Sunday, 11 June 2017 – Reading pages 22-246 of Scott Carney’s Death on Diamond Mountain

Sunday I was relieved to be off of the road, as I’d spend all of Saturday cooped up in the car, counting the miles. Not feeling like doing anything active, I read Scott Carney’s Death on Diamond Mountain from page 22 until it concludes on page 246. The nonfiction book concerns the search for religious transcendence in contemporary society, through the story of Ian Thorson, a Buddhist who died in 2012.

Storyline & Drawbacks

Diamond Mountain is good, despite some shortcomings. Author Carney doesn’t always “center” his story. Too often, Ian Thorson – the book’s purported subject – slips entirely from view. By book’s end, Thorson is still a mysterious character, his motives murky to the reader. At best, you will be ambivalent about Thorson; while you might admire his desire to take life on his own terms, the fact remains that he abandoned two children and was violent toward women.

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The book and author Carney

Another issue is author Carney’s tendency to go off on unrewarding tangents. His history of Buddhism is boring. Likewise, he drains the story’s momentum by including too much material on the history of native Americans in Arizona (near Diamond Mountain).

What Works

The good news is that the book is compelling and short. Carney builds a strong narrative around Thorson, from his Stanford graduation in 1995 his 2012 death. As long as Thorson is front and center, the book moves.

The villain in the story is Thorson’s spiritual leader, Michael Roach. Carney is quite harsh on Roach, an Eagle Scout and Princeton grad turned Buddhist lama. In Diamond Mountain, Roach is little more than a huckster, a Buddhist version of the televangelists who con people out of their money. Among many other sins, Roach ignores his vow of chastity to sleep with his young, female followers. Roach told one interviewer that having sex with his attractive, twenty-something wife was “…not fun. And it’s not a joke. It’s a life-or-death attempt to become a being who can serve all living creatures before you die” (p. 132).

Roach also chases every dollar that comes his way. During one retreat, he charged “retreatants” from $10,000 to $300,000 to build their cabins. At retreat’s end, the cabins belonged to Roach’s organization.

Also, Carney makes clear that Roach’s desire to maintain control of his followers played a role in Thorson’s death.

What the Story Tells Us

“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” ― Eric Hoffer, The Temper of Our Time

By book’s end, Roach seems to have gotten a comeuppance of sorts. At least in the United States, many people had come to agree that Hoffer had Roach and his organization pegged. Still, author Carney struggles to make sense of it all. He notes that spiritual pursuits change people, but not always for the better. However, for the most part, readers are left with few easy answers.

I give Death on Diamond Mountain 8 out of 10. It’s well worth a look.

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Friday, 9 June 2017 – reading through page 22 of Scott Carney’s Death on Diamond Mountain

Saturday I was in the car all day and didn’t read a word. But Friday I had managed to read the first 22 pages of Death on Diamond Mountain by Scott Carney. My wife read the book last week and recommended it to me. The book centers on the 2012 death of 38-year-old Ian Thomson, an American Buddhist.

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The book’s cover & author Carney

What little I have read has been quite good. Carney grabs the reader right from the start. In the Author’s Note, Carney discusses the suicide of an American woman who’d taken an overseas trip that Carney had led. The trip exposed young people to Buddhism and – under the influence of Buddhist teachings – the woman jumped from a rooftop. Carney states that the woman’s death sparked his interest in Thomson.

The pace doesn’t slack when Carney segues into the Prologue. The story takes the reader to an Arizona cave where Thorson’s wife Christie McNally tries to decide whether to call for help in saving Ian. The pace slackens a bit in Chapters 1 and 2. In Chapter 1 Carney goes into a discussion of western “applications” of Buddhism, and how we prefer an “a-la-carte” approach in which we select what we like and discard the rest. Chapter 2 describes Ian’s background; as I closed the book, he was a student at Stanford University in the 1990s.

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Ian Thorson and Christie McNally

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Friday, 9 June 2017 – reading pages 134-166 of Michael Crichton’s Grave Descend

Friday I finished Michael Crichton’s Grave Descend, reading pages 134-166 (Chapters 14-20). The close of the book was disappointing. It seemed as though Crichton didn’t know how to end it, or perhaps he just got tired of writing and stopped. My overall assessment of Grave Descend is a 7 out of 10.

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Back Cover

Friday’s sections had many of the positives of the first 166 pages. The pages turn easily and you’re never bored. Crichton also creates good characters, including a James Bond-style villain.

But I also saw several negatives in the last few pages. Grave Descend is short to a fault; there are few vivid descriptions and the dialogue isn’t engaging. Also, Crichton doesn’t build enough suspense; the ending is “ho hum,” though Crichton does make a semi-successful stab at throwing a surprise into the plot.

(To supplement Grave Descend’s short 166 pages, Hard Case Crime’s version of Grave Descend also includes a long, 35-page preview of Crichton’s novel The Venom Business; I’ve never been a fan of these previews and didn’t read it).

