Thursday, February 27, 2014

Carola Dunn. Fall of a Philanderer (2005)

     Carola Dunn. Fall of a Philanderer (2005) Charming, lightweight fluff, well plotted, well told, with main characters interesting and sympathetic enough to hold attention. The Hon. Daisy Dalrymple, now the well-married and pregnant Mrs Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher, with happy step-daughter Belinda and her friend Deva, has taken rooms in a small village on the Devon coast while Alec finishes up a case. The local pub-owner, George Enderby, is not only a cad, but a cruel, unsociable bounder and bully. He’s taken advantage of the young landlady’s loneliness (her husband serves in the Navy), as well as of several young girls and dissatisfied wives. His marriage to the owner of the pub is of course rocky. He torments the local idiot, a mild-mannered mute. He’s clearly destined to die.
     Alec arrives, the family go on a picnic on the beach, and Alec finds Enderby’s body smashed up on the rocks below a high cliff. It looks like murder. Of course he is drawn into the case, and Daisy’s hunger for facts, her ability to engender trust, and her sympathy for several of the suspects makes her a valuable assistant. The denouement is a surprise almost to the end, but plausible. As with other novels in the series, this one has the feel of being severely edited to fit into a small book (under 300 pages of medium size print), so several promising subplots and their characters are perfunctory, cliched insertions. Pity; Dunn’s talent is for dialogue and the sardonic authorial aside, which together need more room. I’ve decided to find others in this series, but I won’t be collecting them, despite the temptation to do so. **½ (2011)

Ben Wicks. When the Boys Came Marching Home (1991)

     Ben Wicks. When the Boys Came Marching Home (1991) I bought this book at the Walter Stewart Library book sale recently. In addition to this book, Wicks also compiled one about the children who were evacuated from the cities into the supposedly safer countryside (he was an evacuee himself). I wish I had bought that book, too.
     Wicks seems haunted by the Second World War. This compilation consists of excerpts from letters solicited from people who had lived through the war, and recalled what it was like when the war ended. Wives and family, children and sweethearts, as well as the soldiers and women volunteers, all have their say. All in all, there was a mixed response, but even when the necessary adjustments went well, the war left its scars. In many cases, perhaps the majority, those scars went deep. The wounds of war were inflicted on the families and loved ones of the returning men, and lasted for the rest of their lives. Women resented having to go back to subservient roles; children resented the stranger who appeared one day and claimed all the privileges and rights of the head of the family. Wicks makes clear that the image of the soldier as hero is a lie. Most of them were ordinary men; their experience of the war damaged them. It’s not surprising that adjustment to civilian life was hard even when it succeeded. What’s surprising is that people managed to achieve a life that hid the scars, or at least coped with the continuing hurts inflicted by men who did not know how to handle their pain. That’s normality of a sort, I guess.
     Many of the stories told in this book touched a nerve. My father, too, was damaged by the war, and he took it out on us. He saw many evils; he told us of some of the less horrific events from time to time, but like all men who saw combat or its effects, he did not really want to talk about it. He was also deeply disillusioned by the betrayal of the German people by the Nazis. I don’t think he ever really came to terms with his disillusionment. For the rest of his life, he resented the Allies and their victory over the 3rd Reich, and could not stomach what he thought was the weakness, money-grubbing, and corruption of the people who had defeated Germany. He despised the sloppiness of Canadians, their cheerful disrespect for experts, for “Fachleute”, their attitude that “good enough” was good enough. He believed in the myth of the Volk despite himself, and told me repeatedly that modernity would not appeal to Austrians. Of course, it did. That is why he did not want to go back after his last trip in 1975 or ‘76, not even for the funeral of Urli-Oma. He would have found his relatives happily enjoying the consumer society. I went on his behalf, and that’s what I found.
     Nevertheless, most of my memories of my childhood and the years before we came to Canada are happy ones. Children have a great facility of accepting whatever surrounds them as normal, and getting what pleasure they can when they can. As children, we see the light of the sun; as we age, we see the shadows cast by it. *** (2011)

Kenneth Graham. Der Wind in den Weiden (1976)

     Kenneth Graham. Der Wind in den Weiden (1976) Translated by Harry Rowohlt. It’s odd to read Wind in the Willows in German. At first, I read this to see how the translator managed Graham`s cosy informal style, one carefully crafted to mimic the language of its intended audience of Young Readers. But very soon the tale itself captured me, as it did so many years ago when I first read it while recovering from the mumps. Well done. The illustrations are by the artist who drew the main cels for Yellow Submarine, but they lack the firmness and clarity of line found in that wonderful movie.
     A major problem when translating English into other languages is grammatical gender, which does affect how the reader imagines the fictive world. ‘Rat’ translates into ‘die Ratte’, feminine noun: it’s odd to read of a feminine Rat, who is so definitely an elder brother figure; much easier to imagine in the English version. At least ‘Toad’ translates into the masculine noun ‘Kröterich’. *** (2011)

Eric Frank Russell. Men Martians and Machines (1958)

     Eric Frank Russell. Men Martians and Machines (1958) Russell was English, something I didn’t know until I looked him up on Wikipedia. And he served in the RAF, not the Navy, despite the naval tone and tropes in these stories, in which the spaceship crew is very much a naval one. In fact, the tales belong to the “strange worlds” genre, which was well-developed long before SF adopted it. The alien worlds could just as well be undiscovered islands in the unexplored reaches of the Earth, the aliens could be monsters such as were imagined by medieval cartographers and confabulated by explorers who came back with tall tales about their really quite mundane (but dangerous) voyages. Always give the public what it wants.
     The plots are of the “how humans (and Martians) manage to overcome alien dangers by means of ingenuity, courage, and luck” variety. Fantasies, IOW, but nicely done. The ship-board cameraderie is a shade too stereotypical even for its own time, but this is pulp fiction. Stereotypes enable the writer to telegraph whole settings and characters by means of slight variations on the expected imagery. “Jay Score” (ie, J20) is a robot who manages to pilot the ship past the Sun while the crew barely survives in the refrigerated hold. “Mechanistria” tells of a world whose intelligent life is machines, perhaps the remnants of a civilisation that destroyed itself by using robots for warfare. I didn’t finish it, it seemed too ponderous to me. “Symbiotica” describes a very tightly interconnected ecology: the intelligent life forms depend on trees, and vice versa. It’s hard to tell which is the dominant life form on this planet. “Mesmerica” gives us aliens that can make you see what they want you to see. But not all senses are equally affected, and of course Jay Score is immune. Between humans’ ability to recognise aliens by touch, the aliens’ inability to produce original speech (shades of the Turing Test!), and Jay Score’s objective vision, the crew manages to rescue their shipmates and lift off the planet safely.
       If there is an overriding theme, it’s that the universe is a hostile place: we go exploring it at our peril. Considering the times, with its fear of subversion by apparently nice, normal, neighbourly people who were really evil Commies, one might also notice the motif of an apparently pleasant place that turns out to be lethal, of seemingly innocuous aliens with a murderous bent. Imagined universes, it seems, always resemble what we fear and desire most. The characters are stereotypical and fixed, like those in a comic book. The dialogue is occasionally atrocious, the style is very American Pulp Fiction. A fun read, mostly, but not a keeper. **½ (2011)

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Painted Veil (2006) (Movie)

     The Painted Veil (2006) [D: John Curran. Naomi Watts, Edward Norton. Liev Schreiber. Based on a novel by Somerset Maugham] Dr Chris Fane marries Kitty Garstin even though she does not love him. When they are posted to Shanghai, she has an affair with the local British Commissioner. Chris decides to volunteer to help care for cholera victims far inland and if possible stem the epidemic, and gives Kitty an ultimatum: come with him, or face being divorced by him. She follows, and over the next couple of months (the time line is bit fuzzy), they come to love and trust each other again. Then he dies. A few years later, Kitty encounters her ex-lover in London, and closes off all contact with him.
     A typical Somerset plot, simple and predictable from the beginning. So what makes this film so watchable? The careful adaptation, especially of Somerset’s trick of revealing significant details in casual conversation. Much of the time, these details show the central character(s) how they appear to other people, or what they misunderstood or misestimated or simply did not know. Somerset is also very good at revealing the emotions that the characters hide from themselves and from each other. His stories are about how people come to know themselves; but self-knowledge rarely leads to happiness.
     The movie’s script is first rate, not only in the dialogue, but in the visuals, which are used to link and frame the essential scenes that tell the central story, the near destruction of the marriage and its painful rebuilding. China was undergoing the Nationalist reforms that eventually triggered the Maoist wars and brought it into the 20th century. This and the cholera epidemic add the lethal dangers that make their reconciliation more crucial to Chris and Kitty, while at the same time commenting on their privileged status and their slow realisation of the injustices and social perils that surround them.
     The secondary plots and characters, the repeated views of the surrounding landscape (in the vicinity of the Three Gorges), and the varying narrative rhythm  give us a sense of a complete world. I don’t know to what extent this is the moviemakers’ contribution, and how much comes from Somerset’s novel, but it works. A well done movie, recommended. ***

Friday, February 21, 2014

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

     Ursula Bloom. A Rosemary for Stratford-on-Avon (1966) Bloom (1892-1984) was minor but prolific writer of light fiction and miscellaneous non-fiction. This book is a memoir of her years in Stratford as a child, when her father was rector of Whitchurch, a nearby parish. This copy is from my mother, who has written some marginal notes. Uncle Paul gave it to her, with a note that the book infuriated Uncle Peter, as well it might. Its focus, insofar as there is one, is Marie Corelli, who settled in Stratford about 1905, and soon caused a ruckus. Corelli was not a good neighbour, and she was convinced that she was right about anything she decided to think about. At first, Stratford welcomed her (she was still the most widely read and selling author in the English speaking world), but when she revealed her pettiness, Stratford turned against her. Bloom was a friend of Corelli’s, and takes her side, despite her clear-eyed view of Corelli’s character flaws.
     I don’t think that is what infuriated Uncle Peter, though. It’s Bloom’s tone, a mix of cloying sweetness (“The Dear Vicar” is the title of one chapter), sardonic comments on people’s motives and reactions, and the invention of conversations between the respectable burghers of the town. This novelistic trick makes for lively reading, but it also gives impressions of character, none of which is entirely flattering. The net effect is one of a session of satisfying gossip, rather than of an insightful memoir.
     But scattered throughout the book are reminders of what Stratford was like, of businesses that were still extant when I lived there; of families that still mattered then, too; of institutions like the Mop, which was still a major and exciting event in the 1940s-50s; and so on. I enjoyed reading the book for these reasons, and Mother’s margin notes were a bonus. The photos are good, but there are too few of them, and the captions are perfunctory. A keeper. ** (2011)

