The set-up is intriguing. A hacker, dubbed “Vespers,” breaks into the Pope's personal email and leaves a cryptic plea to save an obscure historic churThe set-up is intriguing. A hacker, dubbed “Vespers,” breaks into the Pope's personal email and leaves a cryptic plea to save an obscure historic church in Seville. Political and financial interests including the archbishop of Seville want the church demolished to exploit the value of the real estate. The hacker has been careful to conceal his tracks, and the security breach seems to disturb the Vatican hierarchy more than the contents of the message, despite the disclosure that recently, two deaths occurred during the repair work on the church. The deaths were apparent accidents. A municipal architect fell due to a loose balustrade; the archbishop's secretary was crushed by a chunk of debris from the ceiling. The email drops dark insinuations about the hand of God. The focus, however, is on the hacker, who has elevated the affair to a high stakes political confrontation between Archbishop Paolo Spada and Cardinal Iwaszkiewicz. The Pope has directed the Institute for External Affairs, a kind of Internal Affairs Department headed by Archbishop Spada, to discover the identity of the hacker. Cardinal Iwaszkiewicz hopes for a misstep that can be blamed on his rival.
From the start, the dissonance between a computer hacker and Vatican emails commands interest which is intensified by the delineation of the political rivalries. Pérez-Reverte involves even the most secular-minded of readers in this maneuvering for power.
He creates a long list of colorful characters. Cardinal Iwaszkiewicz is immediately established as shadowy and dangerous. His department, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was formerly called the Office of the Inquisition. When introduced into the story, he lingers by the window rather than taking a seat across from Archbishop Speda. There is an electrical outage that shrouds the meeting in semi-darkness. Their conversation is thick with careful formality that exudes even more menace. The third attendee at this meeting is Father Lorenzo Quart, Spada's agent. He's reliable and discreet, “as precise and stable as a Swiss Army knife.” (p.7) Hints of his childhood also suggest he is a brittle vessel of guarded emotions. He is the embodiment of religious inversion. Celibacy is the foundation of his pride; obedience is a replacement for piety. Drop-dead handsome and elegantly tailored, Quart is the enigmatic agent dispatched to Seville to conduct the delicate and highly secret investigation.
In Seville more characters appear. Pencho Gavira is an ambitious banker; his assistant Celestino Perégil is a toad-like toady with a gambling problem. Don Ibraham is a disbarred lawyer whose wistful memories mingle fact and fiction; El Potro del Mantelete is a perpetually benumbed ex-boxer and failed bullfighter; La Niña Puñales is an alcoholic chanteuse scraping by at seedy nightclubs. Gris Marsala is the chief architect and art historian in charge of the stalled restoration project; Macarena Bruner de Lebrija is the banker Gaviras's estranged wife; Maria Cruz Eugenia Bruner is the dowager duchess and Macarena's mother; and Don Octavo Machuca is Macarena's godfather and the about-to-retire chairman of Gavira's bank. It's worth the time to keep a notebook of these names while reading the book. There are additional characters drawn from the past as well as the story's present. The author gives each character, particularly the comedic ones, a compelling set of intentions and then releases them to pursue their convoluted schemes. The characters do not disappoint. Some even warm to their roles.
Quart arrives in Seville protesting that he is only there as a neutral observer — a mere reporter of sorts. He is blind to the fact that his very objectivity is what is objectionable to the impassioned supporters of the church. Strip away the emotional connections to history and art and all that remains is a monetary assessment. Obviously, no one provides any clues about the identity of the mysterious hacker. The person with the strongest motive is the parish priest so old he hardly seems a candidate for computer literacy.
Neutrality is a convenient conceit that not even Quart fully believes. There are always consequences. A past investigation by Quart had disturbing results. An activist Brazilian priest was brutally murdered after one of his “neutral” reports. (The ethical position of neutrality is a central theme in Pérez-Reverte's next book).
That the church's supporters are not motivated by religious fervor is a surprising conundrum. Father Ferro, the parish priest, is a battered relic whose religious belief dried up long ago. He rebukes Quart's taunts with a defiant declaration: “Faith doesn't ever need the existence of God.” (p.134). Quart dismissively assesses Father Oscar the assistant priest's fervor: “At your age, life is more dramatic. Ideas and lost causes carry you away.” (p.132). The story slips from a thriller to variations on the theme of existential crisis.
Pérez-Reverte is most successful at evoking the spirit of Seville. The Plaza Virgen de los Reyes is described as the “crossroads of three religions.” (p.69) White washed walls, the scent of orange blossoms, manzanilla crafted over the centuries, and azure skies dotted by pigeons envelope the senses. In his epigram he offers the usual caution that this is a work of fiction, but adds: “Only the setting is true. Nobody could invent a city like Seville.”
The touches of humor that are interspersed are somewhat less successful. The reader is complicit in these attempts, not so much due to the skill of the writing as to the fondness developed for the characters and their foibles. (view spoiler)[When Gavira in frustration orders the church to be torched, can a botched job not be in the cards? (hide spoiler)]
Readers of Pérez-Reverte's earlier books will be delighted with his love for art, history and story-telling. Despite the existential exploration that preoccupies much of the story, he also returns to the tonal color of mystery he opened with. His conclusion reverts to a satisfying mix of closure and beguiling ambiguity. Yet, it is clear he is an author in transition. His mind is already focusing on more somber thoughts that draw on his career as a journalist and which are explored in his next book, THE PAINTER OF BATTLES. I didn't enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed THE CLUB DUMAS, but a book by Pérez-Reverte is always a worthwhile read.
