The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul; Francis Crick Crick is of course the biologist who, along with Watson, unraveled the structure of DNA, a feat that was recognized by a Nobel Prize. He has written a somewhat puzzling book, which is essentially a technical primer on visual perception with side excursions into the brain and the nervous system. The Astonishing Hypothesis is not very astonishing -- it has been around for a very long time -- and the book has essentially nothing about a search for the soul -- scientific or otherwise! The subtitle would have been more accurate (but much less spectacular) if it had been "The Search for Consciousness", but that is not dealt with very well either. I find it a somewhat difficult and disappointing book.
Vanishing Point; Michaela Roessner (PB) I found this a delightful science fiction yarn. It has familiar elements indeed; it is essentially an apocalyptic novel. The precipitating event was the instantaneous vanishing of 90% of the people on the earth! In the subsequent society, children are "different" and THEIR children are different again -- a theme first employed by Isaac Asimov, and a standard plot device ever since. We meet this world in California, thirty years after the Vanishing. It is full of cults, and people trying to understand what happened thirty years before. The two main protagonists are female: an older physicist newly come to San Jose to work in the Silicon Valley area in an effort to unravel the physics of the Vanishing, and a young woman, a native of the state, who joins the older woman in a large team effort to determine what is happening in the world. Something drastic is happening as the story gradually reveals -- [for physicists: among other things, the fine structure constant has changed!]. It is fascinating to see how the author develops all the things in the society that evolve from the fact of the Vanishing. It is intriguing that much of the novel centers around the [real] Winchester house in San Jose [just off I-280]. This is the very strange house built by Sarah Winchester [heir to the Winchester Arms fortune] under the direction of tormenting spirits. It has almost 200 rooms, secret passages, 10,000 doors, stairs that go nowhere, and is a real house of mystery; so complex that even the guides need maps to get around! In the novel it is occupied by hundreds of people, including the protagonists. The author has problems with the last third of the book, mostly stemming from difficulties in explaining the mysteries developed in the first half, and permits one unbelievable oversight on the part of the investigating scientists; but I thoroughly enjoyed the yarn. I may even read her first one -Walkabout Woman- even if it was a prize winner!
Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: The History of Judaism; The Background of Christianity; The Lost Library of Qumran; Lawrence H. Schiffman This is an absolutely superb book. Professor Schiffman is a major authority on this subject, and he has written this fascinating book, which is also an elegantly produced one, as a learned introduction to the subject. In the past some years the whole subject has undergone a revolutionary change, due both to the inclusion of Jews in the analytical and publication teams, and the release of ALL the Qumran material. The reader may know that the latter was due to the indefatigable Herschel Shanks, the feisty editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. Schiffman recounts the whole thing, from the finding of the first scrolls, to the ultimately unsatisfactory arrangement for scholarly study of them, to the public release of all the material, including many scrolls whose existence was essentially unknown by most scholars in the field. It is a fascinating story -- and includes scandal! Then Schiffman goes into great detail about the scrolls, their contents, what they tell about the Qumran community, and the great deal that they reveal about the history of Judaism in the Second Temple period. It may be recalled that a few years after the documents came under study, the public was informed breathlessly that the Jews in the community were Essenes, and that it was essentially a proto- Christian community with references to a "Teacher of Righteousness" who could be identified with Jesus Christ. Schiffman explains very convincingly that it was nothing of the sort. The problem was that the scholars trying to read the scrolls were Christian, and ignored much of the material because they were not prepared to deal with Jewish legal writings, and in fact many knew little Hebrew and were unfamiliar with such material! Now Schiffman is "reclaiming" the documents as revelations of Jewish history. Clearly this book is an almost passionate exposition of the conclusions and beliefs of the author, and it is sure that some is disputed by other scholars (Shanks has noted it is "provocative"!). Some clues to this are scattered in the helpful chapter notes. Regardless: the book is beautifully organized, well written, extensively documented, with complete notes, a vast bibliography, a complete glossary, and a good index. It is a scholarly work that can be read and understood by the layperson! Unbelievable.
