Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The French and Indian War (Book Review)

Seymour L. Schwartz The French and Indian War 1754-1763 (1994) Schwartz is a surgeon with an avocation for maps. Compiling a chronicle of the Seven Years War around his collection of maps and plans was apparently a natural task for him, and brought him to that most desired of collector’s goals, showing off his specimens. The result is a source book rather than a history. Anyone who wants to fill in details of the war will find this a useful book. What struck me was the similarity of the forts: by the mid-eighteenth century, building forts was a mature technology. There are also portraits of the senior officers, all of which were of course aristocrats fulfilling their class’s obligation of military service, with varying skill and success.
     Schwartz does not explain how the eighteenth century fort functioned as a weapons platform or military machine, which it clearly was. He neither analyses the skirmishes and battles, nor judges the commanders. But I have no such qualms: several were more or less incompetent, limited by their training, and unable or unwilling to recognise opportunities for success. A few were clearly cowards, who retreated from or capitulated to inferior forces. The battle for Montreal is an exception: both commanders were above average in tactical skill, both were brave, and both were killed leading their forces into the field. Wolfe’s conquest of Quebec relied on luck and daring: no sensible commander would have tried to scale 180 foot cliffs in order to attack from the rear. It’s no discredit to Montcalm that he didn’t anticipate the tactic that defeated him.
     In the end the British won, making North America an Anglo-Saxon outpost. It remains so today, although demographic changes are diminishing the influence of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants that built and governed the two countries north of the Rio Grande over the next two centuries.
     As is common with low-budget productions, text and illustrations are often out of sync with each other. There are puzzling references to “plates”. The diagrammatic simplification of many of the maps makes the densely detailed originals easier to interpret. The reproduction of the maps and plans is very good, considering that in the mid-1990s photos rendered as half-tones were still the main mode of illustration.
     My avocation isn’t history, so I can’t judge the quality of this book. But it did clarify some timelines and geography for me, as well as filling in the cast of characters and giving me a sense of how slowly events proceeded in an era when the most urgent information moved at the speed of a fast horse. On this basis I’ll rate the book at **½

Zen (TV series)

Zen (2011) Based on a crime series by Michael Dibden. We saw Cabal and Ratking. In both, corruption at all levels of Italian society interfere with Zen’s quest for the truth and his goal of achieving some kind of justice. Complicated twists, multiple layers of knowledge and ignorance, double crosses, and intersecting motives: That’s about all there is to say about this series plotwise.
     The character is well done in the current fashion of the enigmatic wounded knight in thrall to various belles dames sans merci, wandering through the murk of evil. The movie making is in the same style, with jump cuts, multiple plot threads, brief glimpses of crucial but unexplained figures in the background, scraps of backstory, cool cars and great clothes, clever (and almost always apt) use of contrasts between dark and light, elegant and grungy locations, deliberate lack of transition shots, and minimal use of music. The tone is also in the current fashion, world weary and elegiac. The titles look like animated pages from Wired, now much imitated by the fashion magazines. All in all, well done entertainment. I’m sorry we missed the first episode. I’ll read one of Dibden’s books, if it happens to cross my path. **-½

Monday, June 25, 2012

Thirty Days: January 1933 (Book Review)

H A Turner Thirty Days: January 1933 (1996) A carefully detailed account of the thirty days of intrigue, deception, bungling, and conspiracy that led up to Hindenburg’s appointment of Hitler as Reichskanzler (prime minister) on January 30th, 1933. Turner shows that a handful of men – von Papen, Schleicher, the Hindenburgs, and a few functionaries of the Nazi and other parties – made the decisions that resulted in the Third Reich. He claims, and I think rightly, that although the changes in social and economic conditions  made a Hitler possible, the actual decisions to elevate him to power were made for personal and private reasons, some with intent, some casually, some ideologically, some with no goals other than immediate satisfaction of a personal aim or whim.
     At any time during those thirty days, different decisions could have been made, but none of the actors took the trouble to consider the long-range consequences of their choices. What appalls is the pettiness of the motives of von Papen, the Hindenburgs, and others. The Hindenburgs merely disliked Schleicher, von Papen hated him, both simply wanted to be rid of him. Schleicher himself didn’t really want to hold on to power, and was naive enough to believe that Hitler could be kept in check. He supported what von Papen wanted, not realising he’d already become irrelevant.
     The only man who had any sense that the decisions could be and were history-making was Hitler himself. In the end, he did not so much wrest power from the Establishment (Machtergreifung was the Nazi term for what happened) as accept it when it was thrust upon him. Those who made him chancellor vastly underestimated him. That this is no mere hindsight is supported by the comments of some politicians, journalists, and foreign diplomats who saw quite clearly that Hitler wanted total power. Hunenburg, who had agreed to the conspiracy that manoeuvred Hindenburg into making a decision he had refused to make in November 1932, said the following day that he had made the greatest blunder of his career.
     In the end, Hitler came to power because other people made bad choices, for a variety of reasons. A book worth reading. ***

Wingfield's World (Book review)

