BOOK REVIEW: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, #1)Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The book’s lead, Clay Jannon, takes a job as night clerk at a 24-hour bookstore, having found himself jobless in the wake of a recession that sealed the fate of the tech startup for which he’d been working. The job is easy enough, but the workplace is an enigma. It attracts few paying customers, and mostly exists to serve a regular clientele who come in to borrow very old books that aren’t for sale. Working the night-shift, and with little real work to do, Jannon starts trying to make sense of the riddle of the bookstore, and ends up neck-deep in a world of secret societies and medieval encrypted codices.

The book is an entertaining read. There are certainly things about the story that are a little too easy, such as Jannon having a circle of friends that have the perfect set of resources and capabilities to carry out the story’s arc. This allows Clay to be presented as a scrappy underdog character, but he never has to be constrained by that status because he has a wealthy friend who will buy him anything he needs and a girlfriend from Google with the chops to gain him access to unlimited computing power. All that said, the book is more fantasy than strict realism, and so this isn’t really a problem for the reader who wants to lose him- or herself in an intriguing story. It’s also true that Clay is gregarious and likable and so one can imagine him easily building friendships – though, with a notable exception, he already has these friends before the story starts. But the characters are all distinct, and generate the desired state of liking or loathing.

[When I say “fantasy,” I should clarify that while there are hints about the possibility of the supernatural, readers don’t see real evidence of it. So, it’s realism in the sense that it’s a world limited by the same constraints as ours. However, it’s a world that features a secret society, The Unbroken Spine,” that stretches back almost to the Middle Ages, and which has been striving to decode a book produced by one of the earliest printers because they believe it may hold secrets of a supernatural nature. So, it feels like an urban fantasy / down the rabbit hole kind of story though, strictly speaking, it’s not.]

I enjoyed this book. The story is gripping even if it does feature some deus ex machina Hail Marys. The characters are likable and interesting. I’d recommend it for readers who like mystery and intrigue in the stories they read.

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5 Fascinating Mysteries for Skeptical Pessimists

Being a rational skeptic by nature, I’m not the easiest target for those peddling mysteries. Any mystery that can feasibly be a hoax by a single person or a small group of people (e.g. crop circles), I assume was a fake.  Any mystery that  could be accounted for by a person misidentifying his or her mushrooms (e.g. out-of-body experiences and maybe the odd alien abduction), I assume is a case of hallucination. Any innocuous naturally occurring phenomena (e.g. the Taos Hum), I assume is just a matter of the limits of our current understanding. So, most of the time I dismiss “mysteries” as pranks that succeeded or natural phenomena that occur under rare “perfect storm” conditions resulting in phenomena we don’t yet understand.

That said, I’m sucker for intrigue, and there are some astounding mysteries out there.

5.) The Fate of Raoul Wallenberg

The Facts: Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat assigned to Budapest, Hungary during the Second World War. He’s credited with saving thousands of lives during the Holocaust by issuing protective passports from his neutral homeland that kept the bearers from being deported to extermination camps. In January of 1945, Wallenberg sought to make contact with the Soviets, who were mopping up the fascist forces in and around Budapest, in order to facilitate a smooth aftermath of the Battle of Budapest. He succeeded, but got more than he bargained for when the Red Army arrested him and he was shipped to Moscow to serve time in the notorious Lubyanka and Lefortovo prisons.

The Soviets claimed that they had no knowledge of Wallenberg. They suggested that he’d probably been killed trying to get to Debrecen to meet with the Red Army General who commanded forces in the area. (Debrecen is a city in Eastern Hungary, near the Ukraine, and was the HQ of Soviet military forces fighting in Hungary at the time.)

Then, when prisoners from various other countries started being released in exchanges, they reported having been in contact with Wallenberg (often through a tap code that has been used the world over to circumvent rules preventing prisoners from talking.)

In the fifties, after Stalin died, the Soviets finally admitted that they’d had Wallenberg but that he died in 1947 of natural causes. (The claim that the young (early to mid 30’s), healthy, and vigorous man having a heart attack strained credulity for people ranging from those who’d conversed with him in prison to Soviet officials during the Gorbachev Era (i.e. the late 1980’s) who’d began to come clean about the matter. The Soviets had been lying through their teeth for decades and so “we don’t know any more than that” wasn’t a convincing answer even though it’s possible that it was true by that time.) At any rate, even up into the early 1960’s there were credible claims of prisoners who stated that they’d been in the Gulag with Wallenberg, and into the 1970’s there were less credible claims.

