Monthly Archives: February 2014

Review of Red Sparrow

Red SparrowRed Sparrow by Jason Matthews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got a real kick out of this one, although I can kick about a few things in it, too. This is a spy novel in the classic cold war US vs. Russia genre. The author is the real deal and the jargon, tradecraft, and dialogue reflect that. The story reeks of authenticity. The plot and character descriptions are already described sufficiently in other reviews, so I’ll add my personal perspective. First off, the FBI bashing got real old real fast. I also found the sex and torture scenes excessive, unnecessary, and pandering – frankly offensive, but perhaps not more so than has become common in the thriller genre. I listened to this one on CD and the reader was excellent. I don’t know Russian, but I’ve heard enough of it to believe the reader did. He convinced me, anyway. This book is much better than Blowback by Valerie Plame. I gave up on that one halfway through, so I’m not reviewing it. It wasn’t terrible, but just too much geared to the chick lit scene for my taste.

This author made an odd choice that, surprisingly, I haven’t seen mentioned in the dozen or so reviews I read, although I assume there are reviews out there mentioning it. Every chapter or so he ends with a recipe related to the preceding scene. I can’t say this bothered me or appealed to me; it was just sort of weird. Most of the recipes sounded somewhat stomach turning to me, but then I’m no foodie. I’m the type who wishes they’d invent a food pill so no one had to eat. In order to feed this conceit, the author crams a lot of restaurant or dinner meetings into the exposition, thus repeating in the text the same recipe that is presented at the end. This is a waste of time and a bit irritating in my opinion.

All in all, though, the plot was clever, the American characters believable, the action not so much but still entertaining, and it was refreshing to relive that era. The Russian characters were grossly overdrawn, comic-book-like Snidely Whiplash bad guys. Putin would not be pleased, but American fans of the genre will.

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Review of Well Oiled

Well OiledWell Oiled by Rubin Johnson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is crammed with lots of fascinating elements – triathlons, bitcoins, geocaching, energy policy, and more. I especially liked the Cal Tech ditch day stories, the Mexican cave exploring, and the history of the Esselen Indians to name a few. The author is clearly knowledgeable and passionate about all these things and I learned a lot reading it, but in the end, it suffered from a lack of cohesion. The plot took second place to the author’s desire to educate us on yet one more thing. The dialog was often clunky and full of exposition. It was nice to read a thriller that wasn’t burdened with the usual gore and pornographic scenes that seem so common in this genre, and I appreciated the clear, precise grammar, spelling, and overall professionalism in the writing, which is so often lacking in self-published books. If you’re looking for shootouts and graphic bedroom scenes, this isn’t the book for you, but if you’re looking for something that tells you all you ever wanted to know about bike fitting, botnets, and a dozen other interesting things, give it a try. I was provided a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Run v. Jog

Q: What is the difference between the words “run” and “jog”? Or more specifically, what is the difference between a “runner” and a “jogger”?

A. Ten years ago when I was a lot faster and I’d pass a group of moms and their kids, one of the moms would call to her kids, “Watch out for the runner.” Now they say, “Watch out for the jogger.”


How fat are we getting in this country? Interestingly, I seem to be getting smaller while getting bigger. Sound impossible? Not accordingly to today’s clothing manufacturers.

I used to buy large size men’s shirts, at least when they were long-sleeved. Flannel shirts, for example. I’m just under six feet and have a thin build. I had to buy large because medium was too tight at the shoulders and the sleeves weren’t long enough. Yesterday I bought some long-sleeved shirts and had to buy medium. This is counter-intuitive since my waist size has actually gone up by one inch in the last year or so, and I’m the same weight I have been for the last 40 years.

The explanation, of course, is that Americans are getting so fat at so young an age that clothing manufacturers and retailers are using the increased average size as the basis for sizing. Yesteryear’s large is today’s medium.  Part of it may also be that kids are wearing baggier clothes than they used to, but I think obesity is the greater culprit.

Personally, I prefer to think of it as proof I am slimming down despite my increased waist size!

Bye bye facebook

I’ve officially given up on facebook. There are several reasons for this. The most important reasons are mirror images of each other: I don’t see most posts by most of my friends and they don’t see most of mine. Facebook is the victim of its own success. It has become such a universal platform that regular users now have hundreds of facebook friends. Most of those post to facebook frequently, even when they have little of importance to say. It has deteriorated into a Twitter, that diarrhea of the small screen.

