Monday, October 16, 2017

A movie and a concert

     The Wind Rises (2013) (D: Hayao Miyazaki. Voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt et al ]
     A biography of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of Japanese WW2 fighter planes. The story’s simple: Horikoshi is near-sighted, so he can’t qualify to fly planes. Instead, he designs them. He falls in love, but the girl has TB. However, they marry, and have a short time together before she dies. The story of the design successes and failures is well done, the personal life is touched on rather than told, and the subtext is definitely anti-war, mixed with pride at the success of Japanese engineering. It’s an animé movie, a style that occasionally jars: I don’t like the way in which grief and other strong emotions are portrayed. But overall it’s well-done. Recommended. ***

    Blast From the Past: Louise Lemieux Does the ‘50s Louise sang mostly standards, mostly love songs, and mostly the ones that were hits because of teenagers: Bye, Bye Love; Are You Lonesome Tonight; Only You; Peggy Sue; etc. Teen angst is not new, only the recent worry that it’s a sign of emotional fragility is. She also likes songs from the musicals: I Could Have Danced All Night; Oh, What a Beautiful Morning; etc. She’s a performer who happens to use songs to entertain, and she does a wonderful job of it. We’ve known her for a long time, and have always enjoyed her concerts. The show was not sold out, which means some people missed a great evening’s entertainment. ****

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Banks 2nd case: A Dedicated man

     Peter Robinson. A Dedicated Man (1988) The second Banks novel. Harry Steadman, an academic with no enemies, lies under some stones with his head bashed in. Chief Inspector Banks becomes convinced that the solution lies in the past, when Steadman and his wife Emma used to come to Swainsdale for their summer holidays, and for his field work in industrial archeology. Steadman has come into an inheritance, which enables his purchase of the house that he summered in, and gives him the time he wants to pursue his obsession. It’s this dedication to his avocation that does him in. Add a clever but naive sixteen-year-old girl with dreams of becoming famous, a nicely selected cast of suspects, some folk music, and of course the looming fells of the Dales, as well as unusually pleasant summer weather, and you get a well-done entertainment.
     Not up to the standard set by the first book, but good enough. We don’t learn much more about Banks and his life, though, which may be the reason I didn’t find this as satisfying a read as the other Inspector Banks books I’ve read. **½

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Service of All the Dead: Morse gets most of it right.

     Colin Dexter. Service of All the Dead (1979) The rector falls to his death from St Frideswide’s tower. Not too long before that, the church warden was murdered. The cursory investigation concludes that the rector murdered the warden, then repented and killed himself. Morse doesn’t buy it, and sets off on one of his typically convoluted and hare-brained searches for the truth. The case ends when the body count reaches 5, and Morse interrupts the murderer’s attempt to raise it to 6. Morse gets most of case right, carefully hides part of it from the perjury trial of one of the witnesses, and never finds the final clue that lets the reader know the complete solution.
     A typical Dexter, with a good puzzle, soft and not so soft porn tossed in, careful descriptions of Oxford, and better than average characterisation and ambience. But Dexter has an irritating habit of the “little did he know” tip-off to the reader, along with the knowing wink about somebody’s peccadilloes. A good enough read, but the TV series is much better. **½

Friday, October 06, 2017

Science Fiction Oldies but Goodies

      Groff Conklin. 12 Great Classics of Science Fiction (1963) This collection marks the border of the shift from the technological age of SF, when writers and readers were satisfied with gee-whiz extrapolations of gadgetry (later affectionately satirised in Inspector Gadget and Bruce McCall’s drawings for Esquire, New Yorker, etc), to the subsequent sociological age, when writers explored the social and psychological effects of extrapolated social and technical trends. For example, “Thirty Days had September” does a what-if supposing all social institutions are “sponsored” and operated by corporations. The collection also shows a shift to more subtle attempts at imagining the Alien, a task that’s inherently impossible, but which dreamlike fantasies approximate, as in “On the Fourth Planet”, which imagines a dying race of Martians barely subsisting by nibbling bacteria off lichens. Every story prompts thoughts beyond itself. Recommended, if you can find a copy. ***

A Death in Venice: Brunetti on the case

    Donna Leon Death at La Fenice (1992) The first in the Commissario Guido Brunetti series, reprinted in 2004. I’d heard of it, but paid no attention. Now I will read them all, in order if possible. The setting is the La Fenice opera house in Venice, the victim is the world-famous conductor Helmut Wellauer, the suspects include some singers, the director, musicians, assorted lovers, journalists and gossips, and of course the widow. Politics as well as standard Italian-style corruption, Wellauer’s history, Brunetti’s family, and Venice itself make for a wonderful mix. Leon’s forte is the casually inserted detail and stray thought, which create character, setting, and ambience. The resolution is satisfactory, and the long and winding road to it is a delight to follow. Brunetti is professional, humane, and persistent. His love for his family is believable, as are his partly cynical and partly collegial relationships with his fellow cops. Recommended. ****

Monday, October 02, 2017

The Ruins of Earth: gloomy forecasts of the End.

