Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Cats versus Rats

    Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, Tamara Bonvillain. Angel Catbird (2016) Well done pulp comic book fiction printed on nice book-weight glossy paper, including making-of material such as Christmas’s trial sketches of the main character, Strig Feleedus. He’s a nerdy biologist trying to perfect a genetic splicing drug.  Dr Mucoid, his evil villain boss, who want it to create a half-rat army, does a hit’n’run on him, which breaks the vial with the drug, which gets into his blood, along with some blood from his cat and an unfortunate owl. Hence Angel Catbird, a half-cat human with a dash of owl. A lovely succession of riffs on super-hero comics ensues. It'a all about cats versus rats. The script was written by Atwood, drawn by Christmas, and coloured by Bonvillain.
     Recommended. This is volume 1. Look for Volume 2 in February, and read it too. The book was shelved a Young Adult in our local library, which it’s not. ****

Friday, January 13, 2017

"A Brief Historty of Humankind"

     Yuval Noah Harari. (2014) Harari’s take on the history of us, homo sapiens sapiens, the only extant species of homo sapiens. He uses the title term throughout to refer to us in contrast to neanderthalensis and other human species (Wikipedia calls them “subspecies”.) He divides our history into three eras, the Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific.
     Our ancestors became sapiens when some changes in the brain enabled it not only to imagine non-present objects, but to talk about them. Harari calls this “fictive language” to distinguish it from the signaling systems used by other animals. Besides making the exchange of technical information easier, it accelerated technical improvements and the creation of societies that extended over space and time. Societies are held together by the stories they tell about themselves, and exist only to the extent that these stories are believed. To label them as myths is to misunderstand both their power and their necessity. It’s only when a myth is superseded by a new one that we see it as a fiction.
     Agriculture was not a precondition for large human societies capable of building monuments and settlements, but it certainly accelerated that shift in Sapiens lifestyles. But the key to the development of cities and empires was trade, facilitated and accelerated by writing. Writing is a method of recording and using more data than a single human can store in their brain. The earliest writings were records of numbers, not stories. Pure data, in other words.
      Science was the “discovery of ignorance”, the realisation that we don’t know everything there is to know. This placed a premium on searching for new knowledge, and fostered the stance that not only current knowledge but current lifestyles are subject to continuing change. Couple this with the invention of credit (the essential function of money), and the acceleration of technical, economic, and social change seems inevitable.
     Harari has the knack of noticing what’s right in front of us. Reading him has the twin effect of prompting “Well, of course, why didn’t I see it that way before?” and “Aha, just as I suspected.” It also reminds us that Sapiens has changed the planet more thoroughly than any other animal when it became the most skilful and efficient hunter and forager that ever evolved on Earth. Sapiens has altered every ecosystem it invaded, long before agriculture and the science speeded up and enlarged the scope of those changes. Sapiens has now developed the skills that ironically could enable it to create life forms that supersede it.
     We have become smart enough to replace ourselves, but not wise enough to understand why would want to do that, nor what kind of life form we would want to replace us.
     Every chapter, sometimes every paragraph, prompts questions, musings, applications to one's experience and knowledge. Harari’s large-scale view of human history expands the reader’s view also: I found my insights and perceptions continually challenged and shifting into new shapes.
     Read this book. ****

Friday, January 06, 2017

Happy New Year, and a few changes

     To the dozen or so regular readers this blog, I hope for a much less interesting 2017 than the  tweets of the moment suggest we are in for. As for changes: this main page will be reserved for book reviews. Movie, TV and theatre reviews will be posted exclusively on the Movies page, and I will begin a new page of miscellaneous commentary. I will also post on the other Pages more often, at least once a month.
     I invite you to Follow this blog, and also to comment. You can post anonymously, but I do check all comments before publishing them. I've blocked only obvious spam.