The Questions:  1.) Why’d they take Wallenberg in the first place? He wasn’t particularly high up in the diplomatic corps, nor had he had a career that would have exposed him to a treasure trove of government secrets. Furthermore, while one wouldn’t think of him as a high value target, he was a public relations nightmare waiting to happen because he’d saved so many lives (eventually the United States and a number of other countries made him an honorary citizen and he came to be considered one of the great heroes of the Holocaust.) In short, on the face of it, he seems like a high risk / low reward prisoner. 2.) When did he die? Was it 1947, as the Soviets claimed? Was it 1962, or thereabouts, as prisoners had claimed? Or might it have been even later? 3.) How’d he die? Was it really natural causes? (It would have been hard to believe in the late 40’s when he was a 35 year old man who’d been imprisoned only a couple years and not in a labor gulag, but: a.) it can’t be ruled out, and b.) it’s quite possible if he died many years or decades later under forced labor camp conditions.) Was he poisoned at Lubyanka, or simply shot dead?

The Most Credible Solution: As for why the Soviets took him, Wallenberg was in contact with people from many varied countries and segments of society, including Americans and even moderate / sympathetic members of the Arrow Cross Party (Hungary’s fascist party that was installed into power by the Nazis,) anyone who could be of help in saving lives was worth building relations with. Furthermore, Wallenberg was from a prominent Swedish family with its hands in many commercial pies internationally. All one really has to understand is that to Stalin and his henchmen, anybody who talked with Soviet enemies was an enemy spy.

So why did they “disappear” him? This is a case in which wishful thinking and naivete was probably fatal. The Swedish diplomat, Staffan Söderblom, became convinced that Wallenberg had been killed inside Hungary while moving through the dangerous war zone, and, crucially, he told his Soviet counterpart as much. What evidence made him think this — besides Soviet disinformation — probably just that it would make his life much easier. I don’t mean to suggest Söderblom wished Wallenberg dead, but as a diplomat concerned with high level issues like trade agreements and security assurances, having relations hung up on the fate of one man was a pain in the diplomat’s keister. Söderblom did eventually accept the evidence and start doing his job, but by that time the damage was done. The Soviets believed they could keep Wallenberg without the public relations nightmare of being seen imprisoning an international hero because the Swedes didn’t seem to want him back very badly, and Stalin’s regime became invested in a lie that became progressively more costly come clean about.

I recently read Ingrid Carlberg’s biography of Wallenberg, she reports that the consensus view of the investigative group that took up the case during the Glasnost years was that Wallenberg likely did die in the summer of 1947, though no one believes for a moment that it was of natural causes.

 

4.) MH-370

The Facts: In March of 2014 a flight (Malaysian Airlines 370) took off from Kuala Lumpur, heading generally northeast toward its destination of Beijing. At some point over the Gulf of Thailand, near its transition into Vietnamese airspace, the pilot made final contact with air traffic control and then the plane disappeared (transponder turned off — though the plane does periodically appear on military radar it doesn’t induce a response.)

While the search begins  in the Gulf of Thailand and into the South China Sea, a private company that has satellite monitoring of jet engines, says it has data that shows the plane was in the South Indian Ocean. For the geographically-impaired, that means MH-370 was going south way down to the west of Australia. As the system that monitors engines wasn’t designed for locating said craft, the last known location is imprecise. The weather in that part of the Indian Ocean is notoriously rough. The plane still has not been recovered over four years later, though pieces from the wings have turned up in the Indian Ocean, verifying that it was going the wrong direction.

The fact that there wasn’t a huge and readily visible debris field limits the ways that the jet could have gone into the water. Experts are divided into those who think the pilot must have made a controlled landing on the water and then let the plane sink (Note: this wouldn’t be like Capt. Sullenberger landing on the Hudson as the waves would have been as high as a few meters) and those who think the plane may have gone in nearly vertically as it plummeted out of the sky, the fuel tanks having run dry, and the engines powerless.

