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Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily

Right now I’m reading:

Lying on the Couch: A Novel, by Irvin D. Yalom

Just finished:

Pandemic (The Extinction Files, Book 1), by A. G. Riddle

Poetry I’m reading:

Selected Poems 1965-1990, by Marilyn Hacker

For research:

The Great Humanists: European Thought on the Eve of the Restoration, by Jonathan Arnold

Featured post

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger

The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger, by Stephen King

I missed The Dark Tower the first go-round, though I certainly know a lot of people who think it’s King’s greatest work. King, it’s rumored, thinks that himself, considering it his magnum opus. After being in print for 35 years the book is now being made into a film, giving it more attention and promotion, the main reason I finally picked it up for the first time.

For those who are also newcomers to it, this first volume of the series (there are seven books total) has an old west feeling set in what is possibly an alternate universe, though there’s also a running feeling that it could be Hell or some other kind of afterlife. The parched western landscape certainly gives it a hell-ish atmosphere.

The main character is The Gunslinger, named Roland Deschain of Gilead. As the tale progresses it’s discovered that he’s a descendant of King Arthur. For those who missed French and Renaissance literature, Roland was also the name of a Frankish knight under Charlemagne and considered the original Paladin. He was mythologized in several Italian poems in which his name was changed to Orlando. Roland is crossing the desert in search of “the man in black”. Along the way he meets several people whom he questions about whether they’ve seen the man in black or, this being set in the old west, he kills.

Along the journey he meets a boy named Jake Chambers and, frankly, in any book as ambiguous as this one your senses should always go on alert for any character with the initials JC. Jake has clear memories of having lived in a large city and being pushed into traffic and being killed. Jake is sacrificed again in this book, as Roland continues his quest to find the man in black.

When they meet Roland is given a vision of the cosmos, showing his insignificance, and is also told that his true enemy resides in a dark tower. He tries to convince Roland to give up his quest and Roland refuses. The man in black tells him that he must head to the western sea and then puts Roland to sleep for 10 years. When he wakes he heads to the sea and that’s where the next volume will pick up.

There’s a cottage industry built around analysing the entire corpus, with nearly every character and location receiving an individual entry on Wikipedia. Some take some interesting directions, some just try to retell what you just read in the book with much worse prose than King’s. Since Wikipedia contains so many spoilers it’s much more worthwhile to make note of “what the hell?” moments while reading and then track those down after reading. But again, with a book this ambiguous (not a bad thing) it’s easy to imprint your own interpretations on the book.

For such a leisurely novel, and by that I just mean that the story arc is loooong, the book is strangely compelling, perhaps because there are so many interesting mysteries along the way that make the book a fun puzzle. I have had people tell me the whole of The Dark Tower is the greatest book ever written by a human. That covers a lot of territory but now that I’m not being nagged regularly to read it I’ll keep an open mind as I trek through the desert with Roland in future volumes.

 

 

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

I like Al Franken and have read all his books. Even the titles make me chuckle. This is the first book released since his contentious election to the U.S. Senate in 2008. On his recent promotion tour for the book he happily took digs at the senators he works with daily, as if finally released from the self-imposed gravitas he’s exhibited in most of his appearances in hearings and on the floor of the Senate.

This book reflects much of that lighter approach. And he admits that his staff has helped him generally avoid letting his sense of humor get him into trouble. He says he writes what he wants in letters and lets his chief of staff return the ones where he seems to have gone overboard. He also says his staff will frequently advise him to “keep it in the car” when he lets loose on the way to a meeting or fundraiser. He takes his role seriously, and talks about the extents he went to apologize to Mitch McConnell when, while acting as Senate President during speeches, he rolled his eyes and sighed at several statements McConnell made. He’s also given his staff permission to tell him whenever he’s “being an asshole.”

Those were nice things to find in the book. What was surprising was the open and honest autobiographical material included. He tells of his upbringing in Minnesota and his first meeting with long-time partner Tom Davis, and spares nothing on Davis’ long decline into drug abuse. He tells about their early partnership, from doing school announcements to the performance that first brought them to the attention of Lorne Michaels as the first Saturday Night Live team was being formed. He includes meeting his wife of nearly four decades, post-SNL life, and his tight election to the Senate after an excruciatingly long recount.

