Saturday, January 17, 2015

empty chair

Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs are back in the thick of it, this time out of their familiar New York, and away in a small town in North Carolina. Rhyme is in the city nearby for treatment when the  sheriff from said small town arrives asking for help with a kidnapping/murder case. In one of the unnecessary twist that aggravate me in serials, the sheriff happens to be the cousin of a cop in New York, who also is a close friend of Rhyme and Sachs.

As if the one time this small town has a kidnapping and murder, which is also too difficult for them to solve alone, is also the time that the world renown Lincoln Rhyme AND his assistant happen to be 20 minutes away, with 2 or 3 days to kill before treatment, isn't coincident enough; the sheriff is the crap town is also the first cousin of a New York cop that drinks coffee with Sachs and Rhyme every day.

Amazing.

Aside from that, this was a good story. There were some interesting twists and turns that I didn't see coming, along with a few I did. There was little bit of a double meaning of the title, The Empty Chair, but I don't recall the details. Jeffrey Deaver has these characters pretty well down at this point and like a lot of recurring characters in serial novels, they are like old acquaintances at this point. The relationship between Sachs and Rhyme is a little tortured, and I don't read enough of the books in this series (never mind, in any kind of order) to really understand it.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

fallen angel

Gabriel Allon of Israeli intelligence is working at the Vatican, restoring one of Caravaggio’s paintings, when tragedy strikes. Guys like Allon tend to be in the right place at the wrong time.

Daniel Silva takes another whack with his Israeli super-spy, and this one doesn't disappoint either. I haven't paid much attention to order in which these stories were written but I noticed that this story did include some things that were alluded to in another story I read, so I assume this one comes later in the overall story arc. If you're concerned about that kind of thing, there is a great site out there to help you stay up to date called FictFact. yer welcome

Silva may have gotten a dreamy about the possibilities for Israel with this one. Maybe hopeful is a better word. But when you're writing a novel about a fictionalized version of Israel, why not realize your dreams, if only a little. Don't worry, Silva doesn't erase the reality of what Israel is and what it has to deal with, but some of the events that occur, if they ever did in reality, would be game-changers indeed.

I just read another Gabriel Allon book, and I said in that that Allon has to walk a line between becoming too personally involved and maintaining his distance so that he can do his job without becoming emotionally trapped. What I realized reading this one, is that he already is trapped. What he does for a living is restore paintings. The reason he restores paintings is because he can't find it in himself to create new works because of what he has to do to protect his country. His duty has taken nearly everything from him. He knows that. He has tried to retire countless times, but he is still compelled to help. That drive is the engine that moves this series forward.

The Fallen Angel in this case, is only the beginning. But the title could just as well be about Allon.





Friday, January 2, 2015

pagan babies

I'm going to miss Elmore Leonard.

I did a little web search as part of this review and came across a list of 10 essential Elmore Leonard books, and surprise, I haven't read any of them. So as a consolation prize for those of us saddened by his loss, Leonard has left a huge pile of work for us to read. He may be gone, but he's left a huge part of himself in the written word.

I've said it before; Leonard tells a story like he's telling a story. That is, the way he would tell a story verbally. Leaning against your kitchen counter, having a drink while you cook. Just shooting the breeze. That's what makes his technique so immediate, easy to read, easy to absorb. He's confiding in his readers, telling them a story that he knows the details of. Sharing it.

Pagan Babies refers to the orphans of Rwanda, where Terry Dunn serves as a priest, ministering to the converts in a small village. Fr. Dunn doesn't appear to take his duties too seriously, but that may be because of the atrocities he has witnessed during the Hutu on Tutsi genocide. But the mission is out of money, and Fr. Dunn makes a trip back to America to raise some additional funds, but his murky past is also waiting for him. A past that does care if he is a priest.





Monday, December 29, 2014

1491

I picked up 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, a little while ago and then put it down, assuming that it was going to be a little dry. That was a mistake.

Charles C. Mann is writer of research. He studies things and then writes about them. Magazines, books, etc. He describes some of the early research he did for this book as research for smaller projects: articles about newer discoveries about earlier Central and South American Indians. He describes how some of these newer discoveries were at odds with what he learned (we all learned) in high school. Information printed in our textbooks based on the prominent theories of the time, taken as fact, but without a lot corroborating evidence. What Mann was finding, as that in many cases, that corroborating evidence is only recently being discovered, and a lot of what we used to think was true was based on the only evidence available, 50 or even 100 years ago, in the form of journal and log entries by Europeans who visited the Americas and documented what they saw, in some cases incorrectly either from a lack of understanding, and lack of investigation, or simply exaggerated to please whomever was footing the bill for their trip.

Mann compiles the most recent archeological evidence and compares and contrasts the current theories on early American Indian populations and their civilizations and they way the may have lived before the Europeans arrived. Its a fascinating look at cultures that now appear to have been much more complex, advanced, and populace then I thought. Mann discusses how even now, theories based on new data still contrast with one another. The science is still very much in process, so this makes for an extremely informative snapshot of what the current thinking is on the myriad cultures that inhabited these lands for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. And the language he uses really helps translate the scientific theses into terms I could get my head around.

