08 April 2007

Just the facts, ma'am. Just the facts.

J. A. Jance has written more than 30 books. Most of them mysteries. There are 17 about a retired detective, J. P. Beaumont, a dozen about Sheriff Joanna Brady, and now two about Ali Reynolds, an LA TV news reader who was unjustly fired for being too old. That means, evidently, that Ali Reynolds is rolling in lawsuit settlement money and has nothing better to do than get involved in murder mysteries.

Mary Ashmore kindly passed to us Web of Evil, the most recent of the Ali Reynolds books.

This is a good story. There are twists and turns here to keep characters hopping and this reader interested.

The story and the characters are not part of real life, because there are murders, a crime family, drug running, an undercover DEA investigation, a friend who happens to be a police detective with friends in high enough places to get inside information, and people with more money than god. But, in spite of all that, the story and the characters are mostly believable. Well, there is a bit of instantaneous high tech that reminded me of the seemingly cost-free DNA tests that are done within hours on the CSI-type TV shows, but things are mostly believable.

Jance is a good story teller. I've liked nearly all of the Joanna Brady books I've read. (I think I've read only one of the J. P. Beaumont books, but I don't remember anything about it just now.)

I was ready to shut the book having finished the narrative when I notice that there were still a whole bunch of pages unread. "What's this?" I asked.

The bonus in this book is that once the main story has been told, Jance adds two-and-a-half post-climax short stories to the book. One of them is very good.

Jance's books aren't as meaty as those of the Scandanavian writers* from Jance's generation that Dan Conrad and I discussed earlier, but Web of Evil was a good book to read while sitting on the deck overlooking the Gulf of Mexico at the end of March.

Thanks, Mary.


03 April 2007

Light Weight Reading

Kris gave her little brother David a book, and I read it first. David was a little busy with Japanese, philosophy, calculus, and other academic things.

The cover of Jasper Fforde's book The Eyre Affair quotes a Wall Street Journal review saying that the book “combines elements of Monty Python, Harry Potter, Stephen Hawking, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer…” As Dan Conrad demonstrated on these pages once some time ago, we all should be suspicious of excerpts from reviews, but in this case the excerpt is an understatement. Fforde's book also contains elements of Saturday Night Live, Xena, Warrior Princess, The Simpsons, Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, Pee Wee's Playhouse, and even a bit of Twilight Zone. And then there's a passel of bad “near-puns.”

I keep saying that I don't like improbabilities. Everything in this book is improbable. And I still was entertained. The main character is Thursday Next. The New York Times reviewer said she's “part Bridget Jones, part Nancy Drew, and part Dirty Harry.” You should now have the idea that Fforde's inspirations are improbable too.

It's set in Great Britain in the 1980s, but it's a 1980s where no one has invented airplanes or computers. Literature is secularly sacred, and people travel into books and poems. People also travel through time. But if a literary or time traveler messes with written art, the penalties are severe. Thursday Next is a literary detective, hunting down forgers and people who change novels because they don't like the original endings.

Thursday's assignment in Fforde's novel is to track down a villain who kidnapped Jane Eyre from the Bronte novel. What did I tell you about improbable? How about trapping the bad guy in Poe's The Raven? Well, there is Thursday's pet dodo bird. It, like all the other pet dodos in Great Britain were cloned from salvaged DNA. Oh, and in Fforde's world, Wales is an independent kingdom that guards its borders with England fiercely. That last part is just dreaming on the part of Welshman Fforde.

The Eyre Affair was enjoyable enough that I bought Fforde's second book when I found it on the overstock table at River City Books. Lost in a Good Book continues where The Eyre Affair left off. But now, Thursday Next's husband has been kidnapped into a book somewhere and the bad guys want their hero out of The Raven. Detective Next journeys into Great Expectations and becomes an apprentice to Miss Havisham, who, when she's not busy in her role as the disappointed bride, is one of the key players who maintains order in the world of literature and the “real” world. It also seems that Thursday's father, a renegade time traveler, has encountered one time stream where the world ends in a gooey mess next week. More of the improbabilities and bad jokes and puns.

