Sunday, March 31, 2013

E Wynn Williams: Britain’s Story

     E Wynn Williams Britain’s Story (4th revised edition, August 1940) Edited by J L Gill and R F S Baird for use in Ontario schools.
     Jon would have liked this history text. Published at a time when Canada was resolutely British, this school book appears to be aimed at middle-school pupils. The history is told in clear language, the more morbid and disreputable bits are left out, and a slew of generalised judgments and characterisations are delivered with few supporting details. Thus, pupils learn that Pepys was a great diarist, that Newton was a great scientist, and so on. But they aren’t told of the General Strike in England, nor of the Winnipeg massacre in Canada; it seems that “modern” ideas of labour rights, safety, and so on emerged as sensible people arrived at a consensus.
     The bias is monarchist, imperial, and progressive, with a great deal of implicit praise for the way the British Empire was established, and how the British Commonwealth of Nations grew out of it. The book includes chapters showing ways of life at different periods, and how housing, clothing, food, social life and so on changed over the centuries. The authors take it for granted that there has been pretty steady social and political progress since the Renascence, and wonderful technological progress since the 1700s. The progressivist stance seems quaint now; reading the book offers a way of thinking about history that is itself now of historical interest. Neat little line drawings in the text and on the end papers provide some visual pleasure. **½

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

27th March , 2013. A poem for Jon.

27th March 2013
Grief seizes me and twists my bowels.
It grabs me by the neck and shakes me like a rat.
It darkens the sun, eclipses the moon.

O Jon, my son, my son, my son.

You were a gift we held too briefly.
You showed us joy in learning,
music, games, and friends.

Death, the impassive calculator,
saw your thread come to its end,
tapped you on the shoulder, and said, Come.

You went into the light of perfect knowledge.
We linger here in the shadows,
waiting for the time to follow you.

Live in our daily dealings with each other,
let memories of your kindness and delight
shape our minds and heal our hearts.

O Jon my son, my son, my son.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

My son Jon

Update 26 March, 2013: My son Jon died on 19 March. He was 48 years old, but to me he was still the boy with whom I had conversations on our walk to school, about history and anything else that caught his interest.  I don't know how much of what I think I know of history I learned from him, but by now it's most of it. His choice of books for gifts was always thoughtful; he had little money to spend, and must have searched yard sales and library book  sales all year long. He liked yard sales, actually, he was a great searcher-out of treasures that others didn't value. I shall miss him. Grief seizes me without warning. Obituary via etouch.ca or legacy.com. The last book he gave me was Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks. I posted review of it on February 12, 2013.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Art Curren. Kitbashing HO Model Structures (1988)

     Art Curren. Kitbashing HO Model Structures (1988) Curren was a master at recognising the possibilities inherent in plastic model kits. This book, consisting of reprints of articles he wrote for Model Railroader, displays his talent wonderfully. It’s enough to look at the drawings and photographs to understand his method and be inspired to emulate it. His painting methods are pretty good, too. An Art Curren building never looks to be made of plastic, but of honest wood, brick, and concrete. Some of his designs, for example the “homes on Maple Street”, are pretty straightforward, but others express more than a little whimsy, which extends to the names (The Perry Shibble Fruit & Produce Co-op, The Hardly Abel Mfg Co.) And of course, unused parts and leftover bits and pieces are thriftily reused for small lean-tos, dormers, loading docks, and so on. Nothing goes to waste. Curren also has an eye for the parts lurking within parts: I especially like his methods for changing the look and size of windows. *** (2003)

Mike Schafer, ed. Railroads You Can Model (1976)

     Mike Schafer, ed. Railroads You Can Model (1976) A somewhat better book than its successor, perhaps because Mike didn’t get his hands on the track plans as much in this one; but most of the plans are not really buildable as shown; they make poor use of the space, and have not been designed from the point of view of a user. Many of the layouts feature shelves that wander out into the middle of the room, but there’s no awareness of the use of backdrops to separate scenes, which in several cases would enable a doubling back of the line without sacrificing scenic integrity. Still, the plans are simpler than in the second book, especially the ones of the short lines, such the Bath & Hammondsport, or the Aberdeen & Rockfish, but they still use more space than they need to.
     The DM & IR is shown in a 58x29 plan featuring a massive ore dock connected through the backdrop to an ore treatment plant (taconite pellet maker) which allows a loads in - empties out operation. The plan is interesting as an exercise, but not really buildable except perhaps for a museum dedicated to displaying the iron ore industry. On the other hand, the B & H is a point to point shelf arranged into a G, easily reduced to fit a smaller space, and using the prototype track arrangements to good effect.
     The best plan, oddly enough, is based on the Tehachapi loop. It fits into a 24x15 space, is designed to display the loop in all its glory, and to show off the heavy traffic over it. This plan is designed for the modeller who prefers to run trains in a spectacular setting. Staging yards are in the form of stacked loops. A slightly longer space would permit wider radii on the loops, and a few more staging tracks, sorely needed to enable reproducing something like the frequency of trains over this line. But the plan is fairly simple, with fewer than 20 turnouts as shown, and perhaps another half dozen with the extra staging. Scenery would be relatively simple, since the vegetation is sparse, but the few buildings and roads would have to be modelled to a high standard to make the scene believable overall. Still, the simplicity of the plan makes this a buildable project despite its large size. **½ (2003)

Mike Schafer, ed. More Railroads You Can Model (1978)

     Mike Schafer, ed. More Railroads You Can Model (1978) Each chapter is adapted from an article in Model Trains or Model Railroader. The potted histories of the railway companies are useful, and often interesting. The plans based on them vary in quality. Several are simply too large, or too much in the spaghetti bowl tradition. The best ones concentrate on about three major features of the prototype, and maintain a low track-to-scenery ratio. E.g, a 9x11 L-shelf depicting the Graham County Railroad runs from Topton to Robbinsville, with a high curved trestle in the corner, scenic highlight of the layout, and a chance for the bridge builder in all of us to get out and have a ball. The plan is buildable in a reasonable amount of time, and a staging yard at one end would permit interchange of cars with the Southern. The plan is easily expandable. Draping the plan around the room would allow addition of a half-hidden Southern oval and versions of the GCRR’s Bear Creek (which had a sawmill) and Sweet Gum (flag stop in the middle of a North Carolina mountain valley).
     The 4x8 based on the Milwaukee Road’s “beer line” shows just how much track can be squeezed into that classic space, and how believable it is when it depicts an urban switching line. But the 5x9 version of the Ma & Pa doesn’t work; there’s too much track in too small a space. A round-the-walls version would work better, and it doesn’t take much to visualise one. * to *** (2003)

P. D. James. The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982)

     P. D. James. The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982) The second of the Cordelia Gray novels, this book has more than a whiff of the gothic about it. An actress is killed and her face bludgeoned to a hideous pulp. Several old sins haunt the characters in the story, the puzzle is well set up, but the solution is weak. Cordelia’s narrow escape from death doesn’t help either, it’s too melodramatic. ** (2003)

Nancy Mitford Don’t Tell Alfred (1960)

      Nancy Mitford Don’t Tell Alfred (1960) Continuation of Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Fanny’s husband Alfred has been posted to Paris as ambassador, her cousin Northey is acquired as secretary, and the plot, such as it is, revolves around the fortunes of her family and a diplomatic spat about some islands (rocks surrounded by sandbanks, really, that emerge, just barely, at low tide). The book lacks the energy of the first two books, but amuses. ** (2003)

La Diva by Natalie Choquette.

     La Diva by Natalie Choquette. A one-woman show about opera. Lots of fun. If you get a chance, go see and hear it. Choquette sings the familiar hits in different costumes with commentary in different accents to suit the sources of the songs. She sings beautifully, and can conjure the scene and mood so well that we don’t notice the absence of the production values that seem to play such a huge role at the Met.
     Most of the songs were more or less happy or romantic, but Un bel di vedremo from Madame Butterfly was seriously affecting. At several points, Choquette came into the audience and focussed on one person, or brought him on to the stage. I don’t usually like this kind of audience participation, since it can feel forced, but Choquette does it so naturally that it works. Disclaimer: I was one of the lucky ones, and thoroughly enjoyed it . It was easy to follow her lead.
     Here is Marie’s e-mail to our friends’n’family:
     The link at the end is to a sample of the show we saw by Natalie Choquette, la Diva. She is an opera singer with a big voice. She loves to interact with the audience. She talked, and talked, in many exaggerated accents. She changed costume 4 or 5 times. All costumes were exaggerated and stunning.
      When she first came out in her multi-layered big dress with hooped over skirt and scarf, she told us she was a Diva and the audience must yell "Bravo, Brava" and throw flowers at her, "like this" (and she threw out a bunch of flowers). Her Queen of the Night solo was great!
     The first person she chose from the audience was Dennis Jacques. She brought him on stage and had him take off his jacket and help her shed her big dress and hooped skirt, while she sang. Underneath she had a close fitting sequined gown.
     The only back-up person travelling with her was the piano player who first came out suited in tails, wearing a gray, fuzzy wig. (In real life he is an organist and choir director).  Later he changed to a Liberace wig and had extra lace, candles, rose etc. The Diva made many attempts to "distract" the piano player, while he was playing and she was singing.
     In the Moscow Olympic set he wore his shaved head and a black tank so he could show his muscles.  For that set, Natalie wore a short, red athletic dress and bare feet. She climbed on the piano to sing, lay down and did a head stand, all while singing.
     Her Madam Butterfly solo was beautiful. Later she summed up the story and told how it could have had a better and happy ending. "The trouble is the women always die in opera... That is why I sometimes like to sing the tenor parts". She spoke for the DLM or "Diva Liberation Movement". Her happy ending for La Boheme was for the artist to get enough money to buy aspirin to cure Mimi. She chose Ron Gauthier to be the artist. She gave him a floppy hat, a big smock and a pencil and easel. He drew while she sang.
     The piano player got to play "his music" when she was off stage. One good piece was Bach's Toccata and Fugue on piano!
     While she was walking among the audience she chose Wolf to be her partner for the tango part. She wore a black, knee length dress which was open from waist down and showed a pink and gold lining and ruffled white pantaloons. She chose Pat Fortino to come to stage at the very end and dance with her while she sang. She made each man the romantic- centre-of-attention while he was on stage.
There's a video of “Nessun dorma” and others on YouTube.
    A great evening. ****

