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Sunday, August 28, 2016

What I'm reading (#19)

Everyone handles loss and grief differently.  Some turn inward; some weep; some become angry.  When Helen Macdonald's beloved father died, suddenly and unexpectedly, her world seemed to crumble around her.  She'd lost her touchstone, one of the small number of people in her life that anchored it, made it make sense.

She tumbled headlong into a depression that severed her from contact with friends and the rest of her family.  There was only one thing in her life that still felt real to her.

Helen was a falconer.  It'd been her driving passion since childhood, since discovering T. H. White's book The Goshawk and realizing, "I want to do this."

She tells the story of her ride upwards out of her grief and despondency on the tail of a goshawk named Mabel in her book H is for Hawk.  It is a brilliant, occasionally funny, deeply moving tale of how one woman dealt with the horrible ache of losing someone dear -- and is a gripping, thought-provoking read.

Goshawks are notoriously difficult to train.  They are nervous, stubborn, aggressive, and aloof.  Her choice of this species was deliberate -- she needed something to sink herself into, to distract her from her despair.  Along the way, she parallels her story with the one White told about his own similar experience in his book The Goshawk.  White (the author of The Once and Future King) was a deeply unhappy man, who never recovered from abuse he received as a child at the hands of his insane father and various sadistic schoolmasters.  He, too, was dealing with despair, albeit of a different sort, and looked to the wildness and freedom of a hawk to teach him how to live.

Macdonald's path was not an easy one, but what she learns along the way was worth the pain, and what she learned had to come from experience.  On the other hand, White in the end lost focus, and also lost his hawk, Gos; afterwards he compares Gos with symbols of violence, with bloodthirsty men from the pages of human history, and his own failed attempts to train him as a war.  Macdonald writes:
I swear to myself, standing there with [White's] book open in my hand, that I will not ever reduce my hawk to a hieroglyph, an historical figure or a misremembered villain.  Of course I won't.  I can't.  Because she is not human.  Of all the lessons I've learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there -- rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly.  They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world.  In my time with Mabel I've learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.  And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it.  Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities.  Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.
H is for Hawk is a fantastic book, one that you will remember for a long time after you turn the last page.  Macdonald's trek through the valley of the shadow of death is one we all take, for all of us lose people dear to us, all of us have to come to terms with that most difficult part of what it means to be human.  In her book, we learn along with her that such grief can be endured, and the lessons it has to teach are truly worth learning, however much they cost us in pain and anguish.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

What I'm reading (#18)

I am fascinated by how the universe works.  It's what got me into science; I felt driven to understand not just the surface, the descriptive stuff, but why things operate as they do.  Of course, when you start pursuing the whys in science, you get yourself in deep water fast -- and, according to a physics professor friend of mine, you will inevitably at some point come up against the brick wall of "we don't know why this is the way things are; they just are this way."

But it's this drive to comprehend the inner workings that spurred me to read Sean Carroll's amazing book The Particle at the End of the Universe -- the story of how the Higgs boson was discovered, and what it implies about the deep structure of the cosmos.  Carroll's book is at once personal and technical; any huge endeavor such as the search for the Higgs inevitably involves a kaleidoscope of different personalities, each with their own specialties and quirks.  Carroll does a wonderful job of showing us not only the science behind the Higgs, but the fascinating interplay of scientists and technicians that made its discovery possible.

It's also inevitable, however, that the book involves some venturing into the deeper waters I alluded to earlier.  I found parts of it a challenging read, despite my bachelor's degree in physics (although I must, in the interest of honesty, mention that my performance as a physics student was lackluster at best).  But even the parts that were difficult were worth muddling through.  He's a wonderfully lucid writer, and the glimpses you get of the inner workings of particle physics are as grand as they are mind-bending.

