized readings of the Quran.” This is too simple, but there is some truth here. The discussion is a valuable one for it gives us something we can do: educate ourselves.

It is worth noting, however, that Idliby’s brand of religion is not always recognized by her fellow Muslims as Islamic. Just as there are some in every religion or group who seek to include variants, there will ever be those who claim their own particular understanding is the right one. It is not that we are back to square one, exactly. We have expanded our understanding a little to include this family and others like it in what we take to be ‘our America.’

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

WaveWhat is most striking to me about this memoir of the tsunami which hit Sri Lanka December 26, 2004 is the clarity with which Deraniyagala shares her sense of dislocation, devastation, and despair following the deaths of her entire family. She recalls rising water in words that take one’s breath, and then her stunned silence and blank lack of emotion when she describes the tsunami’s aftermath, when she alone of her family remained, covered in black mud and clinging to a tree.

What I never knew and was grateful to Deraniyagala for sharing, was how we humans react to the massive insult of a natural disaster. Aid workers must have come across this kind of shock in their work with victims of earthquakes and floods, but I never knew, had never experienced such a thing. I am in awe that Deraniyagala could relate her pain to us, despite what it must have cost her. She didn’t have to do it. I hope it helps.

The ravaging sense of guilt and crippling loss of self-worth as she scrabbled in the remains of her life felt lacerating. Her unflinching honesty in describing her loss of control and the pain of her survival when all others died, ripped from her arms, is excruciating. Her parents had also died in the wave, so apart from a brother and extended family, she had nothing to anchor her to her life as a mother, wife, and daughter.

It took six years before she could bear to remember the love she had for her children and her husband, and to tell us how they played, or what they liked to eat. She becomes joyous then, in recalling the boys at school, their favorite subjects, or how she met her husband and how they first traveled to Sri Lanka to stay in her parents’ house. The precision, clarity, and eloquence of her memory and her language honors them, and enshrines her love for them.

It is just as revealing to discover that people can actually find a way forward even in the face of such heart-rending grief. The grass grows back; the spirit renews. It seems impossible, but it is still true.

Deraniyagala reminds us that finding one’s way back to oneself through an overwhelming and lasting grief is not, in fact, to forget…but to remember. When Sonali remembers, and can speak the truth, she finds joy in the remembering, and in who she was with the people she loved. She can piece back together who she is by remembering who she was. The beauty of her memories, and the imaginings of her sons—Vikram would be fourteen!—makes me celebrate her bravery.

The reading of this memoir by Hannah Curtis is terrific. To say the material is difficult is understatement, but Curtis pulls it off.

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You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

Hardcover, 221 pgs, Pub Jan 12th 2010 by Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN13: 9780307269645

Lanier is something different altogether; he is an original. It took longer than I expected to read this book, but I loved learning that there was someone who was thinking about our human connection by electronic device. Computer expression is a result of, and limited by, human biology. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to consider them together.

Lanier discusses the possibilities inherent in technology, as well as the concepts of the Singularity, the hive mind, and the “wisdom of crowds.” He discusses the constraints of technology as we know it today. He explains that as a humanist, he is worried about a subculture of technologists he calls “cybernetic totalists” or “digital Maoists.” This terminology comes with a whole set of cultural connotations but Lanier takes care to say he is talking conceptually, and not specifically, about members of the group: “the members of the tribe are my lifelong friends, my mentors, my students, my colleagues, my fellow travelers. Many…may disagree with me…[but] the groupthink problem I am worried about isn’t so much in the minds of the technologists themselves, but in the minds of the users of the tools the cybernetic totalists are promoting.” Which is where we come in.

