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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Democracy in America; The Assassination Option; The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards; Peace and War, Britain in 1914; Thunderstruck; Damage; The Ophelia Cut; The Day of Atonement; The 500; Bad Blood; and Lancaster and York: The War of the Roses

Alexis de Tocqueville.  Democracy in America: ExcerptsOriginally published in 1835.  A modern introduction to de Tocqueville’s work summarizes the struggle in post-Napoleonic  France between the aristocracy and democracy that wasn’t resolved until the Third Republic and adds some perspective to de Tocqueville’s commentaries and reminds us that he was an aristocrat writing from an aristocrat’s perspective.  De Tocqueville begins by identifying five characteristics of Americans and American society: (1) lack of distinction between the classes, (2) the relative absence of military personnel and civil servants, (3) the violence of the language of the press, (4) the importance of religion in maintenance of morality, and (5) the excess love of profit to the neglect of the fine arts.  These are probably the good old days that conservatives would like to bring back, although they would probably like to keep enough of the military around to wage continuous war in the Middle East and their politicians and their spokes people seem to have taken over the violent language role from the press.  De Tocqueville and his companion, Gustave de Beaumont, started in New York and traveled widely to do their study of the American penal system for the French government, which they published in 1833. For me the most interesting part of de Tocqueville’s own work (Vol. I, 1835 and Vol. 2, 1840) was his description of the wretched plight of the Indians in the Mohawk Valley, former allies of France, who had been reduced to alcoholism and begging.  His main themes were our Puritan beginning, the Federal Constitution and the status of women.  John Stuart Mill praised the second volume, which is considered the foundation of modern sociology.  De Tocqueville’s direct heir was Max Weber.  June 2015

W.E.B.  Griffin.  The Assassination Option.   © 2014  This is a thriller built around the transition after WW II of the OSS into what eventually became the CIA.  A young second lieutenant is bumped up to captain and made director of intelligence in Germany in an effort by the White House to create an intelligence structure that would not be dominated by the military.  There’s lots of bureaucratic infighting, but the only real action is a successful extraction from Eastern Europe of the family of a KGB defector.  It was o.k., but I won’t be going back for more  …. Unless I forget. That sometimes happens.  June 2015

Kristopher Jansma.  The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.  © 2013  The unreliable narrator is an aspiring writer, who was raised in North Carolina by his single mom, a flight attendant.  From early childhood his ambition is to write the Great American Novel.  At a small college he rooms with another aspiring writer, Julian McC ann, a rich kid who is more sophisticated and later in the book more successful.  (Julian has three different names in the novel).  The two of them get most of the attention from the freshman writing professor as they compete for success at school and eventual fame and fortune.  What he professor tells them over and over is “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” a line from a poem by Emily Dickinson .  All the reviews say the narrator is unnamed, but in the writing class the professor addresses them as Pinkerton and McCann.  Through Julian the narrator meets Evelyn, an aspiring actress, and falls madly in love.  They stay in love but later perhaps she marries an Indian geologist or a Japanese royal or a Luxemburg prince.  In the years after college the narrator gets a few short pieces published but is never able to write that novel.  He does produce an occasional manuscript but always loses it, one of them down an ice hole in New England.  Using a stolen identity he teaches a wildly successful writing course at a New York university.  Julian writes one incredibly successful novel, an international bestseller, but is never able to repeat that initial success and spends much of his life having nervous breakdowns.  In the second half of the novel, the narrator travels to exotic places, does some reporting and criticism and keeps working on a novel.  It never works out.  I read several reviews.  I was amazed at how many different interpretations there were.  I think this means Jansma accomplished what he set out to do in this first novel.  The best of the reviews with the least annoying pop-ups were in The Village Voice and Popmatters, a blog, I think.  June 2015

Nigel Jones.  Peace and War, Britain in 1914© 2014  This turned out to be a great read.  It’s like a trip through the daily papers in London in 1914.  I wish I had retained more of what I read; I plan to go back and read this again, because there is so much there both about everyday life in Britain that was so radically altered by WW I and about the events that led up to the war.  One of the things that struck me was a short history of the women’s campaign for the fight to vote.  The women were really serious and endured, i.a., arrest and forced feeding to prevent hunger strikes.  When forced feeding became politically risky, the authorities adopted a new policy:  When women in prison lost too much weight, they were released for five days and then put back in prison.  Not everyone survived the protests.  Emily Wilding Davison (11 October 1872 – 8 June 1913) was a militant activist who fought for women's suffrage in Britain. She was jailed on nine occasions and force-fed 49 times.  She is best known for stepping in front of King George V's horse Anmer at the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913, She died four days later from her injuries.  July 2015

Erik Larson.  Thunderstruck.   © 2006  Larson has carved out his own place as an author who turns real events into thrillers.  In this one he tells two stories in parallel and then brings them together at the end.    The first is the struggle of Guglielmo Marconi to develop wireless communication, prove its utility and then defend his interests against other inventors, several of whom he used badly.  The other is about Hawley Harvey Crippen, a patent medicine man, who murdered his overbearing wife, dismembered her body, burned or otherwise disposed of her head, hands and feet and buried what was left under the floor of his coal bin.  When questions started to be asked about her disappearance, he fled Britain with his young mistress dressed as a boy and posing as his son.  Scotland Yard was hot on his heels.  The murder was a sensation in Britain second only to Jack the Ripper.  In the introduction the reader already learns that the captain of the ship on which Crippen sailed for Quebec recognized the couple and reported this by wireless.  Nevertheless all the way through I wondered why Larson didn’t just tell Marconi’s story, which is fascinating all by itself, but in the end it all becomes clear.  The apprehension of Crippen thanks to the availability of ship to shore wireless communication was what finally proved to the public, to investors, and to shipping lines the value of Marconi’s invention.  July 2015

