Friday, December 30, 2011


Rex Kusler's debut novel in the Las Vegas Mystery series is as quirky as the town it's set in. Characters often seem at loose ends -- perhaps that's why they are in Vegas, or maybe people are just more open about it there. There is a murder, and a mystery, and enough suspense to keep the story moving along, but the real pleasure is precisely in this slice of life in a unique place.

The protagonist, Jim Snow, quits the homicide department to play limited poker for a living and manages well enough until he hits a losing streak. When his sister's estranged husband is killed in an RV park after selling his trailer, Snow has to undertake the investigation because the sister, who has already collected life insurance on two other deceased husbands, is the prime suspect.

Along the way, Snow encounters a bar owner who came to Vegas to play pool but couldn't cut it, a young woman who came there to be a dancer but ended up as an apartment manager, and an enigmatic tramp who is not homeless because he breaks into the RV park and sleeps every night in a parked yacht. Let's face it, you don't find characters like this everywhere.

People are talky, but this seems to be part of the spirit of the place. They are ready to tell Snow and his little team -- Alice James, a furloughed police detective and nascent love interest who becomes a full-time partner in subsequent books of the series, and Willie, that tramp -- their life stories as soon as they introduce themselves. What else do they  have? It's like all those aspiring actors and screenwriters waiting table in L.A.

Tracking down the murderer proceeds apace, though Snow is unaccountably obtuse in following up on one clue leading to the identity of the potential killer. There is a twist at the end that will not come as a shocker to mystery readers.

If what you want is nonstop suspense and thrills, this may not be your book. But if you're happy to spend some time in Vegas and immerse yourself in a world of quirky characters, laid-back humor, and a philosophy of life that is vastly tolerant, you will enjoy Punctured.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hedy's Folly

My review of Richard Rhodes' Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World appeared today in The Washington Independent Review of Books:

This fascinating little book (only 219 pages of text) is full of revelations. The biggest, of course, is that legendary Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor who helped develop the technology that is now the basis for using cell phones, wi-fi and other wonders of the digital age.
So why is this a revelation? Why didn’t the Austrian-born Hollywood star get proper recognition at the time and why have most of us remained blissfully unaware of her achievement in spite of a couple of biographies of the actress that discuss her inventions in detail?
Perhaps details of her inventions got lost in the glamour of her life in a general biography and we needed this book devoted exclusively to the topic to focus on it — and who better to undertake the task than Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books on the atomic bomb? In this work, Rhodes explains lucidly how the synchronized frequency-hopping Lamarr developed with composer George Antheil for use in remote guidance of torpedoes in World War II was patented in 1942, became the property of the U.S. Navy and, for various reasons, was never implemented in the war.
In fact, the original patent was kept secret for four decades, and it was only in the 1990s that the actress and the musician received recognition for their invention, which came posthumously for Antheil and well past her prime for Lamarr, who was living modestly in Florida as a semi-recluse on a Screen Actors Guild pension. Because of the classified nature of the original invention, it is not possible to trace what role this patent played in the subsequent development of spread spectrum technology, which is what allows millions of cell phones to use the same radio spectrum without interfering with each other.
But getting the answer to this question hardly matters, as Rhodes masterfully unfolds his tale of a Paris as the cultural capital of the world in the 1920s, of a Vienna still in intellectual ferment in the 1930s, New York in the jazz age and Hollywood in the glamour years of Clark Gable, Carole Lombard — and Hedy Lamarr.
These were epic times, when a young Austrian actress, Hedwig Kiesler, could already earn the monicker of “the most beautiful woman in the world” for her stage performances as the beloved Sissy (Empress Elizabeth of Austria) before fleeing an oppressive husband and the Nazis to become a Hollywood icon, appearing as Hedy Lamarr. It was a time when an avant-garde composer like Antheil could perform his controversial music in the Théâtre des Champs Élysées before an audience that included Igor Stravinsky, James Joyce and Sylvia Beach, and then go on to compose movie soundtracks in Hollywood.
Rhodes takes us effortlessly through this array of personalities and events. His ability to provide context and make connections constantly leads to unexpected insights. For instance, because Antheil needed at one point to synchronize several player pianos for an ambitious composition, he was able to contribute the synchronization to the frequency-hopping needed in the torpedo guidance system to avoid jamming by the enemy. But, in these pre-specialization days, Antheil could also indulge his interest in the effect of glands on behavior and become an expert in glandular criminology who presented his theories to J. Edgar Hoover.
Likewise, when Lamarr and Antheil conducted their research on the torpedo guidance system under the auspices of the wartime National Inventors Council in Washington, one of the key decision-makers on the council was Thomas Midgley. Rhodes identifies Midgley as the inventor of leaded gasoline and Freon, a fact that prompted one historian to note that Midgley had more impact on the atmosphere than “any other single organism in Earth’s history.”
For the non-scientifically minded reader, however, it is more likely the glimpses of Vienna, Paris and Hollywood that will appeal. Antheil’s new Hungarian wife describes Paris when the young, ambitious couple arrives there in June 1923: “Paris was like a carnival. I will never forget its busy ebullience on the early morning of our arrival: shops opened, housewives wearing slippers marketing, carrying shopping baskets for bread and milk, carts full of vegetables, noise, bustling, cheerful, sunny … I suddenly knew that just simply living could be fun.”
At the center of the book, though, is Hedy Lamarr — a young Austrian girl devoted to her father. Having resolutely decided on an acting career, she created a scandal by appearing nude in a 1933 film, the famous “Ecstasy” of Gustav Machatý, which was quite racy for the time. Not long after, Hedy was forcefully wooed and virtually imprisoned by her much older husband, Friedrich Mandl, a leading Austrian arms dealer. But the resourceful young actress turned the painful situation to the good and took her revenge, for it was during dinners and parties at Mandl’s hunting lodges with visiting military officials that she played dumb and kept her ears open, picking up her knowledge of ships, submarines and torpedoes. It was this knowledge she put to use in an effort to aid the war effort of her adopted country after she escaped her husband for her Hollywood career.
Hedy Lamarr met George Antheil through a mutual friend, and they began work on a number of inventions, including the torpedo guidance system and proximity fuses, a device that would enable anti-aircraft shells to explode only when near their target. Rhodes patiently guides the lay reader through the process of invention and patenting, which requires not only an idea but a way of reducing it to practice — making it actually work. Lamarr and Antheil refined their torpedo system and finally won a patent in 1942.
But it was, as Rhodes drily notes, a “bad time” for the U.S. Navy, which was scrambling after the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into the war. Budget cuts on torpedo testing prior to the war meant that most American torpedoes did not work — they either missed their targets or failed to explode. As Rhodes explains, naval officials just wanted to solve these basic problems rather than invest time and energy in sophisticated guidance systems. So Lamarr joined other Hollywood stars raising millions of dollars for the war effort through sales of war bonds, went on making movies and retired from public life when her glamour faded. Her role as an inventor went largely unnoticed for decades.
Rhodes is clearly sympathetic to the actress — the book is dedicated to the two children from her marriage to John Loder, third of five husbands — but this is not really a biography. Lamarr is at the center of this intriguing tale of invention and technology but, in the end, not that much of her personality emerges. The author cites Robert Osborne’s glowing encomium of Lamarr young and old: “Few people were ever blessed with a merrier sense of humor, few sailed through the calamities of life with more of a blithe spirit, few apologized less frequently and seemed to be having more fun …” Yet we see little of that Hedy Lamarr in this book. In addition, Rhodes omits any mention of the bizarre shoplifting arrests in her later life that color the attitude of many born too late to appreciate her acting career.
It is perhaps a measure of Rhodes’s success, though, that you want to know more about Hedy Lamarr when you finish this book. Most important, it leaves you with a much greater appreciation for the diverse forms of creative talent and the many works of genius that have gone into creating the world of digital wonders in which we live.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ali and Nino

