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Review by Jerry Hollombe
If this was a work of fiction, it would be a mediocre spy story or apocalyptic horror tale. All the usual ingredients are there: Weapons of mass destruction, the KGB, political intrigue and assassinations, even mad scientists.
Unfortunately, Biohazard is not fiction. Instead, it is one of the most chilling books I have ever read. In a few hundred pages it details how the Soviet Union pursued a biological warfare program in gross violation of the treaties they had signed prohibiting it. Particularly frightening is their policy of creating bio-weapons from diseases for which there are no cures and deliberately breeding resistant strains of diseases for which there are cures. Mad scientists indeed!
Put simply, if this book doesn't scare the pants off you, you have no imagination. It should also start you wondering about exactly what Saddam Hussein is doing that he doesn’t want U.N. inspectors looking at – not to mention why our own military is vaccinating all of our troops against anthrax. Then consider that modern transportation puts virtually every population center on Earth no more than 24 hours from any other place on the planet.
Read at your own risk. Biohazard may be hazardous to your peace of mind.
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
Review by Jana Bickel
The Blue Flower is about a late 18th century German poet, Fritz von Hardenberg, who was later known as Novalis. The book provides a snapshot in time, three or four years, from about 1794-1797, in which to glimpse his life. It is a novel, not a biography. Current events are of little importance although there is a passing reference to the French Revolution and later Napoleon. A few other well known personages, like Schiller and Goethe, make brief appearances.
The novel traces the story of Fritz’s love for 12 year old Sophie. While her age may raise a few eyebrows, it is much less important than the dust jacket would lead you to believe. He simply waits for her to grow up. While he waits, he unsuccessfully tries to follow in his father’s footsteps as a bureaucrat, studying salt mining, hoping someday to be able to support Sophie.
The title of the book is significant as I found out later through my Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. (I don’t read anything without it.) The blue flower appears in Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen, a coming of age story. Later, this flower came to symbolize all romanticism. Novalis’ feeling of mystical unity is integrated thematically into the novel. Novalis’ early poems are also quoted and used effectively to illuminate the events in his life.
This book will appeal to people who enjoy character development, good prose, history, philosophy and poetry.
A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr
Review by Richard Michael Victorio
A Civil Action won the 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-fiction. Many of you have heard of or seen the movie on which the book was based, starring John Travolta, Robert Duvall, and John Lithgow among others. Having read the book AND seen the movie, I have to tell you, the book was better, but not as good as the reviews listed on the front and back pages would have you believe.
This is my first Mensa book review, so to get a feel for how to write this review, I visited Amazon.com to see what others had to say. On the whole, the lawyers wrote glowing reviews while the non-lawyers wanted to set the book on fire. I have a confession to make: I did not read this book of my own free will. It was required reading for my class on Civil Pleading and Procedure. I am in that existential state between lawyer and non–lawyer commonly referred to as “law student.”
A Civil Action is, as you might have guessed, a civil suit between corporate giants W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods on one side, and fifteen families in Woburn, MA on the other. The families allege that both companies dumped chemicals on their land which later found their way into the drinking water, causing leukemia and death in their children. Representing the families is flamboyant and arrogant-but-brilliant Jan Schlictmann. He is the focus of this story. When he first takes the case, his eyes are on the money to be made, as in previous suits he has handled. As the case progresses, we see him subtly evolve from the slimy ambulance chaser to a lawyer obsessed, who loses everything, including his sanity, fighting passionately for justice that comes too late for the families and too late for himself.
A Civil Action does not try to make you edge-of-your-seat tense through contrived plot twists or shining white heroes and shiningly evil villains. It is a story with a human face because it could happen to you or me or anyone.
The book, besides being a very compelling story, illuminates the inner workings of a “toxic tort” environmental lawsuit. In contrast to other law novels, this is a work of non-fiction (names have not been changed to protect the innocent), and it is extremely accurate in its legal detail (at least based on my incomplete knowledge of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure). Be forewarned: This level of detail can be both a blessing and a curse. The section on discovery is slow reading even for someone like me who has an interest in legal matters. (It was also the section most reviewers on the Amazon site complained about).