Lanier put his finger on a couple of things that had been in the back of my head but, not knowing everything about the world, I couldn’t possibly assert the truth or validity of these notions. For the same reason, I am not sure he can, either, but we have noticed the same things. For instance, this paragraph deep in his discussion, after the bit about the Singularity and hive minds:
”Take a look at one of the big cultural blogs like Boing Boing, or the endless stream of mashups that appear on YouTube. It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump. This is embarrassing.” (p. 131)

It is almost as though we are constantly surprised by the technology we use, but not by what it can convey. In a sidebar he concludes “You need locality to have focus, evolution, or any other creative process.” (p. 141) This, and many other basic truths punctuate this book and perhaps because it is presented in an organic manner, it is more difficult to summarize quickly and succinctly. It is an important book to read, however, whether or not we agree with him. Agreement is not the point here. The point is he has valid observations and he amuses and enlightens us with what he has been able to glean from his experience. His concerns are not insignificant, and I am pleased he bothered to engage us with this book at all.

There is an impassioned and important section in this book about fostering and feeding the creative mind by finding new ways to monetize the value of creativity. This seems a critical point, and not the completely-obvious statement it appears at first blush. It has everything to do with where we go from here.

I love what he says about humans…that we have been highly evolved through millennia of hard knocks but that neoteny is what separates us from cephalopods, those fellow giants of evolution. By this he means that humans can actually pass on what we have learned and step on the shoulders of those who have come before, while cephalopods rely on instinct. Following this thought, though, comes a fear. Neoteny in humans is lasting longer—does anyone disagree with this?—and often true, original, out-of-the-box creativity comes in that interstice between childhood and adulthood. Is that target area shrinking, or is it just my imagination? Can we blame it on economics or anything so banal?

Lanier explodes my brain just a little when he talks about the synecdoche of smell—how a smell needs additional input from other senses to compute. Lanier starts with technology and ends with biology, which if you think about it, is exactly as it should be.

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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Little Elvises by Tim Hallinan

Little Elvises (Junior Bender, #2)
One picks up a book by Tim Hallinan to have fun. There’s a little murder, sure…sometimes a lot of murder…but it’s usually the bad guys that “get it” and we rest easy, knowing there is someone out there who’d rob us blind if he could, but who won’t take more than we can afford to lose.

Hallinan’s creation, Junior Bender, is the kind of guy you might ask back to your house for a party, after he’d robbed it, just to ask how he did it. He’s that amusing.

The Junior Bender series of books is based in Los Angeles and captures the vibration of southern California precisely. If you’ve ever found yourself missing the place, you might want to pick up one of Hallinan’s books for a cure. Hallinan lasers in on defining characteristics, and picks up those things we thought we’d fixed with botox, or managed to hide with designer advice. He is brilliant at describing environments, in this case an old art deco apartment building with a view of the city purchased by crooked Koreans. Crumbling and unkempt on the outside, it is gloriously restored on the inside, with secret escapes and hidden garages, just perfect for hiding ill-gotten gains or for a man on the run.

Junior has a code of ethics that is not taught in any religion, but like many southern Californians, is just something he created out of whole cloth and “evolved” into. But we like this code, just as we like him. He is a thief, yes, but his heart is in the right place. Everyone wants his help at some time or another, even the cops, and if they don’t, well, mostly they want to lock him up or kill him. Which keeps Junior on his toes.

Junior has a family, and in this episode, his thirteen-year-old daughter, Rina, shows she is growing up into someone he can admire. Do I need to say she has computer skills that put her father to shame? And while she is not old enough to have a boyfriend, she has a friend that is a boy who is as special and interesting as everyone else in the family. We yearn to see more of him, and watch him grow.

Hallinan writes crime novels that defy the type. One can imagine finding a sprung-binding massmarket paperback of his with its delicious, distinctive single-color cover and woodcut silhouettes and opening to the first page…only hours later surfacing to reflect that one had found gold.

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Friday, March 7, 2014

Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George

As I listened to the incomparable Davina Porter read this eighteenth novel in the Lynley/Havers series, I thought that writing this gigantic mystery seemed less like hard work and more like fun for George. She is so experienced, and so familiar with her characters by this time that she appears to riff off them with ease. She has them travel to Italy when Barbara discovers her favorite neighbors are in serious trouble.

