Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Charlotte Vale Allen. Dream Train (1988)

     Charlotte Vale Allen Dream Train (1988) I’ve been collecting fiction with a railway theme or setting; this is the most recent one I’ve read. Joanna James, photographer, has a gig riding the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express, the luxury train cruise that’s the remnant of the original Orient Express. The book is a romance presented as part travelogue and part quest.
     Joanna encounters a variety of people and situations. She makes friends that reflect and refract her character back to herself and so help her on her voyage of self-discovery. Memories of her dysfunctional family intersect with her responses to her new friends and acquaintances. She comes to terms with her family’s past, discovers that she can be her own person, and who that person is; and chooses the man that’s right for her. As in all proper quests, the goal is the integration of a broken personality, in this case the competent and highly skilled professional with the shy, self-effacing, injured and repressed child that never grew up. Simple plot, simple theme. The book is well written in a style a cut or two above cliché, the characters have the kind of depth we expect from a moderately serious TV mini-series, the train trip is wonderful.
     Marie said the book was superficial, and it is, but there are enough hints of depths below the surface to persuade us these people matter, at least while we are reading about them. The main characters are too good to be true, the darkness of the human heart is glimpsed on the periphery and throws only a few shadows, and the crises are triggered by external events, not by weaknesses or flaws of character. But in all these respects, the novel conforms to the demands of its genre, so why cavil at them? The book is above average of its kind. I enjoyed reading it. **-½

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Charles Seife. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (2000)

     Charles Seife. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (2000) It looks like I read this last year, but I can’t remember. Re-reading it, it’s not hard to see why. While Seife provides lots of interesting information, and explains a good deal, his writing is at best workmanlike, and often sloppy. I suspect the sloppiness may be the effect of trying to “explain complex ideas in simple language,” but the result is often conceptual blurriness and even error. I found myself mentally rephrasing many of his statements. For example. He says that Cantor compared the size of rational and irrational numbers. He of course means the size of the sets of those numbers. Since he already explained what a set is, and uses a very clear metaphor to illustrate how one compares sets without actually counting, there’s no excuse for such sloppy language. He does have a knack for the illustrative metaphor: comparing sets is like asking everyone in a stadium to sit down, he says. If some seats are empty, then there are fewer people than seats. If there some people left standing, then vice versa. If there are no empty seats and no people standing, then the two sets match: they are the same size. Well, that’s very well done; so why the sloppy language a page or so later?
     Seife also occasionally uses a technical term without explaining it. For example, towards the end he talks of the heat death of the universe as the ultimate result of its continuing expansion. But in the next sentence he refers to this as death by ice (in contrast to the fiery death of the big crunch). How these two terminologies can be reconciled may be a mystery to him; it certainly will be a mystery to many readers.
     Seife’s understanding of history consists of conventional wisdom, which also occasionally misleads the reader. Overall, however, his philosophical points are well made, and the power of Zero to confound metaphysics and theology is clearly conveyed. The appendices illustrating several mathematical and logical arguments in detail are concise and clear. I like the one that uses the a=b, ab=a^2 etc proof that 1=0 (or 2=1) to show that Winston Churchill is a carrot.
     In short, this is an adequate introduction to a number of mathematical, physical, and philosophical problems and their solutions, with a good deal of pleasantly conveyed history along the way, and will do for a high school library. ** (2002)

Harry Turtledove. Departures (1993)

     Harry Turtledove. Departures (1993) A collection of “alternate history” stories, which I began in August, and mostly read in September, and finished on October 1, so I’m counting it as a September book. The eras range from ancient history to the far future. As with all such speculative sociology, the theories underlying the stories tend to be simplistic, but that doesn’t often detract from them as stories. After all, contemporary fiction suffers from the same deficiency. Plausibility does not depend on factual truth.
     Turtledove’s vision tends to be dark: history is driven by greed, hate, prejudice and sheer ignorance. Occasional glimmers of honour, truth and justice flicker fitfully here and there, but they are strictly personal virtues, not systemic attributes of a society. A couple of his stories are pure fantasy; the rest hew pretty closely to reality as we know it. One of his repeated notions is that Muhammad became a Christian monk, so that the Muslim world never came into being. The contrary vision, that Islam became the dominant culture of Europe, also informs several of his stories. An alternate worlds story takes us to a North America whose Revolutionary War was incomplete, and hence no unified polity ever emerged: a mish-mash of independent former colonies and states still tied to England, as well as aboriginal fiefdoms, has led to a state of perpetual warfare, and a very delayed Industrial Revolution.
     Like many pre-perestroika writers, Turtledove carefully use ethnic names to denote an “international” space culture. However, he does not assume that the Soviets will endure in their present form; his alternate future Russia breaks up into a re-established Czarist empire and a federation of reformed Soviet states.
     Not that it matters. Closer reflection shows that Turtledove uses the alternate history settings in otherwise very traditional ways. There are adventure romances, fantastic fables, hard-science mysteries, tall tales, and so on. Two stories comment on the role of the Jews in our world (Turtledove is a Jew) and both stories work very well, both as stories and as lessons. An amusing collection; I omitted one story that was getting tedious, but enjoyed the rest. ** to ***. (2002)

Coronet Magazine, August 1960

     Coronet Magazine, August 1960. Reading old magazines reminds us how much popular culture can change. The assumptions which we use in our daily lives, in our interpretation of everything from advertising to political news, change far more thoroughly in some respects than we like to admit.
     Consider the cover story: “Can Catholics Ever Accept Birth Control?” The author, William Clancy, says no, on the grounds that birth control violates objective natural law, which the Catholic Church has always accepted as God-given. He means objective moral law, of course, not natural law as we generally understand it. His argument was published as a serious contribution to the debate. It would probably not be published in a general interest magazine nowadays, based as it is on the arrogant assumption that his moral law is the only objectively true one. But it does explain why the hierarchy still opposes all conception control, while it accepts conception avoidance, on the grounds that the latter is more natural than the former. Why taking advantage of the fertility cycle of a woman to prevent conception is natural while taking advantage of mechanical or chemical processes to achieve the same end is not, is a question that I have long puzzled over. [Note 2013: even in 1960, many Catholics had already "accepted" birth control, and now a majority have done so. The hierarchy still uses Clancy's arguments to condemn it.]
     The general tone of articles on technical and scientific topics is very positive. Science and technology will improve our lives; side effects can be fixed easily with more science and technology. Even though Carson’s Silent Spring had been published some years earlier, and was still a best seller in 1960, its effects on general attitudes to the environment were still small. In particular, there seems to have been no sense of the inter-connectedness of things: That a solution over here will cause a problem over there. It took a few real disasters, such as Bhopal in India, repeated oil spills, and real effects on people’s health from pollution, to make her message real to most of us. The optimistic and hopeful attitudes toward science have been replaced by suspicion and hostility, an equally irrational response to what is after all the only means we have of knowing how the world really works, and figuring out ways to protect ourselves from its dangers. But I suppose I should keep in mind the rah-rah hyping of genetic engineering: it eerily echoes the happy acceptance of the wonders of the plastics and chemical industries in the 1950s and 60s. Think of the scene in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman’s character is told to get into plastics if he wants a great future.
     The feminist revolution had as yet no effect in August 1960, if this magazine is evidence. There are a couple of articles about how to be a good wife. They were presumably amusing then, but they don’t strike me as amusing now. But they do explain Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. The implicit and sometimes explicit patronising of tone towards “the little woman” in these articles (and in a photo story about Zsa Zsa Gabor), and even more obviously shown in the ads, must have offended many women even back then, and certainly offended any woman who thought about her status.
     The political articles don’t come close to the kind of stuff people published a mere three or four years later. 1960 was really still the 50s, and there is a respect shown towards politicos that no one feels any of them deserve nowadays. On the other hand, the kind of journalism that exposed the Watergate scandals isn’t possible anymore either, not since the media have been “consolidated” into ever greater conglomerates, and “convergence” has blurred the lines not only between the media, but also between advertising, information, and entertainment.
     The ads are the most telling. They are straightforward, and the longer ones, with lots of text, take a sensible tone, as of one man speaking to another. I was charmed by the ad for The Empire Builder, a streamlined train, which depicted a senior executive who is taking the train from Chicago to Seattle so as to have time for reflection about a big deal that his underlings have been negotiating, underlings who have flown to Seattle in order to have everything ready for the great man when he arrives
     All in all, what strikes me about this (and other magazines from the same time) is the naivete and hopefulness. Most of the articles are puff-pieces of one kind or another, or are designed to create an image of America the Good and Beautiful and Fun To Live In. People had not yet become as utterly cynical and almost hopeless as they have nowadays. Looking back, we can see the mistakes we made back then; but our reaction to those mistakes will certainly lead us to make equally bad or even worse ones. ** (2002)