All in all, I found it pleasurable reading and a welcome diversion from my “normal” legal reading. For those of you who saw the movie and felt cheated (as I did), I strongly recommend reading the book and doing what I did – imagine Travolta and the other film actors as the characters in the book. You will enjoy the real story that much more.
The Genesis of Justice by Alan M. Dershowitz
Review by Richard Michael Victorio
What is right? What is just? These questions are traditionally the concern of students of philosophy. But they are of equal concern to law students such as myself. We are taught trial tactics and black letter law, but rare is the class that asks, “Why? What is the justice that I should be seeking out for my client?” Two books stand out in my quest to fill the gaps in my legal education: Russell Hardin’s Morality within the Limits of Reason, and Alan Dershowitz’s The Genesis of Justice.
Morality was recommended to me by my contracts professor, a rather maverick figure unafraid to make waves within the faculty. I heard about Genesis from the author himself, as he was interviewed on National Public Radio.
Hardin, a professor of political science, philosophy, and public policy studies at the University of Chicago, has applied utilitarian analysis to subjects ranging from public entitlements to nuclear deterrence. His ideas have been influential in the Law and Economics school of legal theory. His ideas are summed up as follows: It is good to be reasonably moral, and bad to be unreasonably moral. Take contracts, for example. A promises something to B, in exchange B promises something to A. Natural law thinkers would say that in most cases A and B are bound; if either breaks his promise, bad things should happen to punish the promise breaker. Law and Economics theorists would say that A and B are bound as long as it is reasonable and (economically) advantageous for them to be bound. Any punishments for breaking promises is a waste of scarce resources, as is enforcing a promise that is uneconomical. The book can be a tough read; the level of abstraction can be mid-numbing.
Contrast this with the highly readable The Genesis of Justice. Dershowitz is a professor at Harvard Law School and a prolific writer. In Genesis, he brings his legal skills to bear on ten stories from the book of Genesis. He scrutinizes Genesis with a legal eye and asks the questions we dare not ask: Why is Jacob praised for deceiving his father and robbing his brother? Why does God commend Abraham for attempted murder? Why does God allow Cain to get away with murder? Rather than ignoring the injustice or rationalizing it, Dershowitz tackles it head on. He struggles with the text and draws on other biblical scholars past and present to evaluate the actions of biblical characters. His conclusions are thought-provoking.
The genesis of Justice flows from the injustice in Genesis. The lawlessness of the society in Genesis pointed to the need for the Ten Commandments. Without positive law, Man struggled with fairness, honesty, and justice. All throughout Genesis, people are not honoring their parents, they are bearing false witness, they steal, they lie, etc. The development of justice in Genesis mirrors the development of law in general: Principles are developed case by case (or story by story) and are later codified into statutes (or the Ten Commandments).
Genesis was a much more enjoyable read than Morality. It offers a refreshing look at stories I have known since childhood. Having been raised in the Catholic/Christian tradition, I had always viewed the Bible with theologically-correct glasses. Pat answers conveniently shield one from conundrums, but working out these conundrums reveal great truths. If the book of Genesis has taught me anything, it is that justice must be sought after, because injustice is the natural state of affairs.
As I prepare to join the ranks of lawyers seeking justice for their clients, it is helpful to know I am not alone in this quest. Hardin and Dershowitz provide contrasting views of justice and right. Whose vision is more compelling? You be the judge.
The Golden Globe by John Varley
Review by Jerry Hollombe
In The Golden Globe, John Varley again presents the life of an interesting character in the context of his future history. This time, through the fictional autobiography of Kenneth Valentine, he explores such disparate themes as child abuse, the art of the con and the legitimate theater. Along the way, he keeps the reader entertained with fast paced action and plot twists.
Fans of Varley who have read Steel Beach will find themselves on familiar ground, though I don’t think it quite correct to call this a sequel as the 100 year span of the story includes the Steel Beach timeline. We even meet Hildy Johnson, initially as a cub reporter, along with other characters from Steel Beach.
I’m a bit disappointed that Varley had to provide a deus ex machina by giving Valentine what amounts to not only one, but several “magical boxes of tricks” to keep the plot going, but he at least makes them fallible and sets some minor limits on their abilities. Some of the flashbacks detailing Valentine’s childhood get a bit long winded, but not so much that I was ever tempted to put the book down. At the end, all is resolved and explained while strong hints are given as to the possible direction for Varley’s next work.
