James Lee Burke. Feast Day of Fools. © 2011 This is a sequel to Rain Gods, which featured Hackberry Holland, former lawyer, sot and rake, who is one tough sheriff. He again takes on the Thompson sub-machine gun toting psychopath Jack Collins, but there are a host of other bad guys as well. There’s a Russian pornographer and arms dealer, a self-righteous American arms dealer who has reneged on a deal with the Russian and tried to take him off the board by reporting him to the IRS, and a little band of Mexicans who kidnap useful people and sell them. In this case it’s a drone designer who is wanted by both Al Qaeda and a large Mexican drug operation. About everything happens including a burial alive and a crucifixion with a nail gun. Collins gets away again. One of the good guys is a Chinese woman who used to work for Air America and it now helping Mexican illegals to avoid detention after crossing into Texas. Now I guess I’ve read enough James Lee Burke. April 2015
Cory Doctorow. Pirate Cinema. © 2012 Trent McCauley, a teenager living in Bradford in the north of England, has a passion for downloading films and editing bits and pieces of them to make his own original films. The novel is set few years in the future when copyright laws are even stricter than now. He gets caught and his whole family loses internet access for a year. His mother can’t draw her disability payments without going to a central office, his father loses his job working at home for a call center, and his little sister can’t do her school work. Trent runs away to London. He meets Jen, who has mastered the arts of begging, feeding himself out of skiffs (dumpsters) and living in squats. They find an abandoned building which once had a pub on the ground floor and move in. Trent starts to make films again. He meets a girl activist named Twenty-six and together with some other film makers and assorted weird people they start producing film showings in cemeteries and abandoned buildings and tunnels, including a cavernous room with a vaulted ceiling in a Victorian era sewer. Trent calls himself Cecil B. Deville. There is general agreement that his films are great, but eventually he gets caught and sued by the film moguls for 78 million pounds. Trent and the others along with one MP and some serious adult activists try to get the onerous law repealed. They fail. Few MPs show up for the vote and the party whips threaten the few who do show up with expulsion if they vote for repeal. The pro-repeal MP submits a private bill to try to get some relief for the young filmmakers. After an intense lobbying effort it looks like the bill hasn’t got a chance, even though an election is coming and thousands of people have visited their MPs to express support for the bill. Prospects look dim. Trent has made a new 2 ½ minute film that makes their case, and they think they could win if the public could see it. Unfortunately, the judge for his case has forbidden Trent from getting on the internet, and he will go to jail if he does. Twenty-six comes up with the idea of projecting Trent’s film on the side of the Parliament building. With equipment from Aziz, who has built an enormous inventory of electronic parts by scrounging around in skiffs, they mount a projector and mirrors at three different locations and are able to project the film onto Parliament off and on for a whole night without getting caught. Others pick it up and put it on the internet and by morning they have 80 million views. The bill passes. Trent’s world looks wonderful, until Twenty-six tells him she’ll be leaving for Edinburgh to study law. After a while, he starts making films again. Now it’s legal. This is a story that’s well told. Getting it by ear narrated in what I assume is an authentic Northern accent wasn’t my favorite part of the experience. Beyond this being a good story, I value this book for its discussion of how copyright rules can affect our lives, how the internet has become essential to daily life, and how younger generations have adapted to technology and let their lives be shaped by it. May 2015
Ken Follett. Code to Zero. © 2000 I read Eye of the Needle shortly after it came out in 1978, but later, after I had discovered works like Pillars of the Earth and the Century Trilogy, I seem to have forgotten that Follett also wrote thrillers. In this one it’s 1958 and each chapter starts with a brief description of some aspect of the construction and launching of a Redstone rocket. A man wakes up in a restroom at Union Station in Washington dressed like a vagrant and with a terrible hangover and no memory of who he is. Another vagrant tells him he is Luke and leads him off to breakfast at a mission. Over breakfast he sees an article about a countdown at Cape Canaveral. It sort of rings a bell. After Luke leaves the mission, he gets a feeling that the other vagrant is sort of a minder and ditches him. Then he discovers he’s being followed by a team of professionals. His wartime OSS training kicks in. He loses the tails, finds a way to clean himself up and acquire some decent clothes and then sets out to find out who he is. Up to here this is a book you can’t put down, but not so much from here on. Luke eventually finds that his memory was wiped at a hospital the previous evening (something that is not actually possible) and that he knows a lot about rockets. He crashes a meeting of rocket scientists at the Smithsonian and lots of people know him. He is Dr, Claude Lucas, rocket scientist at the NASA facility in Huntsville, Alabama. A countdown has started for a critical launch, and Luke has to figure out why he is in Washington instead of at the Cape. What he doesn’t know is that he had discovered a plan to prevent a successful launch by triggering the self destruct mechanism remotely during the first stage after liftoff and had come to Washington to expose the plan. Anthony, Luke’s closest friend at Harvard, is now a senior operative at CIA and also a Soviet spy. He was the one who arranged the memory wipe and, now that that has failed, sets out to kill Luke. It’s all very thrilling but unfortunately also rather preposterous. I read a bunch of reviews. Some people liked it, some didn’t, some gave up on it. Follett is a master of action and suspense, but I was disappointed. April 2015
