Monthly Archives: July 2018

One Across, Two Down by Ruth Rendell

One Across, Two DownOne Across, Two Down by Ruth Rendell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is something of a time capsule. It was written in the 1970s but might as well have been in the 1930s. Modern day Americans will have a hard time believing that people in the U.K. in the 1970s lived the way Stanley and Vera did, with no car and no refrigerator. Stanley is a lazy, greedy lout who married Vera for her family money, only to find that his mother-in-law controlled it all and planned to leave it all to Vera. She lives with them in their dumpy house but is trying to convince Vera to leave Stanley and come stay with her in a nicer place she will pay for. Vera supports them with a menial job while Stanley goes from temporary job to temporary job of an even more menial nature, like gas pump attendant. Make that petrol pump. The story is told from Stanley’s point of view as he cogitates how to bump off the old bat before she lures Vera away and leaves him penniless. Then fortune provides him with an opportunity. I will leave it there to avoid spoilers.

The book is unsophisticated in several senses – the plot line, the writing style, the lifestyle of the characters. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does tend be rather heavy-handed. The title refers to Stanley’s penchant for crossword puzzles, but that aspect really has little to do with the plot. I suspect it was chosen solely so the author could insert some clever British-style cryptic crossword clues she had on hand for general amusement. There’s no gore, sex, or sadism, so it wouldn’t sell in today’s market but that aspect is at least a refreshing change for some of us.

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Geocaching map – South Bay (Silicon Valley)

South Bay Area

Above is a geocaching map of my local area. For my geocaching friends, this is old hat and doesn’t need explaining, but for those not so addicted and with nothing better to do, I’ll provide a bit of context. Click on the map to enlarge it if you want to understand it better.

This is a map of most of the southern section of the San Francisco Bay Area, the heart of what is now known as Silicon Valley. The big blue part is the southern end of San Francisco Bay itself. The area shown is approximately 20 miles across by 10 miles from top to bottom. Geocachers from other parts of the world may be surprised at the cache density. All the icons represent caches that are still active, i.e. can currently be found. It does not include ones I have found or hidden in the past if they are now archived. The yellow smilies represent caches I have found. The blue ones with the frownie face are ones I looked for but Did Not Find (DNF). The green ones with stars in them are caches I hid. The green ones with the box-like thing in them are regular caches I haven’t found. The blue, orange, and any other colors are caches of other types that I have not found.

A good forensic analyst, one who figures out where serial killers or arsonists live or work, could probably identify where I live from this. If you’re a fan of my Cliff Knowles Mysteries, but don’t know much about geocaching, this map may give you a better idea of the nature and popularity of the sport.

Rocket Men by Robert Kurson

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the MoonRocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This thorough recounting of the first manned trip to the moon is riveting in parts and educational throughout. The complexity and enormity of the undertaking are only appreciated after reading this book. The mission was an extremely daring choice by NASA since the Atlas rocket was not a proven vehicle and the training schedule had to be greatly rushed. The biographies of the three astronauts are set forth with the right amount of detail, enough for us to get to know them and their families as people but with the focus kept on the voyage to the moon. The author tends to be quite repetitive, thus causing me to drop a star on the rating. How many times to we need to be told that if step X goes wrong the astronauts could end up crashing into the moon, flying off into space or trapped in a lunar orbit indefinitely? He does it about three or four times every chapter. Still, it was an enjoyable read.

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Educated by Tara Westover

Educated: A MemoirEducated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The author, a young woman brought up in a violent, fundamentalist, survivalist family in mountain Idaho, writes of her escape from that life and joining the modern world where she ended up earning a Ph.D. from Cambridge. As unlikely as that may seem, it pales besides the absolutely incredible (yet believable despite this) story of the abuse, fanaticism, and rationalization that her family experienced. It is difficult to read at times. It is much like the cliche of watching a train wreck in slow motion. At least in this case you know from the book’s very existence that she has survived the ordeal. She was “home schooled,” which in her case seems to have consisted primarily of learning domestic skills, obedience, and religious doctrine of a most bizarre nature. She never attended a real school, yet was able to enter BYU at age 17. Her ignorance of the outside world was so extreme as to be amusing at times, embarrassing at others, and not understood by her peers and professors.

The story is also difficult to read without drawing parallels to today’s national politics, but I’ll leave it at that. The writing is beautiful, but about very unbeautiful things. I’ve noticed that most of the negative or lukewarm reviews are by people who simply don’t believe some of the greatest excesses the author describes or the fact that she couldn’t see how abusive and destructive her family was and why she didn’t just stay out and not look back once she left. I’ve heard reports from enough cult members and kidnap victims to find it very believable, if not totally understandable. It is a very hard thing to reject everything your parents have taught you at least when you’re a teenager even when you are rebellious. Think about all the things your own parents did wrong or believed that you only came to realize when you were an adult, maybe not even until middle age, and how you probably still clung to family loyalty even if it wasn’t 100%. The book was so compelling I raced through it. You may not necessarily like it, but it is an education.

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Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

Midnight at the Bright Ideas BookstoreMidnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lydia works in a bookstore and is in a happy relationship with her boyfriend David. But she harbors a secret, a violent one, from her past. The funky local bookstore is home to a collection of characters she calls the BookFrogs. One day, one of her favorite BookFrogs, a troubled young man named Joey, hangs himself in the store. This tragic act opens up a cascade of events reopening her troubled past and changing the fate of several of the characters in the book.

The story is slow to get going, but it eventually unfolds into something like a traditional mystery. The characters, including Lydia, are not entirely likeable for various reasons. One bugaboo I have is that many of them smoke, which to this author is apparently still a cool thing to do and makes people attractive. (NOT!) This fallacy is still prevalent in movies and TV, I’m afraid, but I digress. The pace of the book is good once the plot gets into full swing about halfway through. The story is told in two temporal stages, switching from the present day to Lydia’s childhood, another irritating but currently popular stylistic choice. The clues to the mystery are doled out sparingly but fairly so that the astute reader can begin to see a glimmer of the solution before it arrives, but the full resolution isn’t revealed until the end. There were a few loose ends that were never explained, like Joey’s unusual manner of “writing” to Lydia before his death. The ending, especially the epilogue, was not entirely satisfying to me, but it avoided cliches and sappiness that might have been worse.

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The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our MindsThe Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this book all the way through and I’m still not sure what the point of it is. The main theme seems to be that statistics and analysis are better predictors of performance than people’s gut instinct or commonly held stereotypes. Sure, I’ll buy that, and expected as much since this is the same author as Moneyball. But that point is made in the first chapter. Then the author goes off into a long section on the Houston Rockets and their recruiting strategy. Then he jumps to a biography of an Israeli psychologist who is the smartest person in the university, including every discipline, even Physics. Then he does the same with another Israeli psychologist who is also the smartest person anyone has ever met. Then yet another. Funny, I’ve never heard of any of these reputed geniuses. After that it seems to be a series of anecdotes about various experiments they conducted that seem to prove people often make illogical decisions. Well, duh. Throw in some Israel-Arab war bits, a stretch about the friendship that formed between the first two psychologists, and you have the book. I don’t understand what either the title or subtitle has to do with the content of the book. It seems to be to be a rambling collection of loosely related stories, biography, and personal views about pro sports. It’s readable and non-offensive, so I couldn’t give it one star, but beyond that, it has little to recommend it. Had it not been a selection by my book club, I would have put it down much earlier.

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