The Obsidian Chamber by Preston and Child returns Aloysius Pendergast to another exciting and intriguing case of blood lust, family complications, and unrequited love. Everyone who is supposed to be dead isn’t. Proctor is sent on a wild goose chase to the Sahara desert. Mrs. Trask’s sister in Albany suddenly becomes ill. Constance is abducted by Diogenes, Aloysius’ younger brother. Aloysius finds himself shackled on a drug runners boat in Maine waters. Total chaos! No one has had time to recover from the Exmouth experience. This novel pits brother against brother in a modern classic Cain and Abel melodrama. Many family secrets are revealed as these two familial foes tussle for the love of Constance Greene, who isn’t whom we think she is. She, too, has her issues with the brothers, especially Diogenes who raped her and fathered her son, now in a secret monastery in India. In addition, she holds the biggest secret and provides the catalyst for Diogenes’ bad behavior. Add to this mix a very sick female assassin and well we have another thriller, a spellbinder from our masterful duo that is difficult to put down.
Thursday, January 26, 2017
Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton is a fanciful novel that asks the question, “Is anyone out there?” For those asking the question we see lonely, isolated people learning how to interact, to communicate, to love. The answer is a surprise.
One individual, Augustine, is isolated in the North Pole. He is an astronomer and refuses to leave when his companions evacuate because of some catastrophe happening in the world. He is a curmudgeon who never had a successful relationship with anyone, especially women until he met Jean and got her pregnant in his youth, some thirty plus years ago. He never met his daughter. When his companions leave, he discovers a young girl, Iris, who is maybe eight years old in this remote Arctic environment. Where did she come from? Was she on the transport? Suddenly he has to care for another person. In trying to communicate with the evacuation plane, no one answers his calls. Later when he travels to another outpost because of the better communication devices, he still finds he is unable to raise anyone on the radio. They are alone in this remote place on Earth, the North Pole.
The other individual, Sully, is on a spacecraft, Aether with five other scientists, who left Earth, two years ago for Jupiter. After success on a moon of Jupiter, while on their return trip home communications with Earth are suddenly gone. Sully is alone in the world after her single mom, Jean, remarries, has twins when Sully is eleven. So Sully follows another path, she goes to boarding school, to a college far from her new home, and then to space. “She had boarded Aether believing that nothing could be more important than the Jovian probes, and now – everything was more important. The whole purpose of their mission seemed insignificant, pointless. Day by day, there was nothing except the digital binary of mechanical wanderers and the cosmic rays from the stars and their planets.”
In both stories, of the isolated Arctic scientist and of the isolated astronaut, communication devices break and have to be repaired as each tries to find someone to talk to. Augustine was a ham operator in his youth, “These were his happiest moments as a child. Alone, without the cruelty of the other kids at school, without the volatility of his mother, without the belittling comments of his father. Just him, his equipment, and the hum of his own mind.” He travels from his observatory to a remote station with better ham operation equipment. Sully has to repair their communication dish that has been destroyed by space junk. Two people who spent a lifetime avoiding others are now desperate to find someone with whom to communicate.
As it turns out Augustine and Sully find each other through the airwaves and have brief conversations. Because of their locations, he in the Arctic and she in space, the communications link is fragile and brief. They connect only when the orbits are aligned. The crew believes he may be the last man on Earth since they can’t establish any other communication with Earth. When Earth comes in view, they first notice there are no lights indicating cities. The reason that Augustine and Sully are alone and never connect with each other is best stated by a fellow crewman of Sully’s, “Not everyone has a calling.” The implication that we do what we do may be why Augustine never knew his daughter and Sully never knew her father.
When we look back on our lives we all have regrets, and one of them is always, we wished we communicated better and spent time with a loved one.
Monday, January 23, 2017
Once Upon a Time in Camelot by James Patrick Hunt looks at 1960’s and 70’s and supposes what might have happened if JFK and RFK weren’t assassinated and Castro didn’t live. It is 1972 and involves a family dynasty, the McCormicks, an Irish family, at the highest levels of politics. The old man, Ben, made his money in bootlegging in Chicago during prohibition, and was ambassador to Germany before WWII and admired Hitler, much to everyone’s eventual embarrassment. His oldest son, Michael, died in WWII; the second son, Dan, was wounded and became president; the third son, Terry, Secretary of Defense, was running for president, following his brother to the highest office; and the fourth son, Andy, was a senator slated to be president.
