Monday, March 30, 2009

Readin': Four by Charles McCarry

I tend to get on a roll with authors. If I read a first book by one and like it, I will often begin a quest to read everything they have written to date. This is not too hard with most authors, as they generally have written less than 10 books, but when you get to a Robert B. Parker or Isaac Asimov, you are in deep trouble. Mr. Asimov, to my knowledge, still holds the Guiness Book record for most books authored by one man at over 400!

Well, I began that roll with Charles McCarry during Christmas vacation when I read The Miernik Dossier. Since then I have read several in the Paul Christopher series. McCarry started writing in the 1970's, after he was no longer working as a deep-cover agent. He's written both fiction and non-fiction, but I'm only interested in his fiction at this point.

The latest quartet of books that I've read by him are Christopher's Ghosts, Old Boys, The Secret Lovers, and The Better Angels. I am almost halfway through Lucky Bastard, but will not write about that one until I have finished.

Christopher's Ghosts
is one of McCarry's latest as it carries a 2007 copyright. The book is split between the years just before WWII in Germany when Paul is in his teens and the 1950s when he is back in Germany and comes into contact with the former SS man who, in part, made his family's life so difficult as 1939 drew closer. The novel reveals Paul's first real love and the part the SS man played in snuffing that out. The novel is psychologically very rich and deep. McCarry writes as well as ever and is a master of description and action.

Old Boys tells the story of Paul Christopher's continued search for his mother. Neither he, nor his father ever stopped believing that Lori Christopher was alive; Hubbard Christopher until his death in the 1950 in Berlin. Though Paul and his mother are a main focus of the novel, neither of them appears in the action until very late in the book. The story is told from the point of view of 4 men who have gone looking for Paul who has been reported dead. The Old Boys meet at his funeral and, at a private gathering afterwards, discover that none of them believes him to be really gone. The novel chronicles their adventures around the world as they search out Paul, and eventually find him with his mother. Very satisfying book and though Lori Christopher's life had an arc like no other, it is still believable. Well worth reading, just not as the first introduction to the world of Paul Christopher as much of the satisfaction of reading comes from seeing men from other novels in new situations and roles.

The Secret Lovers is a book I should have read earlier in the sequence. The novel tells of Paul's marriage to his first wife and of his relentless pursuit of the truth about an operation that caused a death when it should not have. In books I read earlier, there had been references to Paul's first wife. Perhaps I would have understood them more deeply if I had read this one first. Well, there's no going back and I read them in the order I read them. Oh well.

The title of the book works on a couple of levels; first, there are lovers having affairs that are not to be spoken of. In addition, most of the operatives are in love with the idea of secrets that are the truth behind what the rest of the world perceives as 'reality'. It is this love of secrets that sustains them in their lonely, single-minded, and casually violent work.

The Better Angels
is also a book I would have been better off reading earlier. One of the Old Boys in Old Boys, central to the plot of that book, revisits an operation that had previously been thought to be successful. A good portion of The Better Angels concerns that operation and its effect on the major players involved; a President, his chief of staff, a major broadcast journalist, the director of the intelligence service and one of his bureau chiefs (brother to the president's chief of staff and one of the central characters in Old Boys). The story is well told, as usual. The twists and turns of the plot follow the lives of the characters through the course of almost 10 years in flashbacks, though the main action of the book takes place during about four months from the nomination of presidential candidates to Election night.

Knowing what I do from statements in Old Boys, I wish I had read The Better Angels and Shelley's Heart before Old Boys. I have not yet read Shelley's Heart, but I'm sure I will eventually. I have no doubt that I will enjoy it.

A reasonable order for reading the Paul Christopher novels in would be: The Miernik Dossier, The Tears of Autumn, The Secret Lovers, The Better Angels, The Last Supper, Second Sight, Shelley's Heart, Old Boys, and Christopher's Ghosts. Actually, any order would probably be fine; the one I have read them in has been pretty good. I guess you just pick up a different set of nuances when you read them in a particular order.

