Thursday, June 27, 2013

R. D. Wingfield A Touch of Frost (1987)

     R. D. Wingfield A Touch of Frost (1987) Frost, frowzy, rumpled, foul-mouthed, rebellious, stubborn, too fond of alcohol and cholesterol-laden food, perpetual ignorer of rules and regulations, hater of paperwork, but a detective who gets results, which frosts his Division Commander Mullet and his rival Inspector Allen. The novel begins with a dead drug addict floating in diluted piss in a public convenience. He didn’t drown, he was murdered, but only Frost (who knows all the most disreputable people in Denton) cares. There’s another murder, a string of burglaries, a couple of rapes, and finally a stand-off with a hostage taker, who’s shot just as Frost is about to disarm him. Frost solves all the cases, and wins the respect of the demoted former inspector who’s been unloaded on him. The vision is bleak, but Frost’s compassion for the weak and damaged, and his obsession with truth gives us some hope. Mullett is a right bastard; for him, policing is merely a means to gratify his social climbing ambitions. Wingfield savages Insp. Allen’s obsession with correct police methods. Every character’s back story reveals weaknesses and sometimes vices. Policing is a chaotic mess. In short, the novel has the ring of truth. **½

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Brian Aldiss. Last Orders (1979)

     Brian Aldiss. Last Orders (1979) The title story tells of a police captain trying to persuade a couple of people to go to the ship that will take them off Earth to escape the breakup of the Moon. Instead, the three drift into a nostalgia sampling of whiskey and other good things, and semi-aimless conversation about the past. Most of the rest of the book consists of an interrelated group of stories about dreams, space faring, artificial planets, and other technical and scientific marvels, the setting for the make-work life of the characters. Technology gives them all the creature comforts they need. The question now is, what to do with all that leisure time, available because making stuff and providing services is no longer necessary. Perhaps dreams are an alternate and better reality; perhaps not.
     The stories have a dream-like logic, with occasional waking into some sort of reality, which may itself be a dream. Dream research of one kind or another figures in several stories, too. No matter: that’s a puzzle not worth solving, for these stories are really about purpose and meaning when necessity no longer makes the rules. Aldiss seems to think that without the constraints of reality we would all go mad. Or else only the mad recognise reality for what it is, a trap sprung by a mischievous universe. In the last story, the hero retreats into a dreamworld, and whether that is an alternate level of reality or merely a figment of a mad brain is left us to us to decide.
An interesting book in many ways, but not a moving one. **

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Jerome Charyn, ed. The New Mystery (1993)

     Jerome Charyn, ed. The New Mystery (1993) Sponsored by the The International Association of Crime Writers, this collection purports to showcase developments in crime writing. The subtitle refers to "essential crime writings", which is a wee bit of an exaggeration. What the book in fact showcases is gore-porn. Most of the stories describe gory and mean-spirited crimes with no mystery whatsoever about them, except perhaps the mystery of what kind of person wants to read this stuff. I don’t. In the 20 years since this collection was published a handful of the writers represented here have become reliable best sellers. The rest have sunk back into the obscurity from which this collection tried to extract them.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ian Rankin. A Good Hanging (1992)

     Ian Rankin. A Good Hanging (1992) Rankin is good at what he does, the depiction of Edinburgh as a bleak, sleazy dystopia rife with assorted vice and crime. Detective Inspector John Rebus of the Edinburgh CID uses unorthodox methods, and wishes he could use more, especially of the violent illegal kind. He’s one of several fictional cops working outside the procedural box. Police procedure is essentially boring, the collection and sifting of massive amounts of data in the hope that someone will recognise the significant bits and create a plausible narrative that’s close enough to the truth that some justice will be done. But the fact is that the majority of crimes are not solved, which is the main reason for plea bargaining and withdrawn charges, not to mention cases that never come to trial for lack of evidence.
     The strength of these stories is Rebus, one of the most believable characters in crime or any other fiction. These stories are romances, adventure stories in which the hero must traverse a menacing wilderness, overcome all kinds of enemies, and defeat evil. The modern desire for superficial realism introduces ambiguities, ironies, and complexities different in content but not scope from those of their mediaeval prototypes. Romances satisfy our desire for some kind of metaphysical and moral order. No matter how bleak and sleazy Edinburgh appears to be, Rebus helps hold back chaos. Crooks are put away (or worse), the innocent are avenged, Rebus can sleep without too much nightmare dreaming. He has some hope, and so we too have some hope that evil will not triumph, however many skirmishes it wins.
     Well done. ***

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Torkel Franzén. Gödel’s Theorem (2002)

     Torkel Franzén. Gödel’s Theorem (2002) A fairly technical but nevertheless reasonably accessible exposition of what GT is and is not. It deals mostly with the mathematical and logical consequences of GT, and explains why claims about the limits of math based on GT are almost all wrong. Franzén also makes references to the metaphorical uses of GT in philosophy, theology, and so on, but doesn’t spend much time on these, mostly because once one understands GT, one sees how absurd most of these metaphorical extensions are. A good book, but a difficult one. It cured me of some nonsense, which is a good thing. ***
    PS: Franzen died in late summer of this year (2006). A loss. His death sparked a flame war on several news groups, instigated by people who couldn’t take his accurately aimed zingers at their nonsense, and worse, his attack on their willful obtuseness. (2006)