Political Corruption: As American (and Canadian) as Apple Pie

      Samuel P. Orth. The Boss and the Machine (1919) A brief but thorough and depressing history of the fraud, malfeasance, deceit, self-serving, bribery, theft, office jobbing, graft, and general corruption that has marked American politics at every level from the beginning of the Republic.
     The Founders were afraid both of a strong executive and of mob rule, so they built a system in which the legislature and executive were intended to act as checks on each other. This pretty well guarantees backroom deals. Couple that with the two-year cycle of elections, and it was inevitable that the Party machine would become the de facto source of power.
     Oligarchy is the natural form of American polity. Public office has always been seen as primarily a method of guaranteeing employment and enrichment for oneself, one’s cronies, and one’s sponsors. To quote one of our Prime Ministers: “You gotta dance with the one that brung you.” Elections are about which faction of the 1% will get their turn at the trough.
     Orth wrote at a time (about 100 years ago) when political reform movements were able to clean up the worst messes. He clearly believed that US politics would be saner and more public spirited in the 20th century. History has proven him wrong. The reform movements tended to disband once they had achieved their goals, and the Party machines inevitably moved back in. They have become more sophisticated and skilled at shifting public opinion, and less blatant in their greed. The rulers keep themselves out of the public eye more skilfully, but their goals are the same as they have always been: Put into place a compliant legislature, and move money from the taxpayers' into their own pockets. In short, the elected politicians are a front for the ruling class.
     It took me a while to read the book, in part because Orth writes a chronicle, not an analysis, but mostly because the story is such a drearily depressing one. The Party machine also dominates Canadian politics, but with a more polite and superficially less brutal style.
     Has there been a general improvement in politics? Perhaps. Corruption is not as blatant as it used to be, but that is more a change in style than in substance. Good book. Should be available in any University library. ***

Monday, December 26, 2016

Spy Caper Spoof

      Spy (2015) [D: Paul Feig (also wrote), with Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Miranda Hart] Mildly amusing spy caper spoof in which a CIA desk-operative Susan Cooper (McCarthy) volunteers to take on a “track and report” field mission involving an international gang of suave psychopaths who are trading in suitcase-sized atom bombs.
The joke is that Cooper is not a svelte, elegant, self-confident wonder woman, but a dumpy, inelegant, unconfident woman who’s hopelessly in love with the spy (Jude Law) she assists. But she’s smart, brave, has trained in martial arts and firearms, and gains self-confidence as she outwits, outfights, and outshoots assorted baddies. The fun comes from McCarthy’s acting, our recognition of the James Bond tropes, the above averege script (although far more F-bombs than it needed), and the care taken to make all minor characters just caricatured enough for humour. The cast and crew obviously have a lot of fun too, which always helps. Enough (semi-plausible) plot twists to keep you watching.  I enjoyed it. **½

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Wycliffe on Holiday and on the Case

     W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the Pea Green Boat (1975) Part One describes how an innocent man is convicted of a rape and murder. Part Two tells how Wycliffe while on holiday takes on a current murder because a colleague has misgivings. As you will expect, those misgivings are fully justified, and the general solution to the puzzle is pretty obvious. However, Burley’s strength is character, ambience, and the slow build-up of detail and surmise until the full picture emerges. It kept me reading to the end, even though I had the answer to the central question long before Wycliffe arrived at it. Wycliffe fans will be satisfied, many of those who haven’t cone across him before will want to read more of the series. There was a good TV adaptation done in the 1990s, starring Jack Shepherd as Wycliffe. **½

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Murder in Nero Wolfe's brownstone

     Rex Stout. A Family Affair (1975) Late at night, Archie admits Pierre Ducos, a waiter at Rusterman’s, who wants to consult Nero Wolfe because “a man is trying to kill me”. A minute or two after being left in the front room of the third floor, an exploding device kills him. Things go severely downhill from there. The murderer has killed three times by the time justice of a kind is done. And that’s as far as I’ll go in hinting at spoilers. One of Stout’s best, and also the last book he published. He died a month later. I found my copy at Value Village, unread. Great find. ****

Wimsey deserves better than this.

     Lord Peter Wimsey: Clouds of Witness (19720 [D:Hugh David. Ian Carmichael et al] Awful adaptation of Dorothy Sayers’ novel. A screenplay that’s about as banal and simplistic as you can get, stretching the story over 5 parts (225 minutes). The amount of padding this requires makes it mind-numbingly slow. The characterisation is superficial, and that’s the politest way I can say it. Bland cinematography  with poor lighting and bad sound adds to the pain. The editing is strange, so put it mildly: long shots of unmoving faces are suppose to convey menace, I guess, or maybe comic fun. It all depends on the owner of the face. And so on.
     We stopped watching this mess part way through episode two. The 1987 adaptations of Sayers' novels starring Edward Petherbridge are far superior. It’s unfortunate that the two series treated different novels.  Based on my disappointment, I want to rate this a BOMB, but I guess one star is fairer: *

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Nun Solves Mystery

    Veronica Black. A Vow of Chastity (1991) Sister Joan, of the Daughters of Compassion, teaches a motley group of farm and Romany children. When one of the Romany boys goes missing, she investigates. The story builds slowly, the discovery of the murderer is a surprise (the clues don’t really persuade), but overall this is a satisfying read. Convent life is rarely depicted convincingly. This book comes close, despite its somewhat too-good-to be true ambience. It’s the practicalities of daily life (and school teaching) that create the life-like feel that we want from a novel. The title has only a tenuous connection with the plot. This is #2 of a series that reached #11. **½