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Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily

Right now I’m reading:

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

Just finished:

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

Duplicity, by Sibel Hodge

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

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.

 

 

A Night Without Stars

A Night Without Stars: A Novel of the Commonwealth (Commonwealth Chronicle of the Fallers), by Peter F. Hamilton

In this book Peter F. Hamilton brings to a close the story begun in The Abyss Beyond Dreams. It’s now some 250 years after the clone of Nigel Sheldon broke down The Void, an area where time and physics no longer acted normally. This ejected the planet of Bienvenido with its population of humans who had been stranded and isolated from their home planets while within the Void. Now, millions of light years away from the nearest planetary system, they feel no less isolated. And there are two pressures on the human population: the revolution that took place shortly before the Void was destroyed has become a totalitarian police state and the Fallers are increasing. Fallers are another creature that had been trapped in the Void. They can absorb and mimic humans and will even feast on them. Called Fallers because the spherical eggs that produced them fell from the sky, once they take human form the only way to tell them from any other human is that their blood is blue.

In the time that passed from the first novel the population of Bienvenido has had to make other adjustments. They are no longer able to understand each other in the semi-psychic way that the Void allowed. At the same time, now that physics functions normally again they have begun to expand their engineering and scientific knowledge. The combustion engine has been reintroduced as has the atomic bomb. The latter is being used to try to eradicate nests of the Fallers.

On one of these clearing missions, Ry Evin, of the People’s Astronaut Regiment, notices an object streaking out of the atomic firebomb. This object contains a backup plan left by Nigel’s clone in the event that his mission didn’t succeed. What is in this and who will get to control it becomes the center of this book.

Hamilton creates a tense atmosphere throughout the book. There is tension within the “people’s government” now ruling through dense bureaucracy and secret police who use informants planted among the population. And when a near-hermit forest warden named Florian finds the object expelled from the atomic blast the book becomes like the best kind of police chase, where the runner and the chaser are both followed in the book and we can watch from every perspective.

In the first of these books the action began to center around a discovery in a place known as the Desert of Bones. The centerpoint of this book is even more powerful and interesting.

If I have a complaint about the book it’s that the ending has a type of deus ex machina ending. It probably has less irritation for someone who has stayed with the Commonwealth books from the start, but for someone starting with these two books it seems to come out of the blue. The only advice I can give to a newer Hamilton fan is to scour the chronology included at the start of the book. If you have the audio version you can still see the chronology in the free preview or “look inside” offer for the Kindle version on Amazon. It will give some answers. After that, you get the joy of working your way through the other books in the series until Hamilton’s next book drops.

The Fixer (Justice Series)

The Fixer: A Justice Novel (The Justice Series Book 1), by T. E. Woods

T. E. Woods created a wonderful series starter here, even though I was having trouble following the chapter-by-chapter scene changes that started the book. They all crystallize eventually into a tense mystery-thriller.

Call up The Fixer at Amazon and you’ll find four books near the top, with no less than Bernard Malamud on the list, so deduct some points there. And this is the kind of story that’s a little hard to write much about without spoiling many of the twists and turns. So let’s focus instead on the central theme and the main characters.

Main theme: A female who travels the world knocking off evil people for a fee suddenly finds herself in the power of someone even more mysterious than she is, and with an agenda 180 degrees from her pursuit of justice.

Main characters:

A psychologist in Olympia, Washington, who begins treating a client who keeps herself difficult to reach and who worries about her life of hurting others.

A police detective who lost his daughter to drugs finds himself on a hunt for a mysterious vigilante.

A horribly cruel and manipulative professor who is about to be targeted for death.

To set up the complexities of the story Woods rightfully has to put in place some building blocks in the book that take quite a few chapters to come together. Once they do it turns into a tense story with more than a fair share of tragedy, action, and blood. There are times when some of the twists are really too coincidental so that it seems like the whole world somehow has revolved around 20 or so characters, but the dramatic action is sharp enough to let you suspend common sense for a fun thriller ride. And honestly, no one reads books like this to prep for a logic class, so jump on the roller coaster and scream with everyone else.

The series has developed some devoted fans and there are now six books in the series, all with titles built around Fix or Fixed, so we and Malamud can forgive the title of this book and keep an eye out to see if the action continues or gets tired in future books.

 

Real Food, Fake Food

Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It, by Larry Olmsted

It’s a rare book to make me consider plowing under my yard in favor of becoming my own farmer, but this book has nearly done it. Larry Olmsted outlines a world of faux food, imported poisons, and scams available in supermarkets and restaurants near you, everything from cheeses to wines and on into non-foods sold as food.

