Thursday, October 31, 2013

What Would Jesus Do?

What Would Jesus Do?
      A meditation for the Interchurch Council in Blind River.
     Religion, like other institutions, goes through cycles of fads and fashions. A few years ago, we saw bumper stickers with What Would Jesus Do? Or the abbreviation WWJD? This question also showed up on buttons, on t-shirts, on hats, and much else. We don’t see that slogan much any more. Perhaps people have realised that it’s a radical question. If you take it seriously, it can change your life.
     So how does one answer this question? Seems to me, one thing we should do is look at what Jesus actually did. He didn’t do that many things. He preached. He told stories. He gave advice. He healed people. He wandered around with his friends, and accepted hospitality wherever he found it. He visited friends and acquaintances.
     And he got into trouble with the authorities.
     He got into trouble because he visited disreputable people, such as tax collectors, wine bibbers, and prostitutes. The respectable people were exceedingly annoyed by this habit, and used it as evidence that he wasn’t preaching true religion. Religion is for the right kind of people. People like us. People who don’t flaunt their bad behaviour. People who take care to obey the rules, and behave with decorum and good manners, and never, ever sin in public.
     But the respectable people were perhaps even more annoyed by the messages Jesus preached. In particular, they didn’t like the advice he gave. He told people that religion wasn’t about following the rules. It was about loving God and your neighbour. He told the rich young man that he should sell everything he had, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him on his wanderings. He expected everyone who witnessed this exchange to follow the same advice.
     He told people that helping when needed was more important than observing the Sabbath. He not only told people this, he demonstrated it by occasionally breaking the Sabbath rules. He healed a man on the Sabbath, and scolded the respectable people who objected. Religious truth, whatever they thought it was, wasn’t about the rules, but about how they dealt with other people.
     He told people that what they did for the least important people they did for him. He told people that they should visit the sick, the poor, the prisoners. He said that if someone asks you for a coat, you should give him your shirt, too. If someone asks you to go with him for a mile, you should go with him for two. He pointed to the widow who gave a few pennies as more generous than the Pharisee who gave many dollars.
     He told the story of the good Samaritan to remind us that what matters is not whether someone deserves our help, but whether he needs it.
     What would Jesus do? That’s a question that’s supposed to guide us as we follow him. If we want to follow his example, we too should do what he did. It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable to help people we don’t like, or people that we think don’t deserve what we offer, or people that won’t thank us for helping them. But that’s what Jesus would do.
     That’s what Jesus did.

Martha Grimes. The Blue Last (2001)

     Martha Grimes. The Blue Last (2001) Jury’s friend DCI Mike Haggerty asks him to find out whether a girl, supposedly saved from the bomb that destroyed The Blue Last and killed her mother, is who the nanny claimed she was, or perhaps actually the nanny’s daughter. Mike’s suspicion that she was an interloper is correct. The mother had a child before her marriage, which she gave up for adoption: the child’s identity is the knot whose unravelling unties all the other knots.
     Along the way Jury uncovers an art fraud, meets a streetwise urchin (with dog) who survives on his own, and makes friends with a number of other odd characters. Grimes lets herself go in this book: she’s really more interested in the characters than the plot, which however is well done and only mildly facile in it solution. **½ (2008)

Ross Macdonald. Sleeping Beauty (1973)

     Ross Macdonald. Sleeping Beauty (1973) Lew picks up a girl at an oil spill, and is worried when she leaves with no forwarding address. His search for her leads him deep into the California ruling classes, where he encounters their casual corruption and overwhelming desire for power. Untangling the mess of lies and secrets takes Lew longer than usual. This narrative gives us more of his character and of the characters he meets along the way, but Macdonald’s characteristic style remains the same: he gives us almost nothing but the objective, observable facts, and lets our responses to them create the mood he wants. A good read. *** (2008)

Edward Beal. The Craft of Model Railways (1937)

     Edward Beal. The Craft of Model Railways (1937) I’m rereading this book. Well, re-skimming it actually. It’s long-winded, poorly organised, opinionated, and badly laid out. Beal commits the cardinal sin of technical writing: he mixes levels of description, giving detailed instructions for some jobs and vague references to “subjects too large for this book” for other tasks. He digresses without warning. He starts on a subject, and then just writes things down as they occur to him, with no apparent effort to organise them. He’ll start a paragraph about, say, passenger train working, with a reminder of the desirability of understanding of how the real railways do it, and then give only the vaguest information.
     The book’s design is awful, with illustrations usually separated from the referring text, many illustrations not explained at all, and incredibly meager information about the layouts illustrated in the photos, despite a whole chapter devoted to “Notable Examples and Enthusiasts.” In short, the book needed thorough and heavy editing and rewriting, which Beal’s publishers did not insist on. At the very least, they should have insisted on sub-heads throughout, which might have made Beal aware of his annoying habit of treating a subject in several chunks more or less widely separated by digressions. Many things in the model railroad hobby have improved over the years, and writing about it is one of them. * (2008)

Ross Macdonald. Black Money (1966)

     Ross  Macdonald. Black Money (1966) Several murders connected to a tennis club, gamblers, gangsters, and a university French Language department resolve into a psychological motive: A prof has a thing for young women, a streak of possessiveness, and a fragile, deteriorating nervous system. Macdonald’s style, a cut or two above Hammett’s in my opinion, carries the rather thin story and makes for a satisfying entertainment.
     The characters are believable, but Lew Archer keeps himself to himself, and despite his carefully complete narrative we don’t get a good sense of the man. He is a point of view, a conscious camera, an artistic temperament. The metaphors that express his responses to the weather, the landscape, the anonymous streets don’t tell us about his inner life. The occasional comments on life, distilled from largely bleak experience, are the only clues we have, and they are so gnomic that they lack personality. Once in a while a profound sympathy slips past the mask. Yet we read on, because Archer is such a precise observer of the people he encounters and the places he goes. We can see what he sees, hear what he hears, but our feelings are our own. *** (2008)

