Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood's new novel is set in the same imaginary space as Oryx and Crake but told from the point of view of a minor character in the first book and of a senior member of the religious group "Gods Gardeners," mentioned only in passing in the first book. The Year of the Flood gives a rounder, fuller view of the imaginary but plausible future that Atwood has created for us. Having read Oryx and Crake first, it was easier for me to follow, although I think it would be a less confusing read, even without knowing the basic premise from the start.

Atwood has extrapolated on climate change, genetic engineering, privatization of government functions and corporate irresponsibility and immunity, all trends we can see today, to create the distopian future of The Year of the Flood. Her two narrators are Ren, the former girlfriend of Jimmy, aka Snowman from Oryx and Crake and Toby, a senior member of God's Gardeners.

Gods Gardeners are an eco-religious communal group, growing there own food in a rooftop garden on top of one of the buildings they occupy in the middle of the urban chaos of a "plebe," the word Atwood uses to describe a city outside of the walled and gated communities where the wealthy corporate executives live, under the protection of CorpSeCorps, the Corporate Security Corps, which has become the privatized police, army, courts and prison administration of Atwood's unnamed future nation.

 In the future world Atwood has created, large corporations, many of them in the business of bio-engineering, run everything. These corporations are answerable to no one. They create and spread new diseases in order to sell the cures they have made for them. They build new creatures, combining the genetic materials of different species. Many technologies of energy efficiency are used, but were unsuccessful in reversing the trend of global warming. Solar provides the electricity for many building which are off the grid, biomass is rendered to make a petroleum substitute. Organized crime is rampant in the plebelands and regularly uses these rendering devices to dispose of bodies, or just takes their saleable organs and leaves them in a vacant lot.

Atwood goes to some length fleshing out God's Gardeners, their theology and rituals, including the words to  hymns, which end each chapter. There is a CD of these songs available through Atwood's website. One amusing aspect is their saints days. Like Roman Catholicism, Gods Gardeners structure their calendar around a list of saints. Francis of Assisi is one, but most are people like Rachel Carson, Al Gore and Jacques Cousteau.  Euell Gibbons gets a whole week.

Through the stories told by Ren and Toby, Atwood fills in the missing parts of Oryx and Crake. We learn that there is a connection between God's Gardeners and MaddAdam, the online game/eco-terrorist group and that Glenn/Crake, who formed MaddAdam and created the plague, known to the Gardeners as the Waterless Flood, was inspired by the Gardener's doomsday prophecy to create the plague and the genetically altered post-humans that he believes should inherit the Earth from us.

The end of The Year of the Flood coincides with the end of Oryx and Crake, leaving Toby, Ren, Ren's friend Amanda a couple of sociopathic criminals and a colony of blue bellied post-humans to fend for themselves.  How will society evolve from here? Is Atwood so enamored of this particular distopia that she would write a trilogy? Perhaps she means to leave it up to the reader's imagination. It would be nice to know what happens next in the lives of the well crafted characters left stranded on the beach at the end, but I think that the speculative propositions presented in the two books have been played out. Going further, to see whether traditional humans or the new blue-bellies will inherit the Earth, or perhaps the pigoons, would be a venture too far into science fiction for Margaret Atwood's taste.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Book Review Blog Carnival the 33rd Edition

Due to a series of unfortunate events, not attributable to Lemony Snicket, I am posting the 33rd edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival here, on my own book review blog - a day late and a dollar short. While you are here you might want to click on the little MP3 player icon over in the sidebar and listen to the new recording I made of Jimmy Durante's song which I named this blog after. Please visit and leave comments on some of the many blogs that have submitted book reviews to this carnival.

Without further ado, here is the 33rd Book Review Blog Carnival.


Jim Murdoch at The Truth About Lies, has written a review of The Invisible City by Emili Rosales. Jim says "The narrator receives an old manuscript about an ambitious project dreamt up by King Charles III. The manuscript contains hints about a lost masterpiece by the Venetian painter Tiepolo, and the site of the Invisible City is where he used to play as a child. The Invisible City is a gripping historical mystery and a compelling examination of the forces of power and love."

KerrieS reviewed  Executive Lunch by Maria E. Schneider at MYSTERIES in PARADISE. "This is the first time I have reviewed a book you can only buy as an e-book. crime fiction, with a larger than life heroine Sedona O'Hala, offered the chance to try an executive lifestyle in return for catching some thieves."

KerrieS also reviewed If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr posted at MYSTERIES in PARADISE. "Crime fiction set in Berlin in 1934, in a Nazi Germany hoping to host the Olympics in 1936."

Stephen Shaw of Craving Books has reviewed The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood."The Year of the Flood" is fine literary speculative fiction." I can't read his review because I'm in the middle of reading the book - one of my silly rules.

Stephen Shaw compares In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke, to The Year of the Flood which he calls "Romantic and haunted."

A.F. Heart writes about Knockout by Catherine Coulter   at Mysteries and My Musings. "13th in the FBI Thriller series opens with FBI Agent Dillon Savich as a customer in a bank when it gets robbed. It is a gripping read from the first sentence with two plot lines."

A.F. Heart also reviewed Sand Sharks by Margaret Maron. "#15 in Deborah Knott Mysteries. While at a legal conference, Judge Knott finds the body of a fellow judge and investigates."

Nymeth reviewed In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, at things mean a lot."In the Time of Butterflies is a fictionalized account of the lives of the Mirabal sisters. In the 1950's, the sisters opposed the regime of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, and as a result three of the four were murdered."

Surbhi Bhatia reviewed A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce at The Viewspaper.

Surbhi Bhatia reviewed A Case of Exploding Mangoes also at The Viewspaper .

Siddharth Garud, at Indian Eagle's Diary, presents 2 States by Chetan Bhagat.

emancave reviewed The Law of Nines by Terry Goodkind at

Sarah at SmallWorld Reads reviews The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver posted. It's in my to be read pile. Guess I'll skip this one, too.

children's books

Jeanne of Necromancy Never Pays, host of our last carnival, reviewed The Box of Delights "This is a book for all ages, particularly good for reading out loud on dark December evenings."

non fiction

Serena presents New Rules for Mortgages at Taylor-Brown Real Estate Talks.

Sparky Bates read Predictably Irrational - by Dan Ariely and reviewed it at Accidental Reads.

Rick Sincere brings us some holiday cheer with Christmas Carols: The Odd and the New at Rick Sincere News and Thoughts, saying, "A review of "The Daily Telegraph Book of Carols," by Ian Bradley"

BWL found a great sounding title: How to Smell a Rat by Ken Fisher. Read about it at Christian Personal Finance.

jim presents Frequent Flyer Master at Blueprint for Financial Prosperity.

Effortless Abundance reviewed The Soul Truth  bu Shiela and Marcus Gillette at Effortless Abundance.

Susan Gaissert wrote about The Accidental American on her blog at My Political Side. "This is an excellent book about immigration from the viewpoint of immigrants who exemplify the American dream and American values."

Jim Murdoch must be talking about me in his review of Whiffling in Liff or what to buy a constipated logophile for Xmas  at The Truth About Lies." Everyone who loves words loves books about all the weird and wonderful words there are out there that hardly ever get used: foreign expressions, colloquial terms, slang words, gobbledygook, technobabble, queer place names … and every year new books come out that collect these under various guises. A discussion of the work of Adam Jacot de Boinod with nods to Douglas Adams and the plethora of bathroom readers out there."

