Archive for 2012

A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins

December 21st, 2012 — 12:57am

A Working Theory of Love by  Scott HutchinsA Working Theory of Love

This first time novelist chose to bring his readers into the world of modern day computers where there is a race to make the first computer that can actually think like a human being. There is actually something called the Turing Test  named after one of the first computer geniuses Alan Turing, who was a British mathematician who broke the German Enigma Code during WW II. Turing  committed suicide after being prosecuted by the British government for being a homosexual. The Turing Test which is a key part of this novel is where a human being and computer are blindly  evaluated  by a human judge as to whether he/she believes they are human. If the responses of the computer are judged to be the human being more than 30% of the time, the computer is deemed to have achieved thinking like a human.

The voice of the book is Neill Bassett Jr., a man in his 30s who is hired to work for a start up company that is buiding such a machine which they hope will win the Turing Test competition. Bassett’s main qualifications to be hired is that his father the late Dr. Neill Bassett kept an extensive dairy of  his personal thoughts for many years and that material is being fed into the computer to give it human experience. Dr. Bassett unfortunately ended his life by an unexpected suicide and one of the dilemmas that scientists building the computer face is whether to tell the computer about this event.

Obviously to  ultimately think like a human, there would have to be input about various human qualities including greed, jealousy and of course love. The people working on this project find materials to add this element to the computer program. This also includes understanding sexuality. The young Bassett who basically narrates this book goes into detail with his own struggles particularly about his short lived marriage, his sexual affairs and  a special relationship with a younger woman in her early 20s. During his work day part of his job is to have conversations with “ his father “ and he eventually tells Dr. Bassett (the computer) that he is his son. He also  invites his mother to his work place  one day  in order to have a conversation with her deceased husband.

It appeared to be the author’s purpose to examine the meaning of love and relationships which is quite a task even for an experienced novelist let alone a first time author. I am not quite sure he achieved some great insights but  he chose a unique premise to try to do so.

Comment » | FG - Fiction General

Dark Star by Alan Furst

December 1st, 2012 — 3:26pm

Dark Star by Alan Furst

I don’t recall every reading a spy story from the point of view of a Russian agent before and during World War II. This is what makes this novel by  Alan Furst unique and quite interesting. It does seem logical that the various Russian spy agencies would be very concerned about Hitler’s rise to power. The main protagonist is a Russian journalist Nanzsura who in order to survive himself gets drawn deep and deeper into the intricacies of being  a full fledged undercover spy. The novel is well written and provides an exciting pace with secret meetings, elaborate techniques of passing information, the requisite beautiful women, double agents, murder, secret codes and whatever else you would imagine should be in a story about this subject. It also is filled with many Russian names of people, streets and other named locations  as well as ample mention of Russian authors and specific  events that happened in Russia at various times that  are difficult to follow by a non student of Russian history and culture. I would imagine the story would be more enjoyable if the reader had a better familiarity with all these names and events.

Comment » | FH - Fiction Historical

The Rackateer by John Grisham

November 23rd, 2012 — 11:35pm

The Rackateer by John Grisham

After I finished my last book, I didn’t have any books on my to read list  so I figured I couldn’t go wrong with John Grisham’s approximately 30th book. I had only read a handful of the previous ones but they usually kept my interest. This was no exception but on the other hand I am usually content if I catch one of the CSI episodes on TV. We are introduced to Malcolm  Bannister an ex- lawyer who has been disbarred and is in prison for getting ensnarled with racketeering charges while executing some real estate transactions. It seems clear that he didn’t deserve the bunch of years he was sentenced but there he is now functioning as a jailhouse lawyer trying to help other prisoners find out if they might get out on some technicality which they rarely do. In the course of doing this,  he hears some pretty hairy stories about crimes solved and unsolved. We also learn that there is Rule 35 where a convict can get his sentence reduced and get out of jail if he provides information that can solve an important unsolved crime. Not surprising, the plot becomes somewhat convoluted and interesting as Bannister who had lots of time to plot out his path to freedom has worked out a  very complicated scenario. Once he is on the outside as part of his plan to carry out all the details required and avoid getting bumped off by the bad guys, he has plastic surgery .He also becomes a fake documentary film maker  (shades of the plot of the movie Argo). Grisham in the afterword of the book confesses that the book is not based on any particular case or insight into prisons, the FBI or anything else. There really isn’t any moral point or lesson to be learned. Of course Grisham is a lawyer and he usually writes about legal stuff and there is plenty of that in this book. Most of all he is a good story teller. He obviously let his imagination take off and he doesn’t disappoint.