S. D. Levitt, & S. J. Dubner. Freakonomics (2005)

     S. D. Levitt,  & S. J. Dubner. Freakonomics (2005) Saw Levitt on TVO, talking with Allan Gregg, and decided I wanted to read the book. BR Pub Library bought it. The book originated in a profile of Levitt written by Dubner for the NY Times. Dubner is no doubt responsible for the clear style, and in many ways the book is an extended magazine article, but it contains actual data, and many references to original work. IOW, the book may be accessible in style and format, but it’s serious in scholarship. The title is unfortunate: Levitt’s examples aren’t freaky at all, but quite serious.
      In many ways, the book recalls Paulos’s attempts to increase numeracy. The authors claim they have no overarching theme, but do admit a consistent aim, to give the reader some of the tools needed to dissect conventional wisdom and ask the kinds of questions likely to produce good answers. In this they succeed as well as can be expected, considering that such criticism depends more on a change in attitude than on the acquisition of new tools. Good book, worth rereading just to ensure accurate recall of the data. *** (2006)

Maeve Binchy. This Year it will be Different (1996)

     Maeve Binchy. This Year it will be Different (1996) These are definitely “women’s magazine” stories. Most seem to have been written to fit a double-page spread, “A story complete in two pages”, as my mother's Woman’s Own used to describe them. They establish plot and character swiftly, mostly through displaced interior monologue, the kind where the narrator rather than the character presents the thoughts and reactions. Most deal with the healing power of Christmas. A few tell of single women entangled with married lovers; all are disentangled by the end of the story. The men are either paragons of male virtue, impossibly kind and sensitive, or else cads, that is, very much like real people. Pleasant but forgettable entertainment. It’s difficult to recall much of any of the stories. ** (2006)

John Keegan. Intelligence in War (2003)

     John Keegan. Intelligence in War (2003) Case studies focussing on the role of intelligence. As always, Keegan has found a variety of examples illustrating the full range of his subject. The case studies are exhaustive (and exhausting to a person with merely bystander’s interest in the history of warfare), but presented clearly and precisely, so that one can follow the conduct of the battles easily. I did not like the maps; and most of the photographs add little more than weekend magazine interest. The last chapter summarises Keegan’s take on the varying roles and value that intelligence has played, and his disapproval of the confusion of intelligence and subversion instigated by Churchill (a failure, as it turned out). Keegan directs his book to the student and professional. The publishers seem to think the book also has appeal to the interested amateur, but in this they are mistaken. A good popular book lurks in these pages, at about half the length, with coloured maps, and chapter introductions that guide the reader. *** as a professional book, *½ as a popular book. (2006)

Alexander McCall Smith. Portuguese Irregular Verbs (2004)

     Alexander McCall Smith. Portuguese Irregular Verbs (2004) M-S calls this an “entertainment,” and so it is, a very mild one. Smith makes fun of German academia in the person of Prof. Dr. Moritz Maria von Igelfeld, but the joke wears thin fairly quickly. I read this in much the same mood as I eat potato chips, expecting the next one to be utterly satisfying. But the short tales that make up the narrative of v. Igelfeld’s life merely play variations on the same themes, the obtuseness of the professor who believes that his is a higher calling, and his incompetence in the ordinary matters of life. In the end, v. Igelfeld’s life held little interest for me. He’s a doofus, and despite Smith’s best efforts, his mishaps never attain the distinction of farce, and barely hover the level of the shaggy dog story. *½ (2006)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Laurence Waters. Oxfordshire Railways (1991)

     Laurence Waters. Oxfordshire Railways (1991) Peter gave me this book, a collection of photographs covering the main and branch lines in the (present) Oxfordshire. Since most of the lines in Oxon were GWR, most of the photos show that line. The emphasis is on locomotives, with precious little rolling stock, but there are a few interesting shots of stations, junctions, and the like. The lower photo on page 85 shows a the Great Western Society excursion lined up in front of No 17 Sapper at the Bicester Ordnance Depot in 1973. Roger, UP and AR are easily recognisable. Cool!
     Photo reproduction is fair, considering when the book was printed. The map is too small, and is clearly drawn for someone already familiar with Oxfordshire and its railways. Like most books of its kind, it has little appeal outside the world of railway enthusiasts, however. Modellers will find some useful information here and there, but on the whole it doesn’t add to the typical modeller’s information. But I liked it. **½ (2006)

Arnold Bennett. A Man from the North (1912)

     Arnold Bennett. A Man from the North (1912) I’ve not read any Bennett before this, so I don’t know how characteristic this is. It tells, in a rather discursive style, the story of Richard Larch, a young man who arrives in London with dreams of literary and cultural success. He has the imagination, but lacks the application and obsessiveness needed for literary success.
     Essentially, he drifts, spending his money on mild amusements such as the theatre and good restaurants. But he does his work diligently and well, although with no apparent enthusiasm, and gets his reward. He is promoted to what amounts to the third-in-command at the law firm for which he works, a reward that moves him to accept his place in society: a solicitor’s clerk with good prospects. He courts an old acquaintance, Laura, the red-headed cashier at a vegetarian restaurant that he initially patronised to save money. The book ends with his imminent marriage to this good woman, one of his own class, whom he sees as providing pleasant physical company, a suitable number of children in due course, and the domestic comforts and support he needs for his work.
     Along the way to this settling for mediocrity, he almost makes a permanent liaison with Adeline, a woman of livelier disposition, whom he meets through her uncle, another dreamer with too much imagination and not enough persistence. But he then still expected the spark of desultory romance to flare into passion. Absent that bright flame, he lets her go. He attempts a novel, which he recognises as trash, a recognition that puts an end to his career as a writer. Yet even as he prepares for marriage to a good and decent woman, he imagines that his son will inherit his literary talents, and dreams of encouraging and nurturing the talents of an as yet unborn child.
     Apart from an amiable disposition, diligence at work, and a willingness to help others, Larch has no major virtues. One gets the impression that he is as incapable of great viciousness as he is of great art. Fundamentally lazy, terrified of failure, yet too often recognising its signs in himself, he is a man whose success consists of adapting himself to his circumstances. He experiences some happiness, and provides some for others, and may, in the end, become a contented man, but one with a faintly melancholy memory of the great ambitions of his youth. In other words, a very ordinary man. It’s Bennett’s talent to make us care about him. **½ (2006)