The polychrome sculpture of the Spanish baroque period is central to the church's mystique. Gregorio Fernandez and Juan Martinez Montanes are two of the primary artists of the period. This website is one example of the pieces from this period. http://caravaggista.com/2011/09/baroq...["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Richard Preston begins his story with an apocalyptic epigraph and ends with a metaphoric elegy. It's an effective literary device underscoring the necRichard Preston begins his story with an apocalyptic epigraph and ends with a metaphoric elegy. It's an effective literary device underscoring the necessity of placing this primal, elusive and deadly virus in a broader context, a context that incorporates historical and ecological considerations.
Ebola is a deceptively simple life form. It is a filovirus made up of seven proteins. The subtypes that are known to affect humans are Marburg, Ebola Zaire, and Ebola Sudan. No one knows how the virus is transmitted, or what species serve as intermediary hosts. In humans the initial symptoms resemble the flu. Headache, muscle and joint pain, and fever are the first indications. The difficulty in early diagnosis of the disease is another problem. Many of the initial symptoms resemble malaria. Yet, the chance of a favorable outcome as well as containment depends on the earliest possible diagnosis.
Preston begins his story at Kitum Cave, beneath Mt. Elgon which straddles the border between Uganda and Kenya. There are stories of native villages in the 1960's located on the north side of Mt. Elgon having been afflicted with a nameless disease with Ebola-like symptoms. In 1980 a French expatriot died from the Marburg strain. In 1987 a teen-aged boy visiting his parents in Africa died of the same strain. The two victims had only one thing in common — both had been inside of Kitum Cave a scant few days before presenting with the first symptoms.
Preston provides a carefully researched account of Ebola between 1961 and 1993. The book's introductory pages resemble the ominous series of warnings and protocols for accessing a Level 4 Hot Zone lab. This is the world of Nancy Jaax, a Level 4 U.S. Army veterinary pathologist. Preston's detailed profile of her immerses the reader in her thought processes. He describes the feel of wearing the space suit needed to work in a Level 4 lab. He describes the hyper-vigilance needed to perform a hot lab dissection. One can only admire the incredible self-discipline and emotional grit she brings to the task.
During the course of a mysterious outbreak among monkeys imported for medical research in 1989, he delineates the complex interplay of overlapping jurisdictions in a biocontainment operation. In addition to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRID) that employs Nancy Jaax and her husband, the CDC, state and county health officials share both responsibilities and liabilities while deflecting media attention that might lead to panic. It is no surprise that personal antagonisms surface during such a crisis. Here, again, Preston brings various players to life. Gene Johnson, a civilian USAMRID researcher, had confirmed one of the fatal cases as Marburg, and conducted a detailed exploration of Kitum Cave in 1987. Joe McCormick is with the CDC and spent time in a hut full of Ebola-stricken African villagers without becoming infected. Both men are highly respected and experienced researchers with conflicting views on how the operation should be managed.
The final chapter chronicles the journey Preston makes to Kitum Cave. He paints a picture of vast space, muted swatches of color and ancient clay and stone. “The mountain seemed like an empty cathedral. I tried to imagine what it must have been like when herds of elephants could have been seen moving through a forest of podo trees as large as sequoias: only ten years ago, before the trouble, Mount Elgon had been one of the earth's crown jewels.”
Preston is a forceful writer. His prose is compelling. His characters are vividly drawn. Much of the story reads like a medical thriller. These are the qualities that made the book exciting. However, it should be noted that knowledgeable critics have claimed that his descriptions of the disease are exaggerated (see websites in NOTES). There are also passages in the description of Ebola Reston which suggest that the disease can be airborne, another assertion that has been disputed. These criticisms are problematic. Does the author stray too far from the facts in his attempt to tell a riveting story? Does this book contribute to the kind of mindless panic that the Reston biocontainment team feared when they diverted media attention from the site?
I found the book thought-provoking. I liked Preston's attempt to contextualize not only Ebola, but other evolving viruses. It's the kind of emotion-packed story that will encourage readers to view the topic with fresh interest. It should not, however, be taken as an authoritative text on Ebola.
Livio's book examines the convoluted history and applications of phi. Like π (pi) it is both a constant and an irrational number. It's derivation is dLivio's book examines the convoluted history and applications of phi. Like π (pi) it is both a constant and an irrational number. It's derivation is deceptively simple. Imagine a line divided into a longer segment (a) and a shorter segment (b); the dividing point is placed so that the longer segment (a) compared to the shorter segment (b) is proportional to the entire length (a+b) compared to the longer segment (a). In other words, a/b=(a+b)/a=phi.
In mathematics, there are many ways to express the same relationship. For example, the above equation can also be written as a/b=(a/a)+(b/a)=phi. Since a/a=1, and b/a is the inverse of a/b, or 1/phi, then phi=1+(1/phi).
Another way to look at the equation is to multiply both sides of the equation by phi. Then phi squared=(1 x phi) + 1. If the format of a binomial equation is adopted, then phi squared-phi-1=0. Written with coefficients of one, the equation reads: (1 x phi squared)-(1 x phi)-(1 x 1)=0. Solving the equation using the formula (-b plus or minus (√b squared - 4ac)/2a, where a=1, b=-1 and c=-1) results in the positive solution of phi=(1+√5)/2 or phi=1.6180339887.....
Livio addresses the key question about phi immediately. “What is it that makes this number, or geometric proportion, so exciting as to deserve all this attention?” (p.7) Versatility is one answer. Imagine the point dividing segments a and b is instead a hinge. Bend b up so that a line connecting the beginning of segment a and the end of segment b for an isoceles triangle. The triangle forms the first leg of a five-pointed star or pentagram. Connecting the points of the star result in a pentagon. Connect the vertices of the pentagon and the result is a smaller pentagram built around a smaller pentagon. Now fold b so that it is perpendicular to a. A rectangle can be formed. Using b as the dimension of a side, cut away a square, and a smaller proportional rectangle remains. The process can be repeated again and again. The recursive properties suggested by the formula for phi is replicated geometrically by the “golden triangle” and the “golden rectangle.”