Cohen and Stewart. The Collapse of Chaos. (1994)

      Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart. The Collapse of Chaos (1994) Cohen and Stewart attempt a meta-story here: that of how the chaotic, messy events on one level of reality (or perhaps merely analysis) produce regular and orderly features at a higher. An excellent book, often heavy going for anyone without at least a smattering of a variety of disciplines, but also often offering high spirits and sly irony.
I read it when it first appeared, but had forgotten almost all of it. Only a few marginal notes (typo-corrections, mostly) testify to my former reading.
     But I realise that many of its ideas have become commonplace for me. Chief of these are four. The first is that theories or models may or may not represent reality as it is. They are certainly work-alikes. That is, their observable external relations are the same as what they model, but there is no guarantee that their internal workings are the same. Nor is it ever possible to discover whether models are more than work-alikes, since attempts to get inside the black boxes merely produce more models with the same ontological deficiency.
     The second idea is that of emergent features: that it is impossible to predict, and often impossible in practice to explain, how the behaviour of one set of entities gives rise to features observable at a larger scale (or “higher level.”) Related to this is the idea that to explain how something happens is not the same as predicting what will happen. Science’s attempt to combine explicability and predictability, indeed most people’s belief that they are the same, has kept us from noting and investigating many things, or has misdirected our investigations. Ironically, it was just such a misdirected investigation (that of trying to derive a model of the weather from statistical data) that led to the discovery of chaotic systems, and prompted the development of chaos theory. Mandelbrot, also, testifies to this irony: according to Stewart, he said he had studied fractals a long time before he realised that he was looking at a new class of mathematical objects.
     The third idea is that the genome does not describe the organism, but merely the production the proteins that interact with each other and the environment to produce the organism. Understanding this puts a huge question mark over all genetic engineering. We simply cannot predict all the effects of transferring a gene from one organism to another. The fact that at present a very small minority of such transfers actually work to produce any result, let alone the desired one, shows that genetic engineering is still the crudest form of trial and error. But the genome-as-blueprint metaphor has great power, probably because of its simplicity, and because people do not understand blueprints, but think they do. Everyone has seen blueprints, for example in the weekly home-plans feature carried by many newspapers. The fact that such plans are really directions to the builder, and do not contain enough information to describe the final building, is lost on most people. That is why the metaphor misleads. People do not consider the blueprint as a recipe, which is really what it is. It might be better to make the metaphor explicit, and think of the genome as a program or recipe. A recipe for a cheese omelette does not describe the omelette, it describes how to make one. It takes ingredients and a cook and a stove to make an omelette. Just so, a genome does not describe an organism, it describes how to make one. It takes a zygote and a womb and an organism to make one.
     The description of the process of development is indirect, too, and consists mostly of instructions to make or stop making proteins. The proteins themselves react with each other and other chemicals, under the influence of temperature, pH, etc, and the result is a developing organism. What’s more, the proteins affect the genome’s functions: the products made under process A trigger instruction X, which stops process A and starts process B. B triggers instruction Y, which starts process C, which triggers instruction Z, which stops process B; and so, in all sorts of interlaced and intertwining instructions and processes.
     Finally, Stewart and Cohen have a healthy respect for the limits of scientific explanation. More than most popular science writers, they emphasise the fuzziness and tentativeness of science. This is a good thing, if only to remind us all that knowledge, even the most strongly supported, is never certain. If only religious folk understood this and accepted it, they might have more faith. **** (2002)
     Update 2013: It now appears that genetics is even more complicated than Cohen and Stewart knew. The environment (i.e, other cells, the chemical bath surrounding the cell, the organ of which it a part, the organism embedded the external environment, ...) turns genes on and off, which in turn affect the cells interaction with neighbouring cells, the chemical bath that surrounds it, and so on a wonderfully recursive dance. And just within the last year or so it's been discovered that genes can be transferred "horizontally" between species,probably via the microorganisms that inhabit it). See this National geographic article. The problem is that we don't have a language to describe the dynamic web of reactions that constitute an organism. In ordinary language, an organism is at best a gearbox. In fact it's something much more difficult to describe. we are thrown on the mercy of our metaphors. Her's one: an organism is shape created by its substrate, in the same that a fountain is a shape created by its substrate: water for the decorative fountain in your garden; plasma on the surface of the Sun.

Richard Sheridan. The Rivals

     Richard Sheridan. The Rivals (Ed. Alan Downer, 1953) Reading this reminded me once again how much a play depends on performance, especially if it is written in a style we do not expect in a play. We expect dialogue that’s close to the way people actually speak; nowadays, we even expect sentence fragments and jumbles. Shakespeare’s style is closer to our expectations, so that he is easy to read once one has learned the early modern English in which he wrote. Sheridan’s language is much closer to our own, yet his eighteenth century formalities interfere with comprehension in way Shakespeare does not. Even Mrs Malaprop, who mangles the language, does so only at the level of vocabulary. All Sheridan’s characters speak in the same formal periods; a few minor differences in oaths don’t amount to enough of a distinction to enable us to read the play easily.
      Two years ago, Marie and I saw a performance in Stratford, England. It was wonderful, because the actors could make these stilted sentences sound natural and expressive. That performance struck a fine and beautiful balance between hamming and exaggeration, between the artificialities of theatre and the realities of life. The result was a play that drew you into its preposterous premises and made you believe, even while you knew you were watching a carefully crafted illusion, one that emphasised its illusory qualities in the set design and staging. Actors are a great gift to a playwright, especially one who has been dead for couple hundred years.
     The plot is pure soap opera: girl wants unsuitable boy, Father wants boy to marry suitable girl, a rival wants the girl’s money, servants are loyal to whoever pays them the most, and the older folk discover that the cooling coals of passion can be blown into hot flame. In the end, the right people marry each other, as they should, or else what’s the point of a comedy. Along the way there’s a lot of good clean and not-so-clean fun. Staged by a competent crew, one enjoys both a preposterous story made believable, and the realisation that one is seeing pure theatre. *** (2002)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Eating Horses: some history (link)

     Scientific American of  September 1886 ran an article about eating horses. Here's the link: SciAm 1886 Eating Horses
     Comments: The religious prohibition is very odd, considering that St Peter had a dream about "unclean" animals, which is usually interpreted as an attack on the the notion of "unclean" food.
     Real salami (not the imitation sold as such in our supermarkets) is made from donkey meat. The best french fries are said to be those fried in horse fat.
      During WW2, horse meat was offered in many parts of Europe when other meats became scarce. The objections to eating horses are clearly cultural and psychological: we just don't like eating friends. We think of horses, like dogs and cats, as friends. Family, even.

