Thursday, November 28, 2013

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

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

Stephen Pile. The Book of Heroic Failure (1979)

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

Sunday, November 24, 2013

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

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

Eric Wilson. Murder on The Canadian. (1976)

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

Robert Parker. The Godwulf Manuscript (1973)

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

Jim Unger. The Latest Herman (1981)

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Anne Lindgren. Classroom Classics (1990)

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

Simon Winchester. The Professor and the Madman (1999)

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

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

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

A. E van Vogt. Pendulum (1978)

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

Bangladeshi garment factory victims compensaton fund

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

Friday, November 22, 2013

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

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

Damon Runyon. In Our Town (1946)

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

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

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

Leslie Ford. The Woman in Black (1947)

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


Some thoughts prompted by an article in New Scientist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2013-11-22 WEK

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Alan Ayckbourn. Bedroom Farce (1975)

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

Jim Stanford. Economics for Everyone (2008)

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

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

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

Agatha Christie. The Mirror Crack’d (1962)

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

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

O. Henry. Heart of the West (1993)

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

When Longships Sailed (1998)

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

Richard Feynman. The Meaning of it All (1998)

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

L. R. Wright. The Suspect (1985)

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

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ruth Rendell. Shake Hands For Ever (1975)

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

Monday, November 18, 2013

Schrödinger’s cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WEK 2013-11-18

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Gwynn Dyer. War (1985)

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

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

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

Amanda Cross. Sweet Death, Kind Death (1984)

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

Jack Kapica. Shocked and Appalled (1985)

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

James Burke. The Day the Universe Changed (1985)

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

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

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

Earl W. Buxton et. al. Points of View (1967)

     Earl W. Buxton et. al. Points of View (1967) A survey collection of essays for use in senior high school or junior college English courses. The selection ranges widely in time and theme, providing samples of the writing of acknowledged past masters of the form, as well as mid-20th century contemporaries, about half of whom are still relevant 50 years later. The standard is high, the biographical notes and critical hints compact but adequate. The editors’ introduction expresses high expectations of both teacher and student, assuming not only close reading, but active and personal engagement in the topics and themes. I’ve read most of these at one time or another, a few of them over the past few days. Good reading, despite the didactic purpose of the book, but it will go into the discard pile nevertheless. We can’t keep everything. *** (2008)

Howard O’Hagan. The Woman Who Got on at Jasper Station (1977)

     Howard O’Hagan. The Woman Who Got on at Jasper Station (1977) Talonbooks reissued this collection, and it seems to have had a moderate success. This copy was originally shelved in the Mount St Joseph Separate School library, and contains many pencilled notes. These are of the “what you need to know for the exam” variety, unfortunately: there’s no indication of what the note taker actually thought of the tales.
     I don’t think much of them. O’Hagan is a good craftsman, and clearly wrote for a market. I read three stories thoroughly, and skimmed the others more or less carefully. The older tales have a serious, portentous tone, and deal with unsophisticated people living in times and places far removed from the city dweller or academic who presumably bought the magazines in which the stories appeared. Such tales were popular in the less pulpy fiction magazines of the 1930s, since they grant the illusion that one is hearing stories of “real life”. And of course they attract the high school English teacher, since they give occasion for discussion of themes. What would a high school English class do without themes!
     In the very first story, The Teepee, a white narrator sleeps with a Native woman; but her husband, when he comes to visit the narrator’s camp, all but invites the narrator to service his wife when he’s away. “Heavy!” as 1960s student might say. The most recent stories are clearly aimed at more modern tastes. The Love Story of Mr Alfred Wimple is a satirical glance at what drives the moneyed classes, the same lust for status and women as what drives the less dollar-obsessed ones, it seems. The title story, last in the book, describes a doctor’s wife returning home to a village in the bush near Jasper, and briefly thinking about a casual affair with a sailor on his way to Victoria.
     O’Hagan writes obliquely, suggesting rather than telling or showing. This is his strength. Even his first-person narratives display a reticence at odds with that mode. This method of storytelling works quite well, because it engages the reader’s curiosity. What is really going on here? is the question that keeps us reading. Again, such tales are attractive to the high school English teacher, since they afford opportunities for “close reading”. But in the end, the answers to that question are at best merely satisfying. I don’t get the sense of insight into a character or way of life, despite O’Hagan’s choice of material. That choice implies that the stories will be minor revelations at least, but they aren’t. The stories claim more meaning than they have. ** (2008)