Mann wrote a follow-up, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, in 2011, so I'll have to keep my eye out for that one.

Read this book.


the enlish girl

Its been a while since I've posted what I've been reading so I have a little bit of a backlog which I'm trying to get cleaned up. The English Girl is a Gabriel Allon story by Daniel Silva; I've read a few of these since the first one I found in the English language section of an Italian bookstore in the town I was visiting. The selections was small so I figured it would make much difference, and I was pleasantly surprised. Since then I've read a few of Silva's books and they've been pretty good. I actually had another one on my list to read next: The Fallen Angel, but I couldn't find it and found this one instead. I had planned to read a non-fiction story a few books ago and kept putting it off. This was one of the infills.

The English girl in question disappears under some pretty mysterious circumstances while vacationing with some friends on a tropical island. This particular girl happens to work for the British government, but not in a very lofty position. One that wouldn't normally require British secret service to look into, but they do need to look into it because this particular girl happens to be pretty closely connected to someone pretty high up in British governance. So high up that they can't even risk British secret service being involved, so they turn to Gabriel Allon for a favor.

The plan is pretty simple, find out where she is and get her back before they kill her.

It doesn't go according to plan.

Allon is an interesting character because he becomes too personally involved in his work. What other spy novel writer constantly remind us is that this kind of personal involvement gets you killed; but in Allon's case, its an asset. What typically surprises me is how a character that can be so caring, can also be so brutal when it comes to carrying out his duties, but Silva manages to make that dichotomy balance in this character. I think its why he's so fun to read.

I also sense the emergence of a new character in this book, and I get the feeling we'll see this character again. its a mystery

never go back

After picking up the book I'm reading right now, I didn't make it through the introduction before I decided to put it down and read something more fun first. Its nice to switch it up, and the Truman Capote book was a little heavy to lead right into another slog, so I went to the pile of books my wife has burned through looking for something fast. I found Never Go Back, a Jack Reacher book by Lee Child. It turned out pretty well. For me that is. And not for anybody who got in Reacher's way.

I've read a number of the Jack Reacher stories, and while you get to know the Reacher character pretty well after a while, Child does a pretty good job of spinning a story that doesn't lean too heavily on the same things. What makes these stories fun, at least for me, is the mysteries or problems that Reacher has to solve are typically complex, and take some work to unravel, and Reacher isn't a genius, he just keeps at it, and the problems he has to solve typically require both brawn and brains. And knowing when to use each for maximum efficiency.

Another good installment.

Friday, November 28, 2014

in cold blood

Truman Capote was a reporter as well as a writer, and did quite a few short stories as well as novels. I think that mixture of writing talents helped him hone his craft. In Cold Blood is basically a long newspaper story. That's the ways its written anyway. Matter-of-fact, emotionless recitation of the way the story happened, with an eye toward careful unrolling of how it happened. Capote comes right out at the beginning and tells you what happens in the end. Everyone knows at that point, its been in the news for years. There isn't a person in America that hasn't heard what happened to the simple, proud family of four late one November night in the cold Kansas moonlight.

What Capote's readers want to know is how it happened, and maybe more importantly, why it happened. Capote did the research, read the court documents, and I think he even talked to the killers, multiple times. In fact, I think he may have been there throughout the court proceedings and the penalty. Capote had access to their own words, through testimony, interviews, personal correspondence, and he used it whenever he could to fill in the blanks. He even included letters from their families,* sometimes complete, to tell the story of these two men, the lives they led, and how they came to be at the home of the Clutter family, in Holcomb Kansas that night.

The take away: these two men were there to rob the family, based on bad information that there was anything in the home to steal. Apparently, killing the family wasn't the prime objective. That's what makes it so horrifying, there was no money to steal. So how did it happen? And why did these people have to die?

Capote does a good job explaining those points, as best he can. The thing is, normal people just can't understand why people are murdered in cold blood. You can read about it--and you should, this is a good book--but I'm not sure there ever will be a good understanding of why people do what they do. Capote seems to think its because they have no feelings for anyone else but themselves. Maybe 55 years ago they didn't have a name for that, but they do now.

Read this book. Maybe leave a light on. Maybe lock the door, too.


 * Capote changed the family names of the killer's families when he could, presumably to protect the family member's privacy.


Saturday, November 22, 2014

mockingjay

I'm glad to say that the heaviness of the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy, which lightened up in the second, stayed that way in the third. I was wondering what could happen after the first book that would make a sequel and an eventual trilogy worthwhile, but Suzanne Collins managed to do it. She's transformed the story of the first book into the horror that spurns on the next two books. Maybe that was the plan from the beginning, I don't know. I was under the impression that The Hunger Games was a one-off that turned into a trilogy, but as usual, I haven't done the research to either confirm or dispute that hypothesis.