The Questions: 1.) Was it done on purpose or was it the result of an accident? [Spoiler Alert: While there remain many disagreements among experts on specific details of the crash, all the experts seem to agree that the pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had to have been an active participant in creating this tragedy.] If we assume that the overwhelming evidence pointing to the pilot’s participation (presumably in a suicide + mass murder), there remains a gripping mystery. Why go to all that trouble to make the plane disappear? There are a few cases of pilot suicide with mass murder, but in those cases the pilot just flew the plane into the Earth. Shah took hours flying, going to great lengths to make certain the plane would be as hard to find as he could make it. If he actually landed on the water, that would have been six or so hours flying — ostensibly with the crew and passengers incapacitated by depressurization. Angry suicidal psychopaths don’t seem likely to care whether the murder instrument is found or not. If he was the unusual suicidal person who wanted to create a mystery, he must have known that the very activities he took to make the plane hard to find would make him look guilty. (i.e. If he thought that making it look like an accident by not allowing the black box to be found would make his loved ones look fondly upon him, he must have realized the chain of actions needed to achieve that lost flight would look like a willing hand was in control. i.e. catch-22.) 

The Most Credible Solution: The Australian 60 Minutes did a fascinating Special Edition on MH-370 just recently. They layout many of the reasons that the pilot must have been involved. There was an early thought that the pilot might have been making an emergency course correction due to a breakdown when he lost consciousness along with the passengers and crew (due to depressurization) and then the plane just flew until it ran out of gas on that random heading. However, it became clear that the pilot made specific course corrections long after the transponder went silent. Why the pilot made sure the plane would be as hard as possible to find is hard to explain.

 

3.) Frank Olson: Murdered or Psychedelic Trip Gone Wrong?

The Facts: Frank Olson was a scientist and biological weapons expert who nominally worked for the Army at Fort Detrick, MD, but who’d been assigned to work for the CIA on a program that would become infamous: MK Ultra. MK Ultra was an umbrella project for many programs involving behavioral modification and mind control. Among the most disturbing element of MK Ultra involved unwittingly dosing people with LSD (a hallucinogenic substance) in order to see how they would behave (and whether such behavior was exploitable for the CIA’s purposes.)  On November 19 of 1953, Frank Olson was surreptitiously dosed with LSD by Sidney Gottlieb — the head of MK Ultra and Olson’s CIA boss. Nine days later, Olson jumped out of a 13th floor hotel window in New York City.

The official claim was that Olson committed suicide while experiencing a severe psychotic breakdown. (“Suicide” may or may not have meant that Olson desired to end his life. It could have been an accident owing to his loss of touch with reality. In other words, the CIA claimed that Olson jumped out the window under his own propulsion, whether he did that because he wanted to die or because he thought he could fly is anyone’s guess.)

Olson’s family, notably his son Eric, claims that Frank Olson was increasingly despondent — presumably unnerved by the amoral world he’d been caught up in since being assigned the CIA job on MK Ultra —  but that he was by no means on the verge of a complete psychotic breakdown. Eric Olson believes his father was physically defenestrated.

The Questions: 1.) Was Frank Olson murdered? 2.) If so, was he physically forced out the window or was he loaded up on hallucinogens and driven to madness via Scarecrow (i.e. the Batman villain) tactics?

The Most Credible Solution: Most of the books and documentaries come down on the side of Olson having been murdered, but that’s not to say that there is an overwhelming case for murder. This is part of what makes this type of mystery interesting to me (this also applies to the Wallenberg case.) Once one strays from the path of virtuous behavior — as both Stalin and Sidney Gottlieb did — no one is going to believe in accidents anymore — even if that’s really what happened.

 

2.) S.S. Ourang Medan

The Story: In 1947 or 1948 (sources vary), a distress call was received from a merchant vessel, S.S. Ourang Medan, near the Straits of Malacca (between Malaysia and Indonesia.) The radio operator claimed that the Captain and some (possibly all. he couldn’t say) of the crew was dead. The message ended with “I die” and then radio silence. Another vessel responded to find that the entire crew was all dead, stiff as if frozen and littered around the decks as if each man died where he’d stood.  As the assisting craft prepared for an investigation, they were forced to flee because an intense fire flared up at ship’s stern. The Ourang Medan burned and then sank.