And he's up front, too, about the fact that there are still huge gaps in our understanding.  Even what we do know has a mystifying quality to it, when you take it to the level of subatomic physics.  Take the following passage from Carroll's book, about something that we experience every day -- light:
It's only because the data force us into corners that we are inspired to create the highly counterintuitive structures that form the basis for modern physics...  Imagine that a person in the ancient world was wondering what made the sun shine.  It's not really credible to imagine that they would think about it for a while and decide, "I bet most of the sun is made up of particles that can bump into one another and stick together, with one of them converting into a different kind of particle by emitting yet a third particle, which would be massless if it wasn't for the existence of a field that fill space and breaks the symmetry that is responsible for the associated force, and that fusion of the original two particles releases energy, which we ultimately see as sunlight."  But that's exactly what happens.  It took many decades to put this story together, and it never would have happened if our hands weren't forced by the demands of observation and experiment at every step.
So along with Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos, The Particle at the End of the Universe is another book to add to your list of fantastic non-fiction reads.  I won't promise that it'll be an easy summer read -- but you will come away with your mind significantly expanded.  And as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions."

Monday, August 1, 2016

Teaser -- Poison the Well

The first chapter of Poison the Well -- the first of the Parsifal Snowe mysteries, about a psychic detective agency.  Coming out in print from Oghma Creative Media in Summer of 2017!


