Tag Archives for " eccentrics "

San Francisco after the Plague

plagueThe City, Not Long After, by Pat Murphy

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Pat Murphy’s novel, The City, Not Long After, is a puzzling piece of work. With generous helpings of fantasy, it doesn’t quite qualify as science fiction. Sometimes the book is categorized as a dystopian novel. Since the near-future American society Murphy depicts is in shambles because of a pandemic that took place 16 years earlier, it fits the general description of dystopian fiction. But the manner in which the pandemic occurred is fanciful in the extreme. And many of the characters find it difficult to distinguish between reality and fantasy: the future San Francisco of the novel seems to have a larger population of ghosts than of living human beings.

Here, more or less, is what happened . . .

San Francisco peace activists led by a Buddhist named Mary Laurenson launch a campaign to secure a large number of monkeys from a Tibetan monastery high in the Himalayas. These are very special monkeys—”peace monkeys.” As the prophecy goes, the monkeys will bring peace, but in an unexpected way. And so it comes to pass. The activists distribute small colonies of monkeys to major cities throughout the world: New York, Washington, Tokyo, Paris, Moscow, Beijing, and so forth. Everywhere “people welcomed them as harbingers of peace.” Unfortunately, fleas living on the monkeys transmit a deadly virus known as “the Plague” to the human population. The virus spreads worldwide, killing nearly everyone in its wake.

As the pandemic breaks out, Laurenson gives birth to a daughter. Though she learns to read and gain some understanding of human affairs from her mother, the girl grows up essentially wild. She roams free all over the countryside around Woodland, a small community near Sacramento. She learns to hunt with a crossbow, becoming a deadly shot, and to break into abandoned houses to find salvageable canned goods. Meanwhile, all around them, society is disintegrating. Small numbers of people have gathered in towns and cities. Others drift about the Earth, hostile to everyone who approaches. Somehow, a large number of soldiers—about 150, we learn later—have survived. Under the command of a self-styled general named Alexander Miles, known to most as Fourstar, they are invading the towns in Northern California as part of his plan to reconstitute “America.”

At the age of 16, Laurenson’s daughter accompanies her on a trek to San Francisco. Along the way they are stopped by one of Fourstar’s patrols. The young woman—still nameless—is released after a time, but her mother is kept for longer. The young woman finally manages to gain her mother’s release, but Laurenson has become extremely ill in captivity and soon dies. The young woman heads off alone to San Francisco, urged on by her mother shortly before her death. At the army camp, they have learned that Fourstar intends to invade the city. The young woman’s mission is to warn them.

San Francisco is a disorienting experience for the nameless young woman. She is frightened by the sheer size of the buildings and put off by the people she meets. The city’s population totals about 100, leaving her to roam unmolested virtually everywhere. In one abandoned home, she finds an old Scrabble game laid out on its board. Three letters stand out: J-A-X. She immediately resolves to take Jax as her name.

Jax finds the people of the city unconcerned about Fourstar’s planned invasion. Most of them are artists of one sort or another. Danny-boy is a painter whose canvas is the city itself: the big project he soon undertakes is to paint the Golden Gate Bridge blue and invite graffiti artists including Snake, Mercedes, and others to express themselves on the bridge’s pillars and cables—but only in shades of blue. The Machine is a young man, the son of a deceased robotics engineer, who believes he himself is a machine created by his father. The boy is a mechanical genius and spends his time scavenging for materials to construct solar-powered metallic insects and other robotic creatures as well as a robocopter he flies all around the city. Ms. Migsdale is a former school librarian who had lived along before the Plague. She publishes the city’s occasional newspaper, the New City News, and tosses cryptic and mysterious messages in bottles into the Pacific in hopes of getting a response. Ms. Migsdale spends a lot of time with an obsessive man named Books, a former senior research librarian at the San Francisco Library. Though slow to warm to these people, Jax eventually becomes friendly with many of them, especially with Danny-boy. At length, she moves in with him in the St. Francis Hotel suite Danny-boy has claimed as his own.