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mordecai Richler. Belling the Cat (1998)

     Mordecai Richler. Belling the Cat (1998) Essays, reviews, etc, so-called occasional writing that kept Richler supplied with Scotch and cigars, and his family in groceries. Richler is a witty writer and intelligent and close observer of politics, sport, literature, and the foibles of humankind. He tends to forgive the ordinary weaknesses, but has no patience with cruelty and hypocrisy. A fun read; even the pieces dealing with crises that we have left behind appeal, because Richler is master of the telling detail. Worth keeping on the shelf for occasional reference when a politician seems to have forgotten what he stood for in the past. Richler loved hockey and baseball, and his knowledge of these sports far exceeds mine: in other words, I’ll have to take his words for it. *** (2003)

Jill Paton Walsh. The Whyndham Case (1993)

     Jill Paton Walsh. The Whyndham Case (1993) The title turns out to be a pun. As the scene of the murder, a library of sixteenth century books, is also called the Whyndham Case, after the donor. Actually, the first death is a sorry accident; but the next is a murder to conceal the negligence that led to the first death. The amateur sleuth is Imogen Quy (rimes with why), nurse at St Agatha’s College, Cambridge. The puzzle satisfies, both in its complexity (not too ingenious, thank goodness), and its solution (psychologically sound). Imogen is a pleasant and kindly woman, and the whole story has a gentleness and decency about it that makes it appealing. The first victim was an only son, and his mother grieves not only for him but for the daughter-in-law and grandchildren she will never have. Well, it turns out that there will be a grandchild, so there will be some joy to compensate for the grief. The style is straightforward, moving the story along and sketching in enough of the characters that we care for their fates. I haven’t been able to find any more Imogen Quy books, unfortunately. **½ (2003)

Tony Koester ed. Model Railroad Planning 2002

     Tony Koester ed. Model Railroad Planning 2002 The theme for this issue is the 4x8, and as usual, Iain Rice’s design catches the idea and inspires thought and dreams. One of his plans has an up-and-over point-to-fiddle-yard line draped around a harbour; the other shows a squished oval surrounding an inlet with wharves on each side. In both, the centrally placed water acts as scenic divide. Although one sees the whole layout at a glance, the water separates the layout into two scenes. Such a design is about the only way to make a 4x8 layout work visually, the size is both a limitation and a challenge.
     Small locos and short cars, plus careful design and construction of the buildings, will produce an outstanding layout in a small space, and Iain Rice shows how it can be done. The other plans are more ingenious, but only the On30 plan by Chris Webster accepts the limitations of the 4x8; he too uses a scenic divider to create two scenes. 1/4" scale requires larger structures, but again, if carefully designed and built, the overall effect should be convincing. The rest of the issue continues the trend to overall design. “Planning” is becoming a misnomer, the articles clearly show a bias towards design, with scenic, operational, and civil engineering problems all being handled in terms of a single unifying concept. *** (2003)

Harold Edmonson. Railroad Station Plan Book (1977)

     Harold Edmonson. Railroad Station Plan Book (1977) One of Kalmbach’s books from the glory days of model railroading, when model building was (of necessity) a much larger part of the hobby. 28 plans, all illustrated with one or more photographs, of stations ranging from wayside halts to elaborate buildings that also housed division offices. CP’s Standard No. 2 station is illustrated with a photo of Thessalon. An excellent reference for modellers, since the editor chose mostly standard designs typical of their regions. The drawings are clear, and the photos add useful information about the stations’ appearance, along with details such as fuel tanks, shrubbery, advertisements, and so on. *** (2003)

Jean E. Karl. Strange Tomorrow (1985)

     Jean E. Karl. Strange Tomorrow (1985) An SF story for young readers, apparently intended for middle school. It’s in two parts, one about Janie, who survives with her father and brother when the Clord destroy all life above ground on Earth, and one about her great-granddaughter, also called Janie, who is the Sustainer (physician) in a group of people that leave Alpha Valley to establish human habitation in Zeta Valley. The Clord are not further discussed; the focus is on Janie, who is a typical 13-year-old when she very unwillingly leaves home with her father instead of going with her mother to visit her grandmother. Her father is to do some basic maintenance work on an underground bunker, set up to preserve the government in case of a nuclear war. It saves their lives, of course, because a blizzard confines them to its shelter for several days while the Clord do their dirty deed.
    After the disaster, Janie develops unexpected leadership, while her father goes into a deep depression. Janie organises activity for herself and her brother Mark, activity that keeps them sane, and sets up a listening schedule on the bunker's communication system. They pick up a message from some people near Santa Fe, and this section ends with the family setting out to meet and bring these survivors back to the bunker.
     Part two takes place several generations later. The few human survivors have been able to utilise the biological supplies in the bunker to reseed their small part of the Earth with plant and animal life. The colony must divide and spread according to a plan worked out by the Old Ones (ie Janie One and her group). Janie Two at first doesn’t want to, but eventually, when her idea of yearly gatherings to exchange news, ideas, and goods is adopted by the other settlements, she is reconciled to her new home.
     The book works because of the detail and the believable characters. Karl ignores questions of ecology, such as where the oxygen comes from. I presume it’s coming from the oceans, whose life was protected as life underground was. Nor does she seem to realise that once viable soil with growing plants is re-established, both microbial soil life and plant life would spread rather rapidly on their own. She also does not develop the plot point of retaining memory of the Clord atrocity and preparing for possible conflict with them. I think the book will appeal to its intended audience, but I’m not a good judge of that. I’ll send it to Texas, and see what David and Caroline say about it. The book contains the seeds of a much longer, more complex work, one that might appeal to adults also. **½ (2003)

Niles Eldredge. The Triumph of Evolution (2000)

     Niles Eldredge. The Triumph of Evolution (2000) A rehash of the tired old arguments by creationists, and their refutations. Eldredge points out that all their modern arguments are more or less updated versions of the ones used in the mid-19th century, when Darwin’s book was attacked by people with the same mindset as those who attack evolution today.
     Eldredge writes well, but his tone is occasionally shrill; I suppose the American Christian Fundamentalist obtuseness on the question must be exasperating. He notes that the real argument is not about science, but about politics, for conservative self-styled Christians want their vision of the truth to prevail. Like all true believers, they lack faith, and cannot tolerate anything that would call their superstition into question. They really do believe that morality is not possible without divine fiat, therefore that if evolution is true, the humans would act like animals. Eldredge doesn’t make the easy point that animals in fact are more rigidly constrained in their behaviour than humans are, and that it might be a better world if humans did act more like animals, instead of doing what they want when they want (and claiming divine approval for their actions, besides).
     At present, the conservative Christian world view dominates US politics and especially their foreign policy. He is correct to focus on the teaching of science as a method of understanding the material world. He claims that the method presupposes nothing about the existence or non-existence of God; and that science by definition cannot investigate the supernatural. He quarrels both with the creationists and those scientists who believe that science entails the assumption that nothing exists beyond the material phenomena that science investigates. There may or may not be something else, but science can never settle that question. Good point; and I find it ironic that many Biblical literalists, believing that the truth of their beliefs depend on the historical accuracy of the Bible, invoke the methods of science to prove the historical truth of the Bible. See, for example, the “scientific” expeditions to find the remains of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat.
     The focus on the American version of this debate may seem to limit the usefulness of its arguments, but the entanglement with politics and hence with schooling is unavoidable, even in Canada. Here, too, we have conservative Christians (many of them pastored by American or US-trained ministers) who want to bring about a theocratic state. Throw fundamentalist Muslims and Hindus into the mix, and the controversies can get ugly; they expand well beyond the evolution versus creation argument. The main appeal of the Alliance Party, after all, is that it promises to do the right thing, and what’s right is not defined by a consensus arrived at by thoughtful debate and discussion, but is known absolutely, from revelation. This is a politics that ignores practical evils, insisting that it’s better to do the right thing and cause certain harm, than to do the usually harmless wrong thing and let someone get away with something.
     What’s interesting here is that no matter what the religious tradition, fundamentalists share the same trait: they are unable to handle uncertainty. Consider the unwillingness to give chance a role in producing order: one of the arguments against evolution is that it operates by “blind chance”. The argument reveals both a profound misunderstanding of what “chance” is, and a need for certainty. The fear of uncertainty drives these people; they lack the faith to handle the doubt that maybe they are wrong, and that God isn’t what they think he is; isn’t at all, perhaps. And worse, that if God isn’t what they think he is, then they can’t be sure what is the right thing to do. I go with Luther on this question; he knew that we can’t be certain. His vision of the faith that justifies is that if we act with the best knowledge and understanding, and with the right motives, God will forgive our inevitable mistakes.
     There are few too many typos. *** (2003)
     This is a repost because the original disappeared.