Dale Wilson. Canadian Passenger Chronicle 1, 2, 3 (1998, 2000, 2006)

     Dale Wilson. Canadian Passenger Chronicle 1, 2, 3 (1998, 2000, 2006) Just what it says: three albums of photographs, timetables, a handful of first person accounts, and some general history. Nicely put together, each volume is roughly chronological by railroad and region. The photos vary from excellent to barely acceptable, most of the latter good examples of why one should never scan at a low resolution, and never “resize” digital images prior to fitting them into a page. Wilson and his coworkers have been able to trace the histories of most of the cars and engines depicted. I hope the series continues, and that Wilson finds more travellers’ stories for the next couple of volumes. Although the provenance of all the material is carefully documented, these are not scholarly works, thank goodness. Their audience will be limited largely to railroad fans, and the odd student of transportation who needs something to liven up an academic dissertation. Recommended. *** (2008)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Arthur Upfield. Winds of Evil (1937)

     Arthur Upfield. Winds of Evil (1937) An old-fashioned detective yarn, set in the outback of Australia, where secrets of the past obscure the truth about the present murderer, told in the leisurely manner that guaranteed a pleasant railway journey (a bus journey in my case). Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, a half-caste of exquisite diction and manners, solves the riddle; the murderer does the honourable thing by killing himself, and two couples tie the knot. The author is casually and unmaliciously racist, which would no doubt be a stumbling block to younger modern readers, and would need to be delicately excised in any conversion to video.
     Napoleon is an odd mix of the Saint and Hercules Poirot, having the one character’s secretiveness, and the other’s vanity. Upfield also likes to surprise the reader with the results of his ‘tec’s brilliant ruminations, but does play fair in setting all the necessary clues before the reader. The characters are pleasant, with only an very officious policeman being a truly nasty piece of work (but he gets his comeuppance). The plot creaks here and there, and the murderer’s motivation is “sensational” in the early 20th century style: he’s a somnambulist who perpetrates his crimes without conscious memory after he recovers from his trance. (This has been used successfully as a defense in a couple of Ontario cases recently). Apparently it’s the weather that triggers these trances, especially the buildup of static electricity. Tosh of course, but at the time of the book’s writing as plausible as any other explanation.
     Upfield has a good sense of place and society, and gives us a clear and rather attractive picture of life in the Australian outback of the time. The book lists 19 novels by Upfield available in Scribner’s Crime Classic series, but I’d never heard of Bony before this. I don’t think I’ll seek out other of his adventures, but won’t pass them by if I find them. High class pulp fiction, written by a man who mastered the craft, and as far as I can tell was content to make a living at it without pretentious ambitions towards literature. **½ (2008)
   More about Upfield here .

A. A. Fair. Give ‘em the Axe (1944)

     A. A. Fair. Give ‘em the Axe (1944) Donald Lam is invalided out of the US Navy and returns to his partnership with Bertha Cool. They are asked to find some damaging info on a woman who has married the secret love (and boss) of a naive young woman, who wants to split up the marriage and get her man. Along the way, Cool and Lam encounter blackmail, car insurance fraud, and murder. Lam puts it all together, hands the murderer over to the cops, and gets a girl with good legs, too.
     A. A. Fair is one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s pseudonyms. The story is a mildly tough PI yarn, with a faintly film noir atmosphere. Plotting is perfunctory but complete. Fair lays out all the clues and a few red herrings in classic fashion. Characterisation is cartoonish, dialogue fake tough-guy and slick. Fair’s lawyer background shows in the legalities that entangle Cool and Lam, and in a legal deposition scene, where the good lawyer mounts a brilliant cross examination. A pleasant read, worth a place on a collector’s shelf. It would make a good B movie. The copy I have is a Dell pocket book of 1950 or later. Nice cover art. ** (2008)

Ruth Rendell. A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970)

     Ruth Rendell. A Guilty Thing Surprised (1970) An early Wexford, with little of the backstory about Wexford and Burden that give the later books the depth I prefer. Short and to the point: the murder comes about because of an incestuous brother-sister relationship. Rendell here exhibits her interest in morbid psychology which she indulges in most of the non-Wexford books. A good read, but not a great one, with the solution presented in a letter. **

Rex Stout. Prisoner’s Base (1952)

     Rex Stout. Prisoner’s Base (1952) A typical noir Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin romp, quite funny in places, relying on Archie’s ironic point of view and snappy dialogue to move the story along. And it does move. A fair damsel in distress arrives at the brownstone, Archie puts her in the third-floor front room, Wolfe sends her packing, and she’s murdered. Inheritance, control of stocks, conflict in the executive suite, and a few scraps of dirty laundry combine to make a convoluted plot with a simple solution: the fair damsel’s murder is prompted by pure greed. Three women die; Stout is rather cavalier with the corpses. A mild entertainment, with none of the gore that mars the late 20th century version of the genre. **

Friday, October 25, 2013

W. J. K. Davies. Vale of Rheidol Light Railway (1970) & British Rail. Vale of Rheidol Railway (1970?)

     W. J. K. Davies. Vale of Rheidol Light Railway (1970). British Rail. Vale of Rheidol Railway (1970?) Tweo pamphlets giving us a brief but thorough overview of the line, its history, rolling stock, track layouts, and operations. Built to haul freight, from very early on it attracted tourists, and that’s become its only business. When Davies wrote his pamphlet, it appeared the line might close. I don’t how it was kept open, but British rail was certainly wooing the tourists a year or so later, when it published its booklet, in colour yet. A lovely little line, located in a lovely part of Wales, these two booklets inspired an extensive web search, and a desire to ride the line the next time we are in the UK. *** (2008)
     Update 2013: we haven't visited this line yet.

