Sunday, December 29, 2013

Faye Kellerman. Stone Kiss (2002)

     Faye Kellerman. Stone Kiss (2002) Decker is asked to help find the missing niece of his half-brother’s wife. But when he gets to New York, the family puts him off. He looks up an old nemesis, Chris Donatti, whom he sprung from jail because the evidence had been cooked, and who has become a major supplier of drugs and women. Donatti becomes a key figure in the denouement, and even more entangled with Decker and his family. This book is about the tangled messes of family, personal, and business relationships, not clarified by corrupt cops, religious scruples, and horrific family dysfunction. Donatti is a psychopath, which makes for tension and violence, but when his purposes coincide with Decker’s, he is an ally. He uses violence as a tool, with no particular pleasure.
     In fact, the book has a lot of violence. Kellerman is clearly angling for a wider audience. The result is a book that’s very TV. Even its elucidation of the sources of evil parrots that facile psycho-babble that makes so much American TV less than credible. The accounts of Jewish life are, as always, interesting, and I must take them at face value. In the books between the first two (I read the second one) and this one, Decker has discovered his birth family, which was Jewish, so he turns out to be Jewish after all. But he still has close ties to his adoptive family. Etc. These aspects of the narrative are more interesting than the violence, which feels more like a movie than real life. A minor disappointment, despite its swift narrative rhythm. ** (2008)

Howard Engel. Dead and Buried (1990)

     Howard  Engel. Dead and Buried (1990) Cooperman stumbles into an environmental scam: a waste disposal company is burying toxic waste in Fort George (called the Canadian Fort here), and dumping lethal fluids into Lake Ontario. The widow of one of the truckers wants him to find out who arranged the accident that killed her husband. The perp turns out to be an old warthog of a businessman who can’t accept that the corruption that made him rich is no longer an acceptable way of doing business. His wife kills him because he wants to replace his son with a parvenu who is as corrupt as he is, but sneakier. The usual motley cast of bystanders obfuscates the case, and Cooperman’s relationship with Anne Abraham moves few steps in the direction of seriousness.
     The plotting is fair, by hindsight, but too convoluted. What gives this series its charm and makes me go on reading is Cooperman and his friends and relations. Engel could develop these side stories more, but then the books would be at least half as long again, and he’s not a bankable enough writer to permit him that kind of indulgence. **½ (2008)

Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie) A Daughter’s a Daughter (1952)

     Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie) A Daughter’s a Daughter (1952) Part One: A widow with a headstrong daughter meets a nice widower recently returned from Burma, but the daughter doesn’t want her to marry him so she picks fights. The widow eventually chooses her daughter over her fiancé.
     Part Two: The daughter and her mother live a frantic social life. The daughter meets a sociopath who likes to collect women, do drugs, and otherwise savour “sensations”. When she asks for her mother’s advice, the mother says it’s up to her, so she marries the man, disastrously. A year or so later her old flame, who’s not done too well in the colonies, returns with the intention of saving her from her brutal husband. He does so., and they emigrate to Canada. The widow, after accepting a scolding from an old family friend who happens to be a psychiatrist, withdraws into blessed peace. It’s unclear whether she will be lucky enough to find a companionable man to spend the rest of her life with, but I suppose we can hope. In a movie version of this curious soap-opera, one would have floated up to the top of the social whirlpool and dragged her out of it.
     What’s most interesting about this book is the characters. Christie uses them (and others) in her mysteries. The gormless young man who needs a strong woman to make a go of it. The strong silent colonial type who’s awkward with women, but can play whatever role Christie thrusts upon him. The quiet near-middle-aged woman who has hidden depths (and sometimes is murders). The psychopath who uses other people as toys or experimental subjects. The no-nonsense man or woman who sometimes interferes with other people, but mainly dispenses insight and reminders of reality. And so on.
     An interesting book for anyone who wants to speculate about Christie’s inner life, I think. ** (Left at the beach house).

Margery Allingham Death of a Ghost (1934)

     Margery Allingham Death of a Ghost (1934) Reprinted 1985, when Masterpiece broadcast a TV series about Albert Campion, starring Peter Davison (Better known as a Doctor Who, and as Tristan in the James Herriot TV series). A mad art dealer murders a couple of people, and nearly murders Campion before he’s caught and deteriorates into drooling madness, rather unconvincingly for a 21st century reader who knows something about psychopaths.
     No matter: Allingham has created a nice mix of sleuthing, social comedy, satire (especially of the art world and New Age nonsense), and domestic and romantic drama. Better than most of the Campion books, it entertained me during the blank spots leading up to the major event which we were celebrating. I found the book at a charity shop run by the Port Isabel humane society; I will leave it at the beach house. **½

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ralph Cotton. Gunfight at Cold Devil (2006)

     Ralph Cotton. Gunfight at Cold Devil (2006) Pulp fiction is now published mostly in so-called mass-market paperbacks. The days of pulp fiction magazines are gone, but the appetite for genre literature remains strong. This book’s an example: Two “lawdawgs” come to Cold Devil to arrest a bad person, who happens to be the saloon keeper. The sherif is a convicted murderer, so they have to haul two bad persons away to face a judge
     Unfortunately, the saloon keeper and other bad persons are mixed up in an old gold train robbery the proceeds of which are in the saloon keeper’s keeping. Roma that were run out of town, a corrupt leader of “regulators”, a couple of whores with hearts of gold, and a few other oddments of self-seeking and greedy moderately bad persons round out the cast. As you may have surmised, the plot is complicated and not quite believable, although Cotton is careful to calculate plausible travel times and allowing for the weather (it’s early winter up in the Rockies somewhere), but in the end the lawdawgs get their men, assorted bad persons have killed each other or been killed by the lawmen, and the moderately bad persons have gotten away with whole hides and the intension of setting up housekeeping where it’s warmer. So that’s all right. Fans of Westerns may rate this book higher than I do. *½

Angelo Hornak. Balloon over Britain (19xx)

     Angelo Hornak. Balloon over Britain (19xx) Hornak is a balloonist by avocation and a photographer by profession. The combination produces an appealing album. Because of his location, and because of the combination of landscape and weather that makes ballooning safe constrains where on can fly, the geographical range of the photos is limited, mostly southern and eastern England. But it’s worth looking at them. Hornak was able to photograph objects at much lower levels and shallower angles than an aircraft, so we get a better sense of how houses and castles fit into the landscape. Photos taken from aircraft look much like maps, which have a different appeal. These photos look more like views of models. One of the chief delights of this book is an appreciation of the layouts of the parks surrounding the great houses (most of which were built in the 1700s, with profits from sugar and the slave trade). *** (2008)

Hilaire Belloc. Characters of the Reformation (1936)

     Hilaire Belloc. Characters of the Reformation (1936) Belloc was known at Oxford as a skilled debater, at one time chairing OUDS. Like all debaters I’ve ever known, he was more concerned with winning, with making his case, than with the truth. Like many people with superior intellects, he believed that what he thought was right because he thought it, and could concoct an argument to prove its correctness. Here and there allusions to maths and science indicate that he understood neither logic nor mathematics. In particular he didn’t, I think, appreciate the difference between a valid argument and a sound one. Add to this his prejudices, his either-or, black-and-white moralistic mode of thinking and belief, his writing skills, and you get a man whose version of Reformation history is, to put it mildly, more than a little tendentious.
     Belloc was absolutely convinced that Catholicism is the only true religion, and that a true European civilisation must be founded on the Faith (he capitalises all words having to do with the Catholic religion, even Prelate!) Thus, the reformation was a disaster, and all modern European ills were caused by it, or rather, by an indecisive outcome, in which neither Protestantism nor Catholicism won. Thus the Authority of the Church is everywhere disputed (what would he have made of Vatican III?). Belloc clearly wants to be told what to do, and to Obey. And he wants everyone else to obey, too.
     Anyhow, I enjoyed reading this exasperating book, such is Belloc’s skill. As history, it is far too narrow in its views, and makes no pretense at objective narrative. He also reveals a snobbery based on descent; he hates democracy, he calls Parliament the “committees of the rich” (whom he accused of using Protestantism as a cloak for their looting and robbery of Catholic Church lands and wealth, which is more than half-true), he wants Kings to govern as well as rule, and so on. A thoroughgoing fascist, in other words. However, according to the Wiki entry on him, he was horrified at the Nazi treatment of the Jews. In other words, he talked a good talk, but when it came down to cases, his humanitarian instincts took over.
     Nevertheless, the overall impression is that we are in the presence of a first-class crank, albeit a much better read one than most cranks. He did take a First in history at Oxford, after all. His family background may be one factor in his crankiness. His father was French, his mother was English. He spent most of his childhood and most of his adult life in England, and clearly thinks of himself as English. His English patriotism is more intense than most people’s; perhaps as a child he was reminded too many times that he wasn’t truly English.
     His undisguised belief in breeding (family) and “health” as signs of intrinsic superiority, and hence the right to rule, guides his descriptions: the characters he detests are described as diseased, dwarfish, deformed, deficient, etc. The ones he admires suffer ill health, have a good figure, have inherited physical quirks, are simple, etc. His argument is relentlessly ad hominem; in fact, ad hominem is the guiding principle of his argument. He claims that a person’s character is all we need to know in order to judge the results of his actions. And character sometimes seems to mean merely adherence to a creed.
     So Belloc must show that the reformers were evil and/or morally weak. More, he must show that those Catholics who compromised with the Protestants acted from moral weakness. He doesn’t go quite as far as condemning Richelieu in the same terms as he condemns Thomas Cromwell, for Richelieu was after all a Prelate, a Cardinal even. But on the evidence, Richelieu’s focus on making the French monarchy supreme in France was exactly the same as Cromwell’s focus on increasing Henry’s power. Belloc accuses Cromwell and the two Cecils of governing England “through” the monarchs they ostensibly served. Yet he says that what Richelieu did was merely a misguided focus on increasing French secular power instead of using France as a center of reestablishing Catholic supremacy. I think he misreads Richelieu; no, I think he deliberately distorts Richelieu’s career to support his thesis.
     Belloc even distorts historical fact: he claims that the Divine Right of Kings was a Protestant theory, devised to legitimise royal supremacy over the Church. But Divine Right predates Protestantism. It was the justification for insisting on absolute obedience to the king, whose legitimate claim to such obedience was affirmed by the Church. The Protestant Revolution attacked royal divine right as much as it attacked the papal supremacy. That’s why the Anglican Church, headed by the monarch, never became fully Protestant, no matter how wide a range of Low Church theology and practice it included. Many Protestant princes in fact had to suppress attacks on Divine Right in order to maintain their rule. Belloc’s distortions of history sound oddly from a man who took a First in history.
     An odd book. ** (2008)

