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Monday, February 29, 2016

Review: The Backup Men by Ross Thomas

Not sure how I could have missed Ross Thomas over the years. I have read two of his books now and both were excellent.

Padillo and McCorkle are recurring characters in Thomas’s novels. An unlikely pair of sidekicks, they partner in owning a bar in Washington. Both have somewhat shady but apparently reputable pasts, and Padillo is approached by the Gothar twins to provide backup in providing security for the soon-to-be king of a very small but very oil-rich Middle Eastern country. There are others who want to make sure the prince makes no deals nor returns to his country.

The book has a definite old-fashioned feel to it with some of the action having a slight fantastical feel to it. What makes the book sparkle is the dialogue that propels the book forward. Thomas has a gift for writing dialogue. Some of the short conversations reminded me of those between Boyd Crowder and Raylan Givens. The ending came as a nicely complicated surprise. Quite enjoyable.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

On the Appointment of New Justices

Re filling Scalia's seat, I can easily see a scenario whereby no one gets nominated or confirmed this presidential term. Assuming the Democrats win the presidency in November but only barely gain a majority in the Senate one could see a 4-4 split for the foreseeable future. (In a 4-4 split the decision of the Circuit Appeals court being appealed holds sway *for that circuit only* so you could have different decisions in different circuits becoming the law.) Even with a Democratic president and majority in the Senate the Republicans could filibuster any nomination. (Or vice-versa if the Republicans should win the White House.)

If one of the liberal justices were to resign or die, that would create a 4-3 split, but still leaving the possibility of filibusters preventing any new nominations being approved for several years or until the Senate has a filibuster-proof majority. Nothing says we have to have 9 justices. It was originally six but has varied from seven (1807) to nine (1837) to ten (1867) then again to seven (1866) and back to nine (1869). Congress decides on the size. How this plays out will be fascinating to watch.

Note that while a recess appointment has been done before, most notably by Eisenhower (William Brennan) and the president has the authority under Article II, National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning redefined slightly what was meant by "recess" (you know when the children - Congress -- go out to play). Whether anyone would want to be nominated that way is problematic since the appointment is only temporary and would have to be confirmed after the session.

Of course it must be remembered that a vast majority of SCOTUS decisions are unanimous, (it hit a record high during the 2014 term) over 65% and that the decisions that split on ideological lines are very small. Only 14% were 5-4 and of those only 10 were ideological splits.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Why I'm Reluctant to Vote for Hillary.

I’m a long-time Democrat. My philosophy of government is that it has two major roles: provide for the common defense (emphasis on defense) and to build infrastructure. Aside from the usual definition of infrastructure that would include bridges, roads, airports, transportation, etc., I go a bit further and include health care. Health care plays an important role because it provides a stable environment for the work force and allows industry and business to compete more freely and without having to deal with forces they cannot control nor are good at understanding as the workers and management are often at odds over what it constitutes whereas both can understand what makes a quality product dickering only on what should be a fair recompense for delivering that product. Those three aspects are often at war with my libertarian side which dictates that government should have as little to do with what I do at home as possible, i.e. the social aspects, religion, sex, personal behavior that has no impact on anyone else, that both parties want to control, albeit from different sides. That side also dictates support for a free market, capitalist society, which government has an obligation to keep as level as possible.

Hillary is a believer in the status quo. She, like most politicians, doesn’t like to rock the boat, and she’s very good at telling assorted groups what they want to hear (no doubt a major reason why she continues to refuse to release transcripts of her speeches to the Goldman Sachs tycoons.) She’s also enamored of money, if not for the luxuries it can provide, but mostly because of the power it affords. So if she were to be elected, we can reasonably expect that government will remain pretty much the same as it did under both Bushes, Clinton, and Obama (the differences are mostly cosmetic - war as an instrument of national policy and a health care system designed by and for insurance companies not to mention continued attempts to control the social fabric.) A static environment where the powerful (defined today as those with lots of money) decide what becomes law and make sure that law benefits a very small segment of the population; continued United States presence all around the world with its concomitant budget busting expenditures in money and lives at the expense of infrastructure; and where those in power move the seats of that power to the Cayman Islands and other places overseas.

I’m not sure we, as a country can continue to afford that trajectory. It seems to me that the electorate senses that this year, but is not quite sure how to alter that path, hence the rise of the anti-establishment candidate (even though some of them are fraudulently so.)

All candidates preach change and that’s the problem. No one believes the standard lines anymore. This election is much more about the failure of the status quo and achieving real change and what direction that change will take, and trying to decide who offers the most authentic conviction for change.

Hillary lacks that conviction.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Review: Sins of the Fathers by Lawrence Block (the first Scudder novel)

(Audiobook.) There a few authors who can always be relied on to write interesting and entertaining stories. Lawrence Block is one of those. I’ve read many across all of his different series and they never fail to be enjoyable. Some are humorous like the “Burglar” series, others more serious character studies, like Scudder.

Sins of the Fathers is the first Matthew Scudder. Scudder is approached by a man whose daughter has been killed. Her ostensible boyfriend, the killer, has been caught and committed suicide, but the father (nice pun in the title as Scudder has lost his faith with the police department) wants to know why. As Scudder notes, the door has been opened and now he wants to look inside the room. It seems the daughter had left home a few years earlier and had been living as a prostitute.