Dan Needles Wingfield’s World (2011) The wonderful Letters from Wingfield farm, all of them. It’s a complete world that Needles has (re-)created, one that I was loathe to leave, and will revisit regularly. Doug Wingfield is a Bay Street financial wizard who wants to get back to the authentic, simple life, so he buys a near-derelict farm, the Fisher place, on the 7th line of Persephone Township somewhere im Southern Ontario. The series started as a short play, additional instalments followed, some made into TV shows. While much of the material is stereotypical, the characters have the ring of truth. Dan Needles denies basing them on real people, and in the strict sense this is no doubt so; but a fictional character may combine features of several real people, which I think is the case here. Anyhow, viewers and readers will willingly suspend any lingering disbelief.
      I’ve heard these lovely monologues on the radio, watched them on TV, and saw the last one on stage. They lose nothing by being offered in print. Knowing the outcomes of the stories doesn’t spoil them, but allows us to savour the full range of the human comedy as revealed on the Seventh Line of Persephone Township. Highly recommended. ****

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Wycliffe and the Dunes (Book Review)

     W J Burley Wycliffe and the Dunes Mystery (1993) Six teens have an end-of-term party in a chalet by the sea, a stranger drops by, he dies, the teens bury his body. Fifteen years later, it’s discovered by a dog. He’s the missing son of a politician, and the broken bones are consistent with murder. And that’s where it starts. It ends when after one of the now 30-something teens kills himself, and a second murder is solved.
    I like these stories (and also the videos based on them). Burley’s low-key narration, in which he drops details of scene, memory, appearance, food, and anything else that catches his attention, creates a seeming-complete world, which we are glad to inhabit despite the somewhat excessive murder rate. Wycliffe has aged somewhat. He’s happy to have an excuse to get away from his desk. His relation with his colleagues is easygoing and mutually respectful: they make a good team. The other characters are vivid enough to stick in one’s memory long enough to make the resolution of the puzzle feel significant. This time, the puzzle is solved about 2/3rds of the way through, but we read on, enjoying how Wycliffe, Kersey, Lane and the others assemble the fragments of fact that will make the murder-narrative convincing enough to justify the inevitable arrest. I think this series is under-rated. ***

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Confession of Brother Haluin (Book Review)

     Ellis Peters, The Confession of Brother Haluin (1987) #15 in the Cadfael saga. It’s early spring of 1142, the politics are as mixed up as ever, but at St Peter’s and St Paul’s abbey in Shrewsbury the crisis is a hole in the guest-hall roof, which must be repaired despite the weather. Br Haluin falls, and believing he will die, confesses to having assisted at the abortion of his own child by Bertrade, daughter of the house in which he was a squire. The girl’s mother (who insisted on the abortion) informed him that both the girl and the baby died, so Haluin has attempted to escape the world and his guilt by becoming a monk. He survives the fall, and pledges a pilgrimage to Bertrade’s grave to do penance, both in the travelling (for he is now nearly lame) and in the all-night vigil. Cadfael will accompany him. But things never go as planned: a number of more or less random events and decisions converge on the revelation that Bertrade is alive, a nun, and her daughter has a suitable wooer.
     It’s pointless to summarise the twists and turns of the plot: if you like Cadfael stories, you will like this one, too. If like me you’ll see the resolution about half-way through, the pleasure will be in living once again in Peters' version of the Middle Ages,  anachronisms and all. This is not the best of the series, but it’s a good read. Peters likes romantic love: in almost every one of these tales, a pair of star-crossed lovers is rescued from doom and, presumably, will live happily every after. **½

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A National Passenger Chronicle, Vol. 4 (Book Review)

Dale Wilson  A National Passenger Chronicle, Volume 4 (2010) [Available from Nickel Belt Rails, Box 483, Station B, Sudbury ON P3E 4P6, $50 +$8 S&H] This is not a scholarly work, but serious scholarship by several hands underpins it. A collection of photographs, maps, and plans in loosely chronological order, grouped by region, it provides an overview of the state of passenger travel from the beginnings of VIA to the present day. It’s as thorough as a personal collection of materials can be, i.e., stronger in some areas than others. Wilson doesn’t attempt to analyse the whys and wherefores of the changes passenger travel, but contents himself with factual captions and the occasional personal comment. He clearly wishes that railway passenger travel in Canada were better done, but he doesn’t waste his time bemoaning sad facts. The result is a very good overview, and (oddly enough, considering) an urge to get on a train.
     For those of us who lived through that transition, and can recall the earlier regimes of passenger travel, it’s a reminder of a time in which Canadian passenger travel by rail was more or less deliberately downgraded. It hasn’t recovered. Two years ago, we took the train from Sudbury to Edmonton. Most of the travellers were tourists from overseas, who loved the scenery, but were somewhat perplexed by the low status of the passenger train in Canada.
     Photo-reproduction varies from adequate to excellent, the captions are informative, and the whole tells a story. In other words, it’s very good of its kind. Recommended to anyone who likes passenger trains, trains in general, or just a nice wallow in nostalgia. ***

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Wolf to the Slaughter (Book Review)

