Saturday, December 1, 2012

VALIS by Philip K. Dick, The Library of America

1 of 5 stars

I tried really hard to read this book but when you find yourself skimming paragraphs and checking for the location of the end of the chapter you know it's a lost cause. The only bright spot for me was that I did enjoy the play between the author and Horselover Fat, but that was it.

The story is about four people trying to understand 'Why' and 'God.' Apparently later in the book a bit of a story appears but I didn't get that far. If you have read any of my postings you know I believe in the importance of 'a story' in a story. There was no story here. I'll explain.

There are over seven billion people on this earth. Every single one of them has their own ideas about god and their and our purpose in life. You'll find many similarities in the beliefs of those seven billion people but if you get down to it and ask each one the specifics of their beliefs you will find individual thoughts. Horselover Fat may be smarter than you or I. He may be more educated than you or I. But he is no better informed about God than you or I. We all have our own ideas.

“... How do you break the news to someone that his brains are fried?” the author asks. He asks this in relation to Fat and then proceeds to explain why that question does not apply to Fat. The author does go about proving and documenting Fat's insanity and since Fat is the author, then, why should we accept the reasoning of an insane man? I'm just asking. I don't have a ready made answer for you. For me, the author's brain is fried.

So why should I care about these characters and their ideas. I shouldn't and I don't.

George W. Parker

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick, The Library of America

2 of 5 stars

I am reading a group of Philip K. Dick novels. The first is A Maze of Death.

Fourteen people from across the galaxies request and receive transfers to colonize the planet Delmak-O. They are all looking for a better place, a more fulfilling place to live. Upon their arrival on Delmak-O they begin killing each other. As the killings escalate they discover to their horror that they are on Earth, a planet that hosts only two groups of people, the insane and those guarding the insane.

Philip K. Dick is known for his concepts not his wordsmithing. The dialog is terrible. (Did, does, would anyone really use the word croak as in “I'm not going to croak you.”?) Overall the writing is uneven with disconcerting jumps and starts. This could be Dick's method of putting the reader off balance, his setting the disquieted atmosphere. It was just choppy writing to me. And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

Sorry that was The Beatles. In the end A Maze of Death is an average Twilight Zone episode.

George W. Parker

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Full Dress Gray by Lucian K. Truscott IV, William Morrow and Co.

2 of 5 stars.

Honestly, I read this story because of the author's name and his family's history. I thought maybe he had something new to bring to the game. I am afraid not. Although the characters were interesting and the plot promised a good story (Murder, deceit, and a struggle for power at West Point and within Congress.) ultimately the writing fizzled out.

The characters became cardboard and their behavior unbelievable. (I truly believe a powerful U.S. House committee chairman would pound his gavel, retake the floor and declare a general in contempt of Congress if he was presented with the behavior of Lt. General Rysam Slaight, Superintendent of West Point. And the bad guy, Brig. General Gibson, went from being a cold, manipulating creature to a crazy madman in about two pages so the author could finish up the book.)

On the positive side the story was readable and didn't have any of those publisher's/line editor's mistakes that so many popular stories have these days. At least someone at the office read it before they sent it to press.

George W. Parker

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell, Translated by Laurie Thompson, New York Press

This is a two star book.

It is always difficult to assign responsibility when you review a translated book. Did the author say that? Or did the translator miss say it?

Here is a an example of the writing from The Dogs of Riga. “He (Wallander) continued walking around and around the boat (a life raft), occasionally exchanging a few words with Martinsson. After half an hour he decided that there was nothing more for him to discover.”

Did Wallander really walk around the life raft for half an hour? It sounds like a lot of circling to me. Was that the author's intent? Did the translator miss something. Ultimately the line editor and publisher are responsible for that content. Here is a link to more whining about the current state of publishing:

This is the most egregious example but the story is filled with jumps, lapses and repetitions – Which police colonel is the villain, Putnis or Murniers? That must have been asked twenty times.

I picked this book up because of the BBC production of the story. The TV series is a testament to good screenwriting and the acting of Kenneth Branagh.