When it becomes clear that Fourstar’s invasion is imminent, Jax is unable to persuade Danny-boy and the others to defend themselves by meeting the army in combat. They insist on doing things their own way, as artists. When the invasion actually occurs, she reluctantly agrees to their plan. Now, with astonishing creativity, the people of San Francisco baffle and frustrate the soldiers and their leader by refusing to exchange shots with them, even though they have ample arms in the city. Instead,they adopt a plan Jax has devised: one by one, sneaking up on individual sentries and members of patrols, they anesthetize the troops and paint the word “DEAD” on each of their foreheads, autographing the work on the soldiers’ cheeks. Meanwhile, others have built barricades and mazes, and The Machine has used his robocopter to bomb the army with stink bombs and other annoyances.

Eventually, once more than a third of the soldiers are marked “dead,” it becomes clear that someone will have to label the general himself—or kill him outright, as Jax wants to do. Sneaking behind the army’s lines through tunnels and storm drains, Jax succeeds in getting into the room where Fourstar is sleeping. Against her better judgment, she simply uses ether to immobilize him and mark him “dead” like the others. When escaping, however, she is seen by an army patrol. She manages to elude capture only because The Machine, flying overhead, crashes into the soldiers in a suicide mission to save her. Undone by the death of her friend, Jax wanders unthinkingly all over the city. Eventually, she is captured by troops and taken to the general, who orders her death by hanging.

On the gallows the following morning, with the noose around her neck and Fourstar by her side, a shot rings out from a nearby rooftop. The general collapses, dead. But the shooter, who turns out to be Danny-boy, acting entirely against his pacifist principles, is himself shot dead by troops near the gallows. Jax, freed from the noose, manages to persuade the troops to end the war. Some will join the people of the city, and others will simply leave.

Life goes on in the city, and Jax lives to an old age.


A whodunit that’s not about a detective

whodunitA review of The Crossing Places (Ruth Galloway Mysteries #1), by Elly Griffiths

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

You might call this book a whodunit, a species of fiction that I tend to shun because I find the circumstances that cast doubt on the innocence of several characters to be contrived and ultimately boring. However, author Elly Griffiths managed to keep me interested to the end despite the contrivances. Her protagonist, Ruth Galloway, is not a detective but a forensic anthropologist who teaches at a provincial university in Norfolk on England’s east coast. Galloway and the other characters in the novel are well developed, the author makes artful use of the myths and legends of the locale, and the story is suspenseful. She writes well, too.

An eccentric investigator

Ruth Galloway is an eccentric woman nearing the age of forty. She lives alone in a cottage on the edge of a coastal marsh with two cats for which she has an unnatural attachment. Her claim to fame in professional circles was the discovery a decade previously of an Iron Age “henge” (think Stonehenge) on the border of the marsh.

When the local police come across the bones of a young child buried near the marsh, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson turns to Galloway in hopes she can determine whether the bones are old or those of the missing girl in a current high-profile case. She confirms that the bones are indeed of ancient origin, and the police continue to involve her in their ongoing investigation after more bones are found. It soon develops that Galloway’s own professional colleagues are among the suspects in the girl’s disappearance. Naturally, Galloway and Nelson team up to identify the culprit, but there are many twists and turns along the way.

About Elly Griffiths

The Crossing Places, published in 2009, was the first in Elly Griffiths‘ series of Ruth Galloway Mysteries. The character was inspired by the author’s husband, who left a job in the city to study archaeology. Griffiths is clearly prolific, as there are now eight books in the series. She has also written two detective novels in a second series — all in the past six years.

The true (and surprising) story of the Wright Brothers

wright brothersThe Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In a world awash in praise for digital pioneers such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, it’s all too easy to forget some of the extraordinary people who have shaped our world through business. We remember Thomas Edison, of course: the harnessing of electricity is impossible to overlook. But we recall Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller as much because of all the money they made as well as their accomplishments in business. Others did work that was just as consequential for our society. Wilbur and Orville Wright are certainly among them. How often do their names come up today?

The grade school image of the Wright Brothers is grossly misleading: they were far more than two humble bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, who somehow managed to fly a few hundred feet in the air with a homemade biplane that looked as though it was made of the same balsa wood I used to construct model planes as a kid. As McCullough makes clear, the Wrights dedicated their lives and all the profits from their successful bike store for six years before they achieved sustained flight in the air. They were fanatically devoted to their quest, working long hours under extremely difficult conditions, and they demonstrated patience and persistence that would do any experimental scientist proud.