Comment » | FL - Fiction Legal

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

November 18th, 2012 — 3:03pm

The Sense of an Ending  by Julian Barnes 

This very well written book  is the story of a man on the long  side of middle age who is looking back on his life. He is reflecting  from the perspective a a guy who is divorced has one child and achieved moderate success in his career. Most important are his memories of his childhood friends and of his first girl friend which in retrospect was his true special love but it didn’t work out. You get the feeling that he is comfortable with his memories although he understands that it is fair to say  they may not be completely accurate. Then circumstances have it that he is notified that his old girl friends’ mother died and left him the diary of his old high school buddy who committed suicide. It turns out that his friend  had a relationship with his old girl friend. The narrator  doesn’t get to see the diary but he does get to see a letter that he himself wrote a long time ago about their relationship. He also get a chance to have a few meetings with his old girl friend. There is a little more to the story than I have told  but the main value of the book would seem to be a reflection on how we remember things . It also raises the question of how we may inadvertently hurt people with what we say and what we write. A good book will stimulate your personal thinking and memories. The above scenario did that with this writer and brought back painful memories which allowed us to identify with the book’s narrator in a very real manner. This reflects the success of this book

Comment » | FG - Fiction General

The Litagators by John Grisham

September 26th, 2012 — 9:57pm

The Litagators– John Grisham

When John Grishman takes you in the legal world, you feel that everything is real and possible. This story examines product liability, class actions suits  and ins and outs of taking up battle with  a major corporation that produced a product that may have some bad effects even death. The main characters are two lawyers who have a storefront office that they like to call a “boutique law firm” They  are basically ambulance chasesrs who do inexpensive divorces cases and the like. If you have seen the TV series Harry’s Law, you have the set up that I pictured as I was introduced to these attorneys. Except these two guys don’t seem to be as bright or as idealistic as the lawyer played by Kathy Bates in that program. These two bumbling lawyers are joined by David a young hot shot Harvard Law School graduate who got fed up with his $500/hour corporate law job  as a junior associate in a big time firm and found his way to them through some unlikely circumstances. Soon you have David leading his little firm against “Goliath”  which includes a brilliant beautiful sexy lawyer. Things don’t always turn out as you expect. The book will hold your interest and will make you think twice next time a new drug is prescribed for you or you pick up a new toy for your kid that he might put into his mouth.

Comment » | FL - Fiction Legal

Trust Me I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday

September 11th, 2012 — 5:38pm

Trust Me I ‘m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator- By Ryan Holiday 

This book completely changed the way I view news and information that I get online from the Internet , especially from blogs but basically from any source.

The author shows  clearly show how modern day blogs on the Internet will make up news stories, exaggerate and suggest things are may not be true at all. He shows how stories on small local blogs will be picked up by medium size blogs  which will be linked to by bigger well known and seemingly reputable blogs. The writers are financially motivated to get page views.  Writers and editors get sucked into believing they are getting exclusive stories and will run them without fact checking. It is easy to imply or suggest something that is only a possibility and it can be put into a headline and carried forth to be  read by many thousands of people. This has the potential to give false information about products, people or any endeavor. Reputations are made and ruined by the spread of information which may have little or nothing to do with the truth .