The Alienist; Caleb Carr When I was a boy, I read all the Sherlock Holmes stories that I could find. Some years ago I realized that I had been conditioned by them. When I start a mystery story that is set in Victorian times, my mind and body relax in some sort of time- shift, and with great pleasure I imagine myself back in the horse and carriage times, and look forward eagerly to the game being afoot! I did so here. This is a first-person narrative (shades of Watson) told in 1926 about events in New York city in 1886. The narrator is (or was) a reporter for the TIMES, and he tells of the hunt for a serial killer of children. The hunt is directed by an alienist -- the Victorian term for psychiatrist. It is a covert activity, authorized by Theodore Roosevelt, then Commissioner of Police in the city. A small team is formed, and the voracious reader of police procedurals will recognise that the team is practicing, in 1896, what the FBI Serial Crimes Division uses as procedure today! When you add that fingerprinting is just beginning to be considered as legitimate -- and is used in the hunt -- it is clear that the story could (almost) be set in present times. The qualifier appears because an important part of the story is the atmosphere: overwhelmingly Victorian New York. It sounds right, looks right, and smells right. The author has done a great deal of research on 1896 in New York; he must have spent months in the files of the New York Times. The reader gradually realizes that the myth that things were better in the "old days" is false. That may have been true for the upper crust "400" that could fit in Mrs. Vanderbilt's ball room, but the average person would not find it true. Corruption was the cornerstone of politics and the police. The reader will be glad she is living in the present, and only visiting the past! With all this, it is a well told story, redolent with atmosphere, and with interesting characters (albeit with some degree of stereotyping). There is presented -- one feels -- somewhat too much detailed analysis by the team, but it is difficult to see how to get around it. And it is one more in the serial- killer police-team procedural yarns. It may be clear that although it was a good read, I am a little ambivalent about it! I also have come to a resolve: I shall from now on generally skip stories about serial killers. I think all possible variations have been told, and there is a plethora of such yarns.
The Children of Men; P.D. James (PB) When I saw this in the science fiction collection, I thought it was mis- shelved, and picked it up to return it the mystery collection; after all, James is one of the best known writers of good British mysteries. I was astounded to find it was in the right place. It really is a piece of science fiction! The author has created the world of 2021 CE, a world in which the last child on earth was born in 1995! No children have been born anywhere for 26 years. The author paints a dark picture of England, a country of no hope, run by the Warden of England, a dictator. The country is essentially a police state. The story centers around Thomas Faron, an historian (Oxford) and cousin of the Warden, and a small group of five people who wish to change the country. They wish to foment a revolution. The book is dark, deeply introspective, and even disturbing. It is grippingly told. It is an apocalyptic novel, and in fact the thesis is not new -- but James brings her great talents to bear the idea. Impressive.
Wedge:The Secret War Between the FBI and CIA; Mark Riebling A disturbing book. Riebling details the conflict between Hoover's FBI and the U.S. intelligence world, starting with the OSS in WWII, continuing with the CIA, and virulently alive today. The country's security has suffered greatly from this conflict, and it seems sure that it will continue to suffer. Both sides are egregiously at fault. Secrecy, bureaucracy, egotism, distrust and unbelievable incompetency and lack of professionalism on both sides are involved. And, most disturbingly, it seems that there is no cure!! Guaranteed to interest you, hold your attention, and ruin your weekend.
Seneca Falls Inheritance; Miriam Grace Monfredo (PB) A very interesting, even delightful mystery laid in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1848. It is an authentic picture of rural New York state, and seamlessly mixes history and mystery; it is really an historical novel, with mystery thrown in. My friends who are interested in women's rights (not all are women) will find this fascinating, and the one of them who is a librarian will probably appreciate it most. The heroine is, you see, a free- thinking female librarian. And 1848 is when the first "Woman's Rights Convention" [a real event] was held in Seneca Falls [a real place], the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton [a real person] who was probably the chief woman's rights activist at the time. Watching the librarian, we realize with dismay what things were like for women at that time, especially in rural America. Very educational! The mystery is actually fairly slight, but it is a neat story.
Died in the Wool; Ngaio Marsh (PB) I would not normally comment on this book. Marsh, an American writer, created Scotland Yard's Superintendent Alleyn back in the thirties, and I have read her long list of pleasant mysteries for a LONG time. They are always good, (and Marsh has a remarkable fluency in British English and British slang) but many are old-fashioned, and all fall at best in the category of good beach-reads, and I tend not to list such books here except possibly for one example of such a series (there are random exceptions of course!). This one appears only because yesterday -- when I got the book -- was the fiftieth anniversary of VE day (for young readers: that was the day that WWII came to a close in Europe), and the memory of that day is still strong in my memory. This book was written by Nash just before the war ended in Europe, and it is an account of what Alleyn did during THE WAR! I had not read of this before. He was, it seems, involved with counterespionage (then as now the responsibility of Special Branch), and in this book is in New Zealand, at a sheep/wool ranch,looking into an old murder (hence the somewhat cutesy title), and its relationship to probable espionage. Good as always. My choice of villain was wrong -- well, actually I had picked the real villain, but later obfuscation by the author convinced me I was wrong, and with extensive clever analysis I finally picked another character as the murderer. Wrong!
