The Last Hundred Days. Patrick McGuiness (Seren). The dying days of dictator Ceausescu is the setting for this one. Our hero gets hired on at a university in Bucharest, and we become immersed in black market, political shysterism, the tedious world of tyrants and watching and being watched ... and the smallness of it all.

But our narrator is swept off his feet by lovely Cilea. Her father is deputy interior minister. The first meeting between father and prospective son-in-law is terrific story-telling. They are both being shaved with an overlay of high if not scary comedy ("Vlad the Impaler used to slit open the nostrils of his enemies so they flapped like rags in the wind" says her father as the barber brings the blade close, very close, to the other's nose).

Ceausescu's famous last speech turns up, the one where he was booed, dumped, eventually deposed and executed. It comes appropriately near the end ("I have now seen it so often that it has become impossible to isolate it from subsequent viewings," says the narrator.)

The novel immerses us in the stifling world of pre-1989 Communist life in Eastern Europe, and makes us glad, so glad, that we were not there, especially when we are told that many of Ceausescu's young secret policemen were hand-picked from orphanages, when they were young and malleable: and then taught everything a secret agent should (and shouldn't) do.

Worm: The First Digital World War. Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly).
Bowden concentrates on the threat posed by Conficker, an impending hack attack that threatened the whole of the internet. It was timed for 1 April 2009.

Those who knew internet security --- many appear here --- were convinced that there were by then in place enough computers chained together by a malware worm to create an immense "botnet." With a single command, it could overwhelm enough operating systems to drown Google, Facebook, banks, telephones, energy, the CIA, FBI, the military, air traffic, world banking and finance (and you and me) ... leaving all of us gasping in the dark without that electronic crutch upon which we have become so dependent.

Obviously it didn't happen (Conflicker's creator strangely opted to use it for small-time spamming and pornography). The joke --- the bad joke --- is that the preparation to defuse this malware didn't come from any government, military, or corporation but from a bunch of geeks most of who operate on their own. They formed their anti-worm confederation on their own time (and on their own dime). The preparation for what could have been is as interesting as what did actually happen.

These security experts fault Microsoft's Windows, specifically Port 445, for Conflicker; its lousy design invites malware to sneak into millions of computers worldwide, which bands together enough of them to choke the internet.

The worm is still there, coiled, waiting to spring out at us some day ... and the anticipation in Worm is in no way boring. You will not be engulfed in cryptic compu-speak, but you'll learn all the words that you thought you couldn't, like "infected bots," "ports," "kernels." You'll also learn that the internet is "like a phone book, not a road map." Whatever that means.

The Brick Murder: A Tragedy Kurt Jose Ayau (Livingston Press/Univ. of W. Alabama). In the short story "Outsourcing," we begin to see that the fish in our bubbling tanks have turned to plastic, as have the trees, lawns, and ... the moon. In "Bob the Negro," Bob finds the other workers in his office are tossing that phrase around when he is not in earshot. He doesn't like it. In one of the best pieces, Professor Klem, from Moravia, teaches at Southern University --- but he's caught in the midst of an affair with Lucy MacIntosh whose husband has an itchy trigger finger. Which means that the good professor and his afternoon fling become a pile of mincemeat.

In the first four of these tales, the dialogue is excellent, the plotting nigh about perfect, and the endings not to be missed. For some reason, however, Brick Murder falls apart half way through. The charming dialogue is replaced by stiff prosody and heedless (and needless) plots. Still, the book might be worth it for the great puzzles that turn up at the beginning. After his death via coitus interruptus, for example, why did Dr. Klem's old lovers "start falling out of the sky" to bed down our puzzled --- but delighted --- narrator?

A Queen's Journey. James D. Houston (Heyday). Houston wants to tell the story of the kidnapping of Hawai'i that took place towards the end of the 19th Century: a joint theft by the missionaries and the merchants from the U. S. Good, proud Queen Lili'uokalani tries a direct appeal to the United States government to undo the loss and the destruction of their way of life. Only President Cleveland offers any assistance, and he was soon out of office.

The story here is narrated by Julius Palmer, a young man sent to the islands in the winter of 1896 - 97 to be a merchant. But he becomes enamored of the queen (and her woeful tale). Unfortunately, author Houston died mid-way though composing this one, leaving the reader up the creek, so to speak, without a paddle.

Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion. Jean H Baker (Hill & Wang). The subtitle says it all. Ms. Sanger couldn't stay out of the hair of the Catholic church nor out of bed with the likes of Havelock Ellis and H. G. Wells. There were other loves, and friendships galore (Pearl Buck, G. B. Shaw, Norman Thomas, John Maynard Keynes, Helen Keller and Frank Lloyd Wright).

From the beginning, she subscribed to the rare thought in Victorian America that women owned their bodies, and they should own the right to bear or not to bear children. Her most controversial proposition was that contraceptives should be available to all, and that clinics should be set up to teach poor women with five children how to avoid having five or six more.

Her bête noir was a pale drab Puritan by the name of Anthony Comstock. He was in charge of morals-in-the-mail at the U. S. Post Office, and had Sanger stowed away in the pokey several times (she always demanded to be allowed to walk to the clink, attracting maximum street-side attention).

Unfortunately, Sanger was her own best enemy, getting involved in the doubtful logic of eugenics, but her boundless energy makes her a fascinating study and --- even though the language here can be pedestrian --- she can entrance us all.

It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing. Luis J Rodríguez (Touchstone). As a poor second generation Mexican-American boy, Rodriguez had to go through all the usual American ghetto wake-up calls: drinking, drugs, guns, violence, being part of a gang, dropping out of school. None of these turned out very well for him, but his fascination with words and books showed him the way up (he ended up with a Chicano writing group).

Unfortunately, like many facile writers, Rodríguez's passion can get lost in verbiage, but when he is writing about the real stuff it comes alive. For instance, there is a fine episode where he faces down a drunk who beats up women (including his ex-wife). In these sections, he becomes the able reporter that he once was.

--- Richard Saturday

    Several years ago we reviewed Ahmen Mourad's book Taxi ...
    all about frustrated taxi drivers in Cairo.
    At the time it seemed a bit slight, but it was fun.
    According to a recent review in TLS it has done well enough to be reissued by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation.
    "The prose is unremarkable," reports Maria Golia,
    "but the material is rich thanks to the philosophizing of the commentator behind the wheel."
    Our review can be found in the
    Early Summer 2008 Issue
    of RALPH.

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