There are numerous examples how stories spread like wildfire on the Internet. Photo shopped  pictures  or edited videos “ go viral” with all sorts of consequences from making or breaking a new product, planting disparaging information about someone or  making  them a celebrity overnite. If the information is not true and is repudiated the next day that often goes at the end of a rerun of the same story which keeps the information spinning around the world. The author sites several of his own experiences as a consultant for a company named  “American Apparel.” He tells how he created such hype and how he has been the victim of it created by others.  He  also reviews the more well known situations where there was a story that spread that one Toyota  car model had a stuck accelerator problem which turned out not to be true. There was the well knows situation of the  resignation of Shirley Sherrod. a high ranking Obama appointee . A video of speech she made  was edited out of context. She was  made to look like racists when she was quite the opposite. However the video went viral and was magnified by various news commentators. She resigned her position although later it was offered back to her when the truth was ultimately revealed to the Obama administration.

The book gives the impression that such situations easily get out  of control and the “new journalism” is one without very much ethics and is a major force in how we think today. There are market forces which lead us away  from traditional forms of communication which in the past were obligated to check  facts and at least avoid editorializing  the news.

The author Ryan Holiday  claims that he wrote this book because of the guilt that he has for what he has done as he manipulated people with false stories and created opinions and ideas that have no or little basis. There is the vague suggestion that perhaps this knowledge will make a difference and change the situation. The book is a good advertisement for hiring the author to manipulate your interests or products on the Internet or try to defend them against adverse opinions that are being created by others.

The book is repetitious but in the end you will have more information than you ever wanted to know how “news” is spread and opinions are molded by the Internet.  Unfortunately it is a blueprint of how to do this dastardly work and maybe even make a lot of money doing it. Despite the authors stated intention to change the way things go down, there is little indication that the book will make a difference. It may make a big change in how the readers understand what they read everyday on their computer or i-pad.

Maybe, on second thought that is the first step toward evolving to some kind of  a change.

Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir

The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

July 25th, 2012 — 1:52pm

The President’s Club- by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

After a United States President leaves office he is invited into a secret club of former U.S. presidents where he is inducted into the group in an elaborate ceremony where allegiance to the current President is sworn with a special blood oath…Nope, actually there is no such thing. This is  just my fantasy. However the actual relationships of former US Presidents to each other and to the person in office is one of most fascinating stories that any political junkie could ever read. The documentation at the end of the book confirms that it is meticulously researched   and based on the reports of the people who were there including quite frequently the words of the Presidents themselves in their memoirs and other papers. Even when there were different recollections of interactions, both point of views were presented, making the study of the relationship even more interesting .

The authors are two seasoned political reporters, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy both editors at Time Magazine frequently describe these often very personal interactions of these larger than life people as it were an official organization.  They have chosen to describe the “club activities” starting when Herbert Hoover left office. Hoover had received a humiliating defeat by FDR who had little use for Hoover after he took office. However when Harry Truman was faced with the problems of post WWII Europe, where there were millions of starving people and the US was sensing great competition with the Soviet Union, he felt he desperately needed help. He turned to Hoover who had great experience after WWI in organizing food distribution to a starving Europe. Hoover who had felt marginalized since he left office was nearly brought to tears when Truman brought him to the While house and asked for his help.

When a President has served the maximum two terms and a person of the opposing party wins the White House, it still means that the old President has to welcome the new guy into the White House usually following a bitter campaign. When the new guy has defeated the old guy, that can even be more difficult. All these variations were described in much detail as they took place.

When Truman stepped down, he had to welcome a Republican, whom he had campaigned against, into his new home. Of course Eisenhower, (Ike) was one of the most popular people in America. In fact, before Ike  identified himself as a Republican, Truman was hoping he would run as a Democrat. Harry even played with idea of running as his Vice- President. They subsequently didn’t get along so great all the time. These are some of the fascinating tidbits that emerge from each chapter of this book.