    Thomas M. Disch. The Ruins of Earth (1973) A collection of short stores about how and why Earth is doomed. At the time, the “population bomb” was on everyone’s mind, and Harry Harrison’s “Roommates” illustrates an extrapolation of its effects. He later expanded it into a novel, which was adapted into the movie Soylent Green. The time scale was off, but Harrison’s ideas if anything underestimate what will likely happen when the climate tips. Climate change is a side-effect of our overpopulation: at present, our annual consumption of renewable resources is about 1.25 times as much resources as the planet’s systems can replace. In addition, we are adding CO2 and other pollutants to the atmosphere faster than the planet’s systems can process them. Disaster is inevitable. The only uncertainty is about the scale and rate of the disaster, and whether or not we can adapt in time to prevent extinction.
     All the stories are worth reading. Most are satires, albeit not particularly funny ones. ** to ***

Friday, September 22, 2017

Rumpole Wins, Again and Again (Rumpole Rests His Case, Rumpole a la Carte)

     John Mortimer. Rumpole Rests His Case (2001) Seven tales illustrating Rumpole’s forensic skills and his firm conviction that banging up fellow citizens is bad, no matter how badly they have misbehaved. The tone of these stories is more elegiac than ever. Mortimer’s stories glance at contemporary politics, the shenanigans that respectable people get up to, the weaknesses and frailties of human beings. In “The Old Familiar Faces”, Rumpole does some good outside the courtroom by using a bit of discreet blackmail on villains who have hidden their naughty pasts under a cloak of respectability. “The Actor Laddie” muses on the sometimes surprising results of ego-sustaining vanities, when Rumpole’s aging-actor client pleads guilty to theft merely because he wants to make a grand speech to the Jury. The title story shows Rumpole in hospital and demonstrating a ward-mate’s innocence to the satisfaction of the Jury consisting of the other patients.
     The stories maintain the genial surface of the series, but there’s a darkness beneath it. Rumpole wants to prevent miscarriages of justice. His notions of good and evil are that we are all sinners. The best we can hope for is that the small pleasures of life will offset the darkness.
     Mortimer was a lawyer, his stories have the ring of truth, and remind us that the justice system is not about justice but about keeping crime in check. Especially crime committed by the lower classes. As always, a pleasure to read, but disturbing to contemplate. ***

     John Mortimer. Rumpole a la Carte (1990) In the title story, Rumpole sucessfully defends a restaurateur against a charge of maintaining a filthy insalubrious establishment. He wins all his other cases, too, including the informal ones within Chambers. But the victories are often bitter-sweet, what with the frailties of homo sapiens unlikely to disappear. In the last story, he prosecutes, and ends up defending the accused. The judge is not impressed, although a conviction would have been a grave miscarriage of justice. Recommended. ***

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Donald Lam and the Case of Poisoned Anchovy Paste

     A. A. Fair. Fools Die on Friday (1947) One of Erle Stanley Gardner’s pseudonymous soft-boiled PI tales featuring and narrated by Donald Lam, partner with Bertha Cool in a detective agency. Snappy dialogue, adequate characterisation, a nicely twisted plot involving poisoned anchovy paste, well-done ambience, and hints of noir make for a fast-moving entertainment. It’s set in the immediate post-war period with its housing shortages, and women used to independence and no longer entirely happy with remarks about good legs. The cops are disdainful of Donald Lam, but not hostile, and happy to get whatever help he gives them. Bertha Cool is irritatingly one-dimensional. The other women range from barely articulate scenery to people that matter to Lam. Ditto for the men. Even Lam, the most fully realised character of all, is a cardboard cut out with a Technicolor front and a pasteboard-grey back.
     Pulp fiction, but a cut or two above average. Gardner’s Perry Mason series differs only in more carefully imagined characters. **½