Saturday, February 17, 2018

What are you reading? Feb 17, 2018

Book review: The Infidel and the Professor: David Hum, Adam Smith and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought by Dennis C. Rasmussen

Book: The Infidel and the Professor: David Hum, Adam Smith and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought
Author: Dennis C. Rasmussen
Year published: 2017

Review: David Hume and Adam Smith were two pillars of the Scottish enlightenment. They were also great friends from their first meeting in 1749 until Hume's death in 1776. Much has been written about each of them, but Rasmussen has taken on the task of writing specifically about their friendship.  He succeeds pretty well, but has the problem that, good friends though they were, there simply isn't that much evidence of what their friendship was about. Neither was a tremendous letter-writer by the standards of the day - although Hume wrote far more than Smith - and when they saw each other in person they did not record what happened in great detail.

Fortuitously, Rasmussen also doesn't not assume a huge amount of knowledge of Hume or Smith on the part of his readers. He is very good at explicating their thought. One gets a good sense of what each of them thought on a variety of issues.  Rasmussen also covers what they said about each other (nearly all complimentary), how Smith reacted to Hume's conflict with Rousseau (Rousseau appears to be the only person who made Hume really angry), and how Smith's desire to avoid "clamor" led him to be more circumspect about his own views on religion.

A book with a title like this might be a specialist tome for scholars of one or both men; this is not. It is a work for a general audience and it's quite well done. 

About the Author: Dennis C. Rasmussen is a professor of political science at Tufts University.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Book review: Company by Max Barry

Book: Company
Author: Max Barry
Year Published: 2006

  The protagonist of Company is Stephen Jones, a recent graduate of an unnamed business school. He is hired by Zephyr Corporation, where he is quickly assigned to a cube in the cube farm. His colleagues are cynical, some are power hungry, some are burned out, all are turned into cogs by senior management, who communicate in much-forwarded e-mails, and refer to employees as "head-counts".

One of his colleagues is obsessed with finding out who took his donut. People are hung-up about which parking space each of them gets and which coat hook they use. And no one knows what the company actually does - nor do they care.

 Company is like a novelized version of Dilbert, where almost nothing makes any sense, but it's all funny (if it isn't happening to you). It's also something like what Kafka might write, if he was alive today in America or another western country, and had a wicked sense of humor.

 Jones quickly discovers that no one at Zephyr has any idea what the company actually does. But, early on in the novel, Jones is recruited by Alpha, a corporation within a corporation, and discovers that the entire company is really an experiment in management techniques, and that all the hundred of employees are merely guinea pigs. Zephyr doesn't actually do anything, it exists merely to allow the people at Alpha to see how they can maximize the productivity of human resources.

They arbitrarily decide that certain people will never be promoted. They invent day long meetings that serve no purpose at all. They fire people to see how long it takes others to adjust, and invent other corporations so that no one communicates with former employees.

The members of Alpha are all smart and ruthless, but are also all amoral and even sociopathic. They've completely divorced themselves from realizing that the employees are human beings. Jones rebels against this, but is almost corrupted by Eve, a stunningly beautiful Alpha, who is the most ruthless of the lot.

  I liked Company and I don't even work for a corporation. If you like satire, you will probably like it too.

About the Author: Max Barry is an Australian writer born in 1973, and is a former employee of Hewlett Packard. Company is his third novel, after Syrup (which I have not read) and Jennifer Government which is also very funny and very dark.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book review: Big City, Bad Blood by Sean Chercover

Book: Big City, Bad Blood
Author: Sean Chercover
Year published: 2008
Rating: 9/10
Review: Big City, Bad Blood is a thriller by Sean Chercover. First published in 2008, it was his first book.

The protagonist of Big City, Bad Blood is Ray Dudgeon, a former reporter who quit his job at a Chicago newspaper when stories he wrote were not published because of the connections of the people he was investigating. At the start of Big City, Bad Blood, Dudgeon is asked to protect Bob Loniski, a locations manager for a movie studio who accidentally uncovered a criminal operation.It seems like a fairly simple job.

But things get out of hand. The criminal operation that was uncovered leads to the highest levels of organized crime (known as The Outfit) in Chicago. It also leads to corruption in politics and journalism.

The plot of Big City, Bad Blood keeps the pages turning, and Chercover writes in a nice, simple style well suited to this sort of book. There are asides about Dudgeon's love-life (threatened because of his job), his family (complicated) and his love of baseball (The Chicago Cubs) and music (many types, but mostly jazz). While many thriller/mystery writers can spin a good plot, what makes Big City, Bad Blood stand out is the quality of the writing and the characters. All the main characters are complex (as real people tend to be). For example, Dudgeon is philosophical about the good and bad points of his job, realizing that he sometimes has to work for bad people. Loniski is shallow, but trying to be less so. Even lesser characters (movie directors, mafiosi, prostitutes, reporters and more) are well sketched.