Terry Holliday reviewed Walking in This World - Starting Over by Julia Cameron at My Creativity Blog. Terry says "Terry Holliday begins a series of articles based on Julia Cameron's book titled, "Walking in This World". Terry challenges readers to work through all 12 weeks with her." Is she related to Bob Dole?

Rhiana read  Saving Ben by Dan E. Burns, PhD. Find out who Ben is at A Frugal Life - Just the Two of Us.


Clark Bjorke, that's me, read Pops byTerry Teachout. My review is at I'll Never Forget the Day I Read a Book!. I have included some YouTube clips of Satch, so plan to spend some time with it.

Rod reviewed Andre Agassi's autobiography, Open on his blog Tennis Chump."Andre Agassi's book chronicles his journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance in transforming himself from the kid who hates tennis to one of the game's greatest ambassadors - well worth a read."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Border Songs

Jim Lynch

Brandon Vanderkool, the protagonist of Border Songs, has some of the symptoms of Asbergers Syndrome. He's six foot eight inches tall, a birder and an artist. He works for the border patrol along a section of the border between Washington State an British Colombia. He lives on the dairy farm where he grew up, with his parents and can look from there across the ditch which marks the border, to the home of the father of the Canadian girl that he is in love with. She is in the marijuana smuggling business.

Jim Lynch describes Brandon as dislexic, but I see borderline autism in his social ineptitude, his amazing attention to detail, his difficulty with filtering out stimuli. Because he must pay attention to everything at once, in detail, he "accidentally" captures smugglers, illegal aliens and terrorist suspects that others in the border patrol don't see. He also takes time in the middle of his work day to build giant bird's nests and release strings of sewn together leaves floating down a stream. Brandon paints portraits of all the people he catches crossing the border illegally.

The characters in Border Songs are complex, well rounded and surprising. Brandon's mother is in the early stages of Alzheimers. His father has building a sailboat in a barn on the farm for years but he is running out of money. Wayne Rousseau smokes pot to help control the symptoms of MS. He also paints copies of Picasso's last painting and reinvents the light bulb, for the experience. Madeline Rousseau wants out of the drug business and becomes more and more entangled in it day by day.

There are several plot threads running through the book: Brandon's BP adventures, Brandon's art, Norm's troubles with the dairy farm and his sailboat, the pot growing and smuggling business, Wayne Rousseau's experiential experiments, Sophie Winslow's documentary film making or massage business or whatever it is she is really doing here anyhow, the ineptitude of the United States government. All of these themes are woven together in a way that makes the basic boy meets girl plot work very well indeed.

Border Songs is character driven. Each of these people becomes a real person that you want to know. What are these people like, rather than what happens next, is what kept my interest, reading late at night, when I had to get up to go to work in the morning. Be careful about that.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hardly Knew Her

Laura Lippman

Hardly Knew Her is a collection of sixteen short stories and one novella by Baltimore's premier author of crime fiction. The stories tend to be about sex and murder. It's not a good thing in Lippman's universe to leave a woman unfulfilled, it can get you killed. Two of the stories involve Tess Monaghan, star of Lippman's detective story series. One of those is written in the form of an article in the "Beacon Light," the newspaper in Lippman's fictional Baltimore. It is an interview with Monaghan and her best bud, Whitney Talbot. Tess Monaghan fans must read it if they want to keep up with her life.

One short story, and the novella, feature Lippman's take on the "D.C. Madam." Her fictional character doesn't get caught and is very conscientious about providing her employees with security, health insurance and benefits. Lippman has carefully worked out her business plan. I suspect that we will see this character in a novel before long.

The short story is not my favorite reading. Authors tend to get all cute and O. Henry when they write short stories, going for the surprise ending in a predictable way, rather like my book reviews. These stories are no different. After reading a dozen or so of them the reader is no longer surprised to learn that the perky suburban housewife has killed her husband. Lippman's stories are mostly mini murder mysteries with the mystery left out. They are mostly written from the point of view of the murderer, for brevity's sake. For all that, these are very readable stories.

I wonder if the books title is intended to evoke traditional Irish song Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye, from which When Johnny Comes Marching Home was derived. It is the title of one of the stories, of course and on the surface at least is derived from a rather poor one liner, "Poker? I hardly knew her." I like my reference better. It's more literary.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Book Review Blog Carnival # 32 is Posted

Necromancy Never Pays is our host this week. Stop by and visit. There are lots of reviews of lots of books of every kind.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


A Life of Louis Armstrong
Terry Teachout

Was Louis Armstrong a sellout; an obsequious, fawning Uncle Tom; old fashioned and out of date; unschooled, only able to play by ear, repeating well worn memorized licks? Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal drama critic and Biographer of George Balanchine and H.L. Mencken, doesn't think so. In Pops Teachout addresses these misperceptions and their sources.

I can do something in this review that Teachout could not do in the book. You will find a few examples of video, courtesy of YouTube, embedded in the post to illustrate some of the points made in Pops.

Starting in the late 1940s, according to Teachout, jazz musicians and critics began to see Louis Armstrong as old fashioned and outdated, as an entertainer but not a serious jazz musician. This is an extraordinary way to think about the man who had almost singlehandedly turned jazz into America's popular music.

When he came to Chicago to join Joe Oliver's band in 1922 he came equipped with a sophisticated musical education. Starting at the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, Louis had learned to play from written scores, under the tutelage of band director Peter Davis, taken Joe Oliver's place in Kid Ory's band and sight read the complex cornet parts in Fate Marable's riverboat band, performing all up and down the Mississippi. Oliver kept his new second cornetist on a short leash, allowing him few solos and holding mostly to ensemble parts.

Within two years, pushed by his second wife, Lil Hardin, the pianist in Joe Oliver's band, Armstrong left King Oliver and went to work for Fletcher Henderson in New York. One year after that, Armstrong was back in Chicago, billed as "the world's greatest jazz cornetist, and began making a series of recordings, the "Hot Five" and "Hot Seven" sides, which defined jazz for the next decade.

In 1929 Armstrong began leading his own big band. Big band jazz would be the music of the 1930s and Armstrong was in the thick of it. He also became a movie star, appearing in his first film, Ex Flame in 1931. Armstrong would appear in one or two films a year, usually playing the part of a bandleader, which allowed him to sing and play his trumpet in each film. Often Armstrongs part would be written into a film only for this purpose.

By 1947 small group ensembles, playing bebop were becoming the next big thing. Louis Armstrong was still leading his expensive big band, which was more and more difficult to book. His frequent cameo appearances on film made him appear to be a grinning, gravel voiced singer and comedian, Stepin Fetchit with a trumpet. Younger jazz musicians were beginning to think of themselves as artists rather than entertainers and Armstrong was out of step with them. As the '40s turn over into the '50s the civil rights movement begins to build up steam and Armstrong's smiling face, now on television regularly, was seen as an embarrassment by militant black Americans. Worse, white people loved him and he was at the height of his popularity, despite the jazz critics and bebop "artists" disdain.

Teachout makes a strong case for Louis Armstrong as a leader in, and not a drag on civil rights. Armstrong led integrated bands. His small group the "All Stars" were "integrated, not by chance but as a matter of policy. In 1947 and for years afterward, it was still uncommon for a working jazz group to be racially mixed, especially one whose leader was black."

It was not his habit to speak out on public matters, but in an interview with a reporter in North Dakota, Armstrong broke his usual silence when the subject of the attempt to integrate the Little Rock Arkansas schools came up. "It's getting almost so bad a colored man hasn't got any country," Armstrong said, adding that the president was "two-faced" and had "no guts" and that Fabus was a "no good motherfucker." . . . then he went even further, saying that he had o intention of touring the Soviet Union for the State Department." Orval Fabus was the Governor of Arkansas in 1957 when President Eisenhower ordered the Little Rock schools integrated and sent in the army to enforce it. Louis Armstrong's words probably did not cause this to happen. Fabus became an "uneducated plow-boy" in the printed version of the newspaper story that brought Armstrong a lot of unanticipated publicity.

