John Irving, Random House, 2005
Typical John Irving, falling well within in his usual quirky spectrum of too-wierd-for-words and brilliant. A melancholy (until the last 150 pages or so) story about a young man, his missing-in-action father (a tattooed organist), and his mom (a tattoo artist and a … no, wait, that would give away too much). The main character feels very much like Owen Meany to me, although this book didn’t have that same feeling of building toward Owen Meany’s climactic ending. His story has three distinct parts, each of which has a distinct feeling: quirky initially, drifting and kind of an aimless sadness, and ending on a high note of hilarity and closure. To be honest, I struggled to make it through the later portion of that central part; the first half of the story, on the other hand, flew by, and the last 150 pages were a treat and went very quickly.
If you liked “A Prayer for Owen Meany” and/or “A Widow for One Year”, you will probably would enjoy this one, too (although I would place this book a notch below each of those two, which I consider to be his best so far).
Steven Levy, 2001, Viking
It’s subtitled “How the Code Rebels Beat the Government — Saving Privacy in the Digital Age”, and the common theme throughout the book is the “code rebels” (the individuals outside the NSA who were interested in cryptography) against the US government (whose interest and involvement in cryptography diametrically opposed those rebels’ privacy concerns). It is an interesting read, and provides a readable, (mostly) non-technical overview of cryptography. It starts with Whit Diffie’s realization that the privacy of his information on an multi-user timesharing system was in the hands of, and at the mercy of, the system administrator; the more he thought about that, the more he became convinced that there had to be a better way, and that as computers and networks became widespread, the privacy of his information and his communications was increasingly at stake. The story takes off from there.
Coincidentally, the day after I finished reading Crypto, the latest issue of Wired showed up in the mail. This issue’s (August 2005, 13.08) cover story is “10 Years that Changed the World” and is the story of the Web, the start of Netscape, and the explosion of the Web into almost every facet of life as we know it. I was struck by how much the work of those cryptographers enabled that explosion and changed the way we live and communicate. No e-commerce without that public key cryptography they worked so hard to invent and then, in spite of the government, make both available and reasonably secure would mean no overnight shipment of books on CSS and Python from Amazon.
Thomas H. Cook, 2005, Harcourt
Written by one my favorite authors, this is a book that I could not put down (almost literally). Deb grabbed it from the library on a Wednesday evening, and I finished it Thursday evening. Cook’s writing is always dark — Deb says it is often too dark for her. Reading this book is watching a man — father, husband, son, brother — as his life comes apart after an 8-year old girl disappears, last seen by his 15-year old son. Gripping. Disturbing. Sad. Thought-provoking. Beautifully written. True Cook in his depiction of relationships and how shallow and false they can be, how little we may really know about the people in our lives.
Grab your kids. Hug them. Talk to them. Love them. Know them.
Richard North Patterson, Random House, 2005
I just finished it. Patterson happens to be in the upper half of my list of favorite authors, and this one didn’t disappoint me. On the surface, it’s a story about the defense of a man convicted and sentenced to death for his role in a murder. More importantly (at least in my opinion), it’s an eye-opening, thought-provoking work that looks at the risks associated with (and to a lesser extent, the constitutionality of) capital punishment in the US, the workings of the US legal system (even as Patterson admits that he had to significantly simplify aspects of it to make the book accessible to readers), and how easy it is for our justice system to lose sight of the fact the system itself exists to protect individual people (both victims and people accused of crimes). This isn’t the first time that he has taken on a potentially difficult subject (the death penalty), but he does it in a manner that will (should?) have make people stop and think about their own views on the subject.