It's Raining Frogs and Fishes: Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky; Jerry Dennis A delight for anyone who is interested in Nature, and the out-of- doors. It is a pot-pourri of comments, facts, and explanations about almost anything that you can think of in the natural world around you. The only book that I have read that is similar -- albeit specialized in one area -- is the wonderful:The Nature of Light and Colour in the Open Air by M.G.J Minnaert. To my astonishment I found that the current author seems not to know of Minnaert's book, which I am sure is out of print, but which I recommend heartily to anyone interested in the current book.[Springer seems to have published a recent book by Minnaert:Light and Color in the Outdoors -- perhaps a revised version of the original] If you are interested in the physical world around you -- get this book by Dennis and read it (and try to find one by Minnaert). I have some minor quibbles about a few optical matters -- but I found it to be generally delightful, informative, and trustworthy. Lots of interesting information.
Stalin & The Bomb;David Holloway A very interesting and informative account of the development of nuclear weapons in Russia, and the role of those weapons in international politics, and the role of the weapons in the relationship of science and politics in Russia. I was surprised to learn that the Russians developed a two-stage thermonuclear weapon independently of the US effort, and in fact had it available before the USA. The first test of the Teller-Ulam configuration was the US shot called "MIKE", and I had always believed that the Russians learned of this implosion geometry via espionage; turns out that was not the case! The first Russian NUCLEAR weapon was of course a copy of the first US plutonium implosion device (tested at TRINITY and dropped on Nagasaki as FAT BOY) which had been fairly well outlined by the Russian intelligence network in the USA. But the Russians were extremely good at physics; they could have done it without espionage!
Fortunate Son: The Autobiography of Lewis B. Puller, Jr.; Lewis B. Puller,Jr. Lewis B. Puller was known as "Chesty" Puller, the most decorated Marine in the history of that service, a genuine hero of five wars, and a legend in the Corps. This autobiography is that of his only son (who died in 1994). It is a remarkable work, about a remarkable man. I found it to be emotionally complicated, very moving, passionate, wholly candid, painful and disturbing. It is starkly anti war, without in the least being a polemic.I could not read it through in one setting. I had to take it in small doses, but it was irresistible. It is the story of a young man and his relationship to his famous father, and his concern with being worthy of that father. It is also the story of his action in Viet Nam as a young Marine second lieutenant, his horrendous crippling by a booby-trap, and his resulting two years in the hospital undergoing rehabilitation -- as much as possible. He lost both legs and much of each hand! The second part follows him through raising a family, going to law school, running unsuccessfully for Congress, becoming an alcoholic, recovering, and being involved in veterans' affairs. This outline does little justice to the book, which well deserves the Pulitzer Prize awarded to it. The author never really resolved the relationship with his father, and I was moved to tears at several wistful observations. I hope that the father really understood, before his death, just what kind of a son he had begat -- one with tremendous personal courage. When you finish the book, go back and read the frontispiece that prints words from the song "Fortunate Son" by John Fogarty -- and realize the double edged significance to Lewis B. Puller, Jr.; it seems a perfect capsule of his own ambiguities.
Dragonflight;Anne McCaffrey Thirty years or so ago, Anne McCaffrey combined two stories that she had published in ANALOG, and came up with this book. She had no inkling of what she was starting. She planned to write a trilogy about the planet PERN and the dragonriders of that planet. As of now she has written at least a dozen very popular stories about PERN (I am currently restricted in mobility and re-reading all of them, and since I have not noted them elsewhere, thought I would note them at this time). They are really science fiction, although there are many wish- fulfillment brush strokes that are typical of the fantasy genre, and which, I suspect, add greatly to their popularity. I think they are absolutely wonderful, and so do my wife, children, and any SF afficienados that I have suggested them to. The other two in the original trilogy are Dragonquest and The White Dragon. She then took to writing sidebars on the original theme, and has done a very good job. There are two or so that suffer by comparison with the others, and she essentially tells one story twice -- albeit from two different viewpoints. My true favorites are contained in another side-bar trilogy about the Harper Hall. if you do not know PERN and its inhabitants -- prepare for a long pleasant time. McCaffrey's planet is a remote one that was colonized from Earth by people who wished to have a relatively simple agrarian world, with limitations on technology. To their horror, they found, after some years, that the planet was subject, every 250 years or so, to incursions of hydrocarbon-consuming life forms ("threads") that fell on the planet from a nearby passing planet. The colony was decimated, and lost contact with Earth, but immediately began a long range plan to kill the voracious "threads" by fire. The fire was to be generated by genetically engineered flying "dragons" that could exhale flame. The idea worked, and over 2500 years a structured feudal society evolved. The dragonriders fight "thread", and are supported by tithing on the part of "hold owners". A whole structure of "halls" (guilds) has developed (though it is interesting that religion is never mentioned!). It is also interesting that although the inhabitants fall in love, marry, and have children, the family has almost no place in the stories! The children that might clutter up the stories are "fostered" in other places! The society is essentially a late medieval feudal one that McCaffrey has created -- one that has forgot its origins, and almost all the technology of the original colonists. There are a few problems that the author is not quite able to resolve in structuring her world and its society, and there are a few unlikely things plus a little shakey science, but a small suspension of belief occasionally is all that is needed. If you like the first two books, you will read all twelve plus. But take them in somewat small doses.
