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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Death of a Gossip; Jericho’s Fall; The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; Churchill; Before the Frost; The Places in Between; Samuel Adams, a Life; Out on the Rim; and Pleading Guilty

M.C. Beaton.  Death of a Gossip.   This is a first novel which introduces Scottish detective Hamish MacBeth.  Actually he is just the local constable in a one man police station in Lochdubn.  Eight people of varying backgrounds are attending a one week salmon fishing school at Lochdubn’s only resort hotel.  One of them, Lady Jane Withers, is a gossip columnist who digs up dirt on people with whom she is planning vacations so that she can collect more dirt and put it in her column.  She ends up in the lake, which she richly deserves and MacBeth has to go around the back of the detective who supervises him in order to find out who put her there.  It’s an intriguing and charming mystery with a bit of pathos thrown in as we learn about the lives of each of the eight hotel guests.  February 2013 

Stephen L. Carter.  Jericho’s Fall.  Beck DeForde, ex- wife of Jericho Ainsley, is called to his bedside as he lies dying of cancer in the Colorado mountain retreat that he had built for Beck during their short marriage some years earlier.  Jericho had worked at the White House, served as Secretary of Defense and finally as Director of the CIA until he was eased out into an academic career at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies.  It was at Princeton that he met Beck, 30 years his junior.  Soon after Beck arrives in Colorado, she realizes that various forces are maneuvering to recover and bottle up the secrets that Ainsley carried away from the CIA or a later incarnation with a hedge found that went broke or maybe both.  Beck survives the onslaught by wit and daring.  It’s a good read but it doesn’t have the depth of The Emperor of Ocean Park or Palace Council.  March 2013

Stephen L. Carter.  The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.  Not reviewed.  I quit as soon as I realized this was going to be alternate history after Lincoln survives Booth’s assassination attempt.  No doubt Carter brings some interesting law into the story, but the premise is too farfetched.  February 2013

Mark Haddon.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.  The author takes the reader inside the head of a 15 year old boy who is seriously autistic.  Not a whole lot happens, but the boy’s thought processes about what does happen are fascinating.  Red is good, yellow and brown are bad, and the presence or absence of these colors determines what kind of day it’s going to be.  If different foods touch each other on the plate, they can‘t be eaten.  Life is an endless list of self-made rules that can’t be violated.  March 2013

Paul Johnson.  Churchill.  This is a relatively short biography.  I didn’t find anything new or startling, but it was a good review.  Among the things that stood out for me was his career as a journalist.  He seemed to take every opportunity to make money and promote himself, often by writing about his assignments as a military officer or government official in ways that would today be considered conflicts of interest.  His many disagreements with Roosevelt were another area of special interest. March 2013

Henning Mankell.  Before the Frost.  I have enjoyed the Wallander series on TV, but I had no idea how rich the novels are.  Mankell lets us in on the thought processes of his principal characters in ways that are not possible in film, even in a series, where time is not as much of a factor as it is in a standalone film.  This novel features Wallander’s daughter, Linda, in the days just before she becomes a police officer and her difficult relations with her father as they work on a case involving religious fanatics.  March 2013

Rory Stewart.  The Places in Between.  Stewart reads his own book about his adventures walking in winter from Herat to Kabul.  He is following the route of a 16th Muslim prince, who made the trip to solidify his control over Afghanistan.  For Stewart it is part of a walk he took across the Middle East and South Asia in connection with his historical studies of Medieval Muslim society.  It is hard to imagine how different life is in the isolated mountain valleys through which he trekked.  First, you need letters of introduction both for safe conduct and to insure a place to eat and sleep each night.  Nothing happens without a bribe.  Most people marry their first cousins.  There’s not much to eat except dry bread, because the Taliban killed or stole most of the livestock. One of the chiefs with whom he stayed could recite his family genealogy back 15 generations.  One woman he met had never been more than a four hour walk from her village.  People’s attitudes and motivations are so different from ours that Afghanistan might be another planet.  And can you imagine walking alone in winter through 14,000 foot mountain passes in a country where everyone carries an AK-47?  March 2013

Ira Stoll.  Samuel Adams, a Life.  This book is must for anyone interested in the history of the Revolutionary War.  I was thinking to myself that I had read piles of books and had heard Samuel Adams’ name many times, but I didn’t really understand his role in the war.  The author opines that the reason Adams has not figured more prominently in standard accounts of the revolution is that he never held national office afterwards.  During the run up to the war, the two heads that the British wanted most were those of Samuel Adams and John Hancock.  Adams was a principal player in the Continental Congress, and it is the Massachusetts State Constitution, which Adams shepherded through the state assembly, that was the model for the national constitution and the Bill of Rights.  As a Congregationalist and descendant of Puritans, Adams consistently attempted to introduce his religious views into government and politics, and much of the rhetoric that we hear today about America being a Christian nation sounds like it comes directly from Adams, and yet it was Adams who promoted religious tolerance as the Bill of Rights was being considered.  Lest we forget, Congregationalist views of Quakers and Catholics were no less hostile than Christian attitudes towards Muslims today.  I came away from this book in awe of Adams the practical politician and political theorist, grateful to him for his legacy and not liking him very much at all.  March 2013

Ross Thomas.  Out on the Rim.   O’Henry would have loved this book.  Five con artists come together to try to steal $5 million that they are to supposed to deliver to a Philippine communist rebel.  It takes them a long time to figure out that the money comes from Marcos to finance an insurgency that would destabilize the government and create an opportunity for Marcos to return to power.  Then of course there’s the question of which cons will con which cons. This one was fun.  February 2013

Scott Turow.  Pleading Guilty.  I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Scott Turow’s novels, but I didn’t like this one much.  The plot is as ingenious as usual, but neither Mac Malone, the narrator, nor any of the other characters are attractive as good guys or villains or whatever.  Maybe I would make an exception for Toots, an 83 year old lawyer, who can fix anything for a price.   He has organized crime connections and is up for disbarment, but soldiers on.  One does learn a bit about bank secrecy in piss pot countries and what one can do with transfers among numbered accounts.  Oh, and there are lots of lessons here about “legal ethics,” the ultimate oxymoron.  March 2013

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