As with Robert Parker novels, I can't see buying these in hardbound editions. Unfortunately, that means that there are some in the series that are not available to me. The first 5 books I read, (Miernik, Tears, Supper, Ghost, and Old Boys) were the only ones available in paperback. As a result I have resorted to my old friend, the King County Public Library. I got The Secret Lovers, The Better Angels, and Lucky Bastard from the KCPL. They are due next Saturday, April 4. I am sure that I will be done with LB by then. Perhaps I will even have written about it!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Life Happens

Yesterday in the afternoon I was upstairs at the home computer preparing to start a blog post when the power went out. Weather-wise, yesterday offered a little bit of everything; snow in the morning with flakes the size of Oreos, blue skies and sun, vicious wind and rain, sleet. The windstorm in the afternoon was pushing the trees around in pretty amazing fashion.

Because we live in a heavily wooded ravine, we are subject to interruptions of power any time the weather pushes the trees around a good bit; heavy snow or heavy wind being the two biggest pushers. I guess the wind did it this time as the snow only lasted a couple of hours before being chased away by the rain, sun and wind.

So, once the power went out, I disconnected the computer from the power because I didn't want a repeat of frying the video card as happened the last time we lost power. Then I went outside, hooked up and fired up the generator. That Honda generator keeps power going to the refrigerators and freezers, the furnace/water heater, the sump pump, various lights in the house and everything in the living room.

All that explanation is my way of saying why I didn't do another Readin': post yesterday. I won't get it done tonight either, but hope to get back to it in a day or two.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Readin': Robert Parker's Stone-flavored popcorn

I've been steadily reading these days, but haven't written anything up in quite a while. As a result I have a backlog of eight books to write about. As several of them can logically be grouped together, I'll do those as groups and get to the singles separately.

Robert B. Parker has been a favorite writer of mine for a long time. His most famous works are the Spenser series (35 books so far). This series was the basis for the Spenser: For Hire television show. He's also got two newer series out as well; one featuring Sunny Randall, a former-cop, now private investigator based in Boston (6 books), the other is centered on Jesse Stone, police chief of Paradise, Massachusetts, a small town north of Boston (7 books).

Parker writes great dialog, perhaps the best I have read. He sets the stage for a conversation and then lets it play out over the course of the next several pages. The art of his books is in the way he allows most of the action to flow from the dialog. It's really well done and the voices of his characters are quite specific and unique. You would never mistake one character for another, even in the midst of a dialog that runs several pages. Because these books are so heavily dialog-based they read extremely quickly. Most of his novels run about 270-280 pages in paperback. If I start one in the early evening, I can be finished with it before bedtime. That's why I refer to them as "popcorn". They are light, generally satisfying, and highly addictive.

High Profile and Stranger in Paradise are the two Jesse Stone novels that I have finished most recently. In High Profile he tells the story of two murders that happen in Paradise that are connected by much more than they appear to be on the surface. A nationally known talk show host is found hung from a tree in a public park. He had not been killed there, but shot somewhere else and then displayed there to be found. The body of his personal assistant, now 10 weeks pregnant with his child, is discovered in a Dumpster behind one of the cafes in Paradise.

Jesse Stone is a former baseball player, former L.A. cop, and alcoholic. His ex-wife, with whom his is deeply enmeshed, is a Boston television personality who has followed him East from L.A.. He is also quite smart, deeply observant, and capable of molding his small-town police force into a something much more than anyone could expect it to be. With a thriving cast of characters in the department, creative possibilities for dialog abound. He is able to do the investigative work and make the connections that allow the complex case to be solved (of course, he is. What would be the point of the book if he didn't solve the case in his alloted 280 pages?).

