He's a Wall Street tycoon, a brilliant scientific mind, and an inventor of devices and instruments used by the military to defeat the forces of evil.
NHe's a Wall Street tycoon, a brilliant scientific mind, and an inventor of devices and instruments used by the military to defeat the forces of evil.
No, he's not Tony Stark; he's Alfred Lee Loomis, and his work helped bring down the Nazis and win World War II. And yet, you're unlikely to find a lot of information on Loomis in the history books. A businessman turned scientist, he was one step up from a dilettante among scientists, possessing the abilities to understand and to cultivate scientific research in his top of the line, skunk-works lab that he built on his property in the decades preceding World War II. His rise was remarkable for the seeming ease with which he accomplished every task before him.
Prior to the war, Loomis built a fortune as a Wall Street investor selling bonds for the incipient utilities industry. As the market began to bubble, Loomis recognized the signs of instability, and divested his holdings in utilities. Then as the crash of 1929 rolled the country, he earned even more through careful investing, growing his fortune at a time when others were ruined. By the time the 1930s were closing, Loomis had been able to leave business with a fortune that put him in the upper echelons of society in America, while at the same time allowing him to pursue his true interest, scientific research. As World War II began, and the Nazi menace spread, Loomis joined a nationwide network of scientists working to develop technologies that would help defeat Germany and its allies.
Loomis' story is remarkable, but in many ways felt lacking largely because of the lack of tension or obstacle. Written by a descendent, Tuxedo Park (the location of the laboratory Loomis built) feels like a long Wall Street Journal article, where quotations are given with the expectation that they will appear in the press and facts are presented dispassionately. In short, the story lacks narrative, a sense of progress. Loomis appears on the scene--whatever the scene may be-- and sua sponte achieves his aims. As one friend suggested while discussing the book, there's not many obstacles that can't be overcome, apparently, if you're both brilliant and filthy stinking rich. Especially rich.
And yet, wealth is no excuse for a flat story. Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill also came from means, rising from wealthy families, but both would overcome great obstacles during their life to create biographies that beg to be told. If Loomis has that story, I found this one to be lacking in that regards. While I'm glad to have learned a new chapter of the World War II saga, I don't know that I would have missed not reading it. ...more
There's much to like about The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl's homage to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J. TThere's much to like about The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl's homage to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J. T. Fields--some of the greatest American poets of the 19th century. It is a historical thriller written with a taste of the literary, and The Dante Club has moments of chilling baroque mystery interspersed by pages of literary history told in the dialogue. It makes for a novel that feels serious, almost enough to threaten to dampen the tension of a murder mystery. And yet, in this sense, it defeated my expectations. Before I began reading, I had visions of Dan Brown's Inferno, which, while I've never read, I assume was not unlike The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons: A thriller built upon secret messages encoded into literature, the deciphering of which alone can save a damsel in distress from imminent death.
There are no damsels in distress though, at least not directly. And while there are hidden messages to be deciphered, they are being elucidated by the very real poets translating the Dante's Inferno. The story is written around the very real translation of the Inferno by the above mentioned poets. Their goal is the first English translation of the Inferno in America, and as they translate, murders begin to occur that appear to match various levels of Hell described in the Inferno. As our protagonists are poets, none of the characters is a prototypical every-man, but more likely to be stuff of Cambridge: professorial, stuffy, more interested in the meaning of 14th century Latin texts than the turmoil caused by the recently ended American Civil War. The result occasionally has stultifying effect on the sleuthing efforts of the club members. They are past their prime, and the age of modern police methodology has not arisen--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes (who was rumored to be based on one of the Holmes found in The Dante Club) is still several decades away.
And yet, the literary nature of the novel will make it inaccessible to some readers. I've seen readers complain about entire sections remaining beyond impenetrable, baffling even, and I admit that there are sections that required multiple readings. Pearl feels to be trying too hard to be literary, and it hurts more than helps. The Dante Club has all the trappings, setting, and potential of a really great mystery, and yet, Pearl seems to occasionally forget that he doesn't have to write like Henry James in order to give the reader the flavor of the era.
I enjoyed The Dante Club, but it's not for everyone. Like reading a translation of a Dante's epic poem The Inferno, a price must be paid to appreciate the work, and The Dante Club requirement may be too much for some readers.