Moonstruck (1987)

     Moonstruck (1987) [D: Norman Jewison. Cher, Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis] 39-year-old widow Loretta Castorini (Cher) agrees to marry Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) even though she doesn’t love him. At his request, she finds his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) to invite him to the wedding. They fall in love, and the rest of the movie unravels the complications caused by this accident of fate. Loretta’s father Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia) is having an affair. Her mother Rose (Dukakis) has a brief conversational encounter with Perry, a philandering professor. Johnny’s mother recovers from her deathbed, which will delay the wedding. All in all, a lovely mess, which Jewison directs with flair. The actors are convincing, the editing supports their exquisite timing, the narrative pace is always just fast enough that we ignore improbabilities, and slow enough that we savour the Great Moments.
     Almost exactly in the middle we attend a performance of La Bohème (Ronny loves opera), which reminds us that this movie is itself an opera: larger than life, moving the story forward through emotion not reason, and ultimately satisfying because it feels right. Logic has nothing to do with it. Logically, we should all give up and die, since that’s what will happen to us all anyhow. This movie says, No, we should live, and risk heartbreak. As someone else said somewhere: Pain is good, it reminds us we are alive. So is joy, and for the same reason. ***

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

      In the Heat of the Night (1967) [D: Norman Jewison. Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger] Watching this movie, I realised that I hadn’t seen it since its release 46 years ago. I did see many of the TV series episodes, and my vague memories of both made for a melange of misleading impressions. I’m glad we decide to watch it on TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies. The story is simple: Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), waiting for a train in Sparta, Mississippi, is arrested as a suspect in the murder of Colbert. a Northerner planning to build a factory in Sparta. When Chief Gillespie (Steiger) learns that Tibbs is Philadelphia’s number one homicide expert, he wants Tibbs to help him. Tibbs and Gillespie solve the crime, but not before personal weaknesses, and social and racial tensions create events that intersect with and delay the solution of the puzzle.
     The movie is tough, considering its time it’s very tough. It’s difficult to recall the state of race relations in the 1960s. The civil rights movement was top of news and mind. We all knew that people had been murdered in the South. We knew that a mild mistake or social solecism could still be lethal for blacks in Mississippi and Alabama. In Canada the racism wasn’t as overt, but it was real enough. We were at the beginning of decades of self-congratulation for “achievements” that should have been unremarkable: black MPs, black Lt Governors, black writers, and so on. This movie arrived on our screens carrying a heavy load of baggage.
     Still, the movie works simply as a movie. It’s quite likely that under-30s won’t get the full import of some of its plot points, for example, a Philadelphia police chief telling his black subordinate to help out the cops in a Mississippi town, or Endicott and Tibbs conversation about orchids in Endicott’s green house, or the fact that a Northerner was planning to build a factory in the town.
     Chief Gillespie’s slow, grudging acceptance of  Virgil Tibbs as a colleague is nicely done. Gillespie first fingers Tibbs as the perpetrator, then a poor white boy, then one of his own officers. The unquestioned assumptions of the old Southern social order prevent clear thinking. Tibbs also suffers from prejudices: he wants to bring down Endicott, a man who tries to maintain the ante-bellum social order, and, absent slavery, succeeds. Endicott is not the murderer, or even behind the murder, but the values he represents mess up the investigation. The turning point comes when Tibbs admits his hatred of Endicott. Gillespie says, “You’re like the rest of us.” This is a turning point for Gillespie, too. Both men are now able to see each others strengths and weaknesses as men as well as cops, and the case unravels pretty quickly from that point on.
     The movie works on many levels. The acting is very, very good. It’s difficult to portray a change in character; both Poitier and Steiger succeed. The secondary characters are given enough of a backstory that we understand why they act as they do. Their racism may be a reflex, but it’s a reflex they can on occasion transcend. The pacing of the movie is just right. It starts slowly, and most of the time we see the action contrasted with the slow rural ambience of the town, so that even a drive across town is imbued with menace. The overall feel is of reactions barely suppressed, of rage and fear seething below the Southern politeness, a politeness that cracks from time to time.
      Daylight, nighttime, interior and exterior shots are so subtly alternated that we don’t realise how seamlessly they tell the story until we reflect on that story. The story itself is entirely plausible, both the crime and the personal and social conflicts that intersect with it. Tibbs occasionally seems a little to good to be true, but in the next shot he’s vain enough of his superior policing skills that this impression dissipates. Unlike the stereotypical detective, he has to be rescued from physical danger. The ending, when Gillespie takes leave of Tibbs with the affectionate “You take care, y’hear?”, is perhaps too Hollywood feel-good, but that’s a very minor cavil. ****

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Bob Atkinson. North Bay in Postcards and Sudbury in Postcards. (1981 and 1982)

     Bob Atkinson. North Bay in Postcards and Sudbury in Postcards. (1981 and 1982) Collections of old postcards open a window on the past. These pictures were published both to show off the places they depicted, and to provide people with the kind of images they thought were important. Public buildings of various kinds, whether built with public money (such as libraries or schools) or private money (such as railway stations and bank buildings) figure prominently. So do street scenes, primarily of business sections. This may reflect Atkinson’s taste, but my own casual examination of old postcards (almost always overpriced) in antique stores persuades me that these books reflect the range of available images. Postcards show us what our ancestors thought worth photographing, and that was mostly works for the public good and evidence of their prosperity and enterprise. There has been a subtle shift: modern postcards lean more heavily towards scenery, and “tourist attractions.” ***

Poul Anderson. Space Folk (1989)

     Poul Anderson. Space Folk (1989) The title describes the common thread of this collection. Generally upbeat in the 50s-60s “hard science” mode, and often funny. One story deliberately takes the gloomy view, arguing that if we don’t go into space, we will perish as a civilisation. This story hardly works; thesis-ridden stories rarely do, unless they’re cast as fables or parables, and this one is in the naturalistic mode.
     Anderson has a talent for creating characters that seem to be more than contrivances to make a plot work, but he also has the failing of writing to a thesis more often than not. The stories all have a point, and it sometimes gets in the way. Anderson is careful to be ethnically inclusive, his space-craft crews have diverse names, but their ethnic backgrounds tend to be stereotyped. In fact, there is more than a whiff of racist over-compensation.
     There is a similar effort to give women equal status. Here too he tends to be limited by stereotypes; he likes Nordic amazons, and oddly enough his most believable women are these almost-caricatures. The most successful effort in this book is a farce set on a cloud-covered planet dominated by head-hunting, caste-ridden warrior lizards navigating by wind and weather. Ulrica is the woman warrior, and Didymus is the teacher-wimp, but his science enables him first to assist her in defeating a nasty aristocrat, and secondly to navigate the ship to the Earth base. A Foucault pendulum figures in both events. Ulrica falls in love-lust with her little rescuer, a fate he is not sure he desires. The touches of space-opera parody provide the element of fantasy that allows one to suspend disbelief and enjoy the silliness.
     The stories range from OK to very good. I omitted reading two in which Anderson writes using another writer’s universe. These just didn’t have the immediacy of setting and character at which Anderson excels, and which make his most pedestrian plots believable. ** to *** (2002)