D. E. MacIntyre. End of Steel (1973)

     D. E. MacIntyre. End of Steel (1973) A charming memoir, in the form of reminiscences. MacIntyre starts with his childhood in Montreal, but most of the stories are about his early working life as a clerk for the CPR. He worked in northern Quebec, on the Prairies, and on the CPR branch from Toronto to Sudbury (the Mactier division). He’s an unassuming chap, who obviously got on well with people, and would have risen faster had he been older. He left the CPR when he was barely 22, and set up in business; but this book does not tell of his later life. I enjoyed this book, and found a few nuggets, such as the fact that the CPR was replacing the 60lb rail on the main lines with 80lb rail. The lighter rail was reused on branches and sidings. *** (2008)

Herbert Fritz. KDL 11: Kriegsdampflokomotive 11 (1986)

     Herbert Fritz. KDL 11: Kriegsdampflokomotive 11 (1986) My cousin Roger gave me this book because KDL 2821 eventually became ÖBB 699.103. From 1971 to 1982 it was owned by the STLB, and in 1982 was bought by ÖGEG for use on the Steyrtal Lokalbahn’s Grünberg section, which they operate as a museum railway. Fritz has given as complete a history as was possible, considering the number of documents etc that went missing in the aftermath of WW2. A number of drawings and photographs complement his text. It seems he has found just about every extant photo of any interest of this class of narrow gauge engines. A few were rebuilt to standard gauge, and ungainly looking critters they are, as only the frame was widened to accommodate the longer axles. An interesting book, and an essential reference for anyone who might want to build or operate the engines. Maps of the lines that used them would help. **½ (2008)

Peter Wegenstein. Bahn im Bild 96: Die Salzkammergut-Strecke (1996)

      Peter Wegenstein. Bahn im Bild 96: Die Salzkammergut-Strecke (1996) Over 100 pictures cover this line from Stainach-Irdning to Attnang-Puchheim. A couple pages of text provide a brief history, which reveals that the kilometres are numbered from the south, not from the north as I had always assumed. I rode this line a couple dozen times or more when I went to school in Graz: it was the first or last leg of the journey, and I always felt I was home when I climbed aboard the 4-wheel passenger cars standing on Track 2 at Stainach-Irdning. Good photos, although too many of them focus on the locomotives at the expense of the surrounding landscape. Almost all photos are dated, but most were made in the 1980s and 90s. Earlier photos are hard to come by, probably because many of them were lost or confiscated during WW2. My cousin Dieter gave me this book. *** (2008)

Berke Breathed. The Night of the Mary Kay Commandos & Classics of Western Literature (1989 & 1990)

     Berke Breathed. The Night of the Mary Kay Commandos & Classics of Western Literature (1989 & 1990) Opus and his friends have given me many hours of pleasure, both the original strips that I occasionally came across in the newspapers, and these and other collections. Bloom County is a place of naivete and malice, of comfort and pain, of bloody-mindedness and co-operation. Like all great cartoon strips, it both documents and critiques the obsessions of the culture. The strip ran from 1980 to 1989. Apart from names, the politics haven’t changed much. They are merely more extreme, enough so that straight reporting of today’s US politics in the 1980s would have been read as satire.
   More here: Bloom_County ****

Sarah Paretsky. Indemnity Only (1982)

      Sarah Paretsky. Indemnity Only (1982) Searching for a missing young woman, V. I Warshawski stumbles onto a murder, and eventually links it to a scheme to use a trust account to deposit fraudulent workmen’s compensation claims. A crooked insurance excusive, a crooked banker, a crooked but naive union boss, a too-good-to-be-true young woman of 14, Chicago’s upper crust and its warts, and other such things mark this book as an adventure romance of the knight errant type. Vic is the knight, Chicago is the murky forest, the crooked executive is the dragon, the mob supplies various monsters, the young women are the princess, and of course there’s the treasure, a man’s soul.
     Nicely done, the book supplies a few hours of more or less innocent entertainment. Another of those books that would make a good TV series, but now original material in the same genre has supplanted adaptations. Pity. **½

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

James Clavell. The Children’s Story (1963)

     James Clavell. The Children’s Story (1963) A little fable demonstrating how easy it would be to change a whole society by taking over the schools. It’s clearly an anti-communist tract, but if it applies at all, it applies to all schools and societies everywhere, and as such does makes one reflect on how we establish and maintain social controls.
     But Clavell’s notion that a simple change in teachers and curriculum would bring about a change in values is so simplistic it’s not even wrong. It oversimplifies teaching and learning to a mind-boggling extent. Clavell has obviously never been a teacher. It also ignores the subtle but nevertheless powerful effects of culture, which always bend ideologies to a culture’s deepest values, not the other way round. Thus, the totalitarianism implicit in Lenin’s reading of Communism made it palatable to the Russians, who were used to tsarist tyranny, and to the Chinese, who were used to a central government exerting power via familial loyalties translated into hierarchy. * (2008)

