Monday, January 30, 2012

The Night And the Music

by Lawrence Block

Eleven Matt Scudder stories, previously uncollected until now.  This book has the distinction of being the only e-book not in the public domain that I have ever purchased, despite having owned a Nook for years.  Now, keep in mind that everything Scudder-related is at least in some way interesting to me (at this point in my association with Scudder and his extended circle, it’s like going through a photo album with a cool elderly uncle as he reminisces, including the same familiar turns of phrase that have been used before).  While a couple of these stories are throwaways, most attain that perfect air of world-weary castaway-turned-bemused-husband that marks the later novels.

“Out the Window.”  The longest story and the closest thing to a typical mystery story: a locked door suicide that Matt suspects is murder.  Excellent.

“A Candle For the Bag Lady.”  A bag lady is killed brutally and leaves money to Scudder, who is naturally driven to find out why, and who did it.  A tour of the seedy side of Scudder’s world, and very touching.

“By the Dawn’s Early Light.”  Matt is hired to find information that will help a man accused of killing his wife, only to find he’s a pawn in someone’s game.  Scudder’s brand of rough justice ensues.  Quite clever plotting.

“Batman’s Helpers.”  A look at what makes Scudder tick, morally.  This story is deeper than it appear to be, with a rather incisive dialogue on what makes right.

“The Merciful Angel Of Death.”  Matt is asked to find out what connection a woman has to dying AIDS patients.  This one is a bit hard to swallow, and doesn’t showcase Matt’s strengths.  Probably the weakest in the collection.

“The Night And the Music.”  Scudder being domestic.  Sweet, but frothy.

“Looking For David.”  Vacationing in Italy, Matt bumps into a murderer who finally tells him why he killed his lover.  Spooky and clever, though I guessed it before Matt, who seems rather dull in this story.

“Let’s Get Lost.”  In his early days on the force, Matt does a favor for call girl Elaine by investigating the suspicious death of a card player.  Block leads the readers back and forth with this one; it’s also soaked in Scudder’s bittersweet nostalgia.  Possibly the best of the bunch.

“A Moment Of Wrong Thinking.”  A flashback to Matt’s early days working with Detective Mafferty, who taught Matt to suspect everyone and take money when it’s offered.  A simple suicide case turns out to be… possibly more.

“Mick Ballou Looks At the Blank Screen.”  An unnecessary throwaway.

“One Last At Grogan’s.”  Not exactly a thrilling tale, but damn touching (Grogan’s is closing, Mick having settled down to domesticity and old age), and it’s always fun when original Hard Man, Mick Ballou, is on the page.

four stars

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sweet Myth-tery Of Life

by Robert Asprin

The tenth Myth Adventures book.  Following immediately after its predecessor, M.Y.T.H. Inc. In Action, this book opens with Skeeve and the gang back in the kingdom of Possiltum, hanging fire while Skeeve frets over Queen Hemlock’s ridiculous “ultimatum” (marry her, or she will abdicate and give him the throne - which is (a) not Skeeve’s problem, (b) scarcely credible given what he knows about her power-hungry ways, and (c) an impotent threat even if carried out since he could just abdicate in turn, leaving her kingdom to some trusted ally).

While Skeeve whines, his friends give him various bits of advice about marriage, and the drinking problem he seems to have developed.  And there’s the usual tangents about such decidedly non-fantasy-setting themes as bookkeeping and, most incongruously, why it’s not so great to be a professional model.  (Asprin will pad these books with dialogues on anything.)  While it’s still amusing, in a groan-inducing kind of way due to wordplay, it lacks even the pretense of a plot, and with no action-related material of any kind, this is a rather low point in this by now moribund series. 

two stars

[Read three times: 8/4/94, 7/5/97, 1/25/12]

Friday, January 20, 2012

Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion

by Michael Levy

The author recounts his experiences as  an English teacher sponsored by the Peace Corps for two years in China’s heartland, the city of Guiyang in the relatively poor Guizhou province.  Until then a vegetarian who kept a kosher diet, he soon realizes that in order to get the full experience, he will have to eat as his hosts do: fried bugs, maggots, lizard wine, and maybe even dog stew.  Of course, he also adjusts to the culture shock in a variety of other ways, mastering squat toilets, understanding guanxi (arranging favors for influence), working in an education system that favors memorization over interpretation, and maneuvering around (and sometimes slamming up against) the blind assumption that authority grants validity.  It feels like home eventually, though he never joins in the ubiquitous smoking, or that particularly Asian predilection for cruelty to animals (one scene in which Levy confronts a man who is punching a bag of puppies is particularly memorable).

