Sunday, December 29, 2013

Faye Kellerman. Stone Kiss (2002)

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

Howard Engel. Dead and Buried (1990)

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

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

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

Margery Allingham Death of a Ghost (1934)

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

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ralph Cotton. Gunfight at Cold Devil (2006)

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

Angelo Hornak. Balloon over Britain (19xx)

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

Hilaire Belloc. Characters of the Reformation (1936)

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

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

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

Elmer Kelton. Captain’s Rangers (1968)

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

Carl Hiaasen. Paradise Screwed (2001)

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

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Andrew Martindale. The Rise of the Artist (1972)

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

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

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

Margaret Doody Aristotle Detective (1978)

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

Monday, December 23, 2013

Two best sellers, and comment about gore-porn.

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

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

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

Friday, December 13, 2013

Greg McDonell. The History of Canadian Railroads (1985)

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

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

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

Ross MacDonald. The Instant Enemy (1968)

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

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

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

Paul Love et al. Beginning Unix (2005)

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

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Alison Gordon Striking Out (1995)

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

Monday, December 09, 2013

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

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

Ursula Le Guin. City of Illusions (1978)

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

Anne Morice Murder, Post-dated (1983)

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

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Way (2010)

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

Saturday, December 07, 2013

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

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

Friday, December 06, 2013

Robert Holdstock & Christopher. Stars of Albion (1979)

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

Ellis Peters. An Excellent Mystery (1985)

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

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

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

Ross Macdonald. The Way Some People Die (1951)

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

Nicola Davies and Neal Layton. Poop (2004)

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

Dorothy E. Skinkle. Star Giant (1969)

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

Brian Clegg. A Brief History of Infinity (2003)

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

     Good book. **1/2 (2008)

Reginald Hill. Exit Lines (1984)

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