Although JFK died two years into his presidency, he of course interacted with a future president, Richard Nixon who was his bitter opponent in the 1960 election. Their personal feelings about each other are also reviewed in this book . Despite being of opposite parties, when JFK had to deal with a  proposed invasion of Cuba and then the failure of this invasion, who did he turn to as an adviser?  It was Eisenhower (not that he always listened to him).

Obviously when sitting Presidents phone ex- Presidents and ask for advice, it often is not for pubic consumption. When Lyndon Johnson found himself suddenly the President of the US after the assassination of JFK   he called the club members for advice, Hoover, Truman and Ike. So many behind the scene stories emerge which concern interactions as well as battles between Presidents, former presidents and even future presidents. While Johnson was finishing his  one and only elected term as President, peace talks were off and on in Viet Nam. Nixon was running against Humphrey and if peace looked good, it would be helpful for Humphrey and the Democrats.  Whereas if peace talks seem to be failing or were delayed it would be good for Nixon. It turns out that Nixon actually was doing a lot of behind the scenes shenanigans to cause the peace talks to be held up, much to Johnson and the Democrat’s disadvantage. This book tells it all.

Johnson when he left office was quite hurt that he hadn’t ended the war and that of course was the reason he decided not to seek a second term. Despite some of his personal negative feeling for the actions of Nixon, they had a great deal of respect for each other and it was quite meaningful when Nixon called upon LBJ for advice and some help. There was no doubt that when Nixon left office he was disgraced and humiliated after the Watergate scandal caused him to resign. His relationship with his successor Gerald Ford and Ford’s decision to offer Nixon a Presidential Pardon provides interesting insights into the thinking that goes into presidential decisions and how they are often made, despite the opinions of their advisers.

Nixon, once out of office spent the next 25 years attempting to rehabilitate his image. Which of the subsequent Presidents would you imagine treated him with the most respect and listened to his advice? It wasn’t Ford, Carter or senior Bush. It was Bill Clinton who early on  took the advice  of Nixon how to support Boris Yelsin in Russia and frequently discussed with him everything from foreign policy to the how he raised his daughter in the White House. This book supplies so many inside details about these relationships culled from numerous memoirs of the actual participants and their aides.

Reagan didn’t seem to utilize former Presidents as much as others did. However when Reagan went to visit a newly elected President Clinton he did offer an important piece of advice. He taught Clinton how to salute so he could respond properly to military salutes.. Also when Reagan had completed his second term and his protégé Vice President George H. Bush was running for President, he asked the advice of Richard Nixon how he could help his VP in the race against the Democrat Dukakis. Nixon of course had served as VP to Eisenhower and experienced how Ike hadn’t helped him enough in his run against JFK in 1960. Nixon gave Reagan detailed advice of what he should do and the he predicted that Bush will ask Reagan to campaign in California in the last two weeks of the election and that would make the difference. That is exactly what happened and Bush nosed out his opponent with the last minute undecided votes from California going to him to make the difference. Many observers believe that it  was  based on Reagan’s finest speech in the closing moments of  that campaign.

Carter was always a renegade of the club. When Clinton would call upon him to carry out a mission in North Korea, he would do a great job but then “go rogue” and call a press conference that would steam the current President. In the end, everyone  of the Presidents felt a great respect for the Presidency and the person holding the office. They all shared a unique experience  and the felt great empathy for the person in the job.

There were many surprising moments described in this book about the relationships between the Presidents. Perhaps the two most touching stories were between Father and son – George W President and his father. When George H visited his son George W in the oval office of the White House for the first time as President,  they were both speechless and cried.. Later on when the younger Bush sent a message to his father to tell him that he had committed the US to war, the elder Bush wrote him a personal note quoting the words of his daughter, the younger Bushes sister  who died of leukemia as a child ,“ I love you more than tongue can tell.”

