The Stepfamily by Bonnie Traymore

The Stepfamily (Silicon Valley Series #1)The Stepfamily by Bonnie L. Traymore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Laura is the stepmother to two children from her husband Peter’s first marriage. His first wife died by suicide more than ten years ago. Or was it suicide? That’s the first big mystery. Then there are tensions at work for both Laura and Peter with a financial crime lurking in the past. Then it looks like someone cut the brake line on Laura’s car. Is someone out to kill her? This doesn’t even touch on the possible frictions and resentment a stepmom can face from children still loyal to their mother.

The author does a good job of ramping up the suspense. It is properly subtitled “A psychological thriller.” I enjoyed the book enough to recommend it. Having said that, it suffers from some self-published book flaws like poor proofreading. I also didn’t like the chick lit vibe, e.g. the constant descriptions of female characters’ outfits and even toenail color (plum). I did like the local references as I live in the area. Chef Chu’s is the best Chinese restaurant around.

The author shows a good deal of knowledge about tech startups and Silicon Valley culture and business, but she is clearly not up to speed on police procedure or investigative matters. That’s why I say it’s a psychological thriller, not a detective novel. She refers to the the Santa Clara County Police as investigating the case. Sorry, no, there is no such agency. If a crime took place outside a city, it would be investigated by the county sheriff, otherwise by the police agency for that city. Los Altos Hills, Laura’s location, uses Los Altos Police for most detective work although the sheriff’s office might assist on a possible homicide. Worse, though, is the private eye she conjures up who seems to have magical powers to find out anything. As a retired FBI agent and attorney, I can tell you it doesn’t work that way. For example the P.I. searches for someone using facial recognition. How? That requires a network of hundreds or even thousands of cameras, very sophisticated software and hardware, and a series of good photos of the person sought. He had none of that and neither does any law enforcement agency in the county. He also found out about an affair from years ago with no indication that either of the lovers told him about it, or for that matter, any explanation at all of how he did. Admittedly, I’m a bit picky about that stuff because of my background, but these eye-rolling mistakes have the effect of taking the reader out of the credibility of the story. There’s also a major timeline error at the very end. Even so, I found myself engaged with the story and continually wanting to read the next chapter. At least she stuck to the old rule, “write about what you know.”

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Trends – Soccer vs. Tennis

Soccer is generally more poplar in the United States than tennis. Google searches on the two words usually favors soccer by a big margin. However, with Coco Gauff winning the U.S. Open recently, tennis has stepped into the spotlight. It’s interesting to see where tennis has broken through to Americans.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and TomorrowTomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book about people, not plot. The main characters, Sadie Green and Sam Masur, are young brilliant people with a fascination for games. They grow up and found a successful video games company. They love each other, but are not partners, not of the romantic sort, at least they don’t seem to be in the early going. The author leaves that unanswered until the end. They fight; they reconcile. There are moments of triumph and joy and many tragedies and mistakes. Sam’s college roommate, Marx Watanabe, takes on the role of Sam’s protector and big brother and later game producer. He is as much a main character as Sam and Sadie. Many others, mostly from the game company, fill out the roster. The backstories on all the characters and their parents are fleshed out as separate short stories with the overarching novel. In a way this can be considered a high concept book. It is about story-telling, about life and love and grief.

Much as I enjoyed the book, it left me just a little disappointed, or perhaps more accurately, unfulfilled. I’m used to murder mysteries and spy novels and science fiction. I miss the plot. I like the idea of a goal being set and worked toward, whether it’s solving the murder, escaping a peril, or successfully creating a post-apocalyptic social order. The author writes beautifully and the characters are interesting. I think the author is a frustrated game designer herself. She certainly invents a number of them throughout the book and they’re fun diversions. But the book is more like taking a bus tour through lovely landscape just to enjoy the leisurely pace and all the visual treats, but ending up at the beginning, rather than running a marathon through that same countryside with a clear goal in mind. I had to fight off snatches of boredom here and there to reach the end, but I’m very glad I read the book.