Armstrong continued to tour with his "All Stars" band through the 1950s and '60s. His appearances in film and television made him more and more popular with the general public and less and less respected in jazz circles. The combination of traditional jazz tunes, thought of as "Dixieland," which brings up visions of white men in striped sports coats and straw boaters, did not appeal to the critics.

Louis Armstrong did not care to be called "Louie," although he did not often object publicly to the name he had carried with him from the early days in New Orleans, where he had been known as "Little Louie." In 1963 he recorded a song from an as yet unnamed musical that was being tried out for Broadway. Micky Kapp, who produced the recording said, "I'm in the booth, Louis is in the studio, and he says to me, "How would you like me to sing this?" And I'm sitting there thinking, "God, what am I going to tell him - Louis Armstrong?" So of course I said, "Any way you feel it." But then I asked him to change the first line from "Hello, Dolly, well hello Dolly" to "Hello Dolly, this is Louie Dolly!" And from the studio he says "It's not Louie it's Louis!"

Armstrong's recording oh Hello Dolly became a number one song, edging out Can't Buy Me Love and Do You Want to Know a Secret by some English band. Hello Dolly opened on Broadway and did 2,844 performances before closing in 1970 and in 1968 Armstrong sang the song once again in the movie version with Barbra Streisand.

In 1967 Armstrong recorded another song, which fell right off the bottom of the Billboard charts and disappeared until it was used in the 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam. What A Wonderful World has since become the pièce de résistance of his career.

Terry Teachout's conclusion is that Louis Armstrong was a innovator in his early career, pushing jazz to new heights of musicianship and building the base on which the genre grew. He was a leader, who pushed to integrate show business, even in the deep south, during a time when such action was potentially very dangerous. He was, indeed and entertainer, but also an artist of the highest quality, who was not afraid to go against the tide and who's instincts invariably turned out to be right. In Teachout's words, "Faced with the terrible realities of the time and place into which he had been born, he did not repine but returned love for hatred and sought salvation in work. Therin lay the ultimate meaning of his epic journey from squalor to immortality: his sunlit, hopeful art, brought into being by the labor of a lifetime, spoke to all men in all conditions and helped make them whole."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Ground Truth

The Untold Story of America Under Attack
John Farmer
Senior Counsel to the 9/11 Commission

The Ground Truth begins with the Clinton administration's response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. It relates the abortive attempts to assassinate Osama Bin Laden with cruise missiles, criticizing both the missile launch that failed and those that were not sent. Farmer's take on both the Clinton and Bush administrations is that people high up in the administration believed that they were in control of America's security when in fact they were out of touch and unable to act decisively when action needed to be taken.

The center of the book is a detailed reconstruction of the events of September 11th 2001, showing the actions of the FAA, NORAD, DOD and the White House minute by minute based on written logs and voice recordings collected by the 9/11 Commission. Farmer's timeline shows that the only effective measures were taken by low level commanders and the passengers on United flight 93.

Farmer is particularly critical of the FAA, the Department of Defense and the Bush White House, not for their failure to anticipate or to deal adequately with the attacks on 911, but for their handling of the aftermath. In each case, according to Farmer, officials attempted to "spin" the story of 9/11 in order to make their agencies, and themselves, look good. These efforts at public relations interfered with the analysis of the events and confused the effort to improve our ability to respond to emergencies.

The Ground Truth then examines hurricane Katrina. Farmer contends that the mistakes of 911, gone uncorrected, occurred all over again in the response to Katrina. Even the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, which was supposed to be able to coordinate emergency response, was clueless and ineffective as Katrina swept across the Gulf of Mexico and drowned New Orleans and much of the Gulf coast. Again the most effective action was that of "spinning" the events, officials causing more delay in the delivery of needed help and supplies while preening before the TV cameras.

Farmer's story ends with the Bush administration. Whether our ability to deal with the many challenges facing us has improved is still unknown.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Carnival #31 is Up!

Visit the 31st Book Review Blog Carnival at Linus's Blanket. There are 33 entries in this carnival, which Nicole has grouped into categories ranging from Social Science and Politics through Literary to Graphic Novels. The review I submitted is listed under "Thrillers." Me and Michael Jackson.

If you write book reviews, you can participate in the Book Review Blog Carnival by clicking on the picture and following directions.

Or if you prefer, go to

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Don't Shoot! We're Republicans!

Memoirs of the FBI Agent Who Did Things His Way
Jack Owens

And now the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend I'll say it clear
I'll state my case of which I'm certain
I've lived a life that's full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

(Jacques Revaux, Paul Anka, Gilles Thibaut and Claude Francois)

Which of course he didn't or he would have quickly been out of a job. Don't Shoot! We're Republicans! is a memoir of his career in the FBI by an agent who retired after 30 years of service. He made some arrests without calling for backup and once used an old yellow Volkswagen and a pair of jeans to get close enough to a fugitive to grab him. He did need a haircut in the '70s, but then who didn't? Jack Owens writes with self depreciating humor and expresses some strong opinions. He is especially opinionated about the relative merits of the several FBI directors that he worked under. J. Edgar Hoover topping the list.

Owens joined the FBI in 1969, while Hoover was still alive. Hoover had headed the FBI since the late 1920s and was famous for the demands he put on his agents; white shirts, blue suits, wing tip shoes and no coffee in the office. He was also famous for blackmailing members of Congress and dressing up in women's clothes, but Owens doesn't believe any of that. He liked directors that had been field agents and not those that were appointed despite a lack of law enforcement experience. Who would have guessed?

Owens stories of chasing down fugitives, cosying up to Soviet spies and subduing rioting federal prisoners with the SWAT team are well told and interesting. He gives the impression that every day is an adventure, glossing over the long hours of report writing and unproductive cold call interviews. He does mention the reports in passing and a few stake outs in his BuCar (Bureau car). Did I mention there is a lot of FBI jargon in the book?

I discovered through Google search that Jack Owens was briefly on the 1993 season of the CBS "reality" show Big Brother. The news of his being voted out of the house still reverberates through the reality show bulletin boards. Perhaps Owens was more of a loose cannon than thought.

The title of the book comes from a story of a road block, where a group of blue haired old ladies is rousted out their car at gunpoint. They had been driving right behind the suspect and were at first thought to be accomplices. I don't think Owens would have shot them, even if they had been Democrats.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood

I heard a radio interview with Margaret Atwood, promoting her latest book The Year of the Flood. She mentioned that some characters and the speculative scenario were common to this earlier novel. In preparation for reading the new one I went down to the local library and checked out Oryx and Crake.

Atwood describes Oryx and Crake as "speculative fiction," as opposed to science fiction, by which she means there are no space ships or aliens in the book. I think that Atwood is trying to differentiate herself from the pulp science fiction that some of us so dearly love, myself included. I would call the book a Vulcan mind meld between science fiction and literary fiction. The book begins in the middle with a protagonist named Snowman who lives in a tree house and wraps himself in a dirty sheet as if he never quite made it home from a toga party. His neighbors are a group of innocent naked vegetarians that look up to him as some sort of prophet or high priest. It's not at all clear what is going on at first - or second, or third. As the novel progresses Snowman's past is revealed bit by bit and Atwood's science fiction speculative scenario unfolds. By the time I reached two thirds of the way through the book it began to become clear to me what was going on.