Livio's book communicates his own sense of excitement to even the dullest student. He explains the rule for generating the Fibonacci Sequence (in case you haven't read the Dan Brown book!). The sequence is as follows: 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144,233.... Now create from these numbers the sequence: 1/1,2/1,3/2,5/3,8/5,13/8,21/13,34/21,55/34,89/55,144/89,233/144.... The decimal equivalents for that series is: 1.0, 2.0, 2.5, 1.6666, 1.625000, 1.615385, 1.619048, 1.617647, 1.618182, 1.617978, 1.618050.... In other words, each number in the series approaches closer and closer to the value of phi.
Livio's book offers much more than a seemingly endless series of numerical games. He calls attention to Fibonacci's pedagogical genius. “In many cases, Fibonacci gave more than one version of the problem, and he demonstrated an astonishing versatility in the choice of several methods of solution. In addition, his algebra was often rhetorical, explaining in words the desire solution rather than solving explicit equations as we we would today.” (p.94) I have always maintained that there is more than one way to explain mathematics, and the method that appeals to me personally is visual. Two of the videos I found most helpful in understanding the math behind this book were: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1X-UA... and https://www.khanacademy.org/math/geom....
The copious historical detail that Livio introduces can at first seem like a bewildering distraction. However, for me it highlighted the vast gulf between arithmetic as a fingers and toes counting exercise, and the study of abstract relationships which so enamored the ancient Greeks. I gained a new appreciation for their achievement from reading this book.
Through his scrupulous measurements and application of historical knowledge, Livio dispels many of the myths that surround phi, the so-called “golden ratio.” His examination turns to art, music, and poetry, and he notes how much of this mythology grew out of beliefs about religion and metaphysics that were intertwined with progress in mathematics.
Livio's book is meant to appeal to a wide audience. I was attracted to this book after reading THE EIGHT by Katherine Neville, as well as the DA VINCI CODE by Dan Brown. I gained much more than I expected. Despite the complexity of some of the concepts, anyone who has made it through high school math will comprehend his explanations. This is not because you will need that high school knowledge. Rather, when he launches into a theorem or proposition, you will remember that you once knew the references he is citing! Nevertheless, I have to admit that I found the chapter on periodic tilings and the significance of Penrose tiles difficult to understand. A clearer explanation, to me, was the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTrM-....
Returning to the question of why phi is important, Livio reveals that the recursive pattern appears in nature: The arrangement of leaves around a branch (phytotaxis), and the arrangement of the scales on a pinecone, for example.
The effort it took to understand this book was rewarded by the satisfaction of communicating with so many historical minds on this one abstract concept....more
OUTLIERS explores the idea of meritocracy with Gladwell's typical focus on aberrational patterns. He begins with an observation about the distributionOUTLIERS explores the idea of meritocracy with Gladwell's typical focus on aberrational patterns. He begins with an observation about the distribution of birthday months for a professional Canadian hockey team. There is a consistent skewing toward the earliest months in the year. Although he does not explore the probabilities in detail, this fact is especially astonishing since births by month are not evenly distributed, but in fact skewed toward the months in the second half of the year (https://blog.rjmetrics.com/2009/09/14... is one of many websites that cites this distribution). His explanation is persuasive, if not news to parents harboring hopes that their son will be the next Wayne Gretzky (incidentally, a Canadian born in January). Gladwell notes how a few months' advantage of maturity and physical development can reap life-long cumulative advantages: More confidence, more playing time, better coaching, more competitive opportunities, more encouragement.
He then shifts his attention to a new thread. One connecting Bill Gates, Bill Joy (co-founder of Sun Microsystems), and The Beatles. This exploration leads him to the “10,000 Hour Rule,” a catchy phrase that has made its way into popular parlance. I was particularly impressed by his mention of Bobby Fischer in this context. Anyone who has read the biography ENDGAME by Frank Brady will find supporting material for Gladwell's ideas.
Numerous critics have jumped on this generalization, arguing that it is an oversimplification when taken literally. Gladwell responds to these critics, emphasizing the spirit of his claim (http://www.businessinsider.com/malcol...). In case after case Gladwell poses a prediction based on intuitive ideas about how the world works. In case after case he demonstrates that intuitive ideas are unreliable. The alternative explanations he poses are persuasive, but more important, unexpected.
The diversity of his examples make this an entertaining book. The second part of the book shifts gears into an area he calls “Cultural Legacies,” bundles of attitudes subconsciously reinforced through family histories. “Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.” (p.175) The exploration takes Gladwell from Harlan County, Kentucky to South Korea.
Between 1988 and 1998 the loss rate for United Airlines was .27/million departures. During the same period the loss rate for Korean Air was 4.79/million departures. (Imagine trying to get “Rainman” aboard a KAL flight!) Gladwell hastens to add that since 1999, KAL's record is spotless, the result of an astonishing turnaround in cockpit training. At its heart was confrontation of a cultural legacy problem — the hierarchical relationship and behaviors between the captain and his subordinates in the flight crew. This was, in fact, my favorite part of the book, and the factor that boosts my rating from 4 to 5 stars. His transcriptions of cockpit recordings are riveting, as each accident scenario unfolds. Readers who have occasion to deal with non-native English speakers, particularly in the software industry, will find ample food for thought.