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Paved Paradise by Henry Grabar

Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the WorldPaved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World by Henry Grabar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author, a degreed designer and staff writer at The Atlantic provides this compelling indictment of America’s mindless adoption of free parking everywhere for everyone. He writes with wit and entertains us with a plethora of amusing or mind-boggling anecdotes and inside lore from the world of parking. If you’re the type that likes peeking under the hood of the machinery of a vast, largely overlooked enterprise (it’s more than just an industry) you’ll find this fascinating. It reminds me very much of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. There is so much more to parking than I ever imagined and the author has been studying it for years.

I was an attorney for a transportation authority, so this hits a topic I know a bit about. Not everyone is so interested, I realized, which is one reason I can’t give it five stars. He discusses how America’s love of parking, especially mandatory parking minimums for developers, drives more car ownership, hurts mass transit, results in excessive paving, and in more flight from urban centers. The once classic masonry buildings were replaced by parking lots and garages due to outlandish parking requirements in building codes that were based on no science or examination of need. He touches on parking meters and how they’ve been manipulated by gangsters and major corporations (if those can be distinguished). He gives a clear picture of the life of a parking attendant (ixnay on “meter maid”). He’s shown quite convincingly how removing mandatory minimum parking rules in Los Angeles and some other cities has revitalized downtown, or at least certain neighborhoods. His research and statistics sources prove that there’s a lot more free parking than is actually needed and most of it sits vacant most of the time. That’s incredibly valuable land going unused. There’s much more here than I’ve already mentioned, but I’ll add one perspective of my own that he only touched on briefly. When my district had to widen a commercial street, say for a bus lane or light rail extension, business owners would all claim six figure damages when we had to take a two-foot strip off their parking lot, notwithstanding the fact it was never full and creative restriping can save them the same number of spaces, and they’d often get it since it costs the district that much to take an eminent domain case to trial. And there are usually dozens, even hundreds of affected landowners for such projects. City planners don’t realize that those mandated spaces are going to have to be bought back by taxpayers later on at highly inflated prices.

But there’s another reason I can’t go to five stars, and that is I don’t think the author has gotten it right. He is writing from the perspective of one who loves big cities, especially New York and he is clearly a preservationist. I believe he’s in a minority and is ignoring the wants and needs of most Americans. When I was transferred to New York, I rented an apartment in the north end of Manhattan in a building that promised me an underground garage parking spot. After I signed the lease and moved in, they told me the spot wasn’t empty and I was “next on the list.” I had to wrestle with alternate side parking and after a few weeks my car got stolen off the street. I never bought a replacement while I was living there and never got a discount on rent. I despised everything about New York and its old masonry abominations with their inadequate plumbing, electricity, insulation. I love it in the suburbs of Silicon Valley where I live now with plenty of parking on my street and the local stores. My son and his wife both worked at Google HQ in Mountain View. They shared one car and would take turns walking or biking to their separate office buildings. They hated it. They sold their condo at a loss during the pandemic and bought a two-acre place on Puget Sound in Olympia, WA where they can now work from home when they’re not kayaking around in a natural paradise from their back yard. A comparable place in the Bay Area, if it existed, would cost at least three times as much, maybe twice that. Now they have two cars, including a Tesla, and plenty of parking. The fact is that people historically lived densely in big cities like New York because they had to, not because of its charm (except maybe for actors, writers, and artists). Most people want to live out away from the teeming masses, and technology and employers are now allowing them to do that. My point is not that he’s wrong about how getting rid of parking in general and free parking in particular can revitalize a vacant city core, it’s that we shouldn’t be trying to. Those old masonry buildings are environmental disasters with their impossible to heat 10-foot ceilings, fuel oil heating systems, and lack of insulation. The parking mandates that got them torn down did us all a favor.

The author certainly disagrees with me, and he is entitled to his opinion. I certainly respect his deep knowledge on the subject and enjoyed the book a great deal. Even if you don’t agree with him, it’s something every thoughtful person should read, and, by the way, I’m pretty sure you’ll like it.

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

More than anything else, this is a great story. It’s fun to read and eye-opening in so many ways. You all know the basic plot: a young white boy flees a bad situation in St. Petersburg, Missouri and hooks up with Jim, a runaway black slave. They float down the Mississippi River on a raft and have many adventures including getting taken advantage of by con men, barely escaping murderers, and so on. It is an American classic.