Atwood takes contemporary issues and asks "what if." This is what really good science fiction does. Like Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz and Nevil Shute's On the Beach. Atwood gives us a post apocalyptic world. In this case, it is our current obsession, climate change and another contemporary issue, genetic engineering, that cause the apocalypse, and not nuclear war, the favored end times scenario of the 1950s and 60s, when these books were written. What if the Earth warmed up to the point that Canada had a tropical climate? What if corporations had their own cities, gated communities writ large, that separated their privileged employees from the dangerous unlawful, disease ridden "plebe lands" occupied by the rest of humanity? What if plants, animals and microbes, customized for commercial purposes, escaped into the wild and were able to survive and reproduce?

As might be expected one of those diseases, a raging airborne hemorrhagic, breaks loose and kills almost everyone. The naked people, a group of genetically engineered, disease resistant and socially manipulated post-humans, created in one of those corporate compounds as an experiment, that Snowman is living among are one exception. The genetically engineered "pigoons," wolvogs," "snats" and "rakunks," all animals created with the combined genes of different species, are the survivors, along with Snowman, for reasons not apparent until near the end of the book.

It is hard to write about Oryx and Crake without letting out some spoilers. Even knowing what you now know will take away some of the initial confusion, but perhaps also the frustration, of reading the first chapter or two. Atwood wants the reader to wonder what is going on with Snowman and who these friendly naked people are. It seemed as though he were a stranded Robinson Crusoe figure on one of Ursula LeGuin's planets, among her hermaphroditic humanoids. No aliens, indeed.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rain Gods

James Lee Burke

I am attracted to James Lee Burke's characters despite their dark nature. Each of his protagonists is a veteran, scarred by his experience in war. Private detective Dave Robicheaux and lawyer Billy Bob Holland in Vietnam. In Rain Gods Burke introduces Sheriff Hackberry Holland a 74 year old former prisoner of war in Korea and young Pete Flores, severely burned in an attack on his tank in Baghdad. Once again Burke's characters are be alcoholics, either active drinkers or recovering ones in AA, although God only knows what their higher power might be.

Burke holds his fictional universe together, bringing some New Orleans organized crime figures to Texas, displaced by hurricane Katrina. He adds a truly evil caricature of a Russian mobster, a motley collection of colorful freelance killers for hire, a young beautiful folksinger and a female deputy who rubs up against the elderly sheriff to add another complication to his life.

The freelancers, working for the Russian, in the first of a series of odd and comical mistakes, hire the unemployed Pete Flores, for $300, to drive a truck containing a group of smuggled illegal aliens, who are hiding balloons of uncut heroin in their stomachs. When the balloons begin to leak and cause a medical emergency, inconvenience and loss of the Russian's product, solve their problem by shooting all of them and burying them, using a bulldozer, in a remote corner of Hack Hollands county - for storage. Pete, after getting drunk on bootleg mescal, makes an anonymous call to the Sheriff, setting the course of the bloody adventure.

Burke attempted to create a metaphor for the struggle between good and evil, creating a Character, Preacher Jack Collins, who believes himself to be living an old testament life, one of cosmic importance and who kills on impulse, justifying himself in the name of his vengeful God. Sheriff Holland is set against him, showing compassion for the weak, being kind to animals and resisting temptation, provided by his deputy, all while feeling sinful and unworthy right up to the final confrontation where Collins is defeated but vanishes without a trace. It feels more than a bit contrived, which, of course, it is.


The thirtieth Book Review Blog Carnival is posted at the Book Review Blog Carnival" blog. Who woulda thunk it?

The next edition will be hosted by Linus's Blanket on November 22nd. Submit your reviews now at our page.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Long Quiet Highway

Waking Up In America
Natalie Goldberg

"People would rather read about how to become a writer than read the actual products of writing: poems, novels, short stories," says Natalie Goldberg in the opening chapter of this, her third and, I think best, memoir. Her first two bestsellers, Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, are disguised as how to books for aspiring writers, so she should know what she is talking about when she says this, laughing all the way to the bank. Perhaps reading about how to write is related to watching cooking shows on television while ordering takeout. The idea of cooking, the idea of writing are appealing. The hard work, not so much.

In Long Quiet Highway Goldberg goes into much more detail about her journey from her Long Island childhood to a career as a writing coach in New Mexico and as a student of Zen Buddhism in, of all places, Minneapolis. She talks about her writing practice and teaching methods without prescribing them and ties her methods in to her meditation practice and study with Dainin Katagiri Roshi at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

There is a great contrast between Goldberg's exposition of the practice and the benefits of Zen meditation and the "ancient secrets" that Dan Brown describes in his novel The Lost Symbol. Granted, Brown's book is fiction and deals with the Judeo Christian tradition, yet when Goldberg describes her exploration of Judaism, she finds a direct similarity to what she was taught by Katagiri, not some kabbalistic mumbo jumbo. The inner peace and sense of belonging in the world, the rightness, that she discovers in the zendo, is the same thing that she finds in the ritual practices of Judaism. Neither is easy, though. Both take a lot of work.

Just do your practice for it's own sake, just be who you are with no expectation of reward, these are the lessons Goldberg brings to her book. The hard work, to her, is it's own reward. Getting up a four in the morning to walk six blocks to the Zen center in mid Minnesota winter and sit on a wood floor. This is her work and she learns to love it. Sitting down every day for several hours with a pen and a notebook and putting words down on the pages without pre-judgment is also her work. Somehow Goldberg makes books happen this way but you'll need to read the other two books to learn how.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Lost Symbol

Dan Brown

I'm probably the last person in the wold to write a review of the latest mega best seller by Dan Brown, who burst onto the scene with The Davinci Code in 2003. In The Lost Symbol, Brown brings back his professorial protagonist Robert Langdon once gain, to obfuscate a plethora of historic trivia and build yet another pyramid of innuendo.

The target of his misinformation this time is the Freemasons, a fraternal organization with a history dating back to the 17th century. There have been rumors about the rather theatrical rituals of Freemasonry, drinking wine (or blood some say) out of a skull and such, which Brown makes free use of. Brown is careful, though, to picture the Masons as the misunderstood good guys in The Lost Symbol. Perhaps he was sufficiently cowed by the reaction to his treatment of Opus Dei, a relatively innocent Roman Catholic fraternal organization, that Brown demonized in The Davinci Code.

I will cite one glaring example of Brown's misuse of historic information in pursuit of his plot. He claims that Thomas Jefferson, in assembling the "Jefferson Bible" was trying to preserve the "Ancient Wisdom" in the new testament, the references to supernatural powers that are alleged to be available to all of us if we study and practice. In fact Jefferson cut out of his new testament all of the miracles, anything, in fact, that was contrary to physical science as it was known in the late 18th century. His was an attempt to preserve the humanistic lessons of Jesus, for example the Sermon on the Mount. Jefferson redacted the water into wine, healing of lepers and raising the dead, the very things that Brown wishes to emphasize and implies that Jefferson was pursuing.

There have been hundreds of fraternal organizations, ranging from the Elks Club to the Klu Klux Klan, founded in the United States. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, membership in one or more of them was standard for middle class adult male Americans. Almost all of them have, or had, some secret initiation ritual. The Freemasons, being the oldest of them has the richest history of ritual and possibly the weirdest. The Masons claim to fame is that George Washington was a member. Washington was also a founding member of the Society of the Cincinnati, a club for Revolutionary War officers who all swore to return to civilian life and not pursue political power, modeling themselves on the Roman dictator Cincinnatus, who resigned and returned to his farm.