Olmsted begins by showing the painstaking craftsmanship behind some of the finest foods, opening with the creation of true Parmigiano-Reggiano from the Parma region of Italy. Milk taken directly from the farm to the cheese maker, with no milk taken older than 12 hours. The cheese begun almost immediately in molds that have to be specially made to foil counterfeiters, kept in storage and turned for years until it reaches perfection. The American answer has been to create cheeses that are more wood pulp than milk, put it in cans, and sell it as Parmesan cheese.  It’s done with little regard for either the consumer or the farmers and craftsmen whose families have been making a phenomenal (and pricey) cheese for centuries.

And this is one of the less frustrating stories in the book, which is filled with reports of “olive oil” that is often no more than flavored and dyed peanut oil (he quotes and mentions the book Extra-Virginity which tells of some oils so poor that they should be used for lubricating hinges rather than food), of shrimp sold as lobster, of poisonous fugu sold as monkfish.

These horror stories don’t even touch on the downright thefts in the marketplace. Whatever is being sold as red snapper at your store is 94% likely to be another fish. White tuna is almost as bad. He details restaurants and meat companies marketing Kobe beef from Japan, even during periods when it was illegal to import any beef from that country.

He also goes into detail on how wines like true champagne require grapes and growing areas that are controlled by the French government. Nonetheless the US government has refused to sign or follow economic treaties, allowing some companies to sell a sparkling wine from different grapes and using different processes but still labeling their wine as Champagne.

Some of the problems come from our government, including the FDA and USDA using careless or nonexistent inspection procedures. Some are international bait-and-switch artists who may export contaminated foods to the US, moving their operations to a different country if they are caught.

It’s a frightening story, but Olmsted does offer some solutions. Don’t by some things, check labels on others, buy from some responsible vendors that he specifies in the book. It’s worth the frustrations of the reports to get a sense of just what is passing as food and for the motivation to do some careful label research on the items you find in the store.

 

More Happy Than Not

More Happy Than Not, by Adam Silvera

This book was published in the summer of 2015 and made quite a splash with readers and critics. It touches on some tender topics related to understanding sexuality, memory, and trauma.

It centers around Aaron Soto, who lives in a run down part of NYC with his mother and brother. His father committed suicide some time before. Aaron is 16 and is in a relationship with a girl named Genevieve. During the summer she goes to an arts program in another city and Aaron finds himself bonding with a boy from another building named Thomas. Aaron has a feeling that Thomas is gay and, at the same time, begins feeling sexually attracted to Thomas. His coming out to Thomas ends up causing a conflict in which Aaron believes the only thing that will make him whole is a new procedure that erases whatever memories are causing a person grief.

The story takes a unique turn that I’m not about to spoil here, but it does open up the reason for the father’s suicide as well as opening up some ideas about sexual identity. To a great degree Aaron wants to forget the feelings for Thomas along with the experience of coming out and that’s what he hopes to accomplish with the procedure.

I found the book kind of a muddle. It had emotional strengths and good characters but some of the message wasn’t so much along the lines of “it gets better” as much as “it’s bad and it could get worse” … but I suppose the ultimate message is that even bad memories are better than no memories and that you can’t really change who you are.

It certainly touched a lot of reader-reviewers at Amazon and Goodreads, with some saying it was the best book they read in 2015. For a year that brought us A Little Life, Between the World and Me, and The Nightingale that’s saying a lot. Definitely a “let’s talk about this when you’re finished” kind of book for sharing with teens containing some strong sexual themes.

 

The Nordic Theory of Everything

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, by Anu Partanen

Anu Partanen was born in Finland and, as she details near the end of the book, became a US citizen. In The Nordic Theory of Everything she details what she noticed as the differences between US and Nordic culture and offers a clear perspective on both.

While American-born citizens still look on their country as the shining example to the world of democracy and prosperity, the country frequently shows up lower than other countries in terms of health, happiness, education, and the ability of citizens to rise from poverty to higher class and income levels.. Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark), on the other hand, are frequently at or near the top.

Partanen outlines the difference in thinking about government and society in the two regions. This is not done with a radical or jingoistic attitude. She’s clear that Finns might be the last to perceive their country as one of the happiest on earth and that they complain about their government as much as the citizens of any other country. But she also clears up misperceptions about Scandinavia and the “socialized” governments they contain.

She rejects and even resents the idea that these are socialist havens. Finland, she notes, bordered the former USSR and, despite a much smaller population, lost more people than the US did in Korea and Vietnam in its fights against socialism in the 20th century. Finland also was the home of several entrepreneurial technology companies, most notably Nokia, throwing water on the notion that these countries curb free enterprise.