Jesse is regularly seeing a shrink named Dix to help him figure out both his drinking and his complex relationship with his ex-wife. As a result of that work, Jesse is quite perceptive about human nature and accepting of its wild vagaries. It also allows him to see the depth in the case in front of him and not be distracted by the surface details. With his insight, he is able to get to the bottom of a case that he should not, in the normal turn of events, been able to figure out.

Stranger in Paradise brings Jesse together in an uneasy alliance with a character from one of his earlier novels. Wilson Crowmartie, Crow to almost everyone in the book, is a contract killer who describes himself as an Apache warrior. For all anyone knows, he may well be. He is, for sure, an amazing 'man of action'; highly capable and able to master his fears in a way that lets him operate in very dangerous situations. Jesse wants to arrest him for his actions the last time he was in town, when he ended up getting away with $10 million. Crow has come to town on a contract to return a teenaged girl to her south Florida-gangster father and dispose of the mother. He does not want to do either of those things; fighting/killing women is unworthy of an Apache warrior. He knows that, having found the mother and daughter and reported that to the father, his contract obligates him to finish up. He doesn't and needs Jesse's help to pull off saving them both.

In the meanwhile, the daughter has gotten hooked up with a Hispanic gang in a nearby town and that presents complications. The gang makes contact with the father and takes and executes the contract on the mother. Between Crow and Jesse, they are able to bring the father and gang together in one place and either kill or arrest most of the bad guys. In addition, they manage to extort $1 million from the father and set up a trust fund for the daughter so that she can build a life of her own. There's quite a bit of moral ambiguity for both Crow and Jesse in working together which adds a depth to the book that is quite interesting.

As usual, both novels were one-night reads; one right after the other. I refuse to buy Parker novels in hardbound editions. They read so quickly, it seems wasteful to buy them in anything but paperback. He is, fortunately, quite prolific, so there are usually either a Spenser, Randall, or Stone novel appearing in paperback every 4 - 6 months. With 13 other books to his credit beyond these three series, Robert B. Parker is a very busy man at what he does. Having 61 books to his credit would seem to be enough for almost any author. I enjoy his work immensely, having read all of each series and most, though not all, of the other books besides. Stay well, Robert B., I'd like to keep reading your work.

OK, that's two down and six to go. Three of them are Charles McCarry Paul Christoper novels. Two of them are travel writing focusing on elephants in India by Mark Shand. The last one is a book about working in a restaurant kitchen by Bill Buford given to me by my brother the chef. I will tackle some of them in my next posts. No more this afternoon, I'm leaving soon to go to the state girls' 3A high school basketball finals in Tacoma with my brother and niece (who goes to one of the schools in the final, Kennedy). Bye for now, I expect I'll write more tomorrow.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Raisin' Fish: Please Release Me.

Having seen how close the fry were two weeks ago, I was pretty sure that they would be ready to go this weekend. Before I could let them go, though, I had to confirm that they were ready. This involves a visual inspection of some fish so you can see that their bellies are sealed up. In order to do that, I had to go to Petco to get a new dip net; somehow my old one got a big hole in it after 10 years and I haven't seen it all season anyway, so it was time for a replacement.

Once I got down to the incubator around 11:45 Saturday morning, I opened the lid to see what I could see. The little guys looked really good.

Lots of coho fry ready to go.

As a coho fry changes from being an alevin, it starts to build the muscles that will become its body. These start to grow from the spine and gradually get bigger and thicker, eventually growing around the shrinking yolk sac that they are subsisting on (which is also turning into their digestive tract). When the two sides of the fish are closed up, or are within 1 mm of closing, they are ready to be released. Keeping them in the incubator for any longer is not good for them; they'll be overcrowded and with their food source gone and not that much food available in the water cycling through the barrel, they will start to prey on one another. So I dipped my new net into the water and pulled out a handful of fry for closer inspection. This is what I saw:

A net full of coho fry

As you can see, their bellies are all closed up. They are ready to go. By this time, lots more of the curious fellows were rising up to the top of the incubator to get a look at what was going on. This seems like a lot of fish; really though, it isn't. Wait 'til you see how many fish were actually there.

