Category Archives: Books

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Allan Karlsson is turning one hundred years old. The mayor is coming to help him celebrate in his retirement home. But, Allan doesn’t want a celebration. He wants to escape. And, so he does, by simply climbing out the window before the party starts.

Karlsson is a Swedish Forrest Gump, of sorts, but with more wits about him. His story, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, follows both Karlsson’s adventure after his escape from the retirement home as well as his past, when he rubbed shoulders with the most powerful people in the world and had a hand in changing world events. He even makes a fateful appearance at Los Alamos, making a suggestion to the most eminent physicists in the world that makes all the difference in their quest to beat the Germans to the bomb.

I won’t give away too much of the plot, as the joy of the novel is to discover who Karlsson is going to cross paths with next and what those interactions will lead to. Suffice it to say that Karlsson’s adventures take him all over the world and his wits and expertise with explosives save his butt on many occasions. While Karlsson is clearly a clever guy, he is as apolitical as they come, and doesn’t give a whit about the ideologies of those he comes across. As long as they have a stiff drink ready and can make some use of his explosives expertise, he is a happy man. Given that these two conditions are met most of the time, Karlsson is happy most of the time.

As with any grand adventure of this type, there are a lot of coincidences that move the plot along. Maybe these are deus ex machina type plot devices, but given the almost ridiculous nature of Karlsson’s adventures, they actually work well here. Karlsson’s story is bigger than life, and the events that propel it forward are as well. In lesser hands, this story could have easily derailed into the absurd but Jonasson juggles the events deftly and keeps things moving apace in a way that both keeps one engaged and is reasonably reasonable, given the absurd role Karlsson plays in the events of world history. A highly entertaining read with cameos from some of the 20th century’s most famous and infamous figures.

The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean

In The Violinist’s Thumb, Sam Kean takes us on a tour of how we have learned about the genes that define us and the implications of some of discoveries behind that science. I admit that biology is not my favorite branch of science, but Kean does an excellent job of telling an engaging story about the people, their world, and their discoveries that have led to our current understanding of how our genes impact everything from our behavior to our talents to our interactions with the rest of nature. For anyone with even a passing interest in our genes and DNA, what makes us tick biologically, and how we’ve learned what we learned, this is a great book.

Kean’s focus is on DNA, the science that, over many years, led to our discovery and subsequent understanding of what DNA does, and the people behind that discovery. As he guides us through the history of DNA science, he also takes us on interesting detours, introducing us to non-scientists whose lives demonstrate the point he is trying to make. These are people with either less common genes or mutations that gave them some benefit, such as more flexible hands for playing, for example, a violin, but often also made them rather sickly and not long for the world.

There are simply too many interesting tidbits in this book to really give them justice. But, I highlight a few that particularly piqued my interest:

  • Ultraviolet light can cause kinks in certain places in DNA. Nearly all animals and plants have enzymes that can fix these kinks. Mammals don’t. That is why mammals sunburn.
  • Women were typically not admitted into the science club. One exception were Catholic nuns, who were unmarried and had the financial support and independence from the church-run convents to pursue science.
  • Polar bears survive on eating seals. Seals have a high abundance of vitamin A, which allows them to survive in the cold, promoting growth of fat cells. Polar bears have adapted to this, and can tolerate high levels of vitamin A, which is stored in their liver. However, the concentrations of vitamin A in their liver is toxic to most all other animals, even other polar bears if they ate another polar bear liver: “As little as one ounce of polar bear liver can kill an adult human, and in a ghastly way.”
  • Our DNA isn’t entirely “human” – about 8 percent is ancient virus DNA, that was introduced as viruses attacked our ancient ancestors.
  • Toxoplasma gondil (Toxo) is a parasite that exists and thrives in the guts of cats. Rats who are infected with it are attracted to cat urine, making them easy prey for cats, and thus spreading the parasite to more cats. “Overall it infects one-third of people worldwide,” settling in our brains. There is evidence that it makes infected people less risk adverse: it can make dopamine and “Some emergency room doctors report that motorcycle crash victims often have unusually high numbers of Toxo cysts in their brains.
  • Viruses probably created the mammalian placenta, the interface between mother and child that allows us to give birth to live young and enables us to nuture our young.”
  • Every known ethnic group worldwide has one of two genetic signatures that help our bodies fight off certain diseases that cannibals catch, especially mad-cow-like diseases that come from eating each other’s brains. This defensive DNA almost certainly wouldn’t have become fixed worldwide if it hadn’t once been all too necessary.”
  • Trauma we experience can be passed down to our children and, even more amazingly, to their children. Women with PTSD from the 9/11 attacks who had kids, particularly those who were in their third trimester at the time, have kids with higher levels of anxiety and acute distress than others in some situations.
  • Possibly the most amazing fact is that a child’s health is more directly related to the father’s diet during his so-called slow growth period, about 9-12 years old: “Even more strangely, the child got a health boost only if the father faced starvation. If the father gorged himself, his children lived shorter lives with more diseases.

Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell

All those stories about cowboys, lawmen, and outlaws? Most of them occurred here, in the American Southwest. The people behind them have become legends, glamorized by Hollywood, stretched and exaggerated until they are hardly recognizable. Good guys never do no wrong and the bad guys are truly evil. Life is never so black and white and Mary Doria Russell tries to put some human perspective on one of the most famous events of the old West, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Once the smoke had settled, three men had been killed. The Earp brothers, and their friend Doc Holliday, at most suffered relatively superficial wounds. However, the controversy over who drew first, whether the dead men had even been armed, and the bad blood between the Earps and the so-called Cow Boys that boiled over led to the shooting of two of the Earps, one who died, and a vendetta ride by Wyatt Earp that cemented his place in American history.

Epitaph is a novelization of the history of the gunfight. It begins in a seemingly unlikely place, with the childhood of Josie Marcus, who became Wyatt Earp’s wife and outlived them all. If there is a common thread that pulls the narrative together, it is Josie’s, but Russell does an excellent job of juggling a huge cast of characters and, more importantly, providing them with a voice. Even the most despicable of the so-called villains has his time on the page. Events are given view through the eyes of characters not directly involved in the gunfight, such as the wives of the various Earp brothers. Russell doesn’t lay blame for the gunfight at the foot of any one character. Rather, she tries to provide context for the events as they unfold and maybe some rationale for those events.

Being a novelization, Russell certainly takes liberties. There are quiet moments where she fills in the blanks. There are events where we don’t know enough to be certain what really happened — Russell adds her own details. And there are contradictory accounts, for example, how Josie originally left her family and found herself in Tombstone, Arizona. Russell chooses one of those stories, the one told by Josie herself, and uses it as if it were canon. One of the Earp brothers, Warren, never makes an appearance. I’m not enough of a historian to really judge the historical accuracy of the events as Russell conveys them. However, it seems she has a solid skeleton based on history and her details add the flesh that lead to a great story.

Maybe I learned something from this book about the history of the American Southwest. Certainly, names and places that dot our collective consciousness are given meaning: Doc Holliday, Albuquerque, Tombstone, Wyatt Earp. And new details arise that pique my interest, such as the fact that Earp spent some time in Idaho, in Eagle City. Other characters emerge as important players in the drama of Tombstone, including the other Earp brothers and John Behan, a would-be political mover and shaker whose life is very much intertwined with those of Wyatt and Josie.

Even though Russell may have taken liberties with some of the details, the story moves along and keeps you engaged. I’m keen to read more about the men and women of the American Southwest and that is as great a testament to a book like Epitaph as I can make.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

The true makers of history are often hidden from us, either owners of softer voices or casualties of the rhetoric of louder glory-seekers. More often than not, those lost voices below to women and that is the case for Elizebeth Smith Friedman, one of the first people to develop a science for code-breaking and a key, if not the key, figure in the development of the US’s intelligence services. As the author of her story, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone writes, “It’s not quite true that history is written by the winners. It’s written by the best publicists on the winning team.”

The story of her and her husband, a leading code breaker in his own right, is fascinating, not only for the development of code-breaking as a science and their contributions to more than one war, but also because of the odd and eccentric characters that populate Elizebeth’s life. Her husband, William, was perpetually on the edge of a nervous breakdown, in part due to the extremely long hours both Friedmans put in service to the US government. Maybe most fascinating of all was Elizebeth’s first patron, George Fabyan, who created a compound outside of Chicago — the Riverbank Laboratories — which was a private laboratory researching a multitude of topics, some scientifically sound and others very much of the crack-pot variety. It was at Riverbank that Elizebeth first encounter cryptography and her future husband William. Riverbank was full of would-be scientists, studying a range of topics from hidden messages in Shakespeare’s plays to acoustics, for which it still exists. The compound raised all its own animals and grew much of its own crops for food.

During World War I, there was a dearth of people who understood encryption, much less could decipher the messages of the enemy. William and Elizebeth demonstrated their abilities and developed a true scientific approach to the problem. Both Friedmans had an uncanny knack of seeing patterns in data, at a time when computers weren’t available to help with the task. But, at the same time, one had to discern real patterns and not ones made up by their own brain. As Fagone writes, “Humans are so good at seeing patterns that we are often able to see patterns even when they aren’t really there” and “One way of thinking about science is that it’s a check against the natural human tendency to see patterns that might not be there.” Seeing and identifying real patterns was the first criterion for breaking a code.