George creates a glorious new character, Salvatore lo Bianco, presumably just for this book. (Sad; I’d love to see him again.) Ispettore lo Bianco is a police inspector. We meet Salvatore’s former wife, his mother, his children, his boss and colleagues--rounded characters all. George shows off her skill with this move to Italy and handling the introductions, as well as presenting a particularly intricate mystery featuring an abduction and a murder, placing Barbara’s neighbor, the Pakistani Muslim microbiologist Azhar in the frame. The story has so many angles and curves we are left gasping. But George sails through ably, with Davina Porter’s narration smooth perfection. Imagine the great time George had doing research for this one…

Elizabeth George once again earns her superstar status among mystery writers. It is a real achievement to pull off this enormous cast of characters (including Lynley’s new love interest, Daidre Trahair), a mystery that looks completely damning for a member of a racial minority, and the byzantine conundrum of Italian justice. George keeps piling obstacles in Barbara's path but Barbara plows through in her indomitable way, struggling to save a friend whom she believed in through every turn of the screw. Who would not want to have such a person on one’s side?

George handles the pacing well, by placing Salvatore and the slow (..."piano, Barbara") if inexorable pace of justice in Italy in contrast to the fall of a sickle in the person of tabloid journalist, Mitchell Corsico. Corsico, who is constantly on deadline and who infects the course of justice with misinformation, makes us fear for Barbara who goes a long way out on a limb, only to have it cut off.

Elizabeth George is at the top of her game in this episode, continuing the legend of Lynley and Havers, both of whom we now know far better than our own loved ones at home. Davina Porter, narrator for the audio production, is also at the top of her game. She makes one marvel.

A word about the Italian phrases: George for the most part helps us out by giving us the meaning in subsequent sentences. Otherwise, we are confused, just as Havers is. This is intentional, and very nicely done. A little mystery within a mystery keeps us on our toes. About the length of the book I can only say that we readers made out like bandits. The cost per word is a bargain. While I ordinarily dislike huge novels, I’ve read several of the Lynley mysteries, and I always look forward to another. We have here one that could have qualified as two novels, but we only paid for one. I can’t think of another author that could have pulled this off within two years, or whatever it has been since George’s last book was published. It’s a miracle, no? I can hear George now: "Niente."

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Thursday, March 6, 2014

My Promised Land by Ari Shavit

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
Shavit begins what he hopes is an international dialogue with this book. Such a dialogue has been long in coming. Perhaps the time is ripe. He can see that the Israeli position in the Middle East is dangerous and endangered. He uses interviews to illustrate various events that have shaped the nation and its now shifting worldview.

Shavit shows us how both the right and the left in Israel today have flaws in their grasp of where Israel is in relation to the Palestinians, the Arab world, indeed, even America. He is blunt, bruising, argumentative but illuminating as he cuts away at justifications of former and would-be leaders. The underpinnings of their stance are revealed in this way.

We know where Shavit stands:
”…the choice is clear: either reject Zionism because of (the expulsion of Palestinians from) Lydda, or accept Zionism along with Lydda. One thing is clear to me: the brigade commander and the military governor were right to get angry at the bleeding-heart Israeli liberals of later years who condemn what they did in Lydda but enjoy the fruits of their deed. I condemn Bulldozer. I reject the sniper. But I will not damn the brigade commander and the military governor and the training group boys. On the contrary. If need be, I’ll stand by the damned. Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, the State of Israel would not have been born. If it wasn’t for them, I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.” (p. 131)

The following passage was one of the most revealing and enlightening to me for it gave me a perspective I had not considered:
”Israel of the 1950s was a state on steroids: more and more people, more and more cities, more and more villages, more and more of everything. But although development was rampant, social gaps were narrow. The government was committed to full employment. There was a genuine effort to provide every person with housing, work, education, and health care. The newborn state was one of the most egalitarian democracies in the world. The Israel of the 1950s was a just social democracy. But it was also a nation of practicality that combined modernity, nationalism, and development in an aggressive manner. There was no time, and there was no peace of mind, and therefore there was no human sensitivity. As the state became everything, the individual was marginalized. As it marched toward the future, Israel erased the past. There was no place for the previous landscape, no place for previous identities. Everything was done en masse. Everything was imposed from above. There was an artificial quality to everything. Zionism was not an organic process anymore but a futuristic coup. For its outstanding economic, social, and engineering achievements, the new Israel paid a dear moral price. There was no notion of human rights, civil rights, due process, or laissez-faire. There was no equality for the Palestinian minority and no compassion for the Palestinian refugees. There was little respect for the Jewish Diaspora and little empathy for the survivors of the Holocaust. Ben Gurion’s statism and monolithic rule compelled the nation forward.”(p. 151)