Gladwell's curiosity takes him to many other topics. He looks at the trait of persistence. He questions the role of language in the early mastery of number sense. He examines the effects of summer vacation on academic performance. His restless mind and energetic research stir up contradictions that force the reader to revisit intuitive explanations that are so tempting to grasp. His curiosity is infectious....more
The first two chapters of this book are contrasts in perception. Seen from the point of view of Charlotte Dunleavy, an artist who has recently relocatThe first two chapters of this book are contrasts in perception. Seen from the point of view of Charlotte Dunleavy, an artist who has recently relocated to rural Pennsylvania, the world is constricted into the tight and painful distortions of a migraine. Hypersensitivity renders sounds muffled yet brutally intrusive. Sight is a confused pattern of too bright haze and distancing shadow. Everything feels unbearably intense, and emotionally overwrought.
It is a relief when the viewpoint moves to the everyday familiarity of Sheriff Gatesman's world. Despite the seriousness of his errand, looking for a missing twelve year old boy, his firm grip on the objective world, his deliberate thoroughness, and calm professionalism are reassuring.
Before the plot proceeds, the reader's interest is quickly invested in the lives of these two characters. Sheriff Gateman is still mourning the loss of his wife and infant daughter in an automobile accident. Charlotte is still suffering from the trauma of an ugly divorce, the death of her mother, and the confinement of her father who suffers from Alzheimers. Somehow, the new beginning she hoped for in rural Pennsylvania has failed to shed a pervasive sadness and depression.
The missing boy was a frequent truant. He frequently wandered the adjoining woods with his absent father's shotgun and could be heard shooting crows. It is unclear if he is a runaway, or went off with his father, or was abducted.
The story unfolds with deceptive slowness, and is fleshed out with the smallest of details that introduce other members of the town, including the missing boy's parents. The town assumes a subtle cohesiveness in its suspicions and uneasy lack of closure.
The Shetland Islands are remote, only ostensibly part of the UK. “Southerners” are viewed as foreigners, different in accent, idiom, outlook, and cultThe Shetland Islands are remote, only ostensibly part of the UK. “Southerners” are viewed as foreigners, different in accent, idiom, outlook, and culture. Cleeves reinforces that sense of isolation by staging this novel on Fair Isle, accessible only by ferry or air, and inaccessible much of the time due to sudden storms, fog, and long brooding winters. Layers of further remoteness are piled on that foundation. The nature centre where most of the action occurs is a converted lighthouse at a distance from the sparsely populated villages. The Centre is a magnet for bird watchers, an obsessive, highly competitive, insular group with the most obscure of interests, that feeds on one-upsmanship and gossip. The setting is the end of the season and only a few birders remain at the Centre.
Jimmy Perez, the detective introduced in previous mysteries by Cleeves, was born here. He is something of an oddity. Not only is he prone to seasickness, but he left Fair Isle to pursue his career ambitions. The reason for his return is to introduce his fiancée Fran to his parents. Ambivalent feelings bring these characters to life. The Centre's cook, Jane, has fled from the mainland after a collapsed relationship, and enjoys the distraction of physical labor, even as she occasionally indulges her curious and observant inclinations. Dougie Barr, one of the bird watchers, returns each year to the island as part of a good luck ritual. It's where he first distinguished himself, spotting the UK's first brown flycatcher. It's also an anticipated escape from a boring dead-end job at a call center, and a life devoid of any significant relationships. Jimmy Perez is having second thoughts about his choice of career, and worries he lacks the excitement that would hold Fran's interest. Fran, with her bohemian ways and career as an artist, wonders if she could fit in with these islanders and their isolation, while admiring their friendliness and sense of community. Jimmy was supposed to be a buffer between Fran and his old-fashioned parents, but he is soon dragged into a murder investigation at the Centre. Cleeves skilfully changes viewpoints and intersperses unspoken asides, giving the reader a sense of intimacy with the characters.
One character about which there is no ambivalence is the murder victim, Angela Moore. She is the head of the Centre, and as early as page 33 she comes across as insensitive, self-serving, and snide in her conversation with Jane. Privy to this confrontation, the reader has no problem trusting the witnesses/suspects who knew her as Perez pursues his investigation.
BLUE LIGHTNING is structured along the lines of a traditional whodunit. However, Cleeves avoids paving the roadway with red herrings, and includes multiple intertwined subplots including the sighting of a rare Trumpeter Swan, blown off course by the westerly winds. The relationships between the characters unfolds in subtle layers. This attention to character is what distinguishes this book. At several points, a character will reflect on how his situation resembles an bedside mystery novel. The reflection is almost amusing to the reader, who is so caught up that it's easy to forget this is just a book! The suspense builds and releases with increasing intensity. Perez is a sympathetic character, not only due to his uneasy relationship with his father and concerns about Fran, but for his shifting attitude toward his investigative assistant, Sandy. He vacillates between his own frustration and recognition of Sandy's strengths. It's a very human touch.
Another strength of the book is its authentic feel. Jane is the kind of accomplished cook who can sense when something is done by smell. She weighs the flour for her scones. Mary, Perez's mother, keeps castor sugar on hand.