Rosemary Sutcliffe. Blood Feud (1976)

     Rosemary Sutcliffe. Blood Feud (1976) Sutcliffe has made a name for herself as writer of juvenile historical fiction, but the only concession to the target age group is the absence of “adult content.” Otherwise, the history is accurate, which means bloody and brutal. She does soften the brutality a bit, and uses the usual tropes of male banding etc, but her stories ring true.
     Jensyn Englishman is recalling how he came to be a physician in Constantinople. He was bought as thrall by Thormod, a Viking. He helps his master fight off would-be assassins, is freed, and they become blood-brothers. They set out on a journey to Constantinople (as it would become) in pursuit of two brothers who have killed Thormod’s father after he has mistakenly killed theirs. They join the army led by Emperor Basil against the Bulgars, and then become members of the newly-formed Varangian Guard. More fighting leads to Thormod’s death at the hands of Anders, the younger brother, which makes the blood feud personal for Jensyn. But he has been wounded, and is turned out to fend for himself. Earlier, he had saved a girl, Alexia, from one of Basil’s cheetahs that had escaped from its handlers during a hunt. He also rescued a nearly-born fawn by performing a Caesarian section on the dying mother, Alexia’s pet. He goes to the farm to ask for a job (he was a good cattleman as youngster), and eventually meets Alexia’s father, a physician. That leads to his becoming a healer. When Anders arrives seeking help, Jensyn tries to heal him, but fails: a wound given Anders by Thormod much earlier has festered within him for years, and finally kills him. (The symbolism is plain to an adult reader, but may slip by a younger one.) The blood feud is finished. Jensyn can rest easy; the shadow of the blood feud no longer darkens his life, and he can marry Alexia and inherit her father’s practice.
     Character and plot are simple, as you can see, so what makes Sutcliffe’s book compelling? It’s in part the language: she uses archaic Anglo-Saxon words, and makes up a few of her own in the Anglo-Saxon manner. The sentences are simple, and often have a subtle rhythm that recalls Anglo-Saxon verse. But it’s also the virtues valued by the characters. They have simple notions of honour, loyalty, courage, and fate, which makes their actions easily understood. There’s enough detail in the physical action to satisfy the young male without encouraging the thirst for gore. Drinking, rough jokes, work, and pride in good workmanship round out the image of the ideal man that informs the story. Wrapped in this well-told tale of friendship, courage, and loyalty is the notion that physical courage and fighting skill aren’t enough to make a man a man: honour, understood as the virtues that inform his choices, completes him. *** (2011)

Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey

     Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey (1960 text) I decided to read this after noticing that TVO would be showing the BBC/A&E version, and read a couple of chapters before we saw that well-done production. This is only the second of Austen’s novels that I’ve read. Though I’ve read Pride and Prejudice four or five times, I’ve never felt the urge to read the other ones. Don’t know why, perhaps I thought none would measure up to that masterwork.
     Northanger Abbey is intended both as parody of gothic romances and as a warning against taking them seriously. Catherine Morland, a naive country-bred girl, visits Bath in the company of her neighbours and god-parents, the Allens. The usual romantic contre-temps ensue, complicated by the presence of money-hunters. A couple of people believe that Catherine is the heir to the Allen fortune, of which they have an exaggerated estimate, as they do of her own family’s wealth. Henry Tilney, a second son educated as a clergyman, loves Catherine as she is, but at first resists, because his father, General Tilney, wants him to marry her for her money. When truth and clarity replace misconceptions and obscurity, the happiness of Catherine and Henry is assured. The tying-up of a few other loose ends brings happiness to Henry’s sister Isabel, too.
     The book is well done, but not to the same standard as Pride & Prejudice. The characterisation is adequate, the satire of the superficial society that “takes the waters” at Bath is nicely done, but somewhat perfunctory. Catherine, influenced by her reading of gothic romances and the atmosphere of Northanger Abbey (a partly ruined pile, filled with maze-like passages) suspects General Tilney of wife abuse (correctly) and of murder or immurement (incorrectly). Henry’s response when he discovers her suspicions does not ring true: he is altogether far too nice a chap. But I am judging by the rules of realistic fiction, which this is not. Austen began the book as satire, but she ends it as romance. Romances can get away with wish fulfillment versions of character and plot.
     The movie was, I think, better than Austen’s book. The romance was firmly placed in Catherine’s imagination, the characters were sharpened and augmented, the General’s tyranny over his children makes Henry’s mixed response to Catherine’s awful suspicions believable, and most of all Catherine’s naivete, her anxiety to please, her difficulty in resolving conflicting social demands, and her underlying good sense, kindness, and loyalty make her an appealing heroine who fully deserves the kind and loving husband that Henry will be. In this, the film makers took their cues from Austen’s other works, and gave us a movie of the book she might have produced if she had decided it was worth the revision. In any case, it has the authentic Austen touch: she shows us that marriage is a complex relationship of social demands and personal needs, and that a happy marriage is one that can meet the social demands because it satisfies the personal needs. This may be the reason Austen still makes sense today, when we have shifted the balance from the social to the personal. Book: **½, movie ***. (2011)

B. Foss & J. Anderson. Quiet Harmony: The Art of Mary Hiester Reid (2000)

     B. Foss & J. Anderson. Quiet Harmony: The Art of Mary Hiester Reid (2000) Catalogue and essays to accompany an exhibition. Mary Reid was married to George Agnew Reid, six years her junior. They met at art school in Pennsylvania (where she was born), and moved to Toronto after their marriage. Mary was an accomplished artist, but she kept herself in the background. In fact, the two first hits on-line for George Agnew bios don’t even mention her. Janet Anderson in her essay claims that Mary negotiated a difficult line between housewife and professional artist, by accepting conventional ideas about “woman’s sphere”, and making her art conform to those conventions, at least in subject matter. I suspect that George more or less subtly dominated her. He married a mutual friend and collaborator within a year or so of Mary’s death (she also is not mentioned in his bio).
     In any case, although Mary enjoyed both critical and commercial success in her lifetime, especially as “painter of flowers”, her popularity declined steeply after her death, and she was until this exhibition forgotten. Her art was much influenced by contemporary aesthetic conventions; it reminds me most of the “atmospheric impressionism” of Central Europe, itself a development of both French impressionism and earlier classicism. She is a superb colourist. Her A Harmony in Grey and Yellow is an astonishing exploration of these colours, offset with rosy pinks, subtle greens, and pale blues, using an arrangement of flowers as the ostensible subject. The soft and diffused lighting accentuates the subtlety and range of colours. Other titles also suggest a compulsion to explore colour. I think she was a true artist, who wanted to work out how to use paint to enhance one’s power to see the world around us.
     The few photographs of her show a guarded expression. Mary looks as if she did not want anyone to know her true feelings and attitudes. One taken at about age 50 does show a slightly melancholy and perhaps irritated set of the mouth. One must be careful what one reads in posed portraits, but the hints of suppressed anger are all the more significant for being almost perfectly concealed. She was 31 when she married George, who was 25. She was headed for spinsterhood, and perhaps discovering what must have appeared as a kindred spirit in art school gave her expectations of happiness that were not fully realised. Even George’s portrait of her shows a woman who is keeping herself hidden from the viewer’s gaze. This concealment is doubly significant considering that it was her husband that painted the portrait.
     George on the other hand got what he presumably wanted: a wife who would understand his artistic temperament, and would be willing to support him in his work. I’ve looked at images of his paintings: arranged chronologically, they show a competent workman who adapts easily to the latest fashions in draftsmanship and colour. Contrast Signing the Mortgage from 1890 with Dawn from 1925. The former is very “Victorian” in it classicist use of light, its placement of figures, its modelling, and above all in its telling of a sentimental story. Dawn, painted 35 years later, is an art nouveau pastiche in its use of dark foreground trees backlit by the rising sun, and a discreet nude semi-hidden in the shadows. It follows the new style of illustrating magazines and advertising, and decorating the home. The paintings are so different that one could be forgiven for thinking they were done by different men. I don’t get a sense of George from his pictures; I do get a sense of a man who was willing to paint all kinds of things, as long as they would sell. He was a decorator; in fact he was associated with what we would now call an interior decoration consultant. He had great skill, but lacked vision.
     As it is, I don’t see in George’s work what I see in Mary’s: an attempt to make sense of paint and light and colour. Not that George is a piker: his work is extremely skilful. And that is the highest praise I can give him. C W Jefferys (in a previously unpublished essay) claimed that Mary’s work was a perfect harmony of self and subject, the best form of self-expression, which he takes to be the essence of art. After looking a George’s work, I think I see what he means.
     Mary committed almost nothing to paper: she is one of the least documented people of that time, especially considering that her social and professional status both imply a legacy of notes, minutes of meetings, letters, a diary, and so on. Where are they? This reticence encourages the speculation that she deliberately concealed her true self, that she wore conventionality as a disguise. All we have are her paintings, which range from mildly interesting (Nightfall at Wychwood Park) to exceedingly competent (the chrysanthemum paintings, many of the landscapes) to stunning (A Harmony of Grey and Yellow, Morning Sunshine). She liked green, often the bright sunlit green that Varley also favoured, and like Varley, she used a range of oranges, reds and browns to contrast with the green.
     She also, like so many Canadian artists, expresses an odd stillness, as if the landscape, or the few figures she painted, were holding their breath, waiting for something ecstatic or terrible. Perhaps this stillness is another mode of disguise: the conventional subjects are painted in a way that suggests feelings, attitudes, and interests that she chose not to state explicitly in her work, but did hint at in her titles. Unlike George, whose lack of personal content I think results from his journeyman stance, Mary had something to say, but would not say it for fear of offending the carefully constructed middle-class roles she and her husband needed in order to make a living as artists. As long as potential buyers saw them as respectable providers of decorative and uplifting genre paintings, they were safe. What amazes (and delights) me is that a sense of Mary’s genius comes through her work despite her efforts to present herself as a woman who knew and accepted her role. Janet Anderson believes this role was imposed, and limited Mary, ignoring the evidence that an equally bourgeois role was imposed on George. Women and men generally accept the roles they perceive as proper for themselves, however much they may chafe against the specific strictures of their times. Mary, unlike her husband, transcended those strictures in her art. This may be why Jefferys saw her art as expressing her self. That he identified this self as a pure and womanly one merely shows that he too was a creature of his time. I don’t know whether he saw similar qualities of self-expression in George’s work. I don’t.
     All in all, an interesting read, with very good reproductions of Mary’s work. We bought this book some time ago, well after the exhibition, which we did not see. It was Marie’s choice. Good one. *** (2010)