This has forced fb into a practice of prioritizing posts. For a long time I could assign to each friend one or more check marks to show “only important” posts or just “life events.” I don’t know how facebook determined these, but I seemed to get most of the stuff I was interested in. Some fb friends were prolific posters and I had to remove them from my feed because I just didn’t have the time or interest, but overall the system worked. Now I only have the choice to follow or not follow. Like Twitter. Even then fb doesn’t show every post by every person I am following. There are just too many, so it determines through some algorithm what is most interesting, based on how often people interact with a post.

When I post, they show me how many people have seen my post. I have over 100 fb friends, but most posts are typically seen by only 35 or so. So I don’t know who has seen my posts and who hasn’t. I have no problem with people choosing to not follow me as I do the same thing, but sometimes for some of the groups I’m in, I think it’s important that at least that group see the post, yet I am unable to be assured they have.

Yet another problem is the proliferation of pictures. Now with every mobile phone having a camera, people take snapshots everywhere they go. Sorry, but I am not interested in the photos of you standing with your neighbors, or yet another shot of the forest or a sunset, or your latest vacation, no matter who you are. Been there, done that.

Lastly, fb is now giving me 50 choices for my sexual identification? 50! Really?! Unreal – literally. It has become an exercise in surrealism – a theater of the absurd. It’s time to say goodbye.

So from now on I will post my comments in specific forums – the Nissan Leaf forum for electric vehicle related posts, for geocaching, or the mailing list for ex-FBI agents for FBI stuff. If you own facebook stock, I recommend you sell it. It is, ironically, too successful to do well.

Ship Of Theseus – A Grand Adventure

Ship of TheseusShip of Theseus by Doug Dorst
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book (SOT for short) is a grand adventure. Experience it in its full hardback version, not the ebook. It is beautifully crafted to appear to be an old library book, complete with call number on the spine and checkout history stamps on the inside. The pages are made to look yellowed at the edges and the font is chosen to look straight from the 1950s. Scattered throughout the pages are various inserts – letters, postcards, photos, and even a code wheel – all appearing authentic. Be careful when you open it so they don’t all fall out. They are placed at logical spots in the story.

The novel unfolds in at least four chronological stages. It also takes place both in print and in the handwritten margin notes, which I saved until after I had read the printed story. First is the original novel purportedly written by V.M. Straka, a controversial and reclusive mid-20th century author who was active in the radical left-wing movements of the 30s and 40s – labor riots, anti-fascist groups, and especially opposed to an industrialist/arms dealer. SOT is his last book, published by his long-time translator F.X. Caldeira, in 1959, years after his death. The tale is a bizarre allegorical account of the travels of S., an amnesiac-turned-assassin fighting the agents of the evil munitions provider in the story, modeled after Straka’s real-life nemesis. It is filled with the dark imagery one might expect from the mind of J.J. Abrams (cf. Lost) one of the creators of the book. One quickly gets the idea the story is more than what it appears to be on its face.

The translation, including Caldeira’s foreword and footnotes, form yet another story. The reader soon realizes that the footnotes, too, contain some secret, undisclosed information. Odd wording, misaligned characters and other clues tell us that the footnotes are trying to communicate something secret – but what, and to whom?

Then going back through the margin notes from the beginning we learn that the book is being passed back and forth between Eric, a graduate student, and Jen, a senior English major who works in the campus library. Eric’s dissertation work on Straka is being stolen by his former advisor (who had him “expunged”) and his ex-girlfriend. Jen becomes his ally in solving the mysteries surrounding Straka: who was he really? Did he commit suicide or was he murdered? What were Caldeira’s footnotes all about? Whom did the characters in SOT represent in real life? All the while they have to fight off the evil professor and ex-girlfriend (who also happens to be Jen’s TA in a lit course).

Eric writes in black ink, block letters. Jen uses blue cursive. As things become more tense they switch colors to green and orange,and eventually red and purple. Will Eric and Jen ever meet face-to-face? Will Eric get back into academia? Will Jen graduate after her TA flunks her? All these dramas play out together.

The very concept is worth several stars, but the cleverness of the story and the marvelous artwork both on the page and in the inserts makes this one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in years. I highly recommend it.

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