This is the fourth of Cleeves' “Shetland Island Quartet”. However, each of the books stands alone, and they can easily be read out of order. So far, this one is my favorite....more
Fortunately, author Joe Layden avoids the sentimentality suggested by the title of this book. In telling the story of hardscrabble horse trainer Tim SFortunately, author Joe Layden avoids the sentimentality suggested by the title of this book. In telling the story of hardscrabble horse trainer Tim Snyder he also recounts the tough economic and emotional realities of horse racing. Layden is particularly adept at revealing the paradoxes that surround the sport. Horse handling is not something just anyone can learn. Most horse handlers, like Snyder and his wife Lisa, grew up around horses. Tim Snyder's father was jockey Warren Snyder; his grandfather was Earl Snyder, a race horse trainer. Even then, few people have the gift of communicating, the soft hands, the reassuring voice, the feel of when a horse still has something left to give in a race, the intuitive understanding. The gifts of nature and circumstance are honed by long hours mucking out stalls, hot walking and grooming the horses, enduring all manner of freak injuries, and through trial and error, but too often those gifts are squandered. For the vast majority, the pay is never great. Jockeys can spend their entire careers battling weight gain, starving themselves, taking drugs, inducing bulimic episodes, only to end up as alcoholics like Tim's father. The business of horse racing is precisely that. It exists to turn a profit for the owner. Usually, however, the owner is the person with the least contact with the horse. Those that know the horses intimately are small-time trainers like Tim Snyder, and the anonymous grooms and jockeys that feed, exercise and care for the animals. Horses come and go. Horses are fatally injured. It's part of the business and those involved distance themselves from emotional attachments, both to the horses and to each other.
Layden is careful to link the dysfunction of Tim Snyder's childhood with his shortcomings as an adult. The family lived a nomadic life moving from race track to race track: Rockingham, the late Suffolk Downs, Scarborough Downs in Maine. There were fights, both physical and verbal between his parents. Needless to say, money was always tight. Warren separated from his family — one day he simply left for another track, and never came back home. Tim's sister Cheryl escaped by leaving and having two out-of-wedlock children. The details of Tim Snyder's life give “dysfunctional family” new meaning and warped Tim's own ability to cope with personal relationships. When his wife Lisa was dying of cancer, he retreated into himself. After her death at age 37, he vanished for two years, drifting in an aimless depression, leaving behind his grieving in-laws who had practically acted as parents to him as well. He never even said “good-bye.” Even his lifelong friend, John Tebbit relates a history of explosive quarrels and abrupt disappearances. “ '...he's a high-maintenance person. He can be a loyal friend but he's hard to get along with; he's demanding and he can be rude.' ” (p.71) (That's the sugar-coated version, one suspects!).
Layden eloquently and sympathetically summarizes the grief that engulfed not only Tim, but his deceased wife's close-knit family. “Grief is amorphous. It flows into your life, takes as much space as it needs, as much as it damn well pleases, filling every nook and cranny of your heart and soul, and then recedes an inch at a time. It's an illness of sorts, with no cure, no protocol for treatment, no assurance of a complete recovery. So who's to say that there is a right or wrong way to cope with it? Some people get on with their lives, finding comfort and solace in the routine of work or the support of family. Others slide into bed and try to sleep away the pain.” (p.121)
The remainder of the story tells how Tim climbed out of that grief through the chance meeting with a showy looking thoroughbred whose racing career appeared to be a non-starter. Horse broker John Shaw remarks: “ '...she was slow. I practically had to time this horse with a sundial.' ” (p.92) Because of her slowness, Tim was able to buy her for $4500. It was all the money he had and then some. Although there are contradictory opinions, the events speak for themselves. Tim worked with the horse. Over time, he tried out different shoeing techniques and worked on lead changes. The project returned focus to his life. He named the horse Lisa's Booby Trap, (a humorous reference that many failed to find funny, as disclosed in the book), and for a while she was the cinderella horse, trained at bottom tier Finger Lakes, one step from oblivion, and bound for Saratoga, where Kent Desormeaux eagerly jumped at the chance to ride her, and with his Cajun bent for myth spinning, spread the romantic fable of Tim's wife and the “ghost horse”.
This is not a happy story because she was a winner. It's a happy story because it reunited Tim with his in-laws — his family. It brought him back to his calling — horses. It even changed him from the profit-oriented business man to a guy who became so attached to a horse that he spurned lucrative purchase offers with the blunt refusal: “She ain't for sale.”
Layden has researched his subject thoroughly and demonstrates a gift for integrating the unique voices of his many subjects into a cohesive narrative that captures their distinctive passions and contradictions. ...more
What do you do if you're a 15 year old boy, wrenched with exploding hormones, bored by the mere thought of a classroom and aroused only by relevance tWhat do you do if you're a 15 year old boy, wrenched with exploding hormones, bored by the mere thought of a classroom and aroused only by relevance to your personal NOW? That's Jessie Gilmour. Worse, what do you do if you are his parent? Canadian novelist and film critic David Gilmour shares an extraordinary three years of empathy, anxiety, despair and joy in this brief memoir.
Jessie is musically gifted, sensitive, eager to appear as the adult his lank body suggests, but painfully vulnerable to his own internal emotional chaos. Warnings, interventions, and serious talks have no effect on Jessie's failing grades and “lost” homework. Gilmour offers a gutsy proposition. Jessie can live in his house and drop out of school if he agrees to watch three movies a week with Gilmour. A further rider to the agreement stipulates: No drugs. Jessie leaps at the opportunity. It's like grabbing a “get out of jail free” card in Monopoly. For Gilmour, its a reflection of his own anguish. Of course he's haunted by the image of an aged, aimless Jessie slumped over in a cloud of marijuana. Even worse outcomes are too horrible to even contemplate. Gilmour hopes to forge a connection with his son through his own passion for film. The alternative is to grind on as a grim disciplinarian until Jessie finally rebels.
Jessie's heartbreaking rollercoaster of relationships and David Gilmour's own stretches of unemployment are the background to their film viewing. Gilmour avoids the route of an art film curriculum. He wants Jessie to enjoy this experience and is careful to provide an appealing mix of classics, “guilty pleasures”, and what he calls “hidden treasures”. Truffaut's 400 Blows, the documentary Volcano, Hitchcock's Notorious, and Joe Eszterhaus's Basic Instinct, are among the many selections. Gilmour comments on technique, and historical context cautiously with elaborately constructed casualness. There are good moments. Jessie opens up about his own feelings and confusion. There are disappointing moments. Jessie is so wrapped up in his own head that sometimes he can scarcely notice what he is viewing. Occasionally, Jessie reacts with a blank shrug as his dad enthuses about a scene or a director. Gilmour chides himself for a short temper, but the reader is impressed with his patience and self-control.
