Reading – 2004

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A love affair with books


The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison"Our life is the instrument we use to experiment with the truth."
– Eliot Pattison, The Skull Mantra

Terrific! 6 out of 6 stars  Terrific!
Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars  Quite good
Good. 4 out of 6 stars  Good
Okay. 3 out of 6 stars  Okay
Not so good. 2 out of 6 stars  Not so good
Pretty bad. 1 out of 6 stars  Pretty bad
Terrible! 0 out of 6 stars  Terrible!

William Poundstone, Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles and the Frailty of Knowledge

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

Labyrinths of Reason by William PoundstoneAnd there goes 2004!

What can we say with any certainty about reality when our literal understanding of it includes concepts like infinity that are inconceivable?

This entire book explores the paradox of thinking at and beyond the edge of reason. Sometimes I find myself fascinated, other times I am impatient: what's the point of wasting time pondering imponderables? Fascination wins; the pages turn and time is wasted, whatever it may be.

Anchor, New York, 1988

Philip K. Dick, Ubik

Quite good! 5 out of 6 stars

Ubik by Philip K. DickA clever story about a guy who is trying to figure out why time has suddenly begun running backwards. The story is so unusual that I find there is little more I can say about it except that reading it is an exceptional experience.

Doubleday, Garden City, 1969

Theodore Zeldin, The French

Good. 4 out of 6 stars

I'm not sure how much we can really learn about a country's people by reading anecdotal stories about a few of its inhabitants (the first chapter is titled Why it is hard to meet an average French person), but we do learn what a large, diverse place France is. Similar in style to the books of Studs Terkel, Zeldin's book takes us on journey to France's various regions and explores topics such as How to love them, How to compete and negotiate with them, and How to appreciate their taste. (And perhaps we Americans would be well served by learning how to better listen to them.)

To describe a nation of 54 million, still less one of 220 million, in a single phrase, to attribute to all its inhabitants identical moral qualities, that in any case are hard enough to be certain about when dealing with one individual or family, is a natural reaction in the face of the complexity of the world, but it is a habit born of despair, which persists because there seems no obvious way of avoiding it."

The typical Frenchman is a joke, and jokes, to me, are an important part of life. Comedians and humorists are worth listening to at least as much as pundits and politicians, for it is nearly always the jester who blurts out the truth that no one likes to admit. I believe that nothing separates people more than their sense of humor. How people laugh, with whom they laugh and at whom, and when they stop laughing, reveals more about the real barriers and complexities among them than all the statistics in the world. You only understand a person when you know how far you can go without offending him: to understand foreigners, you need to be acquainted not only with their particular Holy Book, but also with their Dictionary of Insults.

The hidden god of travel is still Karl Baedeker, even though he died in 1859. His guide books have set a permanent pattern, making travel essentially a matter of sightseeing, looking at places rather than at people. His achievement was to find sights that could be guaranteed to be there all the time, to be clearly identifiable, dated and classified according to the amount of admiration they deserved. He made visits to old monuments and to art museums the staple diet of the traveller, drawing attention away from the living inhabitants. To this day, tourism is a course in history, architecture, aesthetics, and the appreciation of hotels and food. The cult of 'sights' has grown so much that most foreign (organized) travel involves virtually no contact with the natives, beyond those who specialize in catering for tourists.

Each individual is interesting because he has a different story to tell; in the experience of each there is a record of a way of life personally created, of choices made, of hopes triumphing over small obstacles as well as large disasters, and an exception to every rule.

Kodansha, New York, 1982

Martin Cruz Smith, Wolves Eat Dogs

Not so good. 2 out of 6 stars

An Arkady Renko novel that's almost as good as Havana Bay! Unfortunately, Havana Bay wasn't very good. (And I'm a big fan of the original Arkady Renko novel, Gorky Park.) The only thing mildly interesting about this book was the setting of the second half: the vicinity of Chernobyl. However, a much more engrossing experience of that can be found at [Unfortunately, the last time I looked at this domain, it was suspended due to an "incomplete WhoIs Verification," whatever that means. It had displayed an engrossing photo essay of a woman's illicit ride through the closed-off Chernobyl region.]

Simon & Schuster, New York, 2004

Peter Høeg, Smilla's Sense of Snow

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter HøegLast weekend we had our first real taste of winter: cold, cold temperatures and lots of snow falling all day long. It was the perfect day to get comfortable in front of the fireplace with a book, and one of my favorite characters to spend a day like that with is Smilla.

I simply love Høeg's exquisite descriptions of ice, snow, the environment of winter, and the introspection it can bring. I also tremendously enjoy his insights into his characters. What is good in the book far outweighs its shortcomings of excess in the final section of the book (there have been times I've read just the first two sections). But there is also richness to be discovered in the final section, particularly in the descriptions of characters and sea- and landscapes.

Twice I've made trips to Greenland when I didn't look in a mirror for six months. On the trip home I would carefully avoid mirrors on the plane and in the airports. When I finally stood in front of a mirror in my apartment I clearly saw the physical manifestations of the passage of time. The first gray hairs, the network of wrinkles, the ever deepening and sharpening shadows of the bones beneath my skin.
   Nothing was more reassuring to me than the knowledge that I would die. In these moments of clarity—and you see yourself clearly only when you see yourself as a stranger—all despair, all gaiety, all depression vanish and are replaced by calm. For me death was not something scary or a state of being or an event that would happen to me. It was a focusing on the now, an aid, an ally in the effort to be mentally present.

At this moment it becomes more obvious than it has been since I was a child that freedom of choice is an illusion, that life leads us through a series of bitter, involuntarily comical, and repetitive confrontations with the problems that we haven't resolved.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1993

T.R. Reid, The United States of Europe

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

The United States of Europe by T.R. ReidI've always enjoyed listening to Reid's commentaries on National Public Radio about Japan (he was the Washington Post's Tokyo bureau chief in the early 90s) and England (he was the Post's London bureau chief in the late 90s). He has a sharp eye, a good nose, and tells a lively story. I've also been keenly interested in what is happening in Europe since I enjoyed a prolonged visit to Cologne in the late 80s. So it was with pleasure that I saw the subject of Reid's latest book.

A revolution has been taking place in Europe, and not many Americans have been paying much attention. Many Americans might be quite surprised to learn that the European Union has surpassed the U.S. as the global economic power, foreign aid provider, champion of human rights and environmental protection, and premiere watchdog keeping multi-national corporate entities in line. (The U.S. remains the unchallenged military colossus.)

