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Like many other law profs, I was saddened when Harvard law prof Bill Stuntz passed away earlier this year, given his immensely important insights into American criminal justice. I recently finished reading his book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, and I've put a short review on the Amazon site. I'm a little surprised that mine is, so far, the only review there of Stuntz's book, but you can go there and get a sense of what the book is about.
Along the same lines, I heartily recommend False Justice: Eight Myths That Convict the Innocent by former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro. This book recounts how Petro, a staunch Republican and prosecutor, became won over by the power and precision of DNA testing, to the point where he, as the sitting AG, was arguing with a local prosecutor about the latter's refusal to accept DNA results as exonerating a defendant whom she had prosecuted! These aren't death row cases, but the instances of innocent men who served ten or more years after their wrongful convictions is pretty powerful.
I tend to think the death penalty is pretty bad ideally fiscally, because it costs far more to try to execute someone than simply to lock him (or her) up for life; and in these times of budget crunches, I'd think that states are better off spending that money on more schools or whatever. (It's especially bad here in Oregon, since we spend the money to put people on death row, but then we never execute them unless they volunteer for it.) And then on top of the fiscal reasons, I suppose I have unresolved and conflicted feelings about the morality of the death penalty, coupled with awareness of the non-zero incidence of wrongly convicted defendants.
Still, when you read about the execution of someone like Lawrence Russell Brewer, the white supremacist convicted of murdering James Byrd (an African-American) by dragging him to death from a pickup truck, it's hard to get worked up in the particular case. I mean, this is pretty sick stuff:
Six hours later, the bloody mess found after daybreak was thought at first to be animal road kill. Rowles, a former Texas state trooper who had taken office as sheriff the previous year, believed it was a hit-and-run fatality but evidence didn't match up with someone caught beneath a vehicle. Body parts were scattered and the blood trail began with footprints at what appeared to be the scene of a scuffle.
"I didn't go down that road too far before I knew this was going to be a bad deal," he said at Brewer's trial.
Fingerprints taken from the headless torso identified the victim as Byrd.
Testimony showed the three men and Byrd drove out into the county and stopped along an isolated logging road. A fight broke out and the outnumbered Byrd was tied to the truck bumper with a 24-foot (7-meter) logging chain. Three miles (5 kilometers) later, what was left of his shredded remains was dumped between a black church and cemetery where the pavement ended on the remote road.
Of course, I know that the policy question of whether we should have the death penalty has to stand or fall on its own, not based on individual cases, but in principle. At the same time, people like Brewer probably ease acceptance of the death penalty on an emotional level.
On a related note, I'll admit to a degree of inconsistency here. Repairman Jack, the protagonist of F. Paul Wilson's creepy horror/sci-fi/thriller series, once killed a bad guy by securing him to the back of a truck, leaving the guy to be dragged to his death. Jack intentionally killed the guy this way to make him suffer. For some reason, that didn't really bother me too much. It is fiction, and the guy was a really bad dude, I suppose.
Our local Borders closed yesterday. I had been meaning to stop by one last time, possibly scavenging some more bargains (I've been on a Nelson DeMille kick lately, but there are still 7 of his books that I don't have), but mostly to see the store before it closed. But it was a busy day, and I basically had to choose between going running or going to Borders. Running won.
I used to shop at Borders a fair amount, especially when I was living in west Los Angeles, and also Oklahoma City during my clerkship. But, I suppose like many others, I gradually turned toward Amazon.com. Life at a law firm was more conducive to online shopping than in-store shopping, though I still made some impulse purchases in the stores. When Borders ended outsourcing its online business to Amazon, though, my loyalties ended up transferring slowly but permanently toward Amazon. And that, multiplied by millions, is probably why Borders is going the way of the dinosaurs, while Amazon is going the way of the mammals.
I just finished reading Escape From Hell by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle, and it occurred to me that this was somewhat less of a horror/adventure novel than a semi-clever form of revenge, or maybe therapy. Escape From Hell is a sequel to the authors' Inferno, which was a modern rewrite of Dante's Inferno. The sequel further updates Hell to include some more recent denizens who passed away after 1976, when Inferno was published.
The narrator of both books is Allen Carpenter, a science-fiction writer who fell to his death while drunk. In Inferno, he fuond himself outside the main circles of Hell, as he was an agnostic; his fate was to be condemned to eternity in a bottle, until released by his guide Benito. Carpenter thus plays the role of Dante, and Benito that of Virgil, and the two of them make their way through the nine circles of Hell.