Pamela Aidan Duty and Desire (2004)

      Pamela Aidan Duty and Desire (2004) Part 2 of the trilogy tells the story of Darcy during the gap between his leaving Meryton and his meeting Elizabeth Bennett at Lady de Burgh’s house. It’s essentially in two parts: his coming to terms with his sister Georgiana’s new maturity (which includes rather too much of a religious streak for his liking), and his near-entrapment by Lady Sylvanie, the half-sister of a gambling addict who wants the marriage to take place so he can get that part of her inheritance that will become his when she marries.
     The rebuilding of Darcy and Georgiana’s relationship is nicely done, if some-what too good to be true: the inevitable tiffs and misunderstandings don’t ring quite true, with both siblings being too much paragons of patience and other virtues. Also, Darcy’s objections to Georgiana’s decision to fulfill her religious duty by visiting the poorer tenants in person isn’t well explained: it’s ascribed to his pride of family, but I think it’s really a side effect of his realisation that being true to his faith requires that he forgive Wickham, a thought that grates on him, so he avoids it.
Darcy’s sense of duty is strong, after all; his mistaking of where his duty lies is merely evidence that he’s prone to human error like the rest of us. We also see him carrying out his duties to his estate, including his tenants and servants. His behaviour and demeanour give good grounds for Mrs Reynolds’ opinion that he is the best master that anyone would want.
     The sojourn in Oxfordshire at Lord Sayre’s (an old school mate) nearly does for Darcy. We see that like any man he’s susceptible to the pheromones of a woman who desires him. The plot is gothic, with hints of the supernatural, ancient charms and spells, and revenge driving the story, in which Darcy was cast as a pawn, but becomes the spoiler. This part of the book could stand alone, with a little fleshing out of the back story, which may be a reason that several readers think Duty and Desire the weakest of the three books. I think it’s well enough done, especially as in both parts of the book we see Darcy struggling to reconcile himself to his duty, in the latter case, his duty to family, which requires that he get a wife and produce heirs. Darcy’s man Fletcher plays a major role, rather like that of Bunter to Lord Peter Wimsey. Aidan has some trouble getting the relationship right, I think; it’s difficult for us to conceive of a master-servant relationship in which familiarity coexists with a huge (and sometimes harshly enforced) difference of status.
     By the end of the book, it’s not yet clear whether Darcy has understood that a duty that destroys his sense self is no duty at all. Nor is it clear that he has come to see that Elizabeth’s character matters more than her unfortunate relatives. We know only that she is always on his mind, and when he fingers the little bundle of embroidery thread that he kept instead of returning to her, we see that he cannot help himself. Desire keeps insinuating itself into what he conceives as his duty. **½ (2010)

Ruth Rendell. A New Lease of Death (Sins of the Fathers) (1969)

     Ruth Rendell. A New Lease of Death (1969) (AKA as Sins of the Fathers, and dated 1967 on Fantastic Fiction's website. Wexford plays a peripheral role in this book, which focusses on a clergyman, Henry Archery, whose son Charles wants to marry Tess Kershaw, the daughter of a murderer, Herbert Arthur Painter, who axed his employer because he wanted £200. Archery thinks heredity will make her a villain, which displays not only uncharity, but also ignorance. Wexford is convinced Painter did it. Archery’s (and Charles’) digging finds no proof otherwise, but does unearth the fact that Irene, Tess’s mother, had had a brief (and serious) love affair with a local poet who died young, and married Painter when she discovered she was pregnant with the poet’s child. So, truly, Tess’s Daddy was no murderer.
     This is an awkward novel. Rendell is intrigued by her main character, a 40-something man of probity, honour, and respectability, who finds himself overtaken by a sudden passion for a beautiful woman whom he first sees at the hotel, and who turns out to be the wife of the prime alternative suspect (who is a sleaze ball, but not a murderer). I felt that this subplot was on the verge of becoming the main plot; and perhaps it was, in the first draft of the book. The interplay of class, respectability, love (both youthful and middle aged, both extra-marital and married) is well done, but it is not done enough.
     The book feels off balance; most of the narrative focusses on Archery, with Wexford brought in only to clarify plot points and add spoiler facts to Archery’s store of knowledge. By making Archery the main investigator, Rendell makes us want to know more about him. The truth, when Archery finds it, does him no good, that’s his punishment; but it heals rifts in Tess’s family and blesses Tess and Charles’s love. **½ (2010)

Carola Dunn The Winter Garden Mystery (1995)

     Carola Dunn The Winter Garden Mystery (1995) A lightweight crime romance. Daisy Dalrymple finds the body of Grace the parlourmaid in the winter garden of Occles hall, which she is writing up for Town and Country magazine. When the police arrest the girl’s suitor in order to avoid crossing the harridan who rules over the manor and the village, Daisy’s hackles rise. She insists on giving the police additional information, and when this proves fruitless, she calls Alec Fletcher, who of course solves the crime: it seems daddy done it, because he lost his temper when Grace tells him she’ll be leaving with a “cinema man”. Nice period colour, pleasant main characters, and a slow but steady advance of the relationship between Daisy and Alec make this a pleasant read. Fluff, but good fluff. **½ (2010)

Donna Andrews. Cockatiels at Seven (2008)

     Donna Andrews. Cockatiels at Seven (2008) An amiable bit of fluff: Recently married faculty wife Meg Lanslow is introduced as a blacksmith, but after the first chapter, no more is said about that. Her semi-estranged friend Karen brings her toddler Timmy for Meg to babysit, then disappears. Intermixed with the cutesy story of how Meg copes with a two-year-old we read of her search for her friend, her discovery of an embezzling scheme, and a dead body. As one might expect, the least likely person is the perpetrator: just once, I’d like to see a logically developed story in which the most likely person done it. Meg’s husband Michael turns out to a natural father, so we may expect scenes of family bliss in future episodes of the series. Oh, didn’t I tell you? It’s a series, all right. It’s also funny, if the award the author received is to be believed. OK, I’m being a bit cruel: there are some funny bits, and the overall tone is sunny and fair, with humid heat to deaden things down a bit. Not a bad read, but not a good one either. ** (2010)

Agatha Christie. Murder in Mesopotamia (1935)

     Agatha Christie. Murder in Mesopotamia (1935) Another tale of domestic murder, this time the husband is the perp. Told by Nurse Leatheran, hired by the husband to look after his wife, who appears to suffer from nervous fancies, this is one of three or four stories set in or around archeological digs. The nurse is a good story teller, despite her modest assessment of her abilities. Poirot’s detection proceeds in a workmanlike manner, but the denouement is unsatisfying: It assumes that a wife would not recognise her supposedly dead husband twenty years later, when he woos and wins her for a second time. Christie makes much of her self-absorption, but I don’t believe that it’s sufficient to account for this plot point. ** (2010)

Agatha Christie. The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

     Agatha Christie. The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) The novel that introduces Miss Marple, presented here as much more fluttery and muddled than she was to become. But the streak of ruthlessness is already present. Colonel Protheroe, the victim, is a nasty piece of work, a self-righteous bully, but that’s insufficient grounds for murdering him. Again we have a bad husband, a suffering wife, and a dysfunctional family. His death is carefully planned. It’s the planning that does in the murderers. In many of her stories, Christie shows that the more elaborate the plan, the more likely it is to go wrong somewhere. In several stories, Poirot remarks that the simple, spur-of-the moment murder is much harder to solve, because its very simplicity means there is little to go on. One of Christie’s best ***½ (2010)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947) (Movie)

     The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947) [D: Irving Reis. Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Shirley Temple] Cary Grant must escort the judge’s teen-age sister (Shirley Temple) until her crush on him wears off. The alternative is proceeding with charges of assaulting the D. A. and going to jail. Enough ain’t-that-crazy-fun episodes ensue to fill out the running time to 95 minutes. The judge (Myrna Loy) who (under protest) has agreed to this odd arrangement falls in love with Grant and vice versa. Fade out.
     A nicely done example of the best of Hollywood product in the golden years: a comedy that well-constructed, psychologically plausible enough to suspend disbelief, with well-written dialogue and the kind of visuals that tell the story without requiring 100% of the audience’s attention. I found this VHS video on the new-to-you table at our church, and will take it back for someone else to enjoy. Shirley Temple’s recent death reminded me that I couldn’t recall ever seeing her in a movie. I’m glad to have seen her in this one. The usual film clips of her as a child actor show her performing tricks, not acting. She was a good actor. ***