Finally, there is the ongoing relationship that exists to day between the 2 Bushes and their formerly arch-enemy Bill Clinton. The elder Bush and Bill are particularly close and have worked together at Obama’s request to raise money and distribute it as well as food and supplies for several world wide humanitarian projects.  The three Bushes call each other by their presidential number. So when hanging out at a “Club” gathering perhaps at the Bush ranch in Texas, “43” would say “41 put some hot dogs on the fire, #42 is hungry.” That is how it really goes at the President’s Club. (2012)


Comment » | HI - History, P - Political

My Happy Days in Hollywood: A Memoir by Garry Marshall

June 14th, 2012 — 10:32pm

My Happy Days in Hollywood : A Memoir by Garry Marshall ( 2012)

You will definitely like this book if you have been a fan of Garry Marshall and appreciate all the work that he has done in movies and television. If you read his earlier book, Wake Me When It’s Funny: How to Break Into Show Business and Stay There (1997) you will find this current book a partial restatement of his accomplishments plus his newest work, as well as his more philosophical look at life, now that he is on the other side of 75. His orientation and values towards show business originates at the knee of his mother who ran a local dancing school and had once been a dancer herself. As a youngster he had the ability to make people laugh and his parents appreciate and encouraged this talent. He was born in the Bronx and attended DeWitt High School. He then went to Northwestern University, which is known for it’s journalism studies where Marshall proved to be talented sports writer. After graduation he found out that he could make a living writing jokes for comedians. He started supplying funny lines for Phil Foster and Joey Bishop. This led him to become a writer for The Tonight Show which in the late 50’s and early 60’s starred Jack Paar. He branched out to writing for The Lucy Show and Lucille Ball, Make Room for Daddy with Danny Thomas and The Dick Van Dyke Show. By this time he was living in Hollywood working with co-writer Jerry Belson. They created the hit TV show, The Odd Couple based on Neil Simon’s play and then, on his own, Marshall created what are probably his two biggest TV shows, Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. The latter starred Marshall’s sister Penny Marshall who has remained close to him throughout both their careers.

Marshall’s instinct for comedy was obviously the gateway for his success but his ability to choose characters and stars for his shows allowed him to move from writer to producer. In fact he produced most of his successful TV shows and would call upon people he knew to star, write and direct his many programs. There is no doubt that his personality, likeableness and his ability to relate to the talented people with whom he worked contributed much to his success. This was also true as he tried his hand at directing movies. After several moderate successes in film starting off with the The Flamingo Kid, he hit it big with Julia Roberts and Pretty Women. He went on to do many more successful films such as Valentines Day and Princess Diaries. An example of his loyalty to friends is the fact that  actor Hector Elizondo whom he met playing basketball became a close friend and has appeared in every movie Marshall has directed. Marshall himself has appeared in substantial roles in movies and in some recurring characters on television.

He has been married since 1963 to his wife Betty. Although some of his movie directing took him out of town for long periods of time, he did everything he could to work near his family and to spend time with  his children while they were growing up. The book is not a literary classic but it comes across as a sincere inside story by a talented man with a great sense of humor who continues to do great work in movies and television.

In order to appreciate the great breadth of Garry Marshall’s work much of which are discussed in this book, I reproduced his credits as listed in Wikipedia