The Throat; Peter Straub (PB) This is the third of three interlocking but separate stories. The other two are KoKo and Mystery.It is a first class, complicated, riveting murder/mystery/suspense story that ranges from Viet Nam to New York, to Millhaven, Illinois, which is where the story finally unfolds; and ranges over a span of years. It is full of surprises, and is a scary book in places. It involves some complicated psyches. As in KoKo, the Viet Nam episodes are horrifyingly real; Straub had to have been there -- or got veterans to talk to him; and the latter is VERY hard to do. The paperback is an intensive, spellbinding 697 pages long. It is of the "old-unsolved-crimes-cast-shadows- into-the-present" genre, and the old crimes get re-explored along with the new ones. GOOD yarn. It is interesting to me that people and events that were on a Caribbean island in Mystery are, in this book, transplanted to the USA! The author has a neat if weak gimmick to "explain" this. I suspect that he never planned to write the current book with the same characters! Incidentally, the other two books are very good tales also. This is to some extent a serial- killer story, and I said I would skip these. It is a tad different, and it integrates the first two books which I had read earlier; so I read it, and I'm glad I did.
Tom Clancy's Op-Center; Created by Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik A totally amateurish pot boiler obviously written by Pieczenik because it is not Clancy's style. Clancy's name was added to sell it. The buyer will make a big mistake. It is an eminently forgettable novel, and better left unread.
Murder Will Out: The Detective In Fiction; T.J. Binyon Binyon, an Oxford don, has written a small (135pp) book in which he classifies the various type of fictional sleuths, and reviews many of the well known characters, with additional words about their creators. The book is interesting in spots, includes bits of interesting history of the genre, and holds the record (in at least the last twenty years) for a book with the largest number of English words that I had never encountered before! The subject is simply too vast for this small effort; the author is reduced to many one sentence notes in an attempt to catalog most of the fictional sleuths that have appeared since Poe's Dupin -- the first of them. So large parts of the book are essentially just lists. There are nuggets however in all this overburden; one simply has to work at it. I find that for the most part the author's opinions mirror mine in the works with which I am familiar. I got some ideas for books to be read. A patchwork affair on an interesting subject -- with a few remarkable oversights!
From Time To Time; Jack Finney 25 years ago Jack Finney wrote a wonderful novel entitled Time And Again, which I first read thanks to Martha Tabor, the daughter of old friends. It is, I guess, technically a science fiction yarn in that it deals with time travel. "The Project" is set up to train people to slip back in time, and it it is successful with some trainees. The story is that of Simon Morley, his adventures with "The Project", and his adventures in time -- and in changing history. The current book is a sequel, and suffers by comparison with the first. Finney is very nostalgic about past days (he has written a number of delightful stories about reliving the past) and this book was really an excuse to rummage around in the past. The book has very large parts devoted to descriptions of New York in 1911, and descriptions of people and society in that time. It is complete with pictures to illustrate the text! I think Finney used this book as a pretext to bury himself in the detail of past New York! The story brings back (no pun intended) Simon Morley, and others from "The Project". The concern is with alternate time lines, and changing history. The author has to do a little history changing himself, because he must undo something that was done in the first book! I enjoyed reading this book, but mostly for the atmosphere. It is not that good a tale, even though there is a wonderful irony built into the climactic history-changing scene. I enjoyed meeting Morley again, but I hope that Finney will now let him alone in the New York of the end of the last century.
The Agenda:Inside the Clinton Whitehouse; Bob Woodward This is a detailed report of the activities, emotions, conflicts, and politics in Clinton's Whitehouse circle before, and for about a year and a half after the election. A certain dogged reading persistance is required, and an interest in the political procedure would be a great help. Woodward always works hard to create in the reader the impression that he was an invisible party to all the private meetings and conversations recounted; and affirms solemnly that all he recounts was gleaned from "the record" -- with some personal encounters thrown in. I suspect that, as in other books, his imagination supplied many details. Nevertheless, it sounds right, and I found it a very scary book! The way in which facts are ignored in order to develop political positions is frightening, and the picture of the what is essentially presidential lack of understanding is chilling.
Under the Ether Dome: A Physician's Apprenticeship at Massachusetts General Hospital; Stephen A.Hoffman, M.D. An interesting, personal, and honest account of the experiences of a fledgling physician and how he learned his trade. For me it drags in places, and there is a little disjointedness to it; still,it is a perceptive work. The same kind of thing has been done before, still the discussions of ethics and nursing for example offer insights that are not frequently encountered. The author includes a number of pieces of history, including a detailed account of the history of Massachusetts General as a teaching hospital. My wife found it more enthralling than I did; that is because she has read fewer such medical recountings, and because all of the stuff was very familiar to her, and brought back old memories. It is actually a little scary, and should not be read by anyone contemplating a stay in a hospital!
