Monday, January 12, 2015

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Five out of five stars

This is the eleventh entry in Lawrence Block's excellent Matthew Scudder series, and it remains my favorite book in the series. As the story opens, Scudder and his girlfriend, Elaine, are thrown together with a young couple named Glenn and Lisa Holtzmann. Elaine and Lisa are taking a class together; the Holtzmanns live in the same neighborhood as the hotel where Matt lives, and the two couples wind up going out to dinner one night.

Matt is not overly impressed. He and Elaine have little in common with the younger couple and there's something about Glenn that puts Matt off. Given that they're something like neighbors, Matt runs into Holtzmann occasionally on the street and Holtzmann keeps proposing that they get together for lunch. Matt always manages to find a reason for refusing the offer and then, suddenly, he no longer needs one when Holtzmann is gunned down while using a pay phone a couple of blocks from his apartment.

The police immediately charge a street person named George Sadecki with the killing, and the evidence seems overwhelming. The police do not recover the weapon used, but Sadecki, a Vietnam vet, has policed the area and the police find the shell casings in his jacket pocket. Sadecki, who has never been quite "right" mentally, admits that he might have killed Holtzmann, but he doesn't remember one way or the other.

Sadecki's brother, Tom, knows Matt from AA, and doesn't believe that George would have been capable of killing anyone. He knows the odds are long, but he convinces Matt to look into the case in the hope of giving him some sort of closure. Matt agrees, although the case looks open-and-shut, and he warns Tom Sadecki not to expect much.

In a case like this, SOP is to start by investigating the victim to see who, if anyone, might have had cause to wish him harm. On the surface, Glenn Holtzmann appears to be a pretty straightforward yuppie lawyer, but as Scudder begins poking around, he uncovers some secrets about the late Mr. Holtzmann that are troubling, to say the least.

The case itself is intriguing, but what sets this book apart for me, above all the others in the series, is that Scudder is presented with two very critical moral issues that are not really directly related to the case itself. The real strength of this series has always been the development of the characters, Scudder in particular, and it's extremely interesting to watch him wrestle with these two issues.

To describe either dilemma would be to give away too much. Suffice it to say, that neither is easy, and both will require that Matt look deeply into his own soul in the hope of finding some sort of resolution. Fair warning: watching him do so may well require the reader to examine his or her own conscience as well. This is at least the third time I've read this book, and I'll eagerly look forward to it again as I make my way through this series the next time--one of my favorite crime novels of all.

Find Your Florence With Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet Florence Encounter (Travel Guide)Lonely Planet Florence Encounter by Robert Landon
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Firenze, tu sei il mio preferito città Italiane!

I was working at a map company, was about to go on vacation to Italy, and this was the only book we carried specifically on Florence, so I bought it. It wasn't the most useful travel guide I've ever used, but it's very compact (an actual "pocket book" that fits in the pocket, wow!), it's got some fancy pictures and if you're looking for places to eat, it gives you a nice, general rundown of what to expect in this most wondrous city!

Slim and more snapshotty than other more thorough and comprehensive Lonely Planets I've used, Florence Encounter provides a few good ideas that may not have been on your vacation itinerary if you're a first time visitor to Florence. One of my favorite experiences, learned about in this little book, was I Fratellini, a curbside wine and sandwich shop that serves up a simple, but delicious and inexpensive meal that you eat standing in the street or while literally sitting on the curb as we and my others did. It's a fantastically quick and cheap way to get something good in your belly, so you can move along to more touristy sights without spend all afternoon at a restaurant (sometimes it takes a while to eat in Italy I've found).

Travelers' Tip: When my wife and I went to Italy a few years back I learned some basic Italian so we could get around via train and bus, order in restaurants and handle hotel reservations. Because we were always in the major urban areas, it probably wasn't necessary, but it did come in handy now and then. Many Italians speak English, but certainly not all. And heck, it's just polite to exchange pleasantries in your host country's language.

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A Jesus For Everybody!

Muhammad: A Prophet for Our TimeMuhammad: A Prophet for Our Time by Karen Armstrong
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Looks a little like Jesus, doesn't he?

This was one of my first forays into the life of a man who has meant so much to so very many. Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time felt easily digestible to me, an outsider and an utterly ignorant one at that.

Having lived about 500 years after Jesus, we seem to know more concrete information about the life of this prophet, thought by Islamists to be the last prophet, than we do of the Christians' "son of god". He came from Mecca and is the man who brought all of the Arabian nations under one religious umbrella. He was a fighter, who raised a Jihadist army that he turned upon his own hometown, in the name of god of course.

Perhaps that sounded too snarky. I do not intend to belittle the man or his religion. My scorn is for all organized religions. However, I try to set aside my prejudices when reading non-fiction on religious matters or biographies regarding their saintly figures. For instance, some of Muhammad's deeds did not seem entirely honorable in hindsight, but that is hindsight, which is distorted by the distance of time.

Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time is a nice primer, a good first step towards greater knowledge. During these difficult times, when many of us Americans do not readily accept the followers of Islam with open arms, getting to know the history of the people is an important step in realizing our overwhelming similarities as humans, the one an only tribe of man and woman that should truly matter.

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