Once in awhile something made me take notice of some “real” world absurdity to match the absurdities of Jasper Fforde's world. I read these books for the most part on planes between Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, and Eugene, Oregon and back. They were good plane ride reading. They'd probably be good on the beach or in front of the fire. A fine escape from “reality.” Tell us what you think.

The Shadow Dancer

Back in the summer of '05, I made a solo trip to Yellowstone. One of my goals was to hike up Mt. Washburn, the highest mountain in the park. No climbing, but the hike is just over 3 miles and the elevation rise is about 1,400 feet. It was a celebration of my 60th birthday. It was great fun.

Since I was going to be in Wyoming near the Wind River Reservation, I picked up another of Margaret Coel's mysteries for the trip. The Shadow Dancer was the 2002 addition to Coel's series of murder mysteries set on the Wind River reservation. Jana Eaton says that many of the characters are based on people who live there. The Jesuit mission is fictional as is Father John O'Malley, who, like many characters in murder mysteries, is a better detective than the pros. It's a wonder he finds time to say mass every morning.

(Pictured at left is the St. Stephen’s Mission, located on the Wind River Reservation near Riverton, Wyoming. The mission, established by Jesuit missionaries in 1884, serves Catholics from the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. The Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus now manages St. Stephen’s mission. The inspiration for Coel's mission served by Father John O'Malley.)

It's also a wonder how, in a small, isolated community noted (as Coel repeatedly mentions) for its fast and effective “moccasin telegraph,” Father John's friendship with Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden hasn't scandalized the place (even though Coel assures us that in spite of middle-age hormonal yearnings, it's all innocent).

Scene set and main characters introduced. When a revivalist cult arises on the reservation and two prominent men are killed, Father John and attorney Holden are dragged into the story from different directions. The story is well told. It is entertaining summer reading.

I read it in West Yellowstone, Montana while trying to cope with unusual late afternoon heat. I spent my mornings getting accustomed to the altitude by hiking through Yellowstone's gorgeous landscape, marveling at the exotic thermals and the trumpeter swans, elk, and bald eagles. By 2:00 in the afternoon, it was time for me to seek shade for several hours. I am thankful for SPF 50 sun block, but it doesn't keep me cool.

The Shadow Dancer is a good mystery novel, like the ones I read earlier. Astrid Wiesner-Hagedorn has liked a couple of the earlier books. Jana Eaton, who grew up in that part of Wyoming, has enjoyed several of them too. I have no clue about its appeal to you. Try it and tell us what you think.

Heaven, Hell, or somewhere in between?

Months, if not years ago, Chip Hauss sent along a review he did for another publication. I doubt that there's much overlap between the readership of Reading and that of Highlands Review, so here's an intriguing book to think about. I am likely to look for it.

Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies-and What It Means To Be Human by Joel Garreau

Garreau is a staff writer for the Washington Post and the author of two earlier books. The Nine Nations of North America convincingly made the case that the real lives most people lived in the United States, Canada, and Mexico should be divided into nine regions which cut across state and national boundaries. Edge City explored the way American social and commercial life was changing in the late 1980s away from the center cities to housing, shopping, and business complexes in the distant suburbs. For those who know the Northern Virginia region, the inside cover of the hardback had a photo of Tyson's Corner in 1988 with all its gleaming office buildings and malls (but not its traffic). The back inside cover has a picture of Tyson's Corner in 1948. Two dirt roads and a gas station. 'Nuff said.

Radical Evolution is an even more profound book. It starts with a New Yorker cartoon with a nebbishy man on what looks like the fifth step of a very long staircase with four apish creatures below him. The most advanced ape says, “I was wondering when you would notice that there are a lot more steps.”

The overarching argument of the book is that the future of our species and our civilization (maybe the other way around) depends on how we handle the next stage of our evolution. As Tom Lehrer argued on disk 40 years ago, that is not about how we grow a sixth finger (he tells us Millard Fillmore had one) but how we grow our minds.