The other side of this novel involves the gangsters that ruled the economy of the country and served the McCormicks well. There’s a Hollywood connection as well as an entanglement with young starlets in the current White House. Castro was dead, but Cuba was still communist. And Vietnam is the center of controversy in this administration. The gangsters are based in Chicago and the lead guy is Lewis Knowles who has Vince Kegan as his main hit man. Knowles had done business with Ben many years ago and never trusted him. Kegan, a Korean War vet is a simple barber in addition to being the best hit man in the business. Just as oil and water don’t mix, Knowles and the spawn of McCormick don’t mix. It becomes a battle royale.
The spark that puts these two factions together are the theft of a Pentagon Report, by Albert Hirsch, that looks unfavorably on the McCormick presidency and America’s involvement in Vietnam. The McCormicks, the leaders and chief law enforcers of the country want Hirsch dead and hire Knowles to do it. Knowles assigns it to Kegan. Kegan, however has rules, no civilians and Hirsch is a civilian. Hirsch is not mob. It is ironic that Kegan the murderer, the hit man, has rules and the law enforcers of the country, the McCormicks don’t have rules.
Then it goes sideways in a most bizarre twist. This novel is a fun joy ride back through those innocent and intricate times, a behind the scene look from a seat at a Drive In movie watching Vietnam and the Watergate unfold from a different point of view of what if’s. For those of us who lived through those days, this is a fantastic fun read. Terry may remind you of someone we know today.
Thursday, January 19, 2017
The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova is so today. The key to the con game is “We’ve done most of the work for them; we want to believe in what they are telling us.” Politicians are the supreme con artists. Right now, Donald J Trump is the ultimate con artist. The name “con man” comes from the “confidence man.” If you had confidence in someone you gave him your trust, money, or a possession expecting a return, which rarely happened. Ponzi schemes are classic con games. It is more than three card monte. An important element of the con game is that you never knew you were conned, which meant it could happen again and again and again. Konnikova establishes the criteria for identifying a con man and his traits in her thesis and then sets out to prove it. According to her the con man is a psychopath, a narcissist, and Machiavellian. The psychopath has no empathy for his victims, no guilt, no remorse; thus the con is easy. The must be the center of activity and dominate the stage. Finally the Machiavellian must be the ultimate boss, the authoritarian. Konnikova uses these three traits, the dark triad, to define the con man and then sets out to prove it. I immediately saw Trump in this set of criteria, especially in his career in NYC as a real estate tycoon. He says whatever he wants without concern for other people’s feelings and never apologizes. He lies or simply says whatever he needs to to support his positions. “No publicity is bad publicity” was always his motto. He scorns losers and steam rolls over all competition in illegal, immoral, and heavy-handed ways, as he is the cruel authoritarian. Now he is in the White House.
The first step to a con, as we all know, is doing your homework. Before that interview, study up on the company so you can talk about it with intelligence. Once “you get your foot in the door” chat up your colleagues and superiors about their family, especially their kids. Remember names. These are the basic tools we all use in our professional and personal lives. After all most communications with others is based on what they can do for us at some point in our lives. We’ve all been told this in career counseling or from others when they willingly give us advice on advancement. We use information to ‘manipulate’ others we get from their family members, friends, colleagues and social media; if not from them directly. We ingratiate ourselves with others by sharing common ideas, experiences, and stories for our advantage in a future collaboration or endeavor. “Never burn bridges” is further advice we are given for the sole purpose of any future need on their part for our advancement. Our false compliments, phony glad-handing, and social lies begin our conning someone else. It doesn’t matter our intelligence or our financial level, we are all conned and we all con; it is just a matter of degree and outcome.
“We believe because we want to.” After “getting the foot in the door” it becomes about the good story. Facts can be checked or fudged, but a story; a good story is always the hook. Religions are built on stories, not philosophies. The more emotional a story is the better the con. Con artists prey on those who have lost a job, a lover, and a family member. If blame can be assigned to that loss all the better. Trump found this easy as he preyed on the disillusioned voter who was looking for a scapegoat, a reason for his misery and loss. The mark will believe any lie and not verify anything as long as it soothes their immediate pain, not realizing greater pain is in the future. Lies, of course, are the foundation for many a con.
