Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review: The Coffee Trader

The Coffee Trader The Coffee Trader by David Liss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I enjoyed the book, I wanted more from it. This was not as tightly written as the other Liss novels I've read. It took a little bit to get going, in part because of the convoluted plot. Looking back, Liss was trying to throw you off the scent of the different machinations and schemes, but in the sequence of reading, it was more meandering than I would have liked. I also wanted more of the transition of the Sephardic Jews from Portugal into the Amsterdam culture.

I liked Miguel and Hannah got more interesting as the book went along. Alferonda is intriguing. But the other characters where a bit too much of a caricature. And I didn't think the book did sufficient justice to the internal governance of the Jewish community or to the economics of the commodity market. Not that the portrayal was wrong as such, but it seemed simplistic and myopic. The Jewish community leaders were paranoid mini-despots. And there was no sense of the importance and value created by the market and the exchange--it was all just speculative paper pushing and inherently deceptive. Everyone in the book is marred by some kind of deceit or betrayal. The protagonists either had good motives in their deceit or did their betraying by accident, to be sure, but no one was truly heroic.

This sounds like a harsh review, but in the end, I found myself enjoying the book. It picked up towards the end as the schemes of the characters started to come to fruition. And, as a lover of coffee, it was interesting to read the characters first responses to this strange new drink.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review: People of Darkness

People of Darkness People of Darkness by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jimmy Chee and Joe Leaphorn are both great characters but are also quite different. Leaphorn seems more at home or comfortable in the white man's world, while Chee's bewilderment and curiosity gives the story a tone that it is different. Chee is not uncomfortable in the white man's world, but it is more foreign to him than it seems to Leaphorn and so through his eyes one gets a novel look at the familiar. The plot is standard mystery fare. Hillerman does his usual good job of balancing the keeping of the mystery plot going with the beautiful descriptions of the landscapes of New Mexico and the Navajo Reservation and the integration of Navajo traditions and customs.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Review: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first came across Kelly McGonigal through a TED video where she explained how to make stress a positive force, rather than the dangerous negative force it usual is. In that talk, she discusses how things like mindfulness and acceptance can help channel stress into healthier channels. I found the research she discussed intriguing and some of the suggestions helpful. So when I decided to read her book, I was hoping for a similar outcome. And I was rewarded.

I don’t think, for the most part, that I have serious willpower issues. But I am interested in the psychology and neuroscience of self-control, as well as how to improve our mental practices to lead happier lives. So while this book can be a self-help guide for someone struggling with their willpower in terms of quitting smoking, dieting, or watching too much TV, it also discusses some of the research behind the methods that might work best at helping people with those issues. She has many practical, DIY sections in each chapter to help you apply the concepts to your own life. It’s not too ‘science-heavy’ in terms of the studies, indeed I would have liked more on that, but she does summarize and discuss the major work on self-control, willpower, and behavior change.

I did find myself making use of the ideas in my regular life. For example, I was setting up an assignment for my students on my school’s online course management system. There is an option that you can run the students’ papers through a software program that checks for plagiarism. If you select this option, the students are warned that their assignments will be run through this anti-plagiarism program. As I was thinking about whether to make use of this, I recalled McGonigal’s discussion of how the perception that many others are cheating tends to increase the chances that you will cheat. I wondered if the advertised use of this anti-plagiarism software sent the signal to the students that many students are cheating (after all, that’s why we need software to find it, right?) and so actually have the perverse effect of increasing the chances that a student will cheat. Now, I don’t know if that’s true, but I decided against using the software and will instead rely on my well-honed skills of ferreting out cheating.

I recommend this book for those interested in an intelligent laymen discussion of the psychology and science of self-control and willpower or those looking for some practical tips on to improve their own self-control. That said, the book could have been a little shorter; it felt a bit stretched out to me. McGonigal has quick-paced, casual style with many funny and interesting anecdotes that give life to the science she is discussing.



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Monday, September 05, 2016

Review: The English Spy

The English Spy The English Spy by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of my favorite Allon books. The pairing of Keller and Allon works really well, though I did miss the rest of Allon’s team. The integration of the plot with previous story lines was well done and sets, I presume, the stage for later books.

Now that I’m almost caught up with series, it is fun to see how Silva captures and uses contemporary events and news stories. I don’t imagine Silva sells well in Moscow.

As much as I enjoyed the book, the plot, and the characters, I would like to see Allon operate, for lack of a better way of putting the point, more in an Israeli context. The European theater is interesting, but you can get that from other series. One of the special aspects of Allon is that he is Israeli and Jewish, and I think Silva should take advantage of that more. The next stage of Allon’s adventures--personally and professionally--should be interesting!


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Monday, August 22, 2016

Review: An Elephant for Aristotle

An Elephant for Aristotle An Elephant for Aristotle by L. Sprague de Camp
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Any one who has an interest in ancient civilizations and/or philosophy will like this book. You start with Alexanders' army in India, travel through the ancient near east and end up in Ancient Greece. Along the way, the descriptions of the different landscapes and cultures are worth the read alone--but the real value is that the interactions and discussions between the characters makes real the particularities of the cultural differences and at the same time the universality of the human condition.