Sherlock: His Last Vow (2013) (TV series)

     Sherlock: His Last Vow (2013) The TV series has come His Last Bow, and like the other films, has taken Doyle’s story as inspiration, not as source. The visuals emphasise the multiple layers of secrecy, betrayal, and conspiracy. It’s a complicated plot running at several levels, which are interconnected by the usual villain, a power-hungry psychopath. We learn even more about Watson, his wife Mary, Mycroft and Sherlock’s childhoods; that’s one of the strengths of this Sherlock series, it takes the characters seriously, they’re not just plot devices. Well done as story-telling, and especially as visual narrative. For once, the current stylistic schticks (helicopters, rapid cutting, shifting camera, layers of glass and multiple reflections, etc) work as they should. The last scene points to a sequel: Moriarty is back. ****

The Changeling (2009) (Movie)

     The Changeling (2009) [D: Clint Eastwood. Angelina Jodie, John Malkovitch] Mrs. Christine Collins, a widow, says goodbye to her son at school; when she returns in the evening, he’s gone. Six months later, the LAPD claim they’ve found him, but it’s not her Walter. She fights them about this, embarrasses them, and they escalate their attempts to control and silence her. A pastor who has been fighting LAPD corruption helps her. The chance pickup of a runaway boy links her son’s disappearance to a serial murderer of young boys. A commission of inquiry looks into the case, and orders changes to the LAPD. The murderer is convicted. Mrs Collins refuses to believe her boy is one of his victims, and continues to look for him the rest of her life.
     This is based on a true story, but with many chnages. See The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. for the full story. Clint Eastwood’s problem was how to present it with both dramatic tension (since the general outlines of the story will be known by many movie-goers) and a plausible characterisation of the main actors. All the actors turn in plausible performances, aided by above average writing. Eastwood and his editor know how to cut the shots so that the narrative rhythm matches the tension of the story. The photography is in muted colours, which has become a clichĂ© for stories set in the early 20th century, mimicking the photos of the time.
We didn’t expect the movie to be as good as it is. Recommended ***½

Monday, February 17, 2014

Tom Cahill. How the Irish Saved Civilization

     Tom Cahill. How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995) Cahill backs up his claim with an imaginative reconstruction of why and how the Irish adopted (and adapted) Christianity. St Patrick, a romanised Christian Briton, appealed to their Celtic gloom and sense of martyrdom. They had a tradition of killing a man as a sacrifice to the terrible forces that would otherwise overwhelm them. Jesus’s crucifixion was to them a confirmation of their sense of indebtedness to the gods; he was an analogue of the dying Gaul, a central sacrificial figure in their mythology.
     They also had a great sense of history, and a grand tradition of oral literature. Patrick taught them letters, and they used this new technology not only to record their own traditions, but even more to absorb the knowledge and traditions of the peoples over the seas. In this way they preserved classical literature and philosophy as well as early Christian theology and the scriptures. The adapted the Eastern practice of solitary hermitages into sociable groups of like-minded men (and women, and sometimes both), thus founding the monastic tradition. They founded monasteries all over Ireland and Scotland, and then moved south and east into England and Europe. They christianised Europe north and west of the Alps, and that’s how they saved civilisation.
     Cahill writes wonderfully well; he has the Irish/Celtic gift of smithing words. He quotes enough original sources and provides enough hard data that his thesis rings true. The book’s a history of the imagination rather than a history of ideas. In constructing it, Cahill reminds us that ideas without imagination are stillborn. Read it, you’ll enjoy it even if your skepticism is aroused. ***

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Alan Bullock. Hitler: A Study of Tyranny (1962)

     Alan Bullock. Hitler: A Study of Tyranny (1962) This is the second, revised edition, in which Bullock has taken advantage of documents that weren’t available for the first edition, published in 1952. The story of Hitler’s life and career is fascinating, as a train wreck is fascinating. In the 1920s some entertainment entrepreneurs staged locomotive collisions. That’s what Hitler’s career looks like: the locomotives accelerate, they reach top speed, and then they collide. Hitler’s career accelerated, he got everything he wanted, and then he crashed, taking about 50,000,000 humans beings with him.
     I won’t summarise Bullock’s story. It does clarify a number of things that I had a muddled knowledge of, such as the sequence of events that led up to the destruction of Czechoslovakia. There’s no question that Hitler understood and exploited other people’s weaknesses; he was a master at probing the pressure points that would enable him to manipulate people into doing what he wanted. Then, when he achieved all his political goals (all outlined in Mein Kampf), he began to follow his fantasies. For a man who claimed to have read and understood history, he was remarkably ignorant of actual structures of governance. Bullock several times reminds us that Hitler disliked the work of governing; this no doubt explains his weird ideas about the power of the English King, and especially of his bete noir, “the Jews”. He himself expected things to happen simply because he wanted them to. “Will” was his Leitmotif. I don’t think he ever understood how his program was in fact implemented, how much organisational and logistic work was needed to realise the results of political maneuvering, still less what had to be done to make his political campaigns possible. This was, I think, the main reason he never understood how impossible his military plans were. Compare him to Churchill, who had had practical experience at precisely that level of organising the logistics of war during his time at the Admiralty in the first World War
     My impression of Hitler is that he was a psychopath in the grip of a fantasy. “Psychopath” is a word Bullock doesn’t use; it wasn’t in wide circulation when he wrote his book, nor was the concept. The research that firmed up the concept was really just beginning to gain respectability. But Bullock’s portrait of the man shows us all the traits of psychopathology. Narcissism, egomania, inability to empathise, tendency to erupt in fury when crossed, use of other people as instruments for ego-gratification, blaming others, etc. He was also fundamentally lazy.
     A good book, albeit a profoundly depressing one. ***

A. A. Fair. (Earle Stanley Gardener). Bachelors Get Lonely (1961)

     A. A. Fair. (Earle Stanley Gardener). Bachelors Get Lonely (1961) Not a Perry Mason tale, but a simple pulp fiction, with lots of breezy dialogue and innuendo of the kind the pulp fiction reader might consider daring. There’s an odd kind of innocence about this genre: although the matter is crime and vice and sleaze, the PI is unaffected by the evil he plows through. I can see why Gardener wrote this stuff under a pen name, it’s not up to his Perry Mason stories in plotting. But otherwise, it’s of a piece with them: They’re “clean”, in the old fashioned sense of zero profanity and decidedly ungraphic sex, what there is of it. Pleasant enough, but not the kind of book I want to read more of, even at ten cents a used copy. *½ (2010)

Agatha Christie. The Moving Finger (1942)

     Agatha Christie. The Moving Finger (1942) A poison pen letter writer prompts what appears to be suicide, but of course it’s not. The perpetrator wanted his wife out of the way so that he could marry the governess, who hadn’t a clue as to his feelings. The story’s told from the p.o.v. of a convalescing fighter pilot, who’s moved to the village with his sister. An awkward young colt of a girl figures as his love interest, and a nice friendly doctor as his sister’s. Like many of these early Christies, the husband is a charming devil, the marriage is dysfunctional, and young lovers find the proper mates. I think Christie really wanted to write romances (which she did, as Westmacott), and provided romances disguised as crime stories because her readers expected detective puzzles. But the smuggled in as much romance as she could. Nicely done. The video with Jane Hickson gives us much better insights into the characters, so I'd recommend seeing this story instead of reading it. Unless you're a diehard Christies fan, which I am. **½ (2010)

August Derleth. The Memoirs of Solar Pons (1930-51)

     August Derleth. The Memoirs of Solar Pons (1930-51) Foreword by Luther Norris. Derleth, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and minor US novelist, was an admirer and imitator of Conan Doyle. His Solar Pons is one of the best pastiches of the inestimable detective. The stories work well as puzzles, although the occasional Americanisms can jar, and the style is often too florid and elaborately Victorian for my taste. Doyle wrote in a middle-high register, very difficult to imitate, since it is marked primarily by vocabulary, not syntax. Another’s lexicon is the most difficult of all to imitate. On the whole, a good read, but not a keeper for anyone other than a serious student of Holmesiana. Which I do not aspire to be. Derleth admired the tediously overwrought fantasy of H. P. Lovecraft. I think his own detective stories are better done. See Wikipedia's article on Derleth for more. **½ (2010)

C. S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters (1942)

     C. S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters (1942) Rereading these letters reminds me once again of Lewis’s clear thinking, and psychological insight. He understands that moral theology is about our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. So this book is not only a wonderfully clear exposition of Christian moral theology (and theology generally), it is also a wonderfully astute exploration of how we behave, and how we delude ourselves about the motives and consequences of our behaviour. It’s also a very topical reminder that Satan is the Father of Lies: most of Screwtape’s letters deal with ways of deflecting the “patient’s” thinking away from truth into confusion, which is the first step towards falsehood. It’s not really Wormwood’s fault that he’s incapable of the subtlety required to do this well. He lacks experience, and seems a bit of an enthusiastic dimwit. This dooms him to become food for the elder demon, for in Hell only results count, not intentions and abilities. Rather like “objective testing” in schools.
     One of my favourite theological insights (based on a psychological one) is that Satan is incapable of producing pleasure, joy, happiness, and contentment: these are gifts from God. The best Satan can do is produce imitations, and delude us into thinking (not feeling, please note) that these imitations are the real thing. Nor is Satan capable of pleasure and joy himself. Poor devil! **** (2010)

Ruth Rendell. The Best Man To Die (1969)

     Ruth Rendell. The Best Man To Die (1969) On the eve of a wedding, the best man dies violently. The groom was the only one who truly loved the man, everyone else saw him for the self-centred little sod he was. He’d overreached himself, blackmailing a dentist, who in return does him. A hit and run fatal road accident is the link between them. The usual well done Wexford, light on police procedure, heavy on the kind of interview that was already obsolescent in the amateur detective tales of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Rendell doesn’t play quite as fair as Christie with the clues, but she’s much better on character. I can’t recall whether this was one of the Wexford videos, which showed a gentler Wexford than here, but gentleness is not incompatible with ruthless pursuit of the evildoers. **½ (2010)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Agatha Christie. Hickory Dickory Dock (1955)

