Friday, February 23, 2018

Who? by Algis Budrys

It has been raining steadily here in east Texas for the past few days.  My friends are posting their belly-aching on Facebook.  I personally love the rain.  It is peaceful and the perfect time to feel cozy with a cup of coffee and a good book.  Perhaps it is a strange thing for a Texas (transplant) to say, but I don't much care for the heat.

Today's music is by a Japanese composer, Tōru Takemitsu: Les Yeux Clos II (Eyes Closed) performed by the pianist, Peter Serkin.

Who?Who? by Algis Budrys

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is probably one of the best science fiction stories I've ever read. I know it's cliche to say, but I literally read this on the edge of my seat with a finger knuckle in my mouth. I'll briefly break down why I liked it so much, but first a synopsis.

Intelligence man Rogers and the Foreign Ministry man are waiting at the border of a Soviet Union check point. They are waiting to receive a scientist from the west who, while working on the classified K-88, was critically injured through an explosion. Somehow the Soviets got to him first and have had him for four months. The reason is because the Western Allies chose to build this lab near the Soviet Union.  Why they did so is revealed later in the story.

Rogers knows that the Soviets have had their man Azarin doing his utmost to extract information from the scientist, Lucas Martino. Knowing Azarin as he does, Rogers shudders at the thought.

Finally a limo on the Soviet side stops at the border. A man exits the vehicle and walks toward Rogers and the Foreign Minister. What they see freezes their blood. Martino is mostly made of metal.

His head is completely covered in metal, his eyes are artificial as are his ears. He speaks and eats through a grill where his mouth should be. His left arm is also artificial, made of metal. He has no heart or lungs. A machine inside does his breathing for him.

This sets in motion the problem that propels the plot through to the end. Is this Martino or is it a Soviet ringer that wants to return to the lab and find out about the K-88. The K-88 is some kind of nuclear device that would turn the Cold War in the West's favor.

Rogers is assigned to find out. How does one prove someone is who he is supposed to be? One can only prove if he's not by catching him in a mistake; but if he doesn't make a mistake, it still doesn't prove the metal man in front of him is Martino.

What makes this story successful is not simply a good plot concept but Budrys' ability to make all the characters human. Rogers is a tough intelligence man in his thirties who can view the (maybe) Martino with compassion but also pragmatism. We also learn about Martino through flashbacks of his life that eventually merge with the present, but don't think you're going to know if the metal man is the real Martino until the very end. And don't cheat! You find yourself caring about Rogers and the maybe Martino. You also get schooling on how Intelligence works in shadowing and tracing people.

What perhaps you don't get is the actual terror that was reigning in the Soviet Union. We in the West did not discover that until the archives were opened in the 1990s. If you want to read shocking accounts of what went on behind the Iron Curtain then read Orlando Figes, "The Whisperers" and Svetlana Alexievich's Second Hand Time. Those two books are non fiction accounts of individual lives that lived during the Soviet era.

Algis Budrys' parents came from Russia in the thirties and, while he was born in Russia, his family moved to America while he was young. Nevertheless, I think that his approach to the Cold War of the fifties, when this story was written, has some personal emotion involved which makes the story all the more compelling.

At just over two hundred pages I defy you to get up before you are finished.

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Just a random walk through the woods while in Florida.

I have a good friend, Karen, who co-teaches a Bible study for children with me.  When we first met she was just glowing in her evaluation of my knowledge and insight into the Bible.

"Sharon, you are so wise and smart! I just marvel at your ability to get these teenagers to break down and analyze Scripture.  Your lessons just drive to the essence of the message."

Needless to say, my head swelled to the point I could hardly balance it on my shoulders.

After knowing her for a while it finally occurred to me to learn a  little more about her.

"Karen, what did you do?"

"Oh, I'm a homeschooling mom.  I raised my six kids and now it's just Jeff and me."

"How did you meet your husband?"

"At college."

"Where was that?"

"Carnegie Mellon."

"Oh.  What was your major?  Art?"

"Mechanical Engineering."

"Huh.  But you homeschooled and never worked?"

"Oh I worked while my husband was in Medical School.  That was before we had kids."

"What did you do?"

"I developed software for NASA."

So repeat, "Sharon, you're so smart; you're so insightful" in a childish, whiny voice like your mimicking your mom after she told you to clean your room.

I am rather proud and flattered (with my now fully shrunk head) to have Karen as a teaching partner and friend.  We have lately begun to write each other long e mails, even though we see each other every week.  I have so enjoyed it.  It takes me back to the time when I used to write letters to friends.  On paper, sent through the mail.  Remember those days?