This novel by Kurban Said is subtitled "A Love Story" and it has something of a cult following. It is a remarkable and unusual book. The love story of Ali Khan Shirvanshir and Nino Kipiani begins in their school days in Baku and survives ethnic animosity, kidnapping, exile and even revolution. This relatively short novel has all the epic sweep of a Doctor Zhivago, painting whole new worlds for the reader to explore.

Azerbaijan was the Saudi Arabia of the first half of the 20th century, supplying a good portion of the world's oil. Shiite Muslims predominated in the Turkic-speaking country, which bordered on Christian Georgia and on Iran. The capital, Baku, located on a windy peninsula on the Caspian Sea just south of the Caucasus Mountains had a mixed population living in relative harmony. Ali was Muslim with Persian roots and Nino was Christian with Georgian roots.

Their meeting with each other's families had more comedy than tragedy as the two young people were fully exposed to the divergent traditions of the more European Christians and the more Asiatic Muslims. It is the tension between these two cultures -- wine, beds, tables and silverware on the one side and tea, divans, carpets and fingers on the other side -- that surfaces in various forms in the novel.

Though young, Ali and Nino cannot escape their cultural heritage. While his love for Nino is unshakeable, Ali cannot shake his culture's attitude toward women or the role of men in society. Nino is horrified about the possibility of having to wear a veil or become part of a harem. In cosmopolitan Baku, they can juggle these differences. But the onset of World War I, disrupting the Czar's distant rule of Azerbaijan, also interrupts this comfortable state of affairs.

The first sign of real trouble is when a rich Armenian, who had won Ali's friendship by interceding with Nino's family to permit their marriage to go ahead, kidnaps Nino and flees with her in his motor-car. Hot-blooded Asian Ali pursues, catches up with them and kill his erstwhile Armenian friend, plunging a dagger into his chest just above the heart. Nino confesses that she was complicit in the abduction, at least in part, because of the Armenian's arguments about what would happen to her if the Ottomans took over Azerbaijan. Ali can forgive, but when his father asks him why he did not also slay the girl, all he would say is that he was too exhausted.

The couple enjoys an idyll in a mountaintop retreat where Ali is "hiding" from retribution for the murder, but after their return to Baku they are forced into a more serious exile to Teheran, where they live in princely comfort among their relatives but where Nino is forced to abide by Muslim strictures and not show herself in public. Ali feels the tug of his Muslim roots and, partly to settle his Muslim identity, takes part in a primitive ritual of self-flagellation that horrifies and repels Nino.

Even so, they return together to Baku when Azerbaijan celebrates its brief period of independence. That dream comes crashing to an end when the new Red Army arrives to seize Baku's oil after the overthrow of the czar.

It is a love story that goes beyond Romeo and Juliet because these are not feuding families in a settled culture, but two radically different cultures mixed together at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. It is enchanting, not only in it depiction of the tender love between the two protagonists, but because of its loving description of the complex world they live in.

The identity of the author, Kurban Said, has become a minor saga in its own right. Tom Reiss, first in an article for The New Yorker and then in his biography The Orientalist makes the case that Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish emigre born in Baku in 1905, is the author behind the pseudonym, though this is disputed.

It is a fascinating story, but another story. You don't need to know anything about the author to enjoy Ali and Nino. It sweeps you into an exotic, at times terrifying new world that is as old as the sands of Central Asia. It is an historical saga that is totally satisfying as a novel, and it will enrich your understanding of the cultural rift between two worlds.