Colin Dexter The First Inspector Morse Omnibus (1991)

       Colin Dexter The First Inspector Morse Omnibus (1991)
      The Dead of Jericho (1977) Morse meets an interesting woman, Anne Scott, at a party. A few weeks later he’s in the neighbourhood and looks her up, but the house, though unlocked, appears to be empty. Later that same day he discovers she’s dead, an apparent suicide. It takes a while for the police to accept the reality of murder: it’s not until there’s a second victim on the same street that a tentative inference of a connection between the two deaths brings Morse into the case. There follows the usual convoluted path to the truth, with the usual complicated interplay between Morse and Lewis. An early Morse, with the tics showing. Sex, money, and reputation motivate our lives; character flaws convert these into motives for murder. Character is Dexter’s weakness. He’s quite good at setting up character revealing scenes, but nevertheless relies more often on telling rather showing. The video treatment of this book was more convincing because the medium shows character by default. **½
     Service of All the Dead (1979) Murders and apparent suicides in the Parish of St Frideswide lead Morse and Lewis through a labyrinth of sex, embezzlement, brotherly love and hate, and psychopathology. Unusually the chase ends with a thriller-like near-lethal encounter, when Morse is nearly killed after he unwisely tracking the killer to the roof of the church tower. Dexter has a habit of multiple twists which can get somewhat tiresome. The result is too often stereotyped characters; even Morse and Lewis can’t escape from the pattern Dexter has created for them. For readers who like to focus on the puzzles, this is not a serious flaw. For me it is. I want more from a book than from a couple of hours of television. When character and motivation are merely clues to the crime, the puzzle may be plausibly resolved, but we don’t really care about the people whose lives are destroyed by it. Again, the video was better than the book. **
      The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1981) Quinn is a “graduate” at an examination service that certifies educational achievements of students from round the world. He’s profoundly deaf, but has developed very high lip-reading skills. He’s able to observe conversations from across the room; one of these indicates that one of the members of the syndicate is selling exam questions. This knowledge leads to his murder. The puzzle is more convoluted than usual. People try to hide facts for both good and bad reasons, but this not only misleads the police and delays the solution, it also puts them in peril. **½
      This is a repost because of some error that occurred on the page, which somehow inserted a link that consisted on the above text..

Friday, March 15, 2013

Alison Gordon. Prairie Hardball (1997)

     Alison Gordon. Prairie Hardball (1997) Kate Henry, baseball reporter, travels to the Battlefords to celebrate her mother’s induction into the Prairie Baseball Hall of Fame. Her mother was a Racine Belle, playing ball during the 40s and into the early 50s. The occasion is a belated honouring of the women who played baseball back then. The ladies meet and enjoy themselves until a murder spoils it. Kate’s boyfriend, Inspector Andy Munro of Toronto, helps investigate, but it’s Kate who stumbles on the truth, which has its roots in the past, and which reveals a surprise for Kate’s family.
     Modestly written, with enough byplay among the characters that the creakiness of the plot doesn’t bother much. The small town atmosphere and loving but emotionally restrained family atmosphere is nicely done. None of the characters is memorable, not even Kate (who narrates most of the chapters; of necessity some of the story is told in the third person, but the shift does not jar as much as one might expect). The reader will spot the killer before Kate does, but that’s no great loss. A pleasant entertainment. **½ (2003)

Ursula Bloom. Rosemary for Stratford-on-Avon (1966)

     Ursula Bloom. Rosemary for Stratford-on-Avon (1966) A gossipy memoir of Stratford in the early 1900s, presumably the time the author was a young girl. Most of the story deals with Marie Corelli, who arrived in Stratford and promptly made a damn nuisance of herself. Bloom has no qualms imagining dialogue, thoughts, and feelings; the book reads like an episodic novel. Apparently it’s now rare; Mother sent me this copy for Christmas 1998. She annotated it with brief marginal references to people. Uncle Paul noted that the photograph of the Rev. George Arbuthnot was taken by Uncle Peter. The book covers the beginning of the commercialisation of S-on-A, but Bloom spends so much time on her history of the evil Corelli that we don’t get much sense of how this proceeded. But in general it’s an interesting sidelight on the town, and its references to some of my ancestors makes it important in our family history. No index, and no indication why the selected photographs, rather than others, were included.**½ (2003)

Margery Allingham. Mr Campion and Others (1950)

     Margery Allingham. Mr Campion and Others (1950) Thirteen stories starring Albert Campion, gentleman sleuth, and his old friend Stanislaus Oates, a copper who rises from chief inspector to superintendent in a somewhat haphazard chronology. The stories are charmingly written, all take place in that never-never land of the upper middle class and minor nobility between the two world wars, and none involves murder. Instead we have frauds and thefts of various kinds, feckless youths and maidens, terrifying maiden aunts, avuncular coppers, devious but socially impeccable villains, and so on. Wooster country, in other words, but closer to reality than Wodehouse’s happy fantasies. The stories occasionally strain one's credulity, but no more than those of Christie and Sayers. I like their tone, generally light and amusing, with sly touches of social comedy. The characters are sketched rather than drawn, and engage one’s sympathies enough that one wants more than just a solution to a puzzle. Some of the Campion novels have been adapted for TV, but they haven’t the cheerfulness of these short stories, all of which are delightful confections. ***(2003)

Dashiell Hammett. A Man Called Spade (1944)

     Dashiell Hammett. A Man Called Spade (1944) Introduction by Ellery Queen, who informs us that there are only four Sam Spade stories: The Maltese Falcon, and three short stories, which are included in this book. Two other Hammett stories add to the bulk, and make the book worth printing and publishing. The stories are reprinted in chronological order, and one can see Hammett’s skill improving, especially his skill at characterisation, and the last story, told in the first person by a boxer, is as much a character study as a crime story.
     Queen claims that this is what sets Hammett apart from other writers, especially the “effete, namby-pamby” English ones. Symons echoes Queen’s claim in his Bloody Murder. On the strength of the stories in this book that’s nonsense. Like other crime fiction authors, Hammett provides just enough characterisation to carry the plot. Like other escapist fiction writers, his aim is to sketch the outline of a character that the reader can fill in with his favourite traits: his own. As puzzles, these stories are weak, too; the solution provided by Spade is not deduced so much as invented. Queen is right to stress the “realism” of Sam Spade, by which he means his ordinariness and his taste for violence, but whether these make the character more realistic is debatable. I think the equation of realism with the dark side of human nature is just as romantic as its opposite.
     I also don’t see why Hammett is considered such a great stylist. The writing in the Spade stories is flat and tedious. The only interest is the plot, such as it is, and I for one don’t feel any urge to reread, not even “His Brother’s Keeper,” the only piece in which a character is realised fully, as fully as can be done a few thousand words, that is. Those who followed Hammett’s innovations took the style several steps further, and Symons claim that Ross MacDonald, for example, overwrites misses the mark. * (2003)

Julian Symons. Bloody Murder. (1974)

     Julian Symons. Bloody Murder. From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History (1972. Rev. 1974) On the whole, Symons gets it right. His tracing of the development from the precursors (Poe, Godwin, Collins) to the masters at various periods, and the changes brought about by dissatisfaction with formulas, is first rate. There is a great deal of excellent information here, and his guesses at future developments have in general been borne out. He did not foresee the reinvention of the police-procedural as the forensic procedural (because he finds technical details tedious), neither did he foresee that the police procedural as such could develop a good deal further in the direction of social comedy and criticism. Nor did he foresee the development of the crime novel into historical romance. But his guesses are wrong more in degree than in kind: he expected the crime novel’s future to be essentially more of the same. The book predates P D James, Ruth Rendell, Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters, and other recent masters of the form.
     It’s his lingering debt to F R Leavis that grates. He definitely rates crime fiction as less valuable than the Serious Novel. Yet his invocation of “art” as a criterion does not convince me. His real criterion is moral improvement. Because crime fiction is intended to entertain rather than improve the reader, it cannot be as good as the real thing, whatever that is.
     The same Leavisite narrowness also causes him to savage Sayers, whom he accuses of snobbery and worse. Yet his own preferences reveal a similar snobbery, especially when he expresses his distaste for the Mickey Spillane school of sadism, or his thinly veiled contempt for the “semi-literate reader” of these novels, in whom he assumes a taste for sadistic sensationalism merely because they presumably don’t want to read Milton. And the books he does reveal as being among his favourites are all (based on the ones I’ve read) marked by a refined version of that same sadomasochism that he attacks in Spillane and company.
     Never mind. The history is valuable, and most of the criticism reveals a genuine taste for the genre. For the most part I agree with his assessments, and he mentions a number of authors whose books I intend to find. **½ (2003)

The Self

New Scientist recently published a series of article on the self, available here. The link will work for a short time, so check it now.

     Back when I was teaching literature, the question of the “real person” came up frequently. Many authors write from an omniscient point of view: they tell us what characters think, what they remember, how they feel. This information isn’t available to other characters in the story unless and until it is expressed in speech or (more rarely) in action. It’s remarkably difficult to know exactly what someone else is thinking, or what the world looks and feels like from his or her point of view. We often know a fictional character better than we know the real people in our lives. We also believe that because we know our own experience better than anyone else can, we know our real selves better than anyone else can. In this we are mistaken.
     What is the real self? I don’t think there is one that claim greater authenticity than any other. Our sense of self is the result of massive computation by the brain, which integrates both external and internal sensory inputs (heavily filtered), and emotional responses, to create a model of the world around us. We feel we are at the centre of this model, looking at it from “inside.” The model is just that, an image, a picture, a multi-sensory illusion. Work with optical and other illusions demonstrates how much of that image is computed using rough-and-ready rules about what should be there instead of what’s actually there. We see what we expect to see. Magicians make use of this. A good magic trick sets up expectations that are so powerful that we cannot help seeing what the magician has directed us to see.
     What then is the self as we experience it? It’s the experience of the world which we inhabit. But that world is an illusion: so the self is an illusion, too. What’s the self we ascribe to other people? It’s part of that world; it’s built from expectations which combine both generalised and often hard-wired expectations about what other people’s behaviour means, and our knowledge of their history with us, modified by what we know or can infer about their history with other people. It’s here that our sense of privileged information about our own experience misleads us. We believe that because we know our self from the inside, we have a better knowledge of how that self, “my real self”, will behave in future. That’s simply not true. We know perfectly well that we often have a better insight into a friend’s behaviour than he has; that we are better able to parse the odds of a future behaviour than she can. Why should we believe that our friends have less insight into us than we have into them?
     Part of the illusion of the self is “I”. What is that “I”? I think it’s a point of view. It can be disturbed. The “I” can be located outside the body, it can be split so that it believes the other part(s) are aliens or gods, it can disintegrate to the point that it takes heroic efforts by doctors and family and friends to put it back together again. And drugs, trauma, illness, fatigue, extreme emotion, meditation, and so on can undermine or alter our sense of self so much that we may doubt whether our current self is the real one or not.
     So what metaphor might help us understand what this “self” is? Who or what is “I”? One thing’s for sure: whatever else “I” may be, “I” am a process, a something-that-happens. “I” change constantly, and yet maintain a basic shape, much as a fountain changes constantly, yet maintains a basic shape.
     Or perhaps it would be better to say “I” am one of those fountains that cycles through many shapes, for as long as the water flows. So “I” too cycle through many shapes. “I” behave differently with different people, in different places, at different times, when performing different tasks. Some of those shapes “I” can control: “I” learn manners, language, skills. “I” learn when and when not to express my “inner feelings”, and how to shape that expression. And often “I” am surprised at what “I” do.
     “I” am an interaction with the world around me. “I” am an interface, a mask that shapes the space behind and in front of it. There is nothing else besides that mask. Yet “I” persist in believing that “I” am the reality behind the mask, the real self that the mask hides. Believing this, “I” don’t notice that all “I” know of my self is what the mask looks like from one side, the side “I” believe faces towards the real me.