I think the best recommendation I can give for The Golden Globe is to say that I anticipate reading it again.
Haunted! A Paranormal Mystery by Darlene J. Wilson
Review by Jim Tasker
Former Mensan member and widely-published short story writer Darlene J. Wilson (Steiner) released her only novel, Haunted: A Paranormal Mystery, shortly before her death at age 66 in October 2003.
An Amazon 5 Star rated suspenseful thriller, successfully sets forth the requisite elements of this genre; a brilliant pursuer of justice versus a mastermind murderer interwoven with romance, vivid descriptions, and engaging dialogue.
Mind games are played by ghost hunter Grace Heathfield and others as this middle-aged widow who lives alone pursues a psychic detective profession following the mysterious murder of her own husband and disappearance of their daughter, Jenny.
Several chief characters are Vietnam veterans, a factor very integral to the plot. I knew a little about the horrors seen on active duty, heroine Grace relates on page 46, these men carry their ghosts with them.
While I chose Haunted partly as vicarious escapism for this time of the year, author Wilson caused me to think, and to reflect on some elements that linger:
- The author’s clearly profound personal insight into the workings of the human mind
- Confronted with a real-life killer, clairvoyant Grace Heathfield’s thought is I wish I carried a gun, or maybe had a concealed weapons permit.
- Effect of Vietnam War experience on minds and lives continuing over 30 years after.
I have added Darlene J. Wilson’s Haunted to my collection of treasured books penned by Mensan author.
Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon
Review by Jana Bickel
April 17, 1865, 10:17 P.M.: Henry Rathbone, a Union Major, and his fianceé, Clara Harris, were watching a performance of Laura Keene’s American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. A door at the rear of the State Box opens slowly. Suddenly a bullet fires and hits their companion, the President of the United States. The Major struggles with the assailant, but is stricken down, a knife wound pouring blood all over his fianceé. The assailant jumps from the balcony to the stage, breaking his foot in the fall. The President will die, but the Major will live. Who was this young couple accompanying the President that night? How did they come to be there? How did this event affect the rest of their lives? If you want to find out, you’ll have to read Thomas Mallon’s book, Henry and Clara.
The Henry Spearman Mysteries by Marshall Jevons
Review by Richard Michael Victorio
Economics is the study of the efficient allocation of scarce resources. That’s some of what I remember from five semesters of economics at Georgetown. It was not all that entertaining. Last month, as I was reading the Wall Street Journal, I came across an article describing the current trend in undergraduate economics instruction away from dry, boring texts to the fiction format. One of the works mentioned in the article was the Henry Spearman mysteries. The central character is Henry Spearman, a Harvard economist modeled on Milton Friedman, who employs his encyclopedic skill in the laws of economics to solve crime and slyly educate the reader on his methodology to boot. I was intrigued by the concept and got all three books. They are a fast, compelling, and surprisingly light read. I read each in a day, at a leisurely place. They provide a welcome and entertaining distraction. You’ll learn economics without even realizing it. Jevons transplants economics from the sterile, classroom environment of graphs and equations into the real world of social interaction where people do bad things like commit murder.
In Jevons’ first novel, Murder at the Margin, Spearman and his wife’s long anticipated vacation in the Virgin Islands turns out to be anything but leisurely when they encounter a racial powderkeg, an accident and a double murder. In The Fatal Equilibrium Spearman is caught in the middle of the deadly politics of Harvard academia. A Deadly Indifference takes the reader back to the 1960s, as Spearman crosses the pond to uncover a murder conspiracy in Cambridge, England.
While you might think the economics aspect would make the novels hard to follow, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The Spearman mysteries provide a painless way to learn about “the dismal science.” Despite all this, the book does have its faults. The quick endings fall flat, inconsistent with the twists and turns leading up to them, leaving the reader somewhat dissatisfied. The books do tend to drag at times with excessive detail not central to the main story. The rather uneconomical use of words is ironic coming from a pair of distinguished economists.
The opportunity cost of not reading these books is quite high. They would have made my undergraduate study more interesting. I read them more for the economics than for the mystery. Even though it’s been years since I took economics, I strongly recommend these books.