Written in a conversational, easy style, the book highlights all the absurdities of modern Chinese culture, trying to balance between old Communist ideals and the new capitalism.   All of Levy’s references are to pop culture (Jor-El, TRON, Carrie Bradshaw), which grates after a while and makes him seem rather simple at times, but he’s an honest narrator, examining his own assumptions and beliefs and giving real thought to how absurd his own ideals might seem to his Chinese students.  From his student who names herself “Shitty” in English because she likes its sound, to young girls who must leave school and work long days due to a lack of a few dozen dollars, this is a funny, informative, and even touching memoir. 

four stars

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The End Of the Affair

by Graham Greene

Writer Maurice Bendrix had a brief affair with his friend’s wife, Sarah, that was abruptly broken off.  Obsessed with her for two years, he sends a private detective to follow Sarah and find out the truth.  As he tries to find out answers he may not be happy with, he finds himself becoming friends with Henry, Sarah’s husband.

This is one of Greene’s Catholic-inspired philosophical novels, in which dogma is almost a character in the drama.  Though the plot does require a few somewhat unlikely things to happen, the novel’s approach to lost love, jealousy, resentment, and faith are true and honest.  Bendrix’s urge to know Sarah’s heart, even as it causes him grief (“curiosity can be stronger than pain”), comes through in his grim first person narration, clearly inspired by Greene’s own musings on his life and his work.  As new information comes through and the plot twists and turns, Bendrix makes savage and then regretful appraisals of the long-suffering Henry, the inscrutable Sarah, and finally the God whom Bendrix realizes has brought it all about.  It’s a quietly touching and all too human story.

four stars

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO's Strategies for Defeating the Devil's Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization

by Thomas Kelley

The author, general manager of the design firm IDEO, explains ten roles employees can fill to help companies create and innovate.  The roles are Anthropologist (sees everyday life as a source for new ideas); Experimenter (celebrates the prototype process); Cross-Pollinator (uses a wide breadth of learning to improve their main field); Hurdler (turn constraints into opportunity); Collaborator (leads cross-functioning teams where players exchange roles); Director (puts together teams with good chemistry); Experience Architect (creates positive encounters with product by engaging senses); Set Designer (creates spaces for projects); Caregiver (makes consumers’ process more fun and personal); and Storyteller (triggers emotion by making experiences authentic).  Whew!

This was an easy work read, written in a pleasant style that forgoes the usual talking-down tone of business books.  I’m always wary of these business-help books that name “the” seven whatchamacallits of leadership or the fifteen boondoggles of customer service or so on.  Of course, Kelley does point out that these ten “faces” are roles, not individuals, and that roles can overlap within people or groups (just as you can be a father, husband, engineer, kayaker, etc., so too one might add on Experimenter and Collaborator onto that list).  But very often as I read page after page of anecdotes about this or that company surging in market share, I found myself wondering what precisely the “roles” had to do with it.  Kelley argues for power naps at work to recharge, which is fine – but what’s The Director got to do with it?  As with most books of this ilk, this is a lot of good advice (names matter; find out what the customer really needs, not what he says he needs; face time is better than email) packaged with a simple-sounding hook (just ten things to learn?!). 

three stars

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Anything Goes: A Biography Of The Roaring Twenties

by Lucy Moore

A popular history of the decade, zipping through the salient features of the cultural landscape (in America): Prohibition, gang violence, the rise of jazz, inchoate Hollywood and the talkies, Ford, flappers, the KKK and xenophobia, the Scopes trial, Lindbergh’s flight, and so on.

It’s a fun ride, readable and instructive, though at times it reads like a thesis, and there’s quite a lot of unattributed quoted material. Some of the spotlights Moore shines are questionable – an entire chapter on Jack Dempsey, but only a passing mention of Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb? An examination of the character, scandals, and death of Warren Harding, but nothing about Coolidge, who was president for the majority of the decade? There’s nothing wrong with the pieces she writes – I found both of those chapters illuminating and enjoyable – but I doubt a serious historical work would suffer the same omissions. Some of her less obvious choices are, on the other hand, instructive, such as the look at how The New Yorker got its humble start. Though there’s no overall argument to the book, I got the sense of a ‘20s in America that was a sort of amalgam of the ‘50s and ‘60s: post-war prosperity and disposable income, mixed with rumblings of civil rights and a fatalistic, hedonistic rejection of normalcy and routine. In all, I came away educated and entertained by the book, lightweight though it might be; it’s certainly a reminder that there was never one monolithic American culture. And no “good old days.”

three stars