Carol Bennet & D W McCuaig. In Search of the K & P (1981)

     Carol Bennet & D W McCuaig. In Search of the K & P (1981) 2nd edition. Bennet and McCuaig have assembled a great deal of information, documents, photographs, and oral history of the Kingston and Pembroke Railway. The result is a well-done scrapbook history, beginning with the business and construction facts, followed by a station by station survey of the line, and ending with miscellaneous reminiscences. A pleasant book, typical of the local histories written as labours of love for those who are most directly involved in the story. I like these books, despite their shortcomings in scholarship and inevitable errors and misleading implications. They constitute a valuable resource for anyone who wants to write an official or scholarly work. But mainly they give the younger generations a clear impression of what it was like for the people whose stories are told, who lived in the area, who accomplished the enterprises described and celebrated. Nicely done. An index would help. **½ (2008)

Elmer Kelton. Captain’s Rangers (1968)

     Elmer Kelton. Captain’s Rangers (1968) Kelton made a reputation for himself as a writer of historical Westerns. If this one is typical, he likes to mix a love story into his history. Actually, a lot of Westerns mix love and adventure romance. Here, a Captain McNelly is authorised to clean up the Nueces Strip, the tract of land between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers which many Mexicans considered improperly ceded to Texas, and which like all dipsuted border regions became a scene of pillage and rapine. Texans rustled Mexican cattle north, and Mexicans rustled Texan cattle south.
      Langham Neal works for the Dangerfields; returning from a branding session with Zoe and a couple of vaqueros, he discovers the ranch burned and everyone dead. Zoe vows vengeance; Bailey, a neighbouring rancher who wants Zoe and her land, mixes into the situation. When Neal prevents a revenge attack on a neighbouring ranch owned by Mexicans, Zoe fires him. Neal joins the Rangers, hears that Zoe has married Bailey, then that Bailey has beaten her, and goes to fight Bailey. He wins of course, and he and Zoe will work her ranch. Fadeout. Not a bad tale, well enough written to keep my interest and engage my sympathy for the characters, which are however barely more than the standard stereotypes. **  (Book in house we're renting)

Carl Hiaasen. Paradise Screwed (2001)

     Carl Hiaasen. Paradise Screwed (2001) A selection of Miami Herald columns, almost all about politics, and all fiercely “liberal”, as the Republicans understand the term: opposed to the unholy alliance of big business and government, supporting the ideal of the common good, protective of the only true wealth, the environment on which we depend for everything, and so on. Assorted other values still make him right of centre in Canada. I read the first dozen or two columns, then sampled others throughout the book, and decided that its main appeal is to Floridians. Hiaasen writes both Juvenalian and Horatian satire, but without a personal connection to his subjects, even his stylistic skills can’t maintain my interest. Those who know Hiaasen and Florida politics will find this a good source book: most columns include all the relevant facts and figures.. Although the columns are now 15 years old, the issues are if anything even more urgent now. ** (Book found in the house we're renting on S. Padre Island)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Andrew Martindale. The Rise of the Artist (1972)

     Andrew Martindale. The Rise of the Artist (1972) A reissue and revision of part of Flowering of the Middle Ages, a massive coffee-table book. Well done, with sound scholarship, but in a format and style accessible to the non-academic. Martindale clarifies the changing role and status of the artist, a change that began long before the Renascence. While a medieval artist was an artisan, that does not mean he was necessarily anonymous or had no sense of artistic accomplishment and pride. Even in the Renascence, the artist was more of a craftsman than the Romantic view of the artist as “unacknowledged legislator of the world” imagines. What changed was not so much the artist but the critic: classic works provided a vocabulary and models for discussion of artists’ works.
A good book, even though the reproductions suffer from the state of printing prior to the digital revolution. But it also benefits from the absence of spell checker software: I found no typos whatsoever. *** (2008)

Adrain Mourby. Whatever Happened to...? (1997)

     Adrain Mourby. Whatever Happened to...? (1997) Nicely done satire, using famous literary figures as speakers or subjects of reports. Mourby assumes 20th century sensibilities, and spins his sequels into absurd and sometimes all-too-plausible consequences. The report on Mr B. B. Wolf is priceless in its mealy-mouthed bureaucratic avoidance of the obvious. Snow White’s fate is clearly an attack on the Windsors’ use of Diana. Frankenstein shows Freud as an idiot, which he wasn’t, but too many of his followers were. Suppose Romeo survived and married Rosaline? Well, Rosaline tells us, and she is not a happy wife. Well done, but definitely for educated adults. *** (2008)

Margaret Doody Aristotle Detective (1978)

     Margaret Doody Aristotle Detective (1978) Stephanos’s cousin Philemon, exiled for manslaughter in a bar fight, is accused of murdering neighbour Boutades. Desperate, Stephanos asks his former teacher Aristotle for help, and Aristotle eagerly jumps into detecting. The result is a fairly constructed puzzle and its solution, but for me the depiction of daily life in Athens was even more interesting. It’s one thing to read a history book, even one loaded with pictures, and quite another to read a well-imagines historical fiction. I could not detect any obvious anachronisms, the characters are believable, the settings even more so. Stephanos is the narrator, so our knowledge is as limited as his, but we also suffer with his esnitive nose, his vanity, his anxieties, and his sense of being burdened with duties as head of the family, both his and Philemon’s fathers having died before Stephanos could finish his studies with Aristotle.
     All in all, an entertaining read. The history is taught by the way, painlessly. One thing that’s clear is that many nowadays think of as the Islamist segregation of women is an ancient East Mediterranean cultural value, and has nothing to do with religion. It predates Islam by hundreds of years, a good example of how deeply ingrained values are inform religons, which re far more malleable and flexible than the literalists imagine. We make our religion fit our prejudices, and thereby give them a spurious authority. **½

Monday, December 23, 2013

Two best sellers, and comment about gore-porn.

     Dan Brown. Deception Point (2001) Adolescent power-trip fantasy, larded with gee-whiz technologies, which all, according to a prefatory note, exist, plus dollops of gore porn, though not as nasty as some other authors indulge in. I stopped reading about one quarter of the way in, sampled a few passges later in the book, and conclude it would have been a much better one at one half its length. I suppose it’s “good of its kind”, but it’s an obnoxious kind. Zero

     Jeffery Deaver. The Vanished Man (2003) The conceit is that a serial killer used magic tricks to both perpetrate his murders and hide his tracks. The fist victim is done in by The Lazy Hangman, and escape trick. The cops not only found no trace of the killer, but what they thought was his hidey hole has no second exit. The janitor hasn’t seen anyone come or go in the last half hour. And so on. Pretty obvious killer, if you ask me, but I didn’t feel any need to discover his name, nor how many other victims he had on his list. The sleuth is a quadriplegic with a faithful retainer, consulted by the police when they can see no way ahead. The death scene signals a book indulging in the nastier kind of gore-porn, so I gave up on it. Zero.

Best sellers and gore-porn. I first came across the nastier examples of this sub-genre of crime fiction in Patricia Cornwell’s books. I read a few of them because they’re well plotted, and Kate Scarpetta is a sympathetic character, the kind for whom we wish a good life and happy endings. But I eventually tired of the gore.
Obvious question: why do so many best sellers these days indulge in extreme gore and violence, detailed descriptions of psychopathic torture, and the like? What is it about imagined nastiness that attracts so many readers? I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill horror, which leaves a good deal up to the reader’s imagination. I mean the clinically detailed descriptions of death-dealing, complete with the victim’s terror and pain. Why have gory death scenes become so common? It used to be a book had to have more or less explicit sex-fantasies, now it’s rather more than less explicit murder fantasies. Something dark is at work here: I think it’s related to the free-floating anxiety about “them taking over”, which has been exacerbated since 9/11 and the paranoia that fuels so much politics.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Greg McDonell. The History of Canadian Railroads (1985)

     Greg McDonell. The History of Canadian Railroads (1985) An ambitious title for what is essentially a picture book. McDonell has assembled a good collection of illustrations, and as far as I can tell his text is accurate enough. A pleasant read, and a good introduction to the subject. At folio size, a bit large as a reference book. One irritating thing: many of the captions refer to parts of the picture that have been cropped off to make the picture fit or to emphasise the main subject. That is one of the hazards of off-shore editing and printing. ** (2008)

Klaus J. Vetter. Die Eisenbahn in Österreich (2007)

     Klaus J. Vetter.  Die Eisenbahn in Österreich (2007) My cousin sent me this for my birthday last January, I looked through it twice then, and now for the 3rd time. This time, I read more of the captions, and some of the text. Interesting tidbits that I didn’t know before, especially clarification of some of the locomotive classes, and a clearer account of the sequence of line construction. The book is clearly aimed at an audience outside Austria. My cousin included an errata list that he had made up, thus making the book more authoritative. Excellent photo reproduction, and clearly the older pictures have all been rescanned for this book. I’m glad to have it.
      Austrian locomotive design was idiosyncratic, to put it mildly, and the earlier examples often look ungainly, even ugly. Even the 310, reputed to be the masterwork of Austrian locomotive design, has unpleasant proportions, with a cab that’s too small, huge driving wheels, a stack that’s in the wrong place, and a smoke-box that’s too long. The 93 class (2-8-2T) is a better proportioned machine in my eyes. The 310 was very successful in purely engineering terms, but not aesthetically. The electrics were on the whole much better designed I think. *** (2008)