In fact, we individual Americans have much for which to be grateful to the E.U. right now. Without their strong laws and international sway, we probably would have seen a much larger erosion of our civil rights, privacy, and environmental protections than we have under the reign of Bush. Perhaps they will eventually even embarrass us by example into providing better health care for all Americans and a more humane workplace. I'm beginning to see articles in the U.S. press questioning the validity of measuring our well being solely on the basis of our economic gains while ignoring the fact that, for all our money, we are no happier. It seems to me that the Europeans have done a much better job of making the enjoyment of life a very real goal of society.

On a personal level, I can't help but be wistful for the level of security the Europeans provide their workers. There was a period in the late 90s while our economy was still good when I felt so energized by the absence of the kind of sputtering-economy stress that constantly drains me these days. I can't help but wonder how much productivity we squander as a nation by not providing our work force with a less stressful environment and adequate free time. (A date just around Thanksgiving is the point in the year that marks just how many more weeks per year we Americans work compared to our European counterparts. In other words, if we worked the equivalent work year as the Europeans, our work year would now be over. Think about that over the next five or six weeks!)

Perhaps the economic and social challenges being put forth by Europe today will help reinvigorate America for the better the way the Japanese economic challenge of the 80s did.

Amid the misery and ruin left behind by the twentieth century's two lethal world wars, a group of Europeans set out to create a lasting peace on the continent and a shared economy. They did not aim low. Their dream was to produce, once and for all, an end to war on the continent, and an end to poverty.

Penguin, New York, 2004

Eric Ambler, Background to Danger

Good. 4 out of 6 stars

It seems to me that Ambler fell into a bit of a rut with this, the last of the four books in the Intrigue collection. Although it contains some vivid characters and tense scenes, it doesn't cover any new ground. Cause for Alarm is the peak of this collection.

From the collection Intrigue, Knopf, New York, 1960 (1943)

Eric Ambler, Cause for Alarm

Terrific! 6 out of 6 stars

Cause for Alarm by Eric AmblerI stumbled across Ambler quite by accident earlier this year. What a fortunate event! In this book, he tells a story of continental intrigue during the period before the outbreak of World War II. Newly arrived in Milan, a naive English engineer reluctantly turned armaments businessman, Mr. Marlow, becomes a pawn in a match between the Germans and Russians on the playing board of Mussolini's fascist Italy. As the opponents maneuver for the kill, Marlow finds himself running for his life in the dangerous border region of Northeastern Italy.

You know what old man Aristotle said. The tyrant who impoverishes the citizens is obliged to make war in order to keep his subjects occupied and impose on them permanent need of a chief.

From the collection Intrigue, Knopf, New York, 1960 (1943)

Walter Mosley, Futureland

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

Futureland by Walter MosleyA story cycle about the not-so-distant future featuring a colorful bunch of characters, a frightfully commercialized world, a grim day-to-day existence for most people, and a glimmer of possible breakthrough. At first I thought I was reading a series of unrelated short stories, but was surprised and delighted by how they eventually became interwoven.

"The brain is a mysterious thing, Professor Jones," Bel-Nan said. "It is the most volatile and creative material in the world, maybe even the universe. It can evolve without dying. It can conceive of itself. Its concepts are beyond the living cells that comprise it, so that life for us is defined by the faculty of thought rather than the ability to breathe. Breath, as magical as it is, is nothing compared to the reality of personality."

From many years of study Jones had decided that nothing anyone ever said was true; at best it was what they believed.

Warner Books, New York, 2001

Walter Mosley, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned and Walkin' the Dog

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter MosleyRelated short stories about an ex-con trying to make it on the outside after 27 years in prison. The first book is excellent: the stories are succinct and hard-hitting. The second book is a bit weighed down by preachiness.

Norton, New York, 1998 and Little, Brown, Boston, 1999

Michael J. Hernandez, Database Design for Mere Mortals

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

Database Design for Mere Mortals by Michael J. HernandezThis book gave me a solid basic understanding of the issues involved in designing decent simple databases as well as some of the common pitfalls that need to be avoided. (It is also left me a little red-faced as I became aware of a couple glaring mistakes I made in the first couple of databases I designed. And let me tell you, when a database is interwoven with an ASP application, it takes a fair amount of sweat to correct a database design flaw! So it's definitely worth it to read a book like this and achieve better designs from the get-go.

Addison Wesley, Boston, 2002 (1997)

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

Not so good. 2 out of 6 stars

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. DickI kept reading references to this author in other books and reviews, so I decided to read a couple of his books. Is this another journey into the mind of insanity? I don't really know what to say, but the story strikes me as disjointed and a bit boring. Every time it seemed to be picking up momentum, it collapsed in upon itself.

Putnam, New York, 1962

Walter Mosley, Blue Light

Okay. 3 out of 6 stars

Blue Light by Walter MosleyI have been so impressed with the many other Mosley books that I've read that I decided to take a look at some of his books that I missed. This story has been classified by many as science fiction, and was met with mixed reviews. I guess you could call it science fiction, but I ended up thinking it would be more accurate to describe it as an exploration into the universe of a man afflicted by severe mental illness. As the former, it appears a weak story; as the latter, it comes across as a powerfully written account. Yet I still can't get very excited about the book because, as well written as it is, it wasn't a story I enjoyed reading.

Little Brown, New York, 1998

Scott Mitchell and James Atkinson, Sams Teach Yourself Active Server Pages 3.0 in 21 days

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

Sams Teach Yourself Active Server Pages 3.0 in 21 days by Scott Mitchell and James AtkinsonI realize this review is for a book about a technology that is for most a couple years out of date; but what to do, the website on which I work is only now beginning to make the transition to ASP.NET. I've been reading and using this book as a reference for a couple years, but just the other day decided to read the final remaining chapter that I hadn't actually read before. And you know, yet again I learned another valuable lesson from this book! Since the book is now out of date, this is less a review and more just a thank you. Their book has been very valuable in helping me to move into developing web application solutions, and then to become more efficient at it.

Sams, Indianapolis, 2000

Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Good. 4 out of 6 stars

Nickle and dimed by When I was a kid, a junior in high school, my school experimented by providing a week during which we students could do any special project we wanted. I decided I wanted to experience what it was like to be blind, so I visited a center for blind people to talk to them about their experiences, learn to walk with a guide and a cane, and to borrow a cane.

On the morning of day one, I donned a sleeping mask, and didn't open my eyes again for seven days. It was an incredible experience, one from which I learnt a great deal about myself and our society. But in the end, I understood that it was not a true experience because I wascontinuouslyy aware that I could remove my mask at any time.

That's how I feel about this book; it's interesting, but not quite a true experience. It's a toe testing the waters. Perhaps its main redeeming quality is that it may help some people blinded by affluence to be able to see a bit more of the real world around them as well as the working class people they currently so often look right through.