She states, however, that these countries are willing to invest in their young and in each other. She talks about the anxiety she felt in moving to New York City when she received a letter than her Finnish health insurance would end because she was living out of the country. She found herself having to try to understand the complex contract law that private insurers put their customers through, the oddities of learning what it means to have a job with “benefits”, and the exorbitant costs of for-profit hospitals. She details the ease of a single-page Finnish tax form, leaving her with more money at the end of the year than in America paying for health care and child care out of pocket. She also wonders why employers would want to add to the work of running a business by adding the insuring of employees, or why employees would want to be financially tied to an employer (rather than each other) for the same benefit.

Partanen differentiates between “big government” and “good government”. She’s clear that the nations in the Nordic regions still face challenges, such as Finland’s adoption of the Euro and sanctions against Russia hurting enterprise with its largest trading partner. On the other hand she sees the dangers Americans face from the stresses of a system that isn’t working for them in the same way it did decades ago.

The book is a non-radical and rational look at a different way of thinking about government and society that wouldn’t hurt the US to consider. She doesn’t approach her arguments as a firebrand demanding change but she does provide a different perspective on an improved way of thinking about government that could offer some positive changes.

 

 

 

Down Among the Sticks and Bones

 Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children), by Seanan McGuire

Readers of McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway will recognize Jack and Jill, the identical twins Jacqueline and Jillian, who are a major part of the conclusion of the book.

In this standalone book we get to see how Jack and Jill became the people they were by the time they entered Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, the home where children who found doorways to alternate universes are helped to recover.

Born to a couple more interested in the social benefits of parenthood than actually being parents, Jack and Jill begin to take on their unique gender identities at an early age. One day, wanting to play costume make believe, they go up to the attic and find that the costume trunk is empty except for a door leading to a deep stairway. Down those stairs is a world ruled by the Master where vampires are the ruling citizens. Jack and Jill take on unique roles in this world. But before they turn 18 they must make a decision whether or not to become permanent residents.

McGuire invented dozens of unusual worlds in her last book. In this story she creates a dark and frightening world. As in the past, she doesn’t shrink from the death of characters whether you like them or not, nor from Jack’s sexual ambiguity. What is also as strong here as in the first book is the devotion Jack has for Jill.

This is a perfect follow up to Every Heart a Doorway, a book that started like a pleasant children’s book and ended up gothic, macabre, and murderous. It will be interesting to see what other twists and turns will come in future books. While it would be a good read for most older teens it’s a book that would be enjoyable for any adult lover of gothic fantasy.

 

The Abyss Beyond Dreams

The Abyss Beyond Dreams (A Novel of the Commonwealth)(Commonwealth: Chronicle of the Fallers), by Peter F. Hamilton

Peter F. Hamilton has been writing books about the Commonwealth for some time. This book begins a new story arc dealing with the mysteries of The Void. This is an excellent stand-alone book, but if you’re new to the universe you may find yourself wondering about references to the Space Lords and the like until you get drawn into the story. There is an opening timeline in the printed and Kindle versions that may help get you up to speed. The Audible version leaves you on your own.

The book begins aboard a ship that is entering the mysterious Void, a strange spot in the universe where some have come to believe that the souls of the dead go. What they find instead is a place in which time and physics are distorted and, soon enough, find speres that duplicate their crew and turn cannibal.

The story then advances to Nigel Shelton, the thousand-year-old inventor of wormhole technology, who has cloned himself to investigate the Void and possibly rescue the crew and passengers of the lost ship. When he arrives he finds a society that can use none of the technology they brought with them. They have developed a stratified society in which an aristocratic group of Captains rules over a society of workers. And while advanced machinery fails in the Void they find they have been able to create servant creatures called Mods through genetic manipulation of creatures called newts.

The story then runs in tandem between Nigel and his investigation of the society and a cadre of revolutionaries who are attempting to overthrow the Captains.

Nigel (or his clone who has been filled with all of Nigel’s memories) is a terrific character. The activities of the revolutionary cells is some of the best political science fiction I’ve read in quite some time. Hamilton does a wonderful job of detailing the political manipulations and eventual paranoia that can come with a revolution mixed with ideologues and those who simply want an improved society. The revolution by itself would have made an excellent book. The additional threads of Nigel and The Fallers (new instances of the egg-like creations that fall to the planet to form cannibalistic monsters) just add more tension and interest to the book.

A great read for either those familiar with the Commonwealth theme or sci-fi fans totally new to Hamilton. If you are new, slogging through some unfamiliar terms and technology is worthwhile.

 

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