Ross MacDonald. The Instant Enemy (1968)

     Ross MacDonald. The Instant Enemy (1968) The Sebastians hire Lew Archer to find their runaway daughter. He does, and also finds a mess of murder, multiple marriages, fraud, and impersonation. Well done, even though the plot is more tangled than it needs to be, and MacDonald doesn’t play as fair as he usually does. **½ (2008)

W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the Tangled Web (1988)

     W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the Tangled Web (1988) The twist in this tale is that the victim claimed to be pregnant when she wasn’t, just to see how people would react. One of the people she was testing reacted by killing her. Burley delivers his usual well crafted police procedural laced with his mildly ironic bemusement at the foibles of humankind. In many ways his light tone doesn’t carry the weight of his motifs. After all, a clever schoolgirl who finds humans interesting as specimens, and dies when she miscalculates, isn’t exactly comic fare. **½ (2008)

Paul Love et al. Beginning Unix (2005)

     Paul Love et al. Beginning Unix (2005) A nicely laid out and easy to follow introduction to the OS that will perhaps eventually displace Windows. Surprising fun, too. I can’t judge the accuracy etc, but it seems authoritative to me. Three years is a long time in computing, so some of the information is already out of date: Linux is maturing rapidly, with several easy-to-install and easy-to-use distributions, so that the kind of hands-on familiarity with Unix taught in this text is no longer necessary. Recommended. *** (2008)
     Update 2013: Unix has not displaced Windows, in fact, in many places Windows Server has replaced *nix servers. Linux has slowly gained in overall  numbers, but has hardly moved in market share. Android a derivative of Linux, operates over half the cellphones in the world.
     Update 2016: Not much change. Ubuntu and Mint  have both been made to look'n'feel like the de facto standard Windows/Mac GUI, and have gained some ground. But the OS wars are pretty well over. Most people have no idea what an OS is, and have a hard time caring enough to find out. Computers have become "devices", people have come to expect them to just work. many now own two or more devices, and wireless connections (with or without a network) is taken for granted. Security and privacy-protection skills are now more important than understanding an OS. The pace of technical innovation and change has accelerated: this book is now a museum piece.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Alison Gordon Striking Out (1995)

     Alison Gordon Striking Out (1995) It’s 1994, and the baseball strike has just started. Kate Henry, sportswriter, is at loose ends, but she has enough stuff to do that she doesn’t miss her work. Then her partner Andy, a homicide detective, is shot and nearly killed while attending a home to interview a witness. It gets complicated when a homeless woman who’s taken up residence in the back alley disappears. Then a handless body is found stuffed in a garbage bag. Other casual acquaintances are drawn into the circle of suspicion, a nicely complicated knot unravels plausibly and loose ends are tied up.
     Gordon writes well. The dialogue is in the wisecrack romantic comedy mode of old movies, and works very well. Plot moves forward, characters reveal themselves, additional information and red herrings drop into conversations, relationships strain but don’t buckle, and anyone who knows Toronto will recognise the settings. The narrative’s structured like a TV show, which does it no harm at all. A well-done entertainment, not the kind of crime story that prompts musing about justice and human frailty. The relationships have the ring of truth: Gordon is a sharp observer. **½

Monday, December 09, 2013

John A. MacDonald. The Deep Blue Good-by (1964)

    John A. MacDonald. The Deep Blue Good-by (1964) The first Travis McGee novel, and it sounds like a mature series. Well done in every way. One can see how people get hooked on Travis McGee. In many ways, John MacDonald’s McGee is like Ross MacDonald’s Archer: both see the world with an acutely moral imagination, and both know how much we compromise with our values for the sake of survival and self-respect. **½ (2008)

Ursula Le Guin. City of Illusions (1978)

     Ursula Le Guin. City of Illusions (1978) A quest story, set in the distant future, when earth barely remembers the days of galactic Empire. A half starved, mindless man appears near the House of Zove. He is not quite human. The people name him Falk, and nurse him to health. He learns quickly. About four years later, he sets out to the city of Es Toch, where he hopes to find the secret of his real identity. After many typical questy adventures, he arrives there, and does discover who he is: Ramarren, one of two survivors of an expedition from one of the lost worlds, the only one known on which humans and natives could and did produce viable offspring. He engages in mental warfare with the Shing, who present themselves as a wise and kind human elite trying to maintain a peace on a ravaged earth, but are aliens, and conquerors. The book ends with Falk on his way home, to warn his people, and presumably mount an attack on the Shing. Nicely done, but the telling seems hurried and perfunctory towards the end. Le Guin either had gotten all she wanted from writing this book, or didn’t know where to go with it. Well done, mostly. **½ (2008)

Anne Morice Murder, Post-dated (1983)

     Anne Morice Murder, Post-dated (1983) The narrator Tessa Crichton, TV-series actress, has a reputation for nosing around and discovering crucial clues in murder cases, which her husband is a Chief Inspector in the CID, which I suppose is intended to add a soupçon of police procedural realism to what is essentially romantic fantasy. This time, a missing wife has sent a letter indicating she’s run off with a lover. It may be a forgery, so Tessa jumps in with both feet. It turns out there was indeed a murder, but of a different woman. Several other love tangles are sorted out as well, so all ends happily.
     “Tessa” writes a very literate style, the kind young people are encouraged to develop in senior high school. I should say, were encouraged to develop. Nowadays, the encouragement is to find your own expressiveness. Anyhow, the effect is an odd distancing, especially from the characters, who all speak in the same style. The puzzle is nicely conceived, and the pacing of the discovery works well enough that I read on despite the off-putting high-flown language. The sly wit and touches of social comedy improve the book a lot. Tessa has a pleasant relationship with her husband, and is far too modest to be believable as a major actress. All the same, this is a nice bit of pleasant fluff, good enough that I’ll pick up any other books by Morice I find; but I won’t search for them. **

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Way (2010)

     The Way (2010) [D: Emilio Estevez. Martin Sheen] Tom, an ophthalmologist learns that his son Daniel, with whom he’s had a rocky relationship, fell to his death on the first day out on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Tom travels to France to identify the body, looks through Daniel’s diary, and decides to do the walk himself. He carries Daniel’s ashes, and sprinkling a handful at way-stations. He links up, unwillingly, with three other pilgrims, with whom he eventually forms a bond. Occasionally, he sees Daniel’s ghost. At the end of the movie, he spreads Daniel’s remaining ashes in the Atlantic Ocean. The final clip shows him wandering somewhere in North Africa: his journey in Daniel’s planned footsteps continues.
     This is beautifully photographed and very well acted quest movie. It takes religion seriously but not solemnly. All four main characters are looking for something, and they all find it, though not in the way they imagined. Jack the writer finds his creative energy, Sarah the divorcee finds contentment, Yost the Dutchman accepts himself as he is. Tom himself is a closed character, more of an observer than a participant, driven by a desire to somehow make amends with his son, with whose life-style decisions he disagreed. He accepts his life, and stops trying to make the right choices.
     The episodes seem random and chancy, which some viewers may see as forced quirkiness, but it’s not. Real life is random and chancy. It’s fiction that has order, plot, causation, and meaning. People live by values they may not realise matter to them until they must make a choice that makes a difference. Tom’s prime value was love of family; even his attempts to guide Daniel into a respectable life were motivated by his fear that Daniel would lose something precious. Holding the box with Daniel's ashes, he decides to finish what his son  began. The pilgrimage leads Tom into life; he realises that what matters is the acceptance of all life's abundance, not a careful selection of the right things.
     The movie is two hours long, but despite its laid back, casual narrative rhythm it felt shorter. ***

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Louis L’Amour. The Outlaws of Mesquite (1990)

     Louis L’Amour. The Outlaws of Mesquite (1990) When I was in middle school, I read a lot of Westerns. They were in German, and sold in thin 32-page booklets slightly larger than a regular paperback, with glossy newsprint covers in lurid colour. They were called Schundliteratur, or trash-literature, and our teachers disapproved. That didn’t stop us, of course. The publishers commissioned all the pulp-fiction genres, but I preferred Westerns. The Western was obviously a variation on the chivalric romance, not that I was sophisticated enough to know this. All I knew was that in the American West men were men, women were women, and villains got a very satisfying comeuppance, after which the heroes got the girl. I’ve been a sucker for romance all my life.
     I’ve gone off Westerns since then, and don’t read nearly as many as I used to. Part of the reason is that the movies do a much better job than print. The genre is a quest romance: the hero must negotiate a wilderness populated by monsters and villains. His skills, while above average, are barely a match for the villains. He relies on help from people weaker than himself. He’s not always smart enough to outwit his enemies, luck plays a large role, but in the end he gets the hand of the princess. As often as not, his horse is a loyal friend.
     The genre is extremely flexible: a good story teller can use it for any purpose. But above all, the landscape must feel authentic. That, more than anything else, makes a Western a Western. Louis L’Amour’s main talent is to put the reader into that landscape. In a few sentences, he helps you see and hear and feel and smell the place. That alone makes his stories a pleasure to read. He’s also a page-turning narrator: we always want to know what happens next, even when L’Amour uses well-worn plots. His style is compact and spare: he rarely has a word out of place or words he doesn’t need. He’s good at sketching the details of ranching and farming so that we feel convinced of the reality of what is after all a romantic fantasy.
     Here we have eight love stories. I guess L’Amour’s a sucker for romance, too. The women are all pert and pretty, and very, very smart. They also know what they want: it’s not always clear who is pursuing whom. “Thoroughbred” is the term the objective admirers use for them. The hero is usually a wanderer who hasn’t had much if any time for women, until he sees the One that will focus his life. He’s seen more trouble than he’s wanted to, but he’s never shied from defending his honour, which as often as not entailed protecting the weak and helpless. A true knight in trail-dusted armour.
     I read the whole book at one sitting. Actually, I was in bed, and just didn’t turn out the light until I was done. ***

Friday, December 06, 2013

Robert Holdstock & Christopher. Stars of Albion (1979)