It is common, among the nonpoor, to think of poverty as a sustainable condition—austere, perhaps, but they get by somehow, don't they? The are "always with us." What is harder for the nonpoor to see is poverty as acute distress: The lunch that consists of Doritos or hot dog rolls, leading to faintness before the end of the shift. The "home" that is also a car or van. The illness or injury that must be "worked through," with gritted teeth, because there's no sick pay or health insurance and the loss of one day's pay will mean no groceries for the next. These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment. They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations. And that is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans—as a state of emergency.

In Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy (Verso, 1997), Kim Moody cites studies finding an increase in stress-related workplace injuries and illness between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s. He argues that rising stress levels reflect a new system of "management by stress" in which workers in a variety of industries are being squeezed to extract maximum productivity, to the detriment of their health.

… the appropriate emotion is shame—shame at our own dependency … on the underpaid labor of others. When someone works for less pay than she can live on—when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently—then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The "working poor," as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else. As Gail, one of my restaurant coworkers put it, "you give and you give."

Owl Books, New York, 2001

Walter Mosley, Workin' on the Chain Gang

Terrific! 6 out of 6 stars

Workin' on the Chain Gang by Walter MosleyThis small book, a long essay really, is immense with provocative questions, illuminating insight, and the challenge that things can be better.

So often I wonder if anyone else thinks about the issues raised in this book. I mean, I know people do, but it seems so utterly rare. Of all the people I come across at work and those I know outside of work, so few seem to be thinking about this stuff. But it consumes me! So it does my heart good to read the thoughts of an obviously potent thinker of our times on this subject.

As in his other non-fiction book that I've read, Mosley focuses on revealing realities and asking questions, while being much weaker at suggesting possible solutions. But a great man I once knew said something to the effect that becoming aware of something is the most important step.

Here, Mosley challenges us to give up the narcotics of television and mass entertainment such as sports for three months, and to spend the time that is freed up thinking deeply about what it means to live and work in our capitalistic society in this day and age.

   … to have ideals, to believe in what is right, is a part of human nature—it is why we have survived this long. We should follow our natures, our beliefs. That way, even if failure, we have lived up to our human potentials.

   Profit is made on a grand scale in America, but most of us don't share in it. Most of us work for dollars that fluctuate in value, at workplaces where the managers never really care about us or our hearts. We live within the margin of profit. We are the margin of profit. The money taken from our labor is used to buy political power that does not represent us. Our taxes pay for federally licensed air waves we do not control, for S&L bailouts, for public inquiries into the president's privates, and for law enforcement agencies and judges who can't keep heroin out of our children's reach.
   Broken roads andnonexistentt stoplights, children who can't read, and prisons that are private businesses—this is also the margin, the margin of profit.

   Freedom for Americans becomes no more than an economic issue. Money equals freedom, money equals happiness, money is even the primary element in love and beauty, royalty and intelligence. All these centuries of science and advance, and socially we are no further along than we were thousands of years ago.

   A society that puts the interests of its corporations above those of its citizens creates an untrusting and untrustworthy population. A nation where poverty is commonplace and homelessness is a reality cannot expect nationalism and self-sacrifice from the majority of its people.

   Better machines, faster processes, and more efficient exploitation of natural resources and the labor force are the goals of capitalism. A happier, longer, healthier life are the goals of the worker.

   Our individual strengths, our communal strengths, belong to the task of corporate America; subsequently, the task of corporate America gains weight and velocity. All of this can be understood in relation to the margin of profit. The greater the profit, the less we make. The less we make, the more we have to work. The more we work, the more we are restricted by the chain of our labors.

   Wealth buys the presidency. Wealth is the most important political constituent. And so we are saddled with representatives who mind (and mine) the interests of corporations and millionaires. We therefore have a two-tiered legal system, one for the rich and another for the poor. As a result, most Americans, citizens of the richest and most technologically advanced country in the history of the world, find themselves voting to keep the flow of crumbs from stopping. We vote for the right to work until we are too old for anything else anymore.
   And as wealth buys the presidency, it also buys the president. The candidate, the elected official, must tend to the true constituency, money. Therefore issues of race, gender, age, sexuality, and any other surface difference lose meaning. It's money that rules the political arena.
   Our political system is a travesty. The health care we are provided with, the retirement plan the government forces us to participate in, and the pollution of our dreams for a future worth living all serve to limit the everyday person, to chain her to a life of grunting lies.

The only way out is to be crazy, to imagine the impossible and the ridiculous, to say what it is you want in spite of everyone else's embarrassed laughs.

Ballantine books, New York, 2000

Walter Mosley, The Man in My Basement

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

The Man in My Basement by Walter MosleyI feel like I'm discovering a whole other Mosley. For several years I've been reading his excellent series about Easy Rawlins, but now I'm branching off into his other books, which dive into many other genres. The guy is beyond talented!

I'm not sure what to say about this book; it's unlike any other I've read. At its heart, it is a conversation between two men, but the setting and circumstances will blow your mind. In its soul, it is a story about a man coming to understand and accept who he is, and finding a deeper relationship between himself and the world in which he lives. Or, maybe not. But whatever it is, it's quite a read.

"You think that you can have the easy life of TV and gasoline without someone suffering and dying somewhere?"

Little, Brown, New York, 2004

Eric Ambler, A Coffin for Dimitrios

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

Another thoughtful book from Ambler, vibrant with character study and with enough suspense and tension to pull the reader along at a good clip.

   A man's features, the bone structure and the tissue which covers it, are the product of a biological process; but his face he creates for himself. It is a statement of his habitual emotional attitude; the attitude which his desires need for their fulfillment and which his fears demand for their protection from prying eyes. He wears it like a devil mask; a device to evoke in others the emotions complementary to his own. If he is afraid, then he must be feared; if he desires, then he must be desired. It is a screen to hide his mind's nakedness. Only a few men, painters, have been able to see the mind through the face. Other men in their judgments reach out for evidence of word and deed that will explain the mask before their eyes. Yet, though they generally understand instinctively that the mask cannot be the man behind it, they are generally shocked by a demonstration of the fact. The duplicity of others must always be shocking when one is unconsciouss of one's own.

From the collection Intrigue, Knopf, New York, 1960 (1943)

Walter Mosley, What Next: A Memoir toward World Peace

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

What Next: A Memoir toward World Peace by Walter Mosely"I have decided to believe in the sanctity of others." With these quietly powerful worlds, Mosley defines the essential underpinning of his vision of the possibility of world peace. Although addressed specifically to African Americans, he writes with an intelligent passion that naturally carries his ideas beyond his intended audience to touch every thinking individual.