Bill Watterson. Calvin and Hobbes (1982ff)

     Bill Watterson. Calvin and Hobbes (1982ff)
     Calvin and Hobbes (1987); Something under the Bed is Drooling (1988); Yukon Ho! (1989); The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book (TLSB) (1989) Revenge of the Baby-sat (RBS) (1991); Scientific Progress Goes Boink! (SPGB) (1991); Attack of the Deranged Mutant Snow Goons (1992); The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes (TIC&H) (1992; compilation of RBS and SPGB).
     There will be no more Calvin and Hobbes; Watterson stopped writing the strip in shortly after 1992. Like Berke Breathead, he had mined his vein; and there was no more ore. He knew that repetitions would not do; variations on his themes had already begun to appear, as is clear when one reads all of these books at once, and Calvin could not stay six years old forever. But while it lasted, C&H was one of the best available.
     Some people thought of Calvin as merely an updated Dennis the Menace (whom Dairy Queen has quietly removed from its graphics). Calvin was more than that. He was both as silly and naive as any six-year-old can be, and wise as only children can be. Watterson did sometimes yield to the temptation of putting his own views into Calvin or Hobbes’s mouths, and occasionally the strip descended into sentimentality, but overall it was bizarre, surreal, clear-eyed, satirical, truthful, and accurate. It was never cynical, though it came close. It worked not just because of the graphics (Watterson is especially good at facial expressions and fuzzy tigers), but also because of the language. Watterson was a writer as well as an graphic artist. The full page renderings of Spaceman Spiff in TLSB show that he could be a great comic book or illustrated novel writer. The verses in TIC&H show his talent for wordplay, a talent that also shows up in his brilliant parodies of PI stories (written to show Calvin’s struggles with math tests.), and in Hobbes’ epigrams. And Spaceman Spiff is a loving rendition of the SF fantasies of the 1950s and 60s. Worth rereading more than once. **** (2002)

Robert Katz. The Cassandra Crossing (1977)

     Robert Katz. The Cassandra Crossing (1977) Novelisation of a film script. These rarely work, and this is worse than most. It’s in sections like a film script, perhaps to give it more of the feel of a movie. Maltin gives the movie three stars, but I give this book none. I couldn’t finish it, stopped after about 10 pages, read a few pages later in the book. Egregious errors abound, e.g. the train supposedly weighs 22,900 tons. Gagging noise! (2002)

Dozois and Schmidt, eds. Roads Not Taken (1998)

     Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt, eds. Roads Not Taken (1998) Tales of Alternate History, ranging from the mildly humorous to the ploddingly serious to the politically despairing. I omitted reading “The Forest of Time” (Flynn), a tale based on the many worlds interpretation of QT. The best stories use what’s known of the past, put a little twist on it, and extrapolate in terms of what we know or guess about social developments, such as “Outpost of Empire” by Silverberg (the Romans control Europe in the 1500-1600s); “We Could do Worse”by Benford (Joe McCarthy becomes president); “Aristotle and the Gun” by Sprague de Camp (in which a disgruntled scientist tries to nudge Aristotle into a more scientific direction, but fails; Aristotle decides to devote himself to ethics, political theory, and aesthetics instead.)
     The means of the twist range from sheer chance to time-travel. Chance is the most satisfying; we all know how much of our lives results from unforeseen and unforeseeable events. A taste for this kind of fiction is in itself specialised, and within it, there are subgenres of differing appeal. Inventing an alternate history in detail is a pleasant occupation, much like inventing a game universe, but one must have the same interests as the author to enjoy the result. Like a game universe, the setting has a feeling of arbitrariness about it. After all, change a few contingencies, and still another scenario is just as plausible. The characters who inhabit such alternative worlds differ from us only in accidentals, such as language, knowledge of the world, costume, political assumptions, and so on. But it’s these accidental details one must focus on, in order to give the alternate history a feel of plausibility, and in doing so, one tends to lose the essence of character. The writer of alternate history must find the right balance between accident and essence, and few succeed. Benford’s “We could do Worse” comes closest, perhaps because it’s the least different from our own world. * to **** (2002)

Charles Dennis. The Next to Last Train Ride (1977)

     Charles Dennis. The Next to Last Train Ride (1977) I bought this book to add to my collection of railroad-related fiction, but that’s all there is to recommend it, and it’s not enough. A mixed-up plot involving a coffin that supposedly contains the body of a Vietnam casualty, a woman with three breasts, a transfer of money between west and east coast crooks (in the aforesaid coffin), and of course a train, plus an assortment of other characters, all somehow related to the hapless hero, a failed and failing confidence trickster. All this might make for a saleable scenario or treatment suitable for the imagination of a movie studio executive, but it doesn’t translate into a readable book. Not unless the writer has the style and the timing to carry it off, and though Dennis tries hard, it doesn’t work. The strings on the characters are too visible, there’s a lot of the nudge-nudge wink-wink type of humour, and too many plot points are telegraphed, often two scenes ahead. To compensate for this, I guess, other events are complete surprises, contradicting expectations set up earlier. One wonders what will happen next on this silly odyssey, and if that was Dennis’s intention, he succeeds. But not enough to keep me slogging on to the end. If Dennis had focused on writing a novel instead of a movie-treatment, the book could have been very good. There’s more than a touch of the surreal, but one gets the feeling that Dennis is thinking more in terms of how the book will read to a director looking for movie material than in terms of how the story will unfold. * (2002)

Hurwitz and Fidell. Silly Signs (1974)

     A. B. Hurwitz and J. A. Fidell. Silly Signs (1974) A Scholastic book bought by Cassandra many years ago. Consists of what the title says: and some of the signs are pretty silly, too. Not known which are real and which are made up. I mean, some signs are purposely silly, others are silly by accident. I’d like to know which are which. Most are the result of the writers’ not thinking about how the sign will look to the intended audience.
     Samples: Belt Your Family and Save Their Lives. Come In and Borrow Enough to Get out of Debt. Wanted - Man to Take Care of Horses Who can Speak German.
     Amusing. Middle school pupils like this kind of thing in part because it confirms their growing sense of mastery of the language. One has to understand the language pretty well to catch the absurdities in these signs. ** (2002)

Alan Ayckbourn. Bedroom Farce (1977)

     Alan Ayckbourn. Bedroom Farce (1977) Two act comedy. Three couples prepare for their respective evenings: Delia and Earnest for an anniversary dinner, Malcolm and Kate for a party; while Nick stays home with a bad back, and Jan goes to the party. Delia’s son Trevor and his wife Susannah are having marital problems and interfere with all three couples. They spoil the party, interrupt people’s sleep, and finally reconcile.
     The set consists of the three bedrooms, and the action takes place over a few hours on a Saturday evening. The play is “good theatre”, that is, it affords the actors and director an opportunity to do a lot of fun stuff to make the play work. The story is simple enough, the dialogue is typically British middle class, which means very little difference between the characters’ styles of speech, and there’s also the typically British eye for the absurdity of everyday or ordinary life. The script is marked up by Doreen, she played Susannah. I’d like to have seen that. **½ (2002)

Russel Myers. Broomhilda: Sneaky Volcanoes (1982)

     Russel Myers. Broomhilda: Sneaky Volcanoes (1982) Compilation of strips. Broomhilda enjoyed a brief vogue in the 70s and 80s. In some ways she’s a female Hagar The Horrible. Her friends and companions are a less witty version of the Bloom County menagerie, with some influences from Walt Kelly’s Pogo. OK as a time waster. *1/2 (2002)