     Robert Holdstock & Christopher. Stars of Albion (1979) A collection of British (hence Albion) science fiction (hence stars). Geddit? The majority of pieces describe dystopias, which makes for a gloomy effect. The couple of exceptions are mildly funny in a sophomoric sort of way. Not a keeper. * to **½ (2008)

Ellis Peters. An Excellent Mystery (1985)

     Ellis Peters. An Excellent Mystery (1985) Humilis, a dying monk (a war wound will not heal) and former Crusader, and Fidelis his caregiver, a novice, arrive at Cadfael’s monastery. A young man, Nicholas, receives permission from Humilis to find and woo the young woman that Humilis had released from their engagement so that he could become a monk and live out his life in contemplation. But she has disappeared. A long and winding path leads to her discovery, but Cadfael must hide her identity (it’s Fidelis) to avoid scandal. The final chapters move swiftly, but love (and marriage) triumph. This is one of Ellis odder contributions to the Cadfael saga, but pleasant enough. Peters was, I think, a frustrated writer of love romances. **½ (2008)

Sheridan Morley, ed. Punch at the Theatre (1980)

     Sheridan Morley, ed. Punch at the Theatre (1980) A lovely compilation of articles, cartoons, squibs and satires and so on, from the 1841 (its first year) to 1979. It’s sad that Punch didn’t survive (it shut down in 1992, was resurrected in 1996, but was closed again in 2002). Often, a compilation is tedious to read in anything other than small sessions, but not this one. If I hadn’t fallen asleep, I would have read it at one go. A goodly dollop of nostalgia energised me. The names of the actors, plays, playwrights, and even theatres triggered memories. Good stuff, all of it. The only pity is that so much of the pleasure of reading it depends on knowledge of the subject. But that’s true of humour in general, and satire in particular. *** (2008)

Ross Macdonald. The Way Some People Die (1951)

     Ross Macdonald. The Way Some People Die (1951) The third Lew Archer novel, and still one of the best. Archer is engaged by a mother to find her missing daughter, who has married a small-time hood. He uncovers an elaborate plot to kill off an undesirable husband and abscond with his ill-gotten money. Mobsters who want their money and their heroin complicate the problem. The girl is the murderer, and like many villains of the period she is a psychopath.
     Leslie Fiedler noted the frequent appearance of evil women in American literature, and put it down to American men and women’s inability to treat each other as mature equals. There is some truth to that; around the same time Betty Friedan’s suburban housewife whinge reignited the feminist movement, whose thesis was that men do not treat women as equals. (Friedan wasn’t really a feminist; she was just annoyed that she couldn’t get the (female) help she wanted so as to be free to pursue a career, and further annoyed that she wasn’t wooed by prospective employers. Where she got such fantastic notions about the working world is anyone’s guess. She seems to have led a very sheltered life).
     But Fiedler ignored the evidence available to him or anyone else capable of observing actual life, which is that men and women in the USA, like men and women everywhere, manage to get along pretty well. They do so by discovering and more or less accepting each other’s foibles and quirks, and by negotiating revisions to their roles in every generation, and above all by treating each other with kindness, most of the time.
     However, literature is another matter. It both reflects and distorts the realities of life. Popular literature tends to present a more or less idealised fantasy of what its readers wish life were like. This idealised world includes its own corrections. The virtuous virgin is contrasted with the slutty bitch, the comforting mother with the cruel witch. The hero pure in word and deed faces the villain impure in everything he does and says. The strong and just father contrasts with the weak and unjust uncle. And so on. The moral vision may be black and white, but it is powerful, and commands the assent of the readers. The same moral vision appears in the tabloids, which differ from pulp fiction only in that the stories are purported to be true.
     Macdonald gives us a villain whose appearance (the virtuous virgin/wife) hides the reality (the sluttish bitch/cruel witch). He plays with the stereotypes and tropes of pulp fiction in a way often imitated. He plays with the moral verities: the universe in which he sets Lew Archer is one of dark greys and dirty whites, where simple moral judgments break up on the reality of human complexity. Lew Archer’s meditative melancholy provides the setting for these themes. He’s a man who’s seen too many mixed motives, too many flawed heroes, and too many villains with a streak of kindness. He knows how often justice is compromised and why: desire for convenience, lack of money and time, devaluing of those who live in and beyond the borders of respectability. The academic critics revere Hammett and Raymond Chandler as the best practitioners of this mode, but I think Macdonald is the better than either of them. ***½ (2008)

Nicola Davies and Neal Layton. Poop (2004)

     Nicola Davies and Neal Layton. Poop (2004) Nicely written and illustrated introduction to the subject, with an emphasis on its ecological importance. Lots of interesting and odd facts, chosen to astonish and amuse the children who are the intended audience. **½ (2008)

Dorothy E. Skinkle. Star Giant (1969)

     Dorothy E. Skinkle. Star Giant (1969) A kind of Harlequin Romance set in an alternate universe in which Earth is used as an exile or prison planet by a race of aliens that look like humans in every respect except that they are 7 to 9ft tall. The style is simple, as is the plotting and characterisation, so that it’s not clear who the intended audience might be: juvenile SF fans, or adult Romance fans? The protagonist is male, but the focus of the story is his relationship with the Earth woman who reminds him of his wife back home, not surprising, considering that she’s his wife’s niece by an earlier exile (their families are politically endangered). The villain is the hero’s rival, who has also been exiled, and who has a pathological lust for both the wife and the earth woman who looks like her twin. Lots of interesting ideas here, none of them well worked out. * (2008)

Brian Clegg. A Brief History of Infinity (2003)

     Brian Clegg. A Brief History of Infinity: The Quest to Think the Unthinkable (2003) Well done, sometimes text-bookish, account of the history of the concept of infinity. Clegg is very good at potted biographies, and has a good grasp of the arc of developing understanding. He speculates perhaps a bit too much about the personalities and the tendency of thinkers about infinity to show signs of incipient or real madness.
     The notion of infinity has now, after the invention and development of set theory, a good logical foundation, but there are still conundrums worth pursuing. Clegg’s account of Russell’s paradox set me to thinking about the difference between sets and their elements. The questions is, does it make sense to speak of the type of a set or of its elements? If so, is the type of a set necessarily that of its elements? If not, then supersets need not be the same type as the sets that are its elements. There is perhaps a hint of this in the fact that the set of all subsets of a set is of larger size than the set itself. Anyhow, if a set and its elements are not of the same type, then Russell’s paradox dissolves. Or so it seems to me.
      More formally: define a simple set S(e) as one whose elements e are not themselves sets. Define the superset S’(S(e)) as the set whose members are S(e) and all its subsets. BTW, if S(e) is finite, then so is S’(S(e)). If S(e) is infinite, then S’(Se)) is its power set. We define the type of set as the type of its elements. Thus, a simple set is of the same type as its elements.
     The question I now ask is whether S and S’ are of the same type. I have defined the type of a set as the type of elements which are its members. Thus H(h) = “all human beings” by definition is type h, where h = “human being”. All its subsets will also be of type h. But what about its superset H’(H(h))? Is it of type h? IOW, is it true that H(h) –> H’(h)? It seems to me that this is not a necessary consequence. For while H(h) is of type H, H’ is of type “set”. IOW, I suspect (but cannot prove) that H’ is an axiomatic claim. It amounts to saying that a set may be subset of itself. Suppose we deny that. Then I think Russell’s paradox dissolves. Let S(-s) = “Sets that do not contain themselves.” Then if S’(S(-s)) does not imply S’(-s), the paradox dissolves.
     I don’t know whether this line of thought makes sense. [Note 21 Dec 2008: after some rewriting, it seems to me there’s a contradiction in it. Needs more work, but the contradiction may be fundamental.] Nor do I know whether Russell or someone else has explored the consequences of forbidding that a set may be its own subset. It does not, as far as I can tell, forbid that a subset may of the same cardinality as the set (as is the case with infinite sets).
      Footnote 1: Intersections and unions of sets will be of mixed type. Eg, if we define L(l), l=living, then intersection K of L and H will be K(h, l). Etc.
      Footnote 2: The notation needs to be worked out some more. Let H<1 n="">(h) be a set of n elements of type h. Then some subset of it would be H(h).
      Footnote 3: It’s probably all nonsense.

     Good book. **1/2 (2008)

Reginald Hill. Exit Lines (1984)

     Reginald Hill. Exit Lines (1984) One of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels, set about half-way through the series. Three elderly men die, one of them when he collides with Dalziel’s car (driven by a bookie friend, as Dalziel is drunk). Pascoe is assigned one death, and decides it’s suspicious. Two deaths are accidents, the third is murder.
Hill’s vision too is dark and melancholy, but he lacks the elegiac tone of Burley’s books. His vision is more ironic: the murder was based on false impressions of available wealth, the accidental death was triggered by intermittent dementia and terror, and the reason for the apparent cover-up of Dalziel’s involvement in a road death was a deep cover anti-drug investigation. The TV series plays up the irony, and makes the fat man more of a jerk than he really is. Or maybe the Yorkshire accent makes anyone sound like a jerk. According to the date in the back, I had read this book last year, but nothing much stuck: it was as much fun the second time as the first. **½ .  (2008)

Thursday, November 28, 2013

L. R. Wright. Sleep While I Sing (1986)

     L. R. Wright. Sleep While I Sing (1986) A stranger’s body is found leaning against a tree in a clearing, her face carefully cleaned. The few clues don’t point to a killer. Alberg asks the local high school art teacher to make a portrait of the dead woman to use in the search for people who may have seen her. The case drags on, Cassandra has taken up with flashy actor who happens to know the dead woman from Los Angeles, red herrings distract the police, and so on. The portrait figures in the solution.
     The actor goes back to L.A., and Alberg and Cassandra resume their tentative friendship. Nicely plotted, characters we care about, well done Sunshine Coast ambience with a believably awful, wet, and foggy winter, plausible imitation of police procedure, some nicely observed sub-plots, all these add up to a pleasant read. Wright likes pathological psychology, but she doesn’t overdo the weirdness. The title alludes to the murderer’s habit of singing to his dead victims. **½

Stephen Pile. The Book of Heroic Failure (1979)