The Wright Brothers worked with gliders for several years before building an engine to power their flight, and then, after many failed attempts, only the third version of their airplane proved serviceable. More than once their planes and their hangar and base of operations at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, were destroyed in storms. One of their competitors, the head of the Smithsonian Institution, dismissed them as poseurs; he led a lavishly funded competitive effort that proved a dismal failure. Even once the Wrights had succeeded in flying their heavier-than-air craft they were repeatedly turned away by the War Department when they offered their airplane for military use and were ridiculed almost universally in the American press and throughout Europe. Their singular accomplishments came to the attention of the US public only because a fan who published a paper called Gleanings in Bee Culture (yes, a paper about raising bees!) wrote the first widely circulated article about their work. Theirs is an extraordinary story, and McCullough tells it as well as I could imagine.

Much of The Wright Brothers is devoted to their work after their inaugural flight reached public awareness. In some ways, that story is even more surprising than the account of their initial success. Wilbur and Orville, sometimes together, sometimes apart, began an endless series of demonstrations before both military audiences and the public throughout Europe (where interest in flight was greater) and in the US. Those demonstrations gained them the recognition they deserved: they became the superstars of their age, two of the most-recognized people in the world for many years. After years of difficulty in scraping together the money for travel, they also became wealthy.

As I read The Wright Brothers, I was struck by the continuity of America’s brief history. The brothers’ father, Milton, “had been born in a log cabin in Indiana in 1828. . .” and his father was a Revolutionary War veteran. “The brothers were well into their twenties before there was running water or plumbing in the house” and there was no electricity — barely more than a century ago, only a few decades before I was born! Perhaps 100 years seems like an impossibly long time to you. Not to me.

As McCullough makes clear, Wilbur, the older of the two brothers, was unquestionably a genius. Though self-taught like his younger brother, he demonstrated a rare capacity to understand and absorb technical information about aeronautics and a host of other subjects. Today, we might consider them eccentric. Both lifetime bachelors, “[t]hey lived in the same house, worked together six days a week, ate their meals together, kept their money in a joint bank account, even ‘thought together,’ Wilbur said.” Their younger sister, Katharine, and their father, Bishop Milton Wright, an influential Protestant preacher, both played major roles in their lives.

I’ll read just about anything David McCullough writes. I wish he were forty years younger, so I could anticipate many more of his brilliant histories and biographies. (He was born in 1933.) McCullough won the Pulitzer Prize both for Truman and for John Adams, both of them also best-sellers which I found to be entirely deserving of that prize. He combines great skill as an historian with a superior command of the English language. As a result, his books read more smoothly than most novels. The Wright Brothers, McCullough’s latest, rises to the same level. Highly recommended.

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to 34 great biographies I’ve reviewed.


American history, laughing all the way

American history becomes funny in The Good Lord Bird by James McBrideThe Good Lord Bird, by James McBride

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Scoot yourself over, Huckleberry Finn! Make room! Here comes Henry Shackleford, aka Henrietta, aka Little Onion, with a tall tale ripped and twisted out of the pages of history that’s like to set your britches afire.

Yes, here’s The Good Lord Bird, courtesy of James McBride, a rollicking, tummy-tickling, topsy-turvy account of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry — the stupidly quixotic act that helped light the fuse of the Civil War. McBride won a well-deserved National Book Award for this hilarious little novel about one of the seminal events in American history.

Henry Shackleford is the lazy, good-for-nothing, twelve-year-old son of a Negro slave who’s a barber and a dwarf to boot. Then Old John Brown and his numerous sons and hangers-on descend on their frontier settlement in Kansas — that’s Bleeding Kansas to you history buffs — and Henry’s life takes a 180-degree turn into the annals of human folly. Henry’s Pa loses his life through a stray shot, Henry finds himself hiding in a dress, and the Old Man kidnaps him and carries him along for the ride into oblivion. Along the way we meet a picturesque assortment of scoundrels, idiots, eccentrics, and heroes, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Nobody gets off easy in McBride’s telling, not even the heroes. American history was never so much fun.