During the time the Friedmans were developing the science of cryptography and creating the profession of the cryptanalyst (“a person who analyzes and reads secret communications without the knowledge of the system used”), the world was changing at an incredible pace. Radio communications meant that agents could speak to each other across the globe, without the need to exchange paper. The atom bomb was being developed. Politics were changing too. J. Edgar Hoover was accumulating power in the FBI and was at odds with the military in the use of cryptography. What do you do when you break a code? As was highlighted in the movie The Imitation Game about the life of another famous cryptanalyst, Alan Turing, if you act on the intelligence from the broken code, you reveal the fact that the code is broken to the enemy, leading them to change the code and breaking that stream of intelligence. Her husband called this dilemma “cryptologic schizophrenia.” It is a no-win situation for the cryptanalyst, especially since human lives were often at stake. The FBI was chasing sensationalist news rather than maximizing the benefit to the nation of the broken codes.

The story follows Elizebeth’s career from a scientist building the beginnings of a new scientific field to her work for the government, where she ultimately found a home with the US Navy, where she tracked Nazi spies in South America. She also worked for the US Treasury, intercepting the messages of crime lords working within the US. Throughout it all, Elizebeth simply did her work, serving her country, either not willing or even able to really tout her contributions and role in developing the field. In fact, after the death of her husband, she dedicated much of her life organizing his records and documents, his legacy, at the detriment of her own. However, her work, along with that of her husband, led directly to the spy agencies we have now, such as the CIA and NSA. What they created, however, ultimately led them to become uncomfortable, as the reach of agencies such as the NSA extended far into every aspect of our lives.

An interesting note that relates to our own times. In discussing the context of Germany in the lead-up to World War II, Fagone notes that “The international press covered him [Hitler] like a normal leader. Many Germans did not think he would really do the things he had said he would do.” Perhaps a caution for our own times.

Fagone weaves an excellent story, filling these larger-than-life characters with personality and telling an exciting story involving spies, drug dealers, and the future of Western Civilization. Learning about hidden heroes such as Elizebeth Smith Friedman is always a pleasure, even more so when the story is well executed.

The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

The third and final installment in N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, The Stone Sky, continues to deliver.  (The first two books are The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate.) It has everything anyone would want from a strong fantasy story — climactic battles, death-defying acts of bravery, and heart-tugging moments between characters. But, it is done in a way and in a world that is both unique and goes the extra step to pull you in, to make you care for these characters.

Jemisin’s world is so unique and so well developed, but even more importantly, her characters are deep. Characters that I hated in the first two books because they seemed so evil are given their own voice and own perspective. In the end, you realize that they aren’t evil but that their motivations are so against the protagonist that they seem evil. When they suffer, you feel for them.

And, this is probably the thing I’ve liked most about her books. Her worlds are grey. They are nuanced. There is no absolute evil, there is no absolute good. Good characters do bad things and bad characters do good things. Even the overarching conflict that drives the plot is about survival, of both sides. One side isn’t trying to conquer the world just because, but rather, both sides are fighting to exist, in some sense. It’s just that the fight ends up taking place on a planetary scale.

As in the previous two installments, Jemisin delves deep into issues that affect us in real life. There are questions about slavery, for example. In her world, there is a class of people that can control, to some degree, the tremors that wrack their world. These people — orogenes — have been subdued and controlled by regular people. They are treated as non-human. But, from the point of view of the regular people, this is almost essential. As one character states, “Orogenes are essential. And yet because you are essential, you cannot be permitted to have a choice in the matter. You must be tools — and tools cannot be people.”

The other big issue she tackles is the environment and people’s impact on it. It turns out that the horrible state that the current people find their world in is the direct consequence of a previous civilization’s attempt to extract energy from the planet. In some sense, the planet rebelled.

The broad theme of Jemisin’s book is subjugation and what happens when the subjugated, whether it be people or the planet, rebel. Whether it is an individual, a class of people, a whole civilization, or even an entire planet, at some point, things break, people can’t take any more, the environment shatters. What are the consequences when society or culture is built upon subjugation? “Some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall.” There are lessons for all of us in The Broken Earth.

This is one of the best fantasy trilogies I have read, with characters that are meaningful, plots that engage, a story that is relevant, and a world that is nuanced and complex. I give it 5 stars.

An aside that I found interesting. Jemisin has a group of characters — called the stone eaters — that can communicate with each other through subtle tremors in the earth. They create microscopic earthquakes that they use to talk to one another. It is interesting how this is similar to the communications that the mechanical characters use in Ian Tregillis’ The Mechanical. The robotic characters there communicate via subtle changes in the motion of their gears and springs. In both worlds, these are the subjugated beings and they both find secret ways to communicate. An interesting coincidence.