Shavit seems to mourn, to regret, that the folks who were instrumental in setting up and continuing the success of the Israeli state seemed not to know what they were doing in terms of outcomes. The folks he is talking about were big, big in every way: in society, in influence, in action, and that they should have taken more care to think how their actions would affect the present and the future of Israel (and I would add, the world). But they were only men. Only human. They did the best they could at what they were best at. Most of us would be proud to have that written on our gravestones. But we now have to ask ourselves, “is this the best we can do?” The legacy of these folks is unacceptable today.

Shavit begins with the historical underpinnings of the state of Israel, but by the end he admits the “binding historical narrative has fallen apart.” One almost wishes it were possible to begin again, starting back when land was actually purchased rather than stolen. Shavit acknowledges it is difficult to ignore the truth of displaced Palestinians. “What I see and hear here is an entire population of ours…imprisoning am entire population of theirs. This is a phenomenon without parallel in the West. This is systematic brutality no democracy can endure.” Whatever else Israel has succeeded in accomplishing must be paired with this bald fact.

But many in Israel are willing to live with this. Even Shavit claims it gives his people the edge (“quick, vital, creative”) that living under the “looming shadow of a smoking volcano” brings. Some “harbor in their heart a great belief in a great war, which will be their only salvation.” Well. (pause) Do I need to add that this does not seem much of a solution?

It was difficult for me to finish reading this book. My emotions roiled as I read the bulk of Shavit’s narrative, and at some point I exclaimed, “thank god for Shavit,” for he is willing to struggle with hard truths and face them like a leader. But I felt I was finished before I got to Shavit’s concluding chapter.

This exhaustive (and exhausting) catalog of personal histories, slights and wrongs, achievements and successes, thoughts and second thoughts about who really deserves to be in Israel and Palestine culminated in me wanting to say “just do it.” Now that everyone has had their say and we understand all…just fix it.

The contrast between Israel’s self-congratulation on one hand (we have so much talent, wealth, ambition, vision) and despair on the other (we have no friends, and so many enemies, we must actually bomb sovereign states to feel safe) is stark. But the state of Israel may be facing what every nation appears to be facing these days: a more divided electorate that hews to less moderate viewpoints, growing ever more radical and less tolerant by the year. While it is possible for me to feel empathy for individuals, it is difficult for me to feel sorry for a nation.

I did read the end of Shavit’s book. He is not optimistic. We all have reason for despair, but real leadership refuses to acknowledge the same boundaries that constrain the rest of us. It seems clear that we all want someone else to do the hard work of compromise and “leading” for us, and we wait for someone else to appear…when we really should all be thinking now, in this age of global warning and divided nations: What have we wrought?

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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Apocalypse Chase by Graham Spence

The Apocalypse Chase: Fishing in the World's Most Dangerous Places So what makes a good fishing tale? Perhaps it is a little like real estate: location, location, location (or, as the Australians like to say, “position, position, position...”) But it is more than that…it is the temperament of the fisherman, the poles, the flies, the weather, the obstacles to success…as well as the size of the catch. There also has to be a little time for contemplation, and ruminations about the state of the world, both personally and globally. All this is here for the taking in this first self-published novel by Graham Spence, co-author of several nonfiction titles about the African bush with the fabled conservationist Lawrence Anthony, who died in 2012.

I read this story in a day because Spence made this fiction absolutely propulsive. The central character, Chris, sells advertising for a small newspaper in Queens, New York and is bored with his life. He is middle-aged, divorced, and barely speaks to his wife or daughter anymore. After experiencing a “heart incident” in a meeting one day at work, he decides to go ahead and live before he dies. He wants to fish the wild places where fish have never seen a human. This is the tale.