James McBride is a masterful stylist who has managed to capture the linguistic cadences of the Old West and the frenzy of the years just before the Civil War, and to wring every shred of humor out of a genuinely tragic story. Somehow, I think McBride’s account of crazy Old John Brown and the killers and lunatics who surrounded him may actually be closer to the truth than the sober retellings that appear in the history books.

If you prefer to learn history through fiction, you may enjoy 75 readable and revealing historical novels.

Ten great recent books by Berkeley writers

Berkeley writersMaybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so.

So far as I can tell, people living in what has become my home town of Berkeley, California, have been writing an inordinate number of really good books in recent years. That’s probably because the town attracts creative people like . . . well, should I say, like flies? No, that wouldn’t fit. For example, we have our own famous “Three Michaels” — Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker), and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma). They’re hardly alone. It’s tough to stumble into any corner coffee shop here and not find some future Pulitzer-winner hunched over a laptop and the coffee cup by her side that’s been empty all day.

Though I do have a certain affection for the products of the town I call home, and am thus more likely to pick up a locally grown effort than one labeled Brand X, I can’t possibly keep up with all the collective literary output of my landsmen. So, what I’ve read is just a smattering of what’s on offer. And it all arrived on my Kindle only after squeezing through the finely meshed sieve of my idiosyncratic reading taste.

Here, then, are ten Berkeley-sourced books I’ve read and reviewed in the last few years that I can still wholeheartedly recommend.

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power, by Seth Rosenfeld

Grounded in thirty years of dogged research, including mountains of documents from Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, an investigative journalist reveals the close collaboration between J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan that brought violence to a generation of college students and the Right Wing to the White House.

All Our Yesterdays, by Erik Tarloff

With sparkling dialogue and finely honed psychological insight, the celebrated screenwriter and novelist explores the town’s historical obsessions with sex, drugs, and revolution in this brilliant novel about six friends whose lives and loves intersect and overlap over the course of four decades.

Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, by Peter H. Gleick

MacArthur Fellow Peter Gleick, one of the world’s reigning experts on water resources, exposes the scandalous practices of the bottled-water industry and its unfortunate environmental impact.

Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin III

Two scholars probe the tragic, short-lived history of the Black Panther Party, which flourished in Berkeley and Oakland in the late 1960s, spread through African-American ghettos nationwide in the 1970s, and collapsed early in the 1980s under the pressure of violent FBI and police suppression as well as internal conflicts.

1Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, by Michael Lewis

In his latest foray into the canyons of the contemporary Wild West we call Wall Street, Michael Lewis takes on the notorious high-velocity traders who have come to dominate — and distort — large swaths of the stock market, raising profound questions about the fairness of the venerable institutions that manage the world’s most-watched markets.

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz

A science journalist explores the prospects for human survival in the face of the wrenching changes already underway as a result of human-initiated climate disruption — and prescribes what our species must do to avoid extinction.

Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost

A leading UC Berkeley social scientist explores the extreme Right Wing’s latter-day rise in American politics in an anthology of scholarly articles drawn from a diverse range of experts, dispelling myths right and left along the way.

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist’s latest book spotlights his own neighborhood with illuminating portraits of the diverse characters who populate the North Oakland-South Berkeley borderland, showcasing Chabon’s showmanship with words, which cascade down the page in glorious profusion, evoking image after image.

A Theory of Small Earthquakes, by Meredith Maran

The long-time Berkeley memoirist (Class Dismissed) ventures into the realm of love and the true nature of family in their many dimensions in a story of relationships tested by the tumultuous events of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Big Short, by Michael Lewis

The celebrated financial journalist gets to know the fascinating and eccentric investors and speculators who dared to buck the tide of ebullience that enveloped Wall Street and Main Street alike in the heady days of 2007-8, as the Great Recession took hold.



August 21, 2014

Was Kim Philby the greatest spy ever?

kim philbyA Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Mention his name in the halls of the CIA or MI6, and you’ll get a decidedly frosty reaction. Your reception at the successor to the KGB will be quite different. You can guess whose side he was on.