Provoked by what he heard, felt, and witnessed from his Greenwichh Village apartment window on September 11, 2001 and afterwards, Mosley envisions a better future. While the book is weakened somewhat by what he himself acknowledges will be seen by some as a weak broth of solutions in the face of staggering problems, the power of the possibilities he raises is enough to make it worth reading.

Personally, I am simply grateful to read an articulate American giving voice to a vision of our future that is something more than a never-ending war driven by empty platitudes about spreading freedom, as if it could be dropped on the masses as easily as bombs.

The problems that the world faces today cannot be solved by superior strength alone. We Americans must use our hearts if we want to face the hatred confronting us. And we must be able to look critically at our own actions and motivations if we want to understand our enemies.

The world today is caught in a paroxysm of violent upheaval. In order to contain and lessen the chaotic spiral of carnage and bloodshed, we must make a commitment to peace. We must declare what it is we feel that all people in the world should expect and conversely what we all deserve.

I'm not sure that there should be one set of expectations, however. All of us have a different view of the world, but I would like to put forward the following universal ideas as the rules of fair treatment that I personally would like to live by:

  • First, I cannot be free while my neighbor is wearing chains.
  • Second, I cannot know happiness while others are forced to live in despair.
  • Third, I cannot know health if plague and famine thrive outside my door.
  • And last, but no least, I cannot expect to know peace if war rides forward under my flag and with my consent.

Black Classic Press, New York, 2003

Walter Mosley, Little Scarlet

Terrific! 6 out of 6 stars

Little Scarlet by Walter MosleyI've been reading Walter Mosley for years. I first found him because I enjoy relaxing with a well-written mystery, and he delivers. I soon realized that the mystery is simply a canvas upon which he paints his deep-felt and eloquent essays about life in America.

I've read some reviews that complain about a weak conclusion to the mystery in this book. I disagree, I think the ending is perfect. It's not an adrenalin-pumping climax, but in its quietness it is as tragic a conclusion as I've ever read to any mystery.

Set in the aftermath of the Watts riots of 1965, this story burns with as much intensity as the riots themselves.

But in you come from down in Watts or Fifth Ward or Harlem, every soul you come upon has been threatened and beaten and jailed. If you have kids they will be beaten. And no matter how far back you remember, there's a beatin' there waiting for you. And so when you see some man stopped by the cops and some poor mother cryin' for his release it speaks to you. You don't know that woman, you don't know if the man bein' arrested has done something wrong. But it doesn't matter. Because you been there before. And everybody around you has been there before. And it's hot, and you're broke, and people been doin' this to you because of your skin for more years than your mother's mother can remember.

Little, Brown, New York, 2004

Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

Okay. 3 out of 6 stars

A sweet story bubbling with feel good belief in the human spirit and happy endings, but not very rooted in reality. Accept it as a fairy tale and it's a pleasant read. One thing is for sure, you'll never look at a jar of honey quite the same way!

You know, some things don't matter that much, Lily. Like the color of a house. How big is that in the overall scheme of life? But lifting a person's heart—now, that matters.

Penguin, New York, 2002

Seth Kantner, Ordinary Wolves

Not so good. 2 out of 6 stars

A kid grows up in a sod igloo in Northern Alaska with his eccentric painter father and two siblings, a white family living like Eskimos, only the Eskimos don't live that way anymore. It's a hard scrabble existence full of mice and their droppings, lots of hunting and killing for food, getting beat up in the closest town for being white, yearning to be something he isn't: an Eskimo.

Later the kid moves to town, where he feels out of place. He becomes a consumer, that is, he buys a snow mobile, which he promptly uses to run down and slaughter a wolf. Later he moves to Anchorage and Fairbanks, where he feels out of place and scorns the ugliness with which white people live. Then he moves back to the sod igloo and scorns the way white people live some more.

What's the point? If we are ever going to learn to live in better harmony with our Earth, it's not going to be by escaping to some remote place and slaughtering a bunch of caribou each winter. It's going to have to be through finding better ways to build our cities, better ways to fuel our economies, better ways to be who we are, human beings, without killing our planet.

You know what I think? I think Kantner must have recklessly and needlessly killed himself a wolf, and this book is his way of trying to shed some of his residual guilt.

Milkweed, New York, 2004

Eric Ambler, Journey Into Fear

Good. 4 out of 6 stars

A thoughtful spy novel that focuses on the fears and hopes, panicked inner monologues, carefully reasoned analyses, confusion, paralysis, and finally instinctual action experienced by a quite ordinary British businessman who unexpectedly finds himself the target of Germanassassinss at the outbreak of World War II. So refreshingly different from the mindless, adrenalin-pumping action episodes that pass for writing in so many modern espionage thrillers.

José says that if a person really needs to do something he will not trouble about what others may think of him. If he is really hungry, he will steal. If he is in real danger, he will kill. If he is really afraid, he will be cruel. He says that it was people who were safe and well fed who invented good and evil so that they would not have to worryaboutu the people who were hungry and unsafe. What a man does depends on what he needs. It is simple. You are not a murderer. You say that murder is evil. José would say you are as much a murderer as Landru or Weidmann and that it is just that fortune has not made it necessary for you to murder anyone.

From the collection Intrigue, Knopf, New York, 1960 (1943)

Susan Power, Roofwalker

Terrific! 6 out of 6 stars

Roofwalker by Susan PowerOnce in awhile, a book leaves me simply excited to read more. This book of short stories set mainly in Chicago but with roots in the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota and traveling between reality and dreams did just that. Even before I was done, I wanted to know more about the Milkweed National Fictional Prize, which Power won for this book.

The stories in this book took me places I hadn't previously visited. Only the best storytellers give me that gift. Thank you, Susan Power.

Milkweed, Minneapolis, 2002

Louise Erdrich, Four Souls

Okay. 3 out of 6 stars

Four Souls by Louise ErdrichLouise Erdrich is a talented writer, but that doesn't guarantee a great book. This is the lineage of Love Medicine and Tracks; however, where those books surprised and challenged me, provoking me to think about the ideas and feel the emotions underlying the stories, this one felt … well … a bit too comfortable for my taste.

Harper Collings, New York, 2004

Robert Wilson, Blood Is Dirt and A Darkening Stain

Okay. 3 out of 6 stars

Together with Instruments of Darkness and The Big Killing, which I reviewed earlier, these books make up the first four thatWilsonm wrote before he scored with A Small Death in Lisbon. While I enjoyed watching his writing powers strengthen and appreciated the way he makes Africa itself a main character in these stories, in the end I didn't particularly enjoy reading these books.