As I read this book, I came to realize everything we do is a con. It is a matter of degree when we consider them to be hurtful or not. It is all about what’s in it for me, how am I going to get what I want, or how am I going to gain something?
The stories of the great cons are amazing and one can’t but appreciate the genius of many of them and yet be disgusted at them in the same moment. The gullibility of the conned also doesn’t escape us as we think “that couldn’t happen to me” and yet it probably has and you don’t know it. In England, the police discovered a list of 1600 people who were conned that was being passed around different con men. When the police made these 1600 people aware of the cons, most of the 1600 weren’t even aware they had been conned.
In trying to get a handle on our political events of late, I’ve come on what may satiate me to the cause: “What seems like sheer stupidity at best, and more likely willful ignorance, is actually quite understandable in the moment. The power of the tale isn’t the strength of its logic; it’s that at the point it’s told, we’re past being reasonable. The superiority bias doesn’t just make us more vulnerable to tales that seem rather tall to an objective eye. It colors how we then evaluate evidence and make decisions.” The key point is “willful ignorance.” This is why we get conned. Rather than fact check, rather than verify, rather than investigate the American voter simply accepted what they wanted to hear: “willful ignorance.”
We may think of con artists as shady characters lurking in back alleys, when in fact they are center stage (the narcissist). Hucksters are all around us from car salesmen to the evangelist to the teacher. They come in all degrees and professions. As I read this book I became more conscious of how much teachers, my profession are con artists. How do we make those kids do our bidding? “Con artists, at their best and worst, give us meaning. We fall for them because it would make our lives better if the reality they proposed were indeed true. They give us a sense of purpose, of value, of direction.” So many of the researchers cited by Konnikova are the same researchers I read and studied during my teaching career, the same researchers that are used in educational arguments and theories.
A curious fact is that Trump’s name doesn’t appear once in this book.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Bronx Requiem by John Clarkson is a hard hitting violent story of ex-cons teaming with their parole officer to clean up a crime infested neighborhood in the Bronx and beyond. James Beck, is an exonerated cop killer, who gathers together other reformed cons to work behind the scenes to discover the killer of another recently released ex-con, Packy Johnson, who had saved Beck’s life in prison. Packy isn’t out seventeen hours after a seventeen year term when he is killed. Packy had learned his daughter was whoring and wanted to stop it. This is where Beck starts his crusade to solve this murder marching through a tangle of corrupt prison guards and a rising star young cop in the Bronx who figures he is righteous, when in fact he ain’t. The irony in this action packed novel is that the cons are doing it legally while the law enforcement officers are not and they get their comeuppance in very appropriate, creative, and fantastical ways. Beck is a genius in setting the record straight, bringing justice to the right people, and providing perfect endings to otherwise potentially sad outcomes. He does get one thing wrong about Packy’s murder in the ultimate twist to this thoroughly enjoyable novel. The ultimate lesson to this Bronx tale comes through Packy’s daughter.
Thursday, January 12, 2017
The Woods by Harlan Coben is the first book of his I’ve read. The first impression is that the past always comes back to bite you and the second is that money is the devil’s tool. All it takes is one sick puppy to hatch a plan of murder to appease his sick mind and he can quickly infest others, especially if he has more money than anyone else and he is a bully. His name is Wayne Steubens in this fiction. “Exactly. One of Sherlock’s axioms goes something like this: ‘It is a big mistake to theorize before one has data – because one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’”
Paul Copeland, the son of Russian immigrants, is the Essex, NJ county prosecutor. He is prosecuting a rape case. The victim is a young black unwed mother of a fifteen month old. She is an exotic dancer, a stripper and whore. When she is invited to a frat party a week after she did a show and had some sex with some of the boys. This time she is raped. She doesn’t deserve that. But the rich white boys in the frat don’t get it.
The real story is about what happened at a summer camp when Paul was young, when he lost his virginity and four of his friends. One of the campers was arrested and in jail for life. The owner of the camp and his daughter were destroyed. But then one of the murdered kids shows up dead, twenty years later in Washington Heights. That’s when the roller coaster ride begins for Paul, as he has to go deep into the woods to discover the truth and almost die in the process.
It is a story of what we will do for our children. It is about power misused and about bullies, bullies who prey on the weak until someone comes along and punches the bully in the nose. “No, we were bullies. We were not gods – we were the dirty henchmen of the gods. They had the power. We were scared, so we made everyone a little scared. That made us feel like big men – terrorizing the weak.”