Michael Pollan. The Botany of Desire (2001)

     Michael Pollan. The Botany of Desire (2001) Pollan looks at the relationship between humans and four domesticated plants: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. His begins with the thesis that these plants have become successful in the evolutionary sense by becoming domesticated. Just as bees and flowers have co-evolved, so have these domesticated plants and we humans. That is, we have adapted our social behaviour and technology to these plants. They supplied a human want; we reciprocated by cultivating them. We plant, water, fertilise and protect them. Not a bad bargain, for the plants. At least in the short term of a few millennia.
     Domestication works only when plants have sufficient genomic variability that they can produce variations that satisfy some human need or desire. That’s why trees, by and large, have not been domesticated, merely managed. The same principle holds true of domesticated animals, too, of course, as Jared Diamond has argued in Guns, Germs and Steel, a book that Pollan lists as one of his sources and influences. It’s helpful to take Pollan’s plant’s eye view, since it reminds us that we are not, after all, in control of nature. The Judeao-Christian take has been that God gave us the Earth to rule it. Fűllet die Erde, und machet.sie euch unterthan, it says in Luther’s version of Genesis: Fill the earth and make it subject to you. No doubt this view intertwines with the western notion that reason should rule over the passions of the body, and with the Christian suspicion of passion and bodiliness.
     Pollan begins with the thesis that domestication has been as much an advantage for plants as for humans. But when he has done tracing the history of the potato, it’s clear that the thesis needs a subtle refinement: we do not domesticate nature or any natural being. We can at best co-operate with them. His description of modern agribusiness, of monocultured crops growing (if that’s the word) in sterilised soil is terrifying. This business model is unsustainable, and will kill us. The hybris of thinking we can make nature do what we want will do us in. It’s part and parcel of the mindset that sees economics and ecology not only as disjoint but as in opposition. I think this mindset is insane. Genetic engineering will provide at most a short-term fix. Adding genes Bt-coding genes to potatoes, corn, and other crops will merely, eventually, produce beetles that are immune to Bt. It’s only a matter of time. Update 2013: this has already happened with corn.
     Although Pollan did not set out to write a tract against industrialised, corporate agriculture, that’s what his book morphed into. It’s to his credit that he didn’t rewrite the book as if that insight, stumbled on after many months of research and writing, had been his from the beginning, He takes the reader along the same path he took. What starts out as an entertaining survey of gardening and agriculture carried by a history of four emblematic plants becomes a plea for a truly ecological sense of economics. We should, I think, all know that the common root of these two words, eco-, is Greek for “house” or “home”. If we don’t keep our house in order, we will have no home.
     Not that the Earth will mind. One species more or less makes little difference. There is always something in the gene pool that will produce a creature to fill whatever niches are left empty by our disappearance. *** (2006)

James Herriot. All Creatures Great and Small (1970-73)

     James Herriot. All Creatures Great and Small (1970-73) I've had enough of politics for a while. Watched the debate of the Provincial party leaders last night. Steve Paikin is an excellent moderator, and kept the debate going smoothly. He really likes politics, and politicians, too, a rare sentiment these days.
     I've just finished reading the first Herriot omnibus, a very pleasant book. I didn't read his books when they first came out, but I watched the TV series several times. It reran for years on PBS. So while reading the book, I saw the characters as portrayed on TV, which both helped and hindered, as some of the descriptions were at odds with the appearance of the actors. Never mind, it was a pleasant read, a series of anecdotes that add up to a portrait of the writer and his clients.
     Herriot can be sentimental, and is at his best in straightforward story telling. He has a talent for the illuminating detail or remark. His courtship of Helen Alderson was expanded for the series; perhaps Herriot advised on some of the details of what he merely refers to here, the long walks they took, the times Helen came along on his rounds, and so on. Herriot doesn't pretend to be better than he is. He has a temper and self doubts. He doesn't let us in on his innermost thoughts very often, and when he does, we get a fair amount of his feelings for the Dales and their inhabitants. As I've said, these tend towards the sentimental, but his delight in the landscape, the people, and his profession is genuine, as is his regret for the passing of some of the old ways, tempered by his recognition of the value of the new. The book isn't exactly a page turner, but its anecdotal structure and plain style (leavened with a dry and pleasant wit) makes it a good bedtime book, one that one may put down and take up again without losing one's place. I will never read it again, but I will give it to someone who can appreciate its plain virtues and pleasures. *** (2006)

Erika Chase. Read and Buried (2012)