In summary, Grave Descend is good if you grade it on a curve. Compared to most “men’s adventure” novels, it holds up well. But there are areas for improvement.

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Thursday, 8 June 2017 – Reading pages 53-134 in Michael Crichton’s Grave Descend

Thursday my cold got better. While “resting up,” I read pages 53-134 in Michael Crichton’s 1970 novel Grave Descend. In the book, our hero James McGregor and his buddy Roger Yeoman dive into the wreck of the Grave Descend to retrieve a safe and a sculpture. (With Yeoman, Crichton got into the ground floor of now cliched white-hero-with-a-black-friend storyline). Suffice to say, retrieving the items from the wreck isn’t easy and much adventure results.

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Michael Crichton first published Grave Descend under the pen name John Lange

The novel relies on plot twists, so it’s difficult to give a plot summary without spoiling the book. Suffice to say that Thursday’s selection involved many of the common “ingredients” of men’s adventure fiction – smuggling, kidnapping, Nazis, scuba diving, exotic locales (Jamaica), beautiful women, and constant double crossing.

At the end of all of that action, I’m still in the dark about some of what is happening. But the picture is a getting a big clearer. Grave Descend is a good book for fans of “action” novels – the pages turn with ease even if realism is in short supply. So far, I’m sticking to my 8 out of 10 rating.

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Wednesday, 7 May 2017 – Reading pages 1-52 in Michael Crichton’s Grave Descend

Wednesday a cold was starting to get me by the evening. So, my reading was short before I headed for bed. I started Michael Crichton’s Grave Descend and managed the first 52 pages. The story is basic men’s adventure stuff. 39-year-old “Dive bum” James McGregor has dropped out and moved to Jamaica after suffering severe wounds while serving in the Marines. He scrapes by and looks down on those who work regular jobs.

IMG_0236A wealthy American comes to McGregor with an offer he can’t refuse. The American tells McGregor that a yacht sank off Jamaica’s coast and he wants McGregor to dive down to the wreck – while keeping everything hush hush.

So far, Grave Descend is very good. Yes, it’s formulaic, but it’s well done. My only gripe is that Hard Case Crime pads out the book by inserting blank pages and by not starting the text until page 17. I give the first 52 pages of Grave Descend 8 out of 10.

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Tuesday, 6 June 2017 – Finishing Ed McBain’s So Nude, So Dead (pages 88-199) and reading McBain’s novella “Die Hard”

At night, I finished So Nude, So Dead by Ed McBain (covering pages 88-199). The best assessment of the book is “Good enough.” It’s good escapism, but when McBain wrote this one he was just starting as an author had yet to hit his stride.

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Back cover of the Hard Case edition

The story focuses on junky Ray Stone’s attempts to uncover the truth behind the murder of a jazz singer and the theft of 16 ounces of pure heroin. Ray drags his way through New York City’s jazz underworld and meets some interesting characters. However, some of the dialogue is stilted and not all of the characters’ actions make sense (such as when some thugs beat Ray, but leave him alive for no apparent reason). Perhaps my biggest complaint is that McBain fails to build suspense – the book doesn’t stir the reader’s emotions.

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An early edition

One thing that was a pleasant surprise was that McBain included a layer of complexity that was not apparent. So Nude, So Dead is a “puzzle” mystery where you have to pay attention to every detail in order to solve the mystery. Most of the clues are there, but they are often “hiding in plain sight,” and I’d guess that very few readers will pay enough attention to solve it – I certainly did not.

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So Nude, So Dead is a trade (oversized) paperback reprint from Hard Case Crime. It’s overpriced @ $9.95. The book is a quick read. I give it 6.5 out of 10.

***

Readers get a bonus at book’s end – a novella (pages 203-223) titled “Die Hard” featuring McBain’s series detective Matt Cordell. “Die Hard” concerns the father of a junkie hiring Cordell to investigate the people who hooked his son on heroin. “Die Hard” was more of the same – solid, readable action fiction, but not outstanding.

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What I’m Reading – The First 82 pages of Ed McBain’s So Nude, So Dead

Needing a book, I settled on Ed McBain’s So Nude, So Dead. It was one of the books that I got in the large order that I received from Edward R Hamilton last week.

So far, it’s just OK. So Nude was McBain’s first crime novel, published in 1952. It concerns a jazz piano player (Ray Stone) who becomes a junkie. He wakes up next to a dead woman and is hunted throughout New York City. So far, it’s good, but not great. So many authors have mined the basic mystery format that you feel as though there needs to be something else for a novel to work.

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The book is hard to believe. My sense is that a junky who needed a fix would not be able to conduct an investigation into who framed him for murder.

The book’s cover is also odd. I suppose it intends to show Eileen Chalmers, the dead woman in Stone’s bad. However, the book states that Eileen was a blonde and that she was shot in the abdomen. Finally, the artist drew Eileen with a “mannish” face. I’m quibbling, but – assuming the cover means to depict Eileen – it should have been better.

So far, So Nude is about a 6.5 out of 10.

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