 [2013-03-12 to 15]

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

     Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) [D: Anatole Litvak. Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster] Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in this film noir terror show. She’s bed-ridden Leona Stevenson, who overhears a phone conversation that suggests a woman is to be murdered, ends up she’s the victim. The story is told though flashbacks and phone conversations. Develops that she is a man stealer, her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) is her kept man who wants to get out of the stifling marriage and job as VP in a chemical company owned by his father-in-law. He concocts a plan to steal some of the valuable chemicals, and involves gangsters to get rid of the stuff. These are annoyed when he and his co-conspirator decide to go it alone without paying the thugs their fair share. Leona’s life-insurance payout will supposedly pay the debt and free her husband of her and the job.
     The movie is dated as can be. It’s based on a radio play, and transfers well to the screen. All the things we have come to see as cliches of the genre are here: the selfish femme fatale, the suave mob boss, the crude business man, the self-centred handsome young man, the ineffectual good girl, the lonely derelict buildings by the sea shore, and the 2D characters, too obtuse to figure out the stupidity of their plans or the full implications of the revelations.
     I suppose that if I had seen this when first released I would been caught up in Leona’s developing terror, but at this remove the gears and pulleys of the plot are too obvious. The charm of this movie now is that it is such a near-perfect example of its type, a well-crafted entertainment offering a frisson of fear and a dollop of moral righteousness. The pacing is slow enough to suit the audiences of 65 years ago, who didn’t expect the jump cuts and minimal dialogue that we are used to today. The photography is slick and beautifully lit. the acting is very good. The whole movie is informed by a clear vision of its purpose, which is to deliver a thrill. It did that very well back in its day; now it’s an example of a genre that has developed in several different directions. As such, it has great historical interest, but only average entertainment value.**½

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

J. Burnley, ed. Penguin Modern Stories 1 (1969)

  J. Burnley, ed. Penguin Modern Stories 1 (1969) The date says it all: very mid-20th century “serious literature.” I read the first two stories by William Sansom, both rather depressing tales of people finding scraps of self-esteem in the midst of small defeats and smaller victories. The next tales, by Jean Rhys, begin in the same mode and mood, and I haven’t read them yet, and probably never will. David Plante’s stories (which I skimmed) are “experimental” in that self-conscious way that asks you to admire technique above content or insight. Malamud’s story concerns a father-son conflict of some sort (I skimmed it, too), typical again of the mid-20th century, when honest description of the dysfunctions of real families was considered brave.
     I suppose the 1950s and 60s were the last decade in which “educated” people took literature seriously as signs and signposts. This book, the first of a series that as far as I know never had a second, testifies to the belief that words on a page matter. They do, but discussion of their importance almost always misses the mark. In Julian Symons Bloody Murder, which I’m re-reading, I found a reference to F R Leavis; Symons accepts Leavis’s assumption that a story’s moral thesis is the criterion of its value. The stories in this collection all have value in the Leavisite sense, and that’s what makes them almost unreadable now. Leavis was wrong (Symons’ book is one of a number that disassemble Leavis’s heritage for our edification), and these stories demonstrate why. They are well written, the characters are well-observed, the pacing is just right, the insight into life’s little ironies is just so, and so on. But reading them feels like taking medicine. *½ (2003)

Gordon Dickson. The Alien Way (1965)

     Gordon Dickson. The Alien Way (1965) A first contact novel that seems to be one of Dickson’s early attempts. I suspect it was written well before 1965. Contact is made through “virus-sized mechanisms” that “infect” the aliens, and through a “collapsed space” channel that links the alien and the human directly. I didn’t finish this book. Its premise is intriguing enough, but the writing and characterisation are too clumsy to give much pleasure. The technology is inconsistent; surely a science that can build collapsed space drives and virus-sized devices can build high-powered miniature computers and store petabytes of data in a few sugar-lump sized cubes of collapsed space. The aliens, the Ruml, are a bear-like warrior race with a strong sense of honour (they have computers, by the way). They are in some ways prototypes for the Dorsai, in whom Dickson developed the warrior ethos so convincingly. I may pick up this book again some time this summer, but at present it will remain unfinished. ** (2003)
     Update 2013: I didn't finish the book, have tried it a couple of times since, but never got past the first 30 pages or so.

Agatha Christie. Towards Zero in The Mousetrap and Other Plays (1978)

     Agatha Christie. Towards Zero in The Mousetrap and Other Plays (1978) Adapted from the novel of the same name, the play moves briskly through the plot. The characters are well enough defined for good actors to give them credibility, even though their speech is not well-differentiated (Christie’s dialogue is true to class, but only vaguely evokes the individual). The stage directions are for a director, not a reader, and so they interfere; I have a hard time with “moves above table,” etc.
     Apparently amateur drama groups love Christie plays, and one can see why. They are “stagey”, though usually not in the bad sense of that word. Christie liked dramatic endings to scenes; she loves to drop the curtain on a plot point. Even the endings depend on a few lines of dialogue and action in the last two minutes or so. Her plays don’t wind down, they end with a bang. I don’t especially like a play that has a punch line, but many people do. Her plays for the most part are box office successes. Christie also likes realistic sets, “natural” props, and so on, and takes great care in describing them. In other words, they are the kinds of plays that people who like a good story will enjoy; but I doubt I would like them much; they are weak theatre. I can’t imagine these plays working on a bare stage, but it might be fun to try. As for the stories themselves: the scripts make it even clearer that Christie had a strong sentimental streak in her. These plays are romantic love stories with crime as the spoiler of true love’s deserved happiness.
     It’s also clear that she had an essentially dramatic imagination. Her novels rely a great deal on dialogue. This makes transposition into video easy, and often the video does a better job of presenting the story than Christie’s prose does. Or so it seems to me.
     I skimmed a couple of the other plays, but didn’t find them attractive reading. ** (2003)

Dorothy Sayers and Jill P. Walsh. Thrones, Dominions (1998)

     Dorothy Sayers and Jill P. Walsh. Thrones, Dominions (1998) Based on notes and drafts by Sayers of a novel she had planned and begun to write, this is a well done imitation of the Sayers style and form. Walsh has caught the Sayers adoration of Wimsey and her idealisation of his marriage with Harriet very well, perhaps to the point of gentle satire. The puzzle is satisfying, although the reader knows the perpetrator quite early on; but that’s common with Sayers, who was not much concerned with teasing the reader with red herrings until the denouement (except in Five Red Herrings, but even there, the murderer’s identity is fairly clear well before the end).
     The pleasure in this book comes from the characters, especially Wimsey and Harriet, and Walsh also shows a nice talent for social comedy. There are times when it seems she’s more interested in that than in the mystery, but Sayers’ notes justify her emphasis. Sayers planned the novel as having two main subjects, and Harriet and Peter’s adjustment to each other as husband and wife was to be one of them. Peter’s family should perhaps have been given more prominence; I think Sayers would have done that. But I suppose the publishers had some say I the length of the book. Considering the way Sayers expanded Gaudy Night and Nine Tailors into novels with a mystery element, Walsh would have been justified in insisting on a longer book.
     As it is, the marriage is charming. It clearly represents Sayers’ ideals, and certainly Walsh’s too, for she does these scenes so nicely. The Sayers reticence is there, but also the hint at passion unbounded and thoroughly enjoyed. Although the dialogue sometimes becomes a little precious, that’s Sayers' style, and Walsh is a sympathetic imitator of her prototype (whom, she says, she has admired since reading Gaudy Night in her early teens, a time when romantic novels and poetry can have a lasting effect). She must have read the couple of short stories of Wimsey as a married man and father very carefully.
     I found the puzzle well enough handled, though I would have liked to have seen the Wimsey-Parker relationship developed more; they are brothers-in-law, after all, not merely colleagues in detection. And Harriet and Mary will be excellent friends; I think more scenes between them would have added to the book, especially since Harriet isn’t sure she wants children at first. I guess I’m saying I could have read a book twice the length quite happily; I didn’t want it to end. Sayers usually wrote a lovely mix of social comedy, romantic love story, and adventure romance, and Walsh is an excellent pupil; I must look up her own published work.
     Sayers is very like Austen in her eye for the absurdities of social convention, but like Austen she also acknowledges the power of these conventions to cause real unhappiness. And like Austen, she believes that common sense, a disciplined heart, courtesy, kindness, and a strong moral sense will carry one through the worst of times. Also like Austen, Sayers rewards her heroes and heroines with great connubial happiness. It may be a fairy tale; but in real life, too, people can live happily ever after, or at least aspire to that state, and from time to time achieve it. **** (2003)

Charles Osborne. Agatha Christie: Her Life and Crimes (1999)

     Charles Osborne. Agatha Christie: Her Life and Crimes (1999) Cutesy title for a catalogue raisonnee of Christie's works with notes on her life. Osborne is probably most reliable on the bibliography, since he corrects some errors by other authors, and his notes on Christie’s life give one a painless overview. The glimpses of her relationship with Mallowan are worth having; they seem to have had an exceptionally happy life together. Osborne gives complete lists of the plays and movies based on Christie’s books, but although he mentions the TV adaptations regularly in the text, he supplies no list of those. He himself has “adapted” two of Christie’s plays into novels; I’ve read one, Black Coffee, and it’s rather badly done. Christie, with all her faults, was able to create a mood or atmosphere in addition to the dialogue, and that’s what Osborne can’t do. Worth a read to remind one of the books, and worth keeping as a reference.** (2003)

Improbable Research and the Ig Nobel Prizes

The Ig Nobel prizes are given yearly for oddball and strange research, the kind that answers questions that have caused brief puzzlement or annoyance. Such as Why is it so hard to walk with a full cup of coffee (or bowl of soup) without spilling it?