Radical Evil on Trial by Carlos Santiago Nino
Review by Richard Michael Victorio
“Radical Evil” is Kant’s idea of an evil so extreme that it is beyond the average person’s moral framework. The most famous example of radical evil is the Holocaust. To say that what the Nazis did was “wrong” does not begin to describe the horror of what they did. How should a society cope when the killing is over? Justice demands that wrongdoers be punished, but doing so could destroy the very democracy that made the pursuit of justice possible.
The late Carlos Santiago Nino and Martha Minow offer interesting perspectives on how to deal with the aftermath of radical evil. Radical evil visited Argentina in 1976, when a brutal military dictatorship came to power and waged a “dirty war” against civilians aimed to terrorize the populace in the name of combating left–wing terrorism. Nino, professor of law at the University of Buenos Aires, was one of the architects of the post-dictatorship regime of Raul Alfonsin. He gives the legal, moral, and political background leading to Argentina’s emergence from repression, culminating in the trials of the military planners.
While Nino looks specifically at the Argentine experience and gives the philosophical justification for the way the trials were conducted, Harvard law professor Martha Minow examines the broader range of remedies available besides trials: reparations, truth commissions, art and literature commissions, the naming of public parks or schools or scholarships in the name of the victims, opening up files kept by the secret police for public review, etc. Trials can be a blunt instrument, she observes, and may work against democratic consolidation and national reconciliation. Minow makes a strong case for such non-trial “experiments in justice and healing.” South Africa decided against trials and in favor of truth and reconciliation commissions. Japanese-Americans sent to concentration camps during World War II received money reparations decades later.
Both books are highly readable and should be of interest to anyone interested in human rights and the problems faced by the Rwandas, Bosnias, Kosovos, and Guatemalas emerging from the trauma of radical evil.
Smith and Other Events: Tales of the Chilcotin by Paul St. Pierre
Review by Jana Bickel
Smith and Other Events, contains twelve stories set in the frozen cattle country of northern British Columbia, in Chilcotin country. The nearest town is Namko. Life is hard and unpredictable. Anglo ranchers co-exist with Indians who live on the nearby Reserve. Although there is no single plot line, the stories are connected by character and place. Set somewhere in the fifties, the events still resonate today.
“Ol Antoine’s Wooden Overcoat”, tells the story of the Cattle Association’s quest to buy a coffin for a well know Indian who has reportedly died. The story demonstrates the need to get the story straight before you plunk down the dough.
“How to Run the Country” is an hilarious account of how the Liberal party’s campaign to run a contender in every district goes a bit awry. As party leaders discover, it’s always better to know who the candidates are before you nominate them.
“December Nilsen” reveals the lengths some will go to to invent the truth, and the lengths to which others will go to to preserve the lie.
“The Education of Phylisteen”, is a sympathetic treatment of an Indian girl with intelligence, who finds and loses a chance to better herself.
“Frenchie’s Wife” describes one woman’s journey to the end of the earth and how she learns to live with the primitive life she has chosen.
“The Sale of the Ranch”, appropriately the last tale, explores the rancher’s love/hate relationship with the land, the livestock, and a fickle nature that brings boom one year and bust the next. The ranch is up for sale and Norah Smith, the one who wants most to leave the hard life, is the one who must make the final decision.
The characters are well-drawn and memorable portraits of the ranchers, their wives, the Indians, and the outsiders. The dialogue is crisp, colorful, realistic, and often ironic. I recommend it.
Review by Jerry Hollombe
For decades, up through the early 1970s, Terrea Lea was considered a folksinger’s folksinger. Often, when they were in town, the top acts in the business could be found at The Garret Coffee House catching one of her sets. This CD came about because of many requests from her friends and fans. Everyone wanted to know if her vinyl albums were going to be available on digital media. After years of having to tell people that wasn’t going to happen, I got together with Terrea and, with her advice and consent, created a retrospective CD with tracks from her albums.
You can hear samples of all the tracks at the Café Press web page. Please keep in mind that they were taken from vinyl records that were 30 to 50 years old. We did what we could to clean them up, but it was impossible to eliminate all the clicks and pops without damaging the basic performance. Rather than do that, we left some of them in.
You can learn more about Terrea Lea, her music and The Garret Coffee House at http://www.thegarret.info/.