**spoiler alert** China's Cultural Revolution is in full swing. Intellectuals and scientists are denounced by their students for teachings contrary to**spoiler alert** China's Cultural Revolution is in full swing. Intellectuals and scientists are denounced by their students for teachings contrary to the communist orthodoxy. The country is in turmoil. No one can be trusted as friends turn on each other, children on their parents, mentors on their students...
Against this backdrop, Ye Wenjie, a young refugee from tumult of the Cultural Revolution will seek peace and escape on a work team in central China cutting down trees. A scientist, her kindness to a colleague is soon betrayed, leading her to death's door and one of the most closely held secrets in China. She comes to loath and hate humanity, losing all faith in the future of the species.
The Three-Body Problem is several stories within stories, with characters taking time out from the plot to dump significant amounts of information in the form of stories told to other characters. The result is occasionally stilted, but not unmanageable, allowing the plot to unfold in an occasionally odd order. It was deep into the book before I could tell what was going on, and I didn't quite figure out who the protagonists and antagonists were until nearly the end. The best and most likable character is a roguish police detective that receives only secondary billing, while the protagonists seem to be driven by forces outside themselves.
Well, maybe not that long. But there's a pervading sense of pessimism about humanity through-out the novel. The Three-Body Problem uses the Cultural Revolution to bring out the absolute worst in people, and against that canvas the discovery of alien life takes on a different tone than I've seen elsewhere. Instead of the typical tropes of human-alien relations. Rather the first contact leads to an almost religious movement to invite alien invasion and domination of humanity.
One of the really interesting aspects of The Three-Body Problem is the sheer number of scientific and technical concepts that Cixin works into the story (if they don't drive the plot altogether). From the physics of three suns in synchronous orbit (a problem that has puzzled scientists since Newton), to microfiber elements, using the sun to magnify radio waves, photons, multidimensional particles, and even massive multiplayer games, The Three-Body Problem is a potpourri of ideas and concepts. It feels a little overdone sometimes, awkward even, and this is where it starts to feel stilted. In some respects, this tone--pessimistic, not dark--sets The Three-Body Problem apart from other science-fiction. Given the backdrop of the Chinese history and the Cultural Revolution, I couldn't tell if the tone was because of the author's perspective on humanity (lost cause) or how he and many Chinese view the world because of their history (in contrast to other cultures, which would, of course, explain why Tor picked it up for publication in English. Tor seems to go all in for anything that isn't white, male or western civilization these days).
It's an interesting and refreshing change of pace in science-fiction to read something that feels so different in tone, and I give credit to Cixin for it. However, The Three-Body Problem is often dry,infodump heavy, and full of awkward structure. I give it credit for being unique, clever, and new, and I will read its sequels, but I hope they can improve upon the ideas of this opening installment in the series....more
Let the reader beware books that come packaged with literary aspirations and disguised by tricks and strange formatting. There may be something there, but it might just as well be literary fluff.
Everything is Illuminated is Jonathan Safron Foer's first book, but the second of his that I've read. His second, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, was far more interesting, better written, and more credibly worthwhile fiction. In fact, it was on the weight of Extremely Loud that I picked up Everything is Illuminated (well, that and my book club had voted to read it, but you know what they say about democracy).
I should also admit that just prior to reading Everything is Illuminated, I finished William Manchester's three volume biography of Winston Churchill and Unbroken by Laura Hillebrandt. In recent years, I've read HHhH by Laurent Binet, Frozen in Time and Lost in Shangri-la by Mitchell Zuckoff, and With Wings Like Eagles by Michael Korda, just to name a few. I very much enjoy World War II history, and while I'm no historian, I am sensitive to the nuances of the period.
Foer is anything but sensitive to the nuances, let alone the bare historical facts. Rather, Foer seems to rely more on his reader being vaguely aware the World War II happened and that a lot of people (especially Jews) died. But at whose hands? And what were the times like? And what are the times like now? His approach becomes far more fantastical and...strange?
Which brings me back to expectations. Perhaps if I had opened the book expecting a literary fantasy (I think the academic types would call it something akin to "magic realism," not too far from Gabriel García Márquez'sOne Hundred Years of Solitude), then I may have been able to swallow it better.