Gordon R. Dickson. Hour of the Horde (1970)

     Gordon R. Dickson. Hour of the Horde (1970) The Horde threatens the galaxy, and the Ancients from the centre of the Galaxy organise resistance. They recruit members of “barbarian” peoples, who have not shaken off the distracting effects of emotions. Miles Vander represents Earth. He fights his way to the top of the heap in the ship in which the barbarians are sequestered, and persuades them to train for battle. The Ancients flee when the Horde appears, as their computers tell them the odds are slightly against them. This infuriates the barbarians, who feel this as a betrayal of them and their own planets. Their rage-induced suicidal attack on the Horde tips the balance, and the Alliance wins, just barely. Vander and his barbarian friends receive technical help from the Ancients, and decide they will not eliminate emotion from their makeup, since it was emotion that drove them to attack against the odds, and win.
     An early effort by Dickson, and it shows. The copyright date is 1970, but the story is very 1950s. It is essentially a teenage geek fantasy. Miles is half paralysed from polio, but an obsessed painter. It’s his creativity that makes him a suitable candidate to represent Earth, and it’s his obsessiveness that makes him a leader among races who feel impotent and useless because of the Ancients’ decision not to use them as fighters, but only as psychic resonators. There’s also the psychic power motif, as if the mind had its own energies that affect other minds, a motif that is rarely used these days outside of fantasy fiction. And the initial setting is a college campus; sounds like Dickson wrote the book when he was in college. I suspect the book was published because Dickson had made his reputation by 1970, and so an old manuscript, perhaps edited a bit, became publishable. ** (2002)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Death of an Outsider (1988)

     M. C. Beaton Death of an Outsider (1988) Some years ago, we viewed a series of crime stories set in Lochdubh, a Highland village overseen by an amiable and somewhat lazy copper, Hamish MacBeth. The makers of the series exaggerated the eccentricity and cheerful paganism of the villagers, but not by much, and used Beaton’s hints of the darker nooks of the human psyche to remind us that evil is real, even in the most bucolically innocent places. This book is a nicely done addition to the series. I enjoyed reading it. Mainwaring, a deliberately annoying incomer to Cnothan (a  valley or two over from Lochdubh) is bashed over the head and falls into a lobster tank, where he is quickly reduced to a skeleton. The drunk set to guard the fish plant discovers the skeleton, and hauls it to a ring of standing stones. MacBeth is pushed aside from the main investigation by his enemy Chief Detective Supt. Blair, but of course manages to find all the clues that lead to the murderer. His love life is complicated (it always is), he misses his lovely Priscilla, assorted subplots confuse the cops if not the reader, and it all ends more or less happily, with justice of a sort being done. A good read, made better by having seen the videos: it helps to be able to imagine a face and a voice. **-½

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Quotable Dad (2003)

     Nick and Tony Lyons The Quotable Dad (2003) A gift. The title suggests that the quotations are by dads, but in fact they are about dads. As such they range from the sentimental to the mildly cynical. Lots of good stuff, opening at random I find:
     Never fret for an only son. The idea of failure will never occur to him. - George Bernard Shaw
     The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. - Theodore Hesburgh
     How children survive being brought up amazes me. -Malcolm S. Forbes.
And one that should remind us that nothing fundamental ever changes:
     Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.
     That was said 2500 years ago by Socrates.
     A nice collection, good source of quotations. ***

Forgotten Genius (2007)

     Forgotten Genius Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975), grandson of a slave, became one of the most accomplished chemists in the USA at a time when black people were barred both legally and socially from career paths that whites took for granted. This NOVA film traces his life using dramatisation, the sadly small amount of archival material, and personal reminiscences of people who knew him. It’s depressing and inspiring, as well as educational (the film makers manage to teach a good deal of chemistry along the way). It’s well made, with accounts and reminiscences from people who knew Julian. It’s one of those biographies that make you wish you had known the man himself.
     It’s easy to forget how many barriers to education black children faced, and how thoroughly their spirits were broken. Julian was an exception in part because of his father and mother, both of whom were teachers who pushed him to develop his talents; and partly because of his determination. He was a man who wouldn’t give up. It’s depressing to recall the history of racism. Canadian racism was rarely as overt and violent as in the USA, but it was (and is) bad enough. In many ways the polite racism of this country is worse: it hides the fact.
    Interesting trivia: Julian’s work at Glidden Paints  helped the company to expand into many other product lines, but for some reason Glidden decided to withdraw from them and focus on its “core business.” An opportunity missed from a stockholder’s POV, I think. Julian should be better known. Wikipedia here.  You can watch Forgotten Genius on YouTube.
     As good a biography as the available material allowed, I think. ***

Sunday, February 17, 2013

About Schmidt (2002)

     About Schmidt (2002) [D:Alexander Payne. Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis] Schmidt (Nicholson) retires from a life of dutiful service to his family, earning a comfortable living as a minor insurance executive. His wife has persuaded him to buy a large RV so that they can go travelling. But the fact is that Schmidt hasn’t any interests outside of his work; he’s repressed everything he really cared about to give his family a good living. A commercial asking people to foster an orphan in Africa attracts his attention and he signs up. Returning from the post office to mail a letter to Ngudu, the African boy whom he’s adopted at the rate of $22 a month, he finds his wife dead of a stroke, the vacuum cleaner still whining away. After the funeral, and a couple of weeks or so of stunned grief, he finds love-letters to his wife from their best friend. This is the first of several unwelcome discoveries. He decides to drive the RV to Colorado to visit his daughter and persuade her to back out of marrying a gormless but friendly waterbed salesman.
     The trip takes a couple of weeks. He detours to visit his hometown and places he’s always wanted to see. He continues to write letters to Ngudu, in which he puts a brave face on his disappointments. His future in-laws are an odd collection of free spirits and failures. At the wedding, he delivers the kind of speech he’s expected to make. He returns home believing he’s a failure: he hasn’t made a difference in anyone’s life. But a letter from Ngudu’s caregiver at the orphanage lifts his spirits. Because of his $22 a month, Ngudu will have a better future.
     The road trip as voyage of discovery is a common trope, so is this one worth watching? Yes, if you don’t mind seeing a man who hasn’t done much with his life, and has developed a habit of repressing his true self and living the roles his family and society expect of him. I don’t know the book that inspired this movie, but I suspect it makes rather harsher judgments about the effects of American self-effacement than this movies does. The movie doesn’t really know how to deal with Schmidt. Should his predicament be played for laughs? Yes. Should it adopt a sentimental tone to soften Schmidt’s rage? Yes. Should it show a man developing wisdom late, but no too late, in life? Yes. Should it develop a critique of the affluent life? Yes. And so on.
     The result of this indecision about what to do with the script is a collection of vignettes of varying quality, intensity, and tone, each of which has its own charm and effect, but which don’t come together into a coherent whole. This is a movie that is less than the sum of its parts. Entertaining, but not involving. **

John Wain. The Smaller Sky (1967)

     John Wain. The Smaller Sky (1967) Arthur Geary has left his ordinary life to live at Paddington Station. Of course this small act of rebellion arouses the antagonism of all the normal people, trapped as they are in a network of obligations. In the end Geary dies. I started this book, and may finish it. Its style is dim, there’s a greyness about it all that is not at all appealing. The book will go into my collection of stories with a railway setting. ** (2002)

Robert Graves. The Shout (1965)

