Sunday, July 27, 2008

David Baldacci: The Whole Truth

David Baldacci takes his style of thriller international with The Whole Truth. And he gives us a new suite of interesting characters. Shaw is a reluctant “good guy”, working for some strange agency and boss that he hates. Anna Fischer is the love of his life. Katie James is a journalist with a glorious past and disastrous present. Nicolas Creel is a defense contractor, and Dick Pender is his perception manager. Creel supplements Pender’s work with “boots on the ground” managed by Caesar. This being a Baldacci book, not everyone will get out alive.

Creel needs a war. Countries just aren’t using up military hardware as fast as they used to. He turns to Pender to develop public support, and Caesar to trigger events or remove problems. The thing is, Creel doesn’t just want a brush fire in a remote fringe. He needs a major war between major powers.

Pender is very good at using the internet to get his message out, and stifle any doubters. After reading his manipulations, I find I’m even more skeptical than I was before of anything I read online. I used to tell my children not to believe everything they read, and not to believe anything they read at a grocery store checkout counter. But I’m convinced, with Baldacci’s support, that unsolicited emails and sensational postings are worse than supermarket tabloids.

Shaw is an unusual, but highly effective, operative for a very shadowy organization. He periodically crosses paths with James, at first through coincidence, later cooperative efforts. Fischer has some doubts about Pender’s message. These doubts are later shared by Shaw and James, providing a force to drive the plot.

And the plot does drive on intensely. If you have a lot of other things to do, you may need to finish them before picking up The Whole Truth. It’s hard to put it back down.

As you might infer from the title, the book is about Truth. Pender’s motto, “Why waste time trying to discover the truth, when you can so easily create it?” represents one perspective. James, as a journalist, has an interest in revealing the truth. But her editor is interested in any version of the truth, just so long as it is faster than the competition. Shaw wants to understand the truth to drive appropriate decisions and action, but not necessarily for public consumption. The interplay of these perceptions of the truth is very interesting.

As I close, I want to revise what I said earlier. If you have a lot other things to do, just set them aside. You will stay so focused on The Whole Truth that it won’t be too long before you can get back to them.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sandra Brown: Ricochet

Earlier this year I attended a graduation ceremony at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. At the beginning of the ceremony, they awarded an honorary doctorate to Sandra Brown. I had been aware of her books for a long time, but for some reason that I can’t explain, I had never read one. I was impressed by what they said about her, so I decided it was time to try her.

I picked Ricochet out of two or three options on the shelf at Walmart. It turns out to have been a good choice.

The book opens with Detective Duncan Hatcher in court for the trial of a long time nemesis, Robert Savitch. When Judge Cato Laird declares a mistrial and sets Savitch free, Hatcher ignores restraint from his partner, DeeDee Bowen, and speaks his mind. He ends up with a couple days in jail for contempt.

At an awards dinner, Hatcher is attracted to a woman, who turns out to be Elise Laird, the judge’s wife. The next major event is that Hatcher and Bowen are called to the scene of a shooting. Apparently Elise Laird has shot and killed an intruder.

But it is not as simple as it seems. Elise Laird tells things to Hatcher that she does not tell her husband. And Hatcher does not tell everything to his partner. The plot spins on as the judge interferes, his wife disappears, and Savitch pops up in unexpected places. All very complicated and enjoyable.

It’s fun to like Hatcher, although I think I may like Bowen more. And the bad guys are thoroughly bad. The complexities are intricate, the thrills thrilling. What more could I ask for? I thoroughly enjoyed Ricochet, and will keep Sandra Brown on my reading list, belated though I am.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Barbara Kingsolver: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - A Year of Food Life

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
June 25, 2008

A friend loaned us Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. I wasn’t really planning on reading this book, but there it was. Since we’d better give it back before too long, I put it at the top of the pile.

To read, or not to read? On the plus side, I’d recently finished reading (out loud to my wife Sue) Animal Dreams, a novel by Barabara Kingsolver, and we enjoyed it. On the other hand, a year earlier we had read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, which seemed to cover similar ground as this book. And I had just bought Michael’s new book, In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto, which looked promising.