You will find the answers to these and other questions here, the website of Improbable Research. Not only fun, but Educational!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

W. R. Maples and M. Browning, M. Dead Men do Tell Tales (1994)

     W. R. Maples and M. Browning, M. Dead Men do Tell Tales (1994) A forensic anthropologist’s memoirs. Maples doesn’t acknowledge Browning’s role in the writing, so it’s not clear how they collaborated. Maples begins with a summary of his life, and ends with a plea for more resources for forensic anthropology. In between he tells tales of his more interesting or horrific cases in more or less chronological order. While I believe his claim that he finds it emotionally easy to look at remains, it’s clear from his editorial comments that he can well imagine the agony of the victims whose final moments he can read in their bones.
     He has no pity for murderers (at one point he calls reference to an abused childhood “the latest excuse”). He’s a “Christian”, and like most fundamentalists believes in capital punishment. He also as a justifiable pride in his professional skills, and admires the men who taught him his craft. He helped identify Pizarro’s remains, and the bones of the Tsar’s family excavated from a bog near Ekaterinburg. An ongoing project is the identification of American soldiers’ remains recovered from Vietnam and other places, a task that he says will come to an end as identification of the pitifully small collections of remains becomes impossible. An interesting read, and must reading for any current crime writer, I think. He mentions that licking a suspected bone fragment will differentiate it from rock, something that Peter has also told me. I will be sending this book to him. *** (2003)

Ellis Peters. A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs. (1965)

   Ellis Peters. A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs. (1965) Reprinted in 1988, this is clearly an early work by Peters, who is better known these days for her Brother Cadfael stories. This book is more of a romance with a mystery element than a true police procedural, which the superscription “Detective Inspector Felse investigates” leads one to expect. An eighteenth century tomb is opened, and two bodies are found in it, while the expected C18 corpse is missing. So there are three mysteries: who killed the newest body, who is the other dead man, and where is the missing squire? All three are satisfactorily resolved, and along the way Peters provides us with family secrets revealed, a couple of love stories, miscellaneous treasure, and so on. The whole thing is fun, Peters is a very inventive writer, and her characters are well drawn, while her love stories tend to towards the sentimental. In her Cadfael mysteries she also indulges her taste for sentimental romantic love, but her focus on the detection is better, and her incidental background and back stories are better controlled. She has the knack of creating a believable fictional world, in other words, which makes this book worth reading. **-½ (2003)

Bill Hayes. Steam Trains of the World (1981)

     Bill Hayes. Steam Trains of the World (1981) The title’s a misnomer, since most of the book deals with England. True, English engineers pioneered the railways, and railway practice around the world bears the signs of English dominance in the early development of rail. But a book with “world” in it title should have more than half of its pages devoted to railways outside of the British Isles. I read the captions, and the few paragraphs of text. The book has the usual selection of old pictures, and the captions display a reasonably thorough and accurate knowledge, especially of British railways. But a few silly mistakes about US railways cast doubt about the reliability of the information about other ones. Still, it’s a nice book, and some of the photographs are spectacular. A good basic resource for the middle grades, so long as the student doesn’t pay too much attention to the “interesting” trivia, where the mistakes show up. ** (2003)

Steven Pinker. Words and Rules (1999)

     Steven Pinker. Words and Rules (1999) Pinker explain and supports his thesis, which is that language is structured in two ways: it consists of words, and there are rules that govern their structure and combination. His evidence consists of experiments that show people perform differently in various language tasks depending on whether the words are regular or irregular in inflection. Work with people who speak uninflected languages show similar differences performance, but related to syntax (eg, the insertion of syntactic markers).
     He makes his case, but since he writes for the non-specialist, the book is very light on actual data. I would like to see more tables, even statistical graphs. Nevertheless, the book is important, since it provides hard data supporting the common and intuitive conviction that language does indeed consist of parts, and that grammar is the rules of how these parts are put together to make meaningful utterances. Along the way, it also provides data in support of the hypothesis that language is a separate system, and not merely a side effect of humans’ general learning ability (or “intelligence”). The Chomskyan Thesis gets more and more support as time goes on. The book also provides support for the conviction that behaviouristic explanations for language learning and behaviour are incomplete. If responses could in fact be shaped without pre-wired internal processing, then damage to the brain would not impair language skills as it in fact does, nor would we find that specific language deficits run in families (and if we construct a family tree, the distribution of afflicted family members would not be the kind we associate with dominant genes or gene-clusters). That is, language behaviours are shaped with insufficient stimuli. In other words, language behaviours pre-exist in generalised form, and the environment gives them their specific shape. **-½ (2003)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Model Railroad Planning 2003

     Model Railroad Planning 2003 (Kalmbach Publishing) The theme this year was book-case layouts, micro-layouts, if you will. As always, Iain Rice leads off with a lovely and ingenious design. He devises a layout consisting of a box with hinged ends that fold up and over. This doubles the available length to six feet, and within that he does his usual magic with a small station, yard, and cluster of industries. His designs work well not so much because of their structure (he uses simple and oft-used track arrangements), but in his ability to see the whole layout, and sketch it so that we see it too. His designs have personality and atmosphere. His work is worth study because he designs complete layouts, not mere track plans. The other contributions to the theme are also very good, but lack the total concept that Rice provides.
     The other articles range from a story of a mushroom plan that squishes 240' of mainline into a garage; a large but very conventional point to point layout based on the L≠ an example of light-box layout design based on a Parry Sound area lumber line; a weird seven-layer N scale layout that encircles a bay-windowed dining room (whose owners use it two or three times a year for dining); a long narrow oval based on Kentucky coal haulers; and the usual little bits and pieces.
     This issue of Model Railroad Planning and Great Model Railroads 2003 show that there are only a few basic track plans. It’s not the track plan that makes a layout great, it’s a clear concept based both on prototype practice and the builder’s preferences. The oddities (such as the round and round layout in a dining room) merely underline this. And the attempts to extend mainlines (and so increase operation) by building multi-deck layouts, have at best limited success. It also helps to be somewhat obsessive. ** to *** (2003)

Witold Rybczynski. One Good Turn (2000)

     Witold Rybczynski. One Good Turn (2000) An extended essay on the origins of the screw driver and the screw. This is the only Western device not also invented independently elsewhere in the world. Rybczynski writes gracefully, and lets the discussion flow and ramble in the same way his researches did. The result is a pleasant and informative read, which among other things reminds us that the many of the most significant features of our civilisation are ignored because they are ubiquitous. The screw and screw driver have made manufacture of all kinds possible; and the screw-making machine was one of the earliest examples of industrialisation, which is marked not so much by the proliferation of power driven machinery as by the transfer of control of the work piece from the human hand to the machine. Skills come to inhere in the machine, not in the worker, a fact that has had huge consequences socially as well as economically. But Rybczynski does not explore these implications of his little book. He contents himself with tracing the development of a most useful device, and some related ones. He leaves the rumination upon consequences to the reader. *** (2003)

John Mortimer. Rumpole on Trial (1992)

      John Mortimer. Rumpole on Trial (1992) Seven stories, all beautifully plotted, all starring Rumpole as narrator and hero. I like these stories, they feed my cynicism while entertaining me with witty writing, and scads of poetic justice, the only kind we are ever likely to find, as the justice system is neither a system nor concerned with justice. The title story ends the collection. Rumpole, suffering from toothache, says a few things to the judge that he had better not say, at least not for the record. Claude Erskine-Brown, prosecuting, overhears Rumpole’s apparent interview with his witness, who has not yet finished his testimony. Claude lodges a complaint, hence the trial before the Benchers. Mizz Liz Probert, junior defending counsel, winkles out the crucial fact that Rumpole was talking to his dentist, a fact Claude did not know since he hadn’t actually seen Rumpole speaking, merely overheard him. Thus, Rumpole’s plans to be retired from the bar come to nothing, and he must continue to seek briefs and interesting murders as he has done all his life. *** (2003)

Michel Morange. The Misunderstood Gene (2001)