Coho salmon fry in the morning before release.

I could have released them right then, but I didn't. It was mid-day with several hours of light left. In years passed, I have generally released the fish in the early morning. This was mostly due to convenience; I have a job to get to and I usually don't get home until dark or soon after, not the best time for spending an hour or so beside McAleer Creek. I wanted to be around to see them go and Claire and I were going to be leaving to go to the UW basketball game in just a few minutes. The game would end around 4:30, so we could get home around 5 and release them with about an hour of daylight left. This would allow most of them to get into the creek during the night, safe from most predators. I love how the fish look at this point; their fins and tails are very delicate looking and are a lovely shade of red. These guys want to go, NOW.

Coho fry waiting for release

On our way home from the game it started to snow. It was just a small flurry, but by the time we got home there was a coating atop the incubator.

A bit of snow atop the incubator

I pulled the top off the incubator. This is the last time the incubator will have the screen on it until next winter just after I put the new 'eyed' eggs into the barrel.

Coho fry about to be released.

Once the exit screen is removed, water starts to flow more quickly through the incubator. The fry notice the change in the current and begin to rise up out of the bottom.

Coho fry rising up to the top

Within a couple of minutes, there are significantly more fish than you thought the barrel would hold.

Coho fry in the incubator

Coho salmon fry, like most other fish, orient themselves locally by facing into the current. This makes it easier for them to breathe (they just have to open their mouth) and eat (they just have to open their mouth and swallow). In a sense, you can get a good idea of the currents in the water by looking at how they are oriented. They're like iron filings responding to the forces generated by a magnet.

Rising up out of the barrel

Because it was getting darker I began to use the flash on my camera. That's why the coloring of the fish changes (and you can see a bright spot on the water, probably a reflection of the flash).

Lots of coho salmon fry.

The fry seem almost schizophrenic; on the one hand, they want to get out into the creek, on the other, they seem to resist the pull of the current. Most of them are already strong enough swimmers that they are able to resist the current generated at the mouth of the exit pipe.

Swimming Upstream

The ones who face into the current can swim against it fine. The ones at an angle to the current entering the exit pipe get sucked down and out.

Coho salmon being released

Once out of the exit pipe, the fry begin to collect along the sides of the creek. They are too small to resist the flow of the creek anywhere near the middle, so they automatically head for the sides and begin to accumulate in the nooks and crannies. The local salmon gurus encourage people to leave the sides of creeks running through their property in a natural state; this gives the young fry lots of habitat in which to hide. As you can see, they blend in pretty well with the sand and gravel at the bottom of the creek. These little guys are hiding beneath a cedar tree growing right alongside the incubator exit pipe.

Coho fry swimming in the shallows

They take advantage of any small space and begin to congregate there. Parts of the creek that run through my front yard are lined with broken slabs of concrete; old sidewalks or driveways that are now serving another purpose. They control erosion along the bank, but because of their irregular nature, they also provide hiding places for baby fish. Look closely and you will see several fry in this picture.

Coho fry in the water

So, as dusk turned to full dark, we put the lid back on the incubator and allowed all those thousands of fry to slide quietly into the night.

This afternoon, Sunday, March 8, I went down to the incubator to check on the progress of the release. It's a process that happens over time; alot of the fish go out in the first hour or so, but many of them stay in the incubator for quite a while longer. I knew that there would still be fry in the barrel this afternoon and I was not disappointed in that.

Doesn't appear to be many fish left.

On first inspection, it doesn't seem there are that many. Two things have happened; first, there are nowhere near as many as there were yesterday, but second, the fry have been in relative darkness with the lid on the incubator. When I removed the lid, they dove for the bottom and their hiding places.

Once they settled down a bit, they came rising up to check things out.