In Escape From Hell, Carpenter is still on the loose in Hell, trying to rescue those who don't deserve to be tormented for eternity. He ends up guiding the poet Sylvia Plath in what is largely a rehash of the original. The only thing that makes it different is that Niven & Pournelle have a lot more fun writing in real-life people into Hell: Anna Nicole Smith, Carl Sagan, J. Edgar Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Jesse Unruh (California politician who Niven & Pournelle argue sowed the seeds for the lasting damage done to the UC system), Seung-Hui Cho (the Virginia Tech shooter), Ken Lay, Melvin Belli (the King of Torts), the annoying TV pitchman who advertises that you can get a mattress for "freeeee!" and others. In exploring why these and others fictional characters (many of whom were New Orleans officials responsible in some way for the Katrina disaster) are where they are in Hell, the authors essentially get to spin their (mostly libertarian?) view of things.
I wouldn't say it's a good book -- Inferno was much better, and scarier. But Escape From Hell was kind of amusing.
He's also included two additional lists -- the "hard to omit" and the "easy to omit" books. I liked Animal Farm but I don't know about the top 10. Ringworld was fascinating, but for repeat value, I prefer Niven's Beowulf Shaffer stories. I can see Ender's Game and The Martian Chronicles on a top 10 list, but they seem less weighty to me now, especially the latter. I've tried reading A Canticle for Leibowitz but never seem to get very far. Like all Dungeons & Dragons nerds, I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy but as far as that kind of fantasy novel goes, I preferred Michael Moorcock's Elric series, though I wouldn't put that on my top 10 list either. Old Man's War was quite good and I feel some loyalty to Scalzi, seeing as how we went to the same high school (not the same year, though). But I think I'd put Starship Troopers on the list ahead of it.
My take (in no particular order):
Commonwealth Saga by Peter F. Hamilton (5 books in total, starting with Pandora's Star) - space opera on a truly massive scale, with amazingly detailed universe building, a cast of thousands, and page turning despite totalling near 4000 pages for the entire series.
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson - WWII code breaking crossed with near future hackers, probably my top choice if forced to make one.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman - Prof. B thought the movie was better than the book, but I think the book stands on its own, with a quirky sense of humor that goes beyond what made it on the screen.
The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut - Explains why humans exist (sort of). What more could you want?
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson - It's better than Gibson's Neuromancer, which typically gets credit for kicking off the cyberpunk revolution.
Ubik by Philip K. Dick - I'd actually pick The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch over Ubik, but that wasn't on the list. Ubik is plenty good, though, and a prime example of PKD's unique mind-bending plots.
Watership Down by Richard Adams - Not sure why this is on the list, as it's really just an adventure novel, but I guess anthromorphic rabbits makes it fantasy. One of my all-time favorite books.
Dune by Frank Herbert - Sci-fi ecology mixed with cultural clash! I only include the first novel, though, as the sequels got progressively worse (I stopped at God Emperor of Dune).
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan - Sci-fi mystery in a future where consciousness can be digitized so that "people" can be downloaded into other bodies (called sleeves). The anti-hero narrator finds himself in the body of a police detective, charged by a billionaire with finding out who killed the billionaire's previous body. Super violent, but explores the implications of digital immortality well.
The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks - Another British space opera. I've read a number of the books in the series, though far from all. I liked the first two a lot (Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games). The others were less interesting to me.
If I could add four books that weren't on the list, they would be:
Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steve Barnes - It's a sci-fi/fantasy/mystery novel all wrapped in one, about a future amusement park where Dungeons & Dragons is played for real, with holograms.
Gridlinked by Neal Asher - First in a series about Ian Cormac, sort of like a sci-fi version of James Bond, in a space opera setting with an AI-ruled humanity confronting the unearthing of an incredibly dangerous, super-old alien bio-technology. Super violent, if you like that sort of stuff.
Spin State by Chris Moore - Like Dune, another cross-genre bender, this time the perils of coal mining in a sci-fi setting. It's terrific, not a disaster like the original Star Trek episode "The Cloud Miners." Any sci-fi novel that manages to work in a bit of quantum physics (hence, the title) is worthy of respect in my view.
Watchers by Dean Koontz - Koontz is shelved in the horror section next to Stephen King, but whereas King is often more about supernatural horror, Koontz is usually about BIG SCIENCE gone wrong. Watchers is about two genetically engineered creatures, one a golden retriever with human level intelligence, and the other known as the Outsider, which is a violent killing machine, also with human level intelligence. If you love dogs, you'll love this book.
Other notable books on the NPR list that didn't make my cut:
Anathem by Neal Stephenson - I already have enough Stephenson on my list, so this one fell short. But it's a math/philosophy treatise crossed with an alien invasion storyline that really takes off.
Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson - I didn't like this trilogy very much, but it's very deep and weighty.
The Anubis Gate by Tim Powers - I must be missing something about this book, which many people love. I gave up after about 100 pages.