     Robert Graves. The Shout (1965) Graves wrote these stories for various magazines. His style is anecdotal and laid back. The stories describe events that just sort of happen. Graves claims they are all true; they certainly have the not-quite-orderly pattern of real life. I liked the “English Stories” best. The “Roman Stories” read like pieces written to educate about Roman life. Perhaps they are the ones written for Holiday. The “Majorcan Stories” are too long. The anecdotal style palls after two or three pages of rambling narrative. A pleasant read, but of greatest appeal to those who want to know more about Graves. **-½ (2002)

Gordon R. Dickson. Mutants (1973)

     Gordon R. Dickson. Mutants (1973) Short stories, some of which have been published in other collections. Dickson writes clearly and economically, and his ideas are always interesting. Characterisation, as in any romance, suffices for the plot, but unusually for SF, Dickson is as interested in the psychology as in the technology - more so, in many stories. He likes the figure of the “man of war,” which he explores at length in the Dorsai series. One of these, Warrior, leads this collection. Dickson also has a talent for the extended joke, as in Idiot Solvant (a genius is given a pill that has the effect of unleashing all his talents), and Miss Prinks (in which a lady decides not to use her superpowers, bestowed on her by a being from another dimension, since it might cause her to behave in an unladylike manner. These stories all originally appeared in the SF pulps of 1950s and 60s, and like all such stories show a rather timid extrapolation of existing technologies such as computers. And like many other writers of the time (esp. Philip K Dick), Dickson writes stories that may be read as political allegories. Danger - Human! For example could be seen as a disguised claim that American individualism will win out over the stultifying effects of Russian communism. But there’s no need to get all solemn and earnest about themes and motifs. Dickson writes very good entertainments, some of which exceed anything else in the genre. ** to **** (2002)

Richard Neely. Shadows of the Past (1987)

     Richard Neely. Shadows of the Past (1987) A “saga” involving teenage love, class conflict, friendship, loyalty, and sex. Trashy as can be, TV Movie written all over it. (For all I know, it was made into a mini-series -- it’s hard to tell, since they all seem to be the same story.) The book is a romance, unusual only in that it focuses on a man instead of a woman. Charles Dain, son of a poor immigrant, falls in love with schoolmate Sharon Fletcher, whose father throws him out. He enlists in the army (WWI), and she, pregnant, marries an old friend. He meets and marries Harriet Calder, rich, rich, rich heiress, who buys him a newspaper. Max, his and Sharon’s old friend (and supposed chaperone on their dates) becomes his managing editor, etc. Many years later, Charles and Sharon meet and resume their affair, which ends when Dain is shot by Max, who in a drunken rage realises he has never really given up hope of winning Sharon. Charles covers up the deed, and although several people now know Sharon’s daughter Kate is Charles’ child, everything will work out well. The “shadows of the past” will be deliberately forgotten.
     There are few wrinkles of plot I’ve left out, but that’s the essence. The characterisation is superficial, the dialogue is quite good, the narrative trick of shifting back and forth form past to present works well enough, but all in all, it’s fraud, a beach book designed to while away a few hours without too much imaginative or intellectual engagement. The book succeeds at this modest goal, but I can’t help feeling that Neely wanted to write a more serious book. However, like many romances, it’s full of anachronisms, most gratingly in speech and attitudes. *(2002)

Cynthia Freeman. Portraits (1979)

    Cynthia Freeman. Portraits (1979) A Family Saga Romance. A Jewish family emigrates to the USA in the early 1900s. The story follows their fortunes, etc to the present day, when one of the last survivors starts writing this story.
     A bad book, relying on incident (eg, a vicious beating of the hero) and plot (most of which is signalled well ahead of time, just in case your attention wanders), with cursory attempts at socio-economic description. Much telling, very little showing, stereotypical characters and incidents. The story is “realistic,” in that the characters are not saints by any means; but they have moments of insight which bring them round, so that their bad feelings and attitudes don’t last very long. The book has Hollywood and TV rights written all over it; in the right hands it would make a Serious Dramatic miniseries. In other words, light weight trash. I read about 1/4 of it, and had enough. Fay got this book at Books and Stuff, for light summer reading; which it is, but not the best example of its genre.
     Freeman started writing at age 55, and had some success. She explains a lot, which makes for easy reading. She aims at the middle, that kind of reader who doesn’t want to figure things out, doesn’t want to get too involved with the characters, doesn’t want too much intellectual or moral shock, in fact wants to have her prejudices and opinions confirmed, especially the progressive ones. In this, Freeman succeeds. But I don’t like it. * (2002)

Gordon R. Dickson. Mindspan (1986)

     Gordon R. Dickson. Mindspan (1986) Collection of stories about human-alien encounters. Several of the stories form short series, one about Harry Shallo, and one about Tim and Lucy Parent. In all the stories, human (i.e., American) orneriness, cunning, and sheer irrational savvy are shown to be a match for any mere alien. Which raises the question of whether we can imagine an alien of truly superior skill and intelligence. Apparently not. Entertaining, well plotted, nicely written, and swift moving, so that one doesn’t notice the holes in the logic or the thinness of the characters while enjoying these tales. Dickson wrote them for Galaxy and similar 1950s-60s pulps. The editors’ stinginess forced low word counts, which I’m sure contributed to the compressed and often elegant style of tale telling. ** to ***. (2002)

J. Thurber. and E. B. White. Is Sex Necessary? (1929, 1950)

     J. Thurber. and E. B. White. Is Sex Necessary? (1929, 1950) Somewhat dated in its coy humour, but stylish and amusing. Thurber’s analysis of “pedestalism” still stands. The fact that this book was considered screamingly funny when it first appeared tells us a lot about the American obsession with sex, and Americans’ false assumption that other, more sophisticated, societies (e.g. Europe) don’t have the same neuroses as they do. Thurber’s drawings are wonderful. He can put more expression in a single line than some more skillful draftsmen put into a whole picture. **-½ (2002)

Robert Campbell. Plugged Nickel (1988)

     Robert Campbell. Plugged Nickel (1988) Bought at Value Village because it’s set on a train, and obviously a remaindered copy, never read. Jake Hatch is the P.I., he’s a railroad cop working for the Burlington Northern. A severed body is found on the tracks, but the two parts turn out to be from different bodies. And so what might be a gruesome accident turns out to be murder. The puzzle is competently handled, although the denouement is somewhat perfunctory. The characters and atmosphere are pleasant, and we learn a little bit about gypsies. Not the best such entertainment, and not the worst either. Campbell doesn’t get the railroady bits quite right, which may be the reason this didn’t turn into a series as planned. Or maybe it did. The next book was to be titled Red Cent. I haven’t seen it, but I will look for it. ** (2002)

Barton J. Bernstein. Towards a New Past (1969)

     Barton J. Bernstein. Towards a New Past (1969) A collection of “dissenting essays in American History,” and as such containing interesting points of view based in some cases on new data. Many of these points of view would be considered subversive right now. The trouble is, it’s an academic book, put together for undergraduate history courses. I pity the people who had to read this book for credit. The style for the most part is clotted and obscurantist, often written to an audience that presumably has the same knowledge base as the writer. The most readable essay is Christopher Lasch’s, in which he lambastes the “liberals” that allied themselves with right-wing anti-communist paranoia.
      The date of the book suggests reasons for its publication: the 60s were a brief resurgence of the liberal tradition in American society, a tradition that is once again under attack, since it represents what used to be called conservative attitudes: respect for the individual; the view that the state exists to protect the weak from the powerful (which entails redistribution of wealth); a belief that government should promote the general good and not arbitrate between competing interests (for such arbitration inevitably results in co-option by one or another of those interests); and so on.
     Much of its material is, as the academics say, “valuable,” but the academic tone and attitudes put off the people who most need a corrective to their myths of the American past: the ordinary Jane and Joe who believe what is mostly a rickety structure of lies and conscience-salving myths. The heirs of the dissenting tradition, the ultra-sensitive would-be reformers of racist, sexist, classist attitudes, are themselves as guilty of misreading the past as those whom they attack. Since their misreadings for the most part have no political or economic consequences, they are happily included in current TV and movies. The real issues, which are misunderstanding of money and power, and hence mistaken analysis of how they work in our society, are ignored in favour of attempts to avoid affronting those who feel they have a historical grievance of one kind or another.
     Clearly a book that provokes responses. But, oh, how tedious to read! ** (2002)