Mockingjay is a good story, and nice ending to the saga. Solid YA SF. young adult speculative fiction Again, call me crazy, but I think and company did a lot for the book sales, and I think they got lucky that she was so well received in her role in Silver Linings Playbook, which came out in the same year. Silver Linings put Lawrence on the map as a quality leading actor; she won the Oscar for her portrayal of Tiffany. And I have to think that helped with The Hunger Games movie, which came out in the same year. Last movie tie-in note: Suzanne Collins did the screenplay too.

Mockingjay follows Katniss Everdeen through her growth into the reluctant hero, and a figurehead for the people, who are fed up with the oppressive government which holds the Hunger Games each year, and sacrifices their children to violence and death. Good on you, Katniss. Its easy to get behind a hero who has so much evil to fight against. Its great to establish a real nasty in a storyline, so that it becomes easy to dislike the bad guy and get on board with the ass whoopin' which we all know is coming down the pike. It really moves a story forward, don't you think?

This was a fun trilogy.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

library as third place

In his popular book, The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg gives us this idea of a 'third place' as a place we can gather, talk, socialize and build community. If your home and those you live with are your first place, and your workplace and co-workers are your second, your third place is the place you go to exchange ideas, spend time, think, and talk. Together.

image: Stanford University's Peer Community of universities in graph form, from the  Stanford University Libraries Digital Humanities, used without permission.

This is not a book review. I have yet to read Oldenburg's book myself,  but I understand the concept. Its not that hard after all; Oldenburg is essentially telling us something we already know instinctively. But by drawing our attention to this third place, and discussing how it fulfills a critical function in society, he has raised this term to the level of a generally accepted nomenclature in fields of study such as urban planning. And lots of examples are cited, from pubs to coffee houses to churches to barber shops. In fact, coffee houses are often cited as the incubator of the Age of Enlightenment across Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. There are even some geeks out there talking about--and using--virtual third places. The point is, these are spaces we need, and if we don't have them, we make them.

I've done some projects in Western Massachusetts in towns that are strictly residential. There is no general store, no gas stations, no coffee shops, or pubs. I hear stories from the people there who tell me, in all seriousness, that they see their friends an neighbors once a week and the transfer station or town dump. This is a public place, and its outdoors, and normally open for a few hours each week on a weekend, and that's where people chat, catch up, trade gossip and town information, and lots of times there is a place for swapping items that a little too good to throw away. I know of one small public library that gets lots of their puzzles from theirs.

Which is a good segue to my question: why aren't public libraries included in the normal list of 'third place' examples? It seems like a natural. Even those small towns I talked about have a church, temple, synagogue, etc. where people can gather, and religious facilities are often included on the list of third places, even though they aren't strictly, in my opinion, a third place unless you consider their extra-curricular activities such as social hour. The library doesn't have the structured worship that calls for the attention of its attendees on a particular subject, patrons are free to do what they choose, making it perfectly suited to be our third place. The only thing I can think of is a mostly outdated notion that the library is a quiet place, and not meant for discussion, debate, and the exchange of ideas that make a third place and build community. If this is really the case, we need to fix that.

I agree that especially in world where connectivity, increased pace of living, and the electronic barrage of attention seeking stuff in our lives, having a truly quiet place is important, and I believe that public library can fulfill that roll AND be a vibrant, active and engaging third place. There is no reason why quiet spaces for study, projects, and reading can't live in the same building as, noisier activities. In fact, public libraries have always had areas that are louder than others. The entrance, and circulation or information desk, and the surrounding lobby areas of libraries have always been more active and noisy. The opening and closing of doors, foot traffic on the often harder and more durable floor finishes in front of doors, patrons speaking to circulation librarians, hunting through catalogs, whether computerized or (ugh) card! The cafés that have begun to appear in libraries, thanks to forward thinking librarians like Nolan Lushington, have capitalized on this idea, but some libraries have been slow or skittish to adopt them for fear of messes to clean and coffee machines to operate. Automatic coffee machines have been a boon for dispelling this notion, and we are now beginning to see folks sitting at the library, sipping coffee and chatting with their neighbors and friends.

We're almost there, so what else can we do to get the word out? How can we leverage this need to build community into building support and patronage for the library? Outreach. In a recent discussion with several public librarians I was involved in, it was the consensus* that public libraries are poor self-promoters. They do very little advertising, other than on their website or their blog. Some use inexpensive ways to get the word out, such as program notes on bookmarks they make and insert into checked out materials. But  these types of strategies have the same failing: they only reach existing patrons. Who else goes to the library's web site?

I'm not an advertiser, so I'm not sure what the solution is for librarians, but I do know that as patrons we can help at the grassroots level. We can ask our friends and neighbors to meet us at the library. When we say to our friends, do you want to go for a cup of coffee, what are we really asking? We're asking to spend time, to catch up, maintain our connections. The coffee is just a facilitator, and the coffee shop is just a place to meet. Its our third place. Lets take our friends to the library. Our library, or their library. Heck! They may even have coffee there. Or a talk, lecture, author reading, musical program, or learning event. If we're lucky, we may even introduce our friends to the library they didn't know they had.

And establish our library as a third place, and increase its worth in our communities. Its got to be better than the town dump.

* It was the consensus of our discussion group, which included 16 public librarians from 4 states.