     Michel Morange. The Misunderstood Gene (2001) Mendel was lucky: in his experiments, he observed characters of peas governed by a single gene. He didn’t know this, of course, and neither do those who learned of genetics via his story, the standard story told in high school and college biology classes. The result is a profound misunderstanding of what genes do, and of what our manipulation can and cannot achieve. Morange tries to dispel these misunderstandings, and succeeds, but only with people willing to plow through his dense and in places highly technical text. His lycee-learned style is the main culprit, for despite his mastery of English idioms, he does not write with the clarity of an Ian Stewart, for example (who makes many of the same points in his Collapse of Chaos, written with Jack Cohen).
     Nevertheless, this book is worth the effort. I hope it is the first of many books and articles that will demystify the gene. His main point is that the "blue-print" and the "program" metaphors are so misleading as to be wrong. In particular, he makes great efforts to disabuse us of the notion that there is some kind of one-to-one mapping of genes and features, that there is a gene for blue eyes, for example, and a gene for brown eyes, and which eyes you get is decided by the genes you inherit from your parents. This one-to-one mapping of genes and features is extremely rare. Most traits are the result of several genes, whose precise interactions are not well understood. For most traits, the genes involved are not yet known. Hence genetic determinism is a mistaken concept. One consequence of this is that most “genetic engineering” is doomed to a priori failure. In developing this thesis. Morange makes several main points:
     1) Genes code for proteins, not for features or characteristics of organisms. It’s the interactions of proteins that determine how an organism develops and functions. But the same protein will have different functions at different times in the organism’s lifespan, and similar proteins will have different functions in different organisms. And some proteins are made only during a specific (and usually short) period in the organism’s development. For example, sexual maturation depends on various hormones whose production is modulated partly by a molecular clock, and partly by such things as the organism’s rate of metabolism, its food intake, its physical growth, and even external factors such as the time of year, and so on.
     2) Most features of organisms are determined by a suite of genes acting at different times during its development. For example, we normally have five fingers. But the embryo starts with a flipper-like appendage. To make fingers, certain cells must die: genes determine which cells will die, but there is no “gene for five fingers,” since the same genes, activated in different organs at different times in the embryo’s development, also control the growth of other organs and features of the human organism. How do the genes “know” when to activate the death process, and when not to? Well, that depends on signalling between and within cells, in other words, the cells’ environment, which is determined by still other genes that code for the proteins that make up, act as, or set up these signalling systems.
     3) The vast majority of features of an organism are the result of a complex interplay of proteins coded by many different genes at different times, as well as external factors such acidity, temperature, and so on. A mutation in any one of these genes can be and almost always is offset by the buffering action of the many other proteins involved. The system as whole tends towards a stable form regardless of the actual mutations in the genes. There are also repair mechanisms, which prevent mutations in the DNA of any one cell from destroying it, and also ensure that the daughter cells function properly.
     4) Although it’s possible (at least in principle) to trace backwards from effects to genetic causes, it’s not possible to predict what any given combination of genes will cause to happen. The reason is, again, the complexity of the protein interactions, and more importantly, the self-organising properties of biological systems.
     5) The value of a gene is determined by the environment in which the organism finds itself. What’s good in one time and place may be bad in another. This explains why sickle-cell anaemia, for example, persists in the human gene pool: it confers some resistance to malaria, and that resistance outweighs it deleterious effects where malaria is endemic. Malaria will kill many victims before they reproduce; while sickle cell anaemia usually doesn’t kill until later in life, after reproduction. The same mathematics accounts for Huntington’s and other late-onset diseases (including the diseases of old age): these strike a decade or more after the prime reproductive years.
     What I take from Morange’s book is that genetic engineering is to a large extent a fantasy. It will have at best very limited success. For one thing, so few features are controlled by a single gene that it’s just a matter of luck that features such as resistance to Roundup can be engineered at all. There was no a priori reason to suppose that such resistance would be governed by a single gene. On the other hand, the fact that Huntington’s is caused by a single mutation on a single gene means we can eliminate it.
     Secondly, the effect of a protein depends on its environment. A protein will not necessarily have the same effect in the host organism as it had in the donor. Again, it’s pure dumb luck that the protein for Roundup resistance has the same effect in the host plant as in the original donor plants. Also, the gene may be recessive, or the mutation we are interested in may act differently when paired with the unmutated allele.
     Thirdly, the odds are enormous that any given gene transferred to another organism will have unpredictable effects in addition to or in place of the effect(s) it had in the donor. Proteins initiate or intervene with many biochemical pathways. There is no guarantee that a given protein will act the same in the host as it did in the donor. Some of the end results may not show up in the host organism, but in the ones that eat it.
     Morange also points out that a clone made with current techniques is in fact less like the donor than identical twins are to each other. The current techniques involve harvesting a cell from the early embryo (of few dozen cells in size), removing the nucleus, and inserting the nucleus taken from the donor cell. The clone shares the nuclear DNA with the donor, but has the mitochondrial DNA of the host oocyte, which was determined by the maternal genes. Identical twins share both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. Only if we can develop techniques that in effect convert a donated cell into a zygote will the clone be an identical copy of the donor. Of course, even then, the clone will be an independent individual subject to all the vagaries of an unpredictable environment, and so when fully developed will not be identical copy of the donor, any more than twins are identical copies of each other.
     Morange does see good things coming out of our increasing understanding of the effects of genes. How a gene affects its carrier depends hugely on the environment, and humans are able to control that, so they are also able to influence the effects of their own genetic heritage.
     Morange thinks that knowing one’s genetic heritage and its biological meaning will enable us to counteract otherwise damaging effects, and he thinks this a far easier mode of “genetic engineering” than attempts to change the genome itself. Changing the genome of the cells in some organs does hold great promise for individuals, but will not be passed on to their offspring. Changing the germ line itself is far more problematic. Apart from a few diseases like Huntington’s, most diseases and disabilities result from such a complex interplay of so many genes that changing one or even a few of them will not have any observable effect for several generations, if then. Lifestyle changes for the individual have a much greater payoff.
     Morange’s book, or rather its message, is important and deserves a wide audience. It also deserves interpretation to the general public, which still thinks of the genome as some sort of master plan that we are fated to follow. The truth is both more complex and more liberating. *** (2003)

Tim Heald, ed. A Classic English Crime (1990)

     Tim Heald, ed. A Classic English Crime (1990) Collection of stories written to honour Agatha Christie’s birth centenary. Good readable stories, all set in the 1920s/30s. Some stories allude to Christie’s characters, others merely share the setting with her stories. Worth keeping, but only as part of an Agatha Christie collection. ** to *** (2003)

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Wit (2001; USA)

     Wit (2001; USA) [D: Mike Nichols. Emma Thompson, Christopher Lloyd]. Made for TV. See the review of the stage play. Thompson’s professor is as strong and quirky as Sproule’s. Because video permits intimate close-ups of Thompson’s face, Thompson is more subdued. But she is a powerful as Sproule. Both actresses made us believe. Very well lit and photographed, the secondary characters well realised, all in all a very good film. ***½

Margaret Edson. Wit (1993)

      Margaret Edson. Wit (1993) Presented by Espanola Little Theatre, Friday, 16 March 2001, at the Quonta Festival, Sault Ste Marie Ontario. Vivian Baring, a 50 year old professor specialising in John Donne’s poetry, has 4th stage metastatic ovarian cancer. The play shows her experience as a patient, as human being facing death. Intelligent and moving script, Sharon Sproule at the top of her form, beautifully simple set consisting of movable white panels, well-designed lighting, and a very strong supporting cast. A very good play very well done. It’s on at several theatres in Canada and USA, and a film with Emma Thompson is to be released later this year. The script is almost actor proof, which means that it takes a superb actor to show us all the subtlety in the writing. I doubt that the pros did any better than Sproule. **** (2001)

Christopher S. Claremont et al. Star Trek: Debt of Honor (1992)

     Christopher S. Claremont et al. Star Trek: Debt of Honor (1992) Graphic novel treatment of a convoluted ST tale about Kirk’s Debt of Honor to T’Cel, a part-human Vulcan woman, who saved him from an attack by bugs that have invaded the galaxy via a space-time rift. Now, he comes out of retirement and teams up with her and an Klingon frenemy to defeat those bugs. The original Enterprise was destroyed in the earlier fight with these creatures. The whole crew comes together for this final battle. Subplots involve other debts of honour. The book looks very much like a scenario, not a complete script. The style is DC Comics naturalistic, with sometimes difficult to follow dialogue balloons. The jump cuts don’t help; perhaps paradoxically, they’d be easier to follow in a movie. In fact, this story would work better as a movie, I think. Still, it was fun to read, but I’m a diehard ST fan. It ends with T’Cel departing through the space-time rift, and her daughter (who may be Kirk’s child) left on the Enterprise. Clearly To Be Continued, but I don’t know of any sequels. **½

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Robert Robinson. Landscape with Dead Dons (1963)

     Robert Robinson. Landscape with Dead Dons (1963) UP and AR gave me this in 1987, for Christmas. It’s been languishing on the shelf ever since. The plot is set in an Oxford college; the author apparently went down shortly before he wrote this book, and it’s an ironical hymn of love towards the University.
     A Vice Chancellor is murdered, then a Fellow, and finally a pornographer is almost drowned, too. Inspector Autumn is the cop, and he would have made a nice series, but I suppose Robinson didn’t have any more stories in him. Autumn’s not from Oxford, so he would have to do his stuff in various parts of the kingdom. A new-found poem by Chaucer (The Book of the Lion, alluded to by Chaucer himself, but never found), a little decorous hanky-panky, academic infighting, and so forth, along with a nice smattering of eccentrics make for a pleasant entertainment. A police procedural this is not – perhaps that’s another reason Robinson didn’t make a series, not having sufficient knowledge to make it believable – but with the usual suspension of disbelief, it works quite well. There are a few oddities, which disappear when one remembers the date of composition. **-½ (2003)

Boese, Alex. The Museum of Hoaxes (2002)

     Boese, Alex. The Museum of Hoaxes (2002) A cursory catalogue of hoaxes from the Middle Ages to the present. The book is apparently based on a doctoral dissertation, and its author maintains a website. Superficial, especially in its attempts at providing some sort of sociological explanation for the hoaxes; flat, surprisingly boring style, considering the subject matter; and not enough pictures. Also strongly unbalanced in its selection, with recent hoaxes far outnumbering those of the past. A more subtle analysis of hoaxes and their varieties would have been interesting, too. For example, what about unintentional hoaxes such as the Tulip Mania, in which the public creates the hoax? Perhaps the book was dumbed down from the dissertation, but I doubt it. Not worth the money. I’m trying to get a refund, as the book is mounted upside down in the case. * (2003)

