Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hidden Empire, by Orson Scott Card

Hidden EmpireIf we've ever talked about Card's books, you know that whenever I get my hands on a new title, I pretty much have to set aside a dedicated block of time to read it. Anything Card writes inspires me to power on to the finish, so I can get into big trouble starting one of his books just before bedtime. Once again, he's remained true to form.

I've been trying to figure out what has inspired Card on one aspect of his recent writings; his tendency to include extremely precocious, articulate children in his stories. Think of nearly the entire cast of his Ender's story arc, for example. He's done the same here with the children of Reuben and Cecily Malich. If you've ever raised children, you know that sometime during their teenage years, they suddenly become infinitely smarter than their parents. This condition generally lasts until they move out, get jobs and have children of their own, after which point their parents' IQs increase dramatically. Was Card just taking an assumption to its amusing conclusion? "What if kids actually did become smarter than their parents?" Or did Card end up raising some truly precocious and improbably logical children, thus providing fodder for his books?

Hidden Empire is, of course, the sequel to Empire, in which we saw the rise to power of Averell Torrent, a president of the USA who may or may not have the desire and ability to become a caesar in fact, if not in name, over a world empire ruled by America. The novel centers around an ebola-like plague that originates in Nigeria, which has the potential to wipe out 1/3 to 1/2 of the Earth's population, if it goes unchecked. Torrent's administration gets word of the disease very quickly, and moves boldly to quarantine the entire continent of Africa, as there seems to be no way to stop the spread of the disease past the Nigerian borders.

The quarantine is generally successful, though it is acknowledged that it won't succeed in the long haul, and the disease will eventually spread around the globe. However, a large contingent of ordinary citizens from the United States, moved by compassion, demand to be allowed to go to Africa to care for the victims of the disease. Through their actions, serendipitously (if one can call anything deliberately written in a novel such), much is learned about how to make the disease more survivable, and that fact gives us hope that the plague will not destroy civilization as we know it.

At the beginning of each chapter is what is purported to be an excerpt from a speech by President Torrent. Don't skip these, they are really interesting politico-social commentaries straight from the brain of Card himself. Whether or not he personally believes any of it is a moot point; they're all good grist for the grinder.

I'm looking forward to the next installment in this series with great anticipation.

Monday, February 22, 2010

My Life in France, by Julia Child

My Life in FranceThis autobiographical work by Julia Child is an absolutely fascinating look at an era and a cuisine that time has left far behind. Julia and her husband, Paul, who worked for the state department, were stationed in Paris, France for several years, beginning in 1948. While she was there, she developed an insatiable curiousity about French cuisine that lasted the rest of her lifetime. She studied at the Cordon Bleu first, then she and two of her friends started teaching their own classes, and began to write a book together, which became Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I.

Child and her husband were later sent to Marseilles, where she continued to research the cuisine of that region, and eventually were pulled out of France and sent to Germany, then Norway before Paul's retirement in 1962. Everywhere she went, Julia made friends and enjoyed learning about their food and customs.
It helps a bit to either know a bit about French cuisine or read a bit of French while reading this book, as there are a number of phrases or names of dishes left untranslated from the language in the book, and it's fun to sort of puzzle them out as you go along.

I learned interesting little facts I would never have suspected, such as "the French have a 'crus' of butter, special regions that produce individually flavored butters. Beurre de Charentes is a full-bodied butter, usually recommended for pastry dough or general cooking; beurre d'Isigny is a fine light table butter."

Julia and her husband met so many interesting people. For example, she speaks of Hadley Mowrer, the "former Mrs. Ernest Hemingway...the mother of Jack Hemingway, who had been in the OSS during the war and was called Bumby." I have a friend who owns Jack Hemingway's ranch on the breaks of the Grande Ronde River, so this caught my eye. Then, a little later, "On June 25, Bumby Hemingway married Puck attractive Idaho girl...she and Bumby had met in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1946." An interesting little tie-in to Idaho history with a personal connection.

I also found out that a cheese such as Camembert must be served at exactly the right time. "If you asked for a Camembert, she would cock an eyebrow and ask at what time you wished to serve it: would you be eating it for lunch today, or at dinner tonight, or woudl you be enjoying it a few days hence? Once you had answered, she'd open several boxes, press each cheese intently with her thumbs, take a big sniff, and - voila! - she'd hand you just the right one. I marveled at her ability to calibrate a cheese's readiness down to the hour..."