He first chooses South Africa. The narrative shifts between moments of sunny calm with great, satisfying catches and moments of breath-catching, death-defying horror. The absolute best part of this narrative (who really trusts a fisherman/storyteller anyway?) are the details and keen insights that convince us that this is the real thing, the actual location, the true situation. It is fascinating. But Chris doesn’t end there.

The next location is Colombia, South America of all places. Chris thinks that no one in their right mind would go to Colombia with all the FARC activity and kidnappings, so he won't have any competition for fish. He researches locations and decides fishing along the coastline beaches and away from the jungle would probably be safe. His Colombia section just reminds us just what a fisherman (tall tales) Chris really is. But he is so good at storytelling and fishing, we find it hard to put the book down. He survives (!) his travels in Africa and South America and we move on. But I don’t want to give away all his secrets. This is something you need to discover for yourselves. I thought it was a blast.

So I discovered this title when I began researching the authors of The Elephant Whisperer, an exceptionally well-written nonfiction about game conservation and elephant killings in Africa. Graham Spence has a low-key website on which he introduces his two self-published fiction titles, including this one. I really enjoyed Spence's work with Lawrence Anthony so thought, for the princely fee of $1.99/each on Amazon or, I would like to try his first attempts at fiction. I am so happy I did. I can think of a number of people who would love to read this…if I can only get them to work with an eReader or iPad.

Do yourself a favor. I can guarantee you will have an unusual (and terrific!) day’s reading ahead with a natural raconteur, especially if you like fly fishing stories.

eBook Published September 26th 2012 by Fastpencil (first published August 6th 2012) ISBN 1607465485 (ISBN13: 9781607465485)

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Monday, March 3, 2014

The Two Sisters of Borneo by Ian Hamilton

The Two Sisters of Borneo (Ava Lee, #6)It would not surprise me to learn that Ian Hamilton’s books have inspired pilgrimages to Toronto’s vaunted houses of dim sum, as Hamilton is specific about locales and the particular delicacies to be enjoyed in each. Hamilton has a track record now with his sixth novel in the series, and we believe him when he talks about food, clothes, and hotels. This middle-aged white male author is merely channeling his inner young, Chinese, lesbian side and, to judge from reviews, little is as thrilling to the reading public.

The seeds of change in Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee series are coming to fruition. One of the more interesting things about this series is that the central characters are actually impacted by the world, and they must decide how to react. They encounter difficult challenges and, like most of us in the reading audience, succeed brilliantly at times in turning events to their advantage, and less well at other times. In this sixth installment of the Ava Lee series we begin to see a harder, more expedient Ava, who can be generous or ruthless but who is always calculating.

Some reviews I have seen mention that Ava shows a softer side of herself when with her “Uncle”, Chow Tung. Perhaps. I would argue that he is more family to her than her real family, which is a huge, intercontinental affair. Ava finds herself modeling her own decisions on his, assigning unequivocal “trust” to some people while all the while finely slicing the information they are privy to about her own life. Her lover, Maria, is aware of only the outlines of Ava’s professional life: the constant, sudden travel, the large, dispersed family connections, great wealth. Ava’s business partners May Ling and Amanda are aware of these things and a few more slices of Ava’s life. Only Uncle knew Ava’s full story: her doubts, her failings, her control, or lack of it.

The story takes a leap, in my mind at least, at the end of this episode to something quite different. We now have Ava explicitly aligned with Chinese mainland gangs that extend their reach throughout Asia. In the past, these links were shadowy background that passed through an enigmatic “Uncle” but with his passing, Ava is unquestionably front and center in the web of triad power. It is difficult to imagine where this might take us, though the next title in the series, due to be published January 2015, is called The King of Shanghai.

As I mentioned in an earlier review, Hamilton’s writing is strong, clever, and involving. He writes two scenes in this episode that illustrate masterful constructs of Chinese social society: the opening Hong Kong wedding and the closing funeral. If nothing else, these two events and Hamilton’s sociological exegesis of them are fascinating enough, but we have skin in the game. We are sad May Ling and her husband had to miss the eight-course wedding banquet and we marvel at Ava’s renting an entire restaurant for the mourners at Chow Tung’s funeral.