     Agatha Christie. Hickory Dickory Dock (1955) A postwar London student hostel is the setting for a clever puzzle, and an excuse for Christie to object to the after-effects of WW2. Well plotted, but the characters are flatter than usual, mostly stereotypes, and even Poirot is sketched rather than drawn. The narrative rhythm is that of a serial story, Christie has the exit lines and end-of-chapter punch lines down pat. She also caters to the goggle-eyed when she shows the murderer in action, without naming him or her, a trick that stands out because she so carefully names all her characters in the rest of the scenes. A rather perfunctory performance, IOW, which would no doubt be fleshed out satisfactorily in a full length (2 or 3 part) video. ** (2010)
     Update: the story was made into a feature length TV show in 1995
 

R. Buckman. Can We Be Good Without God? (2004)

     R. Buckman. Can We Be Good Without God? (2004) Of we can. Buckman argues the case with material from a variety of sources, but his main argument is for atheism. He does a good job, but his style is somewhat breathless and often pedestrian (a curious combination, come to think of it). The book would have done better in half the length, and its two main theses might have been more gracefully argued in medium length essays. He points out that religion is a social good, but is often perverted into an excuse for evil. Persing’s work indicates that the right brain is responsible for religious and spiritual experiences, which agrees with other research that it’s the integrator of experience and knowledge: seeing the whole picture could well lead to the kind of ideas we label spiritual. Because like all human propensities, religious experience and insight can be used for both good and evil, Buckman is inclined to argue that we should at the very least be as skeptical and critical of our religious impulses as of our other ones. Good advice. The book won’t convince the believer, but it may help him or her to develop a more thoughtful and empathic expression of it. Because of the style, only **½ (2010)

Ursula Leguin. The Compass Rose (1982)

     Ursula Leguin. The Compass Rose (1982) This collection of short stories displays a range of fantasy, psychology, naturalism, realism, satire, and more, that one does not expect after reading Leguin’s more conventional novels. But whatever mode or genre she chooses, Leguin manages to make the central character real to us: the naive, task-centred young psychiatrist who treats a political “patient” in a near-future fascist state, and slowly comes to understand the nature of the oppression that she serves, is especially well-done (The Diary of the Rose). But even the most strange notions, such as that all worlds are the dreams of souls who don’t know they are dreaming (The Pathways of Desire), and that our objective reality results from our dream-selves becoming independent of the dreamer, is made plausible because the characters in the story come to that insight. By keeping her narrator strictly objective, Leguin presents us with what the characters know and understand, which makes us take on their p.o.v., and by the time we realise how fantastic is the idea that Leguin is working out, we’re hooked, and believe it – at least while we read the story. *** (2010)

Judith Merril. Survival Ship and Other Stories (1973)

     Judith Merril. Survival Ship and Other Stories (1973) Merril’s selection of her own stories, published in Canada. The title story proposes the then daring notion that women are a) better suited to running a starship; and b) that the few men they bring along are their sex toys and inseminators. Several other stories deal with gender roles and relations, an issue that must have bothered Merril, who had three husbands, all SF writers, and all (judging from the limited biographical knowledge I have) rather immature when it came to gender roles.
     Still, the stories are all interesting, as much as a reminder of the themes that exercised the SF writers of the 60s and 70s, most of whom did not write space opera or hi-tech action pulp, but preferred to speculate on variations on human cultural notions and values. Merril was also a better than average imaginer of aliens, and her stories about human-alien contact are all worth reading. The saddest is about a race of humanoid giants who love all lifekind as a child does, just because it’s there. But when they come out of stasis and begin to make contact with the (very low-ranking) pilot who is moving the ship towards the docking station, the military man in charge of the operation gives the signal to destroy the ship, aliens and human and all. **½ (2010)

Ursula Leguin. Planet of Exile (1968)

     Ursula Leguin. Planet of Exile (1968) One thing Leguin does extremely well: she imagines whole societies, from the inside out. In this book, we have the terrans, marooned on a planet with a 60 year orbital period; and the local aboriginals, the hilfs (“highly intelligent life forms”).
     The plot involves a mating between Jakob Alterra, the leader of the dwindling human colony, barely holding out in the city by the sea, and facing probable extinction after 100 generations on the planet; and Rolery, the granddaughter of Wold, the hilf chieftain of the Tevara (both place and tribal name), who had a terran wife (she died in childbirth). The coming winter, with attacks from the Gaals, another race of indigenes, complicates the story, and provides the opportunity and impetus for the terrans and the hilfs to co-operate in holding off the Gaals, who have, for the first time ever, united under one leader, have destroyed the allies of Tevara, and want to loot it of grain and people on their migration south.
      The book feels thin and incomplete, it’s hardly more than a novella. We would like to know a good deal more about the hinted at undercurrents of desire and conflict in both societies, and a good deal more of the back story. There is a brief speculation that the star’s radiation has pushed humans into adapting to the local bio-chemistry, and that Jakob and Rolery will have children. The last line makes clear that Jakob thinks of the planet as his home. It is no longer a Planet of Exile.
     Leguin gives us the events from several human and hilf points of view, which enables us to feel and imagine living on an alien world in contact with an alien society. Of course, the hilfs aren’t really that alien. Leguin (the daughter of anthropologists) invents both societies as variations of human ones. Still, the POV trick works: we briefly engage in the lives of the characters, and we care enough about them to be glad that Jakob and Rolery will found a family, that terrans and hilfs will produce a hybrid race. This compensates for the skimpiness of the narrative as a whole. **½ (2010)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Judith Merril. Tesseracts (1985)

     Judith Merril. Tesseracts (1985) Judith Merril (1923-1997) was known as “the mother of SF.” Born and raised in the USA, she moved to Toronto, and spent the last third or so of her life there. More on Wikipedia's page about her.
     She wrote a number of stories and novels herself, but she will likely be remembered as a first class anthologist. This collection of SF stories by Canadian writers shows why. Merril was not afraid to go beyond the conventional modes, tropes, and motifs of the genre. The result is a collection of tales, anecdotes, classic SF, experimental writing, poetry, satire, and surrealistic pieces that defy classification.
     In one story, the old people decide they are birds, and take to perching in trees. The story ends when they migrate south. In another, the reality of the story changes every few sentences. In a third, society has devolved (my term, deliberately) into a mass of “enclaves”, each of which represents a social experiment. In the most conventional story, a burglar discovers the apartment’s owner hooked into a joy-terminal, and rescues her from what may be attempted murder, or attempted suicide.
     As might be expected, the most common tones are irony, cheerful acceptance of the crazy, and elegy. Since the mid-80s, SF has moved more towards elegy and terror. This collection can be read as one of the last examples of an SF that, at least indirectly, offered hope. An excellent collection. *** (2010)

John Mortimer. Rumpole and the Age of Miracles (1988)

      John  Mortimer. Rumpole and the Age of Miracles (1988) Rumpole’s sense of justice is in some ways merciless. That’s why the injustices of the legal system upset him so. He has no scruples when it comes to winning a case, whether it’s a brief at the Old Bailey or some developing situation in Chambers. Not that his clients necessarily like what he does for them: He demonstrates Nigel Timson’s innocence by showing that his prospective father-in-law (a Pillar of the Establishment) is a crook, which costs Nigel his fiancee. None of these stories ends in a pure happiness; in every one, someone more or less innocent is hurt.
     The saddest story concerns the Culps. The father is a small time dealer in antiques and secondhand goods. His son is middle-school boy. His place is used as a drop-off for a crate of guns, of which Culp knows nothing at all. But during the raid, a Secret Service man is killed; and someone has to pay for this affront to law and order. So Culp Sr is framed, and Culp Jr is sent “into care”, despite Rumpole’s attempt to appeal to Phillida Erskine-Brown’s maternal instincts. But Phillida has just had to steel herself against the loss of her son to Bogstead, and so the appeal fails. I didn’t read this story, because I’d seen it in the TV series, and that was depressing enough. *** (2010)

Patrick Hamilton. The Charmer (1953) (orig. Mr Simpson and Mr Gorse)

     Patrick Hamilton. The Charmer (1953) Originally titled Mr Simpson and Mr Gorse, retitled and reprinted in 1989 to take advantage of the Masterpiece Theatre version of the novel. Two reactions: I’m impressed by Hamilton’s narrative technique, a nice example of the ironic distancing; and the video is quite different from the novel.
     The plot is simple: a psychopath named Gorse woos a middle-aged fool of a woman named Plumleigh-Bruce, and absconds with her money. Hamilton uses a carefully organised series of Parts and Chapters. His narrator knows a good deal more than his characters, or than he tells in this story (the second of a trilogy), which he tells from the vantage point of knowing the rest of Gorse’s life. But his carefully controlled, quasi-documentary, almost journalistic, and contemptuous narration keeps us reading. It also distances us from the rather repellent characters. Neither Gorse nor Plumleigh-Bruce are pleasant people, nor are Simpson and Major Parry, the other two rivals for Plumleigh-Bruce’s hand (or rather, money and plump charms). Hamilton despises them, but his dispassionate judgmental style draws us in, and we are both fascinated and repelled. Besides, we want to know whether they will get their comeuppance. Plumleigh-Bruce does, of course, and the last sentence assures us that Gorse will die. The hints about his subsequent career suggest it will be at the end of a rope. Reading all three parts of the trilogy would answer any questions we might have. ***½ (2010)
      The Masterpiece Theatre adaptation (1989) of the trilogy makes Plumleigh-Bruce a much more sympathetic character, and changes a number of plot points, chiefly having to do with Gorse’s relationship to Simpson. To call the video an “adaptation” of Hamilton’s novel is an exaggeration: it is many ways a new composition. ***½ (2010)

