Monthly Archives: July 2017

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary GraceOrdinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The narrator of this book, Frank, is a 13-year-old boy in a small town in Minnesota. The year is 1961. Frank’s father is a minister, his sister a musical prodigy like her mother, and his younger brother a stutterer. Although there are several deaths, mostly violent ones, there is no serial killer, no ace detective or FBI agent pursuing anyone. This is a psychological drama masquerading as a mystery. It explores issues of faith, ambition, prejudice, and coming-of-age in a thoughtful way. It is well-written and I recommend it. If my praise seems lukewarm, it is only because the book is slow to start. There’s a great deal of character development and not much action until two-thirds of the way through the book. Even then, action is perhaps the wrong word. Exciting events and suspense might be more accurate. There is a homicide investigation going on, but for hard core mystery fans this is perhaps not the best choice. There was enough foreshadowing that the killer wasn’t difficult to identify a few chapters before the end. The imparted wisdom seemed at times too pat and too preachy, but the intelligence of the writing and the overall well-designed plot make this a worthwhile read.

View all my reviews

Smithsonian Channel disses San Jose

I sent this email to Smithsonian Channel earlier today:

My wife and I are enjoying your Aerial American series but I have one issue with the episode on Northern California. The largest city in Northern California, San Jose, was not mentioned once. I find this astounding. Did you slight the largest city in any of the other state episodes? You mentioned various small towns around San Jose – Cupertino, Los Altos (where we live), Menlo Park, Palo Alto, etc. and ignored the elephant in the “room.” Why? San Jose has a rich history and is arguably the most important city in Northern California, too. As Wikipedia says it is “is the economic, cultural, and political center of Silicon Valley .” It was the state’s first capital (not mentioned in the show). It is the biggest employment center in the region. San Jose was once an agricultural town and bedroom community to San Francisco, but now the reverse is true. More people commute from San Francisco to Silicon Valley than the other way around. The show spent a great deal of time showing near-identical trees all over near-identical mountains and various hamlets yet ignored the country’s 10th largest city. San Jose is or was home to dozens of famous people including many Olympic gold Medalists (Peggy Fleming, Amy Chow, Bruce [now Caitlin] Jenner), NFL stars (Jim Plunkett, Jeff Garcia, Brent Jones, Bill Walsh), political leaders (Cesar Chavez, Norman Mineta), entertainers (Smothers Brothers, Doobie Brothers), artists, writers, scientists, and other notables too numerous to list here. There are many major corporations headquartered in San Jose including Cisco Systems, eBay, and Adobe Systems. It has one of the largest Japantowns in the western world and is one of the largest communities of Vietnamese outside Vietnam. Lick Observatory just outside San Jose was once the largest telescope in the world and has contributed greatly to astronomy. There is much more I could say, but I’m sure you get the point.

Can you provide any explanation for the oversight? It is not exceptionally scenic, I’ll grant you, but it has its landmarks and certainly many other towns and communities you showed were much less scenic (e.g. Steve Jobs’s house). In fact most of the large cities you have shown in other state episodes are less scenic so I won’t take aerial photography as the explanation.

I received this reply:

Thank you for contacting us. We appreciate the courtesy of our fans and viewers who suggest ideas for our use. However, it has become necessary for us to adopt the general policy of not accepting any submissions via email.

Idiots! It wasn’t a suggestion.

Exploring Personal Genomics by Joel Dudley and Konrad Karczewski

Exploring Personal GenomicsExploring Personal Genomics by Joel T Dudley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

An abysmally written book with a lot of good information. Very little of this book is intelligible to the lay reader, but it covers a wide variety of topics related to genomics including defining various important terms, describing methodology for gene sequencing, legal and privacy issues for personal genomic testing, limitations in the field, genetic genealogy, and so forth. I am not a scientist, but I am quite sure the treatment is too general and simplified for the experts in the field. Still, with some patience and frequent use of the Glossary, you can probably find some information useful to you if you have had your genome sequenced or are thinking about it.

I say it is badly written for many reasons:
1. It is replete with technical jargon, much of which is not defined when first used, thus rendering it almost unreadable to the layperson (although it does have a glossary at the end);
2. It is full of grammar errors. (“… marked the origination the beginning of the …”; “with regards to…”)
3. Many wrong word errors. (“Affect” for “effect”, “infer” for “imply”);
4. The typeface on the many graphics is too small to read (I had to use a magnifying glass in addition to my most powerful reading glasses) and many text inserts are printed on a dark gray background making them difficult to read, too;
5. Many graphics are borrowed from other sources where they were rendered in color, but were printed in the book in black and white, making them useless. For example, on p. 95 there’s a world map covered with pie charts representing the distribution various Y haplogroups, identified using 18 different colors – all of which come out here as various shades of gray.
6. Lastly, and this is not the fault of the authors, it is already outdated.
The book is so full of mistakes like these that the reader cannot be confident the scientific information is accurate. The overall feel is slapdash and unprofessional.

View all my reviews

Susanville geocaching

I haven’t posted in a week because I’ve been up in the Susanville, CA area finding – or, more accurately, hunting – a string of excellent cipher-based geocaches hidden by sujojeepers. I learned that terrain ratings vary quite a bit in different locations. all those 1.5 terrain caches up there would probably be 2.5 or 3 down here in the Bay Area. I was ill-prepared for that. Somehow I had the impression most of them would be grab and go, or close to it. They were not. I trekked through so much dried-weed-strewn area that I had to throw out my socks and shoes at the end. I pulled out hundreds – literally hundreds – of foxtails and stickers that lodged themselves there.