“There he is.”
Bethany Hale’s voice, although quiet, somehow had the ability to be heard over the noise of a busy night in Arcangeli’s. The silver-haired man across from her, dressed in an immaculate, perfectly tailored Armani suit, nodded at her, and made a little gesture with the balloon glass of cognac he held in his left hand.
“You should go to him, then?”
“No,” Bethany said. “Just watch.”
The man they were observing had just entered the restaurant, and stood for a moment in the doorway. After giving a rather imperious look around the room, he went to the bar and sat down, a confident half-smile on his face. He was wearing an expensive-looking pale green shirt with a sport jacket, but its cut accentuated, rather than hid, the body it covered. Even with the fabric in the way, Bethany got a sense of the muscles rippling underneath, and wondered how many hours a week he spent in the gym. When he turned his head she saw an angular face, jaw darkened with five-o’clock shadow. His smooth tan suggested that he spent a great deal of time in the sun. His hair was black, and gave the appearance of being carelessly brushed, but Bethany suspected that every strand was exactly where he intended it to be.
The man was sitting on a bar stool, leaning to the side with leonine indolence, elbow on the bar. He spoke a few words to the bartender, and a moment later had a drink in front of him—it looked like a gin and tonic, or something else clear with a wedge of lime in it. He took a sip from his drink, and made a comment to the woman who was sitting next to him, who half turned toward him with a faint smile.
She was elegantly, but simply dressed, with a close-fitting garment of a watery silver, cut modestly but deeply enough to be alluring. A necklace with a white stone, perhaps an opal, lay against her skin, and caught the light when she moved.
They spoke in quick sentences. It was clear, even from across the room, that they were strangers. Something about her reserve made it obvious. But she was friendly, smiling, and then laughed at something he said, looking down immediately afterward and lifting her glass of white wine as if to say, “I’ll drink to that.”
Bethany, watching them from across the room, cleared her throat, fidgeted with her silverware.
“What are you waiting to observe, Ms. Hale?” her companion said.
The man at the bar said something to the woman next to him, reached out and touched her necklace. Bethany tensed, and said, “Now. Watch.”
The silver-haired gentleman half-turned toward the bar, seeming slightly embarrassed to be so blatantly watching the couple. Bethany, however, had no such compunctions, and kept her eyes fixed on the man in the green shirt. He lifted the opal from the woman’s neck, and held it briefly, and said something. The woman smiled, and reached up, touching the stone herself as it lay against his fingers.
The man smiled, and let the necklace drop gently. The conversation between him and the woman next to him continued for a few moments, but then she finished her wine, set the glass on the bar, and after a quick word to the man and the bartender, picked up her purse and left.
“Fascinating,” Bethany said.
“You’ll go to him, then?” her companion responded.
Bethany nodded, and her lips compressed into a thin line. “Yes,” she said, but privately thought, And if he tries to touch my necklace, I’m going to slap the hell out of him.
She made her way across the room, and up to the now empty seat at the bar. The man turned a little toward her, and nodded, and said, “Evening.”
Bethany gave a chilly little smile, and said, “Would you mind very much coming over to my table? I and a business associate have a proposal that you may be interested in.”
The man’s eyebrows went up, and he gave her an amused grin. “Now there’s a pickup line I’ve never heard.”
Only one of Bethany’s eyebrows went up, a fraction of an inch, and she said, “It’s not a pickup line.” And she thought, Maybe I’ll slap him anyway, just to be on the safe side.
“Oh?” the man said. “And how do you know what sort of business I’m in? Maybe I’m a stockbroker, maybe I’m a used car salesman, and as far as I know I’ve never seen you in my life, so unless your business is professional stalker, you have no way of knowing what my talents are.”
“Let’s take as a working model that we believe you might be interested to hear what we have to say. Then you respond, ‘Okay,’ and follow me across the room, and we can tell you about it, rather than wasting our time speculating.” Bethany’s voice, always level and no-nonsense, took on that almost clinical tone that she was unable to prevent when speaking to someone she instinctively disliked.
The man, far from put off by her iciness, simply smiled again, and said, “All right, you win.” He stood, tossed a ten-dollar bill on the bar, picked up his drink, and followed Bethany across the room.
Bethany gestured at her silver-haired dining companion, and said, “Allow me to introduce Mr. Parsifal Snowe.”
Mr. Snowe stood up, held out a neatly manicured hand, which the younger man took in a firm handshake. “Seth Augustine,” he said. 
“A pleasure,” Mr. Snowe said.
“Likewise.” Seth turned toward Bethany. “I’m told you have some sort of business proposal to make to me. Correct, Ms…?” He gave his crooked half-smile again.
“Hale,” Bethany said. “Bethany Hale.”
“Ms. Hale,” Seth said. “Nice to meet you, as well.”
Bethany didn’t respond, but merely sat down, waiting for Mr. Snowe to speak.
“Please, Mr. Augustine,” Mr. Snowe said, and gestured to a chair. 
Seth sat, and leaned forward, his dark eyes full of curiosity. If he is in the least ill at ease, Bethany thought, he hides it well.
“Ms. Hale and I are colleagues,” Mr. Snowe said. “We are two members of a private detective agency.”
Seth smiled, and turned his hands palm upwards. “I’m not a detective, Mr. Snowe.”
“We know that. However, you do have a talent that we might be able to find a use for.”
“My only training is in finance,” Seth said. “Somehow, I doubt you’re looking for someone to set up IRA plans for your employees.”