Julia and I had certain experiences in common. When I was first married, I'd spent all day long creating a vegetable stock for a soup I was going to make later on. I called my wife on the phone and asked her to pour off the stock, straining out the vegetables, after it cooled. When I arrived home from work, I looked in the fridge for the stock, and it wasn't there. When I queried my wife, she said, "I poured it off. the vegetables are still in the strainer." She'd poured my stock down the drain! After one dinner party, when Julia allowed "the boys" to clean up, they mistook a large pot filled with veal stock she'd left on the floor for a garbage can, and scraped all the plates into it!

I rather liked a phrase of Paul's she quoted, when they were moving from France.  "If variety is the spice of life, then my life must be one of the spiciest you ever heard of. A curry of a life"

There's actually several good recipes included in this book, for three sauces, Hollandaise, Mayonnaise Leger, and Beurre Blanc. I'm going to have to try them out sometime. The hollandaise recipe has a little twist I've never tried before that might make it a bit quicker to make in large quantities, as when you have folks over for Eggs Benedict.

As a book nut, I found the following passage most amusing. "in the ...village of Moustier, we delivered - on behalf of the consulate - a stack of books to an elderly, self-taught librarian who had been patiently requesting printed matter for years. He kept all of the volumes in his musty, dark, one-room operation 'protected' by wrapping them in plain brown paper (thus obscuring the titles). The books were shelved on rough, hand-hewn planks, which reached to the ceiling and were accessible only by a rickety ladder that not even he dared to climb. Lacking a card catalogue, he had devised his own system: 'I organize the books by size!'' he proudly announced."

The book covers all the time the Childs spent abroad, as well as the period when Julia was developing her cooking show on tv, The French Chef, which I remember watching as a child, and time spent writing volume II of her cookbook. There are a ton of fascinating stories in here about people she met and befriended, places she visited and loved, and dishes she created and consumed. I think you'll love it, and as Julia always used to say, "Bon Appetit!"

Friday, February 19, 2010

Cheney, by Stephen F. Hayes

Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President"The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President" was a great read for political junkies. There's probably not enough dirt or astounding revelations here for readers on the Left, but it appears to be a fairly accurate account of those portions of Dick Cheney's life that remain unclassified.

I found I could relate to Cheney in a couple of ways. First, when he graduated high school, he had a full ride scholarship to Yale, but after a couple of years there of hard partying and soft studying, he flunked out and went to work for a few years building power lines back in Wyoming. I did the same sort of thing, albeit at a somewhat less prestigious university. Later on, he went back and finished up his education, so I can relate to that, too.

Stories from his time in the Ford administration brought back memories of things I remember living through, though as a teenager my sense of national affairs was a bit sketchy. As I read this book, however, I begin to see how some of the relationships began that would shape the future, through the Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II presidencies. For some reason, it had escaped my notice that Cheney had spent a fair amount of time as a congressman from Wyoming and had worked his way rapidly into the Republican leadership in that body.

There's a lot of good background on Cheney's time as Secretary of Defense in the first Bush administration, and the rationale behind the decision not to remove Saddam Hussein from power during the first Gulf War. Some of the more controversial political issues of the second Bush administration, such as the intelligence on WMDs, the "sixteen words" in Bush's State of the Union speech, the outing of Valerie Plame, and the interpretation of the FISA laws on domestic surveillance are covered in detail.

Cheney the man is portrayed as a very thoughtful, often reserved, person. He comes off as extremely analytical, consuming vast quantities of information on a subject before coming to a decision. Most everyone Hayes interviewed for this book said that he doesn't say a lot, but when he talks, like E.F. Hutton, people listen.

I found the book engrossing and interesting, and think Hayes has done a great job of research in this tome.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Alpha and Omega, by Patricia Briggs

Alpha and OmegaThis book by Briggs is more or less a prequel to Cry Wolf and Hunting Ground. There's something gone horribly wrong with one of the werewolf packs in Chicago, and the Marrok's son and enforcer, Charles, is sent to investigate and deal with the situation. He meets with Anna at the airport, and goes back to her apartment with her.