Monday, January 9, 2017
Poison, A Wicked Snow White Tale by Sarah Pinborough is another wickedly good tale from a mistress of wicked tales, which includes her other offerings, Beauty and Charm. Pinborough takes liberties with the classic fairy tale, as does the huntsman, who kills a white stag, with the wicked queen and Snow White, before he is turned into a mouse. He becomes a field mouse because he tries to fool the wicked queen with the heart of a deer instead of the heart of Snow White, for which he was hired to acquire. The wicked queen’s grandmother, an old crone, sees the deception, and helps the wicked queen by turning the huntsman into a field mouse. Once her work is done, the grandmother returns home to greet a young boy and girl following her breadcrumbs to her hovel.
The dwarves aren’t your father’s dwarves: Dreamy, Grouchy, Bolshy, Feisty, Stumpy, Breezy, and Belcher. Snow White isn’t the shy diminutive princess we thought we knew. She dresses like a man rather than like a princess, rides a horse like a man, and dominates in the bed. The question to be asked, is the prince the real prince since he doesn’t wake her with a kiss? He just happens to be at the right place at the right time and does nothing princely to prove he is the right man. In fact he does everything to show he is the wrong prince. The prince, finds his experienced new bride too much to handle, too hot to handle. He finds a way to dominate her and keep his male pride. There are so many unanswered questions and this story does not end as most fairy tales do when everyone lives happily ever after. Be warned as you enter the beautifully twisted and wicked world of Pinborough as she rewrites and projects another view on love.
Thursday, January 5, 2017
The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick requires some knowledge of the Bayeux Tapestry. It chronicles events of 1066 when William the Conqueror invaded England and something about Halley’s Comet. Two women, Severine and Róisín, dominate the action of this heady novel. Ghosts haunt the former while the latter is searching the past by studying comets to better understand the present. The trajectory of comets is an interesting metaphor of human life, while ghosts are fascinating specters that also influence humans. In both women’s lives the past is crucial. Both understand that death precedes life. “But under all that, there is a part of her that knows we are too small to matter. Nothing happened, that’s the thing. The universe carried on, the comets kept coming – it made no difference. A life and a death made no difference. Perhaps that’s why she is frozen.”
Severine is frozen in her home of Bayeux, because that is where the ghosts are, her family ghosts. Her son, Françoise, has tried to get her out, but she refuses to leave. Róisín is frozen in her studies as she chases comets all the way to Antarctica. She is exploring the past to understand life now and perhaps project into the future. Severine will become a ghost and follow that unfulfilled life just as Róisín will be like a comet, a frozen mass of rock and ice on an unknown course, and get caught in the gravity of a planet or the sun and burn out or follow a predictable path. In either case “the universe will carry on.”
The trick is to face our ghosts, confront them, engage with them, and then to move on, like the comets that follow a path rather than break up and collide with plants and stars. We all have our ghosts; it is how we deal with them. “There will be tests, they tell her. Physical, psychological, survival. There is something appealing in that. She would like to be told that she can survive.”
Monday, January 2, 2017
View this fun video before reading.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie is historical fiction and outlines the beginnings of the printing press and the power of the free press. Johan Gutenberg liberated mankind with the most important invention in our history, moveable type, the printing press that would bring and share the knowledge of the world with mankind. It wrested knowledge from the tyrannical church that dispensed its version of truth as it saw fit to control the people. The printing press created a middle class; it created a freedom to people not previously known. It provided a way for man to share information in mass quantities and cheaply. The first book Gutenberg printed was the Bible. Heretofore the people were told the contents of the Bible by the church. They didn’t have the primary source in their hands; they received it in secondary and tertiary methods, not the same as having the primary source in hand. Gutenberg took that primary source and distributed it to the people, thus taking the power away from Rome and giving it to the people. Some believe that this may have led to the Reformation. The printing press changed the balance of power in the world forever. And now we have a new president who is behaving like those tyrants who preceded the printing press.
I had grown up hearing the phrase, “Power to he who owned the press.” That was the cry of every printer in young America especially Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin. Without them and other brave pamphleteers, America might not be. Within a short time newspapers were prolific in every city and were the way in which the masses learned about their society. “The power of the press” was a major force in the development of CyberEnglish since every student had a webpage and was like those early pamphleteers.
