Anthony Horowitz colors me intrigued with ‘Magpie Murders’

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz is a 2016 United Kingdom released mystery and thriller that made its way to a United States release in 2017. The immediate intrigue to this work was that the story reputedly played in the same realm as an Agatha Christie novel.  That the story takes a turn towards being the story of who killed who wrapped around an unfinished book dealing in similar subject matter colored me intrigued right from the start.

The central characters, only the second of which we get to meet really well, are fictional mystery writer Alan Conway as well as his editor, Susan Ryeland. In the embedded book, the champion detective is Atticus Pünd looks to solve a murder at Pye Hall within a sleepy English village circa the 1950s. You get a good sense for where the story is going when, at the moment of revelation, things take a turn that suggests that the manuscript has been changed. With the death of the author Conway, Ryeland is cast into the role of getting to the bottom of determining what happened while facing what turns into a real time thriller for herself.

Magpie Murders 2(Anthony Horowitz)

If you like puzzles as well as novels in the detective genre, you will be quite happy with Magpie Murders. As to why Horowitz chose to set his book in the 1950s rather than something more contemporary, the author had some clear thoughts on why.  Roslyn Sulcas in a review of Magpie Murders in The New York Times on June 8, 2017 leads to Sulcas quoting Horowitz.

“He placed the Conway novel in the 1950s, he said, because he likes murder mysteries that are “forensic free,” without surveillance cameras and DNA. “I want sprinklings of clues and red herrings,” he said. “And having no mobile phones is wonderfully helpful; it slows the pace down, and you have more time for atmosphere and character.””

I give Magpie Murder 3.75-stars out of 5.

Matt – Thursday, October 19, 2017

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Vision Overcomes Hardship in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor E. Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning introduced me to the writing of Viktor E. Frankl, a 20th century psychiatrist and holocaust survivor. In the mood for seeking larger meaning, vision, and an inspiration for a recent testimonial for overcoming adversity with psychological strength, I was drawn to Frankl‘s best-selling work.

I found the reminders and echoing of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in the treatment of Frankl‘s Man’s Search for Meaning reassuring. Frankl builds his logotherapy with an awareness of Kierkegaard‘s will to meaning. That Frankl further counterpoints Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler by arguing not for drives of pleasure or power but for meaning strikes me as a truly remarkable accomplishment.

Mans Search for Meaning 2(Viktor E. Frankl)

The book itself starts first with not so much of Frankl‘s experiences in the concentration camps throughout Europe during World War II as an exploration of some of the personality profiles of those that experienced the concentration camps. The editorial consideration here was not as much to downplay personal narratives of those that had come. The decision was to offer something different.

Man’s Search for Meaning then introduced the psychiatry of logotherapy. The edition that I was reading was a later version that aimed to make modifications based on the learning and growth within this branch of psychiatry, which again advanced upon focusing on meaning rather than “not the drive to sex or pleasure, as Freud theorized, or power, as Nietzsche and Adler argued” (www.goodtherapy.org).

Friedrich Nitezsche was a philosopher in his own right that focused in no small part on human drives and passions as central to a meaningful human experience.

Mans Search for Meaning 3(People define meaning!)

A powerful aid and benefit that I took from Man’s Search for Meaning came with the exploration of logotherapy. In discussing self-actualization and experiencing meaning, Frankl mentioned three different ways to discover meaning:

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed.
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone.
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

The first of those is self-explanatory. Offering the world a new thing like a smartphone, or a best-selling book, or the means for two friends that later become husband and wife, are examples.

The second could involve experiencing the goodness of an act of kindness, the truth of an uplifting statement of gratitude, or the beauty of the autumn colors as leaves change from green to golden, brown, or red. Loving another person offers meaning and connection of its own.

When facing circumstances that you cannot change and which cause tangible pain, anxiety, or both, your approach to that pain can transform the experience of suffering into bearing witness to that pain and transforming it into a human achievement. The example Frankl offered on this score was that of an aging medical doctor who had been suffering greatly after his deceased had died. There was comforted when he realized that his wife’s passing first meant she would not suffer the grief that he was feeling.

I came away with the reward of new insight and encouragement. Viktor E. Frankl further rewarded me with a deeper structural understanding of psychiatry along with distinctions between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.  I give Man’s Search for Meaning 4-stars out of 5.

Matt – Sunday, October 15, 2017

Visionary leadership in ‘Team of Rivals’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln introduced me to the writing of Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian “best known for authoring biographies of American presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln” (Biography.com).