Anna is a rare Omega type of werewolf. Omegas are highly valued because they reduce the amount of aggression in a pack by their mere presence. Alphas are not as likely to fight each other to the death in dominance battles, and newly-made werewolves are more likely to survive their first violent days of conversion when an Omega is nearby.

Charles deals very rapidly with the problems in the pack the next day and during his stay, his internal wolf decides that Anna should be his mate for life. None of this is a surprise to anyone who has read the other books in this series. I'd read Cry Wolf, and wondered a bit about the events referred to in that novel, which are neatly described in this book, which I just ran across at the library the other day.

This is barely a novelette, a mere light snack, but like a good appetizer, it whets the desire to read more Briggs.

Monday, February 15, 2010

9 Dragons, by Michael Connelly

Nine Dragons (Harry Bosch)It's always a pleasure to meet up again with Harry Bosch. It seems like it's been a while since Connelly wrote about his most well-known detective.

Bosch's latest case starts with the murder of the owner of a grocery store. He's a Chinese immigrant, and evidence quickly points to the triads, Chinese secret societies along the lines of the Mafia or Yakuza. Bosch and his partner are quickly led to the local collector of protection money, and arrest him as he is trying to flee the country. At this point, things get a little twisty.

I actually identified who the bad guy was early in the book, and immediately thought, when Harry gets a threatening phone call from an oriental-sounding person, that the crooks were going to do something to Harry's teenage daughter, Maddie, who is living in Hong Kong with his estranged ex-wife, Eleanor. So, things proceed pretty much according to my expectations for quite a while.

It's an old adage that reading science fiction requires the willing suspension of disbelief, but I found myself in the same situation at about the midpoint of the novel. Harry heads for Hong Kong to rescue his kidnapped daughter. He leaves on Friday afternoon, and has to have her back by Monday morning, when they'll have to release the suspect in the murder case, if they don't have more evidence to hold him. So, at this point, I'm supposed to believe that Harry can fly to Hong Kong, successfully investigate his daughter's disapppearance, find the kidnappers, bring them to justice, in a city he's only visited a couple times a year, when he doesn't speak a word of Chinese? Yeah, right.

Regardless of my lack of faith, Harry manages all these things, and rescues the daughter (not much of a spoiler, it has to happen, right?), then returns to L.A. At this point, some little details start to click in Harry's brain, and the resolution of the tale gets a little twisty. Suffice it to say that I didn't have everything figured out, as I'd assumed, and the ending was worth the price of admission.

Friday, February 12, 2010

First Lord's Fury, by Jim Butcher

First Lord's Fury (Codex Alera, Book 6)It appears that we have finally reached the end of this sweeping saga, though Butcher has left the door open at least a crack for further adventures in the realm of Alera. As this book begins, Tavi is leading a the remnants of the force he took to the lands of the Canim, and also the remnants of the Canim forces back to the mainland of Alera to face the invasion of the Vord. He has finally fully come into his fury crafting powers, although his status as First Lord remains a bit uncertain.

The action jumps around a bit so that we can experience the battles against the Vord in different parts of what remains of Alera. The situation is pretty bleak, but here and there bastions of hope and resistance remain.

The story is full of wild plot twists and surprises, tons of combat action and adventure.

After a couple of days reflection on this, I really did like the book, but there's a couple of things that I noticed. Butcher has a tendency here to play fast and loose with apparent deaths, of heroes and villains alike. I found myself asking, when someone was brought down by some overwhelming force, whether we were going to see them resurrected, or whether they were going to be totally out of the picture. He also seemed a bit ambivalent, at the end, about whether to wrap everything up tidily, or to drag it out to another novel. It seemed like this one really could have used a "Scouring of the Shire" chapter, but he just refers to it rather obliquely in the "happily ever after" section. The story of how the Vord and the croach are to be eradicated from the length of Alera, and the resistance of the quislings to that effort deserves more than just a couple of lines of dialog.

The final conflict between the Vord queen and Tavi seemed a little rushed and improbable, as well. I was a little skeptical about how Tavi manages to escape the clutches of two elemental furies with the level of power shown by the one First Lord Sextus uses to create a volcano to destroy Kalarus. There was also a sub plot earlier in the book about how Fidelius and one of the Canim manage to neutralize a blood priest of the Canim who was causing Tavi and Varg problems. They were afraid to kill him outright, and make a martyr of him for his minions to rally around, so they disappear him in the middle of the night, and put word out that he went on some sort of spirit quest. I just didn't buy the assumption that the minions would buy the story.