Martha Grimes. I Am the Only Running Footman (1986)

     Martha Grimes. I Am the Only Running Footman (1986) Grimes has a very high reputation, but if this book is a fair sample of her work, I think it’s undeserved. The plotting is muzzy, with a lot of necessary information withheld until near the end, the characterisation is superficial and derivative, and the resolution is unsatisfactory. I suppose a good team could make a decent movie out of this book --  certainly a lot of the writing seems based on some inner screen vision of the scene -- but as it stands I was disappointed. Richard Jury is the cop, two girls are the victims, a dysfunctional but fiercely loyal family is the link (and one of the family is the murderer). The writing is cute, and in place self-consciously funny. Grimes is American, and critics have acclaimed her skill at doing the British atmosphere. Not at all. It’s all very Masterpiece Theatre, and really doesn’t work. Perhaps the fact that this book comes well along in the series is at fault; we are supposed to know why Melrose Plant appears, for example. But other characters, such as the St Clairs and the Warboys, have no function other than lugubrious, oh so veddy British comic relief. I won’t be reading another of these books. * (2003)

Spider Robinson. The Callahan Touch (1993)

     Spider Robinson. The Callahan Touch (1993) I didn't finish this. The first book in this series had some point, ie a plot and characters that one could care about. This excursion into fantasy is just that, fantasy, and rather infantile at that. The bar is now the location of a permanent party, and there’s a lot of sentimental claptrap about absent friends, and such. I suppose some sort of problem turns up and the denizens have to solve it to make the universe safe for beer drinkers. But at the halfway point there was not much indication of what the plot point might be. Browsing the last few pages confirms that everything turned out all right, but I really didn’t care enough to find out what and why. The writing is amusing enough, if you’re half cut and your critical faculties are dissolved in a haze of alcohol, or whatever drug you use, but otherwise this is a tedious example of what happens when a writer tries to be cute. (2003)

Lewis Lapham. Money and Class in America. (1988)

     Lewis Lapham. Money and Class in America. (1988) A long and mostly witty rant, combined with semi-autobiographical anecdote, and social history and analysis. Like all good observers of the social comedy, Lapham is good at seeing the significant moment or comment, and having been born into the “equestrian classes”, he can see the rulers of America close up. His testimony rings true , truer than a library full of sociological analysis and statistics. Lapham has the ability of a good novelist to show the general in the particular. He knows when the mask slips, and the primitive animal within peers out, aware and frightened of death.
     The net effect is a portrait of a sad, confused, self-absorbed, and somnambulent bunch of fools. Only the fact that they wield so much influence, and that they can directly intervene in government, prevents one from giving in to the dual impulse to laugh and to pity.
     Lapham claims that the general wealth of the United States has infected the whole culture with the pathologies of the rich. He makes a good case. In particular, he notes the ability (if that’s the word) of the rich to persuade themselves that their view of the world is the only one, and that the rest of the universe is mere stage set for the drama of their lives. When I look at the current stumbling towards war with Iraq, Lapham’s perspective helps one understand the inexplicable. Only a nation or ruling class caught up in the fantasies of power could plan such a stupid venture. Bush and company talk as if they are playing a game on a large table in a dimly lit “library” while sipping bourbon and chatting languidly about next year’s golf or their neighbours’ indiscretions with their neighbours’ wives. One can almost see them pushing little metal figures around on the map spread over the pool table, occasionally congratulating each other on a particularly witty move.
     Lapham’s chapter on the corrosive effects of the love (and fear) of money, of the worship of Mammon, is worth the price of the book, which in my case wasn’t much (I bought this copy at Value Village). I suspect that Lapham based this book on his Harpers essays; there is some repetition, the kind that a person who repeatedly writes essays on the same themes is liable to produce. That’s really the only flaw of any consequence. **** (2003)

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

William Weintraub Why Rock the Boat? (1961)

     William Weintraub Why Rock the Boat? (1961) Harry Barnes, 19, learns the journalism trade at the Witness, a Montreal newspaper that exists to please the advertisers and puff the gentry. He falls for Julia Martin, a female colleague working at another paper, escapes being fired for having written scurrilous practice pieces that feature the tyrannical managing editor of his paper, does a stint as a PR hack, and so on. The city editor, a Milquetoast type whose wife seduced Harry at the yearly journalists’ excursion into ski country, has placed the scurrilous pieces in the paper. And so on. A loosely picaresque novel that never quite comes together, it’s written in a workmanlike style that makes its satirical points with varying subtlety, and occasionally veers off into semi-sentimental suburban yearnings. The characters are rather thin; Barnes is the only one with any depth, and even he’s often too naive to be entirely credible. Or maybe not: the sort of single-minded dorkiness he exhibits in his quest to learn all that there is to learn about newspapering does have the ring of truth.
     Entertaining, and possibly a roman a clef, since Weintraub worked as a reporter in his younger days, and this tale has the whiff of auto-biography about it. According to the cover blurb, the book caused controversy when it was first published, but it seems rather tame now. Canada was still easily shocked in 1961.
     Weintraub loosely adapted his book into a movie in 1974. I saw it many years ago. It has tighter plotting than the book, focussing on Julia’s attempts to form a union (which didn’t figure in the book). See IMDB’s page, and the Canadian Film Encyclopedia here. It was my vague memories of the movie that prompted me to buy this 2nd-hand copy of the book. It's worth than the 25 cents I paid for it.
     Book: ** Movie: **-½

Eric Wright. Death in the Old Country (1985)

     Eric Wright. Death in the Old Country (1985) Charlie Salter and Annie are on holiday in the UK, in an attempt to mend their relationship (they succeed). Charlie is sidetracked by both racing (he gets good tips from the local police sergeant), and by the murder of the hotel’s proprietor. Unable to desist, he does some sleuthing on his own. In the end he unearths one crucial fact, but the case has already been solved by Insp. Hamilton, who can’t resist rubbing it in.
     Charlie Salter is an unlikely hero. Like Maigret, he’s sloppy, self-indulgent, and given to relying on hunches and intuition. This makes for a rambling plot, and allows for digression. The result is an uneven but pleasant read. **-½ (2002)

Frances Awdry and Eda Green. By Lake and Forest. (Nd, but probably 1905/06)

     Frances Awdry and Eda Green. By Lake and Forest. (Nd, but probably 1905/06) An account of the Diocese of Algoma in Ontario, which at the time of writing was still a mission diocese, supported by the church at large and by a society dedicated to providing money and other things as needed. The style is a curious cross between the romantic and the practical, with occasional forays into the devotional mode. The authors include interesting stories of early priests’ hardships, and a number of photographs decorate the book, but there is no attempt to link pictures and text. The authors have definite opinions on the evil of idleness, and feel this is the only serious impediment to native peoples’ advancement; they express their cultural biases strongly, but have no racial bias whatever. A list of clergy in 1905, and a list of Society members, provide data for people who might want to confirm some facts. I’ve both photocopied and scanned the picture of Blind River’s church (whose name is not given.) I would like to know if Frances Awdry is related to the author of the Thomas books. **-½ (2002)

M. C. Beaton. Death of a Charming Man (1994)

     M. C. Beaton. Death of a Charming Man (1994) Hamish Macbeth feels constricted by Priscilla’s plans for him, plans she wants to implement before they are even married. Meanwhile, a beautiful man is upsetting the women in Drim, a bleak village over the ridge on the shores of a dark loch. When this man disappears, Macbeth believes he’s murdered; and eventually, by his usual unorthodox methods, he proves his point and discovers the murderer. A pleasant entertainment, but not at all like the TV series, which does not reproduce these stories. I’ll probably read a few more, when I feel in need of some simple pastime. ** (2002)

M. C. Beaton Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener (1994)

     M. C. Beaton Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener (1994) Agatha returns to Carsley (somewhere in the Cotswolds), only to find that Mary Fortune has moved in on her turf: her neighbour James Lacey and Mary are an item. Then there are some nasty incidents involving gardens, and on the day of the horticultural show Mary Fortune is found hanging upside down in her conservatory, her head buried in a flowerpot, and of course quite dead. Agatha’s old friend Det. Insp. Bill Wong is on the case, as are Agatha and James, and the resolution suits the mood of the story: dotty old Bernard done it, on account of Mary poisoned his fish (and insulted his 80-year-old manhood, to boot.) Mary is a satisfying victim – she deserved it, after all – and Agatha is a nice 50-something amateur ‘tec with wistful thoughts of romantic love. Well done, a nice three hours’ read. Beaton is the author of the Hamish Macbeth series, which I shall sample next. ** (2002)

Paul Mallery. Design Handbook of Model Railroads. (1979)

     Paul Mallery. Design Handbook of Model Railroads. (1979) This 2nd printing (1983) shows the private car Harold Carstens on John Allen’s Gorre and Daphetid. Very nice photo, and the best part of the book. Mallery writes a wooden and “technical” style, using the passive voice far too much. The diagrams are very small and badly drawn, making them hard to read. The technical terms aren’t explained, the cross references to diagrams and pictures in other chapters interrupt the flow of information, the paragraph sub-titles and sub-section markings are inconsistent, and there are few too many typos. The quality of the information is good to excellent, but the presentation and the explanations are abysmal or missing. Mallery needs a good editor, or better yet a ghost who can rewrite his book. John Armstrong did the whole thing better in Designing Model Railroads for Prototype Operation, and anyone familiar with his work will find Mallery’s book a distant second-rate version of that book. * (2002)

Mary Higgins Clark presents The Plot Thickens (1997)

     Mary Higgins Clark presents The Plot Thickens (1997) The common motif is a thick fog, a thick steak, and a thick book; 11 writers play with this motif in entertaining, and mostly forgettable, stories. Their quality ranges from * to ***, and I spent a couple pleasant hours all told reading these confections. (2002)