While interesting to note that Goodwin has treated three presidents that died in office, as well as a fourth that succeeded the last to die while in office, the subject of this review is my reading of Goodwin’s treatment of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

Team of Rivals 2(Doris Kearns Goodwin)

While I felt going into this reading that I had a fairly decent layperson’s understanding for the way that history viewed the sixteenth president of the United States, what I found with this reading is that my understanding was (and perhaps still is) a largely textbook understanding of the man and his presidency as offered through some of my grade school, high school, and slight introduction to the man in college.

Team of Rivals introduced to me some of the means for how Abraham Lincoln went about making decisions, receiving information, taking advice and council from those around him, and largely had a keen insight tempered with reflection that guided a compassionate, and perhaps a largely Midwestern United States viewpoint, of the larger world. The means and feeling of these points were revealed in a way that helps me understand the man in a way that a history class would not.

I enjoyed getting to know Lincoln, Senator William Henry Seward of New York, Governor Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and judge Edward Bates of St. Louis, Missouri, the four men who, together with Lincoln, made up the first candidates of the political party in the United States that today is called the Republican Party, even if the politics of what a Republican was then is quite different than today. It is partly through the introduction to these men that Kearns Goodwin offers what was a partly well known tale:

“The unifying theme is the growing sectional polarization over the issues of slavery and its expansion. But each story follows a separate track until they begin to converge with the death of the Whig Party and the birth of the Republican Party in the mid-1850’s.”–quote borrowed from a 2005 New York Times review of the book by James M. McPherson.

The four men entered Lincoln’s cabinet when he became president following his 1860 election. The men disliked each other, yet served the president well in large part owing to Lincoln’s deft, compassionate insight into human motivation. The book gets into how Lincoln conducted the war and politics, not so much the interpersonal touches that I found in reading about Theodore Roosevelt at the hands of Edmund Morris.

Team of Rivals 3(The team of rivals)

Since I came away with the reward of new insight and a larger understanding for the professional relationships that Abraham Lincoln had in his presidency, I give Team of Rivals 4-stars out of 5.

Matt – Saturday, September 9, 2017

‘The Given Day’ by Dennis Lehane exceeds ‘Live By Night’

The sequel to The Given Day by Dennis Lehane, Live By Night is a prohibition era gangster novel aiming to establish an ethos for the gangster lifestyle first in Boston Massachusetts, second in Tampa Florida, and finally in Cuba and into the northern Gulf of Mexico cities Miami through New Orleans.

Live By Night 2 (Dennis Lehane)

A adequate job of tension was central to the story, and for that I was grateful. This quality of the book frankly saved the book for me, as the inner conflict . The characters lacked some depth, in my humble opinion, and the story almost felt like an attempt to offer us Joe Coughlin as modeled on the character Michael Corleone from Mario Puzo‘s The Godfather. Live By Night is no The Godfather, and Lehane does not compare well with Puzo in this effort.

It is not necessary to read The Given Day to read Live By Night, as the two books share at least three characters of significant import. The focus of the two books are greatly different; the protagonists for these two books are largely different. In fact, I would say that the idea of carrying characters over from one book to the other feels more an accommodation to a publisher than a deliberate desire from the author.

Live By Night 3(From the author of Shutter Island and The Given Day)

In comparing the two books, I liked the first more than I did the second. I felt more invested in the characters of The Given Day. The resolution to the characters that carried over between these two books was much better in the first book, too.

Overall about 3.25-stars, rounded to 3.00.

Matt – Sunday, July 23, 2017

To shrug would be wrong with Andrew Solomon’s ‘Noonday Demon’

To shrug would be wrong. Andrew Solomon‘s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression deserves so much more. Noonday Demon brings so much advocacy, scholarship, and personal truth to its tale that I cannot help but recommend this highly for those with an open mind and feelings.

Noonday Demon examines depression, mental illness, and anxiety. He explores a number of his own experiences with the disease, as well as that of his mother. The non-fiction narrative looks into other cases upon which Andrew Solomon is familiar and conversant. This is the first book that I’ve read that treats this subject both firsthand and with some academic rigor (at least from my reckoning).

There were several areas that stuck with me as noteworthy and memorable. I will quote a few passages that were forceful and compelling.

Noonday Demon 2(Andrew Solomon)

Solomon quotes George Brown at the University of London, a founder of Life Events Research, on the nature of depression and anxiety:

“Our view is that most depression is anti-social in origin. There is a disease entity as well but most people are able to produce major depression given a particular set of circumstances. Level of vulnerability varies, of course, but I think at least two-thirds of the population has a sufficient level of vulnerability. According to the exhaustive research he’s done over 25 years, severely threatening life events are responsible for triggering initial depression…Depression is a response to past loss and anxiety is a response to future loss.