To Protect and Serve: The LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams; Joe Domanick This is an engrossing, disturbing, very readable book. Domanick has done a thorough job of examining the evolution of the Los Angeles police department, and the nature of its conversion starting with Bill Parker, and ending with Daryl Gates and the beating of Rodney King. The politics of LA were completely tied in with the police department, and the police department was accountable to no-one. Parker structured a department that brooked no criticism, and encouraged "proactive" policing. The LAPD mind set was propogated by training, and fed on itself. It was not possible for change. LA became a model of a mini police-state, and citizens had no recourse. Only the Christopher Commission, in 1993, provided a devastating analysis of the department, and recommended changes that ended up on referendum. In 1994, it seems that few of the recommendations had been implemented. The future of the department -- and the city -- are open to question.
The Man in the Ice; Konrad Spindler This is, I suppose, a specialized book; it is the English translation of a German book about the discovery and study of a 5000 year old mummified Neolithic man who had been encased in ice, on the Austrian-Italian border, and who was discovered in 1991:"The Iceman." The discovery has no parallel; it is the only such body ever found. The book is a detailed account of the discovery, recovery, and study of the body and of the man's possessions. It has a good number of color photographs - many of the corpse of course; some may not be for the very faint of heart. I was struck by the huge number of people who tramped all around the site, crushing artifacts and messing up the place; and by the damage caused to the body by those who excavated it from the ice. Clumsy stuff. I was also impressed by the list, at the end, of the scientists who have been involved in the study. I estimate it at 130 names! Talk about Teutonic thoroughness -- not to mention climbing on the bandwagon! I am intrigued by such anthropological discoveries, so I found the book interesting. It has prompted me to look into the metallurgy of that age, because the man carried a copper axe. Among other things I wonder how the metal was hardened; I suppose by working it. One doesn't think of copper as a hard metal!
The Road From Coorain; Jill Ker Conway Jill Ker Conway is an historian, was the first woman president of Smith College, where she stayed for 10 years, and is now a visiting scholar at MIT (of all places!) She gave an entrancing speech to a rapt audience at a club I belong to, and I immediately got this 1989 autobiographical installment of her life; I had not read it before. She was born in 1931 in Australia, where her parents had a sheep ranch "Coorain", and the book ends when she is 26, and leaving Australia for Harvard. It is an exquisite story of her childhood, and her "harsh and beautiful journey into adulthood." It is a genuinely gripping account of her encounters with tragedy -- her father and beloved oldest brother died; of her tempestuous relationship with her mother, and of her mother's tragedy of life; of her excitement at the intellectual revelations that she, a "bush" child, found in her schooling; and her maturation as a powerful intellect that needed to escape from Australia. I found myself suffering with her at times, and almost as excited as she when tremendous vistas of knowledge opened to her. A touching, lovely, unusual account. Not to be missed. Mrs. Conway observed in her talk that "the memoir has replaced the novel as the most popular form of fiction" -- a phrase that tickles me greatly. She explained the thought, but I shall not outline it here. She has just published the second installment of her memoirs -- "True North". I can't wait to read it.
Self-Defense; Jonathan Kellerman Another of Kellerman's gripping, suspenseful mysteries that touch on the dark side of the human psyche. The first person narrator is again Alex Delaware, child psychologist, police consultant, and occasionally a therapist. In this one he accepts for therapy, on the request of a police officer friend, a young woman who was traumatized by being a juror in a particularly ghastly murder trial. The psychological trauma brought on a recurring, vivid, distressing dream from childhood. The attempt to analyse the dream and Lucy's reactions, leads to a the re- examination of an old police case, and developments in the relationship between Lucy and her family. Engrossing as always.
The Crocodile on the Sandbank; Elizabeth Peters This was a re-read (for complicated reasons). 20 years ago, Peters wrote this delightful mystery/adventure, which introduced Amanda Peabody, one of the most intriguing Victorian feminists you will ever meet! It is about 1880, and Ms Peabody (using a salutation not then in use) is an English spinster (age 32), who inherited a fortune of about a half million pounds [that was about two million dollars, IN 1880!] Her father was a world famous scholar, and Amanda is a chip off the old block. As we meet her in this first person narrative, she is bound for Egypt, and the adventures there are the story. This is a send-up of some Victorian novelists, and a fun story. It is interesting how the author unfolds the character and personality of Amanda -- a staunch British feminist, with little good to say of any male. [The word feminist is used in the novel to describe Amanda; I am not sure that was in use at that time. I shall try to find out.] At points where the reader just begins to a little be shaken by Amanda's hubris, arrogance, and self importance, there are deft revelations and actions that endear her to the reader. (She is one of my favorite light-fiction characters) There are also wonderful throw-away lines: as she describes the outfitting of a barge to sail up the Nile comes the comment: "Finding a suitable piano took an inordinate amount of time." This is a somewhat slight mystery, with good vignettes of Egypt at the time, and both tongue-in- cheek and exaggerated character delineation. Peters does a great job of imitating the Victorian style of narrative, but has fun exaggerating. There are a large number of later narratives involving Amanda and Emerson -- an unusual Egyptologist whom she meets in this first novel - - but this (I think) is the best. The next several are also pleasant, and Amanda's precocious son Walter (known as Ramses) is fun. Then Peters seems to get somewhat stuck with the characters and the locale, and there is little room for further development. The later stories are still fun -- but not as much. NOTE: Peters, an American, is an historian and Egyptologist as well as a prolific author of mystery/detective fiction, and has many names: Elizabeth Peters (mysteries with an historical/archeological background) Barbara Michaels (good conventional mysteries), and (the real one, I think) Barbara Mertz. She lives now (1995) in Frederick. Md.
