Thursday Reviews: The Lady In The Lake, All The Young Warriors, Steve Jobs

The Lady in the Lake

Raymond Chandler

Chandler’s fourth Phillip Marlowe novel  finds the master of the metaphor and the smartass one-liner once again crafting a novel from scratch. Previously, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely had the benefit of pulling material from pre-existing Chandler short stories. The third book, The High Window, was a wholly original work, and somehow, feels hollow.

But Chandler is back in form in The Lady in the Lake. I suspect time spent in Hollywood writing screenplays might have helped. Marlowe is hired by Derace Kinglsey to find his missing wife, Crystal. Oh, he doesn’t want her back. He just wants to know why she absconded to Mexico for a quickie divorce that never happened. This leads our intrepid cracker of wise to Kingsley’s cabin in the mountains, where he and the caretaker finds the caretaker’s wife dead in the nearby lake. (Hence the title. Clever, eh?)

The caretaker, Chess, is arrested, but it doesn’t feel right. And somehow, it’s tied to Crystal’s disappearance and that of a mysterious woman named Mildred Haviland. Marlowe then travels to Bay City (a thinly disguised and rather run-down Santa Monica), where the cops seem to be more corrupt than Mrs. Kingsley and her shifty boyfriend, a gigolo named Lavery. Of course, Marlowe has to deal with the cops when Lavery is found dead, and Crystal’s clothes and gun are found at the scene.

The complicated plot and wartime-era SoCal setting make this one feel like a the story that took place between China Town and The Two Jakes. Los Angeles and its neighbors are in flux, and the war seems only to accelerate that change. The police are both corrupt and scared at the same time, and Hollywoods seedy side shows itself in the form of Dr. Almore, Lavery’s neighbor and junk dealer to the stars.

A bit hard to handle are the modern feel of the story juxtaposed with the somewhat sanitized dialogue. You can tell Chandler’s characters want to spew strings of obscenities that would make George Carlin blush, but can’t because of the societal taboos of when this was written. Just the same, you can see the seeds of Chinatown and James Ellroy in this one. This is Los Angeles, and it’s a very dirty place, the way only Chandler could write it.

All the Young Warriors

Anthony Neil Smith

We begin with the shooting of two small town cops in Minnesota. One of them is the fiancee of another cop named Bleeker, and she was carrying his baby. Bleeker’s out for revenge, since he figures his life is over now. In the process, he teams up with a former gang leader named Mustafa. Turns out his son, Adem, was in the car when the cops were shot. The shooter was Jibril, a gang banger wannabe whom Mustafa never respected. This might be another noir romp we’ve come to expect from Neil Smith, but then Adem and Jibril head to Somalia, a trip interrupted by that fatal traffic stop. Bleeker and Mustafa follow them, and we are plunged into a world alien to most readers, one where religious mania, unrelenting war, and abject poverty are the norm. When Adem is sent to be the spokesman for Somali pirates in their negotiations for ransomed ships.

But it’s in this environment that Smith tests our perceptions of that world. Islam is seen both as the radical banner of angry terrorists as well as a quiet, peaceful religion that bears no resemblance to what fear mongers of all stripes would have you believe.

But while Bleeker’s quest for revenge is his main focus through most of the book, it takes a backseat to Mustafa’s quest to save his son. And it is counterbalanced with Adem’s struggle to figure out if he is an American in the wrong place or a Somali fighting the good fight to save his country. Through it all, Jibril, who wants to be the big man, finally becomes one. Does it make him the hero he always wanted to be or just a bigger target.

Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson

After tackling Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, biographer Walter Isaacson turns his attention to a man who was alive up to six weeks before the book was published. And he not only had his subject’s cooperation, but that of his family, friends, coworkers, and even enemies. Steve Jobs insisted on that.

Steve Jobs was a complicated man. A counter-culture disciple of Bob Dylan, he abandoned the hacker ethos of the mid-1970’s to turn Steve Wozniak’s nifty little circuit board into a company that would revolutionize the computer industry. Steeped in electronics, he nonetheless attended a liberal arts college. Obsessed with hardware and his new Next operating system, he bought Pixar and turned it into a major animation studio, eventually supplanting Disney’s own animation division when the Mouse bought it out in the mid-2000’s. A devotee of Zen, he was prone to tantrums, black-and-white thinking, and rude behavior. Close to his biological sister, adopted parents, and son, he nonetheless abandoned, then assumed a tense relationship with his daughter Lisa (for whom the second Apple line of computers was named.) He respected, even admired, his rivals like Bill Gates and Larry Page, but held grudges against former partners and companies.

In short, Steve Jobs was a magnificent paradox, and without him, much of what we now take for granted about modern computer would not have happened. Jobs’ great gift was being a designer at heart who knew enough about engineering to somehow make the impossible happen. Obsessed with detail, he created an ecosystem that sprawls today from music to movies to the phone in your pocket and the machine on your desk. Open systems might have more success in the long run, but Apple’s approach usually meant Microsoft and Google would be following rather than leading. Usually, this was good. The Mac showed us what Windows would ultimately be, and the iPhone made Android possible. On the other hand, the technology highway is littered with the corpses of technology breakthroughs its makers were too shortsighted to make succeed. Xerox’s GUI-based operating system flopped where Macintosh exploded onto the market, followed closely by Windows. Sony’s music download service drove millions of MP3 pirates into the waiting arms of iTunes.

Jobs himself was not an easy man to like. You were either a hero or a bozo in his mind, sometimes in the same conversation. He held grudges. He pushed his people to the breaking point. But he was fascinating. And brilliant, a flawed genius. His gift was his ability to see where users would be rather than where they were. Remember the snickering that accompanied the original iPad? And yet it has competitors, like the Kindle Fire and Samsung’s Android-based tablets. So where are the naysayers who said the iPad was useless now? It’s not only indispensible, it has clones.

What made Jobs able to rise above his character faults was his passion for design. His personality is imprinted all over Apple’s product lines. He had a refreshingly different view of business for a CEO. At both Apple and Pixar, he insisted his job was to put out great products. Making money was secondary. It birthed the Macintosh. It allowed Pixar to literally take over Disney’s animation division. And it built Apple into a company whose culture and legacy will last at least a generation or two.

And for a man who worried when people exposed his flaws to the public, he told Isaacson to tell the whole story, including warts and all. He wouldn’t even read the book, at least not initially (or ever, since he died as the book was finished.) Isaacson does so, talking to rivals, sworn enemies, along with peers, family members, and partners. It’s a complete picture that changes from moment to moment.