Kim Philby is indisputably one of the most successful spies whose identity has ever been revealed. For nearly three decades, from his recruitment as a Soviet spy as an undergraduate at Cambridge in the early 1930s to his flight from Beirut to Moscow in 1963, he fed mountains of sensitive information to his handlers in Moscow. Yet he operated with such skill and aplomb that he was for a number of years considered to be a shoo-in as the successor to “C,” the director of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

Though he began his secret work in 1934 or even earlier, Philby first came under active suspicion in 1951 for having tipped off two other Soviet spies in time for them to escape from certain capture and flee to the USSR. However, his superiors and his friends remained so firmly convinced of his innocence despite a huge volume of circumstantial evidence that they undertook a high-profile campaign in his defense that helped to put off his capture for a dozen more years. All this, despite decades of prodigious consumption of alcohol that would have dangerously loosened the tongue of virtually any other human being.


The Soviet postage stamp that featured Philby’s likeness in 1990

A Spy Among Friends tells Philby’s oft-told story in a new way, focusing on his relationships with the two long-term friends with whom he was closest: Nicholas Elliott, a colleague and contemporary at MI6, and a slightly younger American, James Jesus Angleton, the legendary head of counterintelligence at the CIA from 1954 to 1975. Each of these men is worthy of a book in his own right; in fact, Angleton has been the subject of criticism and conjecture in numerous books over the decades. Ben MacIntyre weaves their stories together with consummate skill.

MacIntyre is a proficient researcher and a gifted storyteller. A book on this topic — so far as we know, the greatest calamity in the annals of Western espionage — could easily become a dreadful bore, riddled with strident rhetoric and recriminations. But MacIntyre tells the tale so straightforwardly and injects so many telling details and so much local color that it’s a genuine pleasure to read. And if you’re like me and you enjoy learning about the fabled eccentricities of English “gentlemen” with names like Sir Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugessen, you’ll love this book. So many of the characters who crossed paths with Philby over the years were true originals. I found myself laughing out loud more often than I could possibly recount.

Incidentally, the Afterword by John Le Carre is not an afterthought typical of these devices. It’s well worth reading — but not before the body of the book, only afterward, as intended.

Ben MacIntyre writes about crime, too, but is best known for his books on espionage — for the most part, British espionage. His earlier books about spies have included Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal; Double-Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies; and Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory. I’ve read and been enthralled by all three. (I’ve linked the title of the last two to their reviews on this blog.)

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to 34 great biographies I’ve reviewed.

J. K. Rowling’s unlikely second act

J. K. RowlingA review of The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Consider the challenge facing a writer who sets out to write a series of detective novels. How can he (or she) develop a protagonist who will stand out from all the other fictional detectives, lodge himself (or herself) in readers’ minds, and enter the Detectives Hall of Fame along with Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Inspector Thomas Lynley, Kinsey Millhone, Jules Maigret, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Miss Marple? (See brief descriptions of these ten famous characters here.)

Put yourself in his (her) place. For starters, you could give him experience of some sort that provides the basis for a career as an investigator — say, for example, years as a cop in the Army. You might want to spice up the story by making him the comeuppance of a liaison between an A-list rock star and a druggie woman gone off the rails. Some sort of distinguishing physical characteristic might help, too, perhaps a prosthetic leg as a result of an encounter with a land mine in Afghanistan. The backstory also needs to explain why your detective is living alone in his shabby office; let’s say his crazy, gorgeous, on-again, off-again girlfriend has finally pushed him over the edge with her lying and her antics after sixteen years of misery. Finally, your newly-hatched detective will need a memorable name, so he might as well be called Cormoran Strike, his first name snatched from a giant in Welsh legend in the land of his boyhood, his surname . . . well, let’s just say it calls to mind a process similar to whatever it was that gave an actor the screen name Rip Torn.

Now, make the man work for his keep

Strike and his eager young assistant, Robin Ellacott, are mired in the rush of routine investigative business — mostly, tracking unfaithful husbands and cheating wives — that followed their headline-grabbing success in solving the murder of a supermodel. So, when a dowdy middle-aged woman wanders into the office asking for help in finding her husband more than a week after he disappeared, Strike jumps at the chance even though he can see no prospect of getting paid for the work: it’s a relief simply to be working for someone with seemingly pure motives.