It is told in the first person by Huck Finn in the dialect of that time and place. It could be a difficult read for people whose English is not their first language, or even English speakers who didn’t grow up or live a long time in America. This includes use of the word nigger and depicts the racism of the day in stark detail. For this reason, among others, the book is considered controversial. Some find it a satirical exposé of that racism and the cruelty of slavery while others see it as racist itself. I see it as both. I think Twain was trying to show that cruelty and the injustice of racism, but also held typical white southerner’s views of blacks as inferior to white. Jim is not depicted in a favorable way as to intelligence, although he is a good soul.

In the end, I see no point in trying to judge the book by today’s standards. It was just a ripping good yarn and I’m glad our book club chose it.

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Give a Boy a Gun by Jack Olsen

Give a Boy a Gun: The True Story of Law and Disorder in the American WestGive a Boy a Gun: The True Story of Law and Disorder in the American West by Jack Olsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This remarkable book tells an astounding true story in riveting prose. Claude Dallas was a poacher and trapper in the I-O-N (Idaho, Oregon, Nevada) area who shot and killed two game wardens. He then fled and was a fugitive for years. The book describes how it happened, according to an eyewitness, according to Dallas, according to various people in the legal system, according to press reports, and according to many rumor-mongers and gossips. It is a prime example of how everyone believes whatever they want to believe. The outcome of the pursuit and what happened thereafter are artfully concealed until the very end. There are more twists and turns than in any John Grisham novel. I can tell you I was totally surprised twice in the final pages.

I’m surprised this book doesn’t have more reviews and ratings. It’s top-notch and told skillfully. I recommend that you do NOT look through the photographs in the middle until you’ve finished the book, because there is a spoiler there. The book spends quite a bit of time setting the stage and introducing the characters, so it’s not exciting right off the bat, although there are some heart-stopping moments. Stick with it and you won’t be able to put it down by the last third.

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Murder Your Employer by Rupert Holmes

Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to HomicideMurder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide by Rupert Holmes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This very silly book can at best be considered a time filler. The premise is that there exists a “conservatory” devoted to homicide, or, according to its own jargon, deletions. It teaches its students the art of poisoning, disguise, creating alibis, and much more. It is run much like a British prep school, although its actual location is kept from the students, who are taken in blindfolded. I listened to the audiobook which is narrated by Simon Vance (in a very stuffy Etonian accent) and Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Cliff, the male lead, a student bent on killing his employer.

Cliff’s target is the company CEO who modified Cliff’s aircraft design in a way that saved money, but created a deadly flaw that could lead to airliners falling from the sky. He also fired Cliff for pointing out that the change was deadly and framed him so his career was ruined. Other students had equally just reasons for wanting to delete their employers. The incongruity of the stuffiness and propriety of the school while advocating and promoting murder is amusing for a premise, but it doesn’t sustain the book beyond the first page. The students finish their courses and are set forth in the world to complete their “theses,” i.e. the deletions for which they trained. The rules of the school are such that if they fail, they must be deleted themselves as they know too much and pose a threat to the school. Somehow this is only if they fail but not if they succeed. A smidgen of suspense is added by inserting some students who seem deserving of deletion themselves and some innocent people who might be killed or blamed by botched deletions. I’ll leave the outcome of these attempts to you to find out on your own.

The whole idea is ludicrous and so are the convoluted schemes the students, or, I should say, graduates, attempt. Another odd choice of the author is to set this book in 1950. For a while I thought I must have stumbled an old mystery book from that era, but, no, it’s first published in 2023. I can’t recommend the book, but it provided some background noise while I did my email or played solitaire on my computer.

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Tesla Model 3 vs. Volvo XC40 Recharge

I own a Volvo XC40 Recharge, an electric vehicle (EV). When I was doing comparison shopping for it in 2020 I took a look at the Tesla Model 3, another EV. They’re close to the same size and price, although the Volvo is shorter and taller and is a small SUV, while the Tesla is a sedan. At that time I didn’t care for several features of the Tesla and I’m now very happy with my choice. But last week I was in Texas visiting family and I rented a car, which turned out to be a Tesla Model 3 (although that’s not what I asked for). So I drove one for a week and formed a more educated opinion.