About the author: Sean Chercover is a former private detective in Chicago and New Orleans. He grew up in Georgia and Toronto and now lives in Chicago and Toronto. He has also been a video editor, TV writer and a lot of other jobs, as well. Big City, Bad Blood was his first book; he has since written Trigger City, and The Trinity Game. I look forward to reading both.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book review: Bones of Betrayal by Jefferson Bass

Author: Jefferson Bass
Rating: 8/10
Review: Leonard Novik, a famous physicist, who was a leader of the Oak Ridge laboratory in Tennessee during World War II, is found dead. He's been murdered in a very unusual way: He's swallowed a highly radioactive pellet, and died of radiation poisoning. Now, the protagonist of the novel, Bill Brockton, must figure out who did this; to do that, he'll have to find out how it was done and why.

That's the basic plot of Bones of Betrayal, but there are lots of other things going on. There are two love stories - one between Bill Brockton and a librarian, and another between Brockton's assistant Miranda and an FBI agent. There's lots of detail about the work done at Oak Ridge back in the 40's - and about some of the social attitudes of the people who worked there. There are interviews between Brockton and Novik's ex-wife, Beatrice, who met Novik when both were working on the bomb.
  There are twists and twists in the plot, which I won't reveal, but Bones of Betrayal ties the twists together into a neat braid, rather than a mess of tangles.

There's also thoughtful commentary on the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and about the whole arms race; the authors provide both sides of the debate through the characters of Miranda and her lover.

The novel isn't perfect - some of it is a little too neat, or pat, for my tastes, but it's a highly enjoyable read. One warning, parts of it, especially near the beginning, are fairly explicit discussions of autopsies and related matters. If that's not your thing, this book (and, indeed, this series) may not be for you. But if you don't mind that sort of explicit detail, I think you'll enjoy this book.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Book review: Bill the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison

Book: Bill the Galactic Hero
Author: Harry Harrison
Year published: 1965
Rating: 8/10
When we first meet Bill, the Galactic Hero, he is a farmhand on a minor planet. He has no great ambition and is quietly content. But then the military recruiters show up near his village and put on a show. Since almost nothing interesting happens in his life, he attends and is essentially shanghaied into signing up.

Humanity is at war with 7 foot tall lizard like creatures known as Chingers, and humanity needs all the help it can get. But Harrison is spoofing things here, Bill the Galactic Hero is satire. So, the drill sergeant is named Deathwish Drang. The military is deliberately and monstrously hard in ways that are ridiculous and funny.

Bill, of course, does become a galactic hero. But where most novels would end there (e.g. with the hero saving the human race), Bill the Galactic Hero continues and tracks Bill's decline. And where, in most novels, the hero is such because of his or her will and effort, in Bill the Galactic Hero Bill becomes a hero by accident.

Harry Harrison uses all sorts of things as bases for puns and satire: There are ridiculous names such as Schmutzig von Dreck, horrible rations (at one point, all meals are liquid), nonsensical warfare (it's made clear that the war against the Chingers is unnecessary) and so on. It's good fun.

Harrison's style is straightforward. He is no master literary stylist but he knows how to put sentences and paragraphs together and the plot rolls right along. Bill the Galactic Hero is a quick fun read.

About the Author: Harry Harrison was born in 1925 in Stamford, Connecticut but grew up in New York City. He served in WW II.  He is best known for three series: The Stainless Steel Rat, Deathworld and West of Eden. He has also written comic books and screenplays and his work has been adapted for movies, television and radio. Overall, Harrison has written more than 60 novels and over 100 short stories. In 2009 he was awarded the Grandmaster of Science Fiction award.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Great Quotations: The Military Industrial Complex

The quote:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
Who said this? Some left winger like Noam Chomsky? Nope.  Maybe it was a proponent of nonviolence, such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King? No again. A religious leader, perhaps one of the popes? No again.

This quotation comes from a man who had better knowledge than most about the costs of war; a man who had led the western allies to victory over Hitler in Europe. A man who was elected president by large majorities (and was the more conservative of the two people running).

If you haven't guessed yet, it was said by 5 star general Dwight David Eisenhower.

I disagree with Eisenhower about a lot and had I been a voter back then, I surely would have voted for Stevenson. But when it comes to the quote above, I can surely say "I like Ike".

The hungry should be fed and the cold should be clothed.

Eisenhower ran as a Republican against the much more liberal Adlai Stevenson. Yet where, today, are the people echoing Eisenhower's words? Where are the calls to house the homeless, feed the hungry and clothe the cold? Because those people are still here, even in America, the supposed richest country on Earth.