The missing husband turns out to be a famously eccentric novelist named Owen Quine. (Where does she get these names?) Quine has a reputation as a misanthrope with never a kind word to say about anyone. He is also an unrepentant womanizer who has disappeared for days on end in the past. However, this time Quine’s disappearance has followed on the delivery of his masterwork, a novel with the confounding title Bombyx mori (the Latin name for the silkworm). Convinced that Quine’s disappearance is somehow connected to the novel, Strike dives into the web of tense relationships that defined the writer’s life: his formidable agent, his editor, his publisher, his girlfriend, and a famous writer with whom Quine was close early in his career. Eccentricities abound in this literary showcase, affording the author numerous opportunities for satire of a realm she knows too well.

Fearing the worst, Strike stumbles across Quine’s mutilated body, and the stakes multiply. Scotland Yard strongly believes that Quine’s widow is the killer. Strike can’t convince the police that murder is entirely alien to her character and circumstances. Working with Robin and with assorted friends and family members, Strike must identify the killer. As a reader, you know he’ll do so — but what fun along the way! You’ll be kept guessing until the end.

The real backstory

When more than 450 million copies have sold of your first seven novels, what can you do for your next act? That’s easy, right? You tackle a different genre under a pseudonym! What could be more natural?

Eschewing the fame she gained with the Harry Potter series, and sidestepping the disappointing reception for her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, Rowling created Cormoran Strike and published a story about him, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Even before her identity as the author was revealed, the book gained strong reviews but the praise gushed and sales spiked only after a software analyst working for The Sunday Times unmasked her by studying the word usage and syntax of her writing.

My review of The Cuckoo’s Calling is posted here. The Silkworm is the second in what Rowling says will be a series of seven detective novels.



Who has written the most books?

who has written the most books?You’re gonna love this.

Once upon a time, back in the distant reaches of the twentieth century—well, actually it was 1984—one of my clients assigned me to ghostwrite a fundraising letter that Isaac Asimov had agreed to sign. I approached the task with some trepidation, both because I knew Asimov’s reputation as a prolific author and because I had actually met the man once and knew how prickly he was (but that’s another story).

Eventually, I managed to draft the letter and, as directed, I sent it off to Asimov’s New York apartment via FedEx. I phoned two days later in hopes the famous man had actually had a chance to read my deathless prose. His wife answered. When I asked to speak with him, she said, “Oh, no, he’s much too busy to talk. He’s writing.” (Well, of course! What else would the man be doing?) She added that she was certain he’d get back in touch with me.

Sure enough, the following day I received a FedEx package from Asimov. Fearfully, I extracted the draft copy—and was flabbergasted to note a signed permission slip and, miraculously, what appeared to be absolutely no changes in the text. However, when I examined the text more carefully, I noted one alteration in tiny handwritten script.

I had written “As the author of more than 300 books . . .”

Asimov changed that to read “As the author of more than 310 books . . .”

Ultimately, the celebrated author of both popular science and science fiction books went on to write a total of more than 400 volumes. Is he the most prolific author, living or dead?

Not by a long shot.

A widely circulated post on the Internet attributes that dubious honor to a certain South African writer named Mary Faulkner, who died in 1973 at the age of 70. The Guinness Book of World Records reportedly ranks her as “history’s most prolific novelist, [who] wrote under six pen names.” Faulkner wrote a total of 904 books.

Writers much better known than Faulkner (Georges Simenon, John Creasey, Barbara Cartland, Alexandre Dumas) as well as others much more obscure appear on the list below her, each credited with writing between 258 and 850 books. And the list doesn’t even include the two people I know personally who have each written more than 400 books.

But wait. Even 904 novels won’t cut it.

Further investigation turns up a report that “In 2006, Guinness World Records declared L. Ron Hubbard the world’s most published and most translated author, having published 1,084 fiction and non-fiction works that have been translated into 71 languages.”