The bottom line: I really didn’t like the Tesla. Before I tell you why, let me say what I liked about the Tesla. First, it’s an EV. That’s a huge plus with me and should be with you. Their charging system, especially the superchargers, are much superior to the CCS fast charge system used by Volvo and most European carmakers. Tesla’s public (i.e. not home) chargers are faster, easier to handle, and more reliable, too. That’s important if you plan to drive it on long trips, but if you’re like me and able to charge every night at home or work, then that’s not very important. The Tesla navigation system is excellent, I was in a strange city and needed guidance. The voice directions were clear and perfectly timed. Volvo uses Google Maps and it’s very good, too, but I think Tesla’s system is slightly better. Warning: on one occasion it told me to make a U-turn at an intersection marked with a No U-turn sign.

Now for my complaints. The roof is not opaque!!! The sun shines right through it. It is darkened plastic, but still lets in enough bright sun to be annoying. I had to wear a hat in the car several times. What could the designer possibly have been thinking! That alone was one original deal killer in 2020 and driving in 102°F heat with the sun in my peripheral vision proved to be as bad as I had imagined. Along those lines: the air conditioner was inadequate and can’t be directed. To be fair, I’m not sure how well my Volvo would do in that heat, but at least I know how to lower the temperature, move the directional louvers, and increase the fan speed on mine. The Volvo uses the Google Automotive app and I can just call out climate control commands to it while driving. It’s usually perfect. I didn’t know how to change anything on the Tesla, certainly not by voice. I did see the temperature was set at 66° but inside the car it was easily 95°. That big screen control system also made driving difficult. Some controls, like the bluetooth, were located on the far right of the screen, basically in front of the passenger seat. I had to use it several times to change the volume of the music that was playing from my phone and that was dangerous as I had to take my eyes completely off the road. My Volvo has a small nav screen right in front of the steering wheel so I can see my next turn while still looking ahead. On the Tesla I had to look off to the right.

The key system on the Tesla is ridiculous. It’s a big honkin’ card about the size and shape of a pack of bubble gum baseball cards. By itself, that might not be too bad if you could fit it in a pocket or purse (which I couldn’t because the rental people fastened a big plastic tag to it), but you have to hold it flat against the outside of the doorpost in order to lock or unlock the car door. That’s really inconvenient, especially when you have your hands full, which I do quite often when getting in or out. It’s quite glitchy, too, and sometimes required me to put everything down and try repositioning it multiple times before the car recognizes it. My Volvo key stays in my pocket the whole time. I just reach for the door handle and if I have the key, it unlocks; to lock I just touch my hand to the outside of the handle. I can do this on my Volvo without letting go of whatever I’m carrying, and it’s 100% reliable. On top of that you have to slip the Tesla card into the center console area to get the car to start (the Volvo just starts when you sit). Then as soon as you start, the key card slides into the cup holders. It would be easy to forget the key when exiting. What’s wrong with an old-fashioned push-button remote to pop open the doors or trunk? Tesla just has to be “cool” at the expense of utility.

The door handles are yet another disaster on the Tesla. They’re flush with the body. This may be to reduce wind resistance, although I can’t imagine it makes much difference there. You have to press one end with your thumb and that levers out the rest of the handle, which you can then grab. If you can see it, that is. One night it was very dark out and I could not see the handle. I heard the door unlock, but without exterior lighting the car looked totally black (even though it was a red car with black handles). I felt around for the handle and only felt a smooth surface. It’s no problem finding the door handle by feel on the Volvo. With the Tesla I finally had to put everything I was holding on the ground, get out my phone, and use the flashlight just to find the door handle.

The interior door handles are even worse, at least in the back seat. There are none! Once at the supercharger I decided to wait in the car (est. 20 min). At first I sat in the driver’s seat and listened to my music through bluetooth. But the car faced south, full sun coming through the windshield, and it was blazing hot despite the A/C. So I decided to get in the back seat where the semi-transparent roof provided some shade at least. When I did that I discovered the car stopped the A/C and the music, presumably because no one was in driver’s seat, so I decided to get out and go to a nearby store. But when I reached for the “handle” I found it was just a fixed grab bar. There was no release lever like in the front, which had a normal pull-up door release. I felt all over and could not find a lever to pull. The door was locked and the window wouldn’t roll down. I actually started to panic. I tried both doors and the roof lining, the back of the center console, … everything, and could not find a door release. I’m over 75 and I could have been trapped in there. Fortunately I’m agile enough to climb between the front seats and exit out the front passenger door. That’s not just stupid design, it’s positively life-threatening. After I got out, I went into a store and searched for how to exit the rear of a Tesla and found a video. Apparently there is a small button (black on black, naturally, so you can’t see it) that one is supposed to slide forward. I never saw or felt that button. Sure, if you owned one of these cars and read the manual, you’d be aware of it, but this was a rental. I had only one minute of orientation to it, and I certainly didn’t think of asking directions on how to get out the car. Yet another idiocy in the name of coolness.