     Erika Chase. Read and Buried (2012) Lizzie Turner, guiding light of the Ashton Corners Mystery Readers and Cheese Straw Society, helps solve the murder of Derek Alton, former best-selling author, who’s shot in her living room while trying to follow up on his failed moves the evening before. The complications are Lizzie’s relationship with the police chief Mark Dreyfus, the presence of several women who succumbed to Dreyfus’s smarmy flattery years earlier, and a handful of sketched in back-stories that amount to little more than comic-strip landscapes. Clothes and food figure, as do two cats who have no personality at all: they’re just animated scenery. I trust the Society for the Prevention of Literary Exploitation of Cats takes notice. The feel-good ending, set at a Christmas dinner, includes a baby born to a single mother who’s ditched her abusive boyfriend, hints of a December-December love story, and assorted other too-good-to-be-true stuff. It's written in bite-size chapters, the dialogue is brisk and supposedly Southern, and the characters are comic-strip level, which is all they need to be. Fluff, in other words, well-executed and enjoyable if you’re in the mood for it, which I was. **

Saturday, June 15, 2013

ZITS (Book review)

     ZITS Zits focusses on Jeremy, a 15-year-old high-school freshman. Katheryn had this compilation; I believe she received it as a Christmas present. The writer/artist has captured the agonies and delights of mid-adolescence with excruciating accuracy. The Toronto Star runs the strip every day, but I see only the Saturday versions, so I was pleased to get the week-day fillers, which develop the characters even more. This strip presents a much more realistic view of teenagers than the Archie series. It is a true comedie humaine, not merely a string of gags. The writing is superb, the draughtsmanship a wonderful combination of the real, the expressionistic, and the bizarre. Great strip, great book. *** (2005)
     This is the last entry for the 2005 book reviews.

JoAnn Roe. The Real Old West: Photographs by Frank Matsura. (1981)

     JoAnn Roe. The Real Old West: Photographs by Frank Matsura. (1981) Matsura arrived in Conconully, Washington State, to take a job as cook’s helper in the local hotel. He quickly established himself as photographer, however, and when he died ten years later of tuberculosis, people from miles around attended his funeral. His photographic skills are evident in this selection of some 150 images, all taken in the Okanogan (NB the US spelling) on both sides of the border. He himself is a puzzle: very little is known of his antecedents, and the few clues haven’t apparently helped much in discovering his Japanese family, nor the reasons why he left there.
     But his pictures tell us a good deal about him, because he was able to capture the trust of his subjects, all of whom gaze into the camera with self-possession and self-assurance. He also took pains to record the business and social life, and the landscape of the area. I found this book in Donalda (Alberta) in the summer, and bought it because of its photos of buildings and transport; but in the several times I’ve looked through it this year, I came to admire Matsura’s sense of composition and his skill in presenting the characters of his portrait subjects. A very good book, with a mystery at its heart. *** (2005)

Simon Watts, ed. The Art of Arthur Watts (2003)

     Simon Watts, ed. The Art of Arthur Watts (2003) When we first went to England, my grand-parents had a pile of old Punch magazines. We children perused them thoroughly, for the pictures of course. Most of them we could not understand, but we did like the drawings. I remember full page cartoons with many wonderful details. Some of these I now know to have been drawn by Arthur Watts. Visiting Lee Valley Tools in Edmonton, I came across a copy of this book, a compilation by Arthur Watts’s son. The drawings charmed me again, and I bought the book, putting it aside as a Christmas present to me, which in due course it became. I’ve spent a couple of delightful hours looking at the pictures again, and reading the brief biography.
     It seems Watts also produced posters for the LMS, so I shall have to look for those. He was a keen sailor, and wrote articles for a yachting magazine, illustrated by himself of course. Simon also reprints a series of six short essays on the art and craft of drawing in back and white, which give some insight into Watts’s philosophy. He emphasises simplification, ironically, really, as he detested modern art, and often made satirical allusions to it in his own work. Yet those allusions were extremely skilful: Watts could have done work in the modern style if he’d wished. A book worth looking at repeatedly. Unfortunately, some of the originals were stolen from Simon Watts home as he was preparing the book, and on the last page he asks for help in recovering them. I don't know oof any success in recovering the drawings. *** (2005)

M. C. Beaton Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet (1993)

     M. C. Beaton Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet (1993) It looks like Dr Bladen killed himself by accident while attending to a horse, but a second murder changes that interpretation, and Agatha and James Lacey (the handsome but gun-shy ex-colonel neighbour whom she fancies) turn up clues that Detective Bill Wong has overlooked. Seems money and jealousy came together to provoke murder. The book is light-weight fluff, but entertaining enough. I read it almost at one go in about 2½  hours.
     Agatha’s on-going, somewhat over-coy not-quite-courtship of James Lacey can be a bit tiresome. Other sub-plots, such as Bill Wong’s life story, miscellaneous neighbours’ joys and sorrows, etc, are sketched rather than narrated. It looks very much as if Beaton wanted to write a more complex book, but a ruthless editor pruned her manuscript down to the little that’s needed to make the puzzle and its solution plausible, with just enough hints to make Agatha’s world believable while you read about her. She’s a decent sort, really. I’ve read some of the later books, and unfortunately they don’t get better. This is the 2nd book in the series, later on they do get married, but their little ship of love encounters some very rough waters. **

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ronald Weinland The Prophesied End-Time (2004)

