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Reading Diary for 2005

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"The Case for Israel"
by Alan Dershowitz
The Case for IsraelWhat's sad is that a book like this even needed to be written. But with anti-Semitism suddenly hip and trendy again, particularly on the formerly immune Left, and with numerous public campaigns being conducted to isolate Israel diplomatically, academically and economically, it's important to have a point-by-point rebuttal to the clichéd accusations made against Israel. Dershowitz's most important achievement here may be the fact that he repeatedly, and with detailed documentation and referencing, points out that while Israel is condemned for its laws granting preference to Jews in citizenship, residency, etc., much more restrictive racial laws in Arab and Muslim nations are almost never criticized. It's this illustration of the double standard applied to Israel that is most effective at stripping away the pretensions of the anti-Israel lobby and exposing them for the naked racists they are.

"The Ice Palace That Melted Away"
by Bill Stumpf
The Ice Palace That Melted AwayA pretty neat collection of essays on how American society is become more and more segmented, so that few of us feel as deep a connection to our community as we formerly did. Stumpf, who is an architecht and design philosopher, not only points out what most of us already know, but offers suggestions on how to restore our sense of community without spending billions of dollars.

by Len Deighton
XPDI've probably read this before, but wanted something light and breezy to fall asleep to and reading it, nothing seemed familiar. So ... Not nearly as good as his Game-Set-Match series, but a decent thriller based on the premise that Churchill offered to make peace with Hitler and some retired GIs have the papers to prove it.

"Smart Bomb"
by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby
Smart BombA supposed history of the videogame industry that skips entire swaths and focuses most of its attention on the already-told mythology (Nolan Bushnell and Atari, the Johns and id Software). Not enough new information to make it important; not well-enough written to make it very worthwhile. Useful only if you've not ready anything on the subject.

"Authentically Black"
by John McWhorter
Authentically BlackI've not read a book that's given me so much hope for the future in many a year. John McWhorter is a linguist by trade and practice, but here has written a book arguing that black Americans (of which he is one) need to stop waiting for a savior and start improving their lives now. In fact, he offers specific examples of where this is already happening, despite a complete absence of interest by self-proclaimed black leaders like Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton, or the mainstream media – all of whom are too busy peddling the message of blacks as helpless victims. A people who overcame slavery and Jim Crow to create the Harlem Renaissance can do anything they aim for, as McWhorter points out, and when that message gets through our entire nation will be the beneficiary.

"Cactus Garden"
by Robert Ward
Cactus GardenDifferent – and better – than your typical mystery/thriller, this is a pretty hairy tale of DEA agents working along the U.S.-Mexican border. But while there's lots of action, there's also a lot of pyschology at work. It's not always consistent, and the incredulity required to hang with it is sometimes a bit much, but it's still worth a read.

"The Dangerous Summer"
by Ernest Hemingway
The Dangerous SummerCommissioned by Life magazine in 1959 to return to Spain and follow the bullfights again, as he had done decades earlier in "Death in the Afternoon," this was the master's final work completed before he took his own life. At times melancholy, and even uncharacteristically sentimental, the writing here remains top-notch. The story, too, is pure Hemingway – two matadors, brothers-in-law, spend the summer dueling over who is the greatest bullfighter in Spain. A grand read, and one you'll wish is not over when you have finished.

"Formosa Straits"
by Anthony Hyde
Formosa StraitsAn intriguing, if occasionally plodding, thriller from the author of the legendary spy novel "The Red Fox." If not as tightly written as that book, "Formosa Straits" is a far more interesting work – written as it is from the perspective of a Chinese-American who has moved to Taiwan.

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"
by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceRather darker than the earlier books, and somewhat more superficial as well – more action-oriented, rather than getting into the characters' heads. The pacing seems rushed at times, the ending haphazard.

"Ex Libris"
by Anne Faddiman
Ex LibrisA wonderful, loving tribute to books and the people who read them. I gave away my paperback copy because this is a book that is simply meant to be owned in hardcover, to have a place of some prominence on your bookshelf. One of my favorite collections of essays, and one I know I'll return to over and again.

"The Road to Gandolfo"
by Robert Ludlum
The Road to GandolfoA hilarious romp, as a Medal of Honor-winning Army general is forced into retirement – and, in his boredom, decides to kidnap the pope as his next mission. Not like Ludlum's general suspense novels, this is more akin to "Dr. Strangelove" without the political overtones.

"Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code"
by Eoin Colfer
Artemis Fowl: The Eternity CodeThe series continues to get better with each book, as vol. 3 contains yet more plot hooks, character development and good old-fashioned fun than the first two. This is a wonderful series, and adults are as likely to enjoy it as older kids.

"Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident"
by Eoin Colfer
Artemis Fowl: The Arctic IncidentA better tale than the first book, frankly. Still a very light, breezy read – takes a day or two at most, rather than the weeks or months it can take to get through a Harry Potter book.