Directing credits

Television credits as writer or producer

Acting credits


Comment » | AM - Autobiography or Memoir

Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle

May 29th, 2012 — 1:25am

Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle– In the past few years I have read various books about the plight of oppressed immigrant groups as they struggle to make it in America at different times in our history. This includes, Chinese, Japanese, and of course European immigrants including Holocaust survivors. However this is the first book that I have read about this subject in which most of the action takes place in locations, which would be less than 15-minute drive from my home in Woodland Hills California. Tortilla Curtain is the story of Mexican immigrants struggling for a foothold in the America, which happens to be near and about Topanga Canyon in the San Fernando Valley. A young Mexican woman interestingly named “America” and her slightly older husband Candidio are smuggled across the border in in an effort to do what so many of our ancestors have done. That would be to attempt to achieve some version of what they see as the American dream. The other main focus of this story is Delaney, a self proclaimed liberal who lives with his wife Kyra, a successful real estate agent and her son Jordon from a previous marriage. They live in a spacious community that progresses from a gated community to a walled community because of the real and the perceived dangers from coyotes as well as from some of the Mexican immigrants. The author T.C. Boyle allows the reader to know both sets of characters and their back-story. We come to appreciate Delaney and his wife’s frustration as they see their beloved dogs snatched away by coyotes who follow their own natural inclination to survive. They also have a run in with some of illegal Mexican immigrants who we come to know as honest, hard working people who are following their own natural instincts to survive. They want to earn a living and provide for their themselves and ultimately for their family. Delaney is turned into an angry, revengeful, vicious man and his wife is depicted as a self-indulgent women.  As the story progresses the reader loses any empathy or identification, which they may originally, had for them. I neglected to say that Delaney by occupation is a writer who studied and wrote about nature and all it’s little creatures with special emphasis on the environment. This becomes an ironic point because it is the natural instincts of America and Candido as well as the other immigrants who are just also trying to survive in their environment which brings them into conflict with Delaney and his neighbors. Even a cursory study of the natural climate factors in this area would lead one to understand that FIRE is required to keep nature in balance but when a fire is accidentally set by those trying to survive or by  just by lightning, it becomes the immigrants who are blamed. This probably is not very much different than when the Jews are blamed for bad economic times or when any other persecuted group is blamed for the frustrations of the group in power.  This is a powerful story and if you live near where the story takes place, it feels more personal even if you truly believe that we are past most of this type of thinking

Comment » | FH - Fiction Historical

In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

May 29th, 2012 — 1:12am

In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson – Just when it seems that everything has been written about the rise of Nazism, a new work come along that sheds further insight on this horrific piece of history. Erik Larson ( author of The Devil in the While City ) allows us to see this morbid piece of history through the eye of William Dodd, a university professor who was chosen by President Franklin Roosevelt to the US Ambassador to Germany in the 1930s, just as Hitler is coming to power. He, his wife and two grown children, Bill and Martha come to Berlin bringing their old Chevy with them so Dodd could try to avoid an ostentatious diplomatic life style and live within his meager salary. Never the less he did attend the lavish diplomatic events  as required. He got know the rising Nazis and witnessed first hand the slow  but sure disenfranchisement of the Jews living in Germany and the ultimate brutality of the Nazis. His daughter Martha can only be described as a free spirit. She dated and romanced several young German officers, a Russian spy and even was introduced by one of her boyfriends to Adolph Hitler who kissed her hand. Both father and daughter at first didn’t appreciate the significance of the changing atmosphere in Germany. Initially, they   even seemed to sympathize with what they thought was seemingly innocuous anti-Semitic views expressed by some of the German leaders and many of the German people. Both did come to understand the true nature of the new German rulers. They saw not only was it undemocratic but it was  cruel and inhuman. From early on in his stay Dodd felt some of the people in the state department and even some from his staff badmouthed him because they felt he didn’t fit in this “old boys” network. It was Ambassador Dodd who tried to inform his superiors in Washington of what was happening in Germany but he was minimized by many voices in the US state department. The impression is given that Roosevelt did understood the reality but couldn’t speak out or take action because the mood of the US was not ready. In the end Dodd came out a hero-although a lonely voice that obviously never made a difference but deserves to be remembered.

The authenticity of the narration is supported by detailed research, which Larson documented at the end of this book. This included a meticulous review of archives from all over the world, biographies, memoirs published and unpublished. There would seem to be no doubt that the reader has viewed the birth and growth of the Nazi beast from a unique vantage point.

Comment » | FH - Fiction Historical

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