The book begins with a chapter on DARPA and thinkers who eddy around its work on new technologies and national security: public intellectuals like Frank Fukuyama; and first responders like Dr. Dave Warner and Dr. Commander Eric Rasmussen who have been harnessing technology to help civilians and the military cope with complex emergencies, whether caused by nature or humans.

But the real value of the book lies from p. 45 onward where Garreau examines the broader implications of the DARPA-driven trends for our society as a whole. Put simply, he claims that change -- and thus human evolution -- is occurring asymptotically at an ever-accelerating rate.

That argument, itself, is not a new one. It goes back at least to the work of Alvin Toffler, which he repeated many times since he first published Future Shock in 1970.

What sets Garreau apart is that he interviews technologists like Ray Kurzweil (heaven) who think we are heading into an era of tremendous progress and Bill Joy (hell) who thinks we are literally heading there in a handbasket. He outlines two other scenarios. The most plausible one is that we will muddle through (prevail) which he builds through the work of Jaron Lanier and others. But, he also holds out the possibility that we will make a quantum leap as a species and civilization and use our brains and technologies to “transcend” our current predicaments.

Since I found each of the four visions convincing, I decided the best way to review the book… was to interview Joel Garreau at one of his (and my) favorite haunts, the Tabard Inn on the edge of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. It was an odd place to have this conversation, since the Tabard Inn is a throwback technologically. The rooms, for example, do not have either telephones or televisions, and the dining room has the kind of funky elegance one finds in the best British bed and breakfasts.

I got more than I bargained for. Garreau is wonderful to work with for two reasons. First, he is one of those unusual journalists who make complicated issues come to life because he is very good at letting people tell their stories. Second, he has one of the most wide-ranging and fruitful minds I've ever encountered.

During the course of two hours (he and my wife had Tabard's wonderful crab cakes; I had fish and chips), the conversation ranged from our similar childhoods in small town New England, our experience as conscientious objectors in the late 1960s, our common interest in technological change and how it impacts conflict and management within all organizations, and, of course, the implications of all this for national security writ large.

On one level, after the chapter on DARPA, security issues recede from an explicit part of the core discussion. However, they lurk just below the surface in each of his four scenarios. In fact, I found the DARPA projects (including one man who describes himself as a combat zoologist) less convincing. They are technologically neat, but like many DARPA projects, many never end up with any practical use. Indeed, it is hard to see how even successful versions of the robotics or most of what he covers in that chapter would help troops cope with the kinds of insurgencies we face in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it is just as clear that whichever of the scenarios-or some variant of them-pans out, our security environment will change. The kinds of accelerating change Garreau discusses dwarf those covered in conventional books on globalization, for instance in the three recent books by Tom Friedman, the well respected but columnist at the New York Times.. The security risks would be most obvious in his “hell” scenario. However, how we deal with what Friedman calls a “flat world” in which the political “distance” between any two countries is sharply reduced will be an issue in any event. How will we govern ourselves if we simply get by, let alone meet his transcending goals? How will we deal with threats from people who don't share those goals, especially those who will be the losers in what will be global processes of change?

Garreau doesn't answer these questions. As a journalist, that's not his job.

But it is a book that we should all read since it forces us to ask some of the deepest questions about who we are as a species and how we relate to each other.

Put simply, every spring, I teach a political science seminar in which I have to assign both a novel and something on science. I focus on cooperation and confrontation in political life. Finding a novel is no problem; choosing among many great ones is a problem. Over the last three years I've used three different books by scientists, which my science phobic students despised.

I've found my book.

Another in a long series

A May or two ago, I picked up a book to read for fun. I'd picked it up a couple weeks earlier and started it one night on my way to sleep. It started to suck me in right off the bat, and I knew I didn't have time to finish it So I put it back on the pile until I was up at the cabin called Sidetrack. I finally read it, though it almost kept from a decent night's sleep again.

