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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Dick Francis’s Gamble; Dead Man’s Chest; The Inner Circle; and The Social Conquest of Earth

Felix Francis.  Dick Francis’s Gamble.  ©2011  Nicholas Foxton did well on his three A level exams and was offered admission to the London School of Economics.  Instead he chose to become a steeplechase jockey and was doing well until he broke his neck in a fall and was told he could not ride again.  So he went to LSE and then joined a firm of financial advisors in the City.  He found many of his clients among the jockeys and trainers he knew in his previous profession.  He was at the track with a colleague from his firm, when the colleague was shot and killed by what was obviously a professional hit man.  He learns the colleague had named him as his executor, and after he starts checking into his affairs, he finds himself pursued by the same hit man.  The problem is the involvement of someone in his firm in a ‪€100 million scam that promises to build a factory and worker housing in Bulgaria.  Foxton is the narrator in a sort of lower class English accent which I found annoying, but it’s a good story and the narrator’s insights into his own and other peoples characters are worth the read.  I couldn’t find any explanation for the title.  June 2013

Kerry Greenwood.  Dead Man’s Chest.  ©2010   This is the 18th in a series of detective stories featuring Phryne Fisher, an upper class Australian woman who solves mysteries as sort of a sideline from running her household.  It’s the 1920s.  She is single, sort of a flapper, a mature woman who enjoys men, and the parent of two adopted daughters.  I gather the earlier novels are sited in Melbourne.  In this one Phryne and her entourage have taken a house for a few weeks in a small town on the beach.  When they arrive, the couple who were supposed to serve as cook and butler seems to have decamped.  While hiring and training new servants and supervising the preparation of enormous quantities of food, Phryne rescues the missing couple, breaks up a local smuggling ring, and discovers who cut the throat of a young actress while trying to cut off and make away with her plait (pigtail).  I enjoyed the recreation of life in Australia in the 1920s, but I doubt that I’ll go back for more.  June 2013

Brad Meltzer.  The Inner Circle.  ©2011  Eat your heart out, Dan Brown.  When I read The Lost Symbol, I thought Brown’s research on free masonry was interesting, but the plot and the motivations of the bad guys were just plain ridiculous.  Meltzer does better by us.  He first heard about George Washington’s spy ring, The Culper Ring, from Papa Bush. Washington’s ring was so secret that even he did not know the identity of all the operatives, and the general public was not aware of the ring's existence until the 1930s.  Meltzer started asking himself how it would be if the ring still existed and found an idea for a novel.  In the novel the ring’s purpose is protection of the presidency, although not necessarily the President.  The incumbent President is being blackmailed for a mistake in his youth and is trying to use his “plumbers” to find the blackmailer.  The good guys work at the National Archives.  It’s a complex plot.  Beecher White, a young archivist, tries to solve the mystery, while the loyalties and motivations of those around him seem to keep shifting.  An ally one minute may be a mortal threat the next.  A very good read, and you will learn something about the National Archives.  June 2013

 Edward O. Wilson.  The Social Conquest of Earth.  ©2012   In my post on June 1, I discussed Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.   This book covers some of the same ground but from a different direction (Wilson refers to some of Pinker’s earlier work).  Wilson starts with what he learned as an entomologist about eusociality among various species of ants and carries these ideas forward to apply them to humans.   He describes the society of ants in some detail and describes how ants actually farm and ranch in much the same way as humans do.  One example is a species of ant that lives in symbiosis with aphids.  The ants move the aphids to the plants that have the highest concentrations of nutrients and then collect the aphids’ excrement as a food source for their colony.  (An entomologist who tasted the excrement said that it was sweet).  He notes that the altruistic behavior or eusociality that enables the division of labor in an ant colony is relatively rare in nature.  Among insects it is limited to ants, termites, some species of wasps and perhaps a few others.  Among mammals it appears only in the societies of humans and one species of mole rat.  A critical element in the development of cooperative society seems to be development of a “nest,” a protected place for the raising of young with some members of society specializing in raising and protecting the nest and others foraging for food.  This doesn’t seem to happen until members of a species develop the ability to intuit the emotions and intentions of others.  He suggests that the ability to”read” others preceded the development of language.  Wilson has much to say about the evolution of the human brain and the evolution of language that followed.  In any event, his main conclusion is that eusociality or altruism is essential for development of successful human societies and at the same time the explanation for it.  He says selfish individuals always beat altruistic individuals and altruistic groups always defeat selfish groups.  From that he jumps to the idea that low differentials in wealth are associated with the highest quality of life.  In his opinion Japan, the Nordic countries and the state of New Hampshire, which do have the lowest differentials, have the highest quality of life.  At the bottom are the U.K., Portugal and the rest of the U.S.   June 2013

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