    Ronald Weinland The Prophesied End-Time (2004) Weinland exhibits several of the characteristics of a crank, chief among them the claim that everybody else is wrong, an obsessive focus on a single main claim, marshalling of supposedly supportive evidence, misinterpretation of facts, misunderstanding or ignorance of relevant data, and an utterly arbitrary interpretation of whatever evidence he finds.  Weinland is a self-styled prophet. It seems God vouchsafed him a true revelation of hitherto hidden truths while he was on a Mediterranean cruise and passed the island of Patmos where John claims to have written Revelations. The hidden truth is that the tribulation is at hand, and Weinland knows exactly when it will happen.
     The book is incoherent, repetitive, and only the kind of fascination one feels when watching a wreck kept me reading. Weinland joined the Worldwide Church of God founded by Herbert W. Armstrong. After Armstrong’s death in 1986, this organisation broke up into dozens of splinter groups, one of them being Weinland’s. In 2011, he was convicted of breaking the tax laws of the USA by siphoning off church cash for his personal use, which is a common failing of cult leaders. In 2012 he started jail sentence.
     I looked him up on the web; the rage and vituperation aimed at him by former fellow Armstrongites is amazing. Skeptics’ blogs are considerably more polite, since he is after all a garden-variety con-man and crank, not much different from dozens like him. Since 2004 he has prophesied the start-date of tribulation several times, the most recent being May19 of this year.
     The book was an experience that I don’t intend to repeat. For more about cranks and crackpots and how to recognise them:
http://www.skepticblog.org/2010/07/08/martin-gardners-signs-of-a-crank/
http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/crackpot.html
     Although these pages deal with science crackpots, they apply just as well to theological crackpottery. Weinland's predictions rest a good deal of psudeo-scientific notions, which I think is awlays a sign of religiuous weirdness.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Agatha Christie Peril at End House (1932)

     Agatha Christie Peril at End House (1932) One of Poirot’s most famous cases, in which he almost fails to solve the puzzle The story is set in a Cornish resort town with the usual cast of vaguely upper-middle-class characters and their servants. Christie allows herself a little wit and character development, but as in all her earlier books, she focusses on the plot. This one works well, in part because a couple of subplots are well integrated into the main story. As in most of her early tales, Christie tries a variation on a standard plot, the murder by mistake. In this case, the intended victim is in fact the murderer, and almost gets away with it. Since Christie’s time, this variation has itself become a standard plot. The TV adaptation was especially well done, as I recall, with a satisfying amount of period detail, and the kind of acting that hints at hidden depths in the characters, which made them more engaging than Christie's originals. **½ (2005)

Nick & Helen Mika. Canada’s First Railway (1985)

     Nick & Helen Mika. Canada’s First Railway (1985) A history compiled as commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the first train on the Champlain and St. Lawrence Rail-Road. It consists of narrative, the few pictures (all conjectural) of the Dorchester and the carriages it hauled, a couple of sketchy maps, and reprints of newspaper articles and other documents. Clearly a labour of love, and very good as such. But one does want to know more, and Mika’s limited research makes those questions acute. Still, worth having and reading. **½ (2005)

John Mortimer. Clinging to the Wreckage (1982)

     John Mortimer. Clinging to the Wreckage (1982) A paradoxical memoir, mixing pain  and happiness, gloom and laughter. Mortimer knows  the frailties of human beings, including his own. I found this memoir moving, and, despite its melancholy, oddly uplifting. I think he wrote a continuation; if so, I’ll want to read it, too. *** (2005)

John Mortimer. In Character (1983)

     John Mortimer. In Character (1983) The first book of interviews, and reading it one sees why a second collection was published (see above). Mortimer is above all a humane man. Even when he disagrees with his subject’s politics or taste, his disagreement is tempered by his attitude of live and let live. His harshest criticism is directed at a self-righteous chief constable, a truly terrifying man, whose belief in an absolute moral code would be acceptable, just, if he also had a sense of his own sinfulness. He doesn’t. At the end of this man’s profile, Mortimer quotes Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” That’s an injunction I’d have directed at others on Mortimer’s list, too.
     Mortimer arranges his account of his interviews so that they read like passages from a novel. One wants to know how it all turned out. Did the hero learn his lesson? Did his legacy survive, or did his followers betray his vision? In a few cases, Mortimer knows the answer, but in most he shares our ignorance. He also expects his readers to know a good deal of the back story, which makes it harder for North American readers to get all his references. Nevertheless, a pleasure to read. Mortimer clearly believes that public life matters, and hence the people in the public eye matter. *** (2005)

John Mortimer. Character Parts (1984)

    John  Mortimer. Character Parts (1984) A collection of interviews done for The Sunday Times. Mortimer tells the story of the interview, describing his subject’s appearance and reactions as well as their answers to his questions. The general format is the same: parentage, early life, influences, successes, and so on, and a few questions relating to whatever makes the subject newsworthy. The result is that I feel I know the characters more intimately than a mere question and answer format would permit. Most of the interviews were done in the 80s during Thatcher’s interregnum, which now seems more than a generation ago. Fun to read, and thought-provoking. *** (2005)

Rudy Wiebe. The Angel of the Tar Sands and Other Stories (1982)

     Rudy Wiebe. The Angel of the Tar Sands and Other Stories (1982) Just what the title says. I didn’t read the title story, I didn’t read any story all the way through. Wiebe writes what once passed for realism; I thought of it as such, too, once. But now, it’s clearly just another style of writing fantasies, of rewriting the past so that one cuts a much better figure in it than one ever did in reality. Set in the prairies, or in the urban or academic middle classes, or in the time of armed conflicts with our aboriginal peoples, the stories present themselves as authentic accounts of what really happened. They belong to a period, the middle decades of the 20th century, when many people still took fiction seriously, when they expected fiction to be unrelentingly tough and uncompromisingly truthful. Too often, such fiction turns out to be merely gloomy and depressing. * (2005)