Aristotle's role comes, understandably, late in the book. I didn't care that much for de Camp's portrayal of him. He seemed too snotty and elitist, but then maybe that is a more accurate presentation than my imagined over-idealized Aristotle. Mainly, I thought de Camp made too much of philosophers, Aristotle included, being out of touch with real life. Second, he made too much of Aristotle's pro-slavery arguments. No doubt these are accurate, but it just came up too often. This is, however, likely due to the theme of the universality of human nature and the interaction of the Greeks, Persians, and Indians.

As in any such work of this kind, there were anachronisms and too much license taken here and there but that said, de Camp does a good job of staying faithful to the ways of the ancient Near East--at least as far as I could tell.

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review: Free Dakota

Free Dakota Free Dakota by William Irwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quick, engaging read about an imagined secession movement in North Dakota. I sped through it and enjoyed it. Irwin does a great job of discussing political ideas in plain language and without jargon. This is also a hallmark of his non-fiction philosophic writing, in particular the pop culture and philosophy works which, like the novel, are able to make complex ideas clear and simply without simplifying them.

I enjoyed the many allusions and homages to other libertarian thinkers and works.

Nevertheless, this is Irwin’s first novel and it shows at times. The characters could have been developed more and the plot more subtle and integrated. It took a little bit for the book to get going. The political philosophy might have been interwoven more into the plot and so rather than merely having characters discussing the ideas about liberty and secession, the ideas could have been concretized in the action of the story. There is some of that, especially as the book goes on, but not enough and to many will come over as too talk-y. My biggest criticism is that there was more on the “tell me” side of the old writer’s saw “show me don’t tell me.” I don’t think Irwin wanted to write a 1000-page tome, but this could have been a few hundred pages longer so that he could have developed the detail in the character and the plot that would have made the book better and more compelling.

I would certainly recommend this book to those interested in political ideas, especially libertarianism. Lastly, I would love to read a sequel and learn about how things go forward given the ending.


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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Review: Prince of Thieves

Prince of Thieves Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I saw the movie, The Town, a few years ago and got the book after I learned the movie was based on a book. The movie was great, the book is even better. You get so much more depth with the characters and the plot. With the book, you can dwell on the inner life and struggle in Doug; the obsession of the FBI agent pursuing him; and the thoughts and reactions of Claire -- the woman caught up in the middle of it all.

It always amazes when an author can make a sympathetic hero out of a character that should be a bad guy. Hogan does just that, I kept hoping and looking for a way for Doug to get out; you want him to get away with it all even though you know he shouldn't and he can't. Hogan gives a haunting portrayal of Charlestown adapting to the changes in the 90s--which also mirror the changes in Doug: it wants to move forward but can't or doesn't know how and so does it what it knows best even if that is wrong.

The book was also wonderfully nostalgic for me as someone who lived in Boston in the 90s. I loved reading the names of the old banks and places no longer there.

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review: Executive Power

Executive Power Executive Power by Vince Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall, an exciting thriller. I liked what Flynn did with the two simultaneous story lines early on, but ultimately I wish they were better integrated. The plot and ending is a bit far-fetched, not impossible just not all that plausible. But that's what one would expect from this genre.


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Saturday, July 09, 2016

Review: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A classic that should be on everyone’s sci-fi reading list.

It was, I have to admit, very different from what I expected—and so much better. I suppose I had the horrible 90s film with the same title too much in my head, but that monstrosity basically just steals the title, some character names, and the idea of a war against alien bugs.

The story telling is masterful. There isn’t a lot of action—especially for a book about war—but there is a lot to chew on as we see Rico develop and think about the different themes of the book. Also, I realized that from Gundam to many well-known sci-fi books about space wars in the future, this book was the progenitor.

I don’t quite understand why it is considered so controversial. Some claim it is ‘fascistic;’ a criticism that makes little sense unless you confuse the movie for the book. But this is pretty silly since the movie isn’t in any real sense an adaption. (According to the Wikipedia article about the book, the director of the movie admits to not being able to read the book because it was “boring” and that he hated it; also the title of the book and other superficial details from the book were grafted onto to a pre-existing script for marketing reasons).

In the book itself there is nothing resembling fascism—the government is explicitly a representative democracy (though with a limited franchise). We don’t see one-party rule or evidence of authoritarianism. We don’t see much of civilian life, but from what we do see it seems relatively free and unhindered. Military service is completely voluntary and the recruiters try to deter enlistment. There’s nothing to suggest a corporatist fascism like in Firefly (i.e. Blue Sun). There’s also nothing to suggest the racist fascism of the Nazis either. The idea that this book is at all fascist is utterly groundless.

Another criticism is that it is militaristic or pro-military. In many ways, this is true (though I am not sure that this in itself is a criticism). The soldiers in the book are portrayed positively. We don’t come across crooked or incompetent soldiers or officers (at least not ones that make through training). No loafing soldiers whining about their situation or officers redirecting supplies for sale on the black market. There are a few things to consider here. First, this is an all-voluntary army, even amidst a war. There are many intentional points along the way designed to weed out bad characters or those with the wrong motives for joining up. That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be some loafers or crooks that make it through, but you are not going to have many Hawkeyes or Klingers hanging around the mess.