Once the story moves to the Senate he tells of his attempts to work with other senators from both parties, and how difficult that can be in the growing climate of enmity, what one colleague compared to the days when Charles Sumner was nearly clubbed to death by a southern representative Preston Brooks. Still, he says he works to develop better ties with the other side, even Jeff Sessions who, despite what they had established as a friendly relationship, Franken pounded during the hearings for the Sessions nomination for Attorney General.

Except for Ted Cruz. Everyone, he says, hates Ted Cruz, and he details some examples of why.

He also talks about the painfulness of the constant fundraising, even worse for those running every two years in the House, and his wish that there was public funding that could eliminate the demands to continually search for contributions. The story follows him through the Trump nomination and wraps up with suggestions for future actions progressives should be taking in the future.

A good book with Franken’s typical humor and dedication to fact-checking, along with more serious thoughts both about his life and the state of politics today.

Fated

Fated (An Alex Verus Novel), by Benedict Jacka

This is the first of what has become eight books featuring a mage named Alex Verus. Alex runs a small magic shop in London, with an ongoing arrangement with a nearby shop dealing in stage magic to redirect those who walk into the store by accident. Alex sells herbs, powders, and has a collection of magical items, some for sale and some hidden upstairs.

In this magical world mages have specialized skills. Alex is able to see an outline of the future so that he can scan until he see a successful future, then trace it back to see what action needs to be taken for that successful future to become reality. Never really accepted by the ruling Council, Alex is surprised when he is asked to be part of a team investigating a magical artifact, until he learns that all the mages sharing his skills have slipped out of town so they don’t have to take part themselves.

In a world that has had an uneasy truce between light and dark practitioners, Alex finds himself caught between both forces in a race to see which can take control of the artifact that could help them wield ultimate control. And only Alex realizes that his closest friend may have found the key to unlock that power.

Verus is an interesting character. He was apprenticed to a dark mage and ended up serving as a slave. He was able to make a rare escape but has the horror of that period in his life close at all times. Though he’s far from the most powerful or talented mage, he does have some unique skills and a dedication to doing the right thing. That makes walking a narrow path between the two competing forces particularly challenging. But his ability to see the outcome of various actions helps him survive some truly nasty people.

It’s one of those books you’d have to rate as “a great read if you’re into that kind of thing.” Books on magic and fantasy are a select taste and not for everyone, but the book is fun with creative challenges for the characters, a full range of good and bad players, and a developing love interest for Alex. There’s even a gigantic spider. Alex is the narrator and has a fun tongue-in-cheek attitude about most of the events. I won’t be waiting at the store for the next arrival but I can see putting more into my reading list as a nice diversion.

 

The Silent Corner

The Silent Corner: A Novel of Suspense, Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz has initiated a new and interesting character series with this book featuring a former FBI agent named Jane Hawke. Her Marine Colonel husband has committed suicide, apparently with nothing leading up to it and leaving an obscure note. Jane has discovered a pattern with similar deaths. She’s now traversing the country to interview survivors trying to understand what is happening. While she’s hunting for answers it soon becomes clear that she is also being hunted, and by a very sophisticated and well-funded someone.

Koontz has created a tough and resourceful hero in this book, and while the book comes to a solid conclusion it’s clear that there’s room for more books down the line. Knowing that she’s being hunted she has stashed her son with family; has sold her house and is funding her search on the proceeds; and is gradually uncovering a plot of mind control that was developed out of medical research.

It’s rare to find a female character with some of the attributes of a Jason Bourne, and it’s a pleasure to read. Despite her tough, gun-wielding skills Koontz manages to imbue Hawke with a sensitivity that is often missed in similar characters. She also has a knowledge of how law enforcement and criminal worlds work to keep her moving toward her target while avoiding lots of close calls. Like most Koontz books there’s a ton of action with a well-rounded and compelling lead character. Hawke also manages to bring in some help from some interesting side characters.

The technology used at the center of the plot is well past anything available today, but books have been built around more questionable tech with no terrible harm. Koontz makes it seem realistic and the impact is a frightening idea. As the “McGuffin” of the book it keeps the action flowing and gives Jane Hawke more than enough motivation to kick butt through nearly 450 pages of prime Koontz prose.