I find it ironic in a new age of information dispersal, in an educated country, we have whittled down the former avalanche of information into a mere 140 characters, we call Twitter, the bane of the intelligent and intellectual world. Gutenberg would be ashamed of us as he sees the next leader of America take us back to the dark days of illiteracy that greeted Peter Schoeffer when he returned home to begin his adventure with Gutenberg as the printing press was invented and provided for the advancement of mankind and education.
Twitter is undoing all of that and we have already seen the results of the dumbing down of America. We now have a president who wants to consolidate power, runs from the press, limits his communication to 140 characters, and has put us back into the dark ages, a dreaded period we read about and may find ourselves living in. Are we seeing a renewed period we will call our Inquisition in America with this new president? The newest craze is fake news. With the Internet we have an active readership where reader and writer are interacting like no other media before. It is another brave new world, one in which we all have to learn, to learn to be more vigilant and more skeptical until we have done our own research. Trusting certain news without verifying is as bad if not worse than not knowing. Being a citizen now takes on more work and some just don’t seem up to it or want to be responsible. For some it is just fun and/or moneymaking as we have discovered especially in the new world of fake news. Power to he who owns the press takes on a whole new meaning today.
Tyrannical leaders and their minions have always castigated the press, we merely need to review our history books, before they are burned. The press is merely the messenger, so don’t kill the messenger; sound out the message, research the message, then you will know the truth, if you dare face it. Tyranny prospers in a sea of ignorance and America has become that sea of ignorance and denial for our new president.
The ironic twist in this novel is that the father, Johann Fust, Gutenberg’s main and only backer, is trying to convince the son about the future of printing. The son has just become an important scribe in the university of Paris when his father calls him home to Mainz, Germany, to meet a man, Gutenberg. Peter is skeptical about this new invention and its seemingly inferior copy to a well-crafted manuscript. “Not yet. His father’s nostrils flared. “Not yet – but give it time. You can’t imagine it, perhaps, but I can. Books everywhere, and costing less than manuscripts – in quantities that simply stun the mind. Imagine how the world would look if anyone could buy one!” It is the son who argues for the past and the father for the future. Today, it is the youth who go from computer app to computer app and through constant upgrades while the elders are happy with flip phones and books. Our youth are leading us backwards in intellectual curiosity and development with the use of Twitter. We need more than 140 characters. And we need the truth, facts borne out, and more heady research that Twitter forgets about and allows the users to ignore like the story of the Emperors New Clothes.
In the beginning God created heaven and earth. We all know how it begins, but how the first Bible by Gutenberg was begun is an interesting story that revolves around the usual intrigue, politics, and backstabbing associated with the church in the 1450’s. The beginning of printing the Bible came about because they couldn’t get the agreed upon missives from the archbishop. They had all the supplies and nothing to print. Then they came upon the Bible, because it was the word of God and couldn’t be changed by man. Through trial and error they stumbled through the first pages and learned about printing by doing. I learned printing by doing it in college. I made books. I wrote the poetry, chose the paper, the ink, the type, and printed the pages on a hand press. I chose the method of binding the book and did that. I made five books of poetry and sold three of them. That was the beginning for me and for CyberEnglish. I relished the power I had just acquired. While reading the exploits of Gutenberg and his cohorts, I share in their joy, their failures, and their successes. I feel a kinship with them as they labored over their press.
All of the work had to be done in secrecy. Collecting that amount of hide, paper, ink, metals for the type used strategies common to armies. In addition to this stealth, Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Rome fell to Muslim armies and Pope Nicholas V waged a Crusade that threatened the taking of men and other valuable resources. The whole undertaking of printing the Bible was tension filled and anxiety ridden. But press on the printers did. When they finally set out to the Frankfurt fair, four years after they started the Bible, to sell the Bible they were apprehensive. But in short order all books were sold and the chains of man had been taken off and he was freed by the invention of Johann Gutenberg.
Today we take for granted the printed word. We have seen how it has been used to manipulate man, to educate man, to enrich man; and yet today the technology has gone in another direction and we have to be sure to always consider the source of what we read. The Bible was the word of God and by using it that was Gutenberg’s genius for introducing the printing press. Just because it is written doesn’t mean it’s fact. Trust but verify.