Anyway, it ain't Great Literature, but it was a fun read.

Iorich, by Steven Brust

Iorich (Vlad)I always am eager to read the latest in the Vlad Taltos series by Brust. It is, in the words of The Moody Blues, "Lovely to see You Again, My Friend." Vlad is still hiding out in the hinterlands from the assassins of the Jhereg when he catches word that his friend, Aliera, has been arrested for practicing Elder Sorcery. Of course, he can't just leave things alone (or we wouldn't have this new novel to read), so he travels back to Adrilankha to see if he can help get her exonerated or freed.

His task is made a bit challenging by the fact that there's a contract out on his life, and so he must constantly be on his guard when traveling around the city. It turns out that Aliera's arrest is part of a plot worthy of a Yendi, concocted by the Houses of Jhereg, Orca and others to pressure the Empress into legislation that would increase their houses' profits, and incidentally, to lure Vlad into the reach of the Jhereg's hit men.

But Vlad still has friends in both high and low places, and manages to avoid most of the trouble that's trying to find him. He solves the mystery, kills some baddies, and finishes this adventure with his skin mostly intact.

One of the nicer things that happens in the novel is a couple of visits with his estranged lover, Cawti, and their son. They seem to have achieved a truce, at last, and it's good to see Vlad getting a chance to bond with his son a bit. Are we in for a Son of Taltos series at some point? I wouldn't rule it out completely.

This is a must-read for Brust fans.

Who's Got Your Back, by Keith Ferrazzi

Who's Got Your Back: The Breakthrough Program to Build Deep, Trusting Relationships That Create Success--and Won't Let You FailAbout ten years ago, there was a movement in Christian circles for men to have accountability partners or groups. I think it grew out of the Promise Keepers conferences, and it was a good idea. Men were supposed to meet on a regular basis with other men, with whom they could share their struggles and weaknesses, be encouraged and advised, and have other men to pray for them. This isn't something that comes naturally for guys, you know.

Anyway, in his latest book, Ferrazzi has taken this concept and extended it into the business world, after filing off some of the religious trappings associated with the earlier movement. He suggests that we all gather around us some top-notch people who can be open and honest with us, to help us become better in our careers. There's a nod or two here and there to doing the same thing in other aspects of our lives, but the target audience is Ferrazzi's business leader readers, so most of the advice is on that area.

Ferrazzi advocates establishing "lifeline" relationships - someone who will not let you fail. There are four mindsets he believes we must master in order to build these lifeline relationships - Generosity, Vulnerability, Candor and Accountability. Of course, these traits are essential to developing strong relationships in any area of our lives, but in this book, Ferrazzi gives a lot of examples from his work with clients applying them to the business world.

The idea of having a strong group of advisors can be traced at least as far back as Solomon, who wrote "Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed." The trick, in the traditional business world as Ferrazzi sees it, is that it's much easier to gather a group of sycophants who will tell you what you want to hear than it is to find honest men who will tell you what you need to know, instead.

I think the most difficult portions of this process are identifying people whom you respect for their business acumen who are willing to enter an accountability relationship with you and, once you've begun such a relationship, to maintain the regular meeting process over the long haul to make the system work well. I was a member of a small accountability group that met for coffee for almost fourteen years (we formed before the movement began), and it's one of the few accountability groups I ever heard of that lasted that long. It was also in some sense a very narrowly focused group, we weren't trying to do anything other than support each other in our family lives and spiritual battles. We weren't trying to build a big successful business. I've found it difficult to achieve any long term success in regularly meeting with any other set of friends or acquaintances; the closest I've come is playing racquetball with the same partner for a year or so.

A great read for folks looking for a new slant on business, but without hiring Ferrazzi/Greenlight to consult for your company, perhaps a bit difficult to implement. Maybe this is mostly about marketing Keith's company in a backdoor sort of way.

Who's Got Your Back: The Breakthrough Program to Build Deep, Trusting Relationships That Create Success--and Won't Let You Fail