True North;Jill Ker Conway This second part of Mrs. Conway's autobiography is just as exciting and enthralling as her first part: The Road From Coorain (see above). This starts exactly where the first left off, and finds her traveling to the United States to get a graduate degree at Harvard. It follows her through her graduate work in history, her remarkable marriage, stays in Oxford and Rome, and her faculty experience in Toronto at the University. It ends as she prepares to leave Canada to become the first woman president of Smith College in the United States. It is fascinating to read of her development as a brilliant scholar, her increasing concerns -- and actions -- in the area of feminist concerns associated with academic life, her increasing involvement with academic management and administration, and her subsequent outstanding mastery of those skills. The author insists that she was often unaware of how competent, assertive, and brilliantly successful she was in many of these areas, and in the world of academic and national politics. This could easily be posturing or false humility, but it rings absolutely true in this account. The description of her unalloyed delight at the intoxicating experience of intellectual stimulation and accomplishments during her graduate student days is a joy to read. Her relationship with her remarkable husband is an intimate part of her development, and she reveals it with love. And she writes with great skill.
Along Came a Spider; James Patterson This is a psychological suspense/murder novel with a number of layers of plot. It is the first novel of a psychologist, and is in many ways like the novels written by Jonathan Kellerman -- also a psychologist. Certain amateurish bits show the signs of a first novel, and the structure alternates between first person and third person. It is a very good suspense/puzzle tale even though it seems to have won a prestigious mystery-tale prize! The main story teller is a black District of Colunbia detective (also a PhD in psychology no less!). The opening crime is the kidnapping of two young children, offspring of very important people; one is later found dead. They were under the protection of the Secret Service, headed by a young white woman (you can sure tell it is fiction!), and before the investigation is over, the detective and the Secret Service Chief are in the midst of a torrid affair. The search is for a very clever psychopath whom the reader gets to know well before the searchers. The convoluted story is certain to keep the reader in suspense for quite a while -- and in fact the story ends with still a bit of suspense left. Good read.
The Stories of Eva Luna; Isabel Allende I passed over this book for a long time; I do not like to read short stories. I tried it because I THOUGHT it was suggested by a friend who loves books too. What she REALLY recommended was a book called Eva Luna by the same author! Despite my predjudices and mistake, I found it a set of very gripping, very short stories, all with a South American setting. They invoke vivid pictures, very human passions, remarkably interesting, unusual and dignified "unimportant" people, and sometimes an unexpected ending indeed. In the latter category is a perfect jewel entitled "Revenge". I enjoyed the stories very much, despite several very dark ones. I'm afraid however that I will still pass up such collections in the future. I do not know why!
The Shipping News; E.Annie Proux This book seems to have won every sort of prize (1993) except the Nobel prize for literature: it got the Pulitzer prize for fiction; the National Book Award for fiction; the IRISH TIMES international fiction prize; and the Chicago Tribune Heartland award! That put it automatically on my reject list. The regular reader of these notes will have become aware of my predjudice in this area; it is the result of negative conditioning incurred some years ago when I read about five august prize winners in a row, and found them to be absolutely terrible! I only got this to read because it appeared as a suggestion from a book-loving friend. True: it was a second hand recommendation, but I thought I would give it a try. By the time I had got to page 30 or so I knew that my bias was correct.There was a profusion of "sentences" without verbs; "sentences" without subjects; telegraphic five word non-sentences; an unprepossing fat male protagonist who was a loser, and a setting in a forsaken part of Newfoundland! However, I have another belief: I give every book 100 pages. As a result I stayed up an hour past my invariable bed time to finish it. Somehow I got gradually, and imperceptably, caught up by the flow of the author's story. I got to know and to care very much about the characters, enjoyed the occasional wicked dark humour (see p.100 for example) and found to my amazement that it had (essentially) a happy ending! I think E. Annie Proux did to me what Anita Brookner did to me in Dolly, and perhaps that is what prize winning is all about. Nah; not always. I am not sure that I believe that this is the best ever 1993 book for my taste, but it is a wonderful story; and on page 139, the child, Bunny, provides a simile about apricots that the reader will NEVER forget!