In The Lost Symbol Brown makes use of the "Ancient Wisdom" often touted in New Age literature, and discusses mystical powers of the mind to affect the physical world with pure thought. I often heard spooky whoo whoo music in my head while reading the book. Of course there is a mad evil villain who is trying to steal the Masons' secret rituals of supernatural power, which don't exist and a scientist studying "noetic science." Brown uses this idea of transcendent powers as a plot device yet it appears to me that he is a bit embarrassed by them. At no time does Brown exhibit the actual use of any transcendent powers in the story, although there were several opportunities for him to do so.

The CIA is there, too, flying around Washington DC in black helicopters, chasing Robert Langdon. The reader gets a virtual tour of the Capitol building, the library of Congress and some parts of the Smithsonian Institution. These are almost worth the price of admission themselves.

Dan Brown knows how to write a page turner, even though is language can be a bit florid at times and even embarrassingly awkward. Poor Tom Hanks, if he makes another movie from this book, will not have a love interest unless they give the story a bit of a rewrite. A rewrite might be a good thing.

Book Review Blog Carnival # 29

I posted the first Book Review Blog Carnival on this blog on September 28th last year. Since then there has been a carnival every other Sunday without fail. Today's carnival is hosted by a newcomer, Kitsch Slapped, a tastefully presented blog about bad taste.

The next edition, #30, will be hosted at the mother ship, the Book Review Blog Carnival blog. If you write book reviews on your blog you may submit a review to the carnival at our page at I'm also looking for hosts for next year. Email me at the address in the sidebar to the left if you would like to host a carnival.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Half Moon

Henry Hudson and the voyage that redrew the map of the New World
Douglas Hunter

Henry Hudson didn't take directions very well. He was hired by the Dutch East Indies Company to go look for the northeast passage, a route to the Pacific Ocean over the top of Russia. Instead he went west and discovered New York City. Hunter's book explores Hudson's reasons for going so far off course, traces the actual voyage as best as he could determine and talks about the consequences for the colonization of North America that stem from Hudson's discoveries.


Hudson had made two earlier voyages of exploration, both financed by English business interests. In 1607 and 1608 he went to Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean searching for a trans polar route and a northeast passage to the Pacific Ocean and the lucrative trade with China. In 1609 no English patronage was to be found for another expedition. Hudson wanted to find a northwest passage, north of Canada or a mid continental route, through North America. The Dutch East India Company was interested in finding a northeast route, which Hudson had already tried. He knew that sea ice made that route impossible but because the Dutch were willing to finance a voyage Hudson agreed to go. After a quick trip to the arctic Hudson turned his ship, the Half Moon, westward to look for a passage to China. He was in direct violation of his instructions from the Dutch, who wanted him to go northeast and report back to Holland immediately. In Half Moon Hunter speculates that Hudson may have been working as a double agent, exploring for England on Hollands dime.

Hunter incorporates what is known about exploration in the beginning of the 17th century into the story. Richard Hakluyt, the English geographer and supporter of new world exploration gave Hudson all the latest information about explorations on the North American coastline, including Giovanni da Verrazzano's brief visit to the mouth of the Hudson River in 1524. Hakluyt had pieced together reports from French, Spanish, Dutch and English explorers, fur traders and fisherman which seemed to indicate that a river on the east coast connected to one that reached the Pacific with only a short portage west of the Allegheny mountains. Of course he was wrong.

Half Moon makes connections between Sebastian Cabot, Jacques Cartier, Henry Hudson, Samuel de Champlain in the search for a mirage, a quick passage to Asia, and how their efforts led to the colonization of North America by Europeans. While they made voyages of discovery, others, some of them members of their crews, came to trade, farm or fish and built new nations in the process.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Book Review Blog Carnivals: Two for the price of one!

The 28th edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival was posted this morning at Books For Sale?. NathanKP has given us a lovely, clean, minimalist post, with 15 reviews from 15 various blogs.

I realized this afternoon that I never posted about the 27th carnival, which went up two weeks ago at At Home With Books. My apologies to Alyce, who worked very hard to build us a beautiful carnival and deserves recognition.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


A Woebegone Romance
Garrison Kiellor

I used to listen to A Prairie Home Companion and I even enjoyed hearing Mr. Kiellor talk, even though it was mostly lies, about Lake Woebegone and the people out there on the edge of the prairie. Those are my people he's talking about after all. I liked the show just fine except that somebody ought to tell Mr. Kiellor that he shouldn't sing. He's not a singer and no radio show is going to make him one, even if he is the one that runs the show.

I have tried to read some of Mr. Kiellor's books before but never succeeded in finishing one. This time I stuck it out because it is my duty to write a post about it. The book is made up mostly out of stuff taken right out of his Saturday night monologues, which is all right, I guess. He is getting double use out of a lot of it. I wonder if he gets paid twice when he uses the same material over like that. It doesn't really seem fair, does it? Anyway, Mr. Kiellor has sent a group of people from Lake Woebegone on a trip to Rome, the one in Italy, to glue a plasticized picture of a WWII hero, from Lake Woebegone, on his gravestone in the cemetery where he is buried, which is conveniently located in Rome.

One thing that Mr. Kiellor did was stick himself right into the book, like he was some kind of post modernist big shot, like my friend Mr. Barth or somebody, but he is about thirty years too late with that trick and it just makes him look like he's full of himself. The other people in the book, the one's from Lake Woebegone, see right through him, with his sneaky little notebook, writing down everything they say. They know that he is going to put them all in a book and make gobs more money out of them. They're not impressed, even if he did pay for their trip to Italy.

The romance part of the book is mostly about Margie Krebsbach and her husband Carl or sometime about Carl, who is a bit of a old duff and doesn't get very romantic, even if he is a German Catholic and not a Norwegian Lutheran, but there's also an Italian guy named Paulo. Father Wilmer even gets in a little romance for a paragraph or two. If you used to listen to A Prairie Home Companion then you might not know that Father Wilmer took over at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility after Father Emil retired, which was quite a few years ago. Well it looks like Father Wilmer is on his way out now, too, because he got hurt in a car accident and then, in the hospital he fell in love with his nurse and they've been seeing each other in secret, but anyway, that's neither here nor there.

There are some really bad poems that Mr. Keillor wrote, in the book too, which it didn't need at all. Somebody should tell Mr. Kiellor that he's not a poet, either. It takes more that a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota to make a poet out of someone. I know that he writes song parodies for his show all the time, but it's the music that carries them and he has some professional musicians to make it work, but he doesn't have any musicians to carry his poetry in this book.

Well I finished the book and I guess it's OK, but Mr. Kiellor is going to make some people back home in Lake Woebegone really mad when they find out what he's been saying about them - again.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Age of the Unthinkable

Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It
Joshua Cooper Ramo

Joshua Cooper Ramo is Managing Director of Kissinger Associates, which makes him a high priced consultant in the field of foreign relations. He's a Nixon to China kind of guy, speaking Mandarin and promoting the idea of talking to those funny furriners, even if they do eat strange food and speak in unintelligible gibberish. I'm sure he hangs out with Henry Kissinger. He has written two books about China and one about skydiving.

In this newest book Ramo discovers that the world doesn't always do what we expect and he proposes that we all get loose and flexible as the best way to deal with crisis. Ramo seems to think that this is something new. I tend to disagree with him. The problems du jour change but the surprises have kept on coming throughout history. Every time that our peerless leaders, whether they be Nixon or Napoleon, thought they had a handle on things, all hell has broken loose.