E. J. West Shaw on Theatre (1958)

     E. J. West Shaw on Theatre (1958) Collection of essays, and public and private letters, therefore somewhat repetitive. The last few pieces, written when Shaw had outlived everybody who ever mattered to him, could have been left out, but in fact are the best summaries of his views and knowledge, and should be first reading for any student of GBS. His claim that he went back to earlier modes of drama is one I can’t check, but from what I know of Shakespeare and the Greeks, I think it’s exaggerated. His claim that the declamatory style of acting is the main tradition, and that he wrote for it, is easier to check: one simply goes to a modern production. And guess what: his plays work just as well done in the low-key naturalistic style that is now once again in vogue. Which means that his scripts are largely director- and actor-proof, just as Shakespeare’s are.
     GBS's contempt for what he calls police magazine stories and petty adulteries as the stuff of theatre gets shriller as he ages. From what we now know about his sex life, it appears he protests too much. As some other cynic said, as sexual capability and interest diminish with age, sexual disgust increases. I read this book as much for the style as for the information. Pretty good, and quotable. *** (2002)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Norman Thelwell. Penelope Rides Again (1991)

     Norman Thelwell. Penelope Rides Again (1991) Cartoons of Penelope and her friends and their ponies. Bought at a yard sale for possible gift to one of our nieces. Like all cartoon books, hard to take in one gulp. Thelwell’s girl and pony cartoons were first published in Punch and some  British kids’ comics. The Telegraph picked him up as a regular, and this book (and many others, according to the flyleaf list) is the result. Thelwell's fat little ponies and the little girls that bounce around on them have a certain charm, but I suspect it’s a specialised taste. **

Robert Weaver. The Anthology Anthology (1984)

     Robert Weaver. The Anthology Anthology (1984) Collection of stories, poems, etc first broadcast on CBC’s Anthology, which Weaver produced for a long, long time. I vaguely remember hearing it from time to time. Anyhow, I can’t remember where I got this book. Maybe Jon gave it to me, or Cassandra, or maybe I found it on a remainder table. If so, it must have been some years ago, because I there’s no date in the front (I write the month/year in every book I buy now). The pieces vary, of course, but they do share a common tone or cast of mind or colour of the imagination. There’s a kind of melancholy, a kind of acceptance of the inevitable, of the uncontrollable encounters in one’s life, that seems to me peculiarly Canadian. When Americans try the same tone, they write stories of defeat. The Canadian stories don’t feel defeatist.
     For example, in “A Private Place” by Joyce Marshall, Lars, a newly separated Norwegian moves into a recently dead older man’s apartment, and reads the letters from the older man’s Canadian mistress. He doesn’t answer them, and she finally asks to have confirmed what she suspects and dreads, that her lover is dead, and her letters are being tossed out. By this time Lars’s wife is asking Lars to let their daughter spend more time with him, he has met a possible future mate, he knows that soon his wife will file for divorce, and he can form a family again. None of this has come about by any action on his part, he has merely drifted from one situation to another. His inability to write to the dead man’s mistress is just another symptom of his passivity. This inability to act, this drifting, occurs in most of the other stories, too. But one doesn’t feel that the protagonists are losers; one feels instead that they are survivors. Which, according to Peggy Atwood, is the essential mark of Canadian fiction.
     Perhaps instead of essential Canadianness we see merely Robert Weaver’s taste. But more recent work, by people who had barely begun their writing when Weaver published this anthology, continues the strain. Timothy Findley died yesterday (June 20, 2002). I have read very little of his work – I find him a glib trickster rather than a writer – but he, too, catches that Canadian ability to accept whatever life dumps on you. Canadians don’t think of themselves as fighting to stay alive, I guess. Just staying alive is all there is. And while you are alive, things happen. It’s the mark of a true person to accept this, not complain, and not triumph either.  A better book than I expected. *** (2002)

Keith Waterhouse. Billy Liar (1959)

     Keith Waterhouse. Billy Liar (1959) The blurbs claim this is funny, light-hearted, etc. I find it sad. Billy Fisher is the only son of a dysfunctional working class family somewhere in Yorkshire. He fantasises constantly about an alternative family, or a country called Ambrosia. In both, he is skilled, intelliegent, successful, universally admired, etc. In real life he acts with only one thought, How To Get Out Of This Mess, and in the end fails to act even on his one major decision, to go to London and seek his fortune as a script writer for a stand-up comic. He has engaged himself to three young women, only one of whom in any way his match, but she sees through his gormlessness, and decides to dump him. He has failed to mail 200 promotional calendars for his employer, an undertaker, and has been disposing of them surreptitiously at the rate of two or three per day ever since. He does a stand-up routine at a tavern, but does it badly. And so on.
     I’ve read many occasional pieces by Waterhouse in Punch, and this novel somehow seems uncharacteristic. If it’s auto-biographical, as it seems to be, then it was written to purge some demons. I read this book hoping for some redeeming action. The only insight Billy achieves is that he doesn’t have the guts to go to London, but even that is suppressed as soon as he has it. The book had some fame in its day, probably because its scenes of lower-class idiocies encouraged the readers to feel superior to the characters. ** (2002)
     Update 2013: Waterhouse died in 2009. An obituary can be found here: Waterhouse Obituary in the Telegraph

Harry Turtledove. Noninterference (1987)

     Harry Turtledove. Noninterference (1987) The Survey Service is on Bilbeis V. The local Queen is sick of cancer. One of the anthropologists persuades his team mates to give her immunity boosters to destroy the cancer. They leave. 1500 years later, a routine resurvey discovers the Queen is still alive, and revered as a goddess. She has brought her people from early iron age to approximately medieval levels of technology. The report is suppressed for political reasons: factions within the Federacy want to stop all exploration of extra-Federacy planets. All except one of the survey team is murdered in order to keep the report secret, but eventually a second follow-up expedition is dispatched. After much plotting and more or less bloody action, the bad guys get theirs, and the Queen is left musing about star people. She plans to visit them before they come back again.
     Turtledove is good on bureaucratic machinations and on the effects of even slight cultural contacts. The plotting is intricate, and develops from the characters. His characterisation is strong enough that we care about what happens to the protagonists, but it doesn’t of course get in the way of the essence of the book, which is an exploration of cultural evolution. He suggests that it is not merely the institutions that determine how a society evolves, but also the presence or absence or strong personalities at key positions in those institutions. In this, he belongs to the contingency school: general principles govern social (and other evolution), but accidents of one kind or another can and do divert it into unexpected and, more importantly, unpredictable directions. The stream always flows downhill; but if it’s blocked, or a barrier is removed, the stream will change direction, sometimes drastically. A good read, but not a keeper. **½. (2002)
     Update 2013: Turtledove is also known as an alternate history writer. this book really belongs in that genre, despite its SF trappings.