     Stephen Pile. The Book of Heroic Failure (1979) A News of the Weird style compilation of peculiar mishaps, a few of them lethal. For example, Bramber Parish Council decided to save money by turning off the street lamps for three days. They saved  £1.59, but the bill for switching the system on and off cost £18.89. Pile has gone to the trouble of verifying every item, but even so a couple slipped by him. Unfortunately, I didn’t make notes about these, so I’d have to read the book again to find them.... If you find a copy of this book at a yard sale, offer 25 cents. That’s what I paid for it, and it’s worth every penny and more. **

Sunday, November 24, 2013

W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the Dunes Mystery (1993)

     W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the Dunes Mystery (1993) Supt. Charles Wycliffe was well realised by Jack Shepherd in the well-done TV series based on Burley’s books. They are well imagined and plotted police procedurals, somewhat in the style of P. D. James, with more emphasis on character than on plot and forensics. An accidental death, discovered when the corpse is revealed after a storm that changes the dunes 18 years later, is used as camouflage for a murder. Burley’s vision is elegiac and melancholy, the TV series captures the tone very well indeed. This was a pleasant read, much of it on the train back from Alberta. **½ (2008)

Eric Wilson. Murder on The Canadian. (1976)

     Eric Wilson. Murder on The Canadian. (1976) Juvenile featuring Tom Austen, who wants to be a ‘tec like the Hardy Boys. His nemesis is Dietmar Oban. They travel on The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver, and along the way there is a murder, which Tom solves, of course. Nicely written, with well done illustrations. The adults are unrealistically obtuse, and the boys’ back story is underdeveloped. There were other books in this series of easy-reading, high-interest books aimed at middle-school boys, which were available at the same rummage sale at which I bought this book as another in my collection of railway-related fiction. ** (2008)

Robert Parker. The Godwulf Manuscript (1973)

     Robert Parker. The Godwulf Manuscript (1973) “The University” calls in Spenser to find a stolen medieval manuscript. Turns out that a drug ring, fostered by a nutty radical prof, is involved, and before the case is over Spenser is beaten up and shot, two students are murdered, one student is framed (but Spenser gets her off), two other people are collateral damage, and some political pressure almost messes it all up. Fun and games. Parker’s style is swift and educated, as is his PI, Spenser, a worthy successor to Sam Spade, with his cynical view of the society in which he moves, and his soft centre. Nicely done. I last read a Parker some 5 or 6 years ago, didn’t impress me favourably then; this one is good, clean pulp fiction. **½ (2008)

Jim Unger. The Latest Herman (1981)

     Jim Unger. The Latest Herman (1981) Unger’s Herman plays many roles, but he is always the schlemiel who misses the point, or who bears the brunt of other people’s stupidity or thoughtlessness. His is a world where Information clerks wonder why he asks them a question, wives’ opinions of their husbands are lower than humanly possible (why did they marry these men, then?), dogs usurp chairs and dinner plates, dentists are afraid of blood, and so on. Yet every situation has its own logic: Given the more or less reasonable premises, the event drawn by Unger follows inevitably. Good book. *** (2008)

Two by Bloch. Shooting Star & Terror in the Night and Other Stories (1958)

     Robert Bloch. Shooting Star (1958) Half of a Double Ace book. Mark Clayburn is hired to reinvestigate the murder of Dick Ryan in order to clear his name of drug-related rumours. He succeeds of course, but not before triggering two more murders and a beating. The perp turns out to be a woman (this is the era of femmes fatales, who destroy men more or less for the fun of it). Mark is rescued from imminent death by the cop who investigated the murder and has been saddled with the new crimes. The plotting is typically private-eye pulp-fiction, but Bloch at least plays fair, with all clues provided before the denouement. The style is pretty good; Bloch is right up there with Dashiell Hammett, but IMO his avoidance of the outre similes that Hammett indulged in makes him a better writer. I picked up this book at a flea market east of the Ukrainian Village, one of a dozen or so Double Aces. I bought it because I recognised Bloch’s name: he made his living as a pulp writer, specialising in horror fantasy and science fiction. Good of its kind, with vintage cover art, the kind that bears at best an oblique connection to the story. **½ (2008)

     Robert Bloch. Terror in the Night and Other Stories (1958) The other half of the Ace Double. A sampling of Bloch’s skills as inventor of horror. Not bad. The tales all have twists, and most of them rely on psychology, not the supernatural. ** (2008)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Anne Lindgren. Classroom Classics (1990)

     Anne Lindgren. Classroom Classics (1990) A collection of retired teachers’ anecdotes and reminiscences. What comes through most strongly is that schooling was considered worth almost any sacrifice to get. Not only the teachers had to put up with inadequate facilities. The courage and determination of these young women and men appears despite their modest self-deprecation: most of the stories are told on themselves. A good read, not only for teachers, but for anyone who ever went to a country school. And worth reading for all those who didn’t. **½ (2008)

Simon Winchester. The Professor and the Madman (1999)

     Simon Winchester. The Professor and the Madman (1999; p/b reissue 2005) Winchester’s Krakatoa prompted the reissue of this book, which promptly made the best sellers lists too. A Dr Minor committed a murder, was confined to Broadmoor, and spent a large part of his life there assisting in the production of the OED. James Murray eventually went to visit him, and a friendship ensued. Minor’s contribution to the OED consisted of several tens of thousands of quotations. This work certainly mitigated the effects of his mental illness, paranoid schizophrenia, which nowadays would be treated with drugs and behavioural therapy, a treatment that would probably prevent Minor from doing the work which helped him survive for so many years. His last years were marked by increasing severity of his symptoms, and physical decay. He was a medical doctor, which means that he would be (at least intermittently) fully aware of what was wrong with him. Good book. **½ (2008)

Wendy Northcutt & Christopher M. Kelly. Darwin Awards : Intelligent Design (2007)

    Wendy Northcutt & Christopher M. Kelly. Darwin Awards : Intelligent Design (2007) A compilation of stories illustrating how human stupidity (mostly male) can lead to death, thus removing stupid genes from the gene pool. Unfortunately, there seems to be a very large supply of stupid genes. A fun read, but in its cumulative effect rather depressing. **½ (2008)

A. E van Vogt. Pendulum (1978)

     A. E van Vogt. Pendulum (1978) According to the Wikipedia article on Vogt the stories in this collection are almost all originals. Never mind. I found once again that Vogt’s writing is appallingly flat, dull, and uninvolving. I''ve tried several times to read his classic works, and gave up after the first 10 or 20 pages.
     Only his ideas attract: he has the rare ability to imagine the almost unimaginable, and thus suggest what actual alien minds might be like. Reading his accounts of alien actions and thoughts disorients: for a few moments, we are thinking thoughts we wouldn’t have been able to conjure up on our own.
     His human characters however aren’t believable, in fact they hardly resemble human beings. They are observed from the outside; they have no inner life, even though Vogt tells us what they are thinking. The effect is odd. Darrell Schweitzer, quoted in the Wiki article, says Vogt’s characters are toy soldiers in a sandbox. And acute comment I think. The sandbox is more or less bizarre, and it’s that which makes Vogt’s fiction interesting. But oh, what a slog to read these stories! Other writers have learned from Vogt how to imagine the alien, and how to imagine alien worlds, but have done a much better job of writing.
     The collection ends with an article or report about the launch of Apollo XVII. I found it as off-putting as the fiction: facts, facts, facts, and not a hint of the actual experience. Eg, Of the writers who watched the Apollo liftoff, the majority had press passes and at launch time they were a mile or so away (to our right, south) with 3400 reporters from all over the world. Theirs was a separate set of grandstands. And so on. What’s point of the compass direction? Or the number reporters (which is only approximate anyhow)? Or the grandstands? Later on, it become clear that Vogt wants to know who rates what kind of invitation. That his reader wants to know what it was like to be there, doesn’t seem to occur to Vogt.
     It was as if a robot were reporting what it had seen and heard. Vogt records “interviews” with other attendees verbatim. His questions and comments are weird: it’s as if there no person there. He doesn’t seem able to elicit the kind of elaboration and personal detail that would give these interviewees presence. Or maybe he doesn’t recognise the comment that’s an opening to the kind of question whose answer would have that effect.
     He reports all kinds of facts (one man is described as in a suit, mature, about five foot nine), but not one sensation or feeling. For example, Sterling and I had gone to a line of catering wagons. Our principal hope as that we might be able to buy a drink. We each got a half pint of milk. After we had absorbed them...
     Reading this kind of stuff I realised that Vogt was missing something. Exactly what, it’s hard to say. Imagination. Sensory memory. Awareness of himself. Insight into himself and other people. Some or all of these. I’m wondering if he had Asperger’s syndrome.
     These stories vary in quality. Most I didn’t read through, but skipped ahead to the ending. This is a book where the journey is so much less interesting than the destination that a summary of each tale would have satisfied me as much. Maybe more. The one story that appealed was The Human Operators, in which humans were kept alive within robotic ship known as Starfighters. They performed the tasks the ship couldn't do on its own. The narrator has figured out that he may be able to take over the ship, and does so when the ship admits a female so that they can make a baby which will eventually displace the narrator. Both the humans and the robotic brains are stunted persons, and match the plot and the ambience very well. * to **

Bangladeshi garment factory victims compensaton fund

New York Times article on compensation fund for Bangladeshi garment factory victims and their families: Those who won't pay.  Read the whole article: apparently some "unauthorized contractors" were making garments in the Tazreen factory that collapsed.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Fred Hoyle & John Elliot. A is for Andromeda (1962)