I think Wilson is just a bit too gloomy in his outlook, a bit too down in the scum in his stories, a bit too focused on the worst side of human nature for me to enjoy reads like this. As well as Wilson is able to write, I push these books away with a bad taste in my mouth.

Harcourt, New York, 2004

A Sudden Brick Wall

I was going along at about 80 miles per hour, putting in long hours at work, doing remodeling most evenings and every weekend, when suddenly I hit a brick wall: I got one of those amazing colds; for five days, every bit of me hurt so much all I could do was try to find a way to distract my mind from my body. So I read three of my old favorites. Curiously, as sick as I was my mind was very clear (perception heightened by the fever?) and I found myself noticing details and understanding nuances that had hidden from me during previous readings. There is not much more to say about these books except that I'm grateful to have found a few reads I enjoy this much.

John Burdett, Bangkok 8

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

Bangkok 8 by John Burdett   On a whim, Pisit calls the monk back to ask what he thinks of all this, and Western culture in general. After his drubbing just now he is in a Zen-ish sort of mood, not to say downright sarcastic: "Actually, the West is a Culture of Emergency: twisters in Texas, earthquakes in California, windchill in Chicago, drought, flood, famine, epidemics, drugs, wars on everything – watch out for that meteor and how much longer does the sun really have? Of course, if you didn't believe you could control everything, there wouldn't be an emergency, would there?"

Bantam press, London, 2003

Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn

Terrific! 6 out of 6 stars

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan LethemAn amazing view of Brooklyn at shoe level and through the eyes of detective punk who happens to have Tourette's. Wow!

Doubleday, New York, 1999

Martin Cruz Smith, Gorky Park

Terrific! 6 out of 6 stars

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz SmithThe most enthralling police procedural I've come across. I enjoy it a bit more each time I read it.

Random House, New York, 1981

Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garimara), Rabbit-Proof Fence

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris PilkingtonFor the past year, we've been watching a lot of documentaries and foreign films. A couple weeks ago, a treasure appeared on our movie screen (doesn't seem right to call it a television screen since we don't watch television). Rabbit-Proof Fence stars three amazing young girl's who play Molly, Gracie, and Daisy.

In the 1920s and 30s, these three girls were among the first children born of unions between white and Aboriginal parents in the Jigalong area of Northwestern Australia. The Europeans had invaded Australia, usurped the Aboriginal lands, and totally disregarded existing Aboriginal laws. By the time Molly, Gracie, and Daisy were born, white Australians went one step further and decreed that children of mixed unions were to be separated from their Aboriginal families (the white fathers typically didn't assume responsibility for their mixed-race children, and usually abandoned them altogether).

When Molly, Gracie, and Daisy were first born, they were ostracized by the full-blooded Aboriginal children. But as they grew older, the were gradually accepted into the community. By the time Molly was 15, Gracie was 11, and Daisy was 8, they were fully a part of their community (and had always been fully a part of their families). It was then that the white Australian government seized the three girls.

The separation from their families was devastating. The relatives left behind beat and gashed their heads in a traditional display of deep sorrow, and the girls were understandably terrified, not told where they were being taken, being handed from one white official to the next. They ended up at the Moore River Native Settlement, a camp for mixed-blood children near Perth, in Southwestern Australia. They were locked in their grim dormitory at night, fed disgusting food, treated like prisoners, forced to abandon their native language and speak English, all with the goal of "improving" them so that they could become domestic help for white Australians.

Map of the escape journeyShortly after their arrival, Molly ran away, taking Gracie and Daisy with her. On foot and over the course of two months, these three children made the exceedingly difficult trek home, "one of the longest walks in the history of the Australian outback," some of which was through extremely harsh environments, all the while eluding the authorities and trackers who were after them. They were the first to successfully escape.

After Molly returned to her family in Jigalong, they moved out into the desert to elude recapture. Molly married and had two children, Doris and Annabelle. In 1940, Molly was hospitalized for appendicitis. Upon release from the hospital, she and her two children were forcibly returned to Moore River Native Settlement. A year later, she escaped with her 18-month-old daughter, Annabelle, and made the difficult escape home again.

Her other daughter, Doris, whose Aboriginal name is Nugi Garimara, wrote this book. Molly and Daisy are still alive; this is their story of their amazing journey, told to Doris. Doris also did a considerable amount of research to provide historical background to the story. In many ways, this short book is more powerful than the movie, but I found it wonderful to have the girls from the film in my mind's eye as I read the book. It was also wonderful to see the real Molly and Daisy, now great grandmothers, free and walking together in Jigalong at the end of the film. "We followed that fence, the rabbit-proof fence, all the way home from the settlement to Jigalong. Long way, alright."

Three years after Molly's second trek home, authorities took Annabelle away from her. Molly has never seen her again. This horrifying policy lasted into the 1970s and many of the children who were forcibly removed from their families were never reunited with them. They have come to be known as the stolen generations.

University of Queensland Press, 1996; film: Miramax, New York, 2002

Louise Erdrich, The Master Butchers Singing Club

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise ErdrichThe pen of this master storyteller has, for the most part, been entertaining me for years, and this is one of her better books. It's not about anything much, some ordinary lives intersecting and colliding, some typically unexpected twists, some births, some deaths. But Erdrich is one of those talents, much like Anne Tyler, who can reveal the exceptional in the ordinary. Perhaps there is nothing more heroic than "ordinary" folks making their way through the day-to-day challenges of life and somehow prevailing.

There is a passage where her main character, Delphine, describes what she gains from reading. The passage rings true for me; this understanding of Erdrich may be what makes her stories so compelling to me.

That she kept her father drugged on his bed next to the kitchen stove, that she was childless and husbandless and poor meant less once she picked up a book. Her mistakes disappeared into it. She lived with an invented force.
   When she came to the end of a novel, and put it down and with reluctance left its world, sometimes she thought of herself as a character in the book of her own life. She regarded the ins and outs, the possibilities and strangeness of her narrative. What would she do next? Leave town? Her father would dies without her, a failed thread of plot. The lives of the Waldvogels would simply proceed on in the absence of her observation, without the question mark of her presence. A new story would develop. Delphine's story. Could she bear it? Maybe after all she'd live her story out right here. Something in her was changing as she read the books. Life after life flashed before her eyes, yet she stayed safe from misery. And the urge to act things out onstage could be satisfied cheaply, and at home, and without the annoyance of other members of an acting company. Her ambition to leave faded and a kind of contentment set in. She hadn't exactly feared the word contentment, but had always associated it with a vague sense of failure. To be discontented had always seemed much richer a thing. To be restless, striving. That view was romantic. In truth, she was finding out, life was better lived in a tranquil pattern.