Sharyn McCrumb. The Windsor Knot (1990)

     Sharyn McCrumb. The Windsor Knot (1990) Number 5 in the Elizabeth Peters series. She is to be married quickly so that she and her new husband may attend a Royal Garden Party in Edinburgh, where Cameron Dawson is exercising his marine biology skills. The wedding will take place at the Chandler mansion (locale of the first story), but a small matter of murder might cause a mess. Fortunately, most of the teccing is done by the local sheriff, who does however call on Elizabeth’s forensic anthropology skills. The wedding proceeds without a hitch, the criminal is found, and Elizabeth and Cameron attend the Party. All’s well that ends well.
     The novel seems oddly incomplete. A number of side plots are started, but are dealt with perfunctorily. The characters and social context are sketched amusingly, but I feel that many opportunities for more satisfying satire and comedy were passed up. McCrumb has a sharp eye for human weakness, and is able to suggest depths of character that make us want to know more. That curiosity is not assuaged in this book. It looks as if McCrumb had a good outline for a story, but for some reason didn’t want to take the time to write a complete version. Perhaps her publishers didn’t want to invest in a bigger book. Perhaps she felt she’d done all she could with Elizabeth Peters, and decided to get her safely married off in order to end the series. Since I haven’t read the intervening books, I can’t tell. Anyhow, this book is more of a love-romance than a crime story. Pleasant entertainment. ** (2010)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Pride and Prejudice (1979) (TV review)

     Pride and Prejudice (1979) BBC TV. [D: Cyril Coke. Elizabeth Garvie, David Rintoul. Script by Fay Weldon] The date of this series is not clear. The VHS copy released by CBS is dated 1987; the wrapper gives 1985 as the BBC date; but the end credits give 1979. So that’s the one I go with.
     I bought this copy at a yard sale for a dollar, and as such it was an excellent investment. At almost four hours, that’s 25 cents an hour. As for its quality, I recall seeing it on TV (PBS? TVO?) way back when, and thinking that it was much better than the Greer Garson/Laurence Olivier film, which took, um, liberties with the plot. It also dithered between farce (Mrs Bennet, Katy, Lydia, Mr Collins) and comedy (Lizzie, Mr Darcy).
     This TV series has a consistent tone of semi-comic romance, the effect of Fay Weldon’s script. Weldon also takes some liberties, but all are based on clues in the text, so they work. For example, Charlotte and Lizzie share a laugh over Mr Collins. Unlike the 1995 series with Ehle and Firth, it sticks close to the book, and the general effect is, oddly, that of a filmed stage play. Again, I think it’s the effect of Weldon’s script, which relies more on words than on images to show the shifting moods and self-doubts of the main characters.
      There’s also a curious lack of dramatic tension, especially in the pivotal scene of Darcy’s first, insulting proposal of marriage. I think the text makes it clear that Darcy is crazy with love; hence his inability to frame his proposal in any but self-regarding words. The poor sod can’t believe that he’s besotted with Miss Elizabeth Bennett, a lady with low connections and an appalling mother. His proposal is both a genuine offer, and a self-reproach that he can’t control himself. Guaranteed to arouse Lizzie’s anger, in other words, which it does.
     Lizzie has already noticed Darcy’s “regard” during the visits to Rosings, and has begun to experience doubts about her feelings towards him. In addition, her contempt for Collins’ fawning on Lady de Burgh has roused her contrary mischievousness; she might have accepted Darcy’s courtship as much to annoy Collins and assert independence as for an opportunity to discover her true feelings about Darcy. But his proposal (temporarily) hardens her heart. If he had offered courtship before marriage, she might have accepted his advances, but then the story would have veered off in a quite different direction. Weldon cuts both Darcy’s and Lizzie’s speeches, and so removes the opportunity for showing the violently mixed emotions. So this scene doesn’t work as it should, it doesn’t show us that both protagonists must change in some fundamental way before they can marry, which is of course their destiny.
     I think that the theme of Pride and Prejudice is marriage: the proper grounds for it, the proper relationship between husband and wife, the possibilities of happiness or various degrees of misery. The obvious contrast is between Charlotte and Lizzie. Charlotte settles for a fool whom she will manipulate, but who has an assured income sufficient for her to live comfortably and enjoy her children and the respectable status in the parish. She will make an independent life for herself within the constraints of her marriage and her place in society. For her, marriage is a means to financial security and hence, paradoxically, the only personal independence she can have. The alternative would be spinsterhood, which was for her time and class a sad fate.
     Lizzie wants a man who is her equal. She’s her father’s favourite because she has independence of mind and spirit; she wants a man who like her father respects these qualities. She won’t settle for anything less; spinsterhood would be preferable to marriage such as Charlotte’s. Her irritation with Darcy arises as much from his initial blindness to her qualities as from his disrespect for her family.
     But there are several other examples of good and bad marriages. Austen does no more than hint at the cause of the Bennett’s failed relationship; she’s caustic about the odds of Lydia and Wickham’s odds of happiness; she indicates than Jane and Bingley are perfectly suited; she shows an example of a good marriage in the Gardiners; and of course Lizzie and Darcy will have an ideal marriage. Romances are fairy tales, after all. The video follows Austen, but doesn’t expand on the hints nor follow the clues.
     Overall, this adaptation works, and Austen fans will forgive its shortcomings. But the later version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth works much better. The similarities between the two versions are the characters; there is little difference between Rintoul’s and Firth’s Darcys, and Garvie’s and Ehle’s Lizzies. The main difference lies in the visuals. For example, several times we see Darcy and Lizzie from a vast distance, tiny figures walking through the huge parks surrounding the houses. Why? The interior scenes often look like stage sets, even when filmed in real rooms. Odd.
     Bottom line: I enjoyed this video, but I fear it is of historical interest only. Austen fans should see it, but for most people I recommend the 1995 production. Disclosaure: I think Pride and Prejudice is the essential love romance, the book that defined the genre. **½

Monday, February 10, 2014

Pamela Aidan. An Assembly Such as This (2003)

     Pamela Aidan. An Assembly Such as This (2003) Aidan, a serious fan of Jane Austen, thought it was time to get Darcy’s side of the story. This is the first of a trilogy, which seems excessive, considering how economically Austen told Elizabeth Bennett’s version. Nevertheless, Aidan has managed a believable psychology for Fitzwilliam Darcy. The style is not quite as well done. Aidan wants to give us Austenite language, but too often she lapses into 20th century American. However, her register is generally consistent, so that after some initial irritation, I noticed only the most egregious mistakes.
     The central problem of Darcy is of course his realisation that Elizabeth Bennett is more than her social context, and his unwilling acceptance of his feelings towards her. His astonishingly condescending first proposal to her, and her rejection, form the pivot of the plot. Both he and she must recognise their failings before they can reconnect as equals. Aidan’s story takes us to the point where Darcy has raised doubts in Bingley about Jane’s feelings for him, and has persuaded him to leaves Hertfordshire, so we are not yet at that crucial juncture in Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship. Wickham has appeared, and begun to spread falsehoods about his connection to the Darcys.
     Since we know how the story unfolds, the only suspense in this version comes from Aidan’s skill in limiting Darcy’s knowledge of events, and her ability to show us that his lack of self-knowledge limits his ability to act as he should. Quite well done, I want to read the other two books, and may have to buy them as new copies. *** (2010)

Maxim Jakubowski. Pulp Action (2001)

     Maxim Jakubowski. Pulp Action (2001) A second anthology, according to the prefatory note, of typical noir pulp fiction from the 1920s to the present. The earlier tales are severely moral, even when the hero is a crook, for then he is a Robin Hood type, punishing guilt that the law can’t touch. They also tend to have more or less painful twists and excessively poetic justice. They remind us of a time when many people who would later turn to TV, and in our day to video games, read cheap fiction to pass the time.
     Some of the later stories focus more on the psychology of evil. A couple of stories edge into Raymond Carver territory, telling stories of ordinary people crossing some self-imposed boundary, and painfully coming to terms with their transgressions. In short, the collection reminds us that the short story of whatever type shows us the moral dilemmas of the day in crystalline detail. A few exemplify gore-porn, a genre I don’t like, but most could be transferred to prime-time TV or film with little or no change in tone or ethical perspective. As indeed many such stories were, when movies and then TV were the staple entertainment for most of us.
     Cliches and stereotypes (dumb cops, smart amateurs, simple-minded crooks, lascivious molls, etc) abound, but that’s part of the charm. The 70-odd year span represents two to three generations, and the contrast between the early and most recent stories shows us how America has changed. There is a kind of naive innocence about the early tales, an assumption of firm ethical standards that corrupt politicians and bent cops can’t transgress with impunity. But noir is also a harbinger of the future: the corrupt pols and bent cops almost win, and the weary detectives that bring them down don’t find much joy in the exercise.
     Overall, the collection tends to horror rather than crime. The older stories triggered nostalgia, I used to read such stuff back in the 50s and 60s. The more recent stories are darker, and a couple are written merely to give the reader the frisson of encountering extreme evil without the attendant danger. 0 to **½ (2010)

Gordon Snell. More Marvellous Canadians (2002), Dik Browne. Hagar the Horrible’s Viking Handbook (1985)

     Gordon Snell. More Marvellous Canadians (2002) Ill. By Aislin. Verses and Aislin cartoons form sketch-bios of miscellaneous Canadians. The quality varies, as one might expect, and the pieces on living persons are of course out of date by now. I wonder, for example, what Snell would have to say on Conrad Black’s jail time. A nice little gift book, which this was: Fay gave it to me. A pleasant diversion from more serious concerns. Aislin's cartoons are generally more informative than the text. ** (2010)

     Dik Browne. Hagar the Horrible’s Viking Handbook (1985) Hagar the Horrible enjoyed a vogue in the early 1980s, and still appears in many comics pages; this book exploits it. Amusing enough, for Hagar is really a lovable rascal, but quite tame and in places even lame. Browne mixes fact and (Hagar-) fiction to good effect. ** (2010)

