The Irish Game, by Matthew Hart

Irish Game
This short little book is written by a reporter, so it has a very newspaper-story feel to it. That doesn’t make it any less interesting, but anyone expecting a bit of narration or more than the most essential of outside details is in for a surprise. This is a historical account, like what monks would have written on parchment paper in the old days, only from the eyes of a totally cynical reporter of atheistic bent, who exhibits the best and worst traits of his kind (more on that later).

PLOT: The story itself deserves a place in the halls of the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction museum. A painting by Vermeer is stolen from a house in the Irish countryside. Actually, several paintings, not all by Vermeer, are stolen, but this painting is special. Its called “Woman Writing A Letter”, and its worth many millions of dollars. What is especially interesting, at this point, is the process that the criminals go through to hide the loot. After being recovered, the painting is stolen again, from the same house. Then the son of the original detective who solved the first case is called in, and its starts to get really interesting. All kinds of surprises await, and the author fills in the “boring” parts of the story with art theft trivia (including details on the recently-resolved Munich “The Scream” theft).

POSITIVES: What I found most interesting in this book were all the processes. The author is clearly representative of the best and worst in today’s reporting (at least as I see it). He describes everything in vibrant detail, sweeping the reader up into the thrill of the chase; yet, when the chase is over, there is no interest. The end is just sort of, oh-by-the-way-this-is-how-it-all-came-out-good-bye. The author gives intimate, fascinating details into how the criminals did their work, and while its fascinating to see the details of operations on both sides, yet, one has to wonder, how much of these details (on people still living and active in the British police) is really responsible to disclose. The process of criminal distribution of “loot”, the process of police investigations into art theft, the process of art restoration, to the process of creating art, and finally, most revealingly, the process of trying to protect those who enforce the law from being intimidated by criminal threats. On one hand, the myriad of ways that the police hunt for these criminals (and the criminals try to thwart them) is fascinating to read about. I had to wonder, though, as the author went into a brief delineation of the persecution faced by policemen trying to catch the ringleaders, whether it was worth it.

Its also the story of what happens to art that is stolen. The way art is used as collateral for drugs (a lot like a government keeping a stockpile of gold to back up its currency) is utterly fascinating. The author also gives the political background, showing how the Irish have been rather criminally inclined for centuries.

NEGATIVES: I would not recommend this as a book to little kids, if only for that one chapter. We learn what kinds of intimidation techniques criminals use to try and make police back off. Its not so much gross as creepy; scanning newspaper articles for the names of officers involved, and using that information to track down individual policeman’s family. The thought of some criminal coming up to a policeman and naming for him all his kids and what time they left school that day… is just not necessary for a child to know about, okay? The crimes are almost exclusively theft, and while the masterminds are accused of doing A LOT of things, there is only one off-hand notice of anything more repulsive than that, and it is dealt with very tactfully. For me, it caused a lot of deep thinking about the issues faced by our media and the police. Also, the end is very blah, rather boring.

In essence, this is a book that is to be read for the chase. Anyone who likes thrilling detective story should be enthralled by “the Irish Game”


Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

Orphan’s of The SkyHeinlein’s Orphans of the Sky is at once trivial and epic, mundane and surreal. Originally published in 1941 in two-parts in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, it is (so I learned through internet research) a “godfather” of the SF genre. By this, I mean that it introduced plot elements that were later used by dozens of SF authors. Actually, I had never heard of Heinlein before reading this book, but I have since learned that he is an “old master” of science fiction literature. His work has been emulated and many of his books seem to have been re-printed in the last decade for new generations of readers.

But, is he really as great as all that? In Orphans of the Sky I found stuff to be loved and hated. It is cleanly written in a tight style that I really admired. However, the Biblical references, in the history of the fictional civilization, could be taken as positive or negative. The most disturbing thing in the book (at least for me) was the violence. The main weapons used by these space-age natives are knives, and throwing is the best way to launch them at their target—being animal, people or “Muties” (mutants). As you can imagine, this leads to some painful results and Heinlein gives just enough gory details to make one squirm. (I would not say he is ever over-grotesque, but it is definitely not for the weak of stomach.) Even more alarming is the way women are treated in the fictional civilization. Female abuse is hinted at at least two times, and the male-chauvinist attitude of the main characters (who all happen to be men) is clearly seen. (From what I understand, Heinlein was trying to create a civilization complete with its own history, beliefs and social structure, so perhaps this treatment of women—and the other negatives—can be excused on these terms. Regardless, they made me feel uncomfortable enough to mention them.)