The project is one of self-realization for David Gilmour as well. “I return to old movies not just to watch them again but with the hope that I'll feel the way I did when I first saw them. (Not just about movies, but about everything.)” (p.136) Gilmour's passion is infectious. Readers will wish he had written a companion volume on film history. His opinions are quirky (he loved Ishtar), and illuminating (his explanation of the two staircases Hitchcock built for Notorious). This is a book that will appeal to any parent with an interest in film. This was my second reading of the book, and it was a pleasant surprise to find how much I enjoyed reading it again.
Two odysseys converge into one story. African American Luther Laurence begins his in Ohio. Devoted to Lila Waters, he learns she is carrying his childTwo odysseys converge into one story. African American Luther Laurence begins his in Ohio. Devoted to Lila Waters, he learns she is carrying his child, and follows her to Tulsa where she has family. Danny Coughlin is born into police “royalty” in the still parochial city of Boston where the Irish police maintain order, Brahmin families rule the political system and Italians and Jews are feared anarchists. His father is a police captain; his godfather is lieutenant of a special squads unit. The year is 1918 and the narrative follows a year of tumult, economic recession, rising unemployment and inflation, union activism, vicious racism and political corruption.
Lehane helpfully provides a list of characters for this sprawling book. There are well over two dozen, ranging from fictional to the very real and prominent: Calvin Coolidge, governor of Massachusetts; Babe Ruth of the Boston Red Sox; financier James Storrow (for which Storrow Drive is named); and Boston mayor Andrew Peters. He ought to have included a chronology. Historic events play a significant role in the story. In 1916 anarchists bombed the Salutation Street police station. The East St. Louis riots occurred in 1917. The influenza epidemic swept through Boston in the fall of 1918. The Molasses disaster occurred in 1919. In the same year Prohibition was ratified. In September of that year the Boston police went on strike. By the end of the year, Babe Ruth had been traded from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees. All of these events present a lively and emotionally charged backdrop to Lehane's story.
The mayor has been promising the police a raise since before the War. Fellow officer Steve Coyle bitterly notes: “'Have you ever noticed that when they need us, they talk about duty, but when we need them, they talk about budgets?'” Later, Danny echoes the similar sentiments: “'When they need us, they speak of family. When we need them, they speak of business.'” Luther as well recognizes his lack of empowerment, and the duplicitous manipulation of words. Surrounded by Lila's bible thumping disapproving relatives he notes: “Their sayings fell more along the lines of 'The Lord hates a ...' and 'The Lord don't...' and 'The Lord won't...' and 'The Lord shall not abide a ...' Making God sound like one irritable master, quick with the whip."
One dilemma of this book is that the most interesting character Lehane has created is Thomas Coughlin, Danny's father. Captain Coughlin is a complicated man from another generation. He and Danny's godfather Eddie McKenna emigrated illegally from Ireland when they were 15 years old and dirt poor. In addition to hard work, clear-eyed pragmatism has guided their success. Thomas remembers his twin brother Liam with mixed and suppressed feelings. It's a part of his life he keeps hidden from Danny who most resembles Liam. Thomas's life is his family and his job; both are sliding into chaos he cannot understand. Despite his self-righteous sense of purpose, his volatile temper and crafty maneuvering, the reader feels sadness for this character. Not only is he ill-suited to change, but his marriage has slipped into a ritual performance. “He'd lost all connection with her [his wife] over the years, made peace with a warmth that lived occasionally in her voice but rarely in her eyes, because the eyes alit on nothing, seemed instead to always be tilted slightly up, as if she were conversing with her own mind and nothing else. He didn't know this woman....[T]ime had also robbed them of each other, fostered within a relationship based on itself and nothing more, no different from that of a saloon keeper and his most frequent patron. You loved out of habit and lack of brighter options.”
It is never a good sign when the first thought after finishing a book is: “Wow, that was long.” Unfortunately, that's the first thought that entered my head. It felt to me as if I had read two books. Lehane's writing is powerful, and numerous passages burst with energy. Here is his description of the Salutation Street bombing: “What Danny heard was thunder. Not the loudest thunder he'd ever heard necessarily, but the deepest. Like a great dark yawn from a great wide god. He would have never questioned it as anything but thunder if he hadn't recognized immediately that it came from below him. It loosed a baritone yowl that moved the walls and shimmied the floors. All in less than a second.” Objectively descriptive passages are equally forceful.
History is made immediate in this book. Danny, Steve and Luther's voices could easily be contemporary. Unemployment, class divisions, and contradictions between society's values and actions persist. Terrorists under every bed; turning health care workers in west Africa into pariahs — aren't these modern analogies to the anarchists and pandemic workers? Lehane disappoints in that he backs off from this thesis. (view spoiler)[There is an underlying pessimism to Lehane's view of history which is contradicted by the plot. Lehane lets both Danny and Luther off the hook too easily. His willingness to intervene on their behalf is revealed early. Danny, along with the rest of the police force, is still patrolling the flu-stricken tenements. “He'd seen it fell doctors and nurses and coroners and ambulance drivers and two cops from the First Precinct and six more from other precincts. And even as it blasted a hole through the neighborhood he'd come to love with a passion he couldn't even explain to himself, he knew it wouldn't stick to him. Death had missed him at Salutation Street, and now it circled him and winked at him but then settled on someone else.” The plot devolves into a pair of love stories with happy endings. The structure that begins and ends with Babe Ruth works on that level, but is too cleverly contrived for the more intense historical drama. (hide spoiler)]
The book will be of particular interest to anyone native to Boston, which I am not. I'm glad I read it, but could not free myself from the feeling: This was a long book.