Coho fry in the incubator

I watched them for a little while and saw that there are probably a couple hundred fish still in the incubator. Most of them will leave its safety over the next week. I can pretty much guarantee that when I look inside in a couple of weeks, there will still be fish in there. Some of those guys like it in there and with 60,000+ of their brothers and sisters now having vacated the premises, there's more room to move around and probably enough food to go around.

Coho fry still in the incubator

The water is running clean and clear. One thing I noticed in the picture above is the little bits of algae floating in the water. The fry will eat that for a while and then eventually graduate to eating little bugs in the water. With so few fish, there seems to be more than enough food in there for the time being. Because there is very little insect life in the barrel, the fry will have to go out to the creek for food at some point in the future. They're welcome to hang around for as long as they need to.

This has been a relatively successful year. Out of the 70,000 'eyed' eggs we put into the incubator on December 10, probably 64-65,000 of them have grown to the fry stage and most of them have been released into McAleer Creek.

Coho salmon overwinter in their birth creek. That means that they are born in the winter of one year (like 2008/09), but will stay in the creek for a full year and leave the next spring (2010). Those that survive that long will be about 6 - 9" long and ready to go out through Lake Washington, the Mountlake cut, Lake Union and the Ship Canal, through the Ballard Locks, and out into Puget Sound. Those that make it through that gauntlet will head up to the Gulf of Alaska for a couple of years and return in 2013 or 2014. Less than 1% are likely to return. If 1% did, then 640 or 650 fish would be swimming up McAleer Creek. That would be a noticeable improvement on what we have today.

I'll keep doing this as long as the State Department of Fisheries continues to give me eggs. It's fun. I enjoy playing in the water and I like having a positive effect on the environment. Even if very few fish come back, there are a lot of other animals that are happy; kingfishers, great blue herons, Dolly Varden trout, seals, sea lions, orcas. Though I have now been doing this for 10 of the last 11 years, I never tire of the mysteries of growth and life contained in that black barrel; my wild salmon incubator.

Hoop: It's Lonely at the Top, but that's OK

Yesterday afternoon, Claire and I went to a college basketball movie. In it, the home team was playing its last game of the regular season on Senior day against its long time rivals. The outcome of the game would determine the championship of the league. Only, this movie was real. UW faced WSU at 2:30 yesterday. If UW won, they would be the sole champions of the Pac-10 for the first time in 56 years. Yes, that's right, the last time they won it outright was with aBob Houbregs-led team in 1953.

Lorenzo Romar Celebrating

Photo taken by Jon Lock/The Seattle Times

Well, they did it in convincing and, by now, traditional UW Huskies fashion. Several of their regular high scorers, Isaiah Thomas and Jon Brockmann among them, did not chip in their regular contributions. As has been the case all year long, other players, notably Venoy Overton, Quincy Pondexter, Darnell Gant, and Justin Holiday, made up for the difference. Jon Brockman had his standard, solid game on the boards, taking down 18 rebounds. However he only scored 7 points, well below his average. That didn't matter too much though, as he was the presence we needed in the middle and Pondexter (16), Gant (6) and Holiday(4) took care of putting in the points. There have been games in the past where those three contributed in the single digits, not 1/3 of the team's point total.

I.T. also had an off day offensively, but Dentmon (12) and, more importantly, Overton (14) picked up the slack. J.D. is always reliable, but Venoy can be really streaky. He plays great defense, but doesn't always make such a substantial contribution on offense. Yesterday, he did and we needed every bit of it.

The game was pretty close the whole way with the Huskies usually in the lead, but generally by no more than 4 or 5 points. At halftime, they led the Cougars 30-25. The Cougs were able to trim it to 1 point with 11 minutes to go, but the Huskies battled back and kept the game just out of reach. With 2:22 left they were ahead by 4 and kept it there the rest of the way, stretching it out just a little to finish with 67 to Washington State's 60. A great win and a great season so far.

