READING WITH XIPHOS #7 PT. 2
A Conspiracy of Paper (David List 2000): When I saw the title of this book in the little library here, I had two thoughts almost at the same time. The first was, that’s a cool sounding title. The second one was, I bet this book is written by some stuffed shirt Englishman in the 20’s and was interminably long and was about smug well dressed people walking around manicured parks and talking, then having some tea. Imagine my surprise when I pulled it down and found out it was a New York Times notable book from 2000 and not 1920. Even better, it turned out the book was one of my favorite fiction genres historical crime/detective stories, like In The Name of the Rose and The Alienist.
The Conspiracy of Paper is like I said, a detective story set in 1720 London. The story is told through the memoirs of an old man, Benjamin Weaver (nee Lienzo), the London born son of Sephardic Jews who had fled the Inquisition in Portugal. Weaver had a falling out with his father as a teenager and left their Jewish enclave and struck out on his own into the world of greater London. Weaver was not a typical Jew of the time, he didn’t want to hide in the shadows like his father and his contemporaries did. Also Weaver liked to fight and eventually entered the brutal world of bare knuckle fighting and made a name for himself (and some money) as the Lion of Judea. After sustaining a serious career ending injury, Weaver meets the doctor who eventually becomes his sidekick. Since he can’t fight anymore and needing to earn a living, Weaver has to find a new line of work so he drifted over to the continent and became a smuggler, highwayman and burglar. This didn’t last long because his innate honesty and his upbringing forced him to stop so back to London he goes.
Trading on his fame as a boxer, Weaver finds work as a “thief taker” which is a combination PI, debt collector, personal security, assets recovery specialist and bounty hunter mostly for the posh set of London, the businessmen and nobles. Weaver excels as a thief taker because unlike the other thief takers of the time, Weaver is honest, industrious and doesn’t rip of his own clients. Into his lap falls a case that changes his life.
The case that comes to him has a connection to his own father who had died years before. Weaver’s client claims that both his father and Weaver’s were murdered and he hires him to find out why. During the course of the investigation we crisscross London and its various levels of society from the drawing room of nobles to its lowest public houses, brothels and the coffee houses where the stock jobbers (traders) of the newly minted London Stock Exchange ply their trade.
What is interesting about this book is it’s essentially a story about stock fraud with murder via Dashiell Hammett since the catalyst of the story is The Great South Seas Stock Bubble of 1720. Stock fraud and manipulation, bank fraud and the inner workings of the new paper currency are explored. Thrown into the mix, Weaver has a rapprochement with his family, community and religion.
I highly recommend this book. It’s an engaging detective story with an interesting PI and great attention to details of the period.
Longitude (Dava Sobel 1995): I’ll keep this short since I’m probably the only person interested in this. The book is about the quest of various governments to figure out how to measure longitude at sea. On land it was relatively easy, if labor intensive, to map longitude but on the water it was near impossible until watchmaker John Harrison developed the marine chronometer in 1728. Prior to the chronometers development, open water sailing was done through dead reckoning which lead to a lot of maritime disasters. The book details both Harrison’s meticulous building of the chronometer and the bigger political war raged over the development of one of the most important pieces of technology ever created by man.
Declaration of the Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America (Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie 2011): I read a review of this book in Kirkus Review back in May and I was intrigued by it enough that when it hit the book store at the end of June I had a friend buy a copy and ship it over. I’m now about halfway though it and while I agree with a lot of it, I do find two problems so far with the book. The authors, Welch and Gillespie who are writers for Reason magazine, haven’t provided any new ideas on how to change things and often speak in generalities and most importantly one of their main ideas I disagree with totally. The authors think the “Millennial” generation is naturally libertarian due to the expanded choices presented by the Internet. While I agree in principle with that idea, the problem with that is the Internet itself. In many ways it has made people dumber since they have a distressing tendency to believe everything on the Internet as true especially if it fits their own beliefs (known as confirmation bias). How many times have you had a conversation with 18-22 year old (and older or younger for that matter) where they site blogs and message boards as stone cold fact and proof, for example, “according to Huffpo, Above Top Secret, Prison Planet, Coast To Coast AM or Schmuckitelli’s blog etc.” The belief that anything on the Internet is true is dangerous. The Internet has provided the world with untold accesses to information the likes of which has never been seen before. Unfortunately it has also overwhelmed most people under 35, and many over 35 for that matter, since they have almost no framework to absorb and use the info the Internet provides. The Millennials are even worse than older generations at assimilating Internet information.
I am going to do something here I have not done before and link to an outside review. I’m doing that because it’s a well written critique and I have not finished the book yet.
I like George Will, he is an excellent writer, clear thinker, smart as hell, non doctrinaire and looks spiffy in a bow tie and that’s not an easy look to pull off. Plus he’s a seam-head that doesn’t have much use for Bud Selig which is a good thing. I hope he becomes Commissioner of MLB if they can ever get rid of Selig.
Tongues of Serpents (Naomi Novik 2010): Here you go Pillow, something to ease the pain of your birthday series! This is the sixth and most recent book in the excellent Temeraire series. This book finds Temeraire and Will Laurence along with their crew, Iserkia (who came along in order to bang Temeraire), three eggs and their candidates including the slimy scumbag from book 1 Jeremy Rankin, banished to the rude and crude colony of New South Wales. Our heroes land themselves squarely in the middle of a political mess between the deposed governor William Bligh (yes he of the HMAV Bounty fame) and the current Governor who took over in a coup. When Laurence recognizes the quagmire they’ve landed in, he decides to take a job mapping a route from Sydney through the Blue Mountains. In typical Temeraire fashion, the simple job lands them in a jackpot. One of the eggs they are carrying gets stolen and off in pursuit they go. The trip takes them across the interior desert to the far coast. Along the way they solve the mystery of Australian dragons or lack thereof, have run-ins with Aborigines and find out that the Chinese have established an illegal trading center which has some “special” security.
This is a different sort of Temeraire book since it moves decidedly away from the Napoleonic Wars and casts Laurence and Temeraire out on their own. Technically they are prisoners yet Will Laurence is more or less the commanding Officer of the Aviators even though he was court marshaled in book 6. I liked the new direction for the story but reading some reviews, a lot of fans wanted more of the same and thought the new direction was weak. I recommend this book but understand it’s a big departure from prior books of the series.
Chaos: Making A New Science (James Glieck 1987): I will keep this short in recognition that again, probably nobody but me has any interest in this book and subject. Chaos is a staggering work of genius and I’m jealous of James Glieck’s ability to take an amazingly esoteric and beautiful subject like Chaos Theory and make it accessible and understandable to anybody. Glieck’s book was written at the dawn of Chaos Theory and even though the field has grown by leaps and bounds, this book is still the finest primer on the subject written. Chaos profiles the development of the theory and the mathematicians and scientists behind a paradigm shifting idea. Chaos Theory, boiled downed to its most basic idea, is finding order in underlying and unrelated data. Getting all sciencey sounding, what that means is Chaos Theory is the study of dynamical systems (weather, markets, biology, etc.) that are highly sensitive to the initial conditions around it. In human speak all that means is Chaos Theory is the study of what is commonly referred to as the Butterfly Effect.