Expectations aside, there are moments when the writer that Foer will become (is becoming?) shine through in distinctive and memorable ways. One of my favorite aspects of the novel is the voice of Foer's driver/guide during his visit to Eastern Europe. While at times Foer seems to overwrite the character, the effect is in general humorous as he seems to utilize an English thesaurus to come up with words that would not otherwise apply. I lived in Eastern Europe for two years in my late teens and early twenties, and I could hear the echo of individuals I knew then as they learned English, often using words and phrases they did not know and completely out of appropriate context.
Everything is Illuminated has moments of brilliance, but overall was disappointing to me. Perhaps I'm just not literary enough to appreciate the nuance Foer is going for, but I suspect that it's more likely that it's more a product of Foer's early efforts as a writer. Add to this a heartbreakingly depressing ending--not because of the Holocaust, but because Foer seems to just run out of steam and decide to damn all his characters to horrible endings--and it was a tough book for me to enjoy. ...more
There's a lotta interesting information on a lotta interesting books in here...specifically, 500 books. I enjoyed learning a bit about these, the bookThere's a lotta interesting information on a lotta interesting books in here...specifically, 500 books. I enjoyed learning a bit about these, the books that Howard Mittelmark thinks are the best you'll ever read. His commentary is witty, snarky...and occasionally even useful.
The problem is, I've not read enough of the books on his list, yet. I'm putting it next to my desk so that the next time I need a book, or need some commentary on the book, Mittelmark's book will be there, fully of short, quick and insightful commentary, without too much depth or weight....more
For the longest time, I had no idea what to say about Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. Not only does it defy description, but the descriptionFor the longest time, I had no idea what to say about Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. Not only does it defy description, but the description it does get is pretty accurate ...and yet, so wrong.
Here, for example, from the last paragraph of the Amazon description:
"Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it."
So, yes. All that is there. Station Eleven is, sort of, a post-apocalyptic tale, heavily interlaced with flashbacks to before and during the apocalypse. Mandel does a really excellent job of weaving the stories of a cast of individuals together over time and space, and the complex endeavor works well. It's no wonder that no other than George R.R. Martin thought that it should have gotten the nomination for best novel on the Hugo ballot. He loves a complex plot and Station Eleven has got all sorts of complex stuff going on. As Martin says, it really shouldn't work, but it does, and the story ends up being a satisfying read (with one caveat, which I'll mention in a minute).
In any other year, Station Eleven might even have garnered a nomination for the Hugo (if just on the weight of Martin's nod?). I don't know that I would have given it the award, but it's definitely good enough, artsy enough, and different enough to attract the typical Hugo voter's attention. This year, however, with Sad Puppies going on and all sorts of anti-Sad Puppies pushing against Sad Puppy nominations, the typical voter is not typical. For better or worse, Station Eleven just isn't the sort of scifi to catch the attention of the mainstream science fiction reader.
That said, Station Eleven has received all sorts of other awards. These include the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel (2015), PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Nominee (2015), The Rooster - The Morning News Tournament of Books (2015), Women's Prize for Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2015), and National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2014). You can see that, with the exception of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, none of these are science fiction awards and, frankly, that fits. The book is good, but it's hard to find much about it that is science fiction--well, other than the virus that wipes nearly everyone out. It feels less science fiction and most character study, with a twist of pandemic slipped in for good measure.
Which actually leads me to that caveat I mentioned earlier and why I only give Station Eleven four stars. In as much as it is good writing, there's something that isn't quite fulfilling about it for me. In as much as Mandel focuses the story around a single character--who is dead by the time the apocalypse starts--I found it difficult to know who to cheer for and, perhaps as a corollary to that, what to care about. I was never quite clear where the story was going and what the point was. It was almost like life, moving on and along in spite of tragedy's starring role. History is just one thing after another, and humans will sometimes survive, and sometimes not, will sometimes be good, and sometimes not. If there is anything that is consistent, it's that Mandel is relying on coincidence to fuel the mystery of Station Eleven to continually bring her characters together, over and over, despite all improbability, and after a certain point it seems to belie the seemingly random nature of her story. There just isn't a large enough connection for me in the things that tie her characters together over time and over space to fully suspend disbelief.