Ulysses S. Grant. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. First published in 1885 by Mark Twain. The print version came in two volumes. The recorded version that I listened to on my Kindle Fire comes in three parts. Grant wrote this memoire to earn enough money to support his wife after his death. He was in severe pain for much of the time he was writing and died of throat cancer at age 63 nine days after the book was finished. 300,000 copies were printed and it earned $450,000 for the Grant family. The book is written in the first person and the reader, Peter Johnson, makes you feel like you are listening to Grant himself. Grant comes off as a very down to earth and worldly person without pretensions or hang ups. It’s also clear that he was extremely smart and the best military man to be leading the union forces. As a young man his aspiration was to become a professor of mathematics. He often expressed sympathy for the slaves and for the needs of working people, and he tried to take good care of his soldiers. If he were alive today, he would certainly be considered a liberal. My favorite quote in the book is this: “In school I repeated ‘A noun is the name of a thing’ so many times that I came to believe it.” Grant was born in Ohio April 27, 1822 and left there for West Point when he was 17. On the way he traveled east on the Erie Canal until he reached a railhead. The train averaged 12 mph and sometimes hit 18 mph. It seemed to him that it was “annihilating space.” He graduated from West Point and began a routine military career. He describes his service in the Mexican War, one he considered unjust, and left the army sometime afterwards and worked at various things until he was recalled for the Civil War. Then it’s one engagement after another. Grant had served earlier as a quartermaster, and what struck me was how difficult that job was, i.e., getting the right amount of food, forage and munitions to the right places at the right times. Troops and material had to be moved over rail lines that were constantly damaged by rebel forces or over terrible roads, which were also sometimes damaged by the enemy. Along with fighting men and supplies, the staff had to move engineers and their equipment to rebuild bridges or construct new ones. Grant seems to have been able to keep it all in his head. His genius at moving men and material seems to account for much of his success in the West and with the Army of the Potomac. Along with these skills, Grant seems to have had a keen understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of his fellow officers. It was Grant who recognized the abilities of Sherman and Sheridan and unleashed them on the Confederacy. As I was “reading” along, Grant mentions that he noticed the abandoned Confederate field hospital after he overran their position at Shiloh. My great grandfather, Michael Beshoar, was the Confederate surgeon at that hospital. When the hospital was about to be overrun by Union forces, he buried his papers and his amputation kit at the site. Two years later when he was a paroled POW in St. Louis, the amputation kit still in its rosewood box was returned to him by a Union officer. Last year I donated that kit to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, where it is on display from time to time. April and May 2015.
John Ransom. Andersonville Diary. 1881 I read MacKinlay Kantor’s novel Andersonville shortly after it came out in 1955. I don’t remember much other than that it was a horror in the same league as the Nazi death camps, Japanese prisoner-of-war camps and the stockades into which the Soviets confined German prisoners until they starved to death. Ransom was a printer from Jackson MI, who was a sergeant in the 9th Michigan Cavalry when he was captured. He was first imprisoned at Belle Isle near Richmond and then transferred to Andersonville, where he almost died of dropsy and scurvy. He was saved by two friends who held him up in the ranks between them as prisoners deemed well enough for transfer to another camp were marched out of Andersonville. The sick were left behind and over three months one third died the first month, then one half and finally another third. His group was taken south close to the Florida border, and he was hospitalized for a couple of months until he was well enough to serve as a nurse to other prisoners. He says that the doctors there were as kind as the guards at Andersonville were cruel. He escaped from that camp for six days and then was recaptured. While his new group was being transferred from that camp on flat cars, he and two new friends, the Buck brothers from Ohio, rolled off their car and escaped. With the help of slaves and Union sympathizers they were able to survive in the woods until Sherman’s army overran the area on its march to Savannah. The diary in three volumes written with stub pencils is an almost day to day account of his experiences. It seems a miracle that he was able to keep all three volumes through three camps and two escapes. Throughout the narrative he remained upbeat and optimistic, except when he was near death towards the end of his time at Andersonville. Perhaps it was his optimism plus his resourcefulness in getting bits and pieces of food that kept him alive. Reviewers have commented that despite being untrained his writing is excellent. Perhaps they forget that he was a printer by trade. I almost gave up in the early chapters, because the narrative was so grim. I’m glad I stayed with it. May 2015
Daniel Silva. The Fallen Angel. © 2012 Daniel Silva never disappoints. Mossad agent Gabriel Allon is retired again and working at the Vatican to restore Caravaggio’s Deposition, when he’s asked to take a look at the body of a woman, a presumed suicide who has fallen from the viewers’ gallery in St. Peters. It’s immediately clear to Gabriel that this is no suicide. The Pope’s counselor asks Gabriel to take time out from his restoration work and try to figure out who killed her and why. What follows is a tour through the underworld of the stolen antiquities trade, money laundering at the Vatican Bank and an Iranian plot to blow up the Temple Mount and launch a third intifada that would destroy Israel. April 2015