Scudder, as his fans, will know, is not your usual P.I. A former cop, he now just looks into things for people. He doesn’t file reports, have expense accounts, or any of the usual trapping of the P.I. But he’s very good at asking questions. But that also provides him more latitude and incentive to dig a little harder than a cop might. Of course, nothing is at it first appears and things get complicated. Heart-pounding action it does not have, just good writing and interesting characters.

The book was first published in 1976 and the stereotypic descriptions some of the gay characters is typical of that period. The diatribe of the cab driver against the Zionists controlling and hiking gas prices looks even more ridiculous now than it was then given today’s plummeting costs. Certainly not a criticism, just an observation.

Block is at his best and Alan Sklar does the book credit. The way he reads the dialogue between Scudder and the killer’s father, a sanctimonious minister is priceless. A fine novel.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Review: Briarpatch by Ross Thomas

Audiobook: A BriarPatch can be many things: a hiding place, a place to avoid (as in Star Trek), a thicket of prickly bushes, and a place where you can get all tangled up. Ben Gill experiences all of those things in this book.

Felicity Dill, homicide detective, collects rent due on her duplex, gets in her car, and is blown to bits. Her brother, Ben, is an investigator for a Senate subcommittee. He immediately flies down to his hometown where she worked and discovers a mystery. Felicity had paid $37,000 cash for a very expensive duplex several months earlier and just a few weeks before her death had taken out a $250,000 term life policy with her brother as the beneficiary. Where did she get the money, and why would a twenty-eight-year-old woman take out a life insurance policy that large. Ben soon discovers a quagmire of murder and corruption.

He’s also been sent to get a deposition from an old friend Jake Spivey, ex-CIA who is being pursued by Clyde Brattle. All three had been involved during the Ford administration with trying to locate a threesome, known as the Jaspers who had apparently made off with millions that had been dispensed by Nixon to the “plumbers.” Brattle and Spivey were also the targets of the subcommittee's investigation that involved weapons sales after Vietnam.

Ross is a very good writer with images like, “it had no color unless winter rain has color.” And while I have nothing against protagonists who hop into bed with every woman (or girl) they meet (you know, like Reacher) Ben has plenty of offers but the good sense to hold off since virtually everyone has some kind of alternate agenda. Everything is linked together as one might expect. The ending is a bit unsatisfying and perhaps a sequel was intended.

As usual, well read by Frank Muller, who regretfully is no longer with us.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Review: A Case of Redemption by Adam Mitzner

After the 21,699,749th minute of his life, Dan Sorenson’s life fell apart when his wife and child were killed by a drunk driver. Having been a thousand dollar an hour lawyer. he’s now basically a drunk, when Nina, a friend of his wife’s best friend insists that he meet with Legally Dead, a black rapper being held at Riker’s. L.D. as he is known has been charged with the murder of his reputed girlfriend, Roxanne. Nina and Ben join forces to defend L.D. who insists he is innocent and there is reason to believe he may be right, even though the evidence appears overwhelming.

My measure of how much I enjoy a legal drama is legal repartee in the courtroom, the dialogue and interaction between lawyers and judges. By any measure this book succeeds well in that category.

A very surprising ending. Excellent page-turner.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Review: Stealth Boat: Fighting the Cold War in a Fast-Attack Submarine by Gannon McHale

At age 19 in an effort to avoid the Vietnam draft McHale dropped out of college, where he was facing failure and joined the Navy. For whatever reason mostly because he is like the TV show silent service when he was younger he has to be assigned to submarines. He was sent to join the USS sturgeon a fast attack sub that was brand new.

Years ago, I helped a good friend, a retired board member, write his memoirs. Clarence was already a published author and a good writer (Riverhill Soliloquy by Clarence Mitchell.) Clarence had lived a fascinating life: he had been a cowboy in Montana recounted in another book I worked on (Montana Montage), worked his way up from apprentice and journeyman to become editorial director of a large publishing concern. In spite of my best efforts, however, he insisted on adding the name of virtually everyone he worked with and knew (a lot; he lived to be 102.) Almost all of those mentioned had predeceased him and really of little consequence. Of much more interest was his descriptions of the printing business and how it had evolved not to mention his time in Montana and growing up in NW Illinois. All those extra personages really made a mess of the book.

So it is with this book. There are some nuggets of very interesting material about the submarine service during the Cold War and their missions. He was a Yeoman and so had an interesting perspective on events, but except for his friends who are mentioned, the reader really doesn't care to know the backgrounds of all his friends nor the places and times they all went out drinking. In addition, current events are paraded before the reader (“Yellow Submarine” fell of the record charts, etc.) I suppose it was intended to provide context. It felt like padding.

In the end, the thousand days (his counting) should have been reduced to a few hundred. It’s a shame because he’s a reasonably good writer and some parts are quite interesting.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Review: A Good Day to Die by Simon Kernick

Ex-DS Dennis Milne is partnered with a former informant and running a small hotel and dive shop in the Philippines. He’s hiding out after the events that occurred in the first novel, The Business of Dying. He’s asked to kill a man due on Friday’s plane from London. Having recognized the man as the killer of his former partner, DS Asif Malik, he shoots him and then decides (implausibly) to return to London where he was the subject of an intense manhunt to wreck vengeance on Les Pope, the man behind Malik’s killing, and also the man who solicited Milne to kill the man off the plane.

The trail to Malik’s killer is convoluted and has a surprising ending, at least as far as one character is concerned. Good read. The books should be read in order.

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.