Words on the Move

Words on the Move: Why English Won’t — and Can’t — Sit Still (Like, Literally), by John McWhorter

This latest book on the English language by John McWhorter offers the idea that all languages are flexible and reflect the times in which they’re used. This makes keeping hard and fast rules about what constitutes proper grammar nearly impossible. It’s a beast that can’t be contained and needs to be appreciated for its ever-changing beauty.

McWhorter brings in insights about the pronunciation of a language: how the tongue shifts to give a language a different sound over time. Sometimes this is a simplification, such as words changing from Elizabethan pronunciations of words like make from Ma-kuh to the present version. (I always wondered where the silent e at the end came from. It wasn’t always silent.)

In addition to drifts in pronunciation words go through changes in meaning, to the point that McWhorter joins some others in the belief that Shakespeare should go through modern translations. An example he offers is Polonius’ “neither a borrower nor a lender be” speech from Hamlet. It contains the line: “And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character.” The “character” doesn’t relate to personal character but to writing the characters down to remember them. He believes that people only understand a portion of the text of Shakespeare today, and that the language can be altered just enough to make it understandable without harming the poetic flow.

He also uses examples from 30s films to show how English is pronounced differently just in the course of 80 or 90 years, and shows how words that were just being introduced with a new meaning (usually a verb changing to a noun) will alter pronunciation under some specific rules.

This is the type of book that may make some grammar nazis cringe, but may convert others to a more relaxed attitude about new introductions to the mother tongue. It’s a pleasant and blessedly jargon-free approach to grammar, pronunciation, and word selection that puts language in a different perspective than what your high school English teacher probably offered. A world where understanding is more important than perfection and that offers insights on regional and racial approaches to the language.

It’s interesting to learn things such as the fact that “literally” has been “misused” for much longer than just the past century, that some words are nearly impossible to define but still add meaning to the language, and that we still don’t know why women tend to say “um” while men tend to say “uh”. If you have an interest in language McWhorter will offer some new perspectives and fascinating factoids to make your reading and listening to your own language more of an adventure.

 

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O: A Novel, by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Neal Stephenson has written some of the most densely plotted sci-fi thrillers of the past few decades. In this book he teamed up with Nicole Galland, who has contributed to several of the Mongoliad books as well as writing several books set in early England, to create a lighter-than-usual book on time travel.

D.O.D.O. is a secret US agency, the Department of Diachronic Operations. The agency has been established because it has been determined that magic was both real and common up until 1851. At that point magic weakened and then became nonexistent.

Melisande Stokes, a polyglot and specialist in languages, is recruited to assist in the investigation of what event might have triggered this change. And it’s clear that something has gone terribly wrong because the book opens with her own penned narrative of how she somehow became trapped in London of 1851 with no apparent way back.

To aid the work the agency also recruits the services of a famous Harvard physicist and a 250 year-old Hungarian witch. The physicist has created a device in which magic still works, while the witch was encouraged to extend her life (apparently by Melisande herself) in order to assist the work.

D.O.D.O. faces several issues, not the least of which is a knack for embarrassing acronyms. There are elements in the government that want to defund the agency. This leads to an attempt (ala Jodi Taylor) to go back in time to place a rare book in a spot where it can be dug up and sold to help fund operations. Unlike the operations of Taylor’s St. Mary’s historians this is a much more complex action, requiring multiple trips into the past and into various timelines to try to get the scheme to work properly. During one of these multiple trips it becomes apparent that some other entity is interfering with the plan. This leads them to an earlier point in England where a beautiful Irish witch, former lover of Christopher Marlowe and correspondent/spy for Irish pirate Grace O’Malley, is recruited but clearly has an agenda all her own.

Galland offers a lighter touch with more humor than Stephenson normally offers on his own, and brings up some interesting historical ideas, such as that many of the plays of Shakespeare, even Romeo and Juliet, have intentionally anti-Irish themes. The story ranges from early San Francisco to Istanbul with some really wonderful characters. It’s told through various points of view, including snippets of interoffice memos and redacted documents.

For those who are expecting a straight-ahead Stephenson thriller this is a book that could bring some disappointment. But anyone with an interest in books on history and time-travel this is a very fun shift in the Stephenson canon, with more attention to character and historic detail than many time travel books.