Ramo believes that the high degree of global interconnectedness we are experiencing today, in trade, communication and travel make the world more unstable instead of less. Viruses from afar can hitch rides on airplanes and travel thousands of miles in a few hours. Trouble in the U.S. mortgage markets cause a panic in Russia and China. A bunch of highly educated Saudi's, financed with millions in oil money, can wreak havoc in New York, London or Washington D.C. It would actually be more impressive if a gang of goatherds from the Afghan mountains could do that, but without the Saudis money that still isn't possible.

The pace of things has surely speeded up, but we haven't seen anything like the 1918 flu epidemic or the black death, for some time. (Knock on wood.) Genghis Khan made a pretty hash of things for the Chinese in his day and the South Sea Bubble is still the most egregious example of financial markets gone bad. Things have not really changed all that much.

I do rather like Ramo's proposed solutions. He has invented the term "deep security," which means paying attention to the basics, like ensuring meaningful work for people and giving them universal health care as a way of cushioning the effect of financial panics, employing diplomacy, to ensure that our enemies as well as our friends know what we (talking about the U.S. here) expect from them and what we are willing to do to get it. It may be a hard sell politically but I do think that aggressively fighting AIDS and engineering clean water supplies in sub Saharan Africa will, in the long run, lead to fewer wars, fewer pirates and fewer terrorists.

It took quite while, after chapters of scary scenarios, for Ramo to get to his point about "deep security," and even then, I found him a bit vague on details. Creating "deep security" is a lot of work. Even talking about it is. It's a lot easier to make up slogans like "bomb bomb Iran," which is why politicians do so much of that sort of thing.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Art of Detection

A Novel Of Suspense
Laurie R King

A whodunnit by an author who is new to me, The Art of Detection, is set in San Francisco in 2004 and 1924. The book is from the middle of a series featuring SF police detective Kate Martinelli.

King cleverly intertwines a "lost" Sherlock Holmes short story, purportedly written by Arthur Conan Doyle while visiting San Fransisco in the '20s into the story of the murder, in 2004, of a collector of Sherlockia and member of a Sherlock Holmes themed dinner club. The Sherlock Holmes story, prominently featured in the liner notes, is what drew me to this book. It is also a major clue to the 2004 murder.

King has written another series of books, set in the 1920s which are centered around a character, Mary Russell, who is apprenticed in the art of detection to the retired Sherlock Holmes, who is living the life of a beekeeper in Sussex. This is actually where Doyle leaves Holmes after unsuccessfully killing Holmes in a battle with his nemesis, Professor Moriarity, at Reichenbach Falls in The Adventure of the Final Problem.

His fans would not let Doyle stop writing Holmes stories and Doyle was forced to bring the character back to life, rather like Mr. Spock in the movie Search for Spock. This begs the irrelevant question, is Spock Sherlock Holmes?

Appropriately, the novel and the short story both deal with issues of homosexuality, gays in the military and same sex marriage. What else is there to write about in San Francisco in 2004? Fortunately, King did not choose to make Sherlock Holmes gay in her "lost" story. The gay issues are dealt with in a tasteful an inoffensive way.

King has done her Sherlock Holmes research and there is much Holmes and Doyle trivia to be gleaned in The Art of Detection. Did you know that Doyle never had Holmes say "Elementary my dear Watson" or smoke a calabash pipe?

There are two fictional murders to solve in The Art of Detection, separated by 80 years. Who committed them? Don't ask don't tell.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Naming Nature

The Clash Between Instinct and Science
Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Whatever editor though up that dumb subtitle should be sent back to the mail room for reeducation. There is no clash in this book between science and instinct. Instinct is not even mentioned. What there is, is an interesting discussion of the way that esoteric systems of classifying the plants and animals of the world, used in the in he academic pursuit of biology, have become far removed from the way we, regular people, recognize them.

Yoon, a biology graduate student turned science journalist, calls this ordinary view of the natural world the "umwelt" (oom-velt) which is a German word for the way we, or the different ways other creatures, perceive the world. A creature's umvelt depends on what kind of senses that creature has, where it lives in the world, what it looks for to eat and what eats it. A dog's unwelt, for instance, has a lot to do with how things smell and prominently features squirrels and the postman. In our case, how we think about the world is another major factor.

Naming Nature contains an entertaining history of the study of taxonomy, starting with Carolus Linnaeus, known to his friends as Carl. Linnaeus devised the system, familiar from high school, of dividing life into domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. He established the tradition of naming species with two Latin names, the binomial system. Linnaeus' system is an artificial construct which helps us to comprehend the relationships between different plants and animals. Yoon makes the mistake of equating Linnaeus' taxonomy with the taxonomies of any and all cultures, saying that we all organize nature in our minds in the same way, even though she, herself, gives several examples of cultures that classify animals in bizarrely different ways. Her argument for the universality of Linnaeus is weak. It's also beside the point.

As she proceeds with the history of taxonomy Yoons point becomes clear. Just as physics has wandered far from the common sense of Isaac Newton into the far out realms of relativity and quantum mechanics, taxonomy has found, through statistical analysis, DNA matching and cladistics, all of which Yoon talks about in some detail without any MEGLO (My Eyes Glaze Over) effect, that some of the common sense relationships we believe in, among plants and animals, don't really exits. She quite proudly announces the demise of fish as a teaser at the beginning of the book. Her later explanation of this, having to do with the lungfish having characteristics similar to a cow, seems a bit off the wall, but no matter. That salmon I had for dinner was not a fish. I believe her.

Yoon calls for a revival of the umwelt in our daily lives. Don't let those snooty scientists tell you that nature is a strange place inaccessible to ordinary mortals. Go out there with your Peterson's Field Guides and revel in it before it's too late. Good advice. I think I'll shut off my computer now and go outside.

Ed Note: I went back and corrected the spelling of "umvelt." See the comments below.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

26th Book Review Blog Carnival

This week the 26th edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival is hosted by Pizza's Book Discussion. Come in and have a slice while you browse.

If you ever wrote a book review on your blog you can submit the post to an upcoming carnival at our page at I'm always looking for host blogs, too. Email me at the address in the sidebar if you are interested in hosting a carnival.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Oh, Johnny

Jim Lehrer

This is the nineteenth novel by Jim Lehrer: yes, that Jim Lehrer, the host of The News Hour on PBS. In it, Lehrer brings back a couple of his favorite themes; the Marine Corps; Lerhrer was a Marine, and buses, the Greyhound and Trailways kind. I know from hearing him interviewed on the radio that Lehrer owns an old reconditioned bus and occasionally takes it out on the road near his country home outside Washington DC. Johnny, the central character, is the second Lehrer protagonist, after The One Eyed Jack, to become a bus line ticket agent, a job that Lehrer once held himself.

Oh Johnny asks the same question that I did, or intended to, in my review of to Ken Robinson's The Element. What happens when a person pursues a dream, to do something that he loves and is very good at, and yet he fails? In reality this is an all too common occurrence. As in real life Lehrer's answer is "not much."

We meet Johnny Wrigley as an 17 year old Marine on a troop train headed west to go fight the Japanese in WWII. Because of the war he has missed a chance to play minor league baseball. The team that offered him a tryout has, along with the rest of the league, suspended operations for the duration of the war. Johnny is convinced that some day he will be a star center fielder in the majors.

