Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

A year ago one of the more tech-interested readers of our book club recommended this book.  It didn't make the voting cut but the book has become a best seller and a movie, so it was worth giving a try.

The author is a computer programmer and space fan who made a hobby of understanding how you could send a manned mission to Mars.  Once he was into it, he wondered how you would deal with some disaster there involving the crew.  It led to him posting a story for free on line of a single crew member being stranded and left for dead.  That got enough interest that he responded to reader requests to have a kindle version.  Now it's a best seller in kindle and regular print, much to the surprise of the author.  It's not your normal version of an author's start in the business.

Science fiction has all kinds of angles, but usually involves an imagining of a technology that doesn't exist today (warp drive or flying cars) but at its best still has humans acting as we know them today but dealing with a different context.  Because of Mr. Weir's extreme interest in the science, this story of a crew being the third to reach Mars, experiencing conditions requiring a quick evacuation with one of the crew apparently dying in the process, and that crewman surviving thereafter is as close to the known science of space travel as is available today.  It is both a strength and weakness of the book.

The story is a good one that moves right along.  You really like the stranded crewman and admire his ability to survive under extreme conditions.  There are no bad guys here, just people acting as you hope they would when faced with the terrible knowledge that a person is stranded alone far away with no immediate vision of how he can survive.  If you are interested in things technological, then the many descriptions of the science that allows him to move forward will make the story more believable.  If you are not interested, then the story still works, but you may skip a lot of the technical description.  Either way, it's a quick read and a good adventure story.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Elephant Company by Vici Constantine Croke

A Boston Globe blurb described this as "...blending biography, history and wildlife biology ... [in an] account of [Billy] Williams, who earned the sobriquet 'Elephant Bill' and his unusual bond with the largest land mammals on earth."

That's a good description of this interesting book, starting with a WWI veteran who went to Burma in 1920 to make his fortune.  He always had a strong attachment to animals and especially looked forward to the prospect of working with elephants.  The elephants were used to harvest teak in a reasonably sustainable fashion, which means clear cutting was not an option.  The various crews would take individual trees in a jungle setting, skid them using elephants to haul them through the jungle to dry creeks and river beds and wait for the monsoon rains to wash them down to areas where they could be rafted to saw mills.

The majority focus of the book is how strongly he bonded with these highly intelligent animals and how it eventually led to him using the elephants to rescue many people fleeing the Japanese takeover of Burma in WWII.  The book is at its best when describing the elephants, the environment, the actions of harvesting the teak and the interactions of the elephant handlers and the varied complex tasks the elephants accomplished.  The book also verged into what the elephants were thinking and feeling, especially in the presence of Billy Williams, and that may have been true, but went a bit overboard in attributing a sort of ESP between those involved.  Still, given some of the actions of the elephants, you can't really fault the author for ascribing almost mystical powers when describing these animals.

This is a very enjoyable story and a fun read.  Everyone in the family would like this book.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Just like the previous posting, reading this book was an attempt to have a fun read that's not too long at the end of Summer.  If you've read the other posts on the blog about Murakami stories, you might think this would be too complex or out of the mainstream for that kind of read.  That is not the case with this recent (Aug., 2014) addition to Mr. Murakami's varied selection of stories.

Tsukuru was a member of 5 students who were close friends in high school.  Their personalities meshed nicely and complemented the strengths and lesser abilities of each of the members to the point that they were almost one complete unit who continuously hung out together.  The four other members had names that can be interpreted to be a different color, while Tsukuru had no such association and was thus "colorless."  During his second year of college, the group suddenly shunned him for reasons Tsukuru could not understand and he became profoundly depressed and withdrawn.  Over the years he never forgot the relationship yet never contacted the members until events led him to get to the bottom of the mystery.

While there was little if any of Mr. Murakami's otherworldly parallel levels of existence or manipulation of events in this existence thru dreams and events in the other level, the story should still be very satisfying for Murakami fans and for the broader reading audience as well.  The story is told simply enough and yet it's resolution (to a degree) made for a touching tale and a beautiful look at the friendships of adolescence and how they do or do not linger into adulthood.  This is a very worthwhile read.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

After reading some long or mediocre books lately, I looked for something both good and not too long.  When reading a review of the latest in the "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" series, the reviewer mentioned other Swedish authors, including a duo that changed the genre with their 10 book series starting in the early '60s with Roseanna.

This is crime fiction at its best.  You have a taciturn detective with a varied and capable detective crew who solve crimes without DNA, massive gun battles, or 1000 yard rifle shots with pinpoint accuracy.  In this first story, they don't even know the name of the victim, her nationality, or where she was murdered.  All they know is she was found in the water by a lock being dredged to improve boat traffic.

Through diligent police work, the name appears, which leads to the boat, which leads onward to more understanding of events.  Each character is drawn well and believably, the crime makes some sense in the end, and requires no suspension of reality to make the plot work. The writing is sparse and clean.