P. Turner Bone. When the Steel Went Through (1947)

     P. Turner Bone. When the Steel Went Through (1947) Bone’s indeed written his book in “plain unvarnished prose”, as D’Alton C. Coleman notes in his introduction. Published posthumously, the narrative deals mostly with Bone’s career with the CPR and its subsidiaries. He designed and supervised the construction of the bridges on the line through the Rockies and into the Selkirks. He also participated in the surveys and construction of the International Railway (a US subsidiary of the CPR), and the Calgary and Edmonton Railway.
     The story begins with reminiscences of his childhood and schooling in Scotland, and ends with a brief Epilogue in which he tells that his elder son died in the 1914-18 war, and his wife in 1929. The plain prose in which he records these few details of his later life is moving. He went into private practice as a consulting engineer. The Glenbow Museum was fortunate to receive a large quantity of his papers when his house was torn down in 1962. Bone is remembered as a Calgary pioneer.
     In his book Bone comes across as a disciplined worker. His writing is about as factual as an autobiography can be; names and dates and places constitute the bulk of his reminiscences. He says little about his fortune, but we gather that he saved his money, invested it wisely, and put his talents to good use. His house was one of the first to be built in Calgary; pictures of it show it to be a substantial one. Bone indulges in no flights of fancy, and rarely attempts to express his feelings. Yet he has a sense of fun, and repeatedly says how delighted he was to meet old acquaintances again. He alludes to mountains he climbed with his camp mates, and clearly developed a passion for the outdoors. Many pictures in his archive show members of the Alpine club and their camps in the Rockies. Coleman calls him a kindly and lovable man, a judgment that the book supports. Somehow, despite the plainness of the language, we get to know Bone. I was pleased to read this book. *** (2008)

Clifford D. Simak. Our Children’s Children (1974)

    Clifford D. Simak. Our Children’s Children (1974) The what-if: Suppose our descendants 500 years in the future come back, trying to escape aliens that are killing them off. Simak plots a movie-like story, focussing on the US government’s response, with meanwhile-elsewhere scenes to keep us up to date on the overall picture. The structure of the novel, the style, and the characterisation are strictly pulp, but well done. The story has a cop-out ending: the monsters have somehow found a way to move in time also, and do so whenever threatened. So they disappear. Simak wrote himself into a corner, making the monsters such efficient killing machines that some such resolution was the only way out. With careful development of the characters and some of the subplots, the book would make a good B movie. ** (2008)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Earl Chapin May. Model Railroads in the Home (1939)

     Earl Chapin May. Model Railroads in the Home (1939) It’s difficult to decide what to make of this book. The title promises practical advice, but there is hardly any. What we get instead is an arch, wannabe-witty survey of the model railroading of the time, with names dropping right and left, and an unsubtle tone of invitation to join the inner circle of true devotees. Some of the history is interesting, and if combined with other sources would enable a more complete account of early model railroads than we now have. The plates are interesting, too, but the captions are inadequate, and there is no attempt whatsoever to explain what the plates depict.
     Of practical advice on what to do and how to do there is almost none. Of sycophantic fawning over the elite modellers that May has met there is much. I paid $2 for this book in October 1972, or about $10 in today’s money. Too much, even if considered as a curio. May seems to be heavily influenced by Alexander Woollcott and other “witty” writers of the Algonquin Round table group, who operated on the assumption that anything said wittily was worth writing down, no matter how irrelevant or devoid of substance. I gave up about half way through the book. Bomb (2008)

Sarah Paretsky, ed. Women on the Case (1995)

     Sarah Paretsky, ed. Women on the Case (1995) The stories in this collection, even those written by Europeans and others, are “American”: they have a pulp fiction feel to them, often end in punch lines, focus on the sensational and uncommon rather than the ordinary, and often provide all the gory details of violence. Except for the subject matter, which is almost invariably a female ‘tec and (usually) victim, these stories could have been written by men. They vary in skill. One effect of reading a lot of short stories at once is to become acutely aware of the difference between writing and typing, and the rather peripheral role of plot. A good bed-time read. * to *** (2008)

L. T. C. Rolt. The Cornish Giant (1960)

     L. T. C. Rolt. The Cornish Giant (1960) Richard Trevithick has been overshadowed by the Stephensons, who are generally credited with building first commercially viable steam railway, and that is usually interpreted to mean that they built the first steam locomotive. Actually, Trevithick did that, and between his demonstration of how “strong steam” could drive a locomotive and the Stephensons’ construction of The Rocket, several other builders made steam locomotives. Rolt’s biography, based on two earlier and more complete books, corrects this impression.
Rolt also explains why Trevithick could not capitalise on his many inventions: he was a man of impetuous temper, a wide range of interests, and too much naive trust in his business partners. His powers of invention were prodigious, with little ability (or desire, it seems) to stay focussed on a project to its practical and commercial success. A great man limited by character traits he could not or would not control.
     Rolt’s prose is workmanlike and clear; the intended audience appears to be middle and high school students. The plates and drawings are well reproduced, but could benefit from extended captions explaining the operations of the machines. A good book, but not a great one, it is useful for anyone who wants to become acquainted with Trevithick. **½ (2008)

