27 February 2010

20. Sins of the Assassin

Sins of the Assassin - Robert Ferrigno

Last year I grabbed a book called "Prayers for the Assassin" after reading the blurbs and the narrative on the back cover. I ended up really enjoying that book. This one is the second book in Robert Ferrigno's Assassin trilogy.

The world for these stories is in the future. 2043 for this book. America has fallen apart. Following a civil war there are two major sections and some minor territories. The main parts of the former USA are now called "The Islamic Republic of America" and "Bible Belt". The two sections spent years at war with each other, but these stories are well after that war has ended.

This is the map of the fictional world of the Assassin trilogy. This is the map from the first book. There are some minor differences in the second book, but I could not find a .jpg except for this one. Close enough.

Neither of the new countries is doing very well. There are many factions within each of them vying for power. Fundamentalist Islamics (Black Robes) and Moderate Islamics dominate to the north, with a dash of tolerance towards Catholics to prevent an uprising. In the south there are the normal differences in Christian denominations, which have become political factions in many ways.

The protagonist in this book is Rakkim (Rikki) Epps, an ex-fedayeen shadow warrior in the Islamic Republic. Since this is a trilogy, the beginning of the book wraps up a few things from the end of the last book and transitions those events into the continuing plot of the second novel.

The first novel did not have much to do with the Bible Belt at all. It was more about the different factions within the Islamic Republic. This time we go into the Bible Belt and see a very different way of life.

Rikki is assigned a very special mission into the Bible Belt by the President of the Islamic Republic, with deniability of course. Infiltrate an army in Tennessee and stop them from some dastardly deeds. The previous USA regime (before the civil war) was far more capable than the current America. They had created and hidden away certain black-ops projects. They were hidden away when the civil war looked bleak. They were attempting to keep the technologies out of enemy hands. One of these projects was discovered and being recovered by a bible belt “Colonel”. More like a war-lord than anything else.

So, Rikki is sent to the Bible Belt to seek out the weapon, steal it if possible, destroy it at the very least. This weapon is supposedly something that will shift the balance of power worldwide in a very big way.

Rikki goes on the mission and there are many events along the way. There are tremendous successes and catastrophic failures. The story is exciting. It is full of adventure and double-crossing from every direction. He is continually haunted by Darwin, the assassin from the first novel.
I liked it very much and can’t wait to get my hands on the last in the trilogy, “Heart of the Assassin”.

18 February 2010

19. Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden

This was another foray into the audio books. I worked the last three days and then had to drive half way across South Carolina today. Needless to say, the book was listened to for hours on end.

I liked it. I really hated Hatsumomo and her manipulative and cruel ways.

I liked Mameha very much. She was what a big sister should be like, though later it was revealed that she did not do this on her own. It was a request from the Chairman. I did get the feeling that Mameha didn't mind taking care of her little sister, so it was still all good.

I can't say that I was thrilled with the whole book. It was kind of like reading a chic book, but it was better than that. It was good, but it was not thrilling. The insights into the Japanese culture, especially one prior to World War II, were very interesting and I enjoyed that a lot.

17 February 2010

18. Dark Hollow

Dark Hollow - Brian Keene

I decided I wanted to read a horror novel. I remember way back when reading Stephen King books and really like some of them. The blurbs on the back of this one struck me as interesting. Especially the one that says the author is "the next Stephen King."

First of all, why do we need a next Stephen King? If you were an author, would you want to be the "next" anyone? Wouldn't you rather be known for writing books people loved to read and then someone else could be the next you? I realized too late that the "next Stephen King" really means that the writing is not as good as King's because it does not stand up and make you take notice on its own merits. Stephen King's writing did.

This book is about a group of guys living in a quiet neighborhood in semi-rural Pennsylvania who get caught up in some supernatural evilness happening in the woods.

The main character is an author himself. He writes mystery novels. I found it interesting that the author of this book had the author in his book say that all authors write from their own experiences. Everything an author writes about has a piece of himself in it. It may even be subconscious in some instances, but all authors write from "what they know". That being the case, then Brian Keene probably has some pretty strange sexual preferences.

First sentence in the book..."It was on the first day of spring that Big Steve and I saw Shelly Carpenter giving head to the hairy man."

As soon as I read that sentence I thought I was in for a really stupid story that dragged on and on and on. One of those books that I just can't wait for the agony to end. One that I would have to trudge through like I was wearing weighted boots while walking in foot deep mud. But, the book was never that bad. I guess that line was supposed to be some kind of hook to get people immediately interested. It almost worked the opposite way with me. I thought it was a little too "in your face".