Edward O. Wilson The Future of Life (2002)

     Edward O. Wilson The Future of Life (2002) Humankind has become the dominant species on Earth in the only sense it really matters: we have a greater effect on the global ecosystems than any other species, and are almost certainly affecting the climate itself.. In our not so remote past, we could do at most local damage; and in those places where we had practised agriculture for millennia, we had created new stable ecosystems. But now that has changed; and there is a very real risk that ecosystems will change so much that they cannot sustain human life. We have reached a bottle neck, and although Wilson is hopeful that we will pass through it, the Earth will be changed forever.
      Why bother with efforts to sustain at least samples of old ecosystems? Why bother preserving wilderness? Wilson makes the usual economic arguments, and extends them: we need the biodiversity of wilderness because we don’t know what pharmaceutical treasures are hidden there. We need wilderness because such ecosystems are carbon sinks, for example, and so help sustain human activities such as agriculture and fossil fuel burning. And so on.
     These arguments are enough to at least catch the attention of the money grubbers, but Wilson extends the argument. He claims a deep spiritual value for the natural world. We need it, he says, because we are adapted to it by thousands of generations of evolution. We even create versions of our putative original home, the sub-tropical savannahs, in our gardens and parks, especially in temperate climates, whose natural ecosystem is the forest, not the savannah. Even our agricultural landscapes support Wilson’s thesis: where large scale agri-industry hasn’t converted large tracts of land to mono-cultured fields of wheat, the patchwork of fields and copses, of pastures and woodland, tends to reproduce the look of a savannah. And our enduring fascination with Africa also testifies, since we want to see documentaries about the open plains, not the rain forest. When you think about it, the universal human habit of making pleasure gardens of some sort is rather odd. Unlike agriculture and gardening for food, it has no practical value whatever. So I agree with Wilson that nature in and of itself sustains the human spirit. It would be a crime against our descendants to destroy wilderness and jungle.
      I am less certain that Wilson has good reasons for his hopefulness. He cites mostly government and non-government efforts to set aside and manage wilderness areas, to provide economic alternatives to clear cutting of rain forest, and so on. But although he spends a large chunk of one chapter describing the huge ecological footprint of the Western lifestyle, he doesn’t touch on what in my opinion is essential: developing an ethic that opposes continued economic growth, and one that in the short term (i.e., a couple or three generations) proposes a scaling back both of our consumption levels and our population. We need to think of how we can manage economic shrinkage. If we don’t do this, the only long-term value of the wilderness preserves will be as seeds of future temperate forest and tropical rain forest; for we will surely destroy our civilisation, and the vast majority of humans will die. Perhaps Wilson realises this, and that is why he carefully focuses on preservation rather than economic changes.
     The first part of the book, where Wilson describes the current state of the Earth, is well written, clear, and full of new and not so new information. The last chapter amounts to little more than a catalogue raisonnee of agencies and NGOs in the nature conservation movement. *** (2002)

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock, ed. Alfred Hitchcock’s Deathmate (1973)

     Alfred Hitchcock, ed. Alfred Hitchcock’s Deathmate (1973) Most of the stories date from the early 60s, which means that the dollar figures don’t have the impact they should have; the reader should mentally multiply by 10. Hitchcock likes stories with a twist, usually a dark one, and characterisation etc don’t matter except to drive the plot. Amusing stories, worth a read when you have no energy for anything demanding and there’s no TV handy. ** (2002)

Mordecai Richler, ed. The Best of Modern Humor (1983)

     Mordecai Richler, ed. The Best of Modern Humor (1983) Funny, this isn’t. There are a few pieces that elicit laughter (eg, Nora Ephron’s piece about breasts, Rosten’s tale of Hyman Kaplan, or Leacock’s brilliant “Gertrude,” one of his Nonsense Novels), but most of the fiction is about sad, pathetic losers. Only one of the satires (Bruce McCall’s parody of Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Mechanics) has the combination of fun and sharp criticism that I expect of the “best”.
     The pieces are very well written, but too many ask us to laugh at their protagonists, not with them. That is of course the function of satire, but when the targets are lower class caught in a web they never made and cannot escape, the laughter sounds mean. Those targets are too easy. The earlier pieces tend to be funnier than the later ones, even when their satire is sharp (as in Sullivan’s “Cliche Expert....”) The newer pieces have a sour tone, and there is a nasty streak of class superiority in many of them. Is this one of the reasons Richler chose them? The humour, what there is of it, relies a lot on the insider’s knowledge of already dated class and ethnic peculiarities. Some of the stories elicit compassion rather than laughter, but I suspect that Richler laughed rather than wept when he read them.
      Was Richler trying to demonstrate his cultural superiority over the rest of us once again? That has been the repeated theme in his pieces about Canada. Those pieces strike me as prime examples of the whine of the colonial who has felt the contempt of the mother country, and forever after feels that he must show he is really not a colonial after all. The book is worth keeping because of the few classics in it, but it reflects badly on Richler’s’ taste. But when I consider his own output, I shouldn’t be surprised. After Duddy Kravitz, his work becomes more and more peevish; that peevishness informs this collection, unfortunately. His early short stories about Montreal, for example, combine sharp satiric observation with a compassion for the humanity in us all. In his later work, that compassion appears fitfully and weakly, like the silent lightning of distant thunder storms, if it appears at all. * to *** (2002)

Stephen Jay Gould. I Have Landed (2002)

     Stephen Jay Gould. I Have Landed (2002) Gould’s last collection of essays. They display both his strengths and his weaknesses. As his fame as an essayist grew, Gould became increasingly self-conscious about himself as a writer, and occasionally that results in comments that should have been edited out. He also developed an unnecessarily multi-syllabic style, and some verbal tics (eg, “optimal” for “best”) that I noticed too often, and which began to annoy me. But these are minor cavils.
     What shines through more clearly than ever is Gould’s generosity, wonder, and awe. He simply refuses to put down past sages because they happened to be wrong: they did the best they could with the data and theoretical frameworks they had. Just as we do. If we put down the past for not having our advantages, surely our descendants will do the same to us when their turn comes.
     Gould loved this world we live in, he loved to trace out the many surprising connections between its parts, and between the people who described, thought about, and tried to explain those connections. He was I think a very joyful man, although his life had grief enough for anyone: the cancer that killed him after 20 or so years of acute episodes and remissions; an autistic son; and a first marriage that faltered and broke; not to mention misappropriation of his words by Creationists when they weren’t attacking him.
     Gould describes himself as a humanist, but he was without a doubt a man of faith. His faith did not rest in a personal God such as is proffered by his Jewish tradition, or its Christian and Muslim derivatives. But he knew that the realm of ought-to-be and would-it-were are absolutely necessary to us as human beings, and that we must construct an ethic that will enable us to act with compassion and justice, and to share our joys and griefs. His comments on the attacks of September 11th show this clearly: he contrasts the many thousand acts of kindness and decency that make our communal life worth living with the horrendous evil perpetrated by a few. He notes this asymmetry of numbers, and argues that it should give us hope. By far the vast majority of us want to live not only the good life, but the moral life, and so we do. That’s why our daily life does not make news. It’s the rare and unusual acts that make news, and the rarer they are, the greater their news value. The acts of greatest evil are the rarest of all. They are for most of us simply unimaginable until they happen, and for many still unimaginable then.
     As to why the perpetrators commit their acts of evil, Gould does not attempt to answer this question beyond the usual general hints of social and personal damage of some kind. But he does emphasise that one of the main sources of evil is the kind of limited and limiting faith he rejects, the belief in a personal God with an exclusive relationship with the faithful few.
     Yet in the end, Gould quotes from the Bible. I think Gould shows that faith need not be exclusivist or narrow; it need not be in a personal God. It’s more an attitude towards the world than a creed. That attitude starts with awe, and ends with joy.
     Rest in peace, Stephen. (2002) ***

John Penn. An Ad for Murder (1982)

     John Penn. An Ad for Murder (1982) A pleasant entertainment, in which what seems to be an advertisement for a forthcoming book turns out to be a warning of an actual murder. The murder happens, but apparently the wrong person is the victim. Until Inspector Taylor on a hunch (and because of a deepening interest in the victim’s daughter) decides the murderer accomplished his task exactly as intended, and proceeds to unravel a very knotted plot. The puzzle is a good one, the characters are pleasant, the author sometimes shifts point of view for no good reason, and the police procedure is a bit wonky, but all in all, the story works. It would make a nice little 2-hour TV special, and for all I know has been done. **-½ (2002)

Paul Fussell. BAD: Or, The Dumbing of America. (1991)

     Paul Fussell. BAD: Or, The Dumbing of America. (1991) A collection of rants of varying quality. The style is often oddly flat and ponderous. It seems as if Fussell had written a few of these pieces, and then someone suggested he make a book, which pushed him into forced humour, soggy satire, and jejune jokes. Well, not entirely: many of the points he makes are valid enough.
     However, much of what he discusses is really matter of taste or fashion, both of which are impervious to skewering, and are rendered silly by time alone. Some of his targets are too easy, such as ads aimed at the semi-literate and semi-cultured, offering them “exclusive heirloom” collectibles, manufactured by the tens of thousands, to store in a cheap glass fronted case for future generations to ooh and aah over.
     Fussell’s rage at the dumbing down of academic studies is worth reading, but I doubt many university presidents these day are even capable of understanding his critiques, and none I would think would want to act on them. Provincial premiers (and State governors) might stare suspiciously at anyone offering these critiques, aware that they are missing something, but uncertain just what it might be. That’s perhaps the saddest conclusion to take away from his book, that much of what Fussell has to say can’t be understood by those who might profit from it, but merely provides reasons for a mean-spirited sense of superiority for many of those who can understand. At his best, Fussell laughs at follies we might otherwise weep over; at his worst, he sounds merely peevish. I suppose that’s the risk a curmudgeon takes. ** (2002)