     Fred Hoyle & John Elliot. A is for Andromeda (1962) Radiotelescopy was brand new in the 60s. People immediately assumed that signals from other civilisations would be received. Since then, cooler logic has shown that the odds of intercepting such signals are vanishingly small. This story feeds the continuing fascination with extra-terrestrial beings. Signals are received, and John Fleming, a brooding, intense, and obsessive computer scientist, figures out a way to decode them. They turn out to be instructions for building and programming a computer. That machine in turn provides instructions for synthesising proteins, and eventually a complete human being, Andromeda. But its method of acquiring the information causes the death of a human. The artificial human is apparently a copy of the dead woman. It becomes clear that the intelligence embodied in the computer does not intend the furtherance of human objectives. Eventually, John Fleming destroys the machine, and the code used to build it. Some time before that, the transmissions have ceased, so there is no possibility of replicating the machine.
     It seems fairly obvious that a society that invests in technology to transmit messages to the rest of the universe is as likely to use that message to reproduce itself in some form as to merely announce its presence. Hoyle’s idea, that instructions to build a computer could further the aim of reproduction is plausible, but it seemed far more plausible in the 1960s when the limitations of computers were not as well understood as they are now. In particular, the technology of the time (faithfully described by Hoyle) was simply not up to the task imagined for it. Nevertheless, as a riff on the bug-eyed monster invading Earth the book is interesting.
     Elliot (who has had a long and successful career dramatising fiction for TV, among other things) supplied the human interest and narrative skill, but like most hard SF, this book’s characters are barely believable. The twist, that in copying the dead woman, the machine also imbued its slave with human feelings and attitudes, is a good one, for it is those feelings that enable Andromeda to disobey her master and help Fleming destroy the machine. A number of subplots involving attempts by outsiders to gain control of the machine, are underdeveloped. Proper treatment of these and the tensions within the working group would have doubled the length of the book, which most readers of SF wouldn’t tolerate. ** (2008)

Damon Runyon. In Our Town (1946)

     Damon Runyon. In Our Town (1946) Runyon wrote a column of stories and anecdotes, as well as longer pieces published in the Saturday Evening Post and the like. This is a collection of his syndicated stories, each is a brief portrait of a citizen of “our Town”. They have the Runyon trademarks: laconic understatement, quotation of bystanders instead of the narrator's opinion, bemused acceptance of all aspects of human nature, and so on. Nicely done, mildly amusing entertainment, with occasional glimpses of the dark side: some people get away with murder, some are censured for what to me at least seem mild errors or even virtues. Fun. ** (2008)

Anonymous. Printing and Publishing at Oxford...: Catalogue of an Exhibition. (1978)

     Anonymous. Printing and Publishing at Oxford...: Catalogue of an Exhibition. (1978) Robert Shackleton, Bodley’s Librarian, in his introduction thanks Paul Morgan for preparing the exhibition. I think Morgan also wrote the catalogue. I rediscovered this book while culling, and started to read it. Fascinating. I discovered I could read most of the Latin titles, not surprising if one considers that they're about academic subjects. The exhibits illustrate that despite occasional doldrums and lapses, the Oxford University Press has been a supplier of scholarly books. Its great value for me has been its “complete works” collections of poems, edited with annotations, which I bought when I was at U of A and later, and all of which I have read at least in part.
     The summary history of the Press was what drew me in. It took a century or more for the University authorities to realise what they had and what they could do with it. It took some time for the Press to be taken into ownership, for example; the first printers were under contract to the University, even when they were given space in the Sheldonian Theatre to set up the presses. It’s also clear that printing was tightly controlled; the governments of the day understood as well as ours do that uncontrolled information could be destabilising. I was surprised at the cost of paper, and compositors didn’t come cheap either. Fonts (“founts”) were expensive, too, most of them made on the Continent in the first century or so. The University commissioned the making of special fonts for Hebrew, Arabic, Coptic, and so on, and for a long time Oxford was the only press capable of printing texts in these alphabets. Making fonts involved cutting punches in steel, using these to make dies, and then casting the letters in type metal. All by hand, no CAD/CAM. Yet despite its awkwardness and costs, printing was clearly a major advance in information technology, and is still not superseded. Electronics make the dissemination of information cheaper than ever, but only hard copy, print or handwriting on paper, will be certainly readable in the future. *** (2008)
     Disclosure: Paul Morgan was my uncle.

Leslie Ford. The Woman in Black (1947)

     Leslie Ford. The Woman in Black (1947) In postwar Washington, a woman dressed in black shows up at a reception for E. Stubblefield, would-be President, and later is found dead in her room. Grace Latham, widow-about-town with a reputation for sleuthing, triggers a variety of confessions, but mostly acts as the reader’s eyes and ears, seeing and hearing the progress of the investigation. Turns out Theodore Hallett, the husband of her best friend Dorothy, who was helping the would-be president make his mark in Washington, murdered the girl because he thought her presence would mess up the campaign. But it’s all for nothing, as Stubblefield doesn’t like Theodore.
It’s all rather mixed up, in the style of comic film noir. In fact, the set piece scenes are very movie like. Not a bad read, but not as well plotted as others of this genre. The dialogue sometimes seems to wander off topic, but it does serve to delineate character. There are many touches of social satire or criticism. ** (2008)


Some thoughts prompted by an article in New Scientist

Apparently one of the unsolved problems in the Standard Model of physics is time. Time is not privileged: the arrow of time could run either way. The only obstacle to running time backwards appears to be probability, or the 2nd law of thermodynamics. It’s more or less improbable for a system to decrease its entropy; and local systems can decrease entropy only with the addition energy, which is scavenged from outside the system and therefore increases entropy elsewhere. The overall entropy of the Universe is increasing: and that’s why the arrow of time runs forward.

But time does not “emerge” from the fundamental laws of nature as now understood. Worse, there are paradoxes and inconsistencies.

In relativity, time is tangled with space, and worse, there are no fixed, absolute times for events: the times, and hence the sequence of events, depends on who is observing what. That puts paid to the arrow of time in a thoroughgoing way. It’s true that for any given observer entropy increases in the expected direction. But the observed sequence of events will be different for two observers moving relative to each other. That implies that one observer will place an event in the past, and another in the future. And that causes problems.

In quantum physics (if I get this right), the future is uncertain. Until there is an interaction, certain states of a particle are indeterminate. The technical term for this is superposition; and when the interaction that determines the state of the particle occurs, the wave function that describes it is said to collapse. But the wave function may also collapse randomly, with no apparent interaction. All there is a series of state changes, and it’s this series that determines the sequence of what we observe as events. This means that the future is fundamentally indeterminate. Worse, entanglement seems to delay events, such as acquiring spin. Couple this with relativity, and we get a paradox: the acquisition of spin will be determined from one point of view, and undetermined from another.

The usual notion of time is that the past is fixed because it’s already happened, and the future is undetermined because it hasn’t happened yet. Both relativity and quantum physics undermine this notion. In both, time is a derived property. We experience time as a sequence of events, that is, a series of changes. In fact, we measure the passing of time by observing a series of events, such as the oscillations of a pendulum, or the burning of candle, or the vibrations of a quartz crystal.

So what’s to be done to rescue the notion of time? Some physicists are working on tweaking the mathematics of the Standard model in various ways so that time is an absolute, independent property of the Universe. As an outsider with only a metaphorical grasp of the Standard Model, I notice two things: First, in relativity, the difference in sequence of events occurs only when those event are independent of each other. But when events are a causal sequence, such as the oscillations of a pendulum, it’s the intervals between events that varies for different observers, not the actual sequence. Second, in quantum physics, I notice a fixed sequence of events. Entangled particles may be in a superposed position until they interact with some other particle (such as the one placed in the path of one by the observer). Then their wave function collapses. But that wave function collapse always follows that interaction, it never precedes it. In other words, wave function collapse implies a temporal sequence, no matter how far apart. I also note that the random interactions that all particles undergo cause changes in state in fixed sequences. If an electron is in a given spin state, it may flip to the other. In fact, we know of spin states only because we have observed that sequence. So those observations that undermine the notion of time can occur only because we observe events in sequence, in time.

Time is fundamental in some way that the Standard Model can’t account for. Either the Standard Model is the best we’ll ever do, in which case the mystery of time will never be solved; or else the Standard Model will be superseded. We do live in interesting times, don’t we?

2013-11-22 WEK

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Alan Ayckbourn. Bedroom Farce (1975)

     Alan Ayckbourn. Bedroom Farce (1975) Just what it says: three couples shown in their bedrooms, one getting ready for an anniversary, one using it as a cloakroom, and one as a sick room. A fourth couple, whose marriage is breaking up, descend on all three couples in turn, and mess things up. In the end, nothing is resolved. Along the way, there’s some farce, but this is the England of 1975, when the hangover from the swinging 60s was beginning to set in, and there was a generally sour and disillusioned mood. This mood infects the play, which keeps slipping into darker themes than farce can well support. Ayckbourn himself noted that it was a comedy “with farcical elements.”
According to his website, Ayckbourn has had a good career as playwright and director. Odd that I’ve never heard of him. This copy of the script was lent to us by Doreen, who played Suzanne (the wife in the weak marriage) in a Toronto amateur production. It reads like a playable script, but the language is merely adequate to its purposes. This means that the direction and acting would make or break a production. Ayckbourn directed most of his own plays, and many became hits, which suggests that his real forte was directing. ** (2008)

Jim Stanford. Economics for Everyone (2008)

     Jim Stanford. Economics for Everyone (2008) Subtitled “A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism”, the book delivers what the cover promises. Stanford demystifies economics, states his bias (leftish) up front, and demolishes “classical economics” as he goes. Would that Harper and his crew would read this book, and consider what damage their fantasies have done and will do.
     Stanford starts with the simple and obvious observation that the economy is merely the way we organise the production and distribution of goods and services. Capitalism is a no more natural or inevitable system than any other. After reading this book, it’s clearer than ever that Milton Friedman was not only a nutter, but a dangerous one. He's one of many economists who've made people think that economics is about money, and has justified those who believe that making money is the purpose of business. Check 1 Timothy 6:10. *** (2008)

Two by Rex Stout: Might as Well be Dead (1960) & The Final Deduction (1961)

     Rex Stout. Might as Well be Dead (1960) Guy has falling out with Dad over supposed theft from company funds, takes off, changes name, is framed for murder just when Dad discovers that someone else stole the cash. Wolfe is brought in to find the guy, and of course manages to clear the murder charge, too, despite the jury’s verdict. All ends happily, etc and so forth. A typically well-paced and well-plotted Nero Wolfe entertainment, with Archie Goodwin in good form as usual. Stout’s formula works well, even when the result is merely average, as this one is. ** (2008)
     Rex Stout. The Final Deduction (1961) Woman and younger (much) husband fake kidnapping so as to convert income into tax-free cash, but the secretary-confederate gets cold feet, and besides was the young husband’s alternative squeeze, hence wife murders her. Wife kills husband, too. Dysfunctional family complicates matters, but Wolfe works with minimal info to get at the truth and earn $100K (somewhere around $600K in today’s money; Wolfe was not cheap). Smoothly done, better than average. **½ (2008)

Agatha Christie. The Mirror Crack’d (1962)

Note: I've read this book several times, and also written about it more than once. This review is from 2008.    