John Lescroart.  Damage.  © 2011   Ro Curtlee was  convicted as a serial rapist and murderer of at least one of his rape victims.  His parents were the very rich and influential publishers of one of San Francisco’s newspapers.  As revenge for the conviction, they ruined the careers of everyone on the prosecution side.   Now, ten years later, the Curtlee’s lawyers have succeeded in an appeal to have the conviction thrown out on a technicality, and Ro is out until a new trial can be convened.  Within 24 hours after Ro’s release, the key witness in the first trial is found dead and so badly burned that there are doubts about whether she can be positively identified.  Abe Glitsky, who had been the lead detective for Ro’s first arrest and trial, has recovered from his reassignment to the police payroll office and is now Chief of Homicide.  When the wife of the jury foreman is found strangled and immolated, Glitsky and Wes Farrell, the recently elected DA, are convinced that Ro is out for revenge and some insurance against being convicted in the retrial.  Glitsky has no evidence, and he and Farrell are constantly harassed by the Curtlees directly and in their newspaper.  Lescroart finds a way out for Glitsky  that is sort deus ex machina.  It’s an ending, but…..  June 2015

John Lescroart.  The Ophelia Cut.  © 2013  Brittany Mcquire is drugged and raped  by Rick Jessup, the chief of staff for a San Francisco City Councilman who aspires to be mayor.  24 hours later Jessup is found murdered.  Everyone assumes it was Brittany’s  father, Moses McGuire, who did it.  His attorney brother-in-law, Dismas Hardy, takes on his defense.  There’s another agenda here.  Hardy and Detective Abe Glitsky don’t want Moses in jail, because they are afraid he will talk about something the three of them did ten years earlier.  They took the law into their own hands to waste a couple of truly bad guys.  It turns out the councilman and a Korean businessman who runs a string of massage parlors have reasons for wanting Jessup dead.  There’s lots going on here and the best of the action is in the courtroom.  July 2015

David Liss.  The  Day of Atonement.  © 2014  Benjamin Weaver, an ex-boxer and a thief catcher, takes in  a 13-year-old Portuguese boy, Sebastião Raposa, who has been smuggled to London from Lisbon, where the Portuguese Inquisition has imprisoned and killed his parents.  The family is of Jewish heritage, but they have been “new Christians” for several generations.  This means nothing to the Inquisition; the priests want their money.  Weaver trains the boy in his craft, and the boy changes his name to Sebastian Foxx.  When Foxx is old enough, he returns to Lisbon intending to rescue his childhood sweetheart Gabriela and avenge his parent’s murder.  Nothing is as it seems at first.  Everyone has an agenda he doesn’t expect, friends become enemies and enemies become friends.   To right a perceived wrong, he steals a hoard of gold bullion and during the Great Lisbon Earthquake of November 1, 1755 he rescues Gabriela and her family from the Inquisition’s prison and gets them and some others on a boat out of Lisbon to safety.  Until I read a review of this book, I didn’t know that the Benjamin Weaver character has been the principal character in earlier novels by David Liss.  I’ll be looking for them.  July 2015

Matthew Quirk.  The 500.  © 2012  Mike Ford, a former juvenile delinquent and son of a con-man, finishes Harvard Law and takes a job with the Davies group, a powerful Washington law firm that specializes in lobbying.  This is somewhat like John Grisham’s The Firm, but there are problems.  Washington isn’t run by 500 people, DC police detectives don’t investigate the Federal Government and Washington law firms don’t keep hired killers on the payroll.  It seems the Davies Group wants to control everything and is even up to murdering a Supreme Court Justice.  As James Grady said in his review in June 2012 in the Washington Post: “In the end, what might have been the sleek story of a conflicted hero battling for his skin and soul becomes an overburdened saga of a superhero trying to save the world from a megalomaniac who seeks to dominate it.  Quirk is a proven journalist and a fine writer with, presumably, other novels to come. But for his fiction debut, one cliche he should have embraced is that sometimes less is more.”  July 2015

John Sandford.  Bad Blood.   © 2010    I don’t know how it would be to read this book off the printed page, but I have to say that the audio book as read by Eric Conger is an experience.  My favorite flaky detective, Virgil F. Flowers, simply comes alive.  It all starts when a young guy just out of high school and working at a grain elevator, hits a farmer on the head with a baseball bat and then buries him under the load of farmer soy beans he was delivering to the elevator.  When he was sure the farmer was dead from suffocation if the bat hadn’t killed him already, he called the police to report the “accident.”  The boy was actually avenging some really nasty crimes by the farmer.  As the story spins out, Flowers and the very attractive sheriff uncover a perverse religion that the settlers brought over from Germany generations ago.  It practices forced wife swapping, group sex, and sexual abuse of children including incest.  The group will do anything to keep their secret including murder.  July 2015

Allison Weir.  Lancaster and York: The War of the Roses© 1995  How does one keep track of all those English kings and their horses and men?  The House of Lancaster started when Henry IV usurped the throne.  He was followed by Henry V and then the infant heir Henry VI.  Henry VI was anything but a dynamic leader, but his Queen, Margaret of Anjou more than made up for his lack of initiative.  This book is mostly about the struggle between Edward IV of York and Henry VI and Margaret.  There were lots of other players including especially the Earl of Warwick who was Edward’s mainstay and then turned against him.   It’s amazing how often the two sides fought and how their fortunes waxed and waned.  It’s a great read, but there is almost too much information.  It would be interesting to have a statistical appendix.  I’d like to know just how many noble heads got cut off.  Just so you’ll know, the only problem at Henry VI’s coronation was head lice.  There is a nice summary all the way from Henry IV to Henry VII in Wikipedia.  July 2015

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