Saturday, August 18, 2018

#12 A Summer's Reading

#12 A Summer's Reading

One of the great rewards of retirement is plenty of time for reading, especially when and where one wants to read. It's been kind of toasty this June through August in northern Colorado so the afternoons are a great place, after morning chores and 2 hours of  racquetball to settle in for some serious reading. This is the pattern which sets up well for a half-hour-no more, no less-resting of the eyes, nap. So what's been good?

In non-fiction, seriously read upstairs in the living room, I've enjoyed Ali: A Life, a mammoth recording of Muhammed Ali/ Cassius Marcellus Clay, jr.'s life from his ancestors to birth in 1942,  through schooling in Louisville KY to the 1960 Rome Olympics, and professional career that should have ended in 1971 but went for 61 professional fights until a 1981 loss and a 1984 diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease and death in 2016. Eig researched Ali thoroughly talking to over 400 people around the Champion, and his book reads very smoothly covering the years and events of the Civil Rights era, the Vietnam war, Black Power movement and Elijah Muhammed and the Nation of Islam in Chicago,etc. But Ali was tough on women, his wives and many hangers on. That was a part of him that was less than successful.

Two books by Simon Winchester, a Brit now living in the US, were also very entertaining and challenging. The Surgeon of Crowthorne (also published as The Professor and the Madman) is the story of  Dr. W C Minor, a surgeon in the US Army during the Civil War, who after leaving service a broken man, travels to London and murders a man, is sentenced to an insane asylum neighboring Windsor Castle and the Queen for life. End of story? No, his story in England crosses that of an Oxford professor who was instrumental in the creation of the multi-volume, multi-year project, the collection, verification and publishing of the Oxford English Dictionary. Their lives crossed as Minor contributed the largest collection of words and sources to the dictionary and he and Professor Murray became friends.

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, his latest book, presents the fascinating tale of how life has been impacted by accuracy and precision. Beginning with the early years of the Industrial Revolution in 1776, Winchester introduces the leaky steam boiler and driven piston of Watts steam engine as being hopelessly inefficient. Another Englishman, Henry Wilkinson, modified his cannon-boring equipment to drill the first precision piston engine that really began the revolution. Winchester follows with the parallel histories of the establishment of the Rolls Royce Silver Phantom and Ford Model T as two sides of precision engineering and manufacturing diverging as to cost and comfort.Winchester also explores the development of GPS, smart phones, jet engine blades, the Hubble Space Telescope, the LIGO gravity wave apparatus and the future to humanity of Precision. This is very interesting stuff.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

#11 Some New Old Books- May 2018

What's not to like when a reader discovers a new author who has been writing, maybe somewhat under the radar, for decades but deserves better. Four such authors that I have been reading the past 8 months are Brad Smith, a Canadian, and American authors Fred Zackel and Willy Vlautin. Smith, from the Great Lakes region of Ontario has had a considerable career as an author following stints as a railroad signal man, a rancher, carpenter, roofer- all honorable jobs that fill in when the writing is slow. His first three books showed great development in skill as his debut "One-Eyed Jacks" introduced a washed up boxer returning to the 1950s Toronto area. Tommy Cochrane wants to try to buy back his family's rural farm by fighting one, last match against a ranked heavyweight.Gals, gangsters, gamblers, Brylcream are everywhere as this easy plot smoothly unwinds.

Smith's second novel "All Hat" is a step up in smooth but entertaining plotting as 40 year old Ray Doaks returns to his small Ontario town after a two year jolt in prison for assaulting Sonny, the wealthy, thug son of an industrial billionaire who raped Ray's sister. Ray wants to be a roofer in his town but his path keeps crossing Sonny's who is trying to buy up all the farmland to build a racetrack-resort. Various race track figures are integral in a plot to steal a thoroughbred and race it in a super-grudge match. Smith's third novel, "Busted Flush" is a caper-fantasy as Dock Bass, a carpenter-realtor decides to chuck his profession and cheating wife to move to a ramshackle farmhouse in Gettysburg PA inherited from a previously unknown relative. His renovation project breaks through a wall to reveal a treasure trove of Civil War photography, previously unknown recording equipment, and maybe even the voice of A. Lincoln. Unscrupulous antique dealers and collectors test Dock's resolve to keep and use these priceless items.