 

 

Duplicity

Duplicity, by Sibel Hodge

A rich newlywed husband is found stabbed to death in his home. His beautiful wife manages to flee naked to a neighbor’s house. All signs point to the wife’s jilted lover. Detective Sergeant Warren Carter is assigned to the case. Carter is recently widowed, has been passed over for a promotion he hoped for, and believes he sees the answer to the mystery if his newly promoted superior will get out of the way.

Hodge sets up an interesting story working with two narrators switching from chapter to chapter. One thread gradually peels apart the murderer’s story and true motives while Carter describes his own investigation in a book that has more than one surprising twist. She’s able to keep the second narrator’s identity a secret through most of the book and still manages a surprise at the end.

It’s an interesting look at a troubled life running parallel to Carter’s story of working within a difficult bureaucracy that tends to bend to the demands of the upper class. If there’s a fault in the book it may be that she gives Carter too many issues to deal with. For the first part of the 20th century most fictional detectives were single loners working with a few select associates, or totally alone in the noir detective era. They were motivated by an interest in puzzles and a dedication to truth. These days it seems you can’t be a detective unless you’ve been through a trauma with a wife, husband, or child to motivate the search for justice. The new detectives are driven almost as much by revenge as through any thought of justice or an ordered society.

That aside, Carter is likeable and knows the truth if the job will let him expose it and, troubled childhood or not, the killer is completely unsympathetic. The ultimate solution is an interesting surprise in all the different zigzags the story takes. It’s also nice to have multiple narrators and not one of them changes their story for a surprise reveal at the end. A satisfying book in almost every way.

American Kingpin

American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road, by Nick Bilton

Ross Ulbricht was a soft-spoken kid from Austin looking for an opportunity. Raised by libertarian parents Ulbricht was a confirmed Ayn Rand/Ludwig Mises-reading libertarian himself. He was also a big fan of drugs, especially marijuana and mushrooms, with a strong libertarian belief that the government had no business telling people what they should be putting into their bodies.

He had a flash of an idea for creating an Amazon.com for drug dealers and buyers. He was convinced that such a website would make the world a safer place for those wanting to buy drugs. Unlike Amazon, however, he needed a way for people to be able to exchange money without a paper trail. Nearly a year after his original idea Bitcoin became a growing entity allowing users to exchange bitcoins for products or services without out any way of tracing the transaction. When that exchange system became available Ulbricht began to write the basic program for Silk Road.

Starting with his own harvest of ‘shrooms Ulbricht began selling on the site. Soon other sellers joined him, with each transaction paying him a percentage not unlike the seller’s fee on eBay. As the site began to grow and prosper he was taking in tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars daily. Better yet he was being paid in Bitcoin currency which was growing in value daily.

Ulbricht began using the name Dread Pirate Roberts (from The Princess Bride) and started a paranoid journey in which only one other person knew his identity. This was his girlfriend and he was eventually able to convince her that, like the Dread Pirate Roberts, he had turned the company over to another anonymous person while he had switched to earning a living by day-trading stocks.

Instead he was continuing on what he saw as a libertarian mission, so clear on his being right that he even kept a journal. He stayed anonymous to his growing number of employees who kept the site secure or acted as moderators. These employees he tried to motivate by writing emails that made pronouncements on the glories of the site’s libertarian goals. At the same time the “product lines” became more diverse as sales expanded for heroin, cocaine, various designer drugs along with computer invasion tools, weapons, and even murder for hire. Each new landmark was given justification, even as Ulbricht became more secretive and solitary. In his eyes what he did was no worse than the suicide-inducing conditions created by Steve Jobs and Apple while producing their products in China. The cost of doing business.

At the same time various law enforcement agencies were becoming more frustrated with drugs being passed through the US Mail. The book details the various agencies involved in trying to find Ulbricht and shut down the site. Some were heroic, some were worse than the man they were trying to arrest, and we’re talking about a man who eventually ordered at least six hits to keep his organization supporting freedom.

Bilton keeps the narrative together well, condensing tons of research, including all the captured chat talks between Ulbricht and his employees, into a compelling story. If there’s a fault it’s from a general tendency these days to overdue an attempt to make a work of journalism read like a novel. I don’t need to know how people felt when they woke up or looked out a window, and I find it stretches credibility to think that these emotional twists and turns actually show up in his research notes. Beyond that it’s an amazing subject still just a few years in our past and Bilton spares neither Ulbricht nor some of the agents chasing him from criticism where it’s deserved.

 

 

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