Stanley Ellin. The Blessington Method (1966)

     Stanley Ellin. The Blessington Method (1966) Ellin made a small splash in the late 50s and early 60s as composer of macabre confections with a twist. The title story has been anthologised several times: Blessington invented a way of getting rid of inconvenient people (usually relatives) in ways that appear utterly natural or normal, if occasionally somewhat tragic. Other tales have similar twists. Hitchcock did much of this better on his half-hour TV show, but in both cases, the shtick stales rather quickly. That’s because the characters exist entirely to carry the joke. I completed no other story in this collection, although I started most of them. (2005)

Kingsley Amis. Difficulties with Girls (1988)

     Kingsley Amis. Difficulties with Girls (1988) UP sent me this for Christmas in 1989, and I didn’t read it then. I tried to read it recently, and found I couldn’t be bothered. Amis is one of those writers whose works reflect a few apparently essential features of life as it is lived when the book was wrote, and so gains a reputation as an insightful critic of the soap opera we call society. But a few years later, these works become almost unreadable. They refer to and take seriously transient attitudes and values, the kind that engage the editorialists and pontificators for a season, and seem quaint almost as soon as they are dissected and discussed. So I didn’t finish this book. I suppose in a decade or so some hapless graduate student will read all of Amis’s works and come to the unwarranted conclusion that he affords more than a superficial impression of English life in the second half of the 20th century. (2005)

Margery Allingham. The Fashion in Shrouds (1938)

     Margery Allingham. The Fashion in Shrouds (1938) The title is too cute for the tale, which deals with murders done not by Georgia, the apparent beneficiary, but by Ferdi Paul, who depends on the income she affords him as leading actress in his company. Campion’s sister Val (I didn’t know he had a sister) is caught up in the mess, and Campion fails to prevent a death. In the end, he uncovers the murderer, at no little risk to himself.
     So much for the mcguffin. Allingham delivers herself of a number of comments on what we now call feminism which sound strange to current readers. Val ends as the wife of Alan Dell, in his sense of the word: that he will provide for her and protect her and expects her to devote herself totally to him. Val accepts this; yet she has been a very successful business woman as designer of high fashion (whence the pointless allusion in the title.) It seems as if Allingham wanted to write a social comedy with serious under- (over?) tones, and had to match her ambitions to the constraints of a detective story. Sayers (who comes close to giving Harriet a similar subservient role in her marriage to Wimsey) does the ‘tec story as novel much better. But one wonders whether Allingham might not have done more interesting work if she hadn’t had to keep herself in groceries by writing these slight but intriguing entertainments. Perhaps her hostility to the independent woman was at bottom a complaint about having to make her own way without a companion. I’ll have to find out more about her. ** (2005)
     Wiki's entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margery_Allingham
     It appears she was happily married, but had no children.

William B. Ober M. D. Boswell’s Clap & Other Essays (1979)

     William B. Ober M. D. Boswell’s Clap & Other Essays (1979) Ober fancies himself an astute judge of literature, but his actual strength is diagnosis, especially of physical ailments. His psychological diagnoses are IMO less reliable, as he takes Freudianism’s claim to scientific rigour and validity for granted, which results in somewhat absurd certainties about the presence and effects of castration anxieties, etc. His essays are mildly interesting, and most are too long. The medical details don’t add much, and in several cases (including the title essay) nothing at all, to one’s understanding or appreciation of the author’s work.
     Ober’s purely literary remarks are helpful insofar as they show his thorough reading of the texts, and reminded me of what I’d read (or not read) and liked or not liked about them. But with the exception of his remarks on Chekhov, none of the essays persuaded me to take another (or first) look at the works themselves. I liked his essay about Socrates death best. He contrasts the facts of hemlock poisoning with what’s reported by Plato, and he concludes that Plato was inventing a myth. That so many readers have taken Plato’s tale for a factual report should remind us that ignorance causes a lot of misreading. **

Thursday, June 06, 2013

John Mortimer. Rumpole a la Carte (1990)

     John Mortimer. Rumpole a la Carte (1990) Another delicious serving of Rumpole. These stories attract because they give one hope that justice, despite all attempts by the machinery of the law to frustrate the purpose, will be done. The neat puzzles and nicely done satires of hypocritical respectability don’t hurt. The tales may be farce, but they are gentle farce. Rumpole knows we’re all sinners, and he knows further that sin is the natural state of man- and womankind. Only our capacity to forgive each other redeems us. *** (2005)

M. Allingham. Cargo of Eagles (1968)

     M. Allingham. Cargo of Eagles (1968) Vintage Allingham, right down to her habit of revealing essential facts in the denouement. She’s learned something of real police procedure, so she cannily puts the cops in the background, positions Campion as an astute observer rather than investigator, and places the reader in the middle of a dysfunctional village and next to a couple who don’t quite court each other yet end up in each other’s arms. The release of a lifer triggers a number of searches for hidden loot. Campion of course finds it, but not before an unsavoury solicitor is shot and a couple other people turn up dead (one twenty years after his supposed demise). An amusing read, but with a lame puzzle whose solution depends on hidden knowledge. ** (2005)

Seth. It’s a Good Life if you Don’t Weaken (2004)