Fred Zackel, something of a mystery man in the noir, crime writing field, is still productive after a stellar kickoff in 1978 with "Cocaine and Blue Eyes"."Fred Zackel's first novel reminds me of the young Dashiell Hammett's work, not because it is an imitation, but because it is not.  It is a powerful and original book made from the lives and language of the people who live in San Francisco today." -- Mystery novelist Ross Macdonald, author of SLEEPING BEAUTY and THE UNDERGROUND MAN.   Now, that's a pretty hard and heavy endorsement to live up to.But Zackel does as he introduces Michael Brennan, a private eye based in San Francisco who is hired for $1,000 to find the title girl who lives on a boat in the harbor but has gone missing. Brennan's search takes him from mid-winter cold and damp of the harbor into the mansions of the SF elite as a family saga leads into corruption and murder. 

His second novel "Cinderella After Midnight" is equally noir, compelling and maybe even a bit better written as Brennen gets a straight-forward case to find a missing 15 year old girl who her mother suspects may have run from SF to LA to meet up with or been kidnapped by her ex-husband in a custody battle. But after visiting LA-- Brennan's casing and breaking into the father's condo occupies 5 pages and is masterful writing-- and deciding this is not where the girl is, Brennan spends the next 4 days in the depths of SF's Tenderloin, various corporate offices and the presence of a US Senator being lied to, blackmailed,shot at, and dynamited in search of this girl. Zackel has numerous newer novels to his name, but the two I have on my book stack for future reading are another SF novel, "Tough Town, Cold City" and a Las Vegas novel, "Johnny Casino."

The final author in today's review is not Unknown, but maybe is less widely known than he should be. Willy Vlautin has had 20 successful years as songwriter and vocalist with the Oregon-based band Richmond Fontaine and five published novels, 2 of which have been made into movies- The Motel Life and Lean on Pete. Vlautin's latest book, "Don't Skip Out on Me" is especially poignant. Horace Hooper, half Paiute, half Irish, lives with the Reeses in rural Nevada, helping Mr. Reese with his sheep ranch up in the mountains, but he wants more. Horace wants to be a boxer which the novel recounts as he moves from Golden Gloves matches in Arizona to training and working in Tucson to his professional career fighting in Mexico. The writing is beautiful and as a successful author can do, the reader becomes very connected to this young man and his struggle. ENJOY!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

#10- Onward 2017- Good Reading Posted Here!

#10- So with a lot of travel this summer-HHS67 50th Reunion, Slovak cousins in visiting, the ECLIPSE from Douglas WYO, trip to Missoula MT, grand-parenting, getting ready for Brad and Annie's wedding- it has been busy times. But a person must read as well as other more personal activities, so what have I been reading that might be worth your time and effort? Some economic history, Islamic studies,mysteries and James Sallis.

Unlike the empires of Rome, China, and Islam that expanded by force of arms, the United States expanded within its geographical boundaries and then looked and moved outwards via trade, invention and honoring the rights of law-sometimes. John Steele Gordon, a historian and editor at the "American Heritage" journal, presents this big story in "An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power". Beginning with the purely financial settling of Jamestown and business colonies along the Atlantic coast, through the Revolution and establishment of the national bank and various failures, this book is a reader-friendly overview of the people and personalities who established the US business empire up to the birth of the personal computer and 9/11/2001.

Robert J. Gordon continues this exploration into American economic history in his magisterial, meaning huge, "The Rise and Fall of American Growth: the US Standard of Living Since the Civil War" that focuses by comparison, copious statistical coverage, anecdote and contemporary press coverage to illustrate why Living Standards rose monumentally after the Civil War through the turn of the Century and again, around and after World War ll. It is not hard to argue for the benefits of civic plumbing, fresh water inside the house, central heating, the local train, bus, automobile and airplane travel compared to the benefits of Facebook and Twitter. Gordon makes the case that the economic growth period from 1970 going forward will be hampered by inequality, public and private debt, demographics and international development and competition. This read, while consuming a lot of time, is worth it for the edifice Gordon builds about the compounding benefits of the Second Industrial Revolution.