Mr. Snowe smiled blandly. “No, you’re quite correct about that. We’re referring to another talent of yours.”
“You’re a psychometer,” Bethany said.
Seth turned toward her. “I’ve never heard it called that.”
“You know the term, though?”
Seth shrugged. “I can guess what it means.”
“You pick up information from objects.”
“Yes. It’s useful.”
“Such as when you want to know if a woman is interested in you.”
He grinned. “Sure, why not?”
Bethany bristled. “A bit of an unfair advantage, don’t you think?”
“Why? Women complain about men making unwanted passes at them. If I can find out ahead of time if she’s ready and willing, it saves the woman in question the discomfort of having someone she’s not interested in coming on to her, and saves me the frustration of spending an entire evening pursuing someone for no… payoff later.” He shrugged. “Of course, in your case, I hardly need to pick up your wine glass to find out that you pack pepper spray.”
Mr. Snowe lifted one finger from his cognac glass, and Bethany suppressed the angry response that was about to escape her lips. “The salient point here, Mr. Augustine,” Mr. Snowe said, “is that we would like to employ your services.”
Seth turned back to him, and Bethany thought, He’s good at masking what he’s thinking, and his psychometric ability has made him cocky. Wait till he meets Callista—we’ll see how he feels when the playing field is a little more equal.
“Would I be acting as a consultant, or a regular employee?”
“I am prepared to hire you for a current case, which we will discuss with you if you accept the position,” Mr. Snowe said. “We are investigating a crime for which the services of a psychometer would be a great advantage. Whether you continue to work for us after that would, of course, be dependent on a great many things.”
“You’re currently unemployed,” Bethany said.
Seth rounded on her. “How do you know that?”
Bethany smiled. Knocked him askew on that one, she thought. “Let’s just say that you’re not the only one who has ways of accessing information about people,” she said.
Seth’s smile returned, although it looked a little thin. He shrugged. “No point in hiding it, I guess. It’d have come up eventually in any case. I got fired from my last job. I was a financial consultant with Carthen, Douglas, and Prescott. A damn good one, too,” he added, a little defiantly.
Doesn’t like not having the advantage, Bethany thought, and decided to press it further. She wasn’t sure whether it was out of curiosity as to how he’d react, or sheer spite, and then she decided that she didn’t care.
“Guess you should have thought twice about boinking the boss’s daughter,” she said. “What, didn’t her necklace tell you that daddy would object?”
Seth’s eyebrows drew together in a scowl, and he started to respond, but Mr. Snowe again gave a small gesture with his hand.
“Ms. Hale, Mr. Augustine, please,” he said. “This is all very much beside the point. We are not concerned here with why you were dismissed from your previous position, because neither the position nor the dismissal is germane to what we would like you to do for us.”
Seth subsided, but gave Bethany a glare before turning back to look at Mr. Snowe. “Okay,” he said. “I’m interested.” He cleared his throat. “What kind of salary are we talking about?”
“I would prefer to discuss remuneration in private,” Mr. Snowe said, looking a little embarrassed to have to discuss such matters at all. “But as far as the financial end of things, I can assure you that we could make it worth your while. It might not be as lucrative as your previous employment was, but I think we can make you an offer that would be quite attractive.”
Seth nodded. “All right,” he said. “You can count me in, assuming that I agree about your offer after we discuss it. What sort of case is it?”
“Murder,” Mr. Snowe said. “Ms. Hale, do you have the file?”
Bethany looked over at Mr. Snowe and said, “Sir, do you think it is wise, before he’s agreed to work for us…” She trailed off, leaving the rest of the question unasked.
Mr. Snowe smiled a little. “You need not worry that Mr. Augustine and I will not reach a satisfactory agreement regarding his terms of employment. Please feel at ease in giving Mr. Augustine a brief outline of the case in question.”
Bethany reached down, and picked up a briefcase and opened it, and withdrew a manila folder.
“You may have heard of the case,” Bethany said. “A little over three weeks ago, there was a wedding reception out at the Colville Yacht Club. A man dropped dead right after the groom’s brother gave the toast. Cyanide in the champagne.”
“I read about it in the newspaper,” Seth said.
“The peculiarity,” Bethany said, “is that nobody seems to know who he is.”
Seth looked at her quizzically. “Including the police?”
“They’ve tried every method at their disposal—dental records, descriptions of wanted criminals, missing person reports from all over the US. Nothing. He’s a nonentity. He showed up at the reception, walked in, sat at a table, talked to the people around him, ate the food, drank the wine, and then died—and no one has the slightest clue as to his identity.”
“Well, presumably someone knows,” Seth said.
“Yes,” Bethany replied. “But of course, the problem is trying to figure out who that someone is.”
“And that’s where I come in?”
Bethany nodded. “We need all the information we can get. We have other psychics on our staff, but thus far they’ve been unable to pick up anything useful. Telepathy would be the most direct way, of course, but our telepath is somehow being blocked. We think that the guilty party must have at least some degree of psychic ability, because he or she seems to be quite competent at shielding.”
“How many people were at the reception?” Seth asked.
“A little under two hundred,” Bethany said, and Seth gave a low whistle.