On the plus side, I found more geocaches in a day than ever before, more DNFS, too, and I certainly set a personal record for the most difficulty points found in one day (108). I made a friend into a closer friend, too. I hadn’t geocached with Mike before but I really enjoyed his company, not only in the finding but also in the original puzzle solving. I’m still catching up with things, so I’ll leave it at that.

Higgledy Piggledy

When I was in college, Time Magazine printed a story about the Higgledy Piggledy rhyme form that had just been devised. Read the description in the link to see how it works. That same issue also had an article about Hugh Hefner, the original Playboy (magazine, mansion, clubs, etc.) czar. I still remember the Higgledy Piggledy I sent to Time as a letter to the editor. It was not published. I can publish it now, right here. Lucky you.

Loodity Nudity
Hugh “Playboy” Hefner is
’bout as mature as a
boy of ten years.
Voyeurs and virgins and
priests read his rag just to
see boobs and rears.


Epitaph for a Dead Beat by David Markson

Epitaph For A Dead BeatEpitaph For A Dead Beat by David Markson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has been paired in a paperback with its predecessor Epitaph for a Tramp & Epitaph for a Dead Beat: The Harry Fannin Detective Novels in paperback form. I reviewed Tramp a few months ago. This one is not quite up to form but still captures the pulp fiction feel, mostly tongue-in-cheek.

Harry Fannin, tough guy private eye, keeps stumbling upon dead bodies, and gets beaten up pretty regularly for it. The setting is Greenwich Village in the 1960s and Markson has fun showing off his familiarity with the authors and celebrities in vogue with the beat generation; he mocks them mercilessly through Harry’s acerbic wit. There is a lot more wordplay in this one than in Tramp. Even the space between Dead and Beat in the title is intentional, since most of the victims were beatniks, not deadbeats. Markson must have been paid by the word, as there was way too much filler – whimsical similes that made no sense, and so forth. “As crazy as a two-headed gnu,” “as quiet as a Robert Frost snowfall,” “It was still easy, like walking off a building.” You get the idea.

I wrote another review, one of The High Window where I extolled the gritty feel of the pre-political correctness days. Chandler’s women were dames, but Fannin’s are chicks, the men cats. Real men wear suits, even if they’re $70 Woolworth varieties. The women that throw themselves at Harry are breathtaking beauties with seam-bursting figures. The others have bodies like ironing boards. Everybody smokes and drinks like the cast of Mad Men. Definitely not PC. I read that these Fannin novels were written for a crime magazine before Markson got published as a serious writer, so being PC would definitely have been a negative for that readership’s demographic. I had a nostalgic twinge reading through this. I’m old enough to remember those days and I knew a few self-styled beatniks. Another sign of the times: Fannin got set upon by character who was described as a mountain. We learn later he was six feet tall and two hundred pounds. In 1960 that would have been a big guy. Today it’s your average 9th grade boy. A few 9th grade girls, too. While this isn’t great literature by a long shot, it was an entertaining enough read.

View all my reviews

Loner by Teddy Wayne

LonerLoner by Teddy Wayne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you scored in the 97th percentile or above on the SAT and took an English Lit class at an elite university, you’ll probably enjoy this book; I’m not sure I can recommend it to anyone else. It is told in the first person by David Federman, a nebbishy virgin from New Jersey who has arrived as a new freshman at Harvard. It is written as though told to Veronica Wells, the rich and stunning fellow freshman object of his affection.

The book’s beginning is almost comically overwritten, so full of imaginative if unlikely similes and metaphors, that one wonders if the author has been saving them all up from his creative writing classes since high school. Sentences are longer than an inaugural address and injected with vocabulary ripped from a championship spelling bee. As I read the prose I felt much like I would watching Joey Chestnut down 73 hot dogs in ten minutes – both disgusted with the excess yet harboring a begrudging admiration. Here’s a sample:

If one were creating the platonic ideal of a woman from scratch, which I could do here, manipulating the facts to serve my narrative agenda, though I’d cleave scrupulously to the truth, she would not necessarily resemble the being that just swept through the common room, whose features I later had time to assess in magnified detail. To begin with: your flaws, a word I sandwich between petrified scare quotes. On the upper third of your forehead connecting your two cerebral hemispheres, a blanched hyphen of a scar.

I challenge you to diagram that first sentence. The book was beginning to take on the air of a self-parody when it started its slow turn into a creepy coming-of-age cliché. David is so obsessed with Veronica (who I think must have been inspired by Archie’s semi-main squeeze namesake) that he begins to date Sarah, Veronica’s roommate. His clumsy, and disturbingly graphic (and definitely unerotic) for my taste, forays into sexual adventure with her were accompanied by his imagining Veronica the whole while. Let’s just say that the book eventually takes a darker turn that, I’ll admit, took me by surprise. The initial overwriting was not unintentional. The cliché was anything but. If sexual grossness is off-putting to you, avoid this, but if you enjoy seeing academia, especially the most pretentious levels, skewered, give this one a read.

View all my reviews