H. Beam Piper. Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (1964)

    H. Beam Piper. Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (1964) Calvin Morris, a Pennsylvania state trooper, is slipped sideways in space-time, into a medieval version of vaguely Greek “Aryans” who moved east instead of west and ended up on the eastern side of N. America. He of course takes over, what with his superior knowledge of warfare, honed both in history classes and in combat in Korea, etc and so on and so forth. The local Prince not only takes him in, but promotes him, and eventually subjects himself to him! Kalvan also gets the girl, but apart from some comradely joshing (she’s good with a sword, and very, very smart), and a reference to how nice (!) it is to be married to her, there’s no hint of sex.
     Calvin/Kalvan’s predicament attracts the attention of the Paratime Police, who decide to leave him be, and study what happens when a disturbing factor is inserted into a time stream. Academics disguise themselves to blend in and insert themselves into the same “level”. One of them becomes a commander in Kalvan’s army!
      A typical adolescent nerd’s fantasy, IOW. Fun, and in a couple of places very funny, too. The book reads very much like a novelette that could eventually be expanded to novel length. It has a number of dangling plot lines, and the characters lack depth, but they feel unfinished rather than merely two dimensional. The Paratime motif is not well worked out. Presumably, some of the Level Five people who operate the Paratime Police will be seduced into staying in this primitive but exhilarating culture. There are hints of this, but the loose ends stay loose. The social and political consequences of Kalvan’s arrival feel like sketches towards a more thorough treatment. The locals accept Calvin too easily; there should be more resistance to his reforms and changes, not because people disagree with them, but because they are new. But pulp fiction moves fast.
       Piper takes a good deal of trouble describing the battle formations and developments, which sound like description of real battles. Has he used actual Civil War battles as his models? I don’t know enough to decide. He also tosses in all kinds of tidbits, such as the local word for mother: madh. He clearly despises anything that smacks of theocracy, or domination of state and society by a religion. He likes strong men, and clearly believes that strong men (and women, I suppose) make history, not the other way round.
        The book belongs to the alternative history genre, which since the 1960s has developed into very sophisticated and much more carefully thought out stories. I’ve started reading a couple of these, and find that compared to this swiftly moving pulp fiction, they are boring, with too much attention to making the alternative history academically plausible, and not enough interest in character and plot. Many of them read like the fictions based on games: the rules constrict and constrain, so that the stories feel more like puzzles and calculations than fictions. But I liked this novelette, it’s unassuming and designed to entertain. The hints of deeper themes and nuggets of fact are a bonus, just the kind of thing that feeds a nerd’s yearning for insight.
     This was Piper’s last book. He suicided shortly after finishing it. Pity. **½ (2008)

Colin Dexter. The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983) & The Wench is Dead (1989)

     Colin Dexter. The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983) Morse must find out whose body was fished out of the canal at Thrupp. At first he thinks it’s a missing Don, but in the end it was the Master of the college. An early Morse, and it displays Dexter’s weakness for the “little did he know” ploy, which becomes more than somewhat irritating. Otherwise, a very workmanlike job. ** (2008)
Update 2013: I reread this book, didn’t change my opinion of it, see the longer review posted 5 October.
     Colin Dexter. The Wench is Dead (1989) Morse, confined to hospital because his bad habits have produced an ulcer, reads a little book, written by a fellow patient who died the first night of Morse’s stay. It tells of a murder perpetrated in 1859, and Morse doesn’t like the feel of the case. He sends Lewis and the daughter of another patient (she works at the Bodleian) to find more information, and works out that the murdered woman was someone else entirely. Satisfactory case, well told, with perhaps too much made of Morse’s inexplicable attraction for the opposite sex. **½ (2008)
Having reread these two books by Colin Dexter, I realise why I haven’t read many more of them. The TV series is much better done. Dexter’s real forte was character, and Morse’s character in particular, which the video producers enlarged, and which John Thaw interpreted so well. Another case of fair-to-middling books providing material for first class movies. However, I shall read the other volumes I’ve collected, I just shan’t keep them.

Three by Shaw: Major Barbara, How He Lied to her Husband, and John Bull’s Other Island

      George Bernard Shaw. Major Barbara (1906) Shaw’s Preface is as outrageously wrongheaded as usual: he loved the sound of his own ideas. His comments on the way the world works are acutely and cynically accurate, but his inferences about how we should deal with it simply miss the mark. He is very good at presenting us with real and lifelike characters, but when he thinks about real people he goes awry. It’s as if his intellect and his imagination don’t know of each other’s existence.
     The play works well, what with Barbara eventually recognising the value of her father’s munitions-derived money. It would be a pleasure to see on stage. I’ve seen it as a movie, not memorable enough for me to recall much besides the “modern” architecture of Undershaft’s factory. The plotting is perhaps a trifle too pat, but that’s GBS for you: he will make his plays demonstrate his ideas, and that’s when the machinery creaks. When he just goes with his imagination, as in the Salvation Army scenes, the results are brilliant, witty, emotionally true, and beautifully paced. You can find more about the play here: *** (2008)

      George Bernard Shaw. How He Lied to her Husband (1907) A youthful poet has a (chaste) affair with a well-married and rather silly older woman. He wants her to leave her husband and run away with him. When the husband shows up, he tries to pass off the incriminating letters and poems as being written to someone else, which annoys the husband, who takes the lie as an insult to himself as well as his wife. He wants her to be attractive to other men, to be the subject of passionate love poems, which bolster his pride in having snagged her for himself. So the young lover tells him what he wants to hear, hence playlet’s title. Shaw shows once again that he understands the conventions of romance and courtly love, and the realities of respectable suburban life. I think this play is more successful than many of his more serious efforts. *** (2008)

      George Bernard Shaw. John Bull’s Other Island (1907) I started to read the preface and gave up. GBS was not the best analyst of politics. His notions of how the Irish Question came about, and how it should be resolved, were shown to be wrong-headed by subsequent events. About the only thing he got right was that it would be a protracted and bloody affair if it wasn’t settled quickly.
     The one thing GBS never seems to have fully understood was the lure of power for its own sake. (This leads him to make Undershaft a seeker after profit, which is the only serious flaw in Major Barbara. Profit, i.e. money, is a means and instrument of power, not and end in itself.) Like many idealistic ideologues, he believed that sweet reason would prevail, if it was made clear enough what the benefits would be. He would not recognise the irony of the Canadian toast, “Peace, order, and good government.”
     That sheer bloody-mindedness and paranoid delusions are more potent motives than the desire for peace, prosperity, and lawful order was something he could never see. That’s one reason he (like many other Socialists of the time) kept excusing the excesses of Soviet Russia, for example. He was of course right that the Protestants would have nothing to fear in a Catholic united Ireland, but he couldn’t see, because he couldn’t understand, that religious paranoia would prevent a settlement. He also couldn’t see that the IRA was dominated by psychopaths, who carried on their bloody vendettas not because they expected politically acceptable results but because they liked the murder and mayhem (as well as the loot).
     So I didn’t read the play. I don’t think I missed anything. ** (2008)