I found this book on a temporary table at the grocery store. I guess there weren't enough out dated products to fill up the aisle, so they filled a table with books. It was like finding a Chinua Achebe novel at Target or a Laurie R. King novel at Wal-Mart (both of which I've done).

The book was Bad Boy Brawly Brown (an Easy Rawlins novel) by Walter Mosley. For a time context, let it be noted that I first discovered Mosley's novels about the same time newly-elected Bill Clinton was photographed carrying an early Mosley novel down the steps from Air Force One. Some have been great. One has been terrific. Others have been so-so. Rather like my teaching days.

Mosley always tells a story directly and succinctly. And it's that kind of beginning that sucks me into them quickly. This one concerns the ongoing story of Easy Rawlins and his attempts to be a good man in an imperfect world. Haunted by the apparent death of a boon companion who was also a dangerous companion, Rawlins is asked by John, a long-time friend to “rescue” the son of John's girlfriend.

The complications involve race relations in LA in the late 1950s, idealistic and radical racial politics, and human frailties. And there's Rawlins' children, his job, and his girlfriend.

It's a great quiet tale even though there are dangerous adventures. It's quiet because Easy Rawlins has become thoughtful, analytical, and methodical as he's gotten older. And, while at one moment in the story he celebrates “being able to lie again,” he gets a lot more mileage out of telling the truth.

Mosley also uses the story to teach. Like this lesson:

“He looked me up and down, decided by some unknown calculations that I wasn't a threat, and said, 'Colonel Lakeland. Come with me.'

“He turned and walked back through the buff doorway.

“As I followed, I experienced a familiar feeling of elation. It's a reaction that black people often have when going into the slave master's quarters. In there, we imagine, is the place where freedom resides. And if we get the chance, maybe we could pick up a little of that most precious commodity when the man is otherwise occupied.

“I smiled at my silly delight.”

The book is well worth the time I spent with it, especially since I could put it down and look at the lake and the eagles flying over it. I am glad I had the strength to put it down and get a good night's sleep. How else could I have gotten all the windows washed in this cabin by the lake?

Progressive Republican -- not an oxymoron

We had dinner with Dan Eckberg last night at his home in Cape Coral, Florida. We had a wonderful time talking and sitting on the lanai. When it got late, I was tempted to take up his offer to stay the night, but we really needed to be back to being guests here in Naples. Perhaps, it was the good discussions that prompted me to seriously begin the process of translating the paper version of Reading to this blog. And Dan's contribution was on the top of the pile (meaning it might be the oldest).

The last time a paper issue appeared, Dan recommended Cheri Register's book Packinghouse Daughter. This time around he recommends a more directly political book, A Man's Reach by Elmer L. Anderson.

Dan wrote about reading a book that was a timely reminder for us in Minnesota of the days when our top elected officials were committed to the best interests of the Minnesota “community” and to making the public part of the state functional. I think he was recommending compassionate politics as much as an inspirational book.

Dan wrote:

"Though we belonged to a different political parties, I have always admired Elmer L. Andersen, Minnesota's governor from 1961-63. Notices of his death, at 95, in November 2004 reminded me to read up on him. His memoir A Man's Reach was published in 2000. The title comes from a favorite phrase of his by Robert Browning: 'Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?'

"The book chronicles his life from his birth into a working class Chicago family (that became a single parent Muskegon, Michigan family) through his 91st year. Like his brothers he worked in a Muskegon furniture plant and eventually became a traveling salesman for that company. That brought him to Minnesota, where he enrolled in the University of Minnesota and met his wife, Eleanor.

"In 1934, he was hired by the H. B. Fuller, Jr. of the H.B. Fuller Company of St. Paul. It was a small adhesives manufacturer that he eventually bought. When his son took over the business in 1971, it had 27 plants in the United States and 10 other countries.