So, as the story goes, there is this satyr (ancient goat man god thing) named Hylinus who plays these pipes. The pipes make women come to him and have all kinds of sex. They lose all inhibition and desire nothing more than to have any form of sex they can with this goat man guy.

Oh, and there are all these spirits or demons or something that have possessed the trees in the forest. They protect Hylinus. They move around. They attack. They suck your bodily fluids out like they are drinking you. Stuff like that.

There is a reason for all this. They guys figure it all out when they go to this old house where people got killed and conveniently find a diary and some magical books in a trunk in the attic. Amazing how that all just fell into place.

Then there are the heroes. The author. The elderly retired engineer. The divorced fat lonely antique dealer. The blue collar biker dude (who they learn has a nickname..."Fuckstick"...ha ha), and the 20 year old community college dropout working at Wal-Mart that wants to play video games a lot. Then there is the detective that doesn’t believe their story, but humors them and plays along. He eventually has no choice but to believe them and becomes part of the team.

Some die. Some live. In the end the goat guy gets whipped upon.

Oh, and Big Steve...he is the author's dog. He is a really large wimpy dog that turns into a hero also.

What I found interesting about the book is that it was horror, but it reminded me of something else. It was disgusting at times. It was shocking at times. It was totally unbelievable at times. What was funny? The whole time I was reading it the relationship of the five guys cracked me up. The way they interacted with each other. The conversations they had. It reminded me of the movie "The Burbs". I kept waiting for Corey Feldman to show up. The story was not funny. Really nothing they guys did was funny. I have no idea why I kept thinking about that movie while reading this book. Odd how the brain works sometimes.

16 February 2010

17. The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus - Margaret Atwood
What an interesting book. This book centers around the events of The Odyssey, but is told from the point of view of Penelope. What makes it more interesting is that the story is told by Penelope 4,000 years after the fact and from her place in Hades.

Penelope had a different take on many of the stories told in the Odyssey and had a some opinions on the people in the story.

I found it hilarous how she would be waiting and waiting for Odysseus to come back to Ithaca. Sailors would come and go with stories of his battles and adventures. Some would say he fought the Cyclops. Others would say, No, it was just a bartender with one eye. Some would say his men were turned into pigs and he was being held captive by Atena and was forced to have sex with her every night. Others would say, No, he was hanging out at a high class brothel with the madam and his men were "acting" like pigs. She had no idea what to believe. It was hilarious.

I also liked the chorus parts. Much like the ancient greek stories, there were interjections from a chorus who spun rhytmic tunes that tell a tale. The chorus in this book was the maids. The very maids whom Odysseus had hanged. Needless to say, they were a little pissed about it and were seriously disgruntled.

The one thing I do wish is that I had read The Odyssey some time within the last 30 years so I would have a better recollection of the story. There were so many off hand comments made about random things that I am sure were relating back to the Odyssey. I missed some of them.

Penelope was really jealous of Helen. The two of them spat again and again for thousands of years. :-)

This book made me chuckle a lot.

I am going to read The Odyssey again. Maybe this year. Then I will reread this book and probably enjoy it even more.

13 February 2010

16. Freakonomics

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything - Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

An interesting book with "no unifying theme". It takes a look at some pretty unorthodox questions and searches for answers by analyzing avalable information. To really be able to do the things this author did you would have to have a thorough understanding of economics and a wide open space between your ears in which to rattle things around. To understand it after the auhor did the work does not require nearly as much brain-power

I really liked reading this stuff and looking at how they reached the conclusions stated within these pages. Some of it seems like common sense to me. Some of it is quite shocking.

An example: The subject being discussed at the time were the reasons for the decline in crime during the 1990s. All the experts had predicted a massive rise in crime being emminent. Some even expected the coming crime increase to be a "bloodbath". What did this book have to say?
     "As far as crime is concerned, it turns out that not all children are born equal. Not even close. Decades of studies have shown that a child born into an adverse family environment is far more likely than other children to become a criminal. And the millions of women most likely to have an abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade---poor, unmarried, and teenage mothers for whom illegal abortions had been to expensive or too hard to get---were often models of adversity. They were the very women whose children, if born, would have been much more likely than average to become criminals. But because of Roe v. Wade, these children weren't being born. This powerful cause would have a drastic, distant effect: years later, just as these unborn children would have entered their criminal primes, the rate of crime began to plummet."