Another author I have been reading for the past two years is Bernard Lewis, emeritus professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Princeton U, who at 101 years of age is still writing and building on his 70+ years of research and scholarship and 100+ publications. His book "What Went Wrong?", published about the time of 9/11/2001 but not written as an explanation or investigation, is probably his best-known book. Lewis uses original essays, criticisms, history from many languages and cultures to illustrate the decline of Islamic culture in the 15th century from its eminence in the preceding 700 years in science, arts, and warfare. The book reviews the rise of western civilization in warfare, invention, seamanship and the withdrawal of Islamic civilization leading to isolation, in-fighting and blaming. Lewis reviews the differences in Society and Culture, Secularism and Justice, Equality and Modernism to explain how we have gotten to 9/11 and where we must go.

A couple of mysteries well-worth your reading effort are Tom Bouman's debut, and EDGAR award winner, "Dry Bones in the Valley" and William Shaw's latest, "The Birdwatcher."  Bouman introduces Henry Farrell, a constable at the very lowest level of policing in his rural,northeast corner of Pennsylvania that is being heavily impacted by fracking and natural gas drilling. A reclusive,old man discovers a body minus an arm and eye hidden in the forest of his property. When Farrell's deputy is found murdered in his squad car, the forces of the county sheriff and state patrol intercede, driving Farrell to exhaustion and collapse as he investigates past entanglements, romances, meth cooking as neighbors no longer trust each other or the law.

William Shaw, creator of the Breen-Tozer novels set in the London of the Beatles, offers a stand-alone, "The Birdwatcher"that introduces William South, a policeman on the Kent coast whose real love is observing and noting bird behavior. This skill places him on a case as a neighbor and fellow birdwatcher is brutally murdered in a neighboring house. South is assigned to assist a new Detective Supervisor who has transferred from London and brings her teenage daughter with her. Both mother and daughter have issues that involve South who has his own history involving murder and his abusive father.

Any year that offers a new book by Phoenix author James Sallis is a good year and 2016 has "Willnot". this book is not a mystery though it starts off with a bang-- body parts are discovered in a shallow grave in an un-named rural, small town and local doctor Lamar Hale is called by the sheriff to assist in the investigation. The story then evolves into Hale's first person account of being a hospital doctor and surgeon in a very eccentric small town with many interesting medical patients, FBI investigators, possibly AWOL military snipers searching for each other and Hale's gay partner who is taken from the classroom and forced to become a principal. The language is beautiful and the characters are as well-drawn as any in literature. This book is to be enjoyed.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

#9--Winter 2017 Reads Worth My Time and Yours

What's worth your time to read? For me this past winter has been a collection of fiction and non-fiction books that have ranged from the Beatles' London through birds, lots of history, Vietnam and economics. William Shaw created two characters, Breen and Tozer, who populate swingin' London during 1968-1970 in three amazing mysteries/police procedurals. Breen is Detective Sergeant Cathal "Paddy" Breen introduced in "She's Leaving Home." He's a 30 something figure whose father , recently deceased with dementia, lived with him in a small flat after ending his career as an Irish construction worker. Breen, raised in the post-war London of hunger, rationing, and conservatism, is befuddled by the rise of the pop groups, drugs and sex in his London. When the body of a strangled girl is found covered by a mattress around the corner from the Beatles Abbey Road recording studio, Breen is assigned the case.

Tozer is Helen Tozer, a young woman constable trainee, from a family cow farm in coastal Devon who wants to be a police detective, so she is assigned to work with Breen. She also wants to enjoy everything about London and she can drive while Breen can't. The case illustrates the worlds in conflict between men and women, music and drug lovers and the traditional police, city livers and rural farmers.