"Artemis Fowl"
by Eoin Colfer
Artemis FowlIf not quite up to the level of the Harry Potter books, this is still a very good, addictive book. Breezier than the Potter books, and not taking itself nearly as seriously, Artemis Fowl concerns the pre-teen son of an Irish mobster who sets out to steal gold from the fairies. It's a very promising start to a new series– I re-read it here on a whim to read through the whole series at once.

"Music City Babylon"
by Scott Faragher
Music City BabylonAn angry take on the backstabbing and betrayal apparently common to the music biz. The author was a booking agent in Nashville, with many famous clients – few of him he seemed to like. Every chapter is another tale of deceit, narcissism or just plain mean-spiritedness. Nobody reading this book will ever want to go into the music biz.

"Blood Orchid"
by Stuart Woods
Blood OrchidVapid but fun mystery thriller by popular author Stuart Woods – the characters aren't particularly well fleshed-out, but the plot moves quickly and (mostly) believably. Not Carl Hiaasen, but not so bad, either.

"White Smoke Over the Vatican"
by Don Sharkey
White Smoke Over the VaticanMid-century (1944) look at the inner workings of the Vatican; while the title refers to a papal conclave and the selection of a new pope, the book itself looks at all aspects of the Vatican – its history, governance, artwork and significant buildings. There are numerous black and white photos showing scenes from the Vatican. An OK book; not great, often apologizes for the church's sins, but contains a lot of good info you might not find anywhere else.

"The Pinball Effect"
by James Burke
The Pinball EffectOften intriguing relational history of technology from the author of "Connections," which had a similar concept. In this book, Burke starts off with one invention, and then shows how it led to other inventions which led to social developments that still affect our lives today. Sometimes he moves so quick from topic to topic that you quickly lose track of where you started – but he's such a good writer you don't really care.

"The Universe in a Nutshell"
by Stephen Hawking
The Universe in a NutshellSupposedly a popular science book a la his best-selling "A Brief History of Time," this book is much heavier, more difficult to wrap your head around. The difficulty isn't due to any shortcoming on Hawking's part, though – it's just due to the fact that the subject matter here is much more complicated. This book tackles the latest theoretical models of, well, existence – multidimensional branes folded back on themselves so that dark matter can only be felt gravitationally, for instance. Well illustrated, and some of it made sense to this lay reader.

"The Dark Wind"
by Tony Hillerman
The Dark WindOne of the early Jim Chee mysteries I'd somehow missed when it came out. Not as polished as Hillerman's later works, this is still a very tight little thriller with multiple threads that eventually are all tied together.

"Partner in Crime"
by J.A. Jance
Partner in CrimePassable mystery set in Arizona. This was my introduction to Jance, and this book brings together the protagonists from her two series, Sheriff Joanna Brady and Detective J.P. Beaumont. The mystery part is good; the characters are a bit thin – definitely a notch below Tony Hillerman or Sue Grafton.

"Return With Honor"
by Capt. Scott O'Grady with Jeff Coplon
Return With HonorBreezy memoir by the U.S. Air Force pilot shot down over Bosnia and rescued by the Marines. To his credit, O'Grady rejects the "hero" label planted on him by others, and lays out what it was like to be shot down over hostile territory, and finally to be rescued six days later.

"Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?"
by William G. Dever
Who Were the Early Israelits?Pretty interesting analysis of the archaeological evidence regarding biblical times in Israel. Dever argues that the Old Testament tales of an outsider race of Israelites invading Canaan isn't supported by the evidence on the ground. That, rather, "Israel" was a political and social response to the abuses of the Egyptian monarchy and its local Canaanite lackeys. Dever's arguments won't please biblical literalists, but neither will it placate anti-Israel bigots who try to argue that there was no ancient Israel.

"Aces Wild: The Race for Mach 1"
by Al Blackburn
Aces WildFormer civilian test pilot's memoirs are occasionally interesting, but unfortunately for the most part the book tries to claim that Chuck Yeager wasn't really the first man to break the sound barrier, that it was done earlier in an early prototype of the North American Saber fighter. The witnesses and evidence are sketchy, the writing narrative confusing, and by the end you realize the truest thing Blackburn writes is that German V-2 rockets had already proved many times over that there was no "sound barrier" and that supersonic flight was overrated.

"Eats Shoots & Leaves"
by Lynne Truss
Eats Shoots & LeavesHilarious look at the decline of proper punctuation, from the point of view of a punctilious British grammarian.

"Stormy Weather"
by Carl Hiaasen
Stormy WeatherTwisted, hilarious romp through post-hurricane southern Florida, sharing the company of con artists, floozies, nut cases and misfits of all kinds. It's like P.G. Wodehouse or Tom Sharpe set loose in the Everglades.