Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson:

Stieg Larsson was a radical journalist who began his career working for the Kommunistiska Arbetareförbundet or Communist Workers League, in Sweden. He later became interested in the growth of neo-Nazi groups in Sweden and founded the Swedish Expo Foundation and it's magazine, Expo, which sought to expose them. Larsson received death threats from various members of these groups and became very secretive about his movements. He was also a leading science fiction fan and edited of several fanzines.

Larsson died suddenly of a heart attack in 2004. Naturally, rumors abound that he was really murdered by neo-Nazis. He had written three crime novels, for his own amusement, and had just contacted a publisher about them before he died. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first book in the series.

The girl for whom the book is named (in English, the Swedish title translates as "Men Who Hate Women") is Lisbeth Salander, a 25 year old high school dropout who dresses in black leather, rides a motorcycle and has several tattoos, including a dragon, and piercings. She is a computer hacker. Salander is hired as a research assistant by a journalist that has a remarkably similar resume to Larsson's own, Mikael Blomqvist, who is researching the disappearance of a 16 year old girl forty some years ago. Blomkvist is in the pay of a Swedish industrialist, much to his own chagrin.

You will not be surprised to find that Nazis, old school ones from the 1930s and 40s, are part of the story and, considering the Swedish title, misanthropes who abuse women. There are also big corporations that do bad things but also some surprisingly sympathetic characters who are corporate big shots. I am going to be good and not spoil the plot for you, though.

Despite the fact that Larsson lays it on a bit too thick for me sometimes, I am going to run right out a get a copy of The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second book in the series. I guess that you could interpret this as a positive review.

P.S. I heard that someone made a movie of this story. I haven't seen it.

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keywords: fiction, thriller, Sweden, Stieg Larsson

Book Review Blog Carnival 42

The Book Review Blog Carnival is my little kingdom in the world of social networking. It has been around since September of 2008 and seems to be in good health with a fair chance it will live to see it's second birthday.

Early photo of Ms. Smartypants Know it All
The forty second edition of the carnival is online today at Ms. Smarty Pants Know It All. There are 23 entries, reviews of a wide variety of books. I would like to congratulate Ms. for doing a great job. Publishing, and editing, a blog carnival is a considerable amount of work.

You, too can become a contributor to the carnival if you have a blog and write book reviews. Just go to our page and follow the easy instructions. And don't forget to become fan of the Book Review Blog Carnival on Facebook.

keywords: blogs, blogging, blog carnival, books, book reviews

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

This Book Is Overdue!

How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All
Marilyn Johnson

Since it's National Library Week according to the banners hanging all over the public library in my town, I though it would be nice to review a book about librarians. What do those people do all day?

After her first book, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries (P.S.) was published, Marilyn Johnson was looking for another socko topic to write about and found it in the library. Johnson may be the next John McPhee, able to tease out a fascinating book on even the most mundane subject.

Libraries and librarians, however, are far from mundane, as it turns out. Johnson writes about librarian bloggers, some of whom almost get fired for writing funny stories about library patrons. She writes about librarians who create libraries in Second Life, the 3D virtual world, about Radical Reference, which put librarians equipped with smart phones on the streets of New York, during the 2008 Republican Convention, to provide protesters with real time information about police actions, fast food and available rest rooms.

There is a library in New York that belongs to the American Kennel Club, crammed with books and artifacts about dogs. Johnson, who doesn't care for dogs, was so fascinated by it that she fantasized about going to work for the librarian there. A reference librarian at the New York Public Library made it his business to go to extreme lengths to help writers find what they need for research their books. He became a celebrity in the publishing world, cited in the acknowledgments, that no one reads, of countless worthy tomes.

Here are a few of the library blogs mentioned in This Book Is Overdue!:
Free Range Librarian
Librarian in Black
Annoyed Librarian

You can read about the Community Virtual Library, which is in Second Life, without actually visiting it, at, or go ahead and sign up, what could it hurt?