The Questions: What killed the crew? Was it an accident, perhaps resulting from the leakage of a hazardous chemical cargo, or was there something more nefarious afoot?

The Most Credible Solution: Fascinatingly, the most credible solution to this mystery may be that S.S. Ourang Medan never existed (the photo above isn’t the Ourang Medan, and, in fact, the ship didn’t appear by that name in the registry.) The whole event may have been some kind of urban legend or sophisticated hoax. This may be a bit of an unsatisfying solution, and it seems to violate my principle of not taking interest in mysteries that could be (and, thus probably are, hoaxes.) However, I still find this one interesting because the story was repeated so many times with the exact same details, and by credible sources. That’s pretty impressive if it was a hoax, and leaves open the possibility that it wasn’t a hoax at all. If it’s not a hoax, the most credible solution would be that the ship carried a lethal and flammable chemical until it experienced  a leak.

 

1.) Dyatlov Pass Incident

The Facts: In January of 1959, nine experienced hikers set out on a trek in the Ural Mountains. When they didn’t return when they were supposed to in early February, a search party was dispatched. Because these were knowledgeable outdoors-people and they’d left a route-plan, it didn’t take long to find their tent (as shown) and soon thereafter they started to find the first of the trekkers’ corpses. Though it took more than two months of searching to find the last four.

That’s when it got weird. They found the corpses on the order of a  mile down slope, and all of them were without their boots and were inadequately dressed. Their boots and outerwear were all in the tent, along with the makings of the fire that someone had been setting up to keep them warm for the night. The first several bodies they found showed no sign of physical injury and seem clear cases of death by hypothermia. Among the bodies found later there were a some blunt force trauma injuries and a few strange physical anomalies (e.g. one corpse was found missing a tongue.) There were a whole host of  bizarre features that added to the mystery. For example, one of the individuals was found wearing two watches.

As I’ve mentioned, these were experienced hikers. Some were on the hike in part to obtain the highest level grade for outdoors skills available in the Soviet Union. These young people weren’t like Christopher McCandless (subject of Krakauer’s Into the Wild) who went into the wilderness by himself with inadequate knowledge of survival in harsh conditions and got himself killed. They were also, by all accounts, teetotalers, and, therefore, wouldn’t have gotten drunk and stupid.

The Questions: What drove nine experienced campers out of their tent and to their death by hypothermia in the darkness? And, oh yeah, if your theory could explain all the other weird stuff, such as one person wearing two watches, one person missing her tongue, and a couple people looking like they’d been battered with baseball bats, that would be great.

The Most Credible Solution: There are a truly vast range of theories out their from credible sounding avalanches to unlikely assaults by demon dwarfs. Adding to the range of conspiracy theories is that this took place during Soviet times. During Stalin’s days, these kids wouldn’t have been allowed to trek into the wilderness like this at all, but even with the easing of prohibitions under his successors, it remained believable that these college students saw something they weren’t supposed to see and paid for it with their lives.

That said, Donnie Eichar in his book Dead Mountain, paints a compelling and science-based argument that the culprit was naturally occurring infra-sound that resulted from wind blowing around the rounded mountain top. Said sonic phenomena has been known to make people spontaneously nauseous and prone to panic attacks. Incidentally, the curious missing tongue might simply have been due to the fact that the girl’s face ended up partially in flowing water (and it took a couple months to find her so bacteria had time to do its thing.) The blunt force trauma was all found among the latter recovered bodies who took so long to find because they’d fallen down a ravine (hence the bruising.) The watches may have been as simple as someone saying, “Here, hold my watch,” to someone who was getting ready to do some other task, so that person put on the second watch to free up his hands. Or it could have been a mindless action under panic-induced duress.

BOOK REVIEW: Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass IncidentDead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The Dyatlov Incident is one of the most fascinating mysteries of the 20th century. In 1959, a crew of nine seasoned hikers headed into the Siberian wilderness in late January for an intense but vigorous trek. When they didn’t return in early February as planned (and after a bit of prodding from family members) a search was conducted, and what the searchers found was so bizarre that it would be fodder for conspiracy theorists and readers of tales of the weird for decades. It wasn’t so much what killed the hikers, almost all of them died of hypothermia — though three of the members had severe blunt force trauma injuries that contributed in varying degree to the speed of their deaths.