In the end, this is a novel. But the seeds of its birth can be found in Erdrich's grandfather (the German butcher featured in the photo on the book's front cover who immigrated to the U.S. after World War I), the oral history of the massacre at Wounded Knee, and her grandmother, who really did perform for a short while as a human table in a vaudeville act. Mixed together, these really do reveal a surprisingly authentic glimpse into life in the Midwest during the 20s, 30s, and 40s.

As I put this book down, I find myself thinking about my character in the story of my life.

Harper Collins, New York, 2003

Manuel Ramos, Brown-on-Brown

Good. 4 out of 6 stars

Brown-on-Brown by Manuel RamosI admire Ramos' honesty, but he seems tired, worn down by the struggles of life, quite cynical, tinged with an underlying bitterness. All of this is justified, I believe, but it doesn't make for a very enjoyable read.

University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2003

John Burdett, The Last Six Million Seconds

Okay. 3 out of 6 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed Burdett's Bangkok 8, so scrounged up a copy of his somewhat difficult-to-find previous book. It's obvious that he has spent considerable time in Asia and is a keen observer; he tickles some colorful characters out of the barely contained chaos that was Hong Kong at the time of the hand over. But he hasn't yet hit his stride in this story.

Morrow, New York, 1997

Kris Nelscott, Smoke Filled Rooms, Thin Walls, Stone Cribs

Terrible! 0 out of 6 stars

Been thinking about this a lot, how to approach this review. I read A Dangerous Road a year or so ago and gave it a favorable review; however, I became aware that something was not quite clicking because I had two more of the books in the series but wasn't inspired to pick them up for a read.

In the meantime, I kept noticing favorable reviews about this Smokey Dalton series from the likes of, Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and so on. Some of the reviews compared this series to Walter Mosley's series about Easy Rawlins, even suggesting that this might be the more compelling.

Then I read an advance review for the latest book in the series from Kirkus Reviews, "The closest you'll ever come to understanding life as a black man in the sixties, even if you're a black man who lived through them. [My emphasis added.]

So I picked up that book, Stone Cribs, and continued reading the series where I had left off. The more I read, the more skeptical I became. Something about Smokey Dalton wasn't ringing true to me. Despite the fact that this story is told in his voice, the series really seemed to revolve around Laura Hathaway, a rich, white, liberal-minded woman who is Dalton's lover. I got the feeling that this is really her story, her telling a story through Dalton.

Time and again, Smokey stumbles or can't quite get a handle on something or struggles with his unofficially adopted kid, and then Hathaway breezes into his life and makes things better. Finally, after reading the opening chapters of Stone Cribs, I couldn't read any more.

(The line that stopped me cold was Dalton thinking to himself—after a long, anguished passage during which Dalton and Hathaway attempt to save the life of a woman who has had a botched abortion, dealing with copious amounts of blood, the agony of the woman, an asshole doctor, and a combustive situation with relatives, during all of which Hathaway plays the heroine—"It was almost 2 A.M. and the romantic evening we had planned on was no longer possible." Really? Being emotionally and physically exhausted and covered in a dying woman's blood puts a damper on a romantic evening? Who would've imagined?)

Still puzzled about the disconnect I sensed between the reviews and my experience of the story being told, I jumped on the Internet to try to find out more about Kris Nelscott.

Nelscott is actually a pseudonym and, under various other pseudonyms, she also writes fantasy and romance novels. It all clicks. This is not a mystery series about a black man in the 60s (The closest you'll ever come to understanding.…), it's a romantic fantasy written by a white woman living on the Oregon coast imaging what it would be like to be a rich, white, Chicago real estate baroness in the 60s with a black lover.

I end up feeling cheated, tricked into reading something that I find to be a waste of my time, slightly embarrassed that it took me so long to recognize what was puzzling me. To compare this series to Walter Mosley's excellent Easy Rawlins novels is simply absurd.

St. Martin's Minotaur, New York, 2001, 2002, 2004

Melissie Clemmons Rumizen, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Knowledge Management

Good. 4 out of 6 stars

Years ago, I owned a rattly, old, 70s era Honda, had even less cash than horsepower, was mechanically inept, yet desperately needed to keep the car running. So I bought an equally ratty used book, How to Keep Your Honda Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot. The book set me at ease with its funny illustrations; with it balanced on the valve cover, I managed to keep my Honda running for several years beyond its useful life. I'm guessing that was one of the first Complete Idiot books. I didn't mind the title because I was an idiot when it came to cars, the title was obviously tongue in cheek, and it fit well with the humorous tone of the book and its wonderful illustrations. Honda himself was a total renegade in Japanese society, and I still remember laughing out loud at some of the stories of his wild exploits.

That said, I think it is somewhat unfortunate that a publishing house has adopted that catch phrase for a whole line of books. To my ear, it hasn't remained in tune with the subject matter and tone of many of the subsequent books in the series. So I usually avoid the series. But nearly every reviewer gave this book high marks; obviously, I would've been an idiot to pass it by because of the title.

I'm glad I didn't. This is a well written introduction to the field of knowledge management, covering everything from the basic question "What is it?" to some of the fine points related to the metrics of intellectual capital. While the book is focused on the experience of multinationals, it is filled with commonsense ideas that readers should be able to apply in any sized business. It has given me a clear understanding of the challenges I face, as well as a variety of possible solutions upon which I can draw.

Alpha, Indianapolis, 2002

Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

 by Danticat is a natural storyteller. Here her gentle yet strong voice reveals several lives that together form a sculpture scarred and etched with tragedy, strength, defeat, sorrow, joy, and perhaps redemption.

Many of her characters have faced ultimate challenges, have survived, and carry the burden of survival in the only ways they know how. For one this means a lifelong running away from a horror once inflicted by another that has become the filter through which she views her surroundings. For another this means a lifelong running away from a horror once inflicted on others, a numbing fear of being recognized, a haunted desire to love.

When I read what I have written, the book comes off sounding moribund. It's anything but. It is vibrant with life, colorful, and awash in people's attempts to express love, imperfect as they may be. But it is also a direct exploration of the very real and hellish chaos that some of the characters have lived through.

With Haiti again in the news headlines, this book offers an opportunity to understand a bit more in depth the Haitian experience.

Knopf, New York, 2004

Qui Xiaolong, Death of a Red Heroine

Good. 4 out of 6 stars

Death of a Red Heroine by Qui XiaolongQuite a fascinating read, especially for its view into the rapidly evolving life in today's China.

I can't help but suspect that the author—originally from Shanghai and a member of the Chinese Writers' Association, now living in St. Louis and teaching Chinese Literature at Washington University—is much reflected in the story's lyrical, soul-searching main character, Inspector Chen Cao.