Agatha Christie. The Mirror Crack’d (1962) One of Christie’s best, with a believable plot (in which, as so often, a past hurt is the key to the present crime), somewhat fuller characters than usual, and Miss Marple in fine form. Christie also allows herself more than the usual quota of social observation and gentle satire.
     Film star Marina Gregg has bought Gossington Close, and offers it as a venue for a fete in support of St John’s Ambulance in Market Basing. Unfortunately, a woman dies of an overdose of an anti-depressant. While a girl, this woman had left her sick bed to meet Marina and get her autograph, inadvertently infecting the star with German measles, which in turn caused her child to be born with severe brain damage. That’s the motive for the first murder, the subsequent two are Marina’s attempts to eliminate witnesses.
     Miss Marple, despite her home-care worker’s attempts to shield her from overmuch excitement, manages to find out what she needs to know, and solves the puzzle. Marina however dies, perhaps a suicide, perhaps not; her current (5th) husband loves her very much. This ending amounts to cop out, one that Christie often uses, and the only serious flaw in an otherwise nearly perfect Christie. *** (2008)

O. Henry. Heart of the West (1993)

     O. Henry. Heart of the West (1993) A collection of O. Henry’s Western stories, put together by Readers Digest, with adequate illustrations, and a nicely done afterword by an English prof who loves O. Henry. The stories have the ring of truth, despite their being written to the formula that O. Henry perfected, the long slow curve and fast break. This style of plotting short stories influenced popular literature in the English speaking world for several generations. Pulp fiction especially imitated O. Henry, but few writers handled it as well as he did. Underlying the sentimentalism and the sometimes overly cute use of high-flown and misunderstood words by the semi-literate characters of his tales, O. Henry’s vision is essentially clear-eyed and even ruthless. The good don’t always win, the happy ending as often as not depends on luck, and rivals don’t always play fair. Like all humourists, O. Henry relies on stereotype and caricature, but these never deteriorate into venom or prejudice. A good read. *** (2008)

When Longships Sailed (1998)

     Editors, Time-Life Books. When Longships Sailed (1998) A well done survey of Viking history from ca. 800 to 1100 CE. Clearly written, with nicely chosen quotations from the sagas, and the usual well-done photographs and sidebars. Analysis is light, the facts are as reliable as the fact checkers at Time-Life could make them. A good read. I will send this to Jonathon, so he has some sense of his Viking background.**½ (2008)

Richard Feynman. The Meaning of it All (1998)

     Richard Feynman. The Meaning of it All (1998) The text of the John Danz Lectures given by Feynman in 1963. The contemporary references are steeped in Cold War attitudes, even though Feynman is generally a very humane and open-hearted man. The three lectures deal with the uncertainty of science, the uncertainty of values, and the unscientific attitudes and beliefs that Feynman saw around him. The tone and style is very much that of speech. I’ve seen a couple of films on Feynman, and I can hear the cadences of his speech in the text. That helps, as the syntax is generally quite informal, which makes for occasional ambiguity. But all in all, Feynman’s thinking is clear and straightforward.  A pleasure to read. *** (2008)

L. R. Wright. The Suspect (1985)

     L. R. Wright. The Suspect (1985) George Wilcox murders Carlyle Burke. The mystery in this novel is why he did it, and when and how Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, recently stationed in Sechelt, will discover the truth. Wilcox doesn't want to go to jail, and tries to hide evidence. It's his past, and Carlyle's intersection with it, that triggers the murder. the resolution is plausibly fuzzy: Wilcox's judgement that Carlyle deserved to die morphs into an awareness that he misjudged many things. His deathbed confession letter to Alberg satisfies the policeman and the reader.
     Alberg has answered a personal ad placed by Cassandra Mitchell, librarian in Sechelt. The other mystery is their back stories, and whether and how their relationship will flourish. Later books in the series will presumably answer those questions.
     Wright is good at the details that set the mood and reveal character. The town is not a replica of Sechelt, but the weather and the bay are recognisable to anyone who’s visited the Sunshine Coast. A pleasant read; I also have the second one in the series, and will look for the others. It seems that The Suspect was to be filmed in 2004, starring Donald Sutherland as George, but the project died when Telefilm Canada withdrew funding. Another casualty of the Harperites’ inability to imagine government as anything other than a tax collector. **½

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ruth Rendell. Shake Hands For Ever (1975)

    Ruth Rendell. Shake Hands For Ever (1975) An especially tricky murder, not in its method but in the planning. A woman is strangled and found by her mother-in-law while the husband looks elsewhere. Wexford is ordered off the case, but his nephew (also a policeman) helps him pursue discreet inquiries and about a year later the prime suspect is nailed. The puzzle is too convoluted, but Rendell’s ability to create believable characters and her insight into abnormal psychology shape the story into a plausible entertainment. This is a late Wexford; his backstory is taken for granted, and we don’t find out much more about him. He’s lost some weight and is attracted by a pretty widow, but he’s not one for casual dalliance. Michael Burden hardly figures. **½

Monday, November 18, 2013

Schrödinger’s cat

Schrödinger’s cat is often used to illustrate the absurd nature of quantum mechanics. Schrödinger devised the thought experiment to highlight the paradox implicit in the fact of entanglement. We are told that the cat is neither alive or dead (or alternatively, that is both alive and dead) until we open the lid of the box, at which point the wave function describing the cat’s state is said to collapse into one or the other state. See this article for a good description of this thought experiment.

We are told that opening the box is an “observation”, and that it is the act of observation that causes the wave function to collapse. Opening the box kills the cat, or saves its life. Schrödinger devised this absurd thought experiment in order to clarify the paradoxes that appear to arise from entanglement.

I understand entanglement as follows: two particles interact. They leave each other’s vicinity. The mathematics of quantum mechanics imply that until one of the particles is “observed” or “measured”, we cannot know which particle is in which state. However, when one of the articles is observed to have State S, the other will be in the complementary state S’. The usual interpretation is that until the measurement is done, the particles are in both states, which are said to be superposed on each other. The measurement forces the collapse of the indefinite state of the measured particle into one of the two possible states.

Experiments have been done that show precisely this state of affairs. The question is whether the interpretation of the model is correct: Are the two particles actually in indefinite states until they are measured? Or is it merely the case that we cannot know which particle is in which state until we measure one of them? Note that measurement is an interaction. So the more accurate question is, Are particles that have interacted in some indefinite state until their next interaction? Or is it the case that we cannot know anything about the states of particles unless and until we arrange some interaction that results in effects large enough that we can both observe those effects and infer the states that caused them?

I think that QM is ultimately about the limits of knowledge, about what we can and cannot know about particles. Until we measure the particles, we can’t know what the result will be. More importantly, according to Heisenberg’s principle, the act of measuring the particles changes their states. Measurement or observation is not a privileged interaction. It’s just the one of many possible interactions, and it will be followed by another one, and then another one, and so on.

The Copenhagen interpretation argues that the two particles are in superposed states until they are measured, at which point one of two possible states becomes real in some sense, and thus constrains the next interaction. The many-worlds interpretation argues that whenever the function collapses, both possible outcomes become real, and ontologically separated from each other. I think both interpretations miss a fundamental point: QM, like any other theory, is a model. A model explains the observations (data) that have been observed or predicted. It can’t explain what isn’t part of it or isn't implied by it. Interpreting QM ontologically or metaphysically is absurd.

Schrodinger’s cat is alive or dead, as the case may, before we open the box. Our observation doesn’t cause cat to live or die: the radioactive atom that did or did not decay caused that.               

WEK 2013-11-18

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Gwynn Dyer. War (1985)