Conan series by Robert E. Howard - Pure hack and slash fantasy, but you have to wonder what Howard could have achieved if he had turned his talent to something more serious. He was a really good writer.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by PKD - Much smarter than the movie, which is visually stunning but kind of lobotomizes the book. One PKD's better books, but not the best.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes - Such a sad story. But the short story packs more of a punch than the novel, which is flabby by comparison.
The Handmaiden's Tale by Margaret Atwood - Another book that I gave up on after trying.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams - Funny for about 50 pages. I did make it all the way through So Long for All the Fish, though, so I guess it wasn't that overrated.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson - The breadth of Matheson's works is pretty incredible. This was pretty creepy and well done, as a scientific explanation for vampirism.
Lensmen series by EE "Doc" Smith - I re-read this 1940s era space opera relatively recently and it held up okay, although it's a lot less sophisticated than modern space opera. Still, very imaginative universe building.
The Man in the High Castle by PKD - What if Germany and Japan won WWII and conquered the United States?
Neuromancer by William Gibson - Some brilliant imagery, like the opening line ("The sky above the port was the color of television tuned to a dead station") but plot kind of fizzles.
Replay by Ken Grimwood - Probably the best book that explores the idea of what if you could back to relive your life starting at age 18?
Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut - Overrated.
Song of Ice and Fire series by George Martin - I'm somewhat intrigued. If I ever read another fantasy book, this would probably be it.
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein - Much like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a situation where the book is much smarter than the movie. It's really political philosophy dressed up in an alien war story. Supposedly, James Cameron made the actors in "Aliens" read the book in preparation for the movie.
The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn - These books continue the Star Wars saga past "The Return of the Jedi." They certainly would have been better movies than the actual prequel trilogy that George Lucas made.
Xanth series by Piers Anthony - Do you like puns? If not, you'll detest this series. The first nine are different in tone from the rest, which become increasingly little more than vehicles for additional puns. It's set in a parallel world to Florida, in which everyone has some kind of magical talent, many useless, but some quite powerful. Except Bink seemed to have no power, which got him exiled, whereupon he met the evil (?) Magician Trent, who was bent on taking over Xanth. (That's from the first in the series.)
1984 by George Orwell - It needs to be read. Once. I don't plan on reading it again.
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke - It was less boring than the movie, and it seemed to make more sense, too.
I've been to our local Borders two more times recently, and the deals are getting slightly better, but you see clearly why it's going out of business. I had the idea of buying some Lego kits to stock up as presents for my boys, but even with the toys being 20% off, Borders was still 20-25% more expensive than what Amazon is charging for the same items!
My dad says that Amazon's business model looks unassailable at this point, and I think he's right. It kind of makes me wish I lived in Seattle instead of Portland, because then I wouldn't feel so guilty about ordering from Amazon -- after all, then I'd be helping the local business.
Ann Althouse notes a Democratic politician's reference to the debt deal as having to eat a "Satan sandwich" and puts the phrase into true context. I learned from Mary Roach's book, Packing for Mars, that NASA scientists and engineers actually contemplated briefly the idea of "hydrolyzing" astronauts' human waste to create new food, which would save considerable weight in the launch vehicle. However, astronauts put their feet down and declared, "We are not eating ----burgers all the way!"
Sadly but inevitably, Borders is going the way of the woolly mammoth.
I've long had a preference for Borders over Barnes & Noble (except for a period around 1999 to 2001 when B&N kept sending me "get $10 off a $25 purchase" coupons for use at BN.com). Back when I was living in west Los Angeles during my first judicial clerkship, there was a B&N slightly closer to me than the Borders, but I usually drove the extra distance because Borders had its own parking, it was bigger, and it had more comfortable seating.
When I later moved to Iowa City, I was disappointed that the nearest Borders was 60 miles away in Davenport. The big mall in Coralville did have a B&N, and of course Iowa City touted its own Prarie Lights. Mostly, though, I ordered from Amazon.
Then, when I moved to Portland, I was delighted that there were multiple Borders nearby. Even when the financial distress mounted, resulting in the closing of the downtown branch, the big Borders in Bridgeport Village (just southwest of Portland) survived. I can't say that I helped its financial prospects, as I tended to buy things with the weekly "30% (or 40%) off one item" coupon that I would get emailed, but I did buy semi-regularly.
This isn't a tirade against Amazon, which I think is a pretty amazing company. It's just that Amazon still hasn't been able, despite innovative attempts, to replicate the sensation of just looking over physical books on shelves . . . or to book browse after a nice dinner out.
I think I'm going to have to make more of an effort to shop at Powell's even if it's slightly more expensive than Amazon. One of my former Iowa colleagues explained that he would pay up to 10% more to support a local business. I'm not sure that's enough, as I've noticed at times that Powell's sells used copies of books for more than Amazon charges for a new copy, but I suppose that matters less when I'm using store credit from book trade-ins. Anyway, I would be really sad if Powell's were to go under. . . .