Thursday, October 13, 2016

Not really about trains

     Louis L’Amour. North to the Rails (1971) Tom Chantry comes West to buy cattle for his future father-in-law. His father was killed many years ago, after which his mother moved East, and raised him as an anti-gun pacifist. First thing: Tom fights a guy and wins: he’s trained as a boxer. He buys the cattle and starts north with French Williams as his trail boss. But meanie outlaws, just plain mean men, and sneaky thieves of one kind or another interfere. There’s also a cousin of Williams who wants the money; she teams up with two especially nasty types. Tom fights a Kiowa, but doesn’t kill him, and later his father’s history with the Kiowa adds to his winning hand. Anyhow, the tale ends with a gunfight, and great gobs of poetic justice.
     Not L’Amour’s best work, but a well crafted entertainment that any fan of Westerns will like. Chantry drives his herd to the railhead, which has moved further west, which will improve his profits **½

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Canadian Satire

     Barbed Lyres: Canadian Venomous Verse (1990) Foreword by Margaret Atwood. This Magazine asked readers ro write satirical verses, and this book is one of the results. The verses in it for the most part express annoyance rather than venom, but the standard of both content and form is high. An example relevant to the current US Presidential election:
     Of Brian and Ronnie and Free Trade
     How wonderful his breath must smell
     From his bid to be famous
     He sold our nation straight to hell
     And kissed old Ronnie’s anus
              (S. Piatkowski, Ottawa)

     Found in the Sault Ste Marie library’s book sale for $1. A keeper. ****

Monday, October 03, 2016

A Water Landing

     Sully (2016) [D: Clint Eastwood. Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart et al].
     Chesley Sullenberger landed American Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River after losing both engines to a birdstrike shortly after take-off. The movie is built around the Aviation Safety Board hearing into the “crash” (Sully insists it was a “water landing”), presented as attempting to show that a return to LaGuardia was possible, which would imply that instead of being a hero, Sully was a fool. The film convinces us he was a hero. Or rather, that he was a man. He didn’t want to die, so he did the best he could do, and it worked.
     Excellent reconstructions of the crash, nice flashbacks into Sully’s 40-year flying career (beginning with his flying lessons as a teenager), believable characterisations of men and women who just do their job. The cross-cutting between past and present, indoors and out, in the plane and on the ground, hearing rooms and streets, the hotel and Sully’s home, heighten tension: We know that all 155 people on the plane survived, that Sully was vindicated, but the movie still engages us so thoroughly that for a while we feel that things could turn out very badly indeed. Hanks respects the character he plays.
     Simulation of the event is available on on YouTube:
     Watch the movie in a theatre if possible. ***½

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Century-old view of the Earth

     Joh. Georg Rothaug. Vaterländischer Geographischer Schulatlas (ca. 1913) Authorised by the Imperial-Royal Ministry for Culture and Education in December 1912. The maps show the pre-World War 1 boundaries, the aerial views were taken from balloons. Part one is a general introduction to maps and geography, part two is a series of maps beginning with Austria, part 3 is an appendix showing the “principal races” of the world. There’s also a diagram of the planetary system (no Pluto) and of the starry sky as seen from the median latitude of Austria-Hungary.
     The binding is falling apart, many of the pages are loose, and a Birnecker Gottfried has written his name in several places. A very well-used volume, no doubt serving as reference work even after the Empire collapsed.
The colour printing is outstanding, the maps are very well drawn. Comparison with modern maps shows that in 1912 railways still mattered more than roads. A fascinating look at how Austria saw itself 100 years ago. ***

Catherine Aird. Last Respects (1982)

Catherine Aird.  Last Respects (1982) A body floats in the estuary of the Calle River, but the man was dead before he was dropped in the water. Aird tells a leisurely tale of Det. Insp. Sloan’s investigation, with nicely sketched characters and settings, and four or five plot-threads converging neatly in the end. One of the blurbs accurately claims Aird’s “witty aside and funny riposte are her fortĂ©”. I enjoyed this well-crafted entertainment. The Sloan novels (there are about 20 of them) would make a nice series of one-hour TV shows. Or two-hour ones if the adapters wanted to elaborate on all the back-story hints and red herrings thoughtfully supplied by Aird. ***

Art & Artists (reference book)

Peter and Linda Murray. A Dictionary of Art and Artists (1960) Just what the title says, and a good reference if you want to know about European and US art. A mass of obscure painters mentioned, good definitions and discussions of technical art terms. Based on other reference works, and shows the limitations of 2nd hand research. Heavy on medieval and renascence art, light on anything post-1800. Should be titled “A Dictionary of European and US art to 1950". As such it could be worth keeping, but a quick test shows that online information is as good if not better. **

Monday, September 19, 2016

How to spoil a good story (Matilda)

      Matilda [D: Matthew Warchus. Book by Dennis Kelly, Music by Tim Minchin, based on the novel by Roald Dahl. With Hannah Levinson, Dan Chameroy, Paula Brancati, et al.] A good play spoiled by flashing lights and sudden noise, and extremely average music played very loudly. The acting ranged from competent to very good, the dance sets were cliched but well done, the set designs and lighting were created to maximise the wow-factor. Overall the production was less concerned with telling a good story than with astonishing the audience. I have no idea whether it succeeded with the other patrons, it did not succeed with me.
     In short, impressive, but not in a good way. Pity, since Matilda is one of Dahl’s better stories. It shows how the imagination and a couple of engaged adults can foster the resilience of a neglected child. Dahl knows that a happy ending is unlikely, but he gives us one anyhow. *½

Early Allingham

Margery Allingham. Mystery Mile (1930) A very early Campion story, quite melodramatic, with disappearances, a Moriarty-type criminal master-mind, multiple deceptions, fisticuffs, night-time excursions, and limited characterisation. The evil guy suffers poetically just drowning while stuck in the mud. There’s a fire, too, but it’s mostly stink-bomb and smoke-screen. Love and justice triumph. What more could you want? Well, a fully realised Campion, for a start. The later Allinghams are much better than this one. The title refers to a village on a mist-shrouded peninsula, barely connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway, and surrounded by tidal flats and mud.*½

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why does the US seem so small?

Just heard the phrase “the vastness of our land” applied to Canada. Which made me wonder, Why does the USA seem so small?

Short answer: The USA is a patchwork of different cultures. Driving though the USA feels like driving through different countries. Michigan just doesn’t feel the same as Arkansas. Texas is its own place, and then some (they are the politest drivers anywhere, by the way). But driving across Canada, at least from Ontario west, I feel that every place is Canada. One reason, I think, is that the language varies very little from east to west, while in the USA the language varies in all directions. So we don’t hear the differences that a traveller across the USA hears.

Why are the regions of the USA so different, while those of Canada are not? Short answer: settlement patterns, and political and economic history. But to expand on that would take more space (and more detailed knowledge) than I have.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Home is for Homicide (book review)

    Joan Hess, ed. Malice Domestic 9 (2000) A pleasant series of short stories illustrating the dictum that the bosom of the family is a nest of vipers. This one pays homage to Agatha Christie, with always affectionate and sometimes quite funny pastiches or allusions. There are a few touches of Ruth Rendell, too, as in The Murder at the Vicarage, whose narrator falls for the new vicar, who hasn’t married because he hasn’t met the right woman yet. This raises the hopes of several other swoony, broody females. The narrator expects that their discovery that they were all handmaidens who would never achieve their dreams would cause them to abandon the man, but instead they kill him.
     All the plots are fair, the characters just off-kilter enough that we accept them as plausible victims and murderers, and the writing competently adapted to the writer’s intentions. A good book for a plane ride. **½