I am also sorry to say that she might be a better writer than me. But, seeing my weakness in the ego department, God has probably put her in my life to keep me humble.

Speaking of geniuses (not me, my friend) here is Glenn Gould performing the Toccata for Clavier in E minor.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Freakonomics, #1)Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am always skeptical of explanations based on hard numbers. Statistics do lie as any one in a career that has anything to do with numbers, averages, and odds would know.

Nevertheless, I found this book to be a worthy read. For one, it was quick. I read it in three sittings.

Of course, in order to sell a book you have to go against the grain of popular or conventional attitudes about a subject, otherwise you wouldn't sell your book. But again, you better provide a convincing argument or at least know how to manipulate words so it sounds as though you are supporting your unique slant on subjects that have been taken for granted by the general populace.

This is what the authors, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner attempt to do. By that I mean that sometimes they support their assertions and sometimes they never get around to really backing up their claims.

The most interesting chapters dealt with cheating teachers, the Ku Kux Klan and drug dealers. In chapter one they discussed how the heavier accountability placed on teachers for the students test scores led to some teachers cheating. There were a variety of ways they could do this- give the answers, help the students along- but the best way to avoid detection was to simply go over the tests and change the students' incorrect answers.

Now the smart teacher did not change every answer or all the students' answers. They are educators, after all, and weren't stupid. But it was suspicious that since the teacher accountability some students with a history of failure were suddenly comparing favorably with their peers. At least for one year. The next year many of them sunk back to their previous level.

Now to suspect a teacher of cheating and proving it are two different things. Correlation does not prove causation as the authors demonstrate throughout the book. The solution was rather involved and I won't attempt to show it here, and anyway, it only resulted in the firing of a handful of teachers, however, it did send a warning call to the rest and the cheating stopped.

The Ku Klux Klan history was very interesting because it showed that their reputation was larger than their actual work of terror, which slowly declined with time. In 1890-1899 there were 1,111 lynchings. This number dwindled until by 1930-1929 there were only 119. For the decade of the sixties there were 3.

One man decided he would rid the country of the Ku Klux Klan and he did it in a surprising way. He ridiculed them. Stetson Kennedy joined the Klan, found out all their secrets then broadcasted them on the radio. All the secret handshakes and crypted messages became common knowledge with children playing good guys, bad guys using the same hand shakes and coded words. No longer were the Klans members a secretive powerful group, but an object of fun, even by their own children. Klan membership plummeted.

Ironically, there has been a resurgence in white supremacy groups as a kind of push-back to the "cry bullying" that wants to make every minority a victim and every white male a villain, but that is a topic for another day.

Another chapter discusses the logistics of drug dealing and gang business. It was fascinating how drug lords ran their business not differently from the hierarchy of Amway. Young kids join the gang and sell the drugs on the streets. They make the least money and run the greatest risk of arrest and death. But if they are successful they can work their way up the ladder until they are a part of the board making an incredible amount of money. The book describes the overhead the Drug Lord pays to his subordinates while keeping most of the money for himself and it's a lot of money.

Of course there are risks involved, such as eventually getting arrested and going to jail for many years, which is what eventually happened to the Drug Lord in this story. The information was accumulated by a Sociology PhD student from the University of Chicago who spent several years with a gang from one of the poorest black neighborhoods in Chicago. His experience is as harrowing as it is engrossing.

The final chapters were on what the statistics have to say about effective parenting. They show hard numbers as to what sort of households had successful children and which kind did not (did a child growing up in a house full of books make a difference? Does Head Start make a difference for underprivileged children? Does staying home during the formative years help?) Not surprisingly, it boils down to parents who are involved in their children's education and those who are not.

An interesting conclusion came from names. Do children with "black" names lack success due to racism? It turns out that a certain demographic names their children certain types of names and it's not the names that provide or steal success but, again, the parents. Apparently there are traceable trends as to what kind of people name their children outlandish names and their correlation to success. Uneducated, people from poor neighborhoods tend to name their children "Rashan" and "Bomquisha" and lest you think that's a color-related issue, white people in trailer parks tend to name their girls "Heavenly" and "Dreamer" and call their boys "Bubba" and "Booger".

While I felt some conclusions were based more on speculation (Since 80% of abortion centers are in poor, black neighborhoods, does abortion really lower the crime rate or the kind of person who would abort their children be the kind to abuse their children and produce a criminal element?) it was still interesting to ponder.

Certainly this book should not be the sole source of any kind of information concerning statistics, but it is certainly a thought-provoking read.