Don’t recognize the name of this illustrious wordsmith? He’s the paranoid schizophrenic, pathological liar, and fugitive from justice who founded Scientology. He died in 1986 at the age of 75 with a fortune equivalent to nearly a billion dollars today. (Hubbard’s the man who famously said, “If you want to get really rich, start a new religion.” Ahem!)

But hold your horses. Isaac Asimov, Mary Faulkner, and L. Ron Hubbard combined don’t even register in the same octave as the prodigious Philip M. Parker. This superhuman individual, a 54-year-old professor of management science at INSEAD, a top-rated global business school based in France, claims to have authored more than one million books. (My source is This Is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and Other WTF Research, by Marc Abrahams.)

You read that right. One million books—and he’s only been writing them since 2008. (However, Amazon lists only 133,501.)

Here are a few of Professor Parker’s deathless titles:

  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Bathroom Toilet Brushes and Holders in the United States
  • The 2007–2012 World Outlook for Rotary Pumps with Designed Pressure of 100 P.s.i. or Less and Designed Capacity of 10 G.p.m. or Less
  • Avocados: A Medical Dictionary, Bibliography, and Annotated Research Guide
  • Webster’s English to Romanian Crossword Puzzles: Level 2
  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Golf Bags in India
  • The 2007 Report on Wood Toilet Seats: World Market Segmentation by City
  • The 2007–2012 Outlook for Frozen Asparagus in India

Just makes you want to rush right out and snap up an armful of these gems, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe not. And especially when you learn that Professor Parker doesn’t actually write any of these books. This obviously clever man has instead written a slew of computer algorithms that do the writing for him, turning out, say, at least six books about the outlook for bathroom toilet brushes.

Bianca Bosker, writing for Huffington Post, reports that “Parker started by generating market reports sold to banks, consulting firms and government trade agencies interested in the sales outlook for, say, rubber or corrugated cardboard. Now, he hopes to use the algorithms to help with language learning and education in developing countries. Thanks to Parker’s automated radio broadcasts, people in parts of Malawi are hearing weather forecasts in the local language for the first time—and are already changing their farming patterns as a result.”

Unforgettable characters in 19th century San Francisco

1Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Quick: can you tell me who Emperor Norton was?

Time’s up. Emperor Norton was just one of a long line of colorful characters who have helped give San Francisco its distinctive reputation as . . . well, more than a little wacky. He proclaimed himself “Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico” in 1859 and ruled his vast domain from the streets of San Francisco for two decades. In her own time, shortly before the Emperor had passed from the scene, a homeless woman, Jenny Bonnet, joined him in the pantheon of the city’s greatest creations. Bonnet was a favorite subject of sensational news coverage for wearing men’s clothing, collecting live frogs for sale in sacks to restaurants, riding (someone else’s) high-wheeled bicycle all over town, and getting herself into all manner of scrapes.

Emma Donoghue brings the incomparable Bonnet back to life in Frog Music, her fact-based novel set in 1876 in the City by the Bay. Bonnet’s story, as related in Frog Music, is a murder mystery told in the voice of Blanche Beunon, a French immigrant like Bonnet, a dancehall-girl celebrated for her bawdy performances and a highly sought-after prostitute. The two women meet one day as Beunon is crossing the street and Bonnet runs into her with her high-wheeler. Their lives quickly become entangled with each other in the weeks that follow the collision, with the eccentric Bonnet showing up without warning from time to time and pestering Beunon with perplexing and inconvenient questions that eventually upend her life.

The cast of characters, nearly all of them real people, includes Beunon’s “macs” — a good-for-nothing “fancy man” who lives on her earnings, and a younger man who fawns on him — and others in the French immigrant community in polyglot San Francisco. In the background are a notorious Prussian madam, a police detective, a cruel “doctress” who runs a dormitory for unwanted children, and an albino reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Except for the reporter, these are all historical figures.

But the greatest character of all is the city of San Francisco itself in all its chaotic energy less than three decades after the Gold Rush. As Bonnet and Beunon make their way across town and back, the local color of the famously free-wheeling town leaps from the page. The story is set during a (true-to-life) smallpox epidemic and a simultaneous heat wave so uncharacteristic of that foggy seaside city. (Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”) The extreme temperatures, and the fear set off by the epidemic, force tempers to a boil, triggering a racist anti-Chinese riot as well as many violent private tragedies — and the murder that is the centerpiece of this fascinating story.