What is time but the unfolding of many, many stories? For Alma, “....there was such a thing as Human Time, which was a narrative of limited, mortal mWhat is time but the unfolding of many, many stories? For Alma, “....there was such a thing as Human Time, which was a narrative of limited, mortal memory, based upon flawed recollections of recorded history....At the other end of the spectrum, Alma postulated, there was Divine Time — an incomprehensible eternity in which galaxies grew, and where God dwelled....Alma also believed in something she called Geological Time — about which Charles Lyell and John Phillips had recently written so convincingly....But somewhere between Geological Time and Human Time, Alma posited, there was something else — Moss Time.” (p.170) Moss Time was Alma's refuge, the landscape of research, inquiry, intellect and of her own life's story.
The protagonist of this book, Alma Whittacker, was born in 1800 but her story reaches back to the 1770's. Her father Henry was the son of an arborist employed by the eminent British naturalist and collector, Sir Joseph Banks. By drawing the connection between father and daughter, Gilbert develops a novel that spans nearly a century of scientific revolution culminating in the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species.
This is a convincing work of historical fiction. Historic events mark the passage of time. Alma's father Henry is dispatched by Banks in 1776 on Cook's 3rd voyage. The effects of this adventure on an impressionable and ambitious youth are vividly described. In 1793, the year of the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia, Henry settles in America. In 1803 he helps to provision the Lewis and Clark expedition. Alma mentions the 1816 year without a summer and the 1820 recession which occur during her lifetime. A caesura in the narrative emphasizes how swiftly life passes. The story pauses in 1820 and resumes in 1848 with Alma still unmarried and immersed in her researches. There is an adaptive interaction between the characters and 19th century conventions. Henry is imperious, mercurial and shrewd; Alma's mother Beatrix is practical, stoical and enterprising. Her expressions of creativity are subtle. Only after her death the reader learns her garden was based on the patterns of the golden mean. By modern standards they might seem rigid and unnurturing parents. In this historic context, they are ideal models for a tradition of unconventionality. Dismissive of class distinctions, they instill values of self-reliance and intellectual independence.
Gilbert creates through dialogue some extraordinary characters. In addition to Henry and Beatrix, there is the comforting wisdom of Hanneke, the wary, almost feral, vigilance of Prudence, and the giddy exuberance of Retta, best friend to both Prudence and Alma. The character of Ambrose is less successful. (view spoiler)[ Discoveries in geology and naturalism produced a genuine intellectual crisis in those seeking to reconcile science and religion. Ambrose is one example of that attempt at reconciliation. His messianic visions hint at a dualism that both accepts science but recognizes a need for personal spiritualism. Unfortunately, Gilbert seems to draw back from that interpretation. The reader is persuaded by Alma's view that he is merely mentally unbalanced. Even worse, Gilbert diverts attention to a questioning of Ambrose's sexuality to drive the plot. That distraction fuels Alma's quest in Tahiti. She succumbs to the charisma of Tamatoa Mare, and experiences a flash of insight. A dog that was once attached to Ambrose mysteriously connects with her. These are the very qualities Ambrose seems to be reaching for in his spiritual quest. It seems impossible that Alma would not give more weight to these events. (hide spoiler)]
The narrative is delivered in third person but from Alma's point of view. Occasionally, there are hints of her misperceptions. The mistakes only add to the reader's empathy for Alma. Intellectually brilliant, she is all but blind to the human nuances that surround her.
THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS is meticulous in structure. When Alma imagines the moss as a jungle she anticipates future ideas of symbiosis and ecosystems. The four sections of the book are embellished by four principal plants rendered in delicate line drawings. Intense human drama intertwines with scientific awakening in this moving novel.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The setting for this novel is Newton, an affluent town with excellent schools. The high property taxes and expensive homes are merely proof of the upsThe setting for this novel is Newton, an affluent town with excellent schools. The high property taxes and expensive homes are merely proof of the upscale parents' devotion to their children. Its second attraction is the close proximity to Boston, an easy commute for professionals like Andy Barker, the number one assistant district attorney. Crime in this town, particularly murder, is unthinkable. Then, one spring morning the body of a 14-year old student is found by a jogger in a wooded area close to the local middle school.
Barker takes personal charge of the investigation. Not only does his family live here, but his son Jacob is the same age and attends the same school. The story is told in first person past tense by Barker. That choice, as well as the setting, create the immediacy that Andy feels; the urgency to solve this horrible crime quickly and conclusively.
Landay establishes from the start that this will be no ordinary police procedural. The story opens with Barker, himself, testifying before a grand jury a year after the murder took place. Why is HE on the witness stand? Only much later does that answer begin to emerge. The story alternates between this testimony and a chronological unfolding of the investigation. Both time lines, however, draw attention to a skein of complicated emotions rather than the activities of investigation.
Andy's testimony floats on the surface of an intense internal monologue which reveals both contempt and cynical delight in his interrogator's performance. His snark is delicious. The interrogator, Neal Lojiudice, was a former protégé, and their relationship is obviously now adversarial. Actually, they have a long history of professional rivalry. Lojiudice questions Andy's handling of the case. “'Why haven't you interviewed the kids? It's been five days already.' 'You know damn well why. Because this isn't Boston, Neal, it's Newton. Every frickin' detail has to be negotiated: which kids we can talk to, where we talk to them, what we can ask, who has to be present. This isn't Dorchester High. Half the parents in this school are lawyers.'” Despite his success in the district attorney's office, Andy displays a striking sense of disenchantment. The legal process is flawed. He confidently cites not only his own experience but the opinion of colleagues to support this view. Both this scene and the review of the investigation inspire the reader's confidence in Barker's competence. Despite the filter of a first person narrative, Andy's keen observations and commitment are powerful tools that guide the reader.