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Poor Mouth by Flann O'Brian; translated by Patrick C. Power

 Hope everyone had a Happy Valentine's Day

Today's review is about an Irish writer so I thought it apt to listen to Rocky Road to Dublin performed here by The Dubliners.  You may recognize it as the song played in the Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. during the boxing scene. And after that why not listen to them sing, Whiskey in the Jar (not remotely resembling the Metallica Version).

The Poor Mouth: A Bad Story about the Hard LifeThe Poor Mouth: A Bad Story about the Hard Life by Flann O'Brien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second novel I have read by Flann O'Brian. I'm trying to think how I discovered him. I know it was by accident, looking for one author, came across him, perhaps on eBay or the book exchange club I belonged to. I have discovered a lot of authors that way. For me discovering new authors (that I like, mind you) is comparable to archeologists machete-ing their way through the jungle and arriving at the ruins of some unknown civilization.

Well, that's probably an extravagant comparison, but I do get excited when I discover new authors.

Flann O'Brian was an Irish writer who is considered a key figure in post-modern literature. The first book I read by him, At Swim-Two Birds, was strange and hard to follow. Whether I caught on to his surreal style or not, I found The Poor Mouth comprehensible and quite funny.

The Poor Mouth is a story about a young Irish boy and his coming of age in Ireland. He lives with his mother, his grandfather, whom he refers to as the Grey Fellow or the Old Man, and a herd of pigs, all in the same hovel. Yes, the pigs live inside the house.

The book was written in Irish Gaelic and later translated by Patrick C. Power. The title comes from an Irish expression, "an béal bocht a chur ort" ("to put on the poor mouth") which means to exaggerate one's hard circumstances.

The protagonist, Bonaparte O'Coonassa, tells us about his hard life, starting with his birth. We see his grinding poverty, the hardship of his mother and grandfather, and yet also their humor and wit in dealing with all bad situations.

All the characters are colorful and we learn some Gaelic customs that are performed at birth, marriage and death-all of which involve more than a little drinking (surprise, surprise). We meet the woman he marries and his baby, both of which die soon after being introduced into the story.

Really, the timeline is not interesting at all, it is how O'Brian tells the story. It is really very funny and each trial O'Coonassa encounters takes on a surreal experience because of its absurdity.

He lightly mocks the Gaelic lovers who come from Dublin to learn the real language but soon leave because they can't abide the impoverished conditions of this tiny Irish country (it is called Corkadoragha). He less lightly mocks the assault on the Irish language and customs when, as a boy, he is made to go to school and beaten because he has not conformed to a more Anglicized version of his culture.

In the end he must go to prison for murdering someone (which he did not do, he just came across the body and took his gold seeing as the dead man would no longer need it). While entering the prison a man is leaving after a thirty year sentence. It is his father. They meet for the first time, hug and promise to meet again when the son is free, which will be in another thirty years. The good news is that he will no longer be starving.

I cannot capture the color or the humor in the rich story of Irish parody. I suggest you read the story for yourself.

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Traps Need Fresh Bait by A.A. Fair

This story was a fun weekend read.  I read it to Josh as we were driving to and from Dallas last Saturday.  Not everyone can read in a car but fortunately I have always been able to, and considering how long I have to drive to see family members that's a good thing.  Unless there's no other driver.  I haven't yet figured out how to train Hercule to read to me.

On the radio was this beautiful piece by Julius Isserlis for piano and cello called Memories of Childhood.  Is it not lovely and at times fun?


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A.A. Fair is a pseudonym for Eric Stanley Gardner who wrote the Perry Mason novels. Perhaps he did not want people to have preconceived ideas about his Cool and Lam detective stories so he wrote under another name. At any rate, I find myself liking Donald Lam almost better than Perry Mason.

For those not familiar with the Lam/Cool detective series, Bertha Lam is a heavy set loud mouthed middle aged woman who was running a collective agency until she came across Donald Lam, an out of work lawyer who agrees to work as a private detective for her. Together they solve crimes. Or rather Lam solves the crime and Cool gets the clients and makes sure they get paid.

What I like about Fair's stories is that he writes from first person narrative, always in Donald Lam's point of view. This allows the reader to form a type of intimacy to the detective as we are accompanying him wherever he goes hearing all his thoughts as he thinks them.

Also the story line is good, hooking the reader with a clear mystery and keeping us following along to the end.

In Traps Need Fresh Bait, a man who says he is from an insurance agency stationed in New Mexico needs someone to investigate a peculiar ad in the newspaper. The ad is offering three hundred dollars to anyone who was witness to a car accident between a Cadillac and a Ford galaxy at an intersection.