Another example: Here the book is discussing how sometimes it is hard to catch people cheating and sometimes it is easier. The example was being used to explain why some teachers found it socially acceptable to alter standardized test forms to improve the grades of their students. To prove a point about everyone cheating at some time or another, the following is entered as evidence.

     "Some cheating leaves barely a shadow of evidence. In other cases, the evidence is massive. Conside what happened one spring evening at midnight in 1987: seven million American children suddenly disappeared. The worst kidnapping wave in history? Hardly. It was the night of April 15, and the Internal Revenue Service had just changed a rule. Instead of merely listing each dependent child, tax filers were now required to provide a Social Security number for each child. Suddenly, seven million children---children who had existed only as phantom exemptions on the previous year's 1040 forms---vanished, representing about one in ten of all dependent children in the United States."

The book has chapters titled "What Do School Teachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?", "How is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?", and "Why do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?",
They are not joking around with some funny sounding titles. They really do ask these questions and search data looking for answers. That is why this book is so interesting. There are answers for these questions.

I even got to learn some pretty technical stuff. Things like Regression Analysis can be used to demonstrate a correlation between two variables, but it can not be used to prove that one variable is the cause of the other. What do I mean? I will use another quote to explain:
     "There are several ways in which two variables can be correlated. X can cause Y; Y can cause X; or it may be some other factor that is causing both X and Y. A regression analysis alone can't tell you whether it snows because it's cold, whether it's cold because it snows, or if the two just happen together."

This was a very interesting book that looks at things in some ways that I doubt most people could even dream of. The explanations are quite thorough and easy to understand. I may not like the conclusions reached in all these instances. I may think that I already knew the answer and they were just wasting paper. No matter what, it was still educational and enjoyable.

11 February 2010

15. Brave New World

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

The book started of really strange. I kept having to go read the sentences over again. I thought it was going to be a dud, and then it blossomed for me. It was kind of like having a revelation. I just "got it" in a way. From that point on the book was outstanding.

It has been reviewed enough. I don't need to write what it is about. I will just write that I loved it.

I liked it more than "1984". I think I liked "We" better in some ways. This one was pretty close to "We" as far as some of the central themes, yet different in a lot of details.

When Mustapha Mond and John "Savage" had their long discussion near the end of the book I was hanging on every word. Neither man was going to understand the other. Both tried to explain their positions, but it was an impossible conversation. Their lives were too different and neither wanted to change.

Poor Linda. I felt so horribly for her.

I did find it interesting that two of the central figures in the book were named Bernard Marx and Lenina Crowe. Marx and Lenin. Get it. Whatever.

You better read it before you die.

14. Kill Me

Kill Me - Stephen White

Spoiler Alert!... spoiling it because I don't think you will be reading it yourself anyway.

This was my second try with audio and it was better. This one was more story-like than Walden and therefore was better for the long drive to and from work. This one was ten discs and took me five days or so to listen to. I think the only thing I did not like with this one was the reader doing some voices that just didn't fit the characters. A minor detail and has nothing to do with the book itself.

The book...
A cocky rich guy and his buddies like to do dangerous things like sky-diving, deep water diving, skiing untamed mountains, etc. One of the friends gets hurt and is in a vegetative state. The rich guy gets the news on a satellite phone while deep in the woods skiing with his friends. Then he has an accident while coming down the mountain and tells his friends to promise to kill him if he ever ends up a vegetable like the other dude. They all say yeah yeah yeah and go on with life...except for one of them.

Jimmy Lee is that friend and takes the protagonist (who never is named through the entire book) aside and tells him about a group that will kill him if he ever reaches a point where he can not live up to his own standards of life.

The man meets with this clandestine group and sets up a contract where they will kill him if his medical condition ever reaches certain client defined parameters that he has set as trigger points for his own execution. Not really suicide, but more like keeping control of a situation that may get beyond his control. He looks at it as some sort of "insurance policy".

He goes on with his life never really thinking he will need to use the service. He and his wife and kids continue as normal. A 15 year old son shows up at the door one day. He is from a one night stand the man had when he was 23. Adam, the son, becomes someone this man loves and wants to have in his life.

Then one day he goes to the doctor due to headaches and finds out he has an aneurism. It is inoperable. It could blow today, tomorrow, or never. As the symptoms progress he worries more about his health and his relationship with his son becomes more important.