J. M. Coetzee. Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)

      J. M. Coetzee. Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) This is a gloomy book, about oppression, “interrogation”, and the power of the State. Worth reading, I suppose, but I’m not in the mood for gloom and doom.
     Coetzee (pron. Koo-tzee) was one of the white South African anti-apartheid writers, which gained him an international reputation and a Nobel Prize (the Nobel Prize committee prefers tendentious writers who deal with serious themes, preferably political, which I think is a serious mistake). His fiction, what I’ve read of it, has a strong political tone, it is in fact more concerned with theme than with character, plot, or setting. This makes his work heavy going. I read some of his short fiction (perhaps excerpts from longer tales) some years ago, and my impression then was that Coetzee is somewhat fixated on cruelty. Not that this is a bad thing in itself, but his descriptions of torture and violence verge on the pornographic. The opening pages of this book allude to torture; I have no need of descriptions of torture, however sketchy. I stopped reading on page 17.
     Odd fact: Coetzee is about two weeks younger than I am. * (2010)

Garrison Keillor. Pontoon (2007)

     Garrison Keillor. Pontoon (2007) “A novel of Lake Wobegon”, according to the subtitle. It’s a novel only in the sense that there is am extended central narrative line that ties all the stories past and present together. Evelyn Peterson has died, her daughter Barbara arranges the disposal of her ashes as requested, and realises that like her mother she needs freedom to be herself. She has spent too much time adapting herself to other people’s wishes and expectations. A couple of other stories intersect, making for a bizarre finale, but much of the book deals with Evelyn’s and Barbara’s history. Each chapter advances our knowledge of these two central characters, as well as several other citizens of Lake Wobegon. The style and form is that of Keillor’s radio tales, rambling, apparently formless, yet always arcing back to whatever motif or theme began the tale. A good read, improved if you’ve heard Keillor’s News From Lake Wobegon, and can read with his voice in your head. *** (2010)

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Agatha Christie. Murder on the Calais Coach (1934) (Murder on the Orient Express)

     Agatha Christie. Murder on the Calais Coach (1934) This is Murder on the Orient Express, by which title it is now known even in the US of A. This copy is dated 1973, well before the Poirot movies and TV series, as well as a number of nostalgia videos about the great trains of the world, made Americans aware of the Orient Express.
     I reread it because a friend had sent us a video of the current Poirot version. The book is a straightforward puzzle, with minimal characterisation. Possibly inspired by the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, it deals with retribution: the acquitted murderer of a kidnapped child is killed by a dozen people involved in the case. Since the case is solved before the authorities arrive to rescue the snow-stranded train, Poirot has to decide whether to reveal his solution (to which the perpetrators confess, albeit indirectly), or whether to present the intended misleading solution that they had devised to hide their vengeance. Poirot leaves it up to the director of the Wagon Lits company, through whose good offices he had obtained a 1st class berth despite the (unusually) heavily booked train.
     The movie reinvented the story, taking Poirot’s well-known merciless judgement of murderers as a clue to his character. Even a horrible woman has a right to live, for example (Appointment with Death). Here, he has to wrestle with this principle, a character trait that is reinforced by depiction of his bedtime prayers, in which he thanks God for making him a Catholic. The allusion to the Pharisee in Luke is I think deliberate, especially since we also see the child killer at his prayers for forgiveness.
     But the jury of executioners has made up their minds: they will kill the man in such a way as to make it look like an attack from outside the train. It is only as their links to the murdered child are revealed that Poirot edges towards the truth, which brings with it an ethical dilemma: the child killer got off because he had connections with the Mob, who suborned the police, the prosecuting attorney, and the judge. Poirot does conceal the truth, but at great cost to himself. Ginger thought the movie somewhat melodramatic. But I think it was a well-done re-invention of the story, and a consistent extension of Poirot’s biography.
     The book is vintage if somewhat perfunctory puzzle crime fiction: **½ The movie is modern psychological crime fiction. ***

Shelby Spong. The Sins of Scripture (2005)

     Shelby Spong. The Sins of Scripture (2005) I’ve heard an interview with Spong (on CBC's Tapestry, with Mary Hines), and looked forward to reading this book. It says much that needs to be said, but I gave up on it about 1/4 of the way in. Spong’s writing is verbose and cliched; he’s much given to exclamation marks, too! * (2010)

Edith Pargeter. She Went to War (1942)

     Edith Pargeter. She Went to War (1942) Republished in 1989, this book is interesting both as a record of the first couple of years of WW2, when Britain suffered a series of defeats and Hitler conquered most of Europe, and as a character-portrait. These were the years of the Blitz, of Dunkirk, the Peloponnesian defeat, and Britain’s slow fumbling towards military skill and efficiency. It’s quite likely that if the Japanese hadn’t provoked the US into war, Britain would have had to make terms with the Reich.
     Catherine Saxon decides to join up as a WREN because she realises she’s fed up with the complacency of her upper-middle class social group, who take it for granted that other people will fight their wars for them. Her assignment is teletype operator, and she’s soon promoted to command her watch. She writes letters to Nick, an old family friend, maybe her uncle, a paralysed WW1 vet. The letters trace her growing political awareness, which increases when she meets a private, Tom Lyddon, who has fought in the Spanish Civil War. He is killed, but he writes to her from Greece and Crete, and Cyprus. The letters deal more with Catherine’s thoughts and actions than with details of the war itself. She does give vivid descriptions of what it feels like to be in a bomb shelter during a raid, descriptions that made me uncomfortable enough that I had to read them in small doses.
     Tom’s letters give enough details of the Greek campaign to show that in 1941 the generals and admirals were still unable to understand the importance of mobile armour and air cover, the lack of which led directly to the conquest of Greece. The fact that this conquest was welcomed by a large proportion of Greeks is not mentioned, possible because at the time it was not generally understood that Hitler’s racist doctrines were welcomed in many parts of Europe, and for that matter on the Allied side weren’t as vigorously opposed as they should have been. Both Canada and the US rejected many Jewish refugees, for example.
     Catherine slowly becomes aware of how the class system interferes with the war effort itself, as it did in WW1, when the largely aristocratic officer class found it difficult to adapt their strategic and tactical thinking to the new technologies of war. She’s determined to work for real change both during and after the war, a change that did in fact come when the British elected a Labour government instead of reinstalling Churchill and his Conservatives, and embraced the welfare state. It is not insignificant that those who oppose the notion that the state has social responsibilities refer to the “nanny state”. This phrase resonates with undertones of petty tyranny for a certain class of people, but is nearly meaningless to most of the rest of us.
     Pargeter, who later made a name (Ellis Peters) and small fortune for herself as the creator of Cadfael, is good at giving us a portrait of Catherine. She’s a complex person, who at the age 26 has begun to think for herself, and redefine her relationship with the world around her. Her undying love for Syddon is perhaps too much a convention of love romance, but her strength of character makes it plausible if not exactly believable. The politics are a little less convincing, because we read them with hindsight, and so much of what seemed certain or reasonable at the time has turned out to be deceptive and illusory. You can’t go home again, said Tom Wolfe; you can never again be the innocent and naive person you were. Knowledge and experience impede the imagination even as they liberate it. In any case, Pargeter used her own experiences, but without research into her life I don’t know to what extent Catherine reflects her own attitudes. *** (2010)

Sue Grafton. L is for Lawless, M is for Malice, N is for Noose, O is for Outlaw

     Sue Grafton. L is for Lawless The title alludes to a psychopath who betrayed his fellow robbers many years ago, killed one of them, and has been waiting to get the loot ever since. There isn’t any loot worth mentioning, but by the time Kinsey has discovered this it’s too late. She also doesn’t get paid, as the family that wanted her to prove their father’s military service (so they would get death benefits) welshes when it turns out he was using stories of war service as a cover. One of the weaker tales in the series, with a surprisingly creaky plot. Even the psycho seems overdone. ** (2010)

    M is for Malice Kinsey finds a long lost black sheep, reformed of course, whose murder does little to help his dysfunctional family mend its rifts. The murderer is the last surviving relative of a girl betrayed by this family, but she has it all wrong: the lost sheep even then had a fine sense of honour. The story ends, uncharacteristically, with the perp suiciding by running into traffic. Grafton is back in top form in this novel, with Kinsey revealing a few more bits about her past, the social satire sharp as ever, and vexing questions of justice, loyalty, betrayal and love left unresolved, as they are in real life. *** (2010)


     N is for Noose (1999) The noose figures in two murders that a dead small town cop was investigating. His widow wants Kinsey to find out why he was morose and tense in his final weeks, before a heart attack killed him. The perp attacks Kinsey, and nearly kills her in a final confrontation (a staple motif in Grafton’s books), she suffers the slings and arrows of small-town suspicion, and is glad to return to her medium-sized city. The mood and ambience of a late spring with gloomy weather and glooming mountains overlooking the town, the characters as narrow and closed in as the valley in which their town stands, the wary respect of the cops for Kinsey, are better done than usual. The plot is somewhat Patricia Cornwellish, which is not a compliment. **½ (2010)

     O is for Outlaw (1999) The outlaw is Kinsey’s ex-husband Mickey McGruder, whom she hasn’t seen for fourteen years. She walked when he asked her to provide an alibi for the death of Benny Quintero. Now he’s been shot, and two detectives from L.A. visit her because Mickey apparently made a 30-minute phone call to her a few days earlier. A storage-scavenger offers her a box of stuff he found in McGruder’s storage locker, whose contents were auctioned because he hadn’t paid the rent. In the box Kinsey finds a letter that arrived the day after she walked, which exculpates Mickey. So naturally Kinsey has to discover what really happened, who tried to kill her ex, and who killed Benny. She’s of course nearly killed herself before she unmasks the killer, but this time the plot is less important than the characters. Well done, as usual. **½ (2010)