Leonard Maltin, ed. Leonard Maltin’s 2008 Movie Guide (2007)

     Leonard Maltin, ed. Leonard Maltin’s 2008 Movie Guide (2007) This is a frustrating guide. I’ve read my way from the title page to the last page. [Yeah, I know, I’m obsessive]. While it is a good guide to currently available or viewable movies, the standards of judgement are inconsistent. Maltin uses several reviewers (he obviously can’t watch even a few hundred new movies himself). But these reviewers vary in their standards. That’s especially obvious for titles receiving mild praise, which some reviewers interpret as two stars, and others as 2½ or even 3 stars (out of four). Some reviewers seem more attuned to the cinematic values of a title, others to its themes. It would help a lot if each review were followed by initials, that way the reader would get a better sense of how the review would relate to his own tastes and standards.
     By the way, Maltin (or his reviewer) still doesn’t get science fiction. The SF movies generally most highly rated are just oaters in SF costumes. He also overrates actors, underrating of the power of a director (and editor) to make an actor look good or bad. Still, this reference is the best available, if only because of its sheer size: this version covers over 17,000 titles. (Other Guides cover another several thousand additional titles not listed here). It also tells of variations in length or edition. **½ (2008)

Diane Mott Davidson. The Cereal Murders (1993)

     Diane Mott Davidson. The Cereal Murders (1993) Another formula book, this time a mystery whose ‘tec is a single mother (survivor of an abusive marriage) who makes her living in Aspen Meadows, Colorado, by catering to those who pay more when the menu is written in French. However, unlike Baldacci, Mott Davidson can write.
     Goldilocks Bear (yes, that’s her name) is a pleasant person with enough self-respect to get good and angry when necessary, and enough self-knowledge and confidence to fall in love when the right man (Tom Schulz, a cop, whom she met in a previous book) presents himself. Tom is a bit too good to be true, being both a superb lover and a good cook, and deeply respectful of Goldy’s feelings. The perpetrator is a bit too monomaniacal and psychologically twisted for credibility. Three people die because he wants his daughter to go to Harvard, which requires that she rank first in the graduating class. At least Mott Davidson has the sense to let the Denver police express the incredulity the reader must feel, and so defuse it.
     The schtick in this series is the food: Goldy not only describes food in vivid detail, she also gives us her recipes, which I (despite my culinary dunciness) could understand, and which seem more than feasible. A pleasant read, which with its two predecessors could make a pleasant season of TV. **½ (2008)

Friday, November 08, 2013

David Baldacci. The Christmas Train (2002)

     David Baldacci. The Christmas Train (2002) Tom Langdon, barred from flying because of some misunderstanding with airport security, takes the train from New York to L.A. Eleanor Carter, his ex who walked out on him in Tel Aviv because he wouldn’t commit, is also on the train, and after the usual expressions of anger etc, they make up and presumably live happily ever after. Along the way there is an avalanche that blocks the train on Raton Pass, a wedding, a mysterious thief, assorted salt-of-the-railway characters, and other nonsense.
     This is a manufactured book. Baldacci never misses an opportunity to tell when he should show, nor to explain when he should suggest. Her inserts chunks of information (and propaganda) about Amtrak via “conversations” with Amtrak employees and former employees. He avoids offending anyone, of whatever race, religion, gender, or social status. His attempts at tension and foreboding consist of weather forecasts and sudden hidden-camera bits of narration. His metaphors are 99.4%-pure cliche. In a word, this a Harlequin Romance plus TV movie scenario told from a male point of view.
     The best thing about it is the plot, which Baldacci undercuts by making the meeting and reconciliation between Tom and Eleanor a set-up scripted and directed by Max, the director for whom Eleanor is supposedly revising a script. According to the jacket copy, Baldacci is a multiple NYT best seller, has sold 40 million copies of his books in 35 languages, and has assorted other support for the inevitable inference that because he sells a lot of books he is a great writer. If his product represents what airport and beach literature has become, we are in serious trouble. * (2008)

James Filby. Credit Valley Railway (1974)