Crossing The Threshold of Hope; His Holiness John Paul II I Couldnt read this. I tried. It is the Pope's written answers to a series of very pointed and significant questions. I thought the questions were great; it is the answers that baffle me. I tried about half a dozen. That is probably my fault of course, but that is the way it is. The answers seem frequently to be beside the point, or else they are such esoteric logic that it escapes me. I presume the logic is Jesuitical, and it certainly relies on specialized theological meaning of words. As a result, my impression is that a lot of it might be smoke -- or might as well be smoke. It does not communicate with me.
The Count of Monte Cristo; Alexander Dumas Surely you have read some version of this. I had not read it for many years, and when I saw it by chance, I picked it up to re-read. The original was in three volumes, but this version was edited to one volume. That is probably as much as the modern reader wishes to handle, although the original is a vastly rounded out version of this somewhat involved tale, and has certain added pleasures in the many details. This is of course the classic tale of a man wronged, his long wrongful imprisonment, his acquisition of riches, and his revenge on those who wronged him. I thoroughly enjoyed it again. I found to my surprise that it reminded me strongly of that other much later classic: the wonderful science fiction tale The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester.The similarity may be the reason I found Bester's tale so good!
Legacy; Greg Bear An interesting science fiction yarn by one of the best known of the modern sci-fi writers. A while back Bear wrote a very good yarn called Eon, about an asteroid space ship in/on which is created a remarkable space-time structure "The Way", a tubular "tunnel" with its central discontinuity the Flaw. This structure can be traveled, and provides gateways to other worlds. The current book is a "prequel" to the first book! After reading it for a while, I felt that it somehow seemed familiar, then realized that Bear has written a "Victorian adventurer explores Darkest Africa" yarn in the guise of science fiction! The hero -- who tells the story in the first person -- is an agent of the Hexamon (a ruling body), and is sent to an unusual world, Lamarckia, which is entered by a gate from the Way. This world was interdicted, but several thousand people secretly made their way through the gate, and our hero's job is to enter the world, infiltrate himself into the society, learn about the planet, recover an important stolen piece of technology, and report back to the Hexamon. The world is a most unusual ecological system, and our hero gets involved in an exploratory expedition. The interesting, very strange, flora and fauna are as strange to our hero as the jungles and forests of Africa were to the Victorians. At the end, the world's current ecosystem, and its culture, are completely destroyed by the introduction of one foreign item -- chlorophyll! Good yarn, but the reader has to work a bit to keep track of unusual concepts.
Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA's Crusades; David Corn Corn is a journalist, and he is here reporting on the career of a 28- year-veteran clandestine operative of the CIA. It is a detailed, dense, history of Shackley and the CIA. It is also numbing, as well as very distressing. Shackley was essentially the complete CIA bureaucrat who got to high levels with complete unquestioning dedication, and no ability to question what he was doing, or why. He was a "spook" -- hence the nick name of the title. He looked like a businessman or an academic; not at all like most of the cowboys of the clandestine service. As presented in this book, he was a terribly flawed intelligence operative; he was a man of great ambition, and told his superiors what they wanted to hear, and was essentially unable to carry out a dispassionate evaluation of intelligence material. He would not listen to negative information. His superiors in the CIA loved him for a long time. The book is a ghastly portrait of a man and an agency, and covers in detail the many operations of the agency from the cold war in Europe and the fuss with Cuba, through Viet Nam, Chile, Iran etc. It is *very* distressing reading for a US citizen. Clearly, the sooner we abolish the CIA, and replace it with something else, the better!
Memoir From Antproof Case; MarkHelprin A fascinating, unusual novel, in wonderful prose. It is the first person reminescences of an 80 year old man, who, born in the USA, fled the country, and is living in Brasil. Throughout his life (he was born in 1904) he has been *OBSESSED* by coffee -- he hates the stuff, and he can't stand watching someone drink it. The hatred of coffee has caused MAJOR changes in his life. The story is told in flashbacks, and the narrator skips around in time and place. The narrator is certifiably weird, and probably crazy -- the reader can decide. His parents were murdered, he matured in an insane asylum in Switzerland, became a fighter pilot (overage) in WWII, a successful (if very strange) investment banker, a master thief, and a murderer. He married a fantastically wealthy woman, but she started drinking coffee -- and he left. It is a great yarn, sardonic in many places, funny in others (a little darkly), and holds the reader's attention from start to finish. Strange as the narrator is, I found myself rooting for him. I shall read other books by this author. Oh yes, the antproof case -- well, you'll find out when you read the book!