At one point in the second half, sunlight began streaming in the windows at the Huskies end of the floor and lit up the crowd in the upper half of the bowl. The lighting effect looked like it had been designed in Hollywood. It was very cool.

The Huskies will begin the Pac-10 tournament in Los Angeles on Thursday against either Stanford or Oregon State, both teams they have beaten in the past. Of course, you can say that about most teams in the Pac-10; the only one they didn't beat was Cal. Next Sunday is the NCAA Selection Sunday. Can't wait to see where UW ends up and how far they get in the Big Dance.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Hoops: One Toasted Redhawk, Comin' Right Up!

Last night, UW played Seattle University at Hec Ed. This was a make up game for the Lehigh game that was cancelled during the Christmas snowstorms (December 23). It was a reasonably good game with a predictable result; SU got hammered by 27 with the final score UW 87 - Seattle U 60.

One of my seat neighbors characterized the game as a lose-lose proposition for UW; if we lost, we'd lose face (and NCAA tournament placement?) big time, if we won by less than 20, it would be a disgrace. So, the outcome was the only one that wouldn't diminish our prospects in any way.

The Huskies played their usual brand of in-your-face, ball-denial defense and the SU guards had a tough time getting their offense to run. For the first couple of minutes, it looked like they might be able to make a game of it, though I was thinking in the back of my mind that it was just the adrenaline rush working and when that wore out, the Redhawks were done for. After battling to a 4-4 tie in the first couple of minutes (UW had a tough time with their 2-3 and 1-3-1 zones for a little while), the initial rush wore out and the onslaught started.

It seemed that we stole the ball practically at will. Our defense was definitely the engine that was making our offense go. On top of that, when we did get into a half court set, we were able to get the ball in to Jon Brockman or Matthew Bryan-Amaning seemingly at will. Brockman converted a lot of those, scoring 16 points before he went out with about 9 minutes left to play. MBA, on the other hand, couldn't seem to find the bucket last night, scoring only two points on foul shots (and he was 2 for 4 there!). He did contribute on defense, swatting numerous shots away and rebounding ferociously.

Everyone on the Huskies played, with the exception of Tyreese Bresheers (who is on the roster, but I have not seen him play all year). Everyone who played, scored. Artem Wallace came in with 9:46 to go; he scored 8. Joe Wolfinger came in at 6:20; he scored 7 (a deuce, a three, and two foul shots (2-2). Hell, even Scott Suggs scored!

The last 10 minutes were pretty much garbage time. The cushion was 25-30 points and it stayed pretty much that way with the teams trading buckets from one end to the other.

The only negative thing I can say about SU is the incredibly dirty play I saw coming from their junior guard from Hillsboro, Oregon, Chris Gweth. He knocked Isaiah Thomas to the floor from behind on a layup that he had no chance of blocking. He undercut Quincy Pondexter as he went up for a bucket, causing him to come down hard on the back of his shoulders/neck/head. A touch more wrong angle there and they would have had to carry out a paralyzed or dead - (Dale Earnhardt died from the same sort of basal skull fracture) player. I'm surprised that the Huskies didn't single him out for revenge. It certainly would have sucked to have two of our starters taken out by a backup player; our chances of advancing in the Pac-10 or NCAA tournaments would be much lower without either of those guys, especially I.T..

These are the things that interest me. If any of them are of interest to you, great. Read along


About Me

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I'm currently 60 years old. I currently work as the learning management system specialist for American University of Madaba in Madaba, Jordan. I was originally certified as a high-school English teacher and taught school for 13 years (1 year of substituting, 1 year of 7th grade, 2 years of a combined 5th, 6th, 7th grade, 9 years of 8th grade). I've worked for hardware and software companies for the past 23 years doing training, training materials development, certification test development and other education related stuff. My wife and I have raised four children to adulthood; some of them live at home at the moment, but that won't last (they're too independent for that). We live at home with 2 Golden Retrievers, 2 black cats, a crazy cat, and, during the winter, 70,000 coho salmon.