This post is in the 43rd

keywords: libraries, librarians, non fiction

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Shades of Grey

Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey is a novel about an imaginary future in which people have developed a very strange sort of color blindness. The society is structured on the basis of a caste system which is graded by each individuals ability to see a specific color. Some are reds, yellows and blues others are greens, purples and oranges. The degree to which one can see ones color, or combination of colors in the case of the non-primaries, determines one's place in the social order. The greys, who can see no color at all are at the bottom of the heap.

The purpose for all this, and the cause of this strange color blindness is revealed in dribs and drabs throughout the book. I found it somewhat frustrating at first because Fforde did not seem to be in any hurry to fill in the details of the strange science fiction world he had created, leaving me, the reader, in a kind of limbo. Fforde seemed to be violating one of my tenants of good science fiction: Make your fictional universe internally consistent and understandable to the reader. Of course nobody pays any attention to me anyway.

In the end, the world of Shades of Grey is shown to be very consistent and clearly understandable. It takes most of the book to do that because the consistent structure of Fforde's world turns out to be the major driver of it's plot. The book is written like a mystery novel, but one in which figuring out the significance of the strange sci-fi premise is the mystery to be solved. Fforde's protagonist, Eddie Russet, only begins to realize that this is his task, along with the reader, near the end of the novel.

It is also written in such a way as to lend itself to being the first installment of a series. I hope Jasper Fforde knows this. Perhaps there will be people who are hopelessly unable to spell in the second book of the series.

keywords: fiction, science fiction, crime fiction

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Secret Lives of Buildings

From the ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas strip in thirteen stories
Edward Hollis

The thirteen stories in The Secret Lives of Buildings are somewhat uneven. The opener, about the Parthenon is marvelous. I never knew that the Parthenon had been converted to a church and then a mosque. I was vaguely aware that it had been bombarded, but now when or by whom.
fifth story in the book, The Santa Casa of Loreto is written as a nested series of fairy tales "Once upon a time . . ." each one told by someone in the enclosing tale. It became too confusing to me. I don't know whether there is a real building in there somewhere on not. The "Holy House", where the angel Gabriel visited Mary, kept floating from location to location. I skipped about half of that chapter.

Where Hollis stuck to real buildings he wrote fascinating stories about their transformation over time. Who knew that Notre Dame de Paris was completely restored in the nineteenth century to it's present appearance, using Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame as a guide? Although it is as historically accurate as could be done at the time, Notre Dame is really a kind of Disnyfication of a cathedral. Various French kings and cardinals had ruined it anyway, redecorating to suit their various whims. During the French Revolution it was badly damaged and much of the sculpture was smashed. Architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc recreated sculpture in the style of the original, as copied from examples in other French cathedrals during their restoration, which took from 1845 to 1870, fast by cathedral building standards.

The chapter on the Hulme Crescents in Manchester England was surprisingly engaging. The Hulme Crescents were a massive housing project for the poor of Manchester. Like the various "projects" in American cities, the Crescents became havens for crime and drugs. They also were the seed bed for punk music. They have that going for them, anyway.

I could have done without the chapter on Las Vegas, with it's comparison to Venice and proposals for a new Vegas built in Macao. Especially as Hollis seems to think that today's Venice, a tourist destination is just a fake as the one built in Las Vegas. At least Venice is old.

keywords: architecture

41st Book Review Blog Carnival

Books with a cup of coffee . . is hosting this week's edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival. Naturally I have a review included, my review of Shane Harris' The Watchers.

The Book Review Blog Carnival appears, like Brigadoon, every other Sunday, on a different blog. If you write book reviews you can participate by submitting a link you your review through our page on

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Friday, April 2, 2010

The Watchers

The rise of America's Surveillance State
Shane Harris

Despite the Orwellian subtitle, this book does not claim that our every email is being read and phone call listened to by government spies. Even if they wanted too there is just too much data. They would be drowning in it.