Landay introduces the earlier timeline not with the investigation, but with a wrenching view of the dead boy's father's grief. The scene is the sitting of shiva, and his solitude and confusion pour out when Andy offers his condolences. At the same time, Andy reflects on the impotence of community sympathy: “...we did not know one another all that well. There was a camaraderie among us, certainly, but no real connection. Most of these acquaintanceships would not survive our kids' graduation from high school.” The inference is clear. What remains is family. There is a sense of hovering between the emotional immediacy of the present and a more distant analytical vantage point.
As is obvious from the title, suspicion eventually falls on Andy's son Jacob. Just as Landay captures the anguish of the bereaved father, he convincingly depicts the world of adolescence — a furtive parallel universe walled off from adult scrutiny. They communicate through online chats and text messages. They reinvent themselves on facebook, impulsively releasing chaotic emotions. Although it's an illusion, it is only a magnification of real life illusions — Newton's sense of community, friendships, how we view ourselves and our families. The ultimate illusion of this parallel universe, however, is the denial that actions have consequences.
I felt ambivalent about the portrait Landay draws of Andy's wife Laurie. Here again we see her only through Andy's eyes. It's an idealized portrait, one that seems to beg for Laurie to speak for herself. Thirty years of marriage is a long time to accumulate baggage, particularly when that includes fourteen years of raising a child. As the narrative proceeds, these fault lines do become evident. From the start, Paul Duffy, a police detective and godfather to Jacob asks about Laurie. Andy merely notes that Laurie is “a little shook up” by the murder. Paul is incredulous at this bit of understatement. There is an unraveling that Andy never seems to comprehend, and because the reader is seeing through his eyes, Laurie's unraveling is at first puzzling for the reader to comprehend as well.
This was a gripping suspense. Unfortunately, it is difficult to discuss the book without revealing spoilers. I knew almost nothing about the book when I started. The effect was like watching a wine glass balanced on the edge of a table. I was mesmerized. ...more
The crime would have gone undetected if Quirke hadn't stumbled back to his basement lair, and found his brother-in-law Malachy Griffin (Mal) hunched oThe crime would have gone undetected if Quirke hadn't stumbled back to his basement lair, and found his brother-in-law Malachy Griffin (Mal) hunched over his desk. This is a Dublin hospital morgue and Quirke is the chief pathologist. Mal is a distinguished obstetrician. What could he possibly be doing down there?
Black narrates in a third person voice from Quirke's viewpoint, but he adeptly pairs Quirke's own thoughts, muddled by inebriation, with the reader's natural hyper vigilance. Quirke reverts to a teasing posture; Mal is an easy target. Stiff and proper, in the '60's he would have been called 'up tight', but the timeframe here is the 1950's. Quirke obviously takes a kind of lethargic pleasure in toying with Mal. However, the reader focuses on the details provided: “He was seated with his back to the door, leaning forward intently in his steel-framed spectacles, the desk lamp lighting the left side of his face and making an angry pink glow through the shell of his ear.” That bit of metonymy says it all. There's a history of long-standing suppressed anger between these two. Linked with his overly loud acknowledgment of Quirke's presence and his relief at realizing Quirke is drunk, the reader realizes Mal's presence is indeed highly suspicious, and that he is an unskilled dissembler.
Like a surgeon, Black reveals layers of relationships. Quirke claims he is not an alcoholic, that he is actually drinking less than previously. The claim hints at some emotional trauma in his past, not as a reliable gauge of his drinking. In fact, that he is a highly functional alcoholic is made plain to the reader. Quirke's relationship to Mal goes deeper than merely an in-law. Quirke was an orphan, packed off to a grim industrial school, Carricklea, an institution Dickens would have recognized, its Irish iteration run by a Catholic religious order. Quirke was rescued when Mal's father, Judge Garret, took an interest in him, and took him in. He and Mal are practically brothers, but could not be more opposite in temperament. Quirke is the consummate actor, bantering with a porter who secretly resents him, flaunting authority while feigning contriteness. How could such a clever, clever man deflect any impulse toward self-examination? The reader might wonder, but is nevertheless charmed.
Each of the characters in CHRISTINE FALLS is linked. Quirke is still in love with Mal's wife Sarah whom we first encounter fitted out in an elegant scarlet silk gown preparing for a party in honor of Judge Garret. Quirke's sheltered but spirited niece Phoebe, at 20, sees Quirke as a potential portal to all those forbidden adult vices Mal disapproves of. He's also a convenient object for her to test out her cheeky, flirtatious charm. Brenda Ruttledge, who is introduced in the prologue, is the nurse being feted at the hospital where Quirke and Mal work. She is departing to Boston where she will be employed by Quirke's ailing father-in-law Josh Crawford. Christine Falls, the dead woman in the morgue, was a former employee in the Griffin household. She died at the house of Dolores Moran, the woman Brenda Ruttledge meets with in the prologue, and also was a former Griffin employee. The characters seem to jostle each other like shackled buoys strung along a breakwater.
CHRISTINE FALLS is not an ordinary mystery. The mystery merely contains and guides a story about complicated characters, deceptions, concealed exercises of power, and social realities. The detective in this book, Hackett, is the one element of stability in the book. He is exactly what he seems — a keen judge of human character, a savvy interrogator, a deceptively simple man with his Midlands accent and pragmatic logic.
Black's narrative allows the reader to assess these characters with confidence, the set-up to an ambush as he drops unexpected revelations. The writing is extraordinary....more