Station Eleven pulls in the reader and mystery keeps the reader close. But what remains after finishing is less clear, maybe even forgettable, and perhaps that is why for me Station Eleven is, ultimately, just a good read....more
I can't recall who exactly recommended this to me when I first picked this up back in 2010 or 2011, but I do recall the cautionary note that they tookI can't recall who exactly recommended this to me when I first picked this up back in 2010 or 2011, but I do recall the cautionary note that they took as they described it and the author's conclusions. The global recession had begun four years earlier, since which time I had just barely been able to sell a house (seriously--I closed the sale of the house the same week that Bear Sterns ceased to be), had graduated from law school at perhaps the worst time for new attorneys to be entering the work force, and had managed to find a good, but not great paying, job at a local company. Financially speaking, the future seemed bleak, and I was not sanguine about my prospects for future income. Aftershock: Protect Yourself and Profit in the Next Global Financial Meltdown seemed like a warning voice against future economic calamity, so I picked it up and gave it a read.
Unfortunately, I was, largely, disappointed. Falling into that category of financial reading that seems to best be described as "fear mongering," I found it full of doom and gloom, threatening prognostications, and warnings about the future. I suspect that authors David and Robert Wiedemer, and Cindy Spitzer have made better money of the sale, and subsequent editions of, the book than most readers have from the advice they give.
This isn't to say that there may not be substance to their arguments. Looking at a succession of financial bubbles, including both the dotcom bubble and the more recent housing bubble, they posit that the bubbles have led the Federal Reserve to engage in reckless market manipulation that is going to result in 50% unemployment, a 90% stock market crash, and 100% annual inflation, starting in 2012.
Their advice? Sell your home, cash out your stocks, and convert your assets into gold and inflation pegged securities.
That's a stark transition, and from a set of authors who are perhaps inflating their own expertise in economic prophesy a bit further than their resumes merit.
Meanwhile, we find ourselves in 2014, the economy on the mend, and the catastrophic events predicted by Aftershock as yet unrealized. I suppose that there is still time, and I don't want to give the impression that everything is smelling of roses, but perhaps the take away is that the success of Aftershock is more about marketing for its authors than about economic prediction relevant to readers. ...more
Ron Suskind's a good writer, but he's also in love with Barack Obama. Well, maybe not in love, but he's certainly not an objective or dispassionate obRon Suskind's a good writer, but he's also in love with Barack Obama. Well, maybe not in love, but he's certainly not an objective or dispassionate observer. Even while he's observing that Obama may not have been ready for the Presidency, he's lavishing praise on the politician.
I read as long as I could, but after a third of the book fawning over Obama without really examining what was going on, I started to tire. Barack Obama is no villain as he's been portrayed by many, but neither is he a semi-deity or Olympian hero. Further, much of the material that Suskind covers is not new, having been reported in other sources. If you've read nothing else about the last few years, it's not a bad way to become familiar with some of the major players, and it's not horrible writing. But if you're looking for in-depth analysis and reporting, there are better books out there. "Too big to fail" is a good place to start.
I may come back to it later, but right now, it feels repetitive. Meanwhile, life's too short to read books that duplicate what you've already read. I'm moving on to a new book tonight. ...more
**spoiler alert** It's always hard to follow up a great book with an equally enjoyable sequel. While I have speculated that this is because the best i**spoiler alert** It's always hard to follow up a great book with an equally enjoyable sequel. While I have speculated that this is because the best ideas tend to get used up in the first book, it goes without saying that so many sequels fail to live up to their predecessor. With "The Gripping Hand," Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle present their attempt to follow up the success of "The Mote in God's Eye," and while it is an admirable effort, I believe that it falls short, if only just.
The first book in this two book series, "The Mote in God's Eye,"(and no, it has nothing to do with God, or with His eye) presented mankind's first encounter with alien sentient life. In Niven and Pournelle's universe, mankind has left earth and spread through the universe under the rule of an enlightened dictatorship. One day, an alien probe, of sorts, appears in one of mankind's remote systems. An expedition is quickly dispatched to the source of the probe, a distant solar system known as the Mote. When the danger to human-life in the alien civilization becomes apparent, mankind blockades the only access route out of the system, narrowly avoiding genocide, either for man or them.
"The Gripping Hand" opens up twenty-five years later. Suddenly, a new exit from the system is opening, and the Empire of Man is scrambling to prepare for what may be imminent war with the Motie civilization.