The car was too low and long. That’s the other major reason I didn’t consider the the Tesla in 2020. It wouldn’t fit in my garage and visibility is terrible since all the cars around you are taller. The seating height in my Volvo is nine inches higher and the car is shorter. The Tesla design is not a flaw, just a choice to go for less wind resistance (meaning longer range) but it was deal killer for me. The rear window on the Tesla is set too high and is too narrow. I was constantly readjusting the rear-view mirror trying to see behind me. It’s a safety problem.

So you may think I’m biased, and perhaps I am, but I spotted several of these problems back in 2020  when I didn’t have any investment in a Volvo. My mind was open then at least, and I didn’t like what I saw. Now I know why. And in case you’re wondering, I love my Volvo.

Bitch by Lucy Cooke

Bitch: On the Female of the SpeciesBitch: On the Female of the Species by Lucy Cooke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was recommended to me by something I subscribe to (NYT?) and I like science, so I grabbed it for something to read while on a trip. The writing is professional and at times entertaining. There are a good number of curious animal facts and stories. But the book really has only two main points: first, Female animals have historically been given short shrift by the male-dominated science world which considered them dull and unworthy of study when in fact they are often the more aggressive and dominant of the sexes. Second, female researchers have been discriminated against by male academic higher-ups and journal editors. They are biased against anyone, basically limited to women, who suggests point one.

To bolster these points she fills the chapters with stories of female spiders who eat their mates, alpha female chimps, various species where the female has the more impressive and male-like genitalia, lesbian albatrosses, and so on. The women who submit articles about these things are routinely told by journal editors that they can’t or won’t publish the research documenting these studies because they “can’t be true” or “I don’t believe it.” Basically male chauvinism prevails in the science world.

I don’t disagree with the substance of these points. I just didn’t find it very entertaining after the eighth or tenth species. Every page or two I wanted to scream, “Okay, I get it.” I thought I was checking out a science book, not a feminist tract.

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The Big Picture by Sean Carroll

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe ItselfThe Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself by Sean Carroll
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I disliked this book, but that’s probably slightly unfair. It’s not badly written. The research seems thorough and reliable. What bothers me is the arrogance of the author and the condescending style. He writes like he’s talking to 9-year-old who has just been rescued from a cult and living in the jungle. I skipped Jonestown, thank you, and don’t need to be told the basics everyone learns in junior high science class and the rest of life. It’s quite repetitive and I found myself wanting to say, “Well, duh!” multiple times per page. He uses stupid hypotheticals to illustrate obvious points. For example, he writes that if you were to step into your bathtub and find an accordion there, you would assume some one put it there, or there was another identifiable cause. “Well, duh!” It’s not that I disagree with him; at least I don’t think so. My world view is probably pretty similar to his, but I don’t like the attitude of, “Just forget everything you thought you knew, and I’ll tell you how to think about everything.” I skipped liberally to about page 120 or so and then jumped to the end, so I didn’t give it a full chance, but I read all I could stomach.

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“Good job!” = “Old!”

Four years ago I wrote about how I was officially old because young women now smile at me when I’m running on the trail. They can tell I’m too old to be a predator. Today, as I was finishing my run (only five+ miles, but short of the usual 6) when I passed a couple in their 60s, I estimate. They made room for me on the trail, so I said thank you as I passed. The man replied, “Sure thing.” Then he took a good look at me and added enthusiastically, “Good job!”

There are only two categories of people who are praised that way for accomplishing an ordinary activity: young children (I’m including those with the mental capacity of young children), and old people. In particular, I refer to old people who are perceived to be feeble of body or mind. Admittedly, I am looking more and more feeble at 76, but I’m actually pretty healthy. My “running” is a euphemism these days. It’s more of a trudge and often interspersed with some walking, but, hey, it’s five or six miles. At the time I passed them, it was downhill and I was actually moving along pretty well. Still, my running days are numbered; I can tell from my joints. So I don’t blame the young whippersnapper (with gray hair) for his well-intentioned words, but it was a bit dispiriting to be tagged with that unspoken sobriquet: Old man.