Ellen Frank from the University of Pittsburgh gets into the potential causes of depression, in a sense almost blaming those who suffer for their illness:

“I do not believe that if the causes of your problem were psycho-social that they would require a psycho-social treatment nor that if the causes were biological they would require a biological treatment.”

Solomon pulls no punches in his unapologetic disagreement for this as well as for the weak evidence for claiming that these suggestions indicate a path for returning those suffering back to health.

“It’s fashionable for psychiatrists to tell you first the cause of your depression…and second, as if there a logical link to cure; but this is poppycock.”

Solomon takes on the notion of self-medicating as a means of trading the pain you do not understand for one that you do. Emotionally, I find it hard to judge the decision-making, even though I hope for better.

“Pains are not destiny. If you take drugs, you do it deliberately. You know when you’re doing it. It involves volition. And yet, do we have choice? If one knows that there is ready relief for immediate pain, what does it mean to deny oneself?
     Part of what is so horrendous about depression and particularly about anxiety and panic is that it does not involve volition. Feelings happen to you for absolutely no reason at all.
     One writer has said that substance abuse is the substitution of comfortable and comprehensible pain for uncomfortable and incomprehensible pain, eliminating uncontrollable suffering which the user does not understand in favor of a drug-induced dysphoria which the user does understand.
     In Nepal, when an elephant has a splinter or spike in its foot his drivers put chili in one of his eyes and the elephant becomes so preoccupied with the pain of the chili that he stops paying attention to the pain in his foot and people can remove the spike without being trampled to death. And in a fairly short time the chili washes out of his eye.
     For many depressives, alcohol or cocaine or heroin is the chili, the intolerable thing the horror of which distracts from the more intolerable depression.”

After describing four types of suicide, and then staking out approval for one particular type, Solomon brings the case home by paraphrasing Sigmund Freud:

“Freud himself said that we have no adequate means of approaching the problem of suicide. One must appreciate his deference to this subject. If psychoanalysis is the impossible profession, suicide is the impossible subject.”

The bringing together of a compelling narrative is Solomon bringing his argument together for recognizing that there is a politics of mental health. The cases strikes me, as a layperson, as strong. While this argument aims at speaking to the people of the United States, the case for helping a demographic in need is emotionally compelling.

“The question of what constitutes mental illness and who should be treated rides very much on the back of public perceptions about sanity. There is such a thing as sanity and there is such a thing as madness and the difference is both categorical and dimensional, of kind and degree. Ultimately there is a politics of what one asks of ones own brain and of the brains of others. The problem is not so much the politics of depression as our failure to recognize that there is a politics of depression.
     A particularly disturbing recent op-ed article [at the time of writing] in The New York Times written by a psychiatrist at a conservative think tank in Washington in response to the new Surgeon General’s report on mental health proposed that helping the mildly ill would deprive the seriously ill as though mental health care were a finite mineral resource. She stated categorically that it was not possible to get unsupervised people to take their medications and proposed that those mentally ill who end up in prison probably need to be there.
     At the same time she proposed that the 20 percent of the U.S. citizenry who carry the burden of some kind of mental illness in many instances do not need therapy and therefore should not get it. The key word here is need because the question of need turns on quality of life rather than existence of life.
     It is true that many people can stay alive with crippling depression, but they can also stay alive, for example, with no teeth. That one could manage okay on yogurt and bananas for the rest of ones life is not a reason to leave modern people toothless. A person could also live with a club foot but these days it is not unusual to take measures to reconstruct one.
     The argument in effect comes down to the same one that is heard over and over again from outside the world of mental illness, which is that the only people who must be treated are those that pose an immediate expense or threat to others.”

Should there be more help? Is there no help because people choose to not understand? This is the political animal that Solomon says exists. To shrug at this would be wrong. My call to you is one of awareness; compassion; pressure applied smartly and in astute ways.

Noonday Demon 3(Quotation from Noonday Demon)

I too, am saying that I rate this book highly. I give Noonday Demon 4.5-stars out of 5 stars.

Matt – Friday, July 14, 2017

Jon Krakauer documents acquaintance rape enablement in the book ‘Missoula’

Jon Krakauer documents a dominant and judicial culture that enables acquaintance rape in the book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.  As indicated in the preface summary for Missoula on Goodreads, “Krakauer documents the experiences of five victims…These stories cut through abstract ideological debate about acquaintance rape to demonstrate that it does not happen because women are sending mixed signals or seeking attention. They are victims of a terrible crime, deserving of fairness from our justice system.”