The stage moves fluidly into the second book" The Kings of London" to 1969 with Breen and Tozer working on a murder, arson incident involving the son of an ambitious government figure who would like for the police to declare his son's death a suicide and close the case with as little publicity as possible. That doesn't work with Breen and his investigation leads to death threats, violence against him and a much closer relationship with Tozer. The third book in the series"A Song for the Broken-Hearted" has Breen recovering from injuries (gained in the second book) at Tozer's family farm in Devon. Tozer has left the police force to help her father run the farm but she is still driven to solve the horrible murder of her sister that happened a few years before the first book and led her to join the police.

Breen, on long term medical leave, is bored and begins an investigation into that cold case when a second murder occurs locally and has horrible similarities to Tozer's sister's murder. The investigation that draws Tozer in opens up British history in the 1950s in Kenya, Africa and the Mau-Mau uprising and an amazing conclusion.

Bernd Heinrich,emeritus professor of biology at the University of Vermont, has been writing about ravens, owls, trees, running and general biology for decades, so I decided to read his latest, "One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives" and this was a great introduction to a great science observer and writer. He presents his year-round life in a small retirement cabin in Maine as he observes many species interacting with fellow birds and other specie birds as they search for food, mates, nesting sites, housekeeping routines, battle and death. He also is an excellent illustrator of life around and inside his cabin.

"World, Chase Me Down" is the crackling debut novel based in fact by Andrew Hilleman that presents the case of Pat Crowe, who as a butcher living in 1900 Omaha, seeks justice and revenge by kidnapping the son of the largest meatpacking millionaire and holding the teen for $25,000 in gold.The story moves across country and oceans as Crowe is tracked by Pinkerton agents, the law, the British army in the Boer war until he has his day in court as the most wanted man in the world.

Several history books gave me a break from the novel and they are definitely worth the reading effort. John Halliday has one book to his credit, "Flying Through Midnight, and it is a real winner. An Air Force pilot, Halliday is shipped in for a year's tour to Thailand in 1970 but he notices his planes have no markings, his fellow pilots have no patches, badges, names, insignias on their uniforms.He discovers they are part of a secret group flying over Laos and the Ho Chi Minh Trail dropping lighted torches to mark the beginning and ending points of North Vietnamese transportation groups to be bombed and strafed by USAF fighters, bombers. The book is his one year diary of how he changed his life, mental stability and flying prowess in order to survive the "Church of the Air Force".

Nancy Isenberg's "White Trash: 400 Year Untold History of Class in America" was also a worthwhile read as she presents the history of the early settlements in Jamestown, Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts and the role of land and labor in distinguishing the classes of  white people from England, Scotland and the rest of Europe. She follows this thread through the Colonies, Revolution, Andrew Jackson, slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction to TV roles for Andy of Mayberry, The Beverly Hillbillies, Hee-Haw, Green Acres and the roles of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. More Later!

Monday, December 5, 2016

#8 December, 2016- End of the Year, what's worth the reading effort?

Hope the year has been reasonably good and you, my reader (if such exists), has some quiet time to put feet up and get down with a good book. Several new books by that stalwart thriller writer, Thomas Perry, caught my eye recently. Perry, the author of the "Butcher's Boy" and Jane Whitefield series, introduces two married couples, Sid and Veronica Abel, who retired from the LAPD and are private investigators and Nicole and Ed Hoyt who are very well-paid assassins for hire. When the body of a black man, who is a scientist for an LA company, turns up in the LA storm sewer with two bullets in his brain and the police case is very cold after a year, the Abels are hired to investigate. And when their investigation leads to a very serious attempt on their lives and home, they try to tackle the assassins. Both couples are very interesting and the plot ticks along as they all discover who is paying the Hoyts and why the man had to die.

Perry's latest will be published in January and is certainly worth the wait. "The Old Man" is Dan Chase, a 60s something widower living quietly with his two big dogs in rural Vermont, but an observation on the street while walking his dogs sets him off. Thirty-five years earlier,as a military intelligence officer in the middle east, Chase was supposed to deliver a large amount of cash to a rebel leader, but he didn't and now enemies from overseas and within the US government want an accounting and his life. But Chase has skills,many complete identities, millions of legitimately earned dollars squirreled away in accounts around the country and world, a daughter who is privy to his story, and his two, big dogs who have their own very special skills.