The Doomsters by Ross MacDonald

The Doomsters (Lew Archer, #7)The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really enjoy the Lew Archer character. MacDonald has a gritty noir style you don’t see anymore. The plot involves two brothers from a wealthy family. Both their parents died under suspicious circumstances and the brothers seem at each other’s throat. One of them had just escaped from a mental treatment facility when the book starts. There’s a too-slick doctor, a lecherous sheriff, and a couple of shapely wives in the mix, both of whom hate the other. Some people get shot or stabbed. That’s enough of a start to get the feel. Archer remains as the sole level head and cool customer.

I’d give it a higher rating if the ending weren’t such an unholy mess. Everything is tied up in a flurry of confessions by just about everybody concerning a whole bunch of sins in the distant past. None of it is predictable from the preceding 200 odd pages, which is another reason not to rate it high, but it was fun enough to fill in a few leisure hours.

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Our Ignorant Newsies – mixed metaphors

On today’s local news there was a crawler stating that California public transit had received $3.1 billion “to ward off the approaching fiscal cliff.” I’m trying to picture how a cliff might approach. Erosion? Maybe, if we’re below it. And how does one ward off a cliff that is approaching? With a shield? A gun? If a cliff were to approach me, I think I’d start running the opposite direction, not try to ward it off. Cliffs are pretty big.

Google Trends: Wembanyama vs. Wagner Group

I found this interesting:

For those not familiar with both, Wembanyama is the 7’4″ French basketball phenom just drafted into the NBA by the San Antonio Spurs. The Wagner Group is the mercenary army led by Sergey Prigozhin that revolted briefly against the Russian military and marched toward Moscow. Priorities differ in different places. Texas I can understand, but the other blue states make me scratch my head.


Night Angels by Weina Dai Randel

Night AngelsNight Angels by Weina Dai Randel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a case of the story being better than the writing. The real story of Ho Feng-shan, a Chinese (Nationalist government pre-WWII) diplomat, is inspiring. He saved thousands of Austrian Jews from the holocaust by issuing them visas to Shanghai so that they could get exit permits from the Nazis. The gist of that story comes through, but even though it purports to be based on that true story, a scathing review by Ho’s daughter says it is a totally fictionalized melodrama that minimizes Ho’s intellect and bravery, making him at best a sort of slow-witted reluctant hero.

Whatever the factual details, Ho is much to be admired and the story is worth reading for that reason. Little about the writing or the (totally fictitious) story of Ho’s wife Grace is worth much more than that. The writing is clumsy, with misplaced modifiers and similar awkward constructions. The imagined parts of the plot are implausible and inconsistent. None of the characters is very likeable. It’s hard to care much about fictional characters when you know what happened to the real ones. It dragged in the first half, partly because it’s historical in nature, so we already know basically how it ends. It does pick up in tension through the second half and I read it to the end with interest.

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Nine Black Robes by Joan Biskupic

Nine Black Robes: Inside the Supreme Court's Drive to the Right and Its Historic ConsequencesNine Black Robes: Inside the Supreme Court’s Drive to the Right and Its Historic Consequences by Joan Biskupic
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a thoroughly researched and very informative work. I learned a great deal about the Supreme Court and the justices even though I’m an attorney and a member of the Supreme Court bar. I’m the target audience for this book, I suppose, but even so I found it difficult to read and hold my interest. It is very dense and technical, all too much like law school, or like my research on the one case I had that went to the Supreme Court. The book is almost written like a textbook, with detailed descriptions of the procedural history of the many cases it discusses. I found it dry, but I also found myself getting deeply distracted, arguing to myself about the theories, approaches and questions raised in the book on many issues. I kept skipping ahead to avoid getting bogged down.