Missoula 2 (Jon Krakauer)

My perspective as a male reading this book is that the book is fairly researched, even handed to those suffering at the hands of rapists while also fair in pointing out culpability of different systems of investigating and judging guilt, innocence, and the correct courses of action for those accused of rape in a college setting. Many in the Missoula County Attorneys Office, the University of Montana, and the Missoula city police department strike me as frighteningly unaware and deliberately obsessed with taking a severely unsympathetic to the legitimate sensitivities of the victims of sexual contact without consent.

Emily Bazelon in her April 28, 2015 review of Missoula for The New York Times, under title Jon Krakauer’s ‘Missoula,’ About Rape in a College Town, takes a less flattering view. Quoting from her review:

“Instead of delving deeply into questions of fairness as universities try to fulfill a recent government mandate to conduct their own investigations and hearings — apart from the police and the courts — Krakauer settles for bromides. University procedures should “swiftly identify student offenders and prevent them from reoffending, while simultaneously safeguarding the rights of the accused,” he writes, asserting that this “will be difficult, but it’s not rocket science.””

The book is intense, graphic, and at times quite emotional for both of those reasons. Imagery had to be all those things to truly remove address much of what is taboo or mysterious for people when it comes to crimes against intimacy, trust, and gender. Part of what cannot wring true for ladies reading this assessment, that of a male, is that I have many of the same blind spots about ladies that female reviewers of the book, including Emily Bazelon, readily know and identify. Sharing wisdom taken from Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Lewis Herman strikes me as an excellent educational means to illuminate some of that blindness with knowledge.

Missoula 3 (Judith Lewis Herman about enabling rape)

For those familiar with Krakauer‘s work, I see Missoula as aligning more closely in intimacy and narrative tone to Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith or Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman than Into the Wild.

Overall, the presentation was clearly and forthrightly told. The book is lucid throughout, though perhaps less synthesized from a first person narrative accounting of many ladies. My rating for the book is 4-stars out of 5 stars.

Matt – Tuesday, July 4, 2017

George Stephanopoulos apologizes to his ideals in All Too Human in recapping service to U.S. President Bill Clinton

All Too Human by George Stephanopoulos serves as a young yet powerful political consultant’s experience inside the presidential administration of former United States President Bill Clinton. The presentation is largely early presidential career biography with firsthand storytelling for Stephanopoulos in his early 30’s, from transition to the 1992 campaign for president through much of Clinton‘s first of two terms as United States President in 1996. This book gives insight into much of Stephanopoulos‘ role within the campaign, the first term administration, and offers the political junkie a lens through which to see a layperson’s view into the day-to-day of becoming, then serving, inside a presidential administration.

All Too Human 2 (George Stepanopoulos)

George Stephanopoulos spends much of All Too Human apologizing for his actions in serving idealism and ambition as a political aide to the most powerful person in the world. He ends up confessing to an endless compromise of pragmatic decisions that wound up undercutting the good fight for an agenda that he, Stephanopolous wanted for the administration of 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton.

All Too Human 3 (Former First Lady and President Hillary and Bill Clinton)

Much of my motivation for reading the book, which I started last fall when I thought that Clinton would wind up in the White House again as First Gentleman, was to reacquaint myself with the dynamic of both Bill Clinton and former U.S. Senator and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Getting to know them more, through the eyes of somebody near the inside for the better part of five years, seemed like a way to gain insight.

Truth be told, I struggled through much of the second part of the book because I lived so much of the Bill Clinton presidential narrative the first time around. The nature of the advice and council that Stephanopoulos offered never really is addressed in the book, though largely I think his role was to be a voice in the room, understand the moods of the president and his wife while serving as a buffer for them, and to sometimes help as speechwriter.

All Too Human 4 (Bob Woodward)

It was interesting to see how Stephanopoulos was played a bit, within the evaluation of the Clintons and others, for bad council that Stephanopoulos had given in offering background for Bob Woodward‘s book The Agenda. It was interesting to see how Stephanopoulos butted heads with Dick Morris, who championed much of the re-election campaign for Bill Clinton‘s second presidential term by moving the president from many Democratic Party positions in America towards, at the time, more Republican Party positions.

All Too Human 5 (Dick Morris)

I sense from Stephanopoulos own account that he never came to grips with accepting, if even understanding, much of why the Clintons needed Morris for getting a second term. I think this was evidence that fed the narrative feeling of the tale; the tale of of George Stephanopoulos losing some degree of influence and idealism and suffering over the loss of the moral platform that he felt he shared with former president Bill Clinton.

Overall, the presentation was clearly and forthrightly told. While difficult to stay with at times, I found myself entertained. My rating for the book is 3-stars out of 5 stars.

Matt – Sunday, July 2, 2017