Monday, April 23, 2012

The Secular Monastery: Chess anyone?

    Sometimes I think of the weirdest stuff when getting ready to write a review.  I mean, do you think you could compare books to sports? Still, they are a lot alike.  Some books are full out action with tons of hits and danger like, say, demolition derby (do those still exist?)  Others have an abundance of hitting and action but with some down time between the action like boxing.  Others are slow and intricate and would be closest to golf where half the action is in the set up and delivery before every impact.  Then there are some books that are like chess. The action is not as important as the intricate way the pieces fit together to complete the game.  The action is all in the brain, no hits, no jabs, just straight out mental maneuvering.  And the thing is, different people like different sports for, well, different reasons. Not only that, but some people like a little bit of them all. Those who like football for the action may not like the slow delivery of baseball but those that enjoy both the action and the play calling of football, might well enjoy the stats and gamesmanship of baseball.
The Secular Monastery     The Secular Monastery is one of those books that more closely resembles chess than demolition derby or even football.  Pieces and people are moved around the set with great care, building a story that can grab your attention without constantly keeping you off balance by throwing action at you.

  • The Secular Monastery
  • By John D. Steinbruner
  • Paperback: 284 pages
  • Publisher: CreateSpace (September 28, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1461164621
  • ISBN-13: 978-1461164623

From Amazon:
     There’s been an apparent terrorist attack on a government laboratory that has been conducting controversial experiments using the smallpox virus. Professor David Turner is surreptitiously tasked by a wary president to investigate the incident independent of a formal commission appointed for the purpose. The assignment makes him an emissary to a powerful watchdog organization that provides indispensable assets but also subjects him to their scrutiny. Seeking to assure his independence, David enlists an American student with Iranian parentage to help him weigh evidence that Iran was responsible for the attack. He also develops an increasingly consequential relationship with an aide to the President assigned to monitor his project. As he struggles with his assignment under the pressure of politically ominous and potentially violent threat, he taps the deeper currents of global politics and personal relationships. Not able to disentangle his own fate from the outcome of the investigation, he encounters the ambiguities and dangers but also the liberating qualities of truth.

About the book:
     David Turner, a widowed university professor, is asked to do an independent review of the bombing of a CDC facility where deadly viruses are stored, including the smallpox virus. No one know why the bombing occurred but there are many theories. The president, a somewhat distant friend of David's, doesn't fully trust the independent nature of the government commission looking into the bombing so he calls on David.  He doesn't want David tainted by the official commission and so has put him in touch with Hayden Hall, a totally independent group of people with enough finances and connections to help David with a full scale investigation.  The president also gives him Amy, a presidential aide, who will keep him advised on things coming from the White House.
     David is stunned by the 'appointment' but takes it on despite his misgivings. He meets with the Hayden Hall people and finds their resources shocking.  In some ways it rivals the government's own reach.  After a thorough interview, the people there decide to help David uncover the truth about the bombing of the clinic. There are those, however, who will go to great lengths to stop David from reporting the wrong information to the president. There are those who have hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, who have a vested interest in what David choses to report.
      Lastly, can David really trust Amy?  The president thinks so but men have been lead astray before. And there is the bit that happened in the Middle East to think about when adding up the trust points.  And was Amy just a little too quick to 'like' David?

My Take:
    I enjoyed this story. Actually, I enjoyed it quite a lot except for a minor thing or two. First, the writing is good and the language is a little upscale which is a nice change from books written at an eighth grade comprehension level. But it does mean an occasional, "What does that word mean?" or "I may have to get the dictionary!" or" I haven't seen that word in months!" response. I think what it means to me is I'm not reading up to my grade level most of the time.
   The flow of the text is good, as well.  I mean, I have to appreciate someone who can come up with a character who says things like: “What can be proved and what I need to know rarely dance together."
     Steinbruner weaves an intricate pattern with tiny threads coming from nowhere - or so it seems - but that fit perfectly well. The investigation feels just like an investigation should. Bits of information here, a phone number there, a witness who sees nothing but doesn't know that they know something are all weaved into a pattern that becomes clear before the end of the book. Tiny threads actually do lead back to a spool and aren't from nowhere as they might seem in the beginning.
      By about halfway through the book I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.  You know the feeling.  All is going just a little too smoothly. Well, drop it did, but less like a work boot and more like a bedroom slipper. For me that was a little bit disappointing. The twist was a subtle one and if you don't follow the book closely you might not get the full impact of the twist. But the book itself is a case of subtle writing where the danger is quite real but not in your face real. I will say that I didn't see it coming at all, which is a good thing. The story, because of its subtlety is do close to real life that it is actually scary when one thinks these kinds of maneuvers go on all the time behind mostly closed doors. 

   I would recommend this to anyone who likes intricate mind games made real. Think of the movie "Sleuth" for instance. If you like following conspiracy theories and watching Senate hearings, if you like following the scent (or money), I think you will really enjoy this book.  The writing kept me engaged and the clues and trails kept me turning the page.
   Want more? Try this interview.

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