Ruth Rendell Wolf to the Slaughter (1967) A woman disappears, her gormless artist brother has no idea where she’s gone, and several odd events suggest murder. Burden and Wexford sort it out, of course. As usual with Rendell, the investigation stirs up trouble for the people involved. She has a sharp eye for vice and weakness; she notes how circumstance and character lead us all into more less devious and deviant paths. None of the characters evoke much sympathy. This is an early Wexford, Rendell is still discovering the character. There are no hints of most the backstory we know from the later books. The solution is a surprise, and the only unsatisfactory aspect of this novel. It fits the available evidence and facts, in that limited sense it’s plausible. It’s even inevitable, given the personality of the killer. But it somehow doesn’t ring true: the murderer seems to be invented to fit the crime. **½

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley (Book Review)

     P. D. James Death Comes to Pemberley (2011) Austen fans will like this book, P D James fans less so. It’s obvious that James is having fun writing this book, indulging every Austen fan’s weakness and secret desire: to know as much about Elizabeth and Darcy as possible.
     James has an astute eye for character, and reminds us of the darker undertones in Pride & Prejudice, such as lingering memories of misplaced affections. Her extrapolation of Darcy and Elizabeth as a married couple is however rather thin. Darcy and Elizabeth are most of the time too good to be true: James seems to be in awe of Austen’s characters, and doesn’t deepen our understanding much. Her hints at disturbing memories could have led to a more subtle understanding of these two people, whose love has grown out of their characters. Austen is one of the first to insist that character, rather than any combination of social class, convention, or legal and financial expectations, is the basis of a sound marriage. This implies that Darcy and Elizabeth are pioneers in a new model of married happiness. Austen merely assumes happiness; James could have shown it. We don’t see much of them as parents, either; perhaps James didn’t trust herself to this well enough, and hid behind the eighteenth century upper-class habit of banishing children to the nursery. Her reminders of the severe social constraints on Darcy and Elizabeth are salutary, however: we are too prone to assume that 21st century social norms could have been applied two hundred years ago. Still, I would have liked to see Darcy and Elizabeth discuss their doubts and fears more.
     In the secondary characters such as Col. Fitzwilliam she assumes some changes, not all for the best. Georgiana has become a mature young woman, but instead of showing us how this has changed her relationship to her brother, James tells us. The servants are uniformly loyal retainers who know their place; we see and hear no Upstairs, Downstairs bickering (or worse). Wickham has seduced one of the servants, which provides an intersecting plot, the solution to the puzzle, and (finally) revelation of Mrs Younge’s role in the misfortunes of Pemberley.
     The crime plot is pretty simple, and the murder puzzle, such as it is, is resolved by a death-bed confession which exonerates the accused just prior to passing sentence (which annoys the judge). Prime suspect Wickham has apparently been chastened both by the loss of his good friend Denny (the victim) and by his experience as an innocent man found guilty, and will no doubt make good in Virginia, where the prison chaplain has helped him find a place.
     In the final chapters, James ties up a lot of loose ends, many of which feel superfluous to the crime story, but which may satisfy the Austen fan’s longing for more than Austen gave us. They fulfill the desired function of filling in the details of the story of Darcy and Elizabeth. In terms of character, plot, and back story, this pastiche is successful.
     However, a successful Austen pastiche must above all capture her style, and here James fails. Too many of her words are simply not correct usage for the turn of the 19th century. Her syntax, although far more formal than most crime writers’, lacks the diamond hardness of Austen’s prose. The dialogue is serviceable, but we get very little of that ironic revelation of character at which Austen excels. The authorial asides, which in Austen are always light in tone however severe in judgment, often feel heavy-handed. What saves the novel is James' narrative gift, which keeps us turning the page even when we’re given exposition rather than story-telling.
     I enjoyed reading this book, but not as much as I expected, and less than I wanted. **-½

Friday, June 01, 2012

Vinyl Cafe Unplugged (Book Review)

     Stuart McLean Vinyl Cafe Unplugged (2000) Number six in McLean’s series of Vinyl Cafe stories. A good read. Mclean is a very studied writer-narrator, he doesn’t have that air of spontaneous reminiscence that Garrison Keillor has. But like Keillor, he has a location and a cast of characters whom we get to know better every time we hear another story. Both have a knack for starting slow and presenting a series of events and choices in what at every step seems reasonable and logical, until we arrive at a bizarre scene that defies belief. Both also give shape to what at first seems a random series of events, but which lead to a satisfying conclusion. Both make us understand the importance of the insignificant. And both are able to make us feel part of the community whose history they chronicle.
     This kind of story has a long and honourable history. Many folk tales have the same structure. Charlie Chaplin and the comic duos of early film like Laurel and Hardy use the same device, as does nearly every sit-com. It’s a very flexible form, it’s really just one thing after another. This apparent randomness gives even the most outlandish anecdote an air of reality that suspends disbelief. It also enables assembling a group of seemingly unrelated events into a thematic whole, whose shape is often not seen until the end of the story. McLean’s popularity rests on his skill in using the form, and on his ability to infuse his tales with the ordinary virtues and vices of our common humanity.
I could summarise a couple of the stories here, but I won’t. You’ll get far more pleasure out of reading them yourself. ***