Frog Music tells a lively tale of suspense. It’s peopled with unforgettable characters, all the more vivid for having actually lived. Emma Donoghue does San Francisco proud.



January 30, 2014

Roger Ailes: the man who built Fox News and divided America

Roger Ailes

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country, by Gabriel Sherman

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

As a teenager growing up in the 1950s in Lima, Ohio, (population 50,000), I learned that our local daily, The Lima News, had been purchased by a man named R. C. Hoiles. Hoiles lived in Orange County, California, and was a member of the John Birch Society. He owned a chain of small-town newspapers which he called (surprise!) Freedom Newspapers. I didn’t know any of that at the time, though. What I knew was just what I read in the News: editorials denouncing the “socialistic” concept of free public schools and paeans to Senator Joseph McCarthy, the drunken liar and bully who claimed to see Communists under every desk.

By now you’ve guessed, of course, that I grew up in a Democratic household and learned very early to disregard the ravings of Hoiles’ mouthpiece at the local paper. Although we Democrats were a small minority in a conservative Republican town, where the News frequently represented local opinion, Hoiles and his ilk were almost as widely disregarded in the larger society as my painting teacher, Mrs. Elmer McClain, a Communist who was warmly received in Moscow by Nikita Khrushchev (I kid you not).

Oh, those were the good old days, when there was a Left and a Right, and nobody paid much attention to either! Now, in the 21st Century, we have Roger Ailes, who is just as loopy and far to the Right as R. C. Hoiles, if not more so, and not only is he widely regarded as brilliant—but he’s also running the most successful television news network in the country, a billion-dollar venture that is widely understood to be an extension of the Republican Party’s Right Wing.

Ailes, it turns out, was raised in a similar Ohio town, Warren, and at about the same time as I was. (He’s almost exactly one year older than me.) Surprisingly, though, Ailes showed little interest in politics until 1967, when he managed to trap then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon in an hour-long private meeting at the Ohio television station where he was a producer. Ailes talked himself into a job as “media advisor” to Nixon, even though, to all appearances, he was then a liberal and disdained many of Nixon’s policies. He played a relatively small role in Nixon’s campaign, but in subsequent elections (Reagan in 1984, Bush I in 1992, Bush II in 2000, McCain in 2008, Romney in 2012) his influence was considerably greater, allowing him to claim that he had “elected presidents.” By then, politics had hooked him thoroughly, and with every successive campaign in which Ailes became involved, his political views seemed to shift further to the Right. Along the way, he:

  • Helped swing the 2000 election to George W. Bush
  • Became Rush Limbaugh’s executive producer and a personal friend
  • Put Glenn Beck on national television
  • Championed the rise of the Tea Party
  • Promoted partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill and throughout the country
  • Made billions of dollars for his boss, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch

Roger Ailes built the Fox News Network beginning in 1996 based on his conviction that news should be presented as entertainment, emphasizing maximum drama and conflict. It’s a little hard to tell whether this belief helped propel Ailes Rightward or it served as rationalization for his and Fox’s steady drift toward Right-Wing extremism.

Clearly, the outwardly visible benchmarks of Ailes’ career identify him now as about as extreme as you can get in contemporary America. What’s not so easily visible is Ailes’ behavior at the office and at home in Garrison, New York, where he maintains a 9,000-square-foot mountaintop fortress with a “panic room” underground to protect Ailes and his wife for six months in the event of a terrorist assault on the site. In The Loudest Voice in the Room, you can read all about Ailes’ outrageous behavior toward his colleagues, his subordinates, his neighbors, and even his friends.

Of course, you’ll find a bare-bones outline of Ailes’ life on Wikipedia. However, if you want the real story, read this book. It’s carefully researched and written with restraint, although the full spectrum of Ailes’ lunacy does come through clearly.

A century ago, men who behaved like Ailes would have been tagged as “eccentric.” Nowadays we know better. The man is simply nuts. Brilliant, but nuts.

I included this book on my post, 34 great biographies I’ve reviewed.


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