Chen Cao recites and reflects upon lines of classical Chinese poetry (and writes his own, as well) as he carefully ponders his case and its unseen political ramifications, wondering how he will maneuver his way through forces of power all but invisible to him to find his way to justice in the end.

The book suffers a bit from stiff dialog, but I loved the highly descriptive glimpses into life on the streets of Shanghai and Guangzhou (an economically energetic city across the bay from Hong Kong that is expanding at a phenomenal rate). And the snippets of classical and modern poetry add richness; given the enthusiasm that shines through for his subject, I imagine that Qui Xiaolong must be a wonderful teacher.

Helpless the flowers fall, The swallows return, seemingly no strangers.
– Yan Shu

Soho, New York, 2000

Martin Limón, Jade Lady Burning

Good. 4 out of 6 stars

Jade Lady Burning by Martin LimonTightly written and highly descriptive, this is the story of a couple guys celebrating life in the seedier sections of town as part of the American forces in Korea. Only these guys are with the army's criminal investigative division, and they've got an unusual murder to tidy up. Pissed when the investigation interferes with their drinking time, they still can't quite swallow the party line; instead, they keep digging away until they uncover a royal mess that threatens to fry their asses.

Colorful, by turns tragic and comedic, teetering between the blissful haze of alcohol and the painful reality of the next morning's hangover, the story rollicks along at an engaging pace as the main characters struggle with a nagging need to do the right thing, even when it would be so easy to just let it all get washed away with a few more beers. Obviously written by someone who has been there, and who was able to keep a keen observer's eye trained on events even in the midst of the haze.

Soho, New York, 1992

Akimitsu Takagi, The Tattoo Murder Case

Okay. 3 out of 6 stars

The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu TakajiThis unusual book was originally written in 1947 and only translated into English recently. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of full-body tattoos and some flavor of what life must have been like in a devastated Japan after the war ended.

Otherwise, it fell flat for me, combining a simplistic story line, corny humor, and stilted dialog with particularly macabre murder descriptions.

Beautiful cover, though.

Soho, New York, 1998

William Gibson, Count Zero

Okay. 3 out of 6 stars

Gibson writes well, but maybe he doesn't have a lot of stories in him. I first read Gibson when Pattern Recognition came out. I thought that book was 95% terrific, and was only disappointed with the weak way he concluded the story.

Then I read Neuromancer, his first book. What a brilliant blast … but pure nonsense.

This, his second book, left me feeling that he was just retelling the story in Pattern Recognition, which was disappointing. Of course, it's the other way around, but not in my mind. I still greatly respect the storytelling in Pattern Recognition, in which Gibson eloquently handles telling the story of one individual's struggle to come to terms with the 9/11 terror attack. This story has no equivalent greatness.

Arbor House, New York, 1986

Ryszard Kapuściński, The Shadow of the Sun

Terrific! 6 out of 6 stars

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard KapuścińskiTo read Ryszard Kapuściński is to touch—and feel—life.

   I arrived in Kumasi with no particular goal. Having one is generally deemed a good thing, the benefit of something to strive toward. This can also blind you, however: you see only your goal, and nothing else, while this something else—wider, deeper—may be considerably more interesting and important.

And this is the way to approach a book by Ryszard Kapuściński, with no particular goal, but simply allowing him to take you on a journey into the heart and soul of the land through which he is wandering. He sees where many simply look, smells where many simply breathe, experiences what many simply pass by.

   We climb into the bus and sit down. At this point there is a risk of culture clash, of collision and conflict. It will undoubtedly occur if the passenger is a foreigner who doesn't know Africa. Someone like that will start looking around, squirming, inquiring, "When will the bus leave?"
   "What do you mean, when?" the astonished driver will reply. "It will leave when we find enough people to fill it up."

The European and African have an entirely different concept of time. In the European worldview, time exists outside man, exists objectively, and has measurable and linear characteristics. According to Newton, time is absolute: "Absolute, true, mathematical time of itself and from its own nature, it flows equably and without relation to anything external." The European feels himself to be time's slave, dependent on it, subject to it. To exist and function, he must observe its ironclad, inviolate laws, its inflexible principles and rules. He must heed deadlines, dates, days, and hours. He moves within the rigors of time and cannot exist outside them. They impose upon him their requirements and quotas. An unresolvable conflict exists between man and time, one that always ends with man's defeat—time annihilates him.

Africans apprehend time differently. For them, it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, course, and rhythm (man acting, of course, with the consent of gods and ancestors). Time is even something that man can create outright, for time is made manifest through events, and whether an event takes place or not depends, after all, on man alone. If two armies do not engage in battle, then that battle will not occur (in other words, time will not have revealed its presence, will not have come into being).
   Time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. It is something that springs to life under our influence, but falls into a state of hibernation, even nonexistence, if we do not direct our energy toward it. It is a subservient, passive essence, and, most importantly, one dependent on man.
   The absolute opposite of time as it is understood in the European worldview.
   In practical terms, this means that if you go to a village where a meeting is scheduled for the afternoon but find no one at the appointed spot, asking, "When will the meeting take place?" makes no sense. You know the answer: "It will take place when people come."

Ryszard Kapuściński is one of the very finest writers I have had the privilege of reading.

Knopf, New York, 2001

Robert Wilson, The Blind Man of Seville

Not so good. 2 out of 6 stars

Disappointed. Robert Wilson has talent. His characters are easy to see, he imparts a vivid sense of place, but in the end a novel comes down to plausibility. And in the end, this story is implausible. The diaries are beautifully written, but it's difficult to reconcile them with the character who supposedly wrote them. As the deaths at the center of the story are unraveled, unbelievable causes are revealed. I ended up thinking, "No way!" as I turned the final pages. And the story collapsed for me.

Harcourt, Orlando, 2003

Ellen Ullman, The Bug

Good. 4 out of 6 stars

An interesting glimpse into the fallible realm of software and software companies, and the toll it extracts from the humans who create software as—perhaps not even aware of the nature of the struggle—they pit the infiniteness of their analog beings against the limitations of the digital.

… I felt no elation this time. For my perception of the machine had been changed forever. I knew then it was just an approximation, a fudge, a best-case work-around on the intractable problem of time. The machine seemed to understand time and space, but it didn't, not as we do. We are analog, fluid, swimming in a flowing sea of events where one moment contains the next, is the next, since the notion of "moment" itself is the illusion. The machine—it—is digital, and digital is the decision to forget the idea of the infinitely moving wave, and just take snapshots, convincing yourself that if you take enough pictures, it won't matter that you've left out the flowing, continuous aspect of things. You take the mimic for the thing mimicked and say, Good enough. But now I knew that between one pixel and the next—no matter how densely together you packed them—the world still existed, down to the finest grain of the stuff of the universe. And no matter how frequently that mouse located itself, sample after sample, snapshot after snapshot—here, now here, now here—something was always happening between the here's. The mouse was still moving—was somewhere, but where? It couldn't say. Time, invisible, was slipping through its digital now's.