The Watchers is the story of the use of electronic surveillance to find and counter terrorist threats. Since 9/11, with a great deal of hard work and a bit of luck, several plots to attack the U.S. at home and abroad have been foiled. The National Security Agency, or NSA, charged with electronic surveillance, has pieced together a picture of terrorists networks by tracing who calls or emails known terrorists and then who calls those people and so on, working outward to build a graph, showing each person as a point, connected with lines.

John Poindexter, who was Ronald Reagan's National Security Adviser and who had approved Ollie North's "neat idea" to use money from the sale of missiles to Iran to fund the Contra insurgency in Nicaragua, had another neat idea in 2002. Why not use the new methods of data mining to find terrorist cells by looking at the meta data generated by the internet, telephone calls and credit card transactions? Meta data is not the content of those calls and transactions, but the addressing - who called whom, where a card was used. Poindexter thought that terrorist networks would leave a signature in the noise of meta data that he could learn to interpret. He took his idea to DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where he was put in charge of a research project known as Total Information Awareness.

Meanwhile the NSA began looking at ways to use meta data in building it's charts, which grew to be called the BAG or "Big Assed Graph." These graphs were often too complex for interpretation, "hair balls," NSA analysts called them. It was hard to tell the conspiracies from the calls to Pizza Hut to order a large pepperoni with extra cheese.

Both the NSA and DARPA efforts had another, and larger problem; the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Written in the 1970s, the FISA act prohibited spying on United States persons without a warrant. United States persons are everybody here, not just citizens, and therefore would include the members of terrorist sleeper cells, hiding somewhere in Wisconsin, as well as foreign exchange students at high schools and colleges and Pakistani doctors working in your local emergency room.

FISA did not contemplate the existence of meta data. How then, to interpret FISA regarding these data mining programs? It would be impossible to apply for an individual warrant to look at the addressing of every email, telephone and credit card account that would need to be entered into a giant database for analysis. The programs were not reading anybody's mail or listening to their calls, either, just using their addressing information - like looking at the address and return address on millions of envelopes.

Poindexter addressed this problem at DARPA by using artificially generated data. His was a research project, not net, actual terrorist hunting, so he could afford to wait until Total Information Awareness was developed before having to address a change in FISA in order to use it in actual practice. Under Michael Hayden's direction, the NSA program got a finding from President Bush which interpreted FISA in such a was that they could use actual meta data and would only need to request a warrant when someone's actual mail, calls or transactions needed to be read.

By 2004 the Total information Awareness program had another problem. When it became publicly known that John Poindexter, infamous from the Iran Contra scandal, was running a secret government program called Total information Awareness, that sought to spy on everything anybody did anywhere, anytime and that it had this logo - things got a bit ugly.

The fact that this was an unfair characterization of the program, which would not read your mail and was not using real data, at least yet, did not matter. The plug was pulled by Congress and the program ended - except that it's research and methods were taken over by NSA and applied to it's experiments using real data, which still was generating uninterpretable hairballs.

The Watchers asks some interesting questions. How much are we willing to allow government to look at our electronic transactions in order to keep us safe from attack. Does it really matter if they use our meta data at all? Will it do any good? To this day the hard work of connecting one conspirator to another, guilt by association, even with the burden of applying for warrants for each U.S. person, is still far more effective than attempting to interpret the vast amount of meta data generated each day. John Poindexter's terrorist data signature has not been found. Your supermarket is mining your data every time you visit the store. Do we have anything to fear from the NSA looking at it? What does privacy even mean anymore in the era of Facebook, when we publish so much about ourselves online?

My supermarket can't seem to get any farther than offering me cents off coupons on brands of laundry detergent and dog food I don't like. Hopefully NSA's software has become more sophisticated than that in it's attempt to use data mining to find out who to spy on. Yet it is still, according to The Watchers, producing mostly hair balls.