Tom Monto. Strathcona: The End-of-Steel (1989)

     Tom Monto. Strathcona: The End-of-Steel (1989) A home-produced, Gestetnered booklet by a publisher who doesn’t use ISBNs, which covers the history of Strathcona from its beginnings as a loosely organised settlement in 1870 (when Hudson’s Bay employees settled there) until amalgamation with Edmonton in 1912. Almost entirely a compilation of direct quotes and paraphrases, with a dozen or so photos, it’s not exactly exciting reading, but it does provide a reasonably detailed timeline. The acknowledgements and sources are worthwhile for anyone who wants to find out more. * (2008)

Two entertainments: The Moving Toyshop & Mulliner Nights (book reviews)

     Edmund Crispin The Moving Toyshop (1946) Crispin had a reputation as the “one of the last great exponents of the classic crime mystery.” (Wikipedia). One can see why: The focus is almost entirely on the plot, with the characters little more than collections of tics, with an occasional literary reference or Oxford inside joke to provide a bit of intellectual icing on the puzzle biscuit.
     I enjoyed this book, but wasn’t engaged by it.  An inheritance amounting to over $20 million in today’s money prompts the murder of the primary legatee so that the secondary ones can inherit the whole pile. In order to mislead the police, the plotters have disguised the crime scene as a toyshop. Cadogan, the Watson character blunders into it, enlists the help of Gervase, the Holmes, and the subsequent investigation blunders here, there, and everywhere, eventually fetching up on the shores of a far too complex solution. A mildly entertaining confection, which kept me reading over several days. **

     P. G. Wodehouse Mulliner Nights (1933) A collection of short stories framed as tales told in the Angler’s Rest public bar by Mr Mulliner, who enjoys a wide range of relatives, all of whom., it appears, are prone to the kind of minor embarrassments and spots of bother that tend to interfere with the smooth progress of love, life, and career. Not as wildly surreal in style as the Wooster stories, but covering the same ground, and just as entertaining. **½

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alice Munro Dear Life (2012)

     Alice Munro Dear Life (2012) The latest, and I suspect the last, of Munro’s story collections. She demonstrates the same ruthless powers of observation as in her other books, and the same ability to show us the moment of revelation, of self-discovery, of the momentous decision. But the decisions that change the course of a life are rarely known as such. In Munro’s world, as in real life, people choose what seems to them a minor expedience. Its effects redirect the course of a life, but that’s not seen for months or even years, when a chance glimpse of the past overlays the present with unrealised and unrealisable possibilities.
     Munro shows us the bones of a life, the topography of desire and need and fear and pleasure that underlies the roads and fields and woodlands of the everyday busyness and chores that we believe is the defining landscape of our lives. But this power of seeing below the surface is not enough to make art. Munro’s style wastes no words. In a few words, a single phrase, she can show us the essential detail, the unexpected insight that tilts the world into focus, the one remark that clarifies forever the relationship between two people who would otherwise never know what roles they play in each other’s lives, that one memory that shows what could have been. Her stories are not only life-like, but like life.
     Reading Munro stories, we are able to imagine our own lives as random patterns of our own and other people’s choices. She suffuses that randomness with significance. Not meaning or purpose, for meaning and purpose imply predictability and planning and successful progress towards a goal. In a random universe prediction is impossible. But we may explain the random sequence that links the past to the present. Munro shows how a life’s pattern came to be. She makes us believe that it’s enough to know how it happened, and leaves the why unanswered and unanswerable. Munro has the skill to leave us satisfied with this minimal explication of a life.. She leaves us accepting that the how is all we’ll ever know, and that it’s enough. **** (2012)

Alice Munro. Away From Her (2001, 2007)

     Alice Munro. Away From Her (2001, 2007) Retitled from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, one of Munro’s best collections. Munro has the ability to make us see and care about people, from the most ordinary to most strange. She displays how her character’s lives are shaped not merely by the accidental meetings and events, but by the follies and weaknesses that control the responses to those accidents. Munro does this with neither pity nor cruelty; the lives she shows as simply are what they are. She leaves it up to us to make sense of them.
     The occasional first-person narrator ends the story with some summing up, but we know it’s not the final word, it’s just another fragment in the puzzle that is a person. It marks the end of an episode, but it doesn’t explain a life. Sometimes the story ends with a character’s reaction to what has just happened, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, whatever revelation was vouchsafed to the character, it’s not a solution to a mystery, nor is it a sign of what`s to come. What will happen next is as imponderable, as inevitable, and as contingent as everything that went before. The events of the story appear as part of a life, yet the contain the whole life. In this, Munro’s stories have the depth and resonance of a novel.
     It’s difficult to summarise an Alice Munro story. Describing one of the central events is not enough. In Away From Her a woman develops Alzheimer’s. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Marriage a woman marries an apparently unsuitable man. In Floating Bridge, a woman kisses a young man, almost a boy, who has taken her on a drive in the country to show her a floating bridge while her husband negotiates some business with his father. In Comfort an undertaker tells a widow, whom he kissed many years before, how he has prepared her husband’s body for burial. In Nettles a woman meets her childhood sweetheart many years later. What is Remembered tells of a single but very satisfying sexual encounter between a young wife and a man who drives her to the ferry that will take her home after a funeral.
     In all these stories, people remain mysterious to each other, their relationships made incomplete by the limits of language, the constraints of social expectations, the wounds that make us fearful of suffering another injury. And yet. And yet. There are glimpses and hints of happiness and joy. Moments when some barrier is breached, some separateness transcended. Recognition that the only morality is to be with each other, and not use each other. **** (2012)