The book is enjoyable, and Niven and Pournelle do a wonderful job of presenting the Motie culture in contrast to human nature, creating space battles that span hundreds of thousands of kilometers, and developing characters that have changed over the decades between the books. They stick as close science as possible, or as much as one can without dipping into a fast and loose "Star Wars" type of universe (where the space ships make noise, fly like fighter jets under gravity and an atmosphere, and a mystical power called the Force allows just about anything...not that I'm knocking Star Wars...), which makes the books more credible and enjoyable and suspension of disbelief less difficult.
The weakness in their story telling is, for me, in the development of characters and culture. In "The Mote in God's Eye" we meet a culture that is closer in its morality to Edwardian or Victorian Great Britain than the looser morals of the twenty-first century. By the time the events of "The Gripping Hand" take place, however, just twenty-five years later (and mind that this is all over a thousand years in our future), sexual mores have digressed to the point where the marriage relationship means little. Whereas in the first book a couple would not even consider sexual contact outside of marriage, sexual pairing in the second appears at time to be almost recreational, bearing no connection to relationships.
Please do not mistake me--Niven and Pournelle keep their books PG or PG-13, and I do not recall any language, sexual descriptions, or even gratuitous violence. However, the characters act more like the Hollywood set than would be expected after a mere twenty-five years beyond the very careful and chaste Victorian modes of interaction. The reason behind this, I believe, is in large part because the first book was written nearly 20 years ago, and Niven and Pournelle are trying to make their book more palatable and readable to a far more sexually active culture (ours) than that in which they wrote. I think it does not serve the book, and in fact weakens the character development.
The second complaint I have is about the ending. While "The Gripping Hand" appropriately builds the tension and quickly ends after the resolution, the final resolution gives the impression that Niven and Pournelle just ran out of ideas and energy. And that was where they ended it.
Whatever the cause, these two complaints result in an almost five star book getting knocked down to three. It is worth reading if you want to know "the rest of the story" after "The Mote In God's Eye," but that's about it. It doesn't have the same energy, but is merely a sequel....more
I didn't manage to finish this...it was just too slow. That said, I really enjoy Henry James use of language, his careful description, and the way heI didn't manage to finish this...it was just too slow. That said, I really enjoy Henry James use of language, his careful description, and the way he steps into the protagonists. At times, I very much felt the creepy that he intended.
However--get to the point. Dan Brown isn't a fabulous writer, but he could teach James a few lessons about pacing....more
**spoiler alert** 776624 Father dies after surgery. Much younger second wife throws a scene. Daughter of first wife mourns...while resenting younger s**spoiler alert** 776624 Father dies after surgery. Much younger second wife throws a scene. Daughter of first wife mourns...while resenting younger step-mother?
It took me most of the story to become interested in the story. one night, I just flat didn't want to read it because it was so boring. The protagonist felt flat and emotionless for so long that I started to wonder if I any conflict really existed at all. Finally, the character starts to express some emotion, starts to show some feeling, and suddenly snaps...but it took so long to get there, even for the short and quick book like this one is.
All that aside, there are perhaps redemptive qualities to this short novel. Welty examines the different experiences and qualities that different people bring to a relationship, and to a marriage, and the effect that those qualities and experiences bequeath to their children.
To be honest, though, this probably is not my type of book. Too much melancholy, dying, and nostalgia and all that looking back mournfully is just too droll for me. Further, not unlike McCormac, if not quite so, Welty is almost painfully sparse in her language, describing just enough to move the story along.
Should you read it? Maybe. If you like Welty. ...more
While I found The Road interesting and at some level gripping, in the end I thought it was overrated. Sure, love and hope are a reason to live, and thWhile I found The Road interesting and at some level gripping, in the end I thought it was overrated. Sure, love and hope are a reason to live, and the stark struggles of life in a wasteland always have that attraction that is not unlike driving by a bad car wreck on the highway, hard to turn away from, but difficult to look at also. However, the writing is so sparse that I couldn't help but wonder if it was overly simplistic. Occasionally, especially in the last paragraph, I found myself wondering if McCarthy was being simplistic and obtuse just to be simplistic and obtuse, but without any real point (or willingness to reveal that he did not have a point).
Read it once, and enjoy it, but it doesn't deserve the Pulitzer....more