The plot is too layered and twisted to lay it all out here, but I think an introduction is at least needed. The storyline follows a certain Hugh Hoyland and his adventures aboard “The Ship”—a place that at first seems to be a strange planet, but then is slowly revealed to be an actual space ship. The socio-structure is made up of Commoners, Scientists and the Captain. There are similarities between this book and Lois Lowry’s The Giver (in case you have ever read that modern classic). Also living on the Ship are the outcast Muties, supposedly deformed because of sin (though the scientific explanation is shown to be radiation.) The humans superstitiously fear the Muties (and any children born with deformities—who are done away with in the “Converter”), and hunt them for sport as well as for necessity. The Muties are even more “native” then the humans and live a semi-united, yet cannibalistic, existence. (I theorize that their social ills might have sprung from the way they were forced to live by the more domineering humans.)

Hugh becomes a slave to a powerful, two-headed “gangster lord” Mutie named Jim-Joe, and is forced to look at the world through different eyes. In fact, his whole world is turned upside-down as he gains new knowledge about the world around him (thanks to the amusing Joe-Jim, who decides to instruct the young man). Reading and learning are celebrated as a means to overcome racism, and important lessons are shown on overcoming differences to achieve a common a goal.

I need to add a warning about language and a stray mention of sex to my content list. These two things and the violence make this a book suitable for mature audiences only. Taken with a grain of salt, you may be able to enjoy this book, but then again, it may just leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. I do not think I would read it again, but it did give me some food for thought. It would definitely be an interesting book for a literary discussion!

Robert Heinlein was an excellent author and his earlier works are “generally” acceptable, but his later works were not. At some point, Heinlein began to add explicit material and prolific language. Just be aware of this before you read Heinlein. – Matt Gardenghi

Krakatoa by Simon Winchester

Now, maybe you have heard of Krakatoa, but I had never heard of it before I read this book. And, even if I had heard of it, I wouldn’t have chosen to read a book about a volcano: even the largest volcano ever observed (two larger previous volcanoes have no written records). Sorry, I just wasn’t that interested in vulcanology. Someone gave this book as a Christmas present and so I read it. And I enjoyed it. (the ironies of life….)

So, why should you even be interested in a book about a volcano that literally blew itself completely off the face of the earth on August 27, 1883? Quite a few reasons actually.

To begin with, let’s consider the quality of writing. Winchester has a background in geology and has repeatedly been a New York Times best seller. He has the depth of knowledge and skill to make obscure history fun. For example, I once read his book The Professor and the Madman which covers the writing of the English Oxford Dictionary. He turned the story of a dictionary into a page turner without destroying the facts. Winchester has the ability to find the fascinating points in a story and then to turn them into readable books. (Geology has always been my least favorite science. Winchester made it interesting again.) It is actually a pleasure to read his work.

Next, Krakatoa doesn’t simply cover the eruption, rather it covers the recorded history before the eruption and then follows the history after the eruption. There is a chapter on the precolonial period of Sumatra and Java and several chapters on the colonial life and politics. Very interesting reading. One would almost forget that this book was about a volcano.

A third reason is the social implications of Krakatoa. Because the world had just been networked via telegraph a few short years prior to Krakatoa’s eruption, for the first time a global audience could watch the events of a tragedy unfold in real time. This sudden rapidity of news caused great fear and panic around the world. People asked if the world was about to end? More intriguingly, Java and Sumatra were moderately Muslim in their beliefs before the eruption. After the massive loss of life and property combined with the harsh treatment by their Dutch masters the stage was set for a nationalistic rebellion fueled by radical Islam. The result has been to make those areas the most radical Islamic nations today outside the Middle East.

Sadly, the one objectionable part is the entirety of chapter three. In this chapter, Winchester goes beyond discussing the geography from an evolutionary standpoint to actually portraying hero worship of Alfred Russell Wallace. In Winchester’s mind, Wallace was greater than Darwin but earned the title of “Darwin’s Moon.” Winchester heaps praise on Wallace and others for bringing the world out of religious darkness into the godless light of science. I have never actually read someone who worshiped evolutionists to this degree before. Still, it is the only problematic chapter in this book.

I can understand why you might not be fascinated at the subject matter, but like all well written histories, the subject doesn’t matter when it is handled by a master story-teller. Winchester is just that: a master craftsman at work. This book is well researched and well documented. There aren’t any flaws to poke at in this book.

This book also has implications for the current debate on global warming. After Krakatoa exploded, the temperature around the entire globe dropped by several degrees for a decade or longer. That would have the global temperature recovering about 1900. Modern “climatologists” claim that the temperature has risen 1-2 degrees celsius over the last century. Now taking into account the temperature drop shortly before 1900, could we be seeing a return to the temperature levels pre-Krakatoa? Even if we aren’t, if a single volcano (admittedly a large one) can affect the temperature so greatly, why should I assume that human produced carbon is the great Satan of modern society?