One day a few years later he gets a phone call from the "Death Angels" (his name for them) saying he has reached an activation point and the contract is irrevocable. They are obligated to kill him!

The man does not wish to die yet. He is looking for his son, who has run away. He needs to explain some things so the boy will not think he was abandoned or something like that.

The events that happen are interesting, but it is predictable. One can only escape imminent danger so many times before it gets ridiculous.

In the end the man finds his son. Adam now is in need of an immediate liver transplant. Lizzie, his Death Angel, helper kills him. Adam gets a liver from his now dead father. Lizzie is also killed because she has been hiding breast cancer from the Death Angels and then decides not to hide it any more.

It is a decent story, but no big thrill. There were some points when I wanted to keep going and see what happened, but for the most part it was easy to take a break from the story and not think about it until I continued.

08 February 2010

13. Shutter Island

Shutter Island - Dennis Lehane

Two US Marshals are assigned to investigate and assist after the breakout of a mental patient from a maximum security prison/mental hospital built at an old civil war fort on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. They arrive and things get creepy right from the start. The story takes place in the 1950s.

A hurricane comes and strands them on the island without communications outside the hospital/prison. The power is out, so all the prisoners escape their cells. I kept thinking about the dude that shakes his head really fast in the movie "Jacob's Ladder". That guy freaks me out.

These prisoners are the worst of the worst. Extremely violent psychotics sent there because other places can't handle them.

The story evolves into a huge government conspiracy and secret experiments done on the patients to make super soldiers.

The main character has come back from WWII with some serious problems of his own due to memories of the war and the death of his wife. He talks about these things with his partner and reveals a lot about himself. One thing being that the arsonist who started the fire that killed his wife is supposedly a patient on the island, but the hospital personnel deny his existance.

It gets really weird.

It is an exellent story and the end was totally unexpected. I did not see it coming. Not in a million years. Very very good.

I hope the movie that is coming out soon doesn't destroy this story. I recommend you read it before seeing that film.

12. New Rules

New Rules: Polite Musings From A Timid Observer - Bill Maher

I love this guy. He is wicked funny and says some of the craziest things. I went and saw his standup routine about two years ago and laughed my ass off. I liked Politically Incorrect a lot and I love his current television show, Real Time with Bill Maher, though I don't see it very often.

So, when I saw this book on a used book shelf I just had to pick it up.

It has 239 pages, but it is not like reading a novel. Each page has two or three of the "New Rules", much like he does on his show. There are also about twenty where he went more in depth and used two or three pages to rant about certain things.

I found his rules entertaining, controversial, and sometimes just plain stupid.

In the forward he writes, "These are the rules that, frankly, were not necessary back when we practiced those old-fashioned time wasters: courtesy, consideration, and common sense." I agree with that sentiment.

This book was an easy read, but it made me laugh and I needed that.

04 February 2010

11. House of Meetings

House of Meetings - Martin Amis

This is a story of two half-brothers and their common love interest during the Stalin regime and afterwards of the Soviet Union. The brothers live in Moscow, both end up in a Soviet gulag in Siberia, and then later spend thier lives trying to get their act together.

The novel is written like a narrative, think of a very long letter, to the protagonist's step-daughter in America. He writes about his time in the Soviet Army where he fought against the Nazis. He writes about his time in the gulag. He writes about his sucesses and failures after finally being freed after decades of slavery.

All the while he is in love with a Jewish girl named Zoya. Zoya later ends up as Lev's (his half-brother) wife.

Wait a minute...I just realized...I have no idea what the protagonist's name is. I don't think he ever said what it was. Interesting.

I also found it interesting that in the beginning of the book the writer says that it is bad form for someone to "quote themselves". Throughout the book when there are conversations between the writer and others he will quote them and paraphrase his own half of the conversation. It was interesting to read it this way.

The writer also references Dostoevsky and Nabakov on numerous occasions. Famous Russian writers, which the protagonist wishes to be, since he is writing all this "stuff".

I also found it interesting on a personal level to read about a man named Georgi Zhukov. This was Marshal Zhukov fromt he Great Patriotic War (WWII). He was the Russian Patton or MacArthur. He is the man credited with winning the war with the Nazis. Why was he interesting to me? Well, while we were in Ukraine for a month in 2008 we lived at a hotel in Kharkov. The metro station we used every day was called Marshala Zhukova. It was named after this man. There were statues of him all over the place. We also went to a WWII museum outside Kharkov where Zhukov's strategy was hailed. Here is a photo of one of the statues that I took while in Ukraine.