Second, the units we see through Rico’s eyes are the elite of the elite—this is not a full view of the entire Federation military. There are lots of indications that the military as a whole is run differently than the Mobile Infantry. And by the time we really see these guys in action, there is a full blown war going on. So it makes sense that Heinlein portrays them as he does Heinlein did indicate that book was a paean to infantry soldiers who he viewed as having done the toughest job in wars. The book makes several historical connections to older wars and the infantry solider throughout time. It is in these ways that it is pro-solider.

But if this is all that was behind this ‘controversial’ claim, that’s pretty weak sauce. The deeper issues are the issues raised in the discussions of “History and Moral Philosophy” class. I didn’t agree with all of the ideas presented for sure, but that’s beside the point. These classroom discussion are what makes the book so great. It asks you to think about these issues: Who should have the voting franchise? Who should rule and why? What is the point of war? What institutional arrangements can lead to a more stable and prosperous society? The characters in the book have answers, and there is some reason to think Heinlein is sympathetic to these, but that’s not the point. The point is that the question are posed, and in a philosophy class no less. The instructor (and the author) wants you to think about these questions.



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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Review: The Heist

The Heist The Heist by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with all the previous Allon novels, this was thoroughly a great read. Allon has evolved; he doesn't brood quite as much. Lethal as ever, he is more about trying to save (restore?) people than to end them. This novel was fun, it brought back a whole litany of characters from earlier novels. I like the potential development of our friend from Corsica. Some of this, though, was a bit forced. Rather than create a new, one-off character, Silva goes to the well and pulls out a character he's used before. This is minor, as long as it doesn't become too regular or too unbelievable. Another minor criticism is that this bore a lot of similarities to a few of the previous novels (in particular the English Girl). Nevertheless, Allon is so captivating. It's hard not to just jump right into the next novel!

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Thursday, June 09, 2016

Review: A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today by William J. Bernstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is ambitious book: ranging from prehistory to the current day and tackling diverse economic and policy ideas. The book is better, I found, when discussing the historical impacts and effects of trade. It starts to get a little technically and wonkish for my taste near the end as it delves into questions of contemporary trade policy (though that might be a plus for some). I suppose there isn’t much of a way of deal with the current effects of trade without getting into a discussion of free trade versus protectionism, but I was much more interested in the history: how the trade of the ancient and medieval world impacted the contemporaneous societies and then the modern world. And that is also where I think Bernstein did a better job of telling the story. He used compelling narratives that captured the story of trade in the ancient, medieval, and early modern worlds and showed how trade shaped those worlds and the modern world to come.

In the last quarter of the book, he shifts to the question of free trade and the “winners” and “losers” of trade. He ultimately lands on the side of free trade: he acknowledges that some people and groups will be harmed by trade, but overall and in the long run even they are better off with more and freer trade. The issue of trade-offs from trade is important, though I don’t care for the terminology of winners and losers. Like Bernstein, I acknowledge that some might be relatively less well-off because of trade, but I am not sure that qualifies as being a loser because even the data Bernstein uses shows that they are typically still better off absolutely. More rhetorically, talk of winners/losers perpetuates the myth of trade as zero-sum and that does great damage.

Even with these faults, I enjoyed the book and found it relatively readable. For the most part, it eschews technical jargon and so the book rarely drags.



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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Review: Robert B. Parker's Slow Burn

Robert B. Parker's Slow Burn Robert B. Parker's Slow Burn by Ace Atkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I've said in previous reviews of Atkins' Spenser: he does a great job of capturing Parker's voice and style. Over the course of the several Spenser books by Atkins, however, you can tell that more of Atkins is coming through. That is not bad in itself; I enjoy the books. But it's clear you are reading Atkins writing as Parker and not Parker. There are just little things and moments that are not quite right. For example, something Hawk says which fits the story but it is just not what Parker's Hawk would say.

This was a good story; all the classic set pieces for Spenser stories are there. I enjoyed it as I have the previous books. I have to admit, though, that I am ready to say goodbye. I'll buy the next Spenser book by Atkins for sure, but if this is it. I'm good. The end of the book had a feeling for me very much like the last episode of Cheers. The story goes on; the characters live on; it's just our window into it that has closed.

I'd rather see Atkins take the Z character and see what he can do with him; make Z his own (to continue the Cheers analogy: Z could be Frasier).

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Review: Ride the River

Ride the River Ride the River by Louis L'Amour
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this. A quick read, it had what you would want from a Sackett novel. Action, beautifully detailed descriptions of the countryside, and interesting characters. I liked Echo a lot. I wish we had more about her, but I am not sure how much of a role she plays in the later Sackett novels. L'Amour does, I think, a good job with the challenge of writing from a female point of view. She is not just a 'Sackett in skirts,' so to speak, nor is she a damsel in distress. She is a tough, witty, knowledgeable, solid character. She takes care of herself thank you very much.

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