Nan A. Talese, New York, 2003

Robert Wilson, Instruments of Darkness and The Big Killing

Okay. 3 out of 6 stars

The Big Killing by Robert WilsonBefore Robert Wilson wrote his acclaimed and award-winning A Small Death in Lisbon, he wrote a series of four Marlowesque mysteries about your typical tough guy with a heart. These are the first two. The first is raw, Wilson is getting his sea legs; the second sails along on a good breeze.

These aren't great books, but what makes them worth a read is the setting, West Africa. Wilson worked there in his past life and it shows. The places and characters feel authentic; you sweat in the oppressive heat, you can feel your internal, Western clock lose its bearing.

Harcourt, New York, 2003

John le Carré, Absolute Friends

Okay. 3 out of 6 stars

Absolute Friends by John le CarréI guess there is, in the end, little hope.

   The lies and hypocrisies of politicians are nothing new to him. They never were. So why now? Why leap on his soapbox and rant uselessly against the same things that have been going on since the first politician on earth lisped his first hypocrisy, lied, wrapped himself in the flag, put on God's armor and said he never said it in the first place?
   It's old man's impatience coming on early. It's anger at seeing the show come round again one too many times.

Le Carré continues to write angrily about what he observes happening in the world, and his is an eloquent voice of anger.

His story, however, spends too much time in old territory—the duplicitous world of Cold War spying—and too little time relating how the enslavement of the global proletariat by corporate-military alliances actually touches individuals. This is what I thought he did so well in The Absolute Gardener, to tell the story of individual lives touched and, in some cases, crushed. In comparison, this book is something less.

I wanted to hear more of Zara's story. I wanted to hear the stories of people with whom Sasha came in contact during his many years as a wandering radical academic bum. I wanted to peer into the everyday lives of citizens of the coalition of the willing to better understand how this enslavement by corporate-military alliances is affecting us today.

I had hoped Le Carré would reflect through his characters on how the terrorist attack of 9/11 touched individuals and societies around the world. I wanted him to talk about what it must've been like to breathe in the dust after the towers fell, knowing that in it was mingled the remains of thousands of innocents. This is something that should provoke outrage and sadness even for those who perceive themselves as hostile to the US government.

I had hoped he would peer deeply into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (in my opinion, one justified and one not) and, even more importantly, the aftermath of these wars. I wanted him to paint a picture of the deaths of innocents from the blatantly immoral cluster bombs, the contamination of soil from spent-uranium armaments, and the repeated, ill-informed attacks from the distant sky on civilians in caravans and children huddled in huts or playing in open fields. These are things that should provoke outrage and sadness even for those who perceive a war as justified.

I wanted him to shout about what it means that the US is allowing Afghanistan's fragile re-emergence as a sane state to flounder undernourished while resources and lives on both sides are sucked away by a war of personal vendetta, one justified only by lies.

The coalition of the willing will pay for this terrible decision. Ignored and inadequately supported economically, the impoverished farmers of Afghanistan have quickly resumed their position as one of the largest growers/exporters of opiates in the world (something that the Taliban, despite its terribleness, had virtually eliminated in its last year in power). Those life-sucking drugs will end up in the veins of willing coalition citizens.

Imagine what might have been gained had the US spent those billions that have been borrowed from children and grandchildren building up Afghanistan rather than tearing down Iraq. Then understand who would have lost: the corporate-military alliances for whom the profits of a perpetual state of conflict is the drug flowing through their veins.

Why is there no war on this drug? Why are there no underfunded halfway houses to which these addicts are sentenced?

How can this show keep coming around so often in one short lifetime?

Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2003

John le Carré, The Constant Gardener

Terrific! 6 out of 6 stars

The Constant Gardener by John le CarréWhen I heard that le Carré has a new book out, I immediately ordered a copy of the already released British version, not even wanting to wait a couple more weeks for the release of the American edition. Then I decided I didn't even want to wait that long and picked up this, his previous book, for a re-read.

Le Carré is a virtuoso, especially when he has his hackles up, as he has in this book. The targets of his wrath are the big pharmaceuticals and their underhanded practices in third world countries.

It's a bit of joke, really, the way we Americans are fretting about the possible loss of freedom and liberty vis-à-vis the so-called Patriot Act. In truth, we are all already in shackled servitude to the big multinationals. Who can stand up against their enormous wealth and their effortless ability to skirt the legal confines of national borders? They own the politicians, they own the press, they own the educational institutions. Hell, the Vice President's own cronies are ripping off the U.S. government as their contribution to the war on terror. When was the last time you heard Cheney or Bush asking Halliburton to sacrifice a bit on behalf of the war effort? Why should they sacrifice when they own the occupants of the White House and every other politician on both sides of the feeding trough?

The only thing that really puzzles me is why there isn't more outrage about all of this at the street level.

A provocative read. Le Carré's stories closely reflect reality, so there are no winners. Some characters get rich, some achieve glory, but nobody wins. The only redemption lies in small acts of courage by a rare few individuals.

   Ghita permanently shocked by everything and everyone, from Roman Catholics who oppose Third World birth control and demonstratively burn condoms in Nyayo Stadium, to American tobacco companies who spike their cigarettes in order to create child addicts, to Somali warlords who drop cluster bombs on undefended villages and the arms companies that manufacture the cluster bombs.
   "Who are these people, Tessa?" she would whisper earnestly. "What is their mentality, tell me, please?…"

Scribner, New York, 2001

Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon

Quite good. 5 out of 6 stars

Altered Carbon by Richard K. MorganAn engrossing, vividly imagined noir romp through the far-off future with a sleeve-wearing sleuth named Takeshi Kovacs. Everything's different (but some things never change).

This is always the toughest part. Nearly two decades I've been doing this, and it still jars me to look into the glass and see a total stranger staring back. It's like pulling an image out of the depths of an autostereogram. For the first couple of moments all you can see is someone else looking at you through a window frame. Then, like a shift in focus, you feel yourself float rapidly up behind the mask and adhere to its inside with a shock that's almost tactile. It's as if someone's cut an umbilical cord, only instead of separating the two of you, it's the otherness that has been severed and now you're just looking at your reflection in a mirror.

Gollancz, London, 2002

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