But just the characters in Hamilton’s series change in response to their environment, my own attitude towards Ava is shifting: from sympathy and support to a certain wariness. She is making choices now that make me question who she will become, where she will end up. If I sense a certain “breakneck” quality to the writing, and movement away from one kind of story to another, I am still willing to give Hamilton the benefit of the doubt. After all, one must change to live, and who is to say reading about Chinese triads won’t be just as fascinating? This is another good choice for Hamilton, a heretofore unexploited piece of the literary landscape for crime fiction. Good luck to him with the research, however, which I suspect will be even trickier than uncovering and exposing extravagant examples of international fraud.

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The Scottish Banker of Surabaya (Ava Lee #5) by Ian Hamilton

The Scottish Banker of Surabaya (Ava Lee, #5) Reading one of Ian Hamilton's Ava Lee series is a little like gorging on dim sum. Once begun, it is not easy to stop. But we can treat ourselves since his books come out only once a year. I so hate to be without one of the books in the series so that I save them until the next one is out so I always have one for a rainy day. However, I am going to break that rule and move directly on to The Two Sisters of Borneo after this because I like being part of the conversation that goes with publication of a new title. And, to tell you the truth, the warmth of Southeast Asia sounds p-r-e-t-t-y good to me right now, stuck deep in a northeast American winter. Imagine Toronto!

We are already far into the legend of Ava Lee with this fifth book in the series. Ava is a forensic accountant based in Toronto, working closely with a colleague she calls "Uncle" who lives in Hong Kong. Ava uncovers evidence of an investment scam originating in an Indonesian bank branch in Toronto, and reluctantly agrees to "follow the money" for some Vietnamese investors. She flies to Surabaya, the capital of East Java in Indonesia, to figure out what went wrong. This novel does what Hamilton is so good at doing: takes a completely plausible and complicated example of international fraud and describes how it works. We learn something. Each new adventure stands on its own and does not repeat what has come before. This time we don't even see the recovered funds changing hands at the end, which is usually one of the more satisfying moments for me. I admit to being a sucker for some kind of cosmic justice.

Why do I like the books so much? It begins with the writing. Hamilton does not "over tell" his story. He will describe a interesting development in a case of international money laundering, say, and in the next sentence or two, will describe the underpinnings of the scam or the step-by-step plan to thwart it...ahead of us, anticipating our questions. But he gives us that moment between one sentence and another to try and figure it out for ourselves what the problems or solutions are. He is generous with details of events that we would never have the opportunity to see for ourselves: in this installment, the raid on the plane bringing bricks of cash from Italy to Indonesia for laundering. It may not be what really happens in situations like this, but it is close enough for me. We get the smallest details, but we still can’t see into the minds and rationale of the Indonesian authorities, who will forever leave questions in our mind about who they were actually helping.

And then there is Ava. She is not just smart; she is thoughtful. She is disciplined...more disciplined than we are, which is why we admire her. But Ava does not come out of these jobs unscathed. Things don't always turn out as she planned and she gets damaged along the way. She has to deal with her increasing disaffection with the job. And she is unpredictable. Her cases are messy and she comes a little undone sometimes. I don't always have a feeling of calm that justice is perfectly done when she retaliates for some wrong. But she always interests me. I like learning how she approaches a case, and I see a change in her over the series. I am a little afraid to learn what will bring her down at last. She is signaling in this book the possibility that she will stop one day, and indeed her main partner in Hong Kong is soon to step aside.

Things change. That’s one of the things I love about this series. And the descriptions of Asia bring it all home, to anyone who has been or lived there. And to critics who say “it ain’t so,” I say it feels as close to true as others I have enjoyed. Descriptions of attitudes, mores, and locales are spot-on insightful.

This could be a standalone mystery, but since character introductions have become sketchier as the series progressed, I would recommend starting earlier in the series. Besides, Ava is changing, and one would want to see that progression. To my mind she is tired, jaded, and harder now, and perhaps it is a little more difficult to identify with her.

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