Perhaps after reading at least 100 detective stories over the years, I've gotten a little PTSD from the trend towards escalating horrific crimes and those who solve them thru lucky outcomes.  This police procedural may seem a bit quaint, but it deserves to stand alongside the best of Ross McDonald, Raymond Chandler, James Lee Burke, and James Ellroy.  If you like a good mystery, this is a great read.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton

The long version of the book's title includes "...what saints, spies, and serial killers can teach us about success."  If the idea that saint's can be psychopaths is a jarring one, then it gets at what is both the illuminating and somewhat confusing aspect of the book.

Most of us, if we think of it at all, assume a psychopath is a serial killer-like individual.  If they don't kill people but have some of the traits, we might think of them as sociopaths.  This book takes all those who demonstrate enough common characteristics and calls them psychopaths, regardless if they kill people or even get caught breaking the law.  Think of it as a continuum, with a chunk of the individuals living next door in a house larger than yours, driving a BMW.  Once I got over the label and read the characteristics, I concluded I've worked for one and with several.  The Wall Street traders who helped launch the Great Recession probably have an inordinate percentage.

What drew me to the book was an NPR interview where the author spoke of brain scans and scientifically vetted measuring surveys that gave insight into what makes a psychopath.  The short answer is nature, nurture, and circumstances.  Sometimes, you want them making the decisions.  The various cited experts and the myriad of measuring devices became a little overwhelming for me, and some of the metrics left me skeptical, but on the whole it looks like the psychological community has a reasonable idea for measuring and describing the category.

What is a little tougher about the book's title is what it can teach the rest of us.  Some of the psychopathic qualities would be useful for the broader community, but attaining them requires a great deal of training and practice, where the psychopath comes by that quality naturally.  Still, understanding the advantage is good to know and may push a few readers into a serious regimen of extended meditation.  Even if that's not the case, it's an interesting read.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

Any reader of spy history, especially the English agency MI6, has probably heard of Kim Philby.  Mr. Macintyre focuses on Philby's friendship with a close friend, Nicholas Elliott, to tell this story of almost unfathomable hubris on the part of the English spy community that allowed "one of their own" to operate as probably the most important Soviet spy ever.

In the '30's, the Soviet Union was envisioned within the elite English universities as the best hope of blunting the impact of Hitler on Europe and the world.  Communism was viewed as a viable governmental model, even as stories leaked out of the USSR of mass killings in the name of the people.  As the coming war loomed, the English intelligence community started recruiting likely candidates for intelligence work.  The vetting process mostly consisted of someone within MI6 knowing someone from college or family friends and asking if they wanted to do important work for the crown.  Open collegiate affiliation with Nazi-favorable organizations was far more likely to generate suspicion than similar affiliation with the Communist party.

In 1937, Kim Philby was a party member and, through university contacts, volunteered his services to the Soviet Union.  From that point forward, he was a loyal contributor to the Soviet cause until after retiring from spying decades later.  Since he rose to key positions within MI6, including the liaison with the CIA in the 1950's, he was able to inform the Soviets of every major effort to spy on the USSR from immediately after WWII into the 1960's, resulting in the deaths of probably 100s of agents and those who were innocent civilians who might have had an anti-Soviet leanings in post-war eastern Europe.  When Philby came under increased suspicion after two close friends defected, MI6 did everything in its power to protect Philby from various probes from the English equivalent of the FBI, MI5, and from U.S. inquiries, including the FBI.  When MI6 finally came to realize the allegations were probably true, it appears they let him defect rather than face an inquiry that would have brought discredit to MI6.

This is a fascinating account of an agency supposed to be one of the best in the world.  I found it depressing that the English class system had such a profound negative effect on decades of intelligence work.  This is a must read for followers of spy novels and intelligence history.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Swerve - How The World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

This book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and the book's title suggests a monumental story of the world's coming of age.  With those awards and that title, it's hard to begin a book like that without having great expectations. Those expectation were not met but it is a worthwhile and intersting read.

The story focuses on a Renaissance scribe who rises to the peak of his profession to become a key member of the papal nonsecular hierarchy.  One of the reasons for this rise is his excellent grasp of ancient Latin.  When he is no longer part of that heirarchy, he goes on a quest for rare pre-Christian books by famous Latin pagan thinkers.  He discovers a text that was alluded to by other writers and is so impressive that when it makes it into print in the post printing press era, it may have had a profound effect on the thinking of key scientists and philosophers for centuries to come.

The discovered text is "On The Nature of Things" by Lucretius.  It is a dense, two hundred plus page poem that within lies a strikingly modern view of the world and a condemnation of superstition. The story of its discovery and impact is a tough one to tell because the time of discovery was so complex and connecting the text to modern outcomes is so nebulous..  Mr. Greenblatt does a very good job of focusing on the scribe, Poggio Bracciolini, and using his life to give understanding to the 15th century and how rooted in the past most of Europe was at the time, due in great deal to control of the church.  Think being burned at the stake for saying the earth is not the center of the universe.  However, going back to the creation of "On The Nature of Things" and proceeding all the way to Thomas Jefferson, "The Swerve" contains a lot of connections that boil down to they might have read the book or they might have said this and that.  With the lack of actual descriptions by those historical figures that provide that connection, these multiple suppositions may be true but take away from what  is an excellent piece of history and a revelation of the thinking of ancient thinkers.