I was in New Orleans in September-- and if you think you know humidity, forget it...NOLA works in humidity like Rembrandt worked in oil-- for the Bouchercon Mystery Writers Convention and it was excellent. I picked up the Perry book and several others awaiting reading, but I had to read Julie Smith's "New Orleans Noir: The Classics" part of the Akashic Press series. The 18 stories are presented chronologically from one written in 1843 about a strange, slave-related tradition to several post-Katrina period stories. All are set within the fascinating neighborhoods of New Orleans and are illustrated on a map of the city. Authors included in this collection are Kate Chopin, O Henry, Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams, Shirley Ann Grau, Ellen Gilchrist, James Lee Burke, Nevada Barr and Ace Atkins. Almost as good as walking through the Quarter at sunrise!

A truly amazing piece of writing is Patrick Hoffman's "White Van" which presents Emily Rosario, a drug-hustling woman of San Francisco's Tenderloin district who grabs a chance to spend some time with a Russian businessman. When she awakens days later in a drug-induced stupr, the Russian has been joined by a woman and a hard looking young man, Emily takes part in a bomb-laden bank robbery that goes wrong, but walks away with the money. A SFPD detective takes on the case as the solution to all his problems and the story scrapes along with no redeeming characters but with a crackling plot that forces attention. Great!

Finally, Patrick Millikin, a bookseller at Scottsdale's Poisoned Pen Bookstore, and an aspiring editor has collected 15 great stories from the A-List of writers in "The Highway Kind:Tales of Fast Cars, Desperate Drivers and Dark Roads. A Labor of Love for him and his authors, these stories are the REAL thing about cars and the road. Contributors include Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, C.J.Box, Diana Gabaldon, Ace Atkins, Wallace Stroby, James Sallis, Joe R. Lansdale, Gary Phillips, Willy Vlautin, and Luis Alberto Urrea. Not a Loser in the Bunch.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

New Stuff and a few Re-reads

#7 August 28, 2016
It has been a while since I last reviewed my reading list and I know I've read more than what I'll list but I can't find any written record. And believe me if I can't remember reading it, you sure wouldn't want to waste time on it. So what have I been reading these past six months that had an impact?

I got a signed copy of Chris Pavone's "The Travelers" at the Tucson Book Festival and wanted to try his writing. Will Rhodes, a writer for Travelers Magazine finds himself and his marriage seriously compromised in a hotel room in Argentina when his lady friend threatens a video of their tryst and then, belts him in the mouth. The hectic pace Rhodes follows trying to find this lady and to discover why his editor seems to be a spy master of international scope is matched by his wife as she slowly reveals her skills and history.

Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize and a fistful of other awards for "The Sympathizer" that serves as a reminder of the Vietnam War 40 years later.An un-named, half Vietnamese, half French man serves as a captain in the South Vietnamese Army in the closing days of the war as his general is planning his escape with extended family to the United States and California. The captain who assists in the escape is actually a spy for the Viet Cong and he continues his reports on the general and other Vietnamese military and political leaders in the US in coded messages to Paris.The twist in the reporting is in how these messages are misunderstood in the communist-controlled Vietnam and what it means to the Sympathiser when he returns to Vietnam.

I really enjoyed Paolo Bacigalupi's "Water Knife" which, while fiction, seems more timely and horrifying as the months go on. Set in an unspecified future, the novel presents a western US that is in complete drought with the Colorado river drying up and the states at war with each other to control access to water. A "water knife", Angel Velasquez is parts detective, murderer, and consigliere for the "Queen of the Colorado", Catherine Case who has partnered with Chinese construction companies to build self-contained and fully-watered "arcologies" in Las Vegas where the super-rich live and gamble. Angel is sent to the hell-hole of Phoenix to investigate rumors of a possible water grant that is senior to all others and may guarantee Phoenix water at the expense of Las Vegas and California. Murders of people in the Phoenix water world and journalism involve Angel with two young women, Lucy Monroe, a journalist and Maria Villarosa, an escapee, migrant from Texas as they work against each other and then cooperate to survive.