I had never heard of Krakatoa before I read this book. Had you ever heard of it?


How I Got This Way by Patrick McManus

How I Got This WayPatrick McManus has a strange sense of humor: part redneck, part clown with a dash of subtlety. Yeah, if you haven’t read McManus, you probably don’t understand how a redneck can be subtle…. McManus pulls it off with style.

McManus writes predominantly about hunting, fishing, and his own life as a bumbling hick. It is his character’s approach to life that makes McManus worth reading. His “artificial life,” as seen through his writings, refuses to acknowledge that normal people view him as insane. He blithely sails through life with the assumption that everyone sees him the same way he views himself. He exemplifies this approach in his story about wounding his hand. Supposedly everyone loves to hear about how people got their wounds. So, McManus pops into the tavern and begins to tell everyone his story. Everytime he comes up for air, one audience member asks another about his latest fishing exploits (a la Anton Chekhov in the Cherry Orchard). McManus sees this as proof that they are interested in his story…..

Right about now, you might be saying to yourself, “Self, I am done with this review. There’s no way I am interested in reading a book by an ‘outdoors humorist.'” Well, hear me out for just a few more lines.

It is my opinion that everyone should read McManus for the following reasons. First, he writes in short stories that are convenient for those times when you only have five or ten minutes to read.

Second, McManus’ approach to writing humor is unique and must be read to be appreciated. While Patrick McManus and Bill Cosby have their own unique styles, most comedians don’t; they copy each other with short witty “one-liners.” So, as a connoisseur of literature, you should read McManus to see a different approach to writing.

Third, McManus writes clean humor. You won’t find objectionable content (might be a tiny bit crass, but of the junior high style crass) and you will laugh (I hope). Give him a try; your library will have at least one of his books, I’m certain, but you can get a taste of this book here.

What Mrs. Mcguillicuddy Saw! By Agatha Christie

DISCLAIMER I here confess to reading every single Sherlock Holmes ever written, and about a hundred other mysteries besides.

PLOT Jane Marple, our sleuth, knows she can solve the mystery. It will just happen. Mrs. Mcguillicuddy just happened to witness a murder, but the victim just happened to seem connected to an old mansion, that just happens to need a maid, but the side kick just happens to get a job there, so she can just happen to witness five more deaths, that just happen to occur during a family reunion, that just happens to involve a conversation about old letters, so the gardener can just happen to be burning that day, and our maid can just happen to find a clue, that just happens to lead to the body, so the murderer can just happen to kill two more people, before our heroine just happens to come over for tea, and just happens to get Mrs. Mcguillicuddy to recognize the murderer, from an angle she couldn’t possible be in but that doesn’t matter, because the police just happened to be there already, and thus our sidekick’s upcoming nauptils will, presumably, just happen. The end is quite cheerful, since our murderer just happens to be a nice guy and the courts will probably just happen to let him off, and… oops! Did I just happen to drop my copy? And does that just happen to be a garbage bin? Dear dear… well, these things just happen.

Positives: All the cutting and pasting has to have come from some book she wrote that’s not this bad.

Negatives: The publishing business today operates on the celebrity factor as much as Hollywood, maybe even more. Once an author writes one successful book, it is assumed that the next twenty will be bought by her legions of fans. Publishers make contracts for x-number of books a year, without regard to the quality or content. The problem with that is, most people don’t have enough imagination to write twenty individually good books, let alone two or three times that many. Thus we get books like “What Mrs. Mcguillicuddy Saw!”, that read like a cut-and-paste-with-new-names-and-different-color-coats. The plot is there, but the author clearly did not have enough time to get around to explaining how it all happens. The way the murder is witnessed is next to impossible (clearly designed to give the book its eye-catching title), the reaction of everyone to the murdering spree is pathetic (four out of eight people in the house have been poisoned in the last two days, you say? Well, bring me some more tea, Martha…), and the way the murderer is identified is just plain lazy (the witness “recognizes” the murderer from a completely different angle than she was supposed to have seen him in the first place, in a position she couldn’t possibly have been standing unless she was in the chimney). As if the clichéd writing wasn’t bad enough. Its like the author decided to write an explanation of the title, and then got lazy and just happened to forget how each of the plot lines was resolved.

OVERALL: “What Mrs. Mcguillicuddy Saw!” is a sterling example of the serialization of the book market today. Recommended for those interested in studying the art of lazy writing. Otherwise, you could just happen to get lost in the library and hit the biography section.