Redeye:A Western; Clyde Edgerton Edgerton has changed locale and time. This is laid in Colorado in 1892. The cast however has similarities to others in his earlier books. One is quite different: the "bounty hunter" Cobb Pittman, who owns the part bulldog called "Redeye" (because he has one). I use the term bounty hunter because that is used in the book; actually Pittman is on a mission of vengeance, and the his idea of vengeance is somewhat ghastly. There is an assorted set of Edgerton characters: sharpies, innocents, vultures etc., and there are a couple of entrepreneurs who will tickle the reader's sense of humour. The story is intimately connected to what the jacket says was a real happening, the massacre of a pioneer wagon train in 1857 by a group of Mormons, who had orders from Brigham Young to leave no survivors. The story is told in the first person by the chief characters, as the author shifts from one to the other. This is a style that I do not care for, but the author does it pretty well. I have mixed feelings about this book, but it was well worth reading. It is essential to read the addenda -- but *only* after reading the story through. In one addendum, one thread in the story is, to the reader's great surprise, both clarified and confused, and the reader is left thinking back through the story. That and other statements in the addenda were so persuasive that they suckered me into doing some library research --and I felt like a complete dolt to find that OF COURSE the whole yarn is fiction! In fact I wonder if the Mormon massacre yarn is really true! I have this sneaking feeling that if I go to check I will find I have been suckered again! LATER NOTE: I find there *really was* a massacre, at Mountain Meadows, but the statement that Young had ordered that there be no survivors seems to be a canard. ALL persuavely factual statements in the book about the massacre are in fact fictional! See Juanita Brooks The Mountain Meadows Massacre 1950.
Exploring Chaos: A Guide to the New Science of Disorder; Nina Hall ed. A series of introductory essays on this technical subject by experts in the field. Interesting in spots if you are somewhat familiar with the subject. If you are unfamiliar with it, but wish to learn something about this very interesting [at least to us physicists] subject, there are better introductions.
The Seventh Scroll; Wilbur Smith Smith, born in Rhodesia, and a very prolific British novelist, writes action packed adventure yarns, usually laid in esoteric places. This one is an adventure/treasure hunt/archaelogical-mystery yarn, involving Egyptian antiquities. It is related to his last one,River God,in that is a kind of sequel. This sequel, however, takes place 4000 years later! A beautiful young expert in Egyptian history and antiquities, and her older scholarly husband, are deciphering a complicated puzzle contained in an ancient manuscript (the seventh scroll). It will lead to an undisturbed ancient tomb they are sure. Their house is attacked, the husband is killed, and all the material about the manuscript translation is stolen. The rest of the story involves the woman's quest for the tomb in Ethiopia (she is aided by a wealthy English adventurer), and the race to get there before the competitors (and killers) get there. Highly implausible, plenty macho, and very good of its type. I liked River God better; it was an interesting view of the period of the Hyksos invasion of Egypt, 1780- 1720 BCE, at the end of the twelfth dynasty, and the characters were better I think.
The Price of Nationhood; Jean B. Lee Jean Lee is an historian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and why she chose to study Charles County, Maryland, she does not say. But I am glad she did. This is a very interesting, dense, thoroughly researched, narrative-style history. Lee is involved in looking at details in the large picture of the Revolution and the post-Revolution period, and Charles County is where she went to look for a microcosm. In some ways the County was typical of the country during those periods, but in many ways it was strikingly different. The picture of the tremendous change in the social and political fabric of the County after the war is engrossing. I was unaware of much of it. Even if you are not all that thrilled by history, this will prove interesting, and enlightning, and the familiar names of people and places adds to the pleasure. You just can't read fast.
Special Trust; Robert C. McFarlane
and Zofia Smardz This is "Bud" McFarlane's first person account account
(written by Smardz) of his years in the Reagan administration and on the
White House Staff, where he ultimately became the National Security Advisor,
and was Oliver North's boss when the Iran-contra illegal activities were
underway. I read some parts of this, and scanned the rest. It is an interesting
view of the way in which the Reagan presidency worked -- or didn't work.
I came away with the impression that McFarlane was always a bit player
trying to keep up - - unsuccessfully -- with the power players. Of course
in retrospect he finds that he was right when most everyone else was wrong.
Actually, I can believe a lot of that, and I sort of think that he remained
a bit player because he was not able to bring ruthlessness, dislike, lying,
self promotion, back- stabbing and paranoia into his career. Certainly
everyone else did! He paints devestating portraits of Reagan, Regan, Weinburger,
North, Baker, etc. , and there is a lot of other evidence to show the portraits
are pretty accurate. Reagan is shown to be a man of limited intellect,
lacking moral courage, and unable to discuss any domestic or foreign policy
because of a lack of knowledge. It is a distressing picture, and the current
administration seems to be in bad shape for both different AND similar
reasons! o owns the part bulldog called "Redeye"