     James Filby. Credit Valley Railway (1974) This is an annoying book. Filby has done a lot of research, but has neither the scholar’s understanding of the significance of his data, nor the journalist’s sense of narrative. The result is more of a compilation of source material, both quoted and paraphrased, with bridging remarks. What he needed was an editor. The maps on the end pages are awful, being a reproduction of a printed map with thick ink strokes superimposed to show the route of the CVR. The photos are poorly reproduced, which is the fault of the Boston Mills Press (their later books have much better quality printing). It’s a pity, since this could have been a good history of the CVR. Whoever writes one will no doubt find Filby’s work useful, if only for its source list, if he can decipher it, that is, as Filby has no idea how to format a bibliography. * (2008)

Two oddities

     Brock Silversides. Prairie Sentinels (1997) Historical photos and a diagram of the innards complement the brief but surprisingly thorough history of the elevator in western Canada. Well done. **½

     The Railway Correspondence and Travel Society. The Locomotives of the Great Western Railway: Part Eleven: The Rail Motor vehicles and Internal Combustion Locomotives. (1956) Just what the obsessively descriptive title says, and obsessively complete and detailed. Useful as a reference, but its discursive style and arrangement makes it a difficult to find exactly the information desired. A few more tables would help, as would an index. Good photos. I bought this from a stall at the Gloucester & Warwickshire Railway at Toddington for £5. Its original price was £1, which would amount to about £10 in today’s money, so I got a bargain. **½  (2008)

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Linda Finn. War Letters Project

     Linda Finn. War Letters Project (At the Timber Village Museum, Blind River, 2 November 2013 to 20 January 2014.)
     Linda Finn’s grandmother Essie Sann wrote letters to soldiers during World War One, and again during World War Two. She saved many of the letters written back to her. Linda Finn has created a number of pieces using scans of some of these letters along with found objects, parts of uniforms, scans of photographs, and abstract and realistic images. These items are layered onto painted or monoprinted backgrounds, some have translucent layers of paint added, and Finn incorporates one of her favourite media, hand-cast paper layers or pieces into several of the pieces. Finn is nothing if not inventive in her use and melding of media.
     She also has a gift for design, and knows how to use limited palettes. Visually, all these pieces are interesting, most are engaging, and a few are stunning. I especially liked Requiem and When Words Are Not Enough. Requiem shows the life-size outline of a dead soldier over blotches of red, ochre, and mud, with the pieces of a uniform glued onto the base of raw canvas. I don’t know why this picture is so powerful, perhaps it’s the dead soldier, whose image hovers at the edge of visual awareness while we focus on the details of the background and overlays. Words consists of digital images of dozens of letters glued onto the canvas, with a life-size soldier overlaid on it. The letters are almost all legible, here and there the smudge of the soldier’s figure hides the words like a scorch mark.
      Also impressive is War Marked the Landscape Like Language, in which Finn has placed twigs painted black onto small wooden plaques arranged on short ledges. Anyone who has seen images of the World War battlefields will recognise the allusions. Seeing so many miniature trees shattered by shellfire lined up in rows and columns emphasises their calligraphic qualities. The title is apt; the language of war is destruction and death.
     A very moving exhibit is a suitcase containing stories and reminiscences told by the relatives of the dead, along with some photos and drawings, which the viewer is invited to pick up and read. I had time to read only one, a daughter’s account of how she yearned to have known her father, who died when she was three, and who knew her only as a two month-old baby. She keeps his portrait on her bedside table still.
     These are art works with intended meanings and significance. The fashion for many decades has been for supposedly pure art, which at most expressed the maker’s individual responses to the world, or recorded the artist’s exploration of his or her visual dialect. But even these meanings were politely ignored: what was supposed to matter was the design, the palette, the dialogue with similar and contrary styles, the demonstration of how the new visual dialect could be used.
     But the making of artworks that made a public statement never went away. In the second half of the 20th century, the comment was as often as not satirical, ironic, or self-deprecating; or too solemnly serious to be taken seriously. The work of people like General Idea almost apologises for having ideas, and ideas about politics and culture at that. Their in-your-face commentary made them seem somewhat indecent.
     The kind of comment Finn offers, straightforward invitations to think and feel about what it means to know about and be linked with people in the viewer’s personal and collective past, that was largely left to the makers of greeting-card verse and calendar art. Linda Finn shows us that questions raised by memory are serious, not only for the viewer’s sense of his or her own past, but also for our collective understanding of our shared history. Memories are too important for sentimentality. Her work is about war, and the sacrifices that we offer to the god of war; but it is not a glorification of war. In this, it is a welcome counter to the current jingoism. Highly recommended. ****
     Disclosure: we own one of the works in this series, it is part of this exhibition.
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