Peter Lovesey. Swing, Swing Together (1976), Mad Hatter’s Holiday

     Peter Lovesey. Swing, Swing Together (1976) Harriet Shaw, skinny dipping with two of her classmates, witnesses suspects in a murder case. This is enough for Det. Sgt Cribb to take her along with him while he chases the suspects down the Thames. The story alludes to and loosely follows Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K. Jerome, 1889). It turns out that Harriet has in fact witnessed a murder in progress, done as a test of the method to be used on the intended victim. The chase ends in Oxford; the murderers did the job at the behest of a prison warden who was obsessed with his reputation for respectability. In the finale, Harriet is “rescued” from the advances of a lecherous don (whom she suspected of the crime) by the nice young constable who gallantly lent her his cape when she emerged from the Thames like Venus on the half shell, so that she could return to where she had left her clothes. So that’s all right. A nicely done entertainment; we saw it on TV some years ago, too. Lovesey does good mild social comedy and satire. **½ (2010)

     Mad Hatter’s Holiday Set in Brighton after the mass-holiday season, with an intricate plot, both as a murder mystery and as a family drama. We see most of it from the point of view of an almost pathetic little man, a dealer in optical instruments, who spends his holidays admiring women through his binoculars. But this time he falls hard for his fantasy mistress, strikes up an acquaintance with her and her family, and assists Det. Sgt. Cribb and Thackeray with his naive and painfully respectable evidence. The murderer, a nasty adolescent sociopath, is murdered, but Cribb doesn’t pursue the matter. He’s satisfied to know the truth, while the coroner’s inquest returns a verdict of murder by person(s) unknown. Well done. **½ (2010)

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Linda Shapiro. Yesterday’s Toronto 1870-1910 (1978)

     Linda Shapiro. Yesterday’s Toronto 1870-1910 (1978) A collection of photos with reasonably well-researched captions. Nostalgia trip, really, with selections intended to bring back warm feelings about the Good Old Days, which of course weren’t. But the pictures are useful, and the information for the most part is too. Here and there a few reminders of reality help us understand what rare treats the times at the beach or at the Ex really were: wages were low, cost of living was high. We are much better off now, in all respects. One of my continual annoyances are references to long ago prices without reminders of wages. When a dollar a day was a decent wage for a shop girl, a nickel for tram fare was a lot of money. ** (2010)

Elizabeth D’Oyley. English Diaries (1930)

     Elizabeth D’Oyley. English Diaries (1930) A school book, apparently aimed at senior high school. The flyleaf is inscribed “J A Bennett VB”, which I think would be grade 11 here. The selection starts with Charles Wriothesley (pron. rizely or rizzly) through Pepys, Boswell, Sir Walter Scott, etc. Most of the diarists are remarkably circumspect about their own reactions to the events they describe, the main exception being Pepys and Fanny Burney. In part this is no doubt the effect of  D’Oyley’s care in selecting suitable passages. An interesting read, since it provides eye-witness accounts of historical events, and implies differences in the goals of education between the 1930s and now. **½ (2010)

Ed Gorman & Martin Greenberg. Solved (1991)

     Ed Gorman & Martin Greenberg. Solved (1991) What do you get when you ask crime fiction writers to  write stories that “solve” unsolved crimes of the past? You get a pile of pulp fiction. The stories here offer all the familiar formulas: conspiracies, mob-corrupted politicians, psycho-pathologies, megalomaniacs, and so on. Plus more or less vivid gore. Entertaining reads, but not especially memorable, in fact, I’m having a hard time recalling the stories.
The Jack the Ripper tale works best, I think: a vicar’s wife tells how she comes to suspect her pompously pious and uncharitable husband is the Ripper, and how she expects to burn in Hell for having poisoned him with arsenic. Told obliquely in the first person, it works because the character is plausibly devout. **

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Sam Berns, progeria patient (link)

Progeria is a genetic disorder that results in premature aging. I've seen a number of documentaries about it. Here's Sam Berns talking about his philosophy of life. He died on January 10th of this year, a little less than one month after giving this talk.

Sandra Ley. Beyond Time (1976)

     Sandra Ley. Beyond Time (1976) The stories deal with time, time slippage, what-ifs, etc. The most common trope is the multi-world interpretation of quantum mechanics, but a couple of stories take the observer effect to mean a conscious observer, the author apparently not realising that in any interaction between particles each is the observer of the other. That’s what Heisenberg’s Uncertainty is really about.
     Anyhow, the most common tone is elegiac and meditative. Contemplation of what-if will prompt regrets for the actual. Any slippage into an alternate reality will prompt nostalgia for what was lost. Questions of value and purpose appear without prompting: if every choice triggers a new set of realities, then none has more purpose or meaning than any other.
     But despite these philosophical implications, the stories tend to the pedestrian and pompous. The most entertaining simply work out the more or less ironical consequences of a single glitch, with Jefferson (for example) a prime mover in the struggle for the independence of England from America, after George III’s son Frederick establishes himself in the colonies and moves the centre of power from London to Washington. I didn’t read all the tales. * to **½ (2010)

Reay Tannahill. Sex in History (1980)

     Reay Tannahill. Sex in History (1980) A nicely done survey of sexual customs and practices from as far back as they can be inferred from archeological data up to the 1970s. Tannahill notes that through most of recorded history women were oppressed and sex was controlled. Even in the most libertine eras, there were strict limits on what was permissible, and usually a barrier between public and private behaviours.
     The great change from pagan (Roman) practices and Christian ones came about because of St. Augustine and St. Jerome’s hang-up. Both men were terrified of women and sex. This prompted them to misread Paul’s comments, easy enough to do, since Paul himself was somewhat ambivalent about the place and value of sex. He accepted the Jewish tradition of sex as a sacred duty and joy within marriage, but also approved of celibacy (an un-Jewish concept), mostly, it seems, because of the disgust aroused by the libertine Romans. Christians were to live a pure life, which meant one as unlike the Romans as possible.
     Sex inevitably includes marriage and family, and that’s the nexus of social and legal control. Marriage has always been seen as a duty and a means of controlling property. Ironically, the Christian emphasis on limiting sex to marriage in the long run strengthened the family as a personal relationship, so that we’ve now arrived at the stage where people see no connection between duty and marriage. Women are somewhat less oppressed now than they were 30 years ago. Young women take it for granted that they can do what they want, and “domestic violence” is not only no longer accepted, there is a determined effort to at least minimise it. That is of course in the West. In most of the world, females are still considered the less important sex. *** (2010)

Sue Grafton. K is for Killer (1994)

     Sue Grafton. K is for Killer (1994) It’s hard to believe that Grafton’s books are set in the early 90s. The only clue is the absence of computers, which have changed ways of doing things faster than any prior technology. They are the most disruptive technology ever invented. (I just read a gloomy comment on Arizona’s anti-immigration law, sponsored and supported by white Republican males with close connections to the Tea Party, which itself could not grow so fast so quickly without the internet.)
     Anyhow, Kinsey Millhone investigates a ten-month old murder, which was motivated by money, graft, and political corruption. The story is nicely twisty, with a couple of plausible suspects cleared one fact at a time. A crime boss, who had intended to marry the victim on the day she was murdered, wants Kinsey to pass on the identity of the murderer, which she does, because although she knows who he is, she doesn’t have the evidence to convict him. Kinsey realises that her desire for vengeance overcomes her respect for the law and due process. In a way this was foreshadowed by the story’s setting, almost exclusively at night.
     Grafton as usual delivers the goods; A well plotted tale, interesting characters, and sufficient atmosphere to produce plausibility. **½ (2010)

Eric Wright. Death of a Hired Man (2001)

     Eric Wright. Death of a Hired Man (2001) The second Mel Pickett story. He’s now married to Charlotte (Wright’s time lines are wonky, they don’t match Buried in Stone, the first Pickett story), and they spend time in both Toronto and Larch River.
     A man who rented Pickett’s cabin for a nominal sum is found murdered. Pickett is convinced he himself was the intended victim. A strait-laced couple connected to the victim provides plausible red herrings, and a string of robberies divert the investigation. Pickett wants to ensure his property goes to his “granddaughter”, and proposes to adopt her father, his supposed son, who wants to meet him. Mel and Charlotte are still working out their relationship, a process nicely observed by Wright. All in all, a well done novel, engaging enough that I wish Wright had written more Mel Pickett stories. I’m still looking for the last Charlie Salter book. Wright’s books would make very nice TV series. *** (2010)

Grace Paley. The Little Disturbances of Man (1959)

     Grace Paley. The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) Paley’s first collection of short stories. She’s a master of impersonation. Her first person narratives are completely believable. They are single mothers, grifters, nice middle class girls and women and occasionally men, children trying to make sense of the adults around them, lonely men and women looking for love and unable to let down the defences that imprison them.
    The tales have the ring of truth: the Wikipedia entry says they are semi-autobiographical. I infer that Paley was a superbly accurate observer, the kind on whom nothing is lost, and had a phenomenal memory for detail. She also was able to imagine herself into someone else’s life, a rare gift. Most of us most of the time have trouble enough imagining ourselves in different circumstances.
     One consequence of Paley’s art is a willingness to suspend judgement. Someone once said that to know all is to forgive all. Paley’s stories go a long way to proving the truth of that saying. ****

Johnny English (2004)

     Johnny English (2004) [D; Peter Howitt. Rowan Atkinson, Natalie Imbruglia, John Malkovich] A satire on James Bond movies that is good in parts.  Pascal Sauvage, a descendant of the Plantagenets, steals the Crown Jewels and forces Elizabeth II to abdicate. Then he offers himself as King. Johnny English, newly minted MI5 agent, must stop this dastardly plot. He succeeds despite himself, of course. There are some very good bits, but they don’t jell into the kind of seamless absurd logic of, for example, the best of the Pink Panther movies. Or Laurel and Hardy, or Buster Keaton. Still, the movie gave us an enjoyable hour and a half. **