George Parker

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken by Terry Teachout published by HarperCollinsPublishers

The purpose of a biography should be to show the good, the bad and the ugly sides of its subject, to allow you, the reader, an opportunity to make your own decision about the person. Terry Teachout has done that in The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken. This is a four star effort.

I had come across the name H.L. Mencken on occasion over the years. Recently in reading a couple of US histories covering the early part of the twentieth century his name played a prominent role as a very popular social commentator. He pricked my interest.

Mencken was a successful newspaper reporter, syndicated columnist, writer and editor. He and George Jean Nathan created and edited two highly successful and influential “American Culture” (my phrase) magazines The Smart Set and The American Mercury. Mencken dated movie stars, helped start the careers of Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, pilloried presidents, coined the phrase “bible belt” and wrote over 10,000,000 words (a word count that Mr. Teachout accepts.)

Mencken had the solutions to the world's problems even thought he seldom left his hometown of Baltimore for any length of time. He was full of himself, which is understandable since Americans clamored to know what he thought about anything and everything so that they could think so too.

Mr. Teachout extensively uses Mencken's own words to illustrate and tell Mencken's story. It is an interesting story.

George W. Parker

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Private Empire, ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll, The Penguin Press

This is a four star book, even though I wish the author had followed a central time line in detailing the last twenty + years of Exxon history. Mr. Cole chose to silo the various story lines so that their complexity would be easier to follow, but I think with overlapping time lines we would have gotten an even better feel for the complexity of Exxon's worldwide businesses.

The book opens with Exxon's penultimate disaster, the Exxon Valdez, and closes with BP's Deepwater Horizon, bookending a time frame in history when ExxonMobil make record profits, stonewalled the world on global warming, defined the US Government repeatedly, and exemplified the spirit of the great American corporation.

Mr. Cole, a two time Pulitzer Prize winner, does a masterful job of balancing the many sides of Exxon's business story and the people involved. He presents world wide examples of how the company juggles production area human rights/politicians/environmental concerns, US politicians and activists, and international politicians and activists, all in order to make a very respectful American profit for its stockholders.

You come away from the book with respect for the company but also wondering if the profit motive is always the best motive.

Here is a link to some of the questions the book posed to me.

George W Parker

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, published by Simon & Schuster

If you haven't read Catch-22, read it. It is a solid three and a half star book.

Yossarian is the only seemingly sane man in the US Air Corps during the Italian air campaign of WWII. Which, of course, proves his insanity, because everyone else can't be insane. And being insane means he is not required to fly any more missions. But his concern for his own safety in the face of danger both real and immediate proves the rational working of his mind. Hence he is not insane and must fly more missions. Catch-22. (No mention is made anywhere of Catches 1-21.)

The greatness of Heller's work here is his identifying and labeling the catch. It resonants every day of our lives. A current example is the Senkaku Island dispute between Japan and China. Japan owns the island but the only way they can retain their ownership is by not exercising any of their ownership rights. Catch-22

What I once saw as the humorous eccentricities of Yossarian's world I know see as commonplace, everyday dealings with government bureaucracies, corporations and people. Except for Milo Minderbinder.

I've discovered Milo is a free-market anarchist. His syndicate's cornering of Egyptian Cotton presages the Hunt family silver market positions in the early 1980's. And the hiring of his syndicate by the Germans to defend an important bridge and its additional hiring by the Allies to bomb that same bridge envisions the evolutionary outcome of private businesses like Halliburton and Blackwater Security Consulting being hired to fight wars. Milo laments the syndicate's bombing and strafing of its own air base with the words, “It's in the contract.” Free Markets at work.

George W Parker

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President by Ron Suskind, published by HarperCollins

This is a must read if you have any interest in US History, the Presidency, US Politics, World/US Economics. (Or if you just want to know who has been ripping you off and who had been helping.)

Suskind gives excellent descriptions and insights (I assume fairly.) into all the major players of the financial collapse and does a good job explaining all the processes and manipulations involved, both Wall Street and Congressional. And if you need examples of the seven deadly sins, you will find them here aplenty.