M. Allen Gibson. Train Time (1973)

     M. Allen Gibson. Train Time (1973) An odd but pleasant little book of reminiscences about the trains in Wolfville, N. S., where Gibson grew up and went to school. The Dominion Atlantic Railway serviced the town, and Gibson gives us a neat account of the trains and some of the locomotives he saw. The style is a little formal and self-consciously literary. Gibson obviously likes trains and people. Photographs appear on alternate pages, but there’s no attempt to arrange them to link to the text they face.
     Gibson was a Baptist minister in Chester, N. S. and was known locally for his columns in The Chronicle Herald of Halifax. I googled him, and found four titles listed in the N. S. archives. There was no other hit. Then I went to the Chronicle Herald site, and searched, found pages of references. Apparently, one has to pay to read the articles, so I didn’t see any, but the headlines indicate a well-known and well-respected, decent man. ** (2008)

Sue Grafton. I is for Innocent (1993)

     Sue Grafton. I is for Innocent (1993) Interesting, how a book written a mere 15 years ago seems like historical fiction: Kinsey doesn’t have a cell phone, she uses public phones. Few offices have computers. No DNA analysis to place or exclude a suspect. But the characterisation is smooth and slick as usual, and the clues are fairly planted.
     Kinsey picks up where a dead former colleague left off in the preparation of a wrongful death suit. The perp was acquitted of the criminal charge, and for a time it seems he may be innocent. But Kinsey finds the one little fact that unravels his alibi, confirms that her dead colleague was murdered, and places her in harm’s way, again. The formulaic standoff with the perp is getting to be tiresome. The soapy subplots that link the books are nicely handled, and Kinsey’s generally breezy and cheerful personality keeps us engaged. **½ (2008) The book is now 20 years old, and the setting seems farther back than that.

Anne Perry. Brunswick Gardens (1998)

     Anne Perry. Brunswick Gardens (1998) #18 in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series. They have been married ten years, have two children and a very happy married life. An apparent murder at Brunswick Gardens brings Dominic Corde (brother-in-law, who figured in the first book) back into their lives. The case has few facts (Perry withholds most of them until the very end), and depends on psychology for its solution. But the psychology doesn’t fit. Charlotte’s knowledge of the classics provides the key that puts certain love letters in a new light, and by snooping discovers evidence of an obsessive love that proves to be the motive for disguising an accident as a murder and eventually committing an actual murder.
     The main suspects are all clergy. This gives Perry an opportunity to sketch the theological and spiritual effects of Darwin’s theory, among other things. Late-Victorian feminism also figures in the plot. Well done, good narrative pace, a bit too much telling rather than showing, and an old-fashioned omniscient narrator make for a pleasant entertainment. An afterpiece indicates that the first book in the series was made into a TV pilot, but I’ve not seen any evidence of a series.
     PS: I went to Perry’s website, worth a look. She helped her friend kill her mother, but being only 15 at the time, she wasn’t hanged. An interview on YouTube indicated that she has thought hard about her crime and guilt, which may explain the moral philosophising in her books. There was no mention of the Cater Street movie. ** (2008)

John F. Anderson. The Railway Book (1963)

     John F. Anderson. The Railway Book (1963) It’s difficult to decide the target audience for this book. Its repeated references to “train spotters”, its tone and style, and the obvious assumptions of ignorance, indicate children and youth, but the lack of anything other than a handful of line illustrations suggest an older audience. It’s essentially an annotated list of facts, and from that standpoint it’s useful. But in some areas, it provides exclusively UK facts, and in others, it ranges across the globe. The author is not a professional writer, and his work should have been edited for focus, arrangement, and style. Inside this rather odd little book is a real book waiting to be revealed. * (2008)

Shirley Rousseau Murphy. Cat on the Edge (1996)

     Shirley Rousseau Murphy. Cat on the Edge (1996) I didn’t finish this book. The premise is interesting: a cat that has witnessed murder develops the ability to not only understand human speech, but also to speak and read (but he does have trouble with alphabetic sequence). I like cats, so this premise promised entertainment. But at the quarter mark, we are still reading set up and back story. This leisurely pace seems intended to pile on enough detail to make the story believable, but its effect is the opposite. In books as in movies, believability is increased by narrative speed and by omission of pesky details, the kind that prompt questions such as How does the cat get the books down from the shelf? Realistic narratives assume readers’ background knowledge; a fantasy must do the same. Tell the story as if it were the most natural thing in the world; don’t dwell on the incredible or implausible, and thereby raise people’s doubts. So while the first dozen-odd pages engaged me, by page 70 I didn’t care anymore. (2008)

Kay Stewart & Chris Bullock. A Deadly Little List (2006)

     Kay Stewart & Chris Bullock. A Deadly Little List (2006) Stewart and Bullock have concocted a nice little mystery, set on Saltspring Island. It’s not as edgy as one might like, with a few plotting troubles. There are two investigators, an RCMP constable and a theatre critic. Two murders and a near-third provide the gore and the plot motivation. They are of course tied together. The little list is the famous one from The Mikado, which figures as the social setting of the mystery. The producer/director of the play (an unpleasant character, obsessed with his vision of himself as a ground-breaking dramatic innovator) has rewritten it with local references, a common enough ploy. But his hints cut a little too close to the criminal truth, and one of his targets murders him. The first murder was an accident: the victim came across the drug-smuggling operation that the murderer was trying to hide.
      The police procedure is handled competently, but clearly at second hand, and drawn out as it is in real life, which tends to slow down the story, especially since every chapter is headed with a place, date and time. The clues and red herrings are fairly placed. The characterisation of the main character, Danutia Dranchuk, is a little formulaic, and whenever it gets close to her inner self, the narrators dance away. A similar skittishness shows up with Arthur Fairweather, the critic. Both these characters’ back stories influence their approach to the puzzle, but we’re given no more than a hint or two. The Saltspring setting is occasionally laboriously done, with careful enumeration of landmarks and businesses. But usually the evocation of the mood is pleasant and has the ring of truth.
     The story starts out blandly and slowly, despite the authors’ use of short chapters, each of which builds to a mild forward-pointing climax. Around the middle of the book, I was engaged enough to want to find out how it all turned out, as well as to see whether various hints about personal relationships would morph into full-blown if incomplete plots. But Stewart and Bullock apparently seem to want their story to be realistic in the mundane sense that most attraction, even if mutual, doesn’t develop into anything, usually not even into a first coffee or drink. Murder mysteries are a type of romance, so unrealistically quick development of attraction into emotional affairs if not physical ones is required. All in all, a pleasant, low-key entertainment. The last sentence points to further adventures of Constable Dranchuk, but whether we’ll see them or not depends I suppose on how well this book sells. ** (2008)