"In January 1949, twenty people filed for a special state Senate election in St. Paul. Andersen, a life-long liberal Republican, active with Family Service of St. Paul, a member of the Rotary Club, Chairman of the Community Chest [what's now called the United Way] campaign, and active with the Indianhead Council of the Boy Scouts won the primary and the seat.

"'I learned right away: always stay on good terms with people whose ideas differ from yours so that you can work with them tomorrow even if you differ with them today.' As a state Senator between 1949 and 1958, he supported the creation of a Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota, alcoholism treatment facilities, increasing the role of social workers in adoptions, the creation of new state parks, the building of more public housing, an effective civil rights law, and special education programs. In other words, Andersen supported all the things that today would make the Republican elite in Minnesota have fits.

"In 1960, several friends suggested that he run for governor. Andersen won by 22,879 votes. He pushed hard to get a fair housing bill passed and to create a Human Rights Commission. He leaned on Minnesota Twins' owner Calvin Griffith to racially integrate housing for Twins ball players in spring training in Florida.

"In 1962, Andersen ran for reelection against Karl Rolvaag and lost by 96 votes out of 1,220,000 cast.

"As a private citizen Andersen worked with his friend Charles A. Lindbergh to establish Voyageurs National Park and served on the Board of Regents of his beloved University of Minnesota. He also was an active board member of the Minnesota Historical Society and the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, whose library he endowed.

"Andersen's later career was as Chairman of ECM Publishers, Inc., a chain of 18 newspapers and 6 shoppers around the outer suburbs of the Twin Cities.

"Even in his later years, Andersen continued to be progressive in his political views. 'I am a liberal Republican. That is another way of saying that I am quite independent, or rather, I have become so as the Republican Party has moved steadily toward the right… It does not bother me that Minnesota ranks high among the states in taxation, because it also ranks high in its culture, education, health, life expectancy, and other positive measures. One reason Minnesota is economically strong and growing today is that it has invested in good government, education, health and nutrition, environment, parks, and trails - in everything that makes for balanced, happy lives… America and the rest of the world need to face up more directly to the problem of poverty. Every American -indeed, everyone in the world - should know freedom, justice, and opportunity.'"

Ah, the good old days… Thanks for the reminder, Dan.

Drowning Man in Wyoming's High Plains

I admit it. Sitting in the lap of luxury on the fourth floor deck looking at the waters of the Gulf of Mexico half a mile away, I wonder what I'm doing here. Thanks to everyone who made this possible. A break from routine and a chance to read a book with few distractions. The clouds are building up along the coast this morning. That's the distraction.

Oh, I did read a book, The Drowning Man by Margaret Coel. (It was a gift from my sister-in-law.) Ironies abond: reading about the Wind River Reservation while overlooking a mangrove swamp on Florida's west coast; the idea of a drowning man in the high dry plains of northern Wyoming; thinking about the material poverty of the Shoshone and Arapaho people while luxuriating in a posh resort community...

This is the twelfth mystery Coel has set in the Wind River reservation and the twelfth time she's written about Father John O'Malley, attorney Vicky Holden, and people who populate the fictional version of the "res." I have read many of them.

This one is good. The story is well told and it was complex enough to hold my attention in spite of the tropical distractions of beach and surf, pelicans and ospreys, ginkos and alligators.

The central part of the story is about the theft of ancient rock art (the Drowning Man of the title), but the back stories and the side stories are intriguing too. And then there's the attempt by the religious hierarchy to "hide" an old, ailing pedophile priest in the little mission on the "res," where he won't be noticed. Of course that works no better than the scheme to steal and sell ancient art. Having Coel tell the stories does work.

I like Coel's landscape descriptions (they remind me of Hillerman), her dialogues, and her story telling. I'm not as fond of some of her plot devices, but in this book they don't get in the way very much.

I'm leaving the book on the shelf here in Naples, where they need more books. I hope it gets read again. If you're familiar with Coel's other books and liked them, this one is for you too. If you're not familiar with her books, this one would be a good place to begin: you won't have to catch up on much and if you like this book it will be easy to go read others.