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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review: A Season for the Dead by David Hewson

This is the first in a series featuring Nic Costa and Inspector Falcone. Sara Faranese is studying in the Vatican library when a colleague rushes in and frankly whispers, "In the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." He then displays a pistol and a bag containing the skin of a human being. Fearing for her safety a Swiss guard shoots him dead, much to Sara's consternation, because she realized he wasn't trying to kill her, but to convey a message. Realizing that the flayed skin may have some reference to St. Bartholome and she drags Coasta and his partner Rossi to that saints church where they discover two more flayed bodies, her erstwhile lover and Stefano Rinaldi's wife. Soon others are being killed and posed in bizarre ways that suggest a link to early martyrs.

Lots of fascinating detail about Rome, Italian customs and how to flay a body. There is a rather gross description of just how to do it (might take about an hour and requires lots of anatomical knowledge and strength) not to mention a reference to some cultures that tried to do it while the victims remained alive. And by the way, now that I have your attention, some Italians enjoy eating offal, prepared in all sorts of garlicy ways. This is apparently from the days when the clergy got all the good parts and the rest were thrown to the proletariat who discovered ways to make it more than palatable. There is a nifty (hmm, perhaps bad choice of words) scene where Costa is invited to dinner with the brilliant pathologist, "crazy" Theresa, and they eat at one of these restaurants. Costa is a vegetarian.

I liked this book, but it does seem that some of the tantalizing leads, for example the "seed of the church" comment above that appears to be significant early on, never gets linked to anything later on. Lots of neat conspiracy stuff. While the inter-connectivity of some of the characters might stretch one's credibility, the shades of gray in the characterizations are what I found most intriguing about the book.

Caravaggio's paintings play an important role that I enjoyed. This is probably the book that Dan Brown wishes he could have written. Of other Italian location writers, I would place him closest to Michael Dibdin, if perhaps not quite as intellectual.

Note: David Hewson has novelized the Danish series "The Killing" which has received excellent reviews. I will be reading it, having been addicted to the American remake of the Danish that takes place in Seattle.

Outsider Authenticity

The NPR show On the Media had a fascinating program in which Brooke interviewed Erica Seifert, author of The Politics of Authenticity. 2016 is supposedly the year of the “outsider”. History reveals that many candidates have run as outsiders, including Lincoln, Carter, and most remarkably Reagan while running for a second term. His deft ads portrayed him as someone never a part of Washington even as a sitting president. Cruz even as a sitting Senator and one who worked for a Republican president, argues he is an outsider because he’s against everything. (Eisenhower was perhaps the most legitimate outsider along with Ulysses S. Grant.)

The famous Howard Dean “scream” is featured in another one of the “On the Media” programs. Those of us old enough to remember the famous win in Iowa will remember the crash-and-burn of his campaign after the media played and replayed his supposed “scream” at the rally following his victory. The show brought in a media expert to explain why no one who was at the event remembered the scream, but everyone who watched on TV remembered nothing else. The producers were using a special microphone and it was intended to pick up only that voice of the speaker, eliminating the crowd noise. The audio technician was then supposed to mix in the crowd noise picked up from different microphones scattered throughout the auditorium to get a more accurate rendition of what happened. He didn’t do that, so the media was left with only Dean’s voice. The crowd noise was so loud that he had to yell and shout to be heard over it.

That famous scream was rebroadcast over and over, more than six hundred times accompanied by commentary that it would sink his campaign. Well, that’s just what happened. One theory as to why it was hammered on over and over was that Dean had said he would break up the large media conglomerates and they wanted him to lose, especially as an “outsider.” In fact, several media outlets said later that they wish that they had not done that that. It was overkill and totally unnecessary. But this is a case where a failure to do the technology correctly ruined a political campaign. No one blames the individual individual engineer for doing this deliberately, but failure to use the technology correctly destroyed Dean, whose campaign never recovered.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Review: Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time by David Edmonds

Audiobook: A fascinating analysis of both the players and the chess culture and its history in both the United States and Soviet Union leading up to the famous duel between Fischer and Spassky in 1972 when chess, for a short period of time, captured the attention of the world.