Mr. Snowe nodded. “You see the difficulty,” he said. “We have been hired by the bride, who is eager to have this resolved. She has been under tremendous emotional strain since her wedding. In her words, ‘It should have been the happiest day of my life, and now all I can think about is that man’s death.’ When it became evident that the police were moving more slowly than she desired, she came to us.”
Bethany opened the folder, and pushed a photograph toward him. It showed a long, rectangular table, surrounded by eight people, laughing and drinking and eating. Three of them were obviously bridesmaids, from the identical styling and unfortunate color of their dresses. At the left end of the table sat a tall, wiry man, with a narrow face, pale eyes behind a pair of black plastic-framed glasses, and rather unkempt light brown hair. His appearance was unremarkable, and he was watching the others, smiling a little, but everyone was turned away from him, engaged in their own conversations.
“Is that him?” Seth asked, pointing.
“Yes,” Bethany said. “Five minutes after this photograph was taken, he was dead.”
Seth looked at the people at the table. “Who are we looking at besides the victim?”
Bethany pointed to the individuals in the photograph. “The bride is obvious. Her name is Rose Petrillo—now Rose Scanlon. Her new husband, Tom Scanlon, is here, next to her, on the far right.”
“The victim was seated at the head table, and no one questioned it?” Seth asked, his voice registering incredulity.
Bethany nodded. “The dinner part of the reception had just started. There were cocktails, and everyone was standing around eating hors d’oeuvres and socializing. There are a couple of photographs of the victim during cocktail hour, but this one shows his face the most clearly. The call was given to be seated, and everyone found their places. Apparently he just walked up and sat down at the head table, and no one said anything.”
“Wasn’t there assigned seating? You know, name cards or something?”
Bethany gave a mirthless little smile. “That’s one of many curious things about this case. The groom’s best friend, Jon van Zandt, was supposed to bring his partner along. The partner got sick the day before the wedding, and Jon let several members of the wedding party know. Apparently, the message never got passed along to the Yacht Club staff, so there was an extra place setting at the head table. Whether the victim knew about this ahead of time, or simply saw an empty seat and took it, isn’t known, of course.”
“Could the poison have been intended for the partner? Put there by someone who didn’t know the partner was sick?”
“Possibly. That’s one avenue we’re investigating. As far as we know, no one but the bride and groom knew van Zandt’s partner on sight. However, that solution still leaves unanswered the question of who the victim was, and why he was there. But if we discount for now the possibility that someone was trying to kill Jon van Zandt’s partner, it brings us back to zero.”
“Which raises the issue of why no one questioned the presence of a strange man at the head table at a formal wedding reception.”
“Well, as far as that goes—the fact is, none of the people there knew everyone at the table except the bride and groom, and even the bride and groom probably barely knew two of the bridesmaids’ dates. Most of the people at the table were relative strangers to each other.”
“So he blended in.”
Bethany nodded. “You know how receptions are. If you see someone you don’t know, the groom’s friends assume it’s one of the bride’s friends and the bride’s friends assume it’s one of the groom’s.”
“It’d be a hell of a way to get free food and liquor,” Seth said, grinning.
Bethany nodded. “Remember the movie, The Wedding Crashers? It would be amazingly easy to crash a reception if you had the guts to act like you belonged there. We’ve talked to all of the other people who saw him, and everyone evidently thought he was an obscure cousin, or else someone’s date. Arlene Petrillo—she’s the bride’s sister—said she was going to ask him who he was, you know, in a friendly sort of way. Then Mark Scanlon got up to give a toast—he’s the groom’s brother, and was the best man—and the next thing you know, the victim was dead.”
“So, who are the other people at the table?” Seth asked.
Bethany touched the images of the three bridesmaids one after another. “The dark-haired woman is Arlene Petrillo, the bride’s sister. She was the maid of honor. Next to her,” Bethany pointed to a laughing woman holding a wine glass, “is Caitlin Sonntag, the bride’s best friend. The third one,” she pointed at a slim blonde who was looking down at something on the table, “is Lisa Drake, the bride’s first cousin. Lisa was sitting across from the victim and apparently talked to him a couple of times during the reception, and was the first one who noticed him choking when the poison took effect.”
“And the men?”
“Well, there’s Tom Scanlon, the groom, who I already pointed out. The empty chair across from him is where Mark Scanlon was sitting. He’d already gotten up to give the toast.” She pointed to a man who was leaning across the table, smiling, saying something to Tom that looked confidential. “That’s Jon van Zandt, Tom’s best friend, the one whose partner was home with the flu the day of the wedding. And these two are Jim Dennison and Charlie Zarone, who are the dates of Caitlin Sonntag and Lisa Drake, respectively.”
“But just because they were at the table, that doesn’t mean they’re the only suspects, right?” Seth asked.
Bethany’s eyes met Mr. Snowe’s for a moment, and then she looked back at Seth. “That’s right. The champagne was poured by the Yacht Club servers, and was on the table waiting for the guests when they sat down. While it was being served, as people were seated—well, it was chaotic. Literally anyone could have dropped poison in the glass without being noticed.”
“So, what we have here,” Seth said, “is a murder that took place in front of dozens of witnesses, with an unidentified victim, no apparent motive, and about two hundred individuals who had opportunity?”
“Precisely,” Mr. Snowe said.