Well, we decided to read Barbara’s book next, and read it aloud, something I enjoy doing in the evening while Sue cleans up after dinner. The book starts off with discussions of food politics and Barbara’s concerns about what she and her family are eating. (Sounds like Michael Pollan.) Barbara and her family – husband Steven and daughters Camille and Lily – agree to spend a year as “locavores,” that is, people who eat only food that is in-season and locally grown. It’s March in Virginia, and there isn’t a lot of local choice just yet, other than asparagus, but things will get better.

About this time Sue made it clear that she would not impose that sacrifice on her family – no bananas, no oranges, no asparagus (except in March)! Also we both got a lot more busy. She started working on her fused glass projects after dinner, and I started doing more of the cleaning up. In other words, we stopped reading aloud.

But the book was still sitting on the bookcase, and I do have to give it back someday, so I picked it up again. It’s now springtime in Virginia, and everything is growing. Barbara and her family plant all sorts of delicious stuff – mostly “heritage” vegetables, which grow better in non-chemically treated soil and Barbara claims taste so very much better. I wish I could try some! I remember the fresh eggs on my great uncle’s farm tasted better than any eggs I’ve had since.

Ah, but here’s the rub. I’m not likely to eat organic heritage vegetables because I’m not likely to plant them. Gardening is a good thing, but I have never had much interest in developing my green thumb. (Then why am I reading this book?) Perhaps we could buy heritage vegetables from the Eugene Farmers Market, but we live on a farm outside of town, and it’s not convenient to drive into town for our fresh veggies. (Yes, I should plant that garden!)

The book continues with lots of interesting anecdotes about different types and sources of fresh foods. Barbara’s chapter on “harvesting” turkeys provides an interesting two-sided view of vegetarianism. I don’t feel quite so guilty about continuing to eat meat, especially if it’s “grass finished.”

Barbara and Steven take a break and vacation in Tuscany for a week. In this chapter we learn that food is never an afterthought for the Italians. Every meal, no matter how humble, is exquisite – a sentiment described in depth in Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

This year was a collective and significant family commitment for Barbara and crew. I’m impressed with the discipline they followed in sticking with it. Each had his or her unique contributions, even young Lily, who was CEO of the chickens and eggs business. And Steven and Camille also contributed by writing sections of the book.

Their year winds down. Not much grows from December through February, yet the family doesn’t starve. They had canned and frozen a lot of food in the summer and autumn. So, they’ve succeeded in their goal of living for a year as locavores!

Would they do it another year? Either way they’ve learned a lot, changed some habits, and will never be the same again. (As for me, the book has made me think, but I haven’t planted my garden yet.)

Howard Fast: April Morning

I picked up a copy of April Morning by Howard Fast because somewhere I read that it was the first novel in John Jakes’ library of historical fiction. I figured Jakes would know historical fiction because he wrote some commercially successful Civil War novels. His North and South made a pretty good mini-series. And I like historical fiction, especially set in the American Revolution.

Adam Cooper starts the book as a teenage boy feeling oppressed by his father, and dreaming of his girlfriend. Sounds like a pretty standard story line, except that it takes place in 1775. I think we get a pretty good picture of family life in the 18th century.

Not coincidentally, the next morning Adam is on Lexington Green with the town militia when the British arrive. I’ve always thought that the American stand on Lexington Green was one of the most futilely foolish incidents in American history. With Fast’s description, I still feel that way. A bunch of men and boys with no chance to accomplish anything stand in front of a major detachment of the best army in the world. We see the death and terror vividly.

Adam goes through terror, shame, anger, and exhaustion. He rejoins the fight at Merriam’s corner in Concord, and stays with it until the British complete their retreat into Boston. In contrast with the Lexington incident, I’ve always thought that the running fight from Concord to Boston was one of the highlights of American history. Americans stepped up to do what they needed to do, and used tactics and skills appropriate to the situation. Smart and practical beats brave and dumb any day.

Adam may not have accomplished much, but he grows up in a hurry. He ends the short novel as a young man back at his home with serious decisions to make.