Another problem I had with it was the clear liberal bias displayed by the author. This is not unexpected since she reports for CNN, but I still expected a more balanced approach. One small example is how she refers to a woman’s right an abortion as a right granted by the Supreme court a half century ago. The problem is that she assumes the Supreme Court has the power to grant rights, constitutional ones at that. The conservatives clearly disagree. Their view, a reasonable one, is that rights either already existed in the constitution when written (or when the Amendment was written) or is granted by legislatures through the democratic process. Is it a right at all? Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for a woman’s right to an abortion. I wish all the states were as enlightened as California where I live. Two of my grandchildren would not exist had Roe v. Wade not been the law at the time. They were conceived in test tubes in Texas and carried by surrogates. Surrogates do not sign up for suicide missions. They require certain knowledge that they can have an abortion if needed for their own health, a certainty that does not now exist in Texas. No abortions had to take place, but the right to an abortion had to have existed in order for those surrogates to have volunteered and hence my grandchildren to be born. The right to lifers are actually preventing wanted, healthy babies from being born in exchange for more unwanted, often drug or alcohol damaged, babies being born. But I digress. The fact is that the conservatives, at least some of them sincerely, say that life begins at conception and any abortion is baby murder. It is a widely help belief throughout the world and the author treats that as a piffling straw argument. She treats virtually every conservative position as obviously wrong. She also focuses too much on Donald Trump rather than the court, although she gives fair warning in the subtitle.

At bottom, the book is a worthy piece of scholarship and reporting with a considerable amount of inside court scoop not available elsewhere. It deserves its four stars.

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The Mar-a-Lago documents

The news of Donald Trump’s retention and display to unauthorized persons of classified documents has raised serious questions about national security. It has also further polarized an already polarized nation. I have personal experience in this area I’ll share so that people have actual facts. Those who don’t want to believe them probably won’t, but as a retired FBI agent and attorney I feel it’s my responsibility to educate those willing to be educated.

In my FBI career, the case closest to the Trump case about which I have direct knowledge is the Allen John Davies case. I executed the search warrant at his house and I also saw the one document he attempted to provide to a Soviet (Russian) diplomat. Read the linked article for more detail. The information he provided orally was years out of date with no tactical or strategic value at the time he tried to pass it. The drawing he made was crude, not marked classified and, in my opinion, useless to anyone. I’m quite sure the Soviets already knew the basics of what he had to say anyway. He plead guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison. If he had gone to trial and been convicted, he probably would have gotten ten years.

The material the FBI found at Mar-a-Lago by the FBI is thousands of times more damaging to the U.S. national security. I can tell this by looking at the covers of the documents shown in the released photos and by the transcripts of the recordings Trump made and which are revealed in the indictment. If Trump knowingly stored the documents as shown and described, or directed his “body man” Walt Nauta to move them after the subpoena was served on him, then that is an additional crime of obstruction of justice. Most troubling, though, is that if the indictment is true, Trump showed classified material to a publisher or agent who had no clearance. In short, the conduct alleged in the indictment is extremely serious and threatens the security of the nation. Anyone engaging in that conduct should do no less than ten years in prison if the law is to be applied fairly.


WACO by Jeff Guinn

Waco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and A Legacy of RageWaco: David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, and A Legacy of Rage by Jeff Guinn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I learned a lot from this book. Most surprising to me was that David Koresh and his followers really believed that he was the literal messiah anointed by God to bring about the End Times in a holy confrontation with the forces of Babylon (which meant everyone who wasn’t them). Further they believed they would be transformed upon death into some sort of angels shepherding 144000 chosen to populate the sin-free heaven on Earth. Before this, I thought it was just a scam by Koresh to bilk a bunch of idiots and have sex with lots of young girls and women. He did those things, but apparently truly believed he was The One. This being so, the eventual destruction of the Waco compound and death of his flock was inevitable and brought about by him. Natural selection in action.

Sure, the author likes to play gotcha with the government and points out the many egregious planning and decision errors made by ATF, but it’s clear to me from this that by the time the FBI was brought in to clean up the mess, it was irretrievable. Koresh and his followers were given weeks to leave peacefully and safely and chose not to. Koresh repeatedly promised to come out once his demands were met and lied every time. He and his remaining members were bound and determined to make it to their heavenly reward and they got their wish. I don’t know whether Koresh ordered the fires to be set or it was accidental, but he got what he wanted and the FBI ended the siege. It was a win-win. The government bashing in the book is just an opportunist’s way of profiting off the deaths of others. He’s done the same repeatedly with other cults.

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