Instead, it was that the bodies were found on the order of a mile from their tent, none of them was wearing boots or adequate attire. There were also a range of smaller anomalies, such as one individual wearing two watches, several of the team having shredded clothing, one of the hikers missing her tongue, and some of the hiker’s clothing testing positive for radioactivity. Lest one attribute the hiker’s strange and fatal behavior to drink or other mind and mood altering substances, the hikers were known teetotalers, and the little medicinal alcohol they had was all accounted for by the search party (who admittedly drank it.) So the question wasn’t what killed them, but what drove these skilled, sober, and well-led hikers out of the comfort of their tent improperly attired in the middle of the night on the night of February 1, 1959, and what explanation could account for this range of bizzarities?

I won’t get into Eichar’s well-developed and scientifically supported theory to avoid spoilers, but it’s fascinating to consider the range of theories that people came up with over the course of the investigation (and subsequent years) to explain the odd incident. The explanations run the gamut from the otherworldly (i.e. Siberian Demon Dwarves) to a range of theories that were less provocative but which also lacked explanatory power or were inconsistent with known data (e.g. avalanche or high winds literally blowing them off the mountain.) Of course, another fact played heavily into people’s conspiracy building and that was that this was the height of the Cold War Soviet Union. While life had eased a bit since the demise of Stalin (such a trek would have been prohibited under his rule) it was still an authoritarian state, plus the memory of Stalin was fresh. This led to the most widely accepted theories involving the hikers being killed because they saw a covert weapons test or stumbled into an area where the KGB was getting up to some shenanigans. (As a sign of the times, it seems that there was some attempt to thwart the investigation and /or limit the interest in the case from low-level party apparatchiks who probably assumed shadowy elements of the government were involved [though there seems to be no evidence that they were.]) Another theory proposed that the hikers were killed by a group of escapees from the Gulags that were numerous in that part of the country. (Of course, that assumes that the poorly fed and clothed prisoners would have survived the freezing temperatures better than the fit and relatively well-equipped college students.) As evidence mounted, however, it suggested outsider involvement less-and-less. For example, the side of the tent was cut open, but rudimentary forensic investigation readily proved that it must have been cut from the inside and not from the outside by a KGB agent, Gulag prisoner, local tribesman, or a Siberian dwarf claw.

The book intersperses accounts of the happenings in 1959 with chapters that describe the author’s trips to Russia to investigate, including his visit to “Dead Mountain” and the “Dyatlov Pass” in 2012. (The former name predates the Incident and has to do with the fact that the mountain is devoid of vegetation. The latter name, i.e. “Dyatlov,” is the last name of the leader of the group of hikers.) The penultimate chapter describes Eichar’s conclusion about what caused the mysterious incident and his visits to experts that lent it credence. The last chapter offers a retelling of events that takes into account both the evidence and scientific speculation about the cause of the hikers’ panicked flight from the safety of their tent into a desolate landscape on a sub-freezing night.

There are graphics throughout, mostly black and white photos from the cameras of the hikers, which were recovered and became part of the case file. Other than the photos, there is a graphic or two to help explain the theory put forth by Eichar and others. (It should be noted that there was a group of Russians simultaneously considering the same possibility.)

I was enthralled by this book and couldn’t put it down. The mystery was fascinating and the hypothesized solution was at least as much so.

I’d highly recommend this book to readers of nonfiction, though much of it has the taut structure of fiction.

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DAILY PHOTO: Little, Inexplicable Doors to Neverwhere

Taken in Hungary in December 2016

Taken in Hungary in December 2016

 

Kochi (Cochin), India

Kochi (Cochin), India

 

Kochi, India

Kochi, India

 

Whenever I come across a little, unlabeled door in a place where it seems to have no business being, I can’t help but take a picture. I’ve got quite a collection of such pics, of which I present a sample.

 

Maybe I watched “The Matrix” too many times, but I can’t help but wonder.