At first, I didn’t think much of the book. It seems a little simple. But then I decided I really was getting a good feel for the times. Adam is no superhero. He is just an American stepping up to what needs to be done, before deciding whether or not he is a patriot.

When I was scanning the internet for a cover picture to post, I discovered that a lot of Junior High kids hate this book. Apparently I accidentally stumble into a book being used in Social Studies classes. How embarrassing. But I still say that it paints a pretty good picture of the times. That may be why teachers use it, and kids hate it.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Robert A Heinlein: Time Enough For Love

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
June 14, 2008

Time Enough For Love has been sitting on the top shelf of a bookcase facing my favorite chair in the library, staring down at me for many years now. I first read this science fiction story by Robert Heinlein when I was in college, and it really appealed to me. The hero, Lazarus Long, has lived for a couple thousand years, and he has had time to do about anything and everything there is to do in the universe.

I finally pulled the book down the other day and started reading. The time is now 4272, and Lazarus Long was born in 1912, so he must be about 2,360 years old. And he’s feeling his age. He’s done all there is to do, so he’s ready to hang it up. But as the oldest man in the universe, with centuries of romantic involvements, he has a lot of kids and relatives around, and they’re not ready to see him go. They pick him out of the slums and put him in an ultra-modern rejuvenation clinic, which can restore a person to any younger age desired.

This makes Lazarus pretty mad, but he strikes a deal. He’ll reminisce about all the things he’s done in his life (to be recorded by the official historian), and his family will come up with some things he’s never done before. And off we go.

A little background: The Howard Families have been selecting and breeding people for longevity since the nineteenth century or so. Lazarus Long happens to be the oldest human, but there are many more long-lived humans around. Even Howard Family members get old, so they have established rejuvenation clinics that can keep anyone who so chooses going indefinitely.

By 2136 two things have happened: The Libby-Sheffield Star Drive has been invented, and normal humans have started imprisoning and torturing the Howard Families, looking for their secret of eternal youth. Lazarus hijacks a starship to rescue the Howard Families, and the Great Diaspora begins as humans start to populate many other planets throughout the galaxy.

In its 589 pages, Time Enough For Love tells a lot of stories, and it is fascinating watching Lazarus exercise the common sense and ingenuity that have kept him alive for all these years. “Always listen to experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done, and why. Then do it.” “Get a shot off fast. This upsets him long enough to let you make your second shot perfect.” “A ‘pacifist male’ is a contradiction in terms.” “What a wonderful world it is that has girls in it!” “Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human.” Yes, Lazarus is pretty opinionated and chauvinistic by our expectations today, but he does survive and get things done.

At one point Lazarus meets, helps raise, and when she grows up marries Dora, although he generally doesn’t get romantically involved with short-lifers. But he has “time enough for love” and they marry. To avoid some of the trauma of this “mixed” marriage, they become pioneers and move into the wilderness of a new planet. They raise a bunch of kids and have a good life for seventy years or so. Eventually Dora dies and Lazarus moves on.

Meanwhile, back in 4272 the family has come up with not one, but multiple things Lazarus has never done, and he enthusiastically comes back to an active life. They migrate to yet another new planet and set up a big family with four husbands, four wives, and a bunch of kids. But Lazarus is not one for staying put for long, and he’s soon off on a rather risky venture – to visit his original family and himself back in 1916. (I’m not too sure how time travel became possible now, but it’s related to the same Libby-Sheffield technology and is a capability of Lazarus’ starship “Dora.”)

In this type of time travel there are no paradoxes. You can’t go back and kill your younger self and see the whole world develop differently. If you contact your younger self and teach him something new, what he does over the years is what (looking back from the future) actually happened. So we know that young Lazarus and his mom and dad are going to be just fine, since we know their history. But we can’t predict how old Lazarus will fare, since he’s still leading his current life.

After all these years, I very much enjoyed reading Time Enough For Love again, although I think I liked it a little better the first time. Lazarus is quite a character, but I’m not as ready to emulate him today as when I was in college. Oh, and that brings up a problem. I looked and the book is copyrighted 1973, and I went to college in the ‘60s. Did someone time travel to get that book to me??