     Seth. It’s a Good Life if you Don’t Weaken (2004) Seth thinks in images, so that a good deal of his narrative is conveyed entirely through his drawings. The text and the pictures play against each other, so that the story told through the protagonist’s thoughts and his dialogue with others is enriched, more, is given its meaning, through the graphics. IOW, this is truly a graphic novella, and not merely an illustrated text. The hero “Seth” searches for clues about Kalo, an obscure cartoonist who sold a single panel to the New Yorker in 1951. Eventually, Seth tracks down his quarry, who left cartooning and became a successful realtor in Strathroy, a town that Seth and his family lived in for a few years.
     The tone of the story is melancholy, suffused with a yearning for the past, which is of course that of Seth’s childhood, before he had to face the realities of adult life. His drawings, not quite realistic, yet accurate enough that one can recognise landmark buildings in Toronto, for example, express Seth’s loneliness and alienation; whether in a crowd or in a forbidding winter landscape with trees like the bars of a jail cell, Seth is alone.
     His best friend Chet occasionally listens to him, and has a more sanguine outlook on life. Seth meets a girl and has a brief relationship with her; but then simply doesn’t call her again. He’s afraid, it seems, of the intimacy an adult relationship requires, an intimacy not needed for mere sex. The title quotes Seth’s mother, a dour and cool woman, who looks after Seth’s younger, gormless brother. But it isn’t a good life, despite the successful research and the pleasures of revisiting and remembering childhood places. A quibble: some of the items in the panels are generic cartoon, not observed from life, but I doubt that most readers would notice. *** (2005)

Robert Barnard. Death of a Literary Widow (1979)

     Robert Barnard. Death of a Literary Widow (1979) A mildly amusing, inoffensive whodunit with a satisfying puzzle, nicely done, but with comic-book style characters, and the occasional satirical jab, especially at American academics. Walter Machine, a working-class writer has been rediscovered, so his two widows, Hilda and Viola, have a feud about his reputation and their role in his life. An American PhD, desperate for tenure, is writing a bio etc about the man; and Viola’s ex-husband (cuckolded by Walter many years ago) lurks in the background. Hilda’s death is labelled an accident by the police, but Greg, who has befriended both women, believes otherwise, and eventually not only discovers the murderer, but also a literary hoax. The murderer will be dealt justice, though it will take some time, which oddly enough will increase his punishment, since he knows that the unmasking will come, but not when. Good entertainment, but not a great mystery novel. ** (2005)

John Mortimer. Rumpole and the Angel of Death (1995)

    John  Mortimer. Rumpole and the Angel of Death (1995) Rumpole delights no matter how many times one has read or seen him. Leo McKern defined the character for us in the TV series so well we can’t imagine him any other way; the cover painting of this book displays McKern as Rumpole. This collection ends on a dark and terrifying note, with Rumpole used by some terrorist types to get one of their own set free on a human rights argument. Rumpole finds out too late how he (and his Head of Chambers, Sam Ballard) have been manipulated. But most of the stories show Mortimer’s indulgent view of human weakness and his satirist’s eye for the hypocrisy of the respectable classes. *** (2005)

Julian Symons. The Great Detectives (1981)

     Julian Symons. The Great Detectives (1981) Illustrated by Tom Adams. Symons, a pretty good maker of detective puzzles himself, has taken on the task of assembling “biographies” of seven of the most popular fictions: Holmes, Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Maigret, Poirot, Nero Wolfe, and Philip Marlowe. He does a lovely job, utilising various genres, and mischievously and ingeniously suggesting possible links between the sleuths. Very well done pastiches, with excellent period illustrations by Adams, who took great care to match the pictures to the books. End notes supply the sources for the information included in the bios, but Symons doesn’t hesitate to add his inventions where the canon leaves gaps. I bought this book as remaindered copy some years ago, but didn’t read it until now. I liked it. *** (2005)

Eberhard Freiherr von Kuenssberg, ed. Der Sachsenspiegel (nd, but ca 1935)

     Eberhard Freiherr von Kuenssberg, ed. Der Sachsenspiegel (nd, but ca 1935). Another book from the Insel Verlag series, this one reproducing selected illustrations of a medieval law book, originally compiled and written by what we would call a sheriff. A medieval sheriff was more than a cop, though, his duties were primarily those of a magistrate. The introduction by Kuenssberg is historically accurate as far as I can tell. There’s no doubt that the Sachsenspiegel (Mirror of the Saxons) was a major document in the development of law and jurisprudence as we understand it, since it codified existing practice and so provided precedents. The effect of Nazi ideology is much weaker in this work than the book about the Minnesinger, but it does show up in references to German “Volkstum” and other such vague, romanticised notions of blood and soil. ** (2005)

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Hans Naumann. Die Minnesinger in Bildern (nd, but ca. 1935)

     Hans Naumann. Die Minnesinger in Bildern (nd, but ca. 1935) One of the Insel Verlag series , the book reproduces a number of medieval paintings of German courtly love poets, made some time after the height of the fashion. The colour printing is state of the art for the 1930s, and quite attractive, although time and oxygen have darkened the pages. The Geleitwort (guide-word, i.e., introduction) by Naumann is interesting in its obvious reflection of Nazi ideology. There is no mention whatsoever of the origin of courtly love in the Provence. The whole phenomenon is presented as a strictly German expression of the culture of the noble knight, which itself is also presented with no reference to sources outside Germany. Germany at the time of the Minnesinger did not exist, but was a mess of princelings and kings quarrelling with each other over little patches of land for which there was no documented ownership, but this fact is simply passed over. Interesting example of how ideology distorts historical writing. *** for the pictures, * for the text. (2005)