Here is the metro station....

03 February 2010

10. Walden

Walden - Henry David Thoreau

Reading this was an experiment on a few different levels. First, this is a pretty difficult and exhaustive book. Second, for the first time in my life, I chose to do this one as an audio book. The experiment was a huge success and a bit of a failure. I shall explain...

I drive to work each day in my car listening to the radio. It takes between 45 and 50 minutes to get to work and the same to get home each night. That is between 1 1/2 and 2 hours each day that I could be using for something other than listening to commercials for junk I don't want to buy.

So, I decided to try out an audio book. While looking for the "right" audio book I thought I would get one that I wish to read, but probably never would actually sit down with and read in the conventional ink on paper format.

Walden has been on the list of "someday" reads for many years. So many years that I thought it was most likely going to be on that list forever. Well, why not try out this book in this new format and see how it goes.

So that is what I did. What I found is that I am very happy with listening to a man read the words Thoreau had writen so long ago. I loved hearing it. I loved the thoughts and observations. I look at it now and know that there is no way I would have ever finished reading this book if I did start it at some point. I say that becasue Thoreau droned on and on describing all manner of things in intricate details that would have driven me crazy if I was sitting with a book. Listening to these same words was like listening to poetry. It was enjoyable.

On the other hand, I think some of the underlying meaning of the words were missed because the pauses in audio are not the same as when I would read it myself. I may stop reading to reflect on something that was written, but while listening in the car the reader just kept on cruising along, leaving my thought, for which I wished to feed on for a little while, as little more than a fleeting tought. Far from Thoreau's philosophical views.

So, audio is great in some ways. One being that I got to "read" Walden when I probably never would have. Audio is also bad. I have missed opportunities to tie some of Thoreau's thoughts into my own life.
I think in the future I will listen to more audio books and stop wasting that time going to and from work, but I think that I will generally keep to some simpler subject matter.

Maybe I will try some more modern books. One's that don't really matter if I don't "think" about them and can just listen to the events as they unfold. Those would work well, I think.

Maybe I will listen to some other books that I doubt I will ever actually read but that I do want to read at some point. Those will be tough decisions.

The book itself was very interesting. Thoreau goes into the woods and lives a very simplistic life for a few years and philosophises about this and many subjects.

The first chapter, Economy, was by far the largest. In this chapter the author explains how and why he made choices and the results of those choices. Much of it came down to people should keep their lives much simpler than they are currently living and would then have far more time to do the things that make them happy. In this chapter there are lists upon lists of supplies purchased and money earned. It all came back to prove that Thoreau's woodsy simple way of life cost less than renting a place and trying to keep up with the Jonses.

My wife and I found this to be quite true a few years ago and took steps much n line with Thoreau's writings. Not to the same degree he went to, but we are doing it for life, not just a few years. We owned a big fancy house in a ritzy neighborhood and had dreams or acquiring all kinds of things. We decided to sell that house and buy a cheaper house out in the country. We wanted to grow our own vegetables to eat. We wanted to get away from wondering if our TV screen was bigger than the guy next door. I was tired of wondering what the neighbors would think if I didn't wash my car this week. We went to the country and live much simpler lives now. It is awesome. Thoreau was right on many counts, though he did go to some extremes that we will never go near. I won't be eating any chipmunks that the dog has killed.

One problem I had with Thoreau's thought on economy was that he thought others should do what he is doing also. He criticized those that did not make decisions he would have made. But, if everyone did as he did then he himself could not have done what he did. He went to town and purchased numerous items. Nails, flour, etc. So, where do the nails come from? Where did the flour come from? If too many lived as he lived then there would be no nails, flour or anything else.

My favorite section in Walden was a chapter called Brute Neighbors. There was a long section discussing the war he witnessed between a group of red and black ants. The descriptions and observations he made with this and the section about the habits of partridges were outstanding.

I came back to add this part. I forgot to mention Thoreau's theory on how the things we do as human beings, in fact all living things, are to keep our inner heat going. We eat, drink, seek shelter, love, converse, etc etc in order to supply the essentials to keep the heat within our being at a temperature where we can remain alive and prosperous. His time at Walden was spent discovering how much was needed to keep his inner heat alight. How much of the things we think we need are actually a waste of energy. How much of what we do actually consumes more heat than it generates. It was very interesting stuff.

I know I want to read Thoreau's "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience". I think I would rather do paper than audio for that one.