Stopping for a 30 minute layover in Wichita Kansas - Jim Lehrer's birthplace, incidentally - Johnny meets and falls in love with a young girl he meets on the station platform. After some truly horrible experiences in the war, which Lehrer gets us through with minimal fuss, Johnny returns, to find that he is unable to locate his dream girl. Returning to his home in Maryland Johnny does get into the minors but injures himself by running into the center field wall and is no longer able to play.

The book revolves around Johnny's "shell shock" or PTSD, as we would now call it, his inability to find his Betsy and his disappointed attempts to become a professional baseball player. At one point he does eventually find the girl he met but finds that she is a completely different, and less attractive, person than he had thought. Professional baseball reveals itself to be a hard life in which one mistake can end your career and in which no quarter is given, even by one's own teammates.

Johnny's expectations are dashed at every turn, throughout the book, yet he finds a sunny optimism, based on the idea of luck, which carries him through the war and through his attempts at professional baseball. Betsy, the girl on the Wichita platform was his good luck charm. When he finally meets Betsy he learns how false his good luck has been.

There is a dramatic scene in which Johnny's life turns around involving a baseball field. I won't give it away any further than that. In the end Johnny settles for a life as a bus line ticket agent, married to someone other than his dream girl. He leads a normal mundane life and is just fine with it. His is not a life of quiet desperation.

It is possible that Jim Lehrer eventually settled for a life as a national evening news host and a novelist when his dream was to drive a bus.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Book Review Blog Carnival #25

The twenty fifth Book Review Blog Carnival is available for your reading pleasure at This Girl's Bookshelf. Stop by and take a look at the 30 reviews listed. Be sure to leave a comment, even if it's just to say hello and please link to the carnival from your own blog if you have one. Help us spread the word.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Inherent Vice

Thomas Pynchon

This new novel by the author of Gravity's Rainbow and V is written in the style of a hard boiled detective novel. It is also classic Pynchon. The story is set in Los Angeles in 1969 with a central character who is a pot smoking disillusioned hippie turned private invvesigator, a veteran of the early 60's surfer scene, named Doc Sportello. Sportello's bete noire is L.A. Police detective Bigfood Bjornson, an aggressive, rule bending, Dirty Harry like figure who turns out to be a henpecked husband with a sentimental streak.

Pynchon's ever present themes of paranoia, conspiracy and corruption are to be found in Inherent Vice. As in his earlier novels there is a secret society, this time called "Golden Fang," which is introduced as the name of a schooner which slips in and out of the harbor at night on mysterious errands, but is also an investment group run by dentists, a drug cartel, the owner of a run down casino in the wrong part of Las Vegas, a real estate development company, a right wing political group and a rehab clinic.

Sportello wanders in a marijuana induced haze, through the streets of Los Angeles searching for clues into the disappearance of developer Mickey Wolfmann. He is given bits and pieces of information by a wide variety of characters, heroin addicts, surfers, the saxophone player in a psychedelic surf band working undercover as a police informant and political provocateur, a former teenage runaway and her dentist/lover. Each revelation makes the plot more convoluted but seems to lead toward a hoped for but never revealed resolution. Doc Sportello is as clueless at the end of the book as he was at the beginning. There is never a denouement where Sortello reveals his clever solution to the crime. He does get paid, though, by the conspirators themselves but in a plausibly deniable way.

Although Pynchon uses themes from film noir and the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and makes references to John Garfield movies, this is not a mystery novel in the classic sense. It is a rambling, paranoiac Thomas Pynchon novel. As in all of Pynchon's work, the confusion and sense of pointlessness you are left with are the whole point of the book.

Thomas Pynchon has made somewhat of an enigma of himself. He does not allow himself to be photographed and keeps his whereabouts a secret, as though he were one of the characters in his novels. Rumor has it that Pynchon is up for a Nobel Prize in literature. All he needs to do is reveal himself as a female writer from a third world country and he's in like Flynn.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Element

Ken Robinson, Ph.D.
with Lou Aronica

According to a popular myth there is a calling for each one of us, something that we are so good at and love doing so much that it doesn't feel like work at all. Ken Robinson advocates for the existence of this perfect occupation. He calls it being in one's "element," and recommends looking for that element in our own lives and pursuing whatever calling it presents us. Unfortunately, Henry David Thoreau's often quoted "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" is more true now that when he wrote Walden in 1854.

Robinson never mentions this, but I believe that finding such an "element" for each and every person on Earth would be a good argument for the existence of a personal, omniscient and ever present God. Who else could organize the world in such a way that every single person would born with such a perfect fit to one or more pursuits? The evidence is not in favor of this hypothesis, though, as Thoreau has pointed out. Very few people ever find an "element."

Robinson uses examples, such as Paul McCartney, Julia Child and one of my favorite people, physicist Richard Feynman, to illustrate his thesis. Each of them did find something to do that was eminently suitable to his talents and each of them enjoyed his job immensely, not to mention making a pretty good piece of change at it. These very talented, very lucky people were able to take advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves and they all created careers for themselves doing what they loved doing. Most of us are just not that talented, or that lucky.

Dr. Robinson wants to encourage each of us to find our "element" and to help our children find theirs.I found his argument against the emphasis on standardized testing in schools, the core of "No Child Left Behind," to be highly cogent. As Robinson says, "I doubt there are many children who leap out of bed in the morning wondering what they can do to raise the reading score for their state." His basic thesis, however, I find to be messy, new age claptrap. Not that I am against people pursuing their dreams, but I think it's important to have a fallback position in case it doesn't work out.

After reading The Element I am ready to quit my job in order to pursue my dream of becoming a rock star. Or maybe not. He did mention being good at it.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Twenty Third Book Review Blog Carnival

The twenty third edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival has been posted at Bart's Bookshelf. Bart has done a bang up job, even tracking down cover art for all 29 books reviewed by the carnival participants.

If you review books and would like to participate you may submit a review for the next carnival at Blog Carnival, which handles the submission process. Inkweaver Review will host the next carnival on August 16th.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Pluto Files

The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet
Neil DeGrasse Tyson

The Pluto Files is a rather tongue in cheek look at the demotion of Pluto from it's status as a planet by the International Astronomical Union, written by the director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York's Museum of Natural History.

In 2000, the freshly renovated Hayden Planetarium, under Tyson's direction, opened a new exhibit showing the relative sizes of the planets - excluding Pluto. The exhibit classified the planets as either Earth like - the inner group or gas giants, the outer group. Pluto, being very small and made mostly of ice, did not fit in either group, and was left out of the exhibit. This led to a large controversy, many angry letters from elementary school students and, eventually, a vote, in 2006 at a gathering of the IAU, to define the term planet in a way that excludes Pluto.

Tyson's reason for leaving Pluto out of the exhibit is that it is not a member of either class of planets, neither a rocky Earth like planet nor a gas giant. How can you have a class of one? he asks. Pluto is a very small object, smaller than our own moon. It's orbit is eccentric, dipping in closer to the sun than Neptune's for one part of each turn around the Sun and veering off from the plane of the ecliptic. Pluto is like a small child running around and between the legs of a group of adults.

Later, as other Pluto like objects have been found in what is now known as the Kuiper belt, named after Dutch astronomer Gerard Kuiper. At least one, Eris, is larger than Pluto. We now have a class of objects with several thousands of examples, of which Pluto and Eris are the largest known members. Are they both planets, then? No because the AIU had voted on a definition of a planet with three criteria: 1. that it orbits a star and not another object 2. That it has enough gravity to give it a spherical shape and 3. That it has cleaned up it's orbital zone of debris. Both Pluto and Eris, and also one Asteroid, Ceres, meet the first two of these criteria, but not the third.