The ad is carefully worded. It wants someone who will testify that they saw the Galaxy hit the Cadillac not the other way around. Donald Lam poses as a witness to see what the reason for wanting a specific type of witness is. Unfortunately, he is turned down by the lawyer who sees him.

While Lam is trying to plan his next move, he sees a woman enter in the office with the lawyer. When she comes out he charms her and takes her out to lunch. He finds that she was a witness and is glad to have the three hundred dollars because she is down on her luck and desperate for the money.

But was she a witness? After checking police records, Lam discovers that the car wreck had been settled between the insurance companies a long time ago. So why is anyone offering money for something that doesn't need witnesses? Why does the insurance agent want something investigated that is about a wreck he should already know has been settled? And where does this woman fit in to all this?

Lam spends the next couple hundred pages uncovering clues to find out what is really happening and what is this car wreck/insurance claim acting as a cover for.

A good, well-developed story with plausible, yet unpredictable outcomes. A fun, weekend read.

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Thursday, February 8, 2018

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933 by Joseph Roth

My score of Schubert's Little A

As I was writing this, Franz Schubert's "Little" A major, D. 664, 1st mvt - Allegro moderato came on the radio.  I played this piece for my college Senior Recital and also used it as an audition piece for graduate school.  Here, Giuseppe Mentuccia performs it.

Joseph Roth is famous for his historical fiction novel, The Radetsky March, an epic saga about the Hungary-Austrian Empire just prior to WWI.  I have this book and will review it in the future.

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933 by Joseph Roth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 These brief chapters are written as though Roth had a Go Pro camera strapped to his forehead. He describes all the sights, sounds, smells and people he sees as he walks through the streets, shops, bath houses, police stations and morgues of Berlin in the years between the World Wars.

He starts with the Jewish Quarter, then takes us to see the homeless. He describes the modernization of Berlin with the development of skyscrapers and architecture. This was written in the early 1920s. Little could he realize that any further development would come to a standstill for the next eighty years when East Berlin became part of a Soviet Bloc country.

Roth describes bourgeoisie and Bohemians and amusement parks and museums.

He ends with foreshadowing the rumblings of the rise of Hitler and makes some acute observations about the capitulation of the Protestant and Catholic churches and the ousting of Jews. He asks, do these "Christians" not realize that Hitler is murdering Christ when he murders the people who produced Him?

He makes an interesting comment about President Hindenburg. Hindenburg bragged that he never read a book. Roth comments, if someone doesn't read, is book burning far behind? He also asserts that the majority of the German literati were Jewish.

When the Nazis rose to power, Roth left for Paris in 1933. He lived there until his death in 1939. He drank himself to death, due to his disillusionment and hopelessness over the condition of his beloved Germany.

It's too bad. If he could have held out, he would have seen Hitler's ultimate demise and the fall of the Reich six years later.

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Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

The Stars My DestinationThe Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am not a huge sci fi fan but I do like the stories written in the fifties, some of them anyway. This story was high action adventure and I felt like I was running along with the characters and needed to catch my breath, they were going so fast. In some ways the storyline zig zagged all over the place which made me wonder if this was initially a serial published in a magazine. There was a sense that the plot was something the author was making up as he went along. That would be my one complaint: that I felt a lack of continuity. I also found the ending a bit obscure, but that could just be me.

Gully Foyle is the sole survivor on a space ship called the Nomad. He struggles to stay alive until he can be rescued. He has been in this space ship for almost a year and is about to run out of his supply of oxygen.

At last another ship, The Vorga, comes into view. Foyle sets off the flares. The Vorga is very close, no doubt they saw them. Yet the ship takes off, leaving Foyle behind. Thus begins a quest for revenge that propels Foyle to heights he did not know he was capable of. After months of waiting for rescue, he figures out how to rescue himself and then begins his journey to find out who owned the ship, who was on the ship and how he plans to destroy every one of them.

Along this over-arching theme are several sub-plots and smaller journeys and trials that Foyle must overcome before reaching his final goal. But...

Things are not as they seem. Without giving anything away, the reader cannot assume they know anything about anyone in this book. The good guys and the bad guys are not as obvious as they first appear. That is a strength of the book. I hate cardboard characters.

Where Foyle and the other characters end up is entirely unpredictable, but after so many plot twists one finishes the story with a kind of exhaustion and almost indifference as to the conclusion.

Nevertheless, this is an excellent read, especially if you are a Classic Science Fiction fan.

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