Alice Munro. Runaway (2004)

     Alice Munro. Runaway (2004) I find Munro difficult to read, not because she is a difficult writer, but because she engages the reader’s emotions so strongly. In most of her stories the protagonist ends up more or less resigned to her fate, a fate that she doesn’t deserve. There is a ruthlessness and implacability in Munro’s view of the world, in her awareness of the small shifts in circumstance that would have led to a happier outcome, her insight that the most significant choices are often made while hardly aware that one is making a choice, her cool presentation of those data about character that reveal self-delusion and moral cowardice. She shows us how small misunderstandings, need for love and acceptance, lack of confidence, and innocent ignorance of self and others, lead inexorably to disappointment. Not that her characters are morally perfect and pure: but their flaws are minor, the kind that in other writers lead to pathos rather than tragedy, to peace rather than resignation, to acceptance rather than endurance. Her stories draw me in, and leave me feeling sad. *** to **** (2008)

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Howard Engel. The Cooperman Variations (2001)

     Howard Engel. The Cooperman Variations (2001) An old schoolfriend, now Head of Entertainment at NTC, hires Benny to be her bodyguard, as it seems someone has shot her friend by mistake. Cooperman makes friends with the Toronto police (he’s unusual in being a PI who likes and works with the police), beds his employer (for whom he had lusted in high school), and from time to time remembers Anna, who is gallivanting around Europe. The solution is of course a twist, for this is a mystery novel. Engel has mastered his genre and formula, and this is one of the better Coopermans. NTC is a thinly disguised Global TV, but I can’t tell which characters are Engel’s takes on their employees, and which are pure invention (if characters can ever be said to be pure invention). *** (2008)

W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin (1986)

     W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin (1986) The virgin in question is a schoolgirl who impresses with her portrayal of Mary in a Christmas pageant. Then she disappears. As Wycliffe is visiting in the neighbourhood, he gets the search in motion. Shortly afterwards the girl’s mother is found murdered. The usual long-buried family secrets prove to be the keys to the crimes, which Wycliffe solves with his usual combination of donkey work and intuition. Well done entertainment, but the TV series was IMO more effective. **½ (2008)

Howard Engel. A Victim Must be Found (1988)

     Howard Engel. A Victim Must be Found (1988) Pambos Kiriakis hires Cooperman to find a list of paintings loaned by a dead art dealer who was sloppy with his paperwork. In fact, Pambos wants Cooperman to sniff out theft and a possible murder, an aim that costs Pambos his life. One of the possible thieves (according to Pambos) hires Cooperman to finish the investigation, and Benny not only finds out the list was bogus, he ties it all up neatly for Chris Savas, his friend on the Niagara Regional Police force. He also meets Anne Abraham. **½. (2008)

Howard Engel. The Ransom Game (1981)

     Howard Engel. The Ransom Game (1981) In a bleak February, Benny Cooperman gets the job of finding a disappeared ex-con who knows where the $500K ransom money is stashed. A week and two corpses later, Cooperman has solved the case, which involves a few nasties in high places, ancient double crosses, and a dysfunctional family. As usual, Engel is good on Cooperman, less so on the other characters. His mild send-up of tough PI talk continues to amuse, but the puzzle is less than satisfactory; the final solution has not been fully clued, although the real villain has been signalled quite early on. Benny’s romance with Anne is proceeding, albeit slowly A good entertainment nevertheless. **½ (2008)

Colin Dexter. The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983)

    Colin Dexter. The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983) Another over-elaborate crime. There are five corpses, three murdered, one a suicide, and one dead of natural causes. The mess includes mistakes about past events, excessive ambition, academic feuds, a Soho nightclub, erotica, conspiracy to commit murder, University examinations, red herrings strewn about by the conspirators,  and  the usual bit players. Dexter’s trademark characterisation-by-tic is front and centre here, as is his schtick of anticipating events. “Little did he know...” that this would begin to wear down my patience. I mentally rewrote a couple of the short chapters omitting those foreshadowings, and felt a bit better.
     Still, by giving us the unriddling via Morse’s and Lewis’s peregrinations, false starts, discovery of small details, and sudden shifts of view, Dexter compels us to read on. The solution is, as already mentioned, too complicated by half. That the perpetrators won’t be brought to justice because they’re all dead is just another twist in an overly twisted tale. **

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Anne Perry. The Carter Street Hangmen (1979)

     Anne Perry. The Carter Street Hangmen (1979) The first in the Charlotte Ellison & Thomas Pitt novels, in which they meet because of the murders mentioned in the title, and end up in each other’s arms and with an “understanding”. Perry is better than most authors at producing a Victorian pastiche, mostly because she doesn’t try too hard. She’s more concerned with serving up Victorian attitudes and values than with imitating Victorian prose. A pleasant entertainment, very much in the Harlequin romance mode, but without that genre’s excessive focus on the heroine’s emotions, and with accurate period detail. Perry’s exploration of character nudges the book towards the psychological end of the crime novel spectrum, but since she doesn’t want to give away the perp too soon, she focusses more the effects of the crimes on the Ellison family than on the clues. Good, but not a keeper. **½ (2007)

Mordecai Richler. Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang (1975)