Michael Gnarowski, ed. Selected Stories of Raymond Knister (1972)

     Michael Gnarowski, ed. Selected Stories of Raymond Knister (1972) A text for Canadian studies, no doubt, and very much of its time. Gnarowski was clearly earning points by editing this book, and more power to him. His introduction is squarely aimed at undergrads, and he labours mightily to make Knister seem more significant than he is. The fiction is also very much of its time: written just before the Depression, it belongs to the Grim Realism school of American fiction (not Canadian, despite its occasional reference to Canadian locales.) Gloom, doom, and self-conscious use of portentous symbolism. Very few people made this style work, and Knister was at best merely a journeyman in it. I skimmed these tales, pausing occasionally to read a couple of pages closely, but the reward for my diligence was slight. * (2005)

Frank Barrett. Where was Wonderland? (1997)

     Frank Barrett. Where was Wonderland? (1997) A traveller’s guide to places and locations related to classic children’s stories, almost all British. Good enough as tour guide, but only just. The maps suffer from a lack of scale, the bios from a lack of telling detail. Why do publisher's think that children's non-fiction needn't be made and edited to the same standard as that intended for adults? * (2005)

‘BB’ The Forest of Boland Light Railway (1955)

     ‘BB’ The Forest of Boland Light Railway (1955) In this fantasy, written for children, the gnomes build a Railway to help them get their gold from the mine. Their mortal enemies, the leprechauns, attack, are defeated, attack again, win, and are finally routed with the help of the cowzies. The whole thing is a bit odd, an strange mix of twee daintiness, with coy references to wombies (female gnomes) and gombies (gnome children), and allusions to quite brutal doings. The gnomes are not cute looking little old men a la Disney, but the real thing, with large noses and ears and hair lots of hair.
    The book has inspired at least one modeller, Andrew McLellan, to build a layout, see:
http://www.countrysidemodels.co.uk/gallery_boland/fobmain.htm
     but Andrew did not follow BB’s lead and make a quasi-GWR narrow- gauge loco, and decided that the locos must be more along the lines of Blenkinsop's and other pre-Stephenson products. The book seems to have a cult following, or rather the author does, for he also committed a lot of nature writing of the kind that is gently mocked by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop, as far as I can make out. I likely won’t ever read this book again, but it does inspire thoughts of a fantastic narrow gauge layout. ** (2005)

Amanda Cross. The Theban Mysteries (1971)

     Amanda Cross. The Theban Mysteries (1971) This appears to be the third in the series, if Last Analysis was the first. Kate and Reed are now married. Her old school asks her to lead a seminar on Antigone, which has too much relevance to the current political and social situation. This is the time of the Vietnam War and draft resistance, etc. The brother of one the girls hides in the school, but the guard dogs find him and scare him nearly to death. Then his mother turns up dead in the school, and the guard dogs get the blame for scaring her to death, except that their handler protests they couldn’t have done so without his knowing of her presence. So there’s the mystery. Kate’s discovers that it was neither murder nor the effect of dogs on a phobic woman, but an accidental death brought about by the dynamics of a dysfunctional family. No criminal charges result, and Kate and Reed return to their domestic bliss.
     I like this book better than the first, even though the puzzle is rather lame and lamely solved. But the scenes of the seminar ring true; the author has clearly taught adolescents, and knows how to make bright students credible as characters. Nicely done, but still only ** (2005)

Marcel Gagné. Moving to Linux (2004)

     Marcel Gagné. Moving to Linux (2004) A clear and readable manual of how to set up Linux, how to use its features, and how to use the most common applications, including what sound like some cool games. Gagné obviously loves Linux, knows it very well, and has a an elevated regard for his own wit. A very good book that I would recommend to anyone with enough confidence in his or her computer skills to contemplate making the switch from Windows to Linux. Now, I really must get going on doing just that... *** (2005)
     Update 2013: I've tried several versions of Linux, and have settled on Mint, a variant of Ubuntu, which was pretty good until the devs concocted something they called the Unity desktop. Awful. Almost as bad as the new Windows 8. I have Mint on an old laptop, which I take with me when we travel, as Linux-based machines are more secure when using a public wi-fi. Few manufacturers make Linux drivers for current hardware,m though, so I don't have Linux on any of our other machines. On the other hand, Mint automagically recognised the TV when I plugged it in. Nice. Downside: the old laptop is too slow to play HD videos.

Amanda Cross. In the Last Analysis (1964)

     Amanda Cross (pseud. of Carolyn Heilbrun) In the Last Analysis (1964) A former student of Prof. Kate Fansler is murdered on the couch of her friend Dr Emmanuel Bauer. Kate refuses to believe that he is the murderer, and with the help of Reed Amhearst, Ass’t DA, and Jerry, fiancé of her niece, she uncovers enough facts to first cast doubt on Emmanuel’s obvious guilt, and then discover the actual murderer. The case involves identity theft, Freudian analysis, a host of literary allusions (one of which is crucial in solving the case), and a large dollop of somewhat laboured academic wit. The style is punctiliously grammatical and correct, which has the unfortunate effect of making all the characters sound alike.
     However, the solution to the puzzle comes about plausibly, with just the right amount of bizarre coincidence. Cross gives us a believable Kate and only slightly less believable secondary characters. Towards the end, I decided I rather liked this entertainment, and looked forward to the second book (which I have started reading already; it’s better than this one.) ** (2005)