     Gwynn Dyer. War (1985) Dyer devised, wrote much of, and presented a TV documentary series on war. This book is based on or related to that series, and while it includes much material from it, it is not a print version. Both aim to explain the development of war, and the need to find an alternative or replacement for the present system of independent sovereign nations, each of whom sees no moral limits on pursuing its own interests, and each of whom sees all others as rivals. It’s an impressive work, and although a few things have changed (climate change being now a great a threat to human survival as nuclear war), the central thesis is as valid as ever. We do still run the risk of stumbling into a world-wide nuclear war, the results of which will make the current argy-bargy about climate change utterly irrelevant.
     Dyer’s central point is that war and civilisation were invented at the same time, and that we have to separate the two. Early civilisations, city states, competed for resources, and the invention of war made conquest a quick and relatively cheap way of increasing wealth and expanding territory. For thousands of years, the inefficiency of killing technology meant that war cost the victor little. The victors usually destroyed the enemy as thoroughly as possible, but war itself was profitable. That has now changed. A few so-called conventional weapons, e.g., tanks and fighter bombers, unopposed are capable of destroying a city. We are stumbling towards alternatives to war, but whether we will devise a way of living together on our crowded planet before some fool triggers Armageddon is anyone’s guess. **** (2008)
I reread the book, and wrote this review I wrote in 2010 :
     Dyer, Gwynne War (1982) I've been reading Gwynne Dyer's book about war. He wrote it in 1982, basing it on a television series on war that he made for the CBC and PBS. It's a gloomy and depressing subject, but anyone who wants to understand how the world works has to take account of war.
     Dyer’s thesis is that civilisation and war were born of the same agricultural revolution that led to the invention of cities, to an increasing human population, and the accelerating developments of technology and science that have made war a suicidal institution in our own day. Significantly, all the ancient references to cities take it for granted that they are walled and gated: cities were invented to protect people from robbery and murder, and war was initially merely highly organised crime, and as such was profitable. Nations and states (ie, their rulers) that went to war got what they wanted politically and economically at a price they could afford to pay. That is no longer the case. The next world war will cost the destruction of our civilisation. The smaller local wars of our day end in stalemate, in which the losing side turns to brutal terror instead of giving up its political ambitions.
     Dyer wrote at a time when nuclear war between the great powers was a real possibility, either in direct confrontation, or triggered by a minor war between their client states. The probability of a world-wide nuclear war is both lower and higher than it was then. Lower in the short term, because the major powers do not want to destroy themselves; higher in the long term because global warming could well trigger wars of survival, in which people could see the destruction of rivals as the only way to ensure a passable standard of living for themselves. The only environmental concern Dyer discusses is nuclear winter, which would certainly result from a nuclear war, for even a minor, localised one would entail the explosion of several dozen weapons, each several times the power the ones that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whether that would reverse global warming is another question, but there wouldn’t be many people left to observe the answer or contemplate it, and they would have other things on their minds than arguing a moot controversy..
     Dyer’s conclusion, that war must be replaced by something else, is slowly entering people’s consciousness. Despite the Conservatives’ exploitation of the jingoistic “support for our troops” in Afghanistan by the more paranoid, most Canadians (and Americans) realise that some rule-based protocols for conflict resolution must be found. The core dispute is about who will make and enforce the rules: no one wants to surrender their “national sovereignty”, but it will have to happen. The rise of the international criminal court at the Hague is a promising start. Even though none of the major powers are willing to accept its jurisdiction over themselves, they are quite happy to use it as an alternative to war to keep the lesser tyrants in line. There is also a much greater willingness for groups of nations to intervene within a country, if its ruler displays ambitions to widen his tyranny over neighbouring states, or threatens the making of profits.
     But war is still the primary means for forcing political change. Or rather, attempting to force political change. As the US failure in Iraq, the NATO failure in Afghanistan, and the failed (and ever more brutal) rebellions in central and southwest Africa show, war is less profitable than ever. Except of course for the armourers. ****
This snippet was written before the above:
     I've been reading Gwynne Dyer's book about war. He wrote it in 1982 when he made a television series on war. It's a gloomy and depressing subject, but anyone who wants to understand how the world works has to take account of war. The reasons for war vary from the laughable to the serious, the results range from no change to the status quo to the destruction of whole nations. Recorded history is about 6 to 7,000 years old, and over that time span the one constant has been war. The earliest records make it clear that war is older than writing, and as far as we can tell began around the time that humans invented agriculture and herding. These two inventions gave humans control over their food supply, enabled the growth of human populations, and provided time and resources for arts and crafts. But the increased wealth came at a price. It required control over the people that tilled the land or watched the herds, and it made land itself valuable. If someone took your land, you would starve. The result was the invention of war. War is organised killing of other groups of people in order to take from them what they will not give by way of trade.
In short, in order to make agriculture efficient, we invented the state; and in order to protect ourselves from other states, we invented war. We call this state of affairs civilisation. (2010)

P. G. Wodehouse. The Luck of the Bodkins (1935)

     P. G. Wodehouse. The Luck of the Bodkins (1935) Wodehouse works better in short bites; at novel length you see the creakiness of his plots, especially since he repeats them over and over again. Monty Bodkins wins and loses Gertrude Butterwick many times on a trans-Atlantic voyage, while friends and others suffer variations on this theme. A Hollywood film mogul has been ordered to smuggle his wife’s pearl necklace through customs, and his misapprehension about who may be who mixes things up some more. He’s also Wodehouse’s opportunity to satirise film moguls. The steward is a variation on Jeeves, without the latter’s wit and intelligence. And so on. A pleasant enough read, when imbibed in small doses. ** (2008)

Amanda Cross. Sweet Death, Kind Death (1984)

     Amanda Cross. Sweet Death, Kind Death (1984) Another in Cross’s series about Kate Fansler, a well-married professor of English Literature at an unnamed New York university. This time Kate must discover whether the apparent suicide of Patrice Umphelby, a prominent history professor, was in fact a murder; which it was. The setting is Clare College, a small New England women’s college, so questions of women’s place, autonomy, scholarship, freedom and so on are central, as is the issue of “gender studies”; Kate’s cover will be membership on a “task force” struck to decide whether Clare should offer women’s studies courses. The impetus for investigation comes from a couple of charming young men who’ve been selected to write Patrice’s biography.
     The plot, such as it is, is rather thin. Academic rivalry motivates the murder, and progress to the solution is more of a ramble than a search. What makes these books a pleasure to read is the level of conversation. It’s intelligent, witty, allusive, discursive, and as often as not about matters only peripherally connected to the case, such as marriage, mother-daughter relationships, love, the writing of books, the effects of aging, and so on. The epigraphs add to these pleasures.
     The characters are too good to be true; the discreet references to Kate’s marriage to Reed, her lawyer husband; suggest a relationship satisfying in every way. Every character, even the bit player who helps Kate dig up some evidence in the dead of night, is intelligent and perspicacious, though not always as self-aware as they should be. But these paragons only increase the pleasures of reading.
      One effect on me: I read some Virginia Woolf many years ago, and thought her too fey, neurasthenic, and self-centred by half. Reading the passages Cross chose for epigraphs, and the conversations about Woolf, makes me think I misestimated her. It’s not often a book makes me want to read something else entirely. For this too, I’m grateful to Cross. ***

Jack Kapica. Shocked and Appalled (1985)

     Jack Kapica. Shocked and Appalled (1985) “A Century of Letters to The Globe and Mail”, and a fun collection it is. Kapica adds the occasional biographical note, but makes no editorial comments. We are left to form our own impression of the Globe’s readership and its worries and opinions. Canadians early on chafed at being colonials; but the British connection remained strong well into the second half of the 20th century. Veiled and not so veiled religious and racial intolerance shows up here and there. But what impressed me most was that the letter writers often wrote more in a spirit of fun and wit. Pedantry was a game, as was politics. It’s unclear how many of the writers on scientific topics knew they misunderstood the theories of their time; I prefer to think that most of them deliberately pretended to  confusion and ignorance for the sake of humour and satire. Or maybe it’s Kapica’s taste that creates the impression of generally friendly and genial, but occasionally caustic, and always well-read readers delighting in sharing good conversation via the Editor’s pages.
     I could have marked many passages, but I’ll quote just one: J. E H. MacDonald, responding to an unkind (and apparently obtuse) criticism of his The Tangled Garden quotes Goethe: a genuine work of art usually displeases at first sight, because it suggests a deficiency in the spectator. See an image of the painting here. ***

James Burke. The Day the Universe Changed (1985)

     James Burke. The Day the Universe Changed (1985) A companion book to the BBC/PBS series of Burke’s favourite style of documentary, one that ferrets out and demonstrates how apparently unrelated events changed everything. This one is more linear, showing how human beings have thought about and imagined the way the world works. It’s a history of ideas, and as such a pretty good introduction and overview.
     Burke shows for example how our theory of the universe, of astronomy, biology, matter and energy, changed over time, and which discoveries and inventions prompted the changes. The Greek notions of astronomy were supplanted and emended by theories based on interpretations of the Bible, and when these in turn were challenged by new discoveries, what we now think of as the inevitable conflict between science and religion began. It took a while for people to realise that Kepler’s heliocentric model and Galileo’s discovery of the moons of Jupiter challenged the more simplistic readings of biblical references to the heavens. But that’s what happens when an institution claims authority over every aspect of a person’s life. The smallest demonstration of autonomous thinking becomes a rebellion.
     In his last chapter Burke takes up this themes and expands. He argues that in every age, ideas about the world and our place in it more or less adequately explained what facts were known. Further than that, he shows that what is accepted as fact, and therefore to be explained, changes as our theories change. (Sidebar: “theory” derives from the same Greek root as “theatre”. It’s the way we look at the world.) But we resist changing our theories; a phenomenon that doesn’t fit is often ignored or denied. For example, educated opinion refused to accept meteorites until the accepted methods of observing the sky demonstrated their reality; and then the first attempts at explanation classified them with atmospheric phenomena, hence their name.
      In short, our theories change because new methods and instruments of observation add to the store of facts and force a rearrangement, a reclassification, of what we believe constitutes the world. Our theories always explain what we happen to think is real; and therefore they are always limited. This stance may seem paradoxical, for of course what we are pleased to call scientifically established fact is merely another stage in the ongoing changes of our thinking. But it is in fact the most scientific stance of all: it takes for granted that what we think we know, and what we believe are adequate explanations of what we think we know, will continue to change, for every new discovery or idea will change what we think we know, and so entail changes in our explanations.
     A good book, nicely illustrated, but marred by far too many typos. It is an early example of computer typesetting, and people back then hadn’t yet realised that spell checkers did not make proof-reading obsolete. An example of how long it takes for people to adapt to new technologies, new ideas, new options. ***

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

David Remnick & Henry Finder, eds. Fierce Pajamas (2001)

     David Remnick & Henry Finder, eds. Fierce Pajamas (2001) As the subtitle describes it, this is an anthology of humour writing from The New Yorker ca 1929 to 2000. The net effect is oddly banal: so much of what may have seemed funny at the time has since become merely commonplace experience. Most of the pieces are satirical: humour is laughing with not at, and The New Yorker laughs with those who are laughing at those who lack the sophistication to be one of those that laugh at them. It occurs to me that satire is a species of science fiction, not only because so much science fiction is a form of satire, but because what annoys the satirist is almost always a development that he thinks has gone far enough. So he attacks it before it goes too far, attempting to stem the flow of history if not to reverse it. But things always go further than the satirist imagines. We can imagine how far things could go, but underestimate how far people will actually take them.
     Like all anthologies, this one exhibits the inevitable mismatch between the compilers’ and the readers’ tastes. Not that it matters: this mismatch encourages the reader to try another piece, in the hope (occasionally met) that the next piece will satisfy. **½ (2008)