     Mordecai Richler. Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang (1975) I finally read this book, years after it appeared and made a splash. It’s awful. If this book were written by anyone other than Richler, it would not have been published, or else it would have been heavily edited. The ostensible audience is children from K to about grade 2, which means it must sound well read aloud. It doesn’t. Richler seems to think that funny names, CAPITAL LETTERS, and elaborate explanations of the obvious are the difference between adult and children’s books. Not so. The plot of this book is lame, the style is pedestrian, the characterisation is cardboardy as can be. If this book resulted from Richler’s attempts at bed-time stories for his children, too bad for his kids. Ugh! (2007)

Howard Haycraft and John Beecroft, eds. Three Times Three (1964)

     Howard Haycraft and John Beecroft, eds. Three Times Three (1964) Three crime omnibuses bound together, each containing a short novel, a novelette (or long short story), and three short stories. I read all except the Marsh novel, which I’d read recently, and the Geoffrey Household novel, a tediously detailed “suspense” story whose narrator fancies himself a hunter. It’s an example of gore-porn. The short stories are nicely done examples of the crime shaggy-dog story, a very popular genre before the days of TV. Good entertainment, but not a keeper. 0 to *** (2007)

Ngaio Marsh. Light Thickens (1982)

      Ngaio Marsh. Light Thickens (1982) Marsh’s last Alleyn mystery. The title quotes Macbeth, and the mis-en-scene is a production of that play, described in wonderful detail. I think it’s Marsh’s vision of the play, and wonder if she ever actually staged it this way. Anyhow, I’d love to see someone take up her concept.
     The murderer is a mad devotee of ancient Scottish culture (no doubt thoroughly misunderstood), who avenges an “insult” to the real claymore used in the production. Alleyn has to use one of his tricks to prod him into confession, a schtick that Marsh has overused, but it suits this story. Apart from this, the novel is near perfect, one of Marsh’s best. **** (2007)

Ruth Rendell. The Veiled One (1988)

     Ruth Rendell. The Veiled One (1988) A woman’s body is found in a parking garage, but there are no obvious clues: no family or business connections with possible murderers, etc. As so often with Rendell, the essential clues lie in the past: an ancient grudge has led to this murder, and the perpetrator is a psychopath (Rendell likes psychopaths as perps). Wexford and Burden are nicely drawn as always. Wexford is nearly killed by a bomb intended for someone else, which puts him off the case for the first couple of weeks. This gives Burden an opportunity to fixate on the wrong suspect, who however does become a murderer. He too is a psychopath, and his victim is the murderer of the victim in the car park. I don’t really like twisty plots like this, I prefer straight police procedurals. The TV series plays down the moody and psychological aspects of Rendell’s fiction, which IMO improves the stories. **½ (2007)

Douglas G. Green, ed. The Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh (1991)

     Douglas G. Green, ed. The Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh (1991) Just what the title says. The Alleyn mysteries look like trial runs for novel plots, the others are typical commercial fiction of the period: moody, with a twist. In the days before TV, people read genre fiction by the ton. Marsh was as skilled a practitioner of the craft as any, but she did not need to pursue it to make a living. As I understand her life, she worked in theatre in New Zealand and the novels brought in welcome additional income. Still, these stories are fun to read. ** to *** (2007)

Howard Engel. There Was an Old Woman (1993)

     Howard Engel. There Was an Old Woman (1993) Number 8 in the Cooperman series, and a pleasant read. Kago, so-called handyman at Cooperman’s office building, asks Benny to look into the death of Lizzie Oldridge, whose dilapidated house in the middle of a prime development block makes a tempting target. Benny uncovers ancient secrets and present-day evil. His courtship of Anna Abraham moves forward a few centimetres, and his relationship with Det. Chris Savas becomes a mite friendlier. All in all, an easy-going read. I figured the perp about halfway through, but not the full extent of his evil. **½ (2007)

R. C. Rogers. Painting and Lining Railway Models (1976)

      R. C. Rogers. Painting and Lining Railway Models (1976) Retitled and revised and reissued, but why? Most of the book is a discussion of paint technology, with much talk about resins, solvents, and thinners. This material is useful, but though the author refers to incompatibilities, he gives no specifics. A chart or table would have done better. The chapter that deals with techniques says almost nothing useful, and those few nuggets must be excavated by the reader. I’ve read articles in Model Railroader that provided more information in three pages than this book achieves in 62. A nearly useless book, and somewhat of a curiosity. Bomb (2007)

A. C. Kalmbach, compiler. The Model Railroader Cyclopedia Sixth Edition (1950)

     A. C. Kalmbach, compiler. The Model Railroader Cyclopedia Sixth Edition (1950) Plans, plans everywhere, plus a couple of articles on modelling techniques. Kalmbach used the MR archives to put this book together, and while it is not up to modern standards of draftsmanship and information, it is more than good enough as a source of modelling inspiration. Most plans are to 1/8" or 1/4" scale, as architect’s scales were easily obtainable then. 27 large fold-out drawings finish the book. The photos are as good as the printing technology of the time permitted. The layout is haphazard, with photos and plans sometimes separated by several pages, and sometimes not matching at all. But it’s fun to look through all the same. The article on general techniques for building model railroad cars is worth a second look. A treasure. *** (2007)

Colin Dexter. The Secret of Annexe 3 (1987)

     Colin Dexter. The Secret of Annexe 3 (1987) The murder of a guest at a New Year’s event arranged at a hotel leads Morse and Lewis on the hunt for wild goose and fishing for red herrings. Dexter has a taste for overly twisty plots, but his narrative trick of short scenes and serial-like final sentence for each chapter keeps the pages turning.
     When I read these books, I see John Thaw and Kevin Whately, which probably enhances the reading of these books. The characterisation is cardboard, even for Morse and Lewis, who are a more of a collection of character tics than fully realised characters. Dexter’s omniscient narrator whispers the characters’ thoughts and feelings like secrets not to be repeated to the unauthorised. This creates an illusion of reality that keeps you going until you close the book, then the artificiality of the concoction strikes you. It’s interesting how such merely average books became one of the best mystery series on TV. This one is more average than usual; a pleasant enough way to spend a couple or three hours. **