A couple of high points worth noting:
  1. Hank Paulson former Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs made $700 million there before heading over to the US Treasury. (aka – fox in charge of the hen house.)
  2. Barack Obama missed a great opportunity to correct Wall Street errors by allowing culpable Wall Street insiders to be his advisors. (Obama focused on health care insurance reform.)

Whether you are part of the 1 percent or the 99 percent, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President presents a sad testimony to the failed and self aggrandizing “leadership” of the United States.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Long Goodbye - Raymond Chandler

I just finished re-reading my favorite Raymond Chandler book The Long Goodbye. It has everything.

A great hardboiled story: Marlowe's friend is accused of murder and the cops, the hoods and the powerful all warn Marlowe off the case. Inexorably the case is pushed onto him until he solves everything to no one's liking, including his.

It defines the essence of hardboiled detectives: “...this was the part I never listened to. Because if I ever had I would have stayed in the town where I grew up and worked in the hardware store...”

It discusses writing as a business: “The public likes long books. ...if there are lots of pages there must be lots of gold.” There are shots at advertising which he compares to chess: “ elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency.”

It has the best descriptions of drinking this side of Malcolm Lowry: Such as when you have stopped drinking “... It's a different world. You have to get used to a paler set of colors, a quieter lot of sounds. ...”

But if I had to give The Long Goodbye a book review rating it would be 2 stars. Chandler doesn't do the 1950's well. Censorship had loosened up and he uncomfortably tried to go with the new flow in pulp. Marlowe calls a man “flea dirt” and describes himself in one scene as being “erotic as a stallion.” I doubt that those lines read well in 1954, much less now.

As much as I enjoy the literary side trips in The Long Goodbye, it has too many. I wish Raymond Chandler had stayed focused on the hardboiled angle.

 George W. Parker

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Dain Curse - Dashiell Hammett - Alfred A. Knopf, Inc

I like the Continental Op. But he is a failure in The Dain Curse. It's not his fault. He is in there punching, kicking and stirring things up, taking names and making notes as usual but the story is a mess. And the Op can not save us from Hammett's mess.

He tries though. “...You don't catch murders by amusing yourself with interesting thoughts. You've got to sit down to all the facts you can get and turn them over and over till they click.”

There are the stolen diamonds and the two murders that introduce Gabriell Leggett to us. She is a Dain family descendant and the recipient of the family curse. Following these murders she tries to hide from the curse in the midst of a religious cult only to be followed by the curse and the Op. There are two more murders and several murder attempts before the Op gets her to safety.

Safety is a relative thing when Gabriell is around. She marries her fiancé and they try hiding in a small town below San Francisco. The newlywed husband is the first of three more deaths, Gabriell gets kidnapped and a hand grenade almost gets the Op. Oh, and then the Op helps Gabriell kick her morphine habit cold turkey. And at that point we are still looking for the person or persons behind all the killing. Eventually the Op ties it all together for us.

The Dain Curse reads like three good Op short stories wired together to make a novel. The best thing I can say about it is Hammett follows it up with The Maltese Falcon.

George W. Parker

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Winter of Our Discontent - John Steinbeck - Viking

Ethan Hawley is a store clerk in the store he used to own. He is a business failure in the small New England town his whaling ancestors use to dominate. Thanks to those ancestors he is still considered relevant, but that respect will not be passed on to his children unless he changes his life significantly. So he decides to rob the bank next door to finance his business comeback.

Taking a long, hard look at the world around him, at the growing commercialism, government cronyism, under the table deals Ethan puts aside his personal beliefs for a short time so that he can become a mover and shaker in the local business world. He weaves a plot to personal, financial security by manipulating people and events with a sure hand, a deft mind and a great sense of humor and self honesty.

For me the heart of the book is Ethan's justification for shelving his morals: “... But my objective was limited and, once achieved, I could take back my habit of conduct. I knew I could. War did not make a killer of me, although for a time I killed men. ...”

Do the ends justify the means? Do the means change the man? In Ethan Hawley's case the means does exact its toll.

Unlike most of Steinbeck's work The Winter of Our Discontent is accessible, entertaining and well worth your time. He is dead on in his examination of American capitalism, politics, and integrity. I believe the story more relevant now than when it was first published.

George W. Parker