Bobby Fischer had never grown up and was uniquely focused on chess. Outside of the game he could be obnoxious, eccentric, bratty, rude, and incomprehensible. At the chess table he was unfailingly polite, obsessed with the rules and the game. The beginning of the book is a bit disjointed with quick summaries of his appearances or lack thereof at national and international tournaments. His paranoia and need for control was already quite apparent as was his chess brilliance (he had little brilliance in most other areas of his life.)

The author is stronger when discussing Spassky and chess in Russia. Chess players were expected to play in service to the state where the aftereffects of the "Great Patriotic War" was a sort of Russian exceptionalism that celebrated state nationalism. Everything was in service of the state and chess was no exception.

Their match became a symbolic battle for leadership in the Cold War. Here you had the Soviets who had dominated chess for decades on the one hand, and the lone, individualist Fischer on the other. Spassky was complicated. A Russian patriot, he was no Soviet one. He loved the game and admired Fischer who hated everyone and was the archetypal loner with no admirable qualities.

The authors could not get an interview with Fischer who was notoriously devoted to his privacy so the reader might sometimes feel as if the book is mostly about Spassky and the Russian perspective since they were quite willing to be interviewed. That's OK. Fischer’s erratic and paranoid behavior make him less prone to analysis.

Whatever else you say about Fischer, he was a tormented soul one cannot help but feel sorry for. He was often derided and celebrated. In the end he must have been extremely lonely and he died alone and embittered, a prisoner to his genius. I remember the extraordinary attention surrounding the match which probably did more to elevate the popularity of chess than anything before. The section on game theory and the value of irrationality in determining outcomes I found to be quite interesting if overly speculative in Fischer's case.

Political science junkies and chess fanatics will love this book. Nicely read by Sam Tsoutsouvas.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Business of Dying by Simon Kernicke (Dennis Milne #1)

“Three murders and now we got a witness.” Dennis and Danny have just finished shooting three hoodlums behind a house. Dennis is Detective Sergeant Milne and he kills criminals. In this case at the behest of criminals.

DS Milne is also a very tenacious cop and is in the midst of an investigation into the death of Miriam Fox. He has reason to suspect that the pimp all the evidence points to may not be the actual killer; something just doesn’t seem right, especially as another runaway has disappeared and is presumed to have been killed. Everyone else is just thrilled to close out the case.

But things are beginning to spiral out of control as the witness to his killing (the supposed bad guys turn out to be Customs officers) has managed to produce an ID-drawing that remarkably resembles Milne and Raymond, the guy who ordered and paid for the hit, now wants to tie up loose ends.

Excellent novel. I will definitely read more from this author.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


James Surowiecki has an interesting piece in the New Yorker ( that discusses the history of land ownership in the Northwest. The Bundy folks in their quaint cowboy hats have the spirit right, but the history and economics all wrong, in my opinion.

To suggest as they do that federal land be returned to private ownership is being disingenuous since the and was never in private hands. It was taken from the Northern Paiute Indians. When settlers began encroaching and using Paiute reservation land, the reservation was closed and the Indians forcibly removed to a different reservation in Washington. If the land were to be taken away from the feds it should be given back to the Paiute Indians. Land that did move into private hands was because the Homestead Act permitted the federal government to give land to settlers. Technically, it was never in private hands so land, if anything, should be reverting to the federal government, not the other way around.

But these guys are not really interested in that. They want the land for themselves, no one else. Surowieki points out that if the land were given to the states, it would raise taxes in those states because state land use fees are higher than federal and the states would have to pay for upkeep they avoid now. The states currently benefit from tourism on those lands.

"The libertarian appeal of the “take back the land” rhetoric masks a fundamental contradiction: the West has flourished because of the federal government’s help, not in spite of it. No region’s economy has depended more on subsidies and taxpayer-funded investment. In the nineteenth century, the Homestead Act handed out free land to settlers, and the transcontinental railroad was built thanks to cheap land grants and huge government outlays. The federal government has played a vital role in managing the Western watershed, while investing billions of dollars in dams and other public infrastructure. As the historian Gerald Nash has shown, the West’s postwar boom was jump-started by money the government poured into the region during the Second World War."

Another good source: and