This last criteria is problematical. The Earth is always being struck by meteorites, which are debris in it's orbital zone. Is the Earth not a planet? Just last weekend Jupiter was struck by a large object which has created an Earth sized impact disturbance in it's atmosphere, visible by amateur astronomers, arguably an object not previously cleared from Jupiter's orbital zone. It appears to me that this is an arbitrary criteria, with exceptions being made in order to include, really, any planets at all. Besides, since when is science subject to a vote?

I suggest that the orbit clearing criteria be abandoned as a bad job and be replaced to the requirement that a planet must have an atmosphere. this would restore Pluto to the status of a planet, possible Eris, too, and exclude Ceres. We would then have nine or ten planets and counting. Pluto has been redefined as a dwarf planet. OK, but a dwarf planet is still a planet.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

How To Build A Dinosaur

Extinction Doesn't Have To Be Forever
Jack Horner and James Gorman

The title and especially the subtitle of this book are somewhat, deliberately, misleading. Paleontologist Jack Horner was a consultant on the movie Jurassic Park, however, he is quick to point out that he does not propose, or have any idea how, to produce living examples of Tyrannosaurus Rex or the much touted Velociraptor. He wrote this book, with the help of New York Times science editor, James Gorman, to propose the idea of modifying the development of a chicken, to express the dinosaur like traits of a long tail, teeth and forelimbs with clawed fingers.

This book is written in the realm of science popularization. Like Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan, Horner chose to write a book explaining his idea to the general public. Why? Most popular science books are written about advances in science that are already accomplished. This one is a proposal for experiments that scientists do not yet know how to perform. By doing this he has made the reader a part of the process, the way science is really done. Here is a thought experiment that may or may not ever be tried in the laboratory.

What the book does is show how ideas are bandied about in scientific circles, how new experiments are proposed and argued for and against, how they are not necessarily ever given the chance to see the light of day. The work needed to produce this chickeasaurus would cost many millions of dollars.

There would be a lot that could be learned from the effort, according to Horner, about the development of embryos, which could be applied to medical science, possibly preventing birth defects in human children. Or possibly producing embryologically modified, designer ubermenschen. Producing a dangerous invasive species that would have to be fought and destroyed by the air force is an impossibility, however. Science fiction fans will have to live with the disappointment.

Horner says that the traits that he wants to produce, a tail, teeth and clawed forelimbs, are already present in the genes of the domestic chicken, which is a descendant of an upright walking dinosaur. Horner insists that birds ARE dinosaurs and not just their descendants. His proposal is to learn how to trigger, and to stop, certain traits that appear during the development of the chicken embryo, in order to make the tail, teeth and forelimbs appear in the hatched adult chicken. His would not be a genetically modified creature, just one that had been coached along the way to be more dinosaur like than bird like.

I rather like dinosaurs. The chapters in which he discusses the latest discoveries and theories in paleontology were, to me, the most intriguing of the book. Although I can see that there would be spin offs, like those from the Apollo space program, from his chickenasaurus proposal, I was have not really bought in to the idea. Maybe you will think differently. Horner says that he would like to be able to bring a chickenasaurus out on a leash, when giving a lecture. King Kong anyone?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Book Review Blog Carnival XXI

Welcome to the twenty first Book Review Blog Carnival. This carnival is published every other Sunday on a different blog. You my submit a book review post from your own blog, for the next carnival here.

We have a wide selection of book reviews this week, starting with:


On his blog The Truth About Lies, Jim Murdoch reviews Australian writer Gerald Murnane's new novel, The Plains, a dense story about a filmmaker who spends years researching a film on the seemingly featureless Australian outback and its people. In place of the salt-of-the-earth sheep farmers one might expect to inhabit central Australia the narrator encounters an idealised world filled with aesthetics and intellectuals; wealthy landowners divided into factions idly speculating on metaphysics; I don't believe there's a sheep in the whole book.

Jim Murdoch also wrote a review of The Very Thought of You by Rosie Allison. Jim says it's a story about love, but not a love story. Jim doesn't read love stories.

Ms. Smarty Pants Know It All has read the oldest book in this edition of the carnival, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, first published in 1764, a trailblazing work that practically makes itself its own parody .

Joy, writing in This Girl's Bookshelf compares the movie version of Chocolat the the book by Joanne Harris.

Nymeth reviewed Swimming in the Monsoon Sea by Shyam Selvadurai on her blog Things Mean A Lot. It is a coming of age story set in Sri Lanka.

Sandra read Doris Lessing's 1988 novel The Fifth Child for her blog Fresh Ink Books.

Sandra also reviewed Doris Lessings Ben In The World and Becoming Abagail by Nigerian writer Chris Abani. People who have time to read annoy me.

Science Fiction:

Jeanne, of Necromancy Never Pays, says that she has changed her mind about Joan Slonczewsk"s Daugher of Elysium, which she now sees as a far less optimistic than she thought when she read it after it's debut in 1993. Children will do that to you.


Guest blogger Zarabeth writes about Miranda’s Big Mistake by Jill Mansell on Love Romance Passion.

Normal Girl's Guide to Great Books reviews Summer Blowout by Claire Cook., a summer read by the Author of Must Love Dogs.


KerrieS reviews a Norwegian mystery novel, The Redeemer. by Jo Nesbo, on her blog, Mysteries In Paradise. I guess the existence of Norwegian mystery novels should not be a surprise to me or to Garrison Keillor.

KerrieS also read and wrote a review of Peril and End House by Agatha Christie. Poirot's 6th novel, and his biggest challenge yet. Even the great Hercule Poirot can be swayed by sentiment.

KerrieS must be on vacation, because she had time to read and write a third review, of Shadow by Karin Alvtegen. This one is a Swedish mystery novel.

Children' Books:

Nathan at Inkweaver Review
has written a review of Penny from Heaven, by Jennifer L. Holm, a Newbery Honor Award book about a young girl living in the 1950’s.

Non Fiction:

Global Implications begins a series of weekly book reviews on the subject of Iran with The Devil We Know by Robert Baer.

Serena Trowbridge enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, despite herself, and tells us why at Culture and Anarchy.

GrrlScientist wrote, in Living The Scientific Life, a review of Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land by Nina Burleigh. This book describes one of the greatest hoaxes of all time as the author follows the path of several ancient biblical artifacts from illegal archaeological digs in Israel through shady antiquities markets and even into the display cases of several famous museums around the world.

GrrlScientist also reviewed Sleeping Naked Is Green: How an Eco-Cynic Unplugged Her Fridge, Sold Her Car, and Found Love in 366 Days by Vanessa Farquharson. Wow, I've been saving the environment all my life and didn't even know it.

Stephen Martile writes about Secrets of the Millionaire Mind by T. Harv Eker, in his blog Freedom Education.. Steve bought this book in 2006. He must be well on is way to a huge fortune by now, don't you think?

Grant McCreary, of The Birdir's Library, reviews Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience
by Jeremy Mynott., a book that asks why and how people look at, and watch, birds.

Bruno Vigneault, of How To Make A Miracle Happen, watched the video version of What the Bleep Do We Know again. Those miracles are harder to make than it seemed at first.

In Science On Tap Arj has a few quibbles with astronomer/blogger Phil Plai's Death From The Skies, starting from it's cover design. I immediately recognized the cover as a parody of a 1950's science fiction movie poster. Arj calls it ""National Enquirer-like."

I submitted a review of my own, which is located just below this post, Street Gang is a history of Children's Television Workshop and Sesame Street.


Thursday Bram will give away one copy of Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo by Beth Whitman, to a lucky person who leaves a comment on her review at Working Your Way Around The World.