Barbara Reynolds. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (1993)

     Barbara Reynolds. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (1993) Published in the centenary of Sayers’ birth, this biography gives us a sense of Dorothy the person. This arises in part from Reynolds’ friendship with Dorothy, and in part from frequent quotations from her letters.
     Dorothy turns out to have been a social and fiscal conservative, but more importantly a woman with a great capacity for joy, fun, and delight. Reynolds believes that Dorothy’s defining characteristic was her great pleasure in intellectual work. This biography naturally supports this point of view, but I think that it’s a valid one, if the letters cited represent Sayer’s belief about and responses to life. I would have liked to know Sayers; and I can’t say that of most subjects of biographies. Also, this book sends me back to Sayers’ work. One thing I would like to know is whether Anthony Fleming, Sayers’ son, married and had children. It would be a kind of comfort to know that Sayers had descendants. *** (2002)

Dorothy Sayers. Hangman’s Holiday (1933)

     Dorothy Sayers. Hangman’s Holiday (1933) Several stories about Wimsey and Montague Egg, plus a couple of psychological crime stories. Very much of their period, neat puzzles, nicely told. Sayers puts her own twist on standard plots – locked room mysteries, mistaken identities, and so on. I like rereading her tales; they give reliable pleasure. In these stories, Wimsey is still a fatuous ass, a sort of intelligent Bertie Wooster (which I suppose was the point of the joke). I’d forgotten what a personable young man Monty Egg is; he would make a good series character. The psychological stories don’t succeed as well; one reading is enough for them. They are “railway reading”; railway reading figures in one of them, so Sayers would not be offended by this characterisation. Slight as these stories are, they take considerable skill to concoct, and even more to write convincingly. *** (2002)

Philip J. Davis. The Thread: A Mathematical Yarn (1989)

     Philip J. Davis The Thread: A Mathematical Yarn (1989) A charming book, telling how the author, a mathematician, became curious about Pafnuty, the middle name of his hero, Pafnuty Lvovitch Tschebyscheff, a pioneer in the mathematics of approximation. Approximation has become a central motif of computing, since every computer can calculate only to some finite number of decimal places. It was the rounding off the 17th digit to display a 16-digit result that led to the discovery of chaos theory. That tiny difference of a few parts in 100 quadrillion made all the difference when the result was fed back into the equations for a second run of a weather prediction model.
     But I digress. Which is what Davis does. Some of his digression are personal, some are technical, some are historical. But he leads you down these byways so gracefully that we hardly notice that we are moving further and further away from the ostensible theme of the book: whare does the name Pafnuty come from? Davis brings the thread of his narrative back to this question several times, and finally gives us the answer: it derives from an Egyptian god’s name.
     Along the way, Davis instructs us in all manner of interesting facts. He illustrates one of my dicta: There is no such thing as useless knowledge; at the very least, a fact will serve to link two others. I’ll now add another corollary: and usually, this linkage satisfies our thirst for order and meaning. For order and meaning are fancy words for linkages.
     This is the second time I've read the book, and I enjoyed it just as much as the first time. ****

John Updike. The Same Door (1964)

     John Updike. The Same Door (1964) Updike’s first collection, mostly from The New Yorker. The earlier stories have the feel of experiments, but his melancholy view of the world is there already, as is his acute awareness of social class. North Americans deny the existence and/or importance of social class; Updike is one of many writers who remind us how wrong we are to do so. But unlike, say, Joyce Carol Oates, who tends to look at lower class life from above, Updike merely shows us what’s there. These stories tell more of adolescence, while his later books tell of young married life and the onset of middle age. Updike chronicles our lives; he observes accurately but without rancour. But this book will be enough Updike for a while. The stories range from *-1/2 to ***. (2002)

John Updike. The Music School (1966)

     John Updike. The Music School (1966) A very sixties collection, in which we see Updike’s other great gift, the ability to show you the nature of the times. These people’s choices are circumscribed by self-generated limits, mostly unconscious, certainly unexamined. At the same time, the heroes and heroines of these stories break social conventions, not from any sense that these conventions need changing, but simply because they get in the way of the fulfilment of desire. A more uneven collection than Museums and Women; Updike is still trying out what he can do. **-½

John Updike. Museums and Women (1972)

     John Updike. Museums and Women (1972) A collection of Updike’s stories from the 60s and 70s. Most of these were first published in The New Yorker, and it shows. These are New Yorker stories, and then some. All the same, Updike has a gift that transcends that genre. From time to time his sentences make you gasp. He felt her wonder, Who is this child? It was as if the roof of the house were torn off, displaying the depths of the night sky. (From “Solitaire”.)
     He is very good at delineating that vague melancholy that invades people who have nothing much to struggle for, and have found no compelling passion in their lives. They just go on doing what they do because they can think of nothing else that they would rather do. They want happiness, yet their search for is undercut by a suspicion that they don’t know what happiness is. Updike’s people have everything they could desire, and nothing that they really want. A steady diet of Updike causes a kind of spiritual queasiness. One wonders whether anything has a any sort of point. *** (2002)

Stephen Jay Gould. The Lying Stones of Marrakech (2000)

     Stephen Jay Gould. The Lying Stones of Marrakech (2000) These essays are grouped, the first bunch telling the early history of palaeontology and evolutionary theory. The latter group are a mixed bag. In this collection Gould exhibits a vice that must grow with the awareness that one has made it as an author: he overwrites, rambling on with numerous digressions (and many that aren’t, like the one in this parenthesis), he repeats himself, he builds tangled sentences. In other words, his style gets in the way, which for him is some achievement. Nonetheless, the information is as sound as recourse to original sources can make it, and he does his usual job of debunking common misconceptions and clarifying and deepening common vaguenesses. A book worth reading, despite its flaws.
He’s especially useful in reminding us that, given a stable environment, organisms will not change - that natural selection can work to stabilise as well as change an organism’s form. *** (2002)

Mark Buchanan Ubiquity (2000)

     Mark Buchanan Ubiquity (2000) A discussion of the concept of the critical state as it applies to diverse phenomena. In such systems, an event can trigger a large or small change, but nothing indicates the size of the change prior to its happening. There is no proportion between the triggering event and its consequences. In fact, in the simplest models, such as the sand pile on which one drops grains one by one, the triggering event is the same in every case: a grain of sand. It may trigger small avalanche or a huge one. The size of the avalanche is unpredictable.
     Buchanan’s thesis is that human systems also are often critical, that in fact human society is an assemblage of critical-state systems. Thus, changes large and small will happen. The only thing we know for sure is that larger changes are less likely than small ones. Of course we notice the large changes and seek for explanations with the hope and aim of preventing them in future. They are not preventable, says Buchanan, because they are not predictable. Moreover, attempts to prevent them may well set off different unpredictable events. Correction: such attempts will set off different unpredictable events.
     As I noted some years ago: explicability is not the same as predictability. We can explain, or at least describe, the chain of events that led to the first world war, but no one at the time could have predicted it. In fact, people had put in place a system of alliances designed to prevent large-scale war. Critical-state physics deals with systems whose history matters. Therefore, the mathematics of critical-state physics should be applicable to history. Buchanan goes further: critical-state physics is the science of history, he claims.
     A very useful book, and a well written one. Buchanan has the knack of explaining difficult (because unfamiliar) ideas by means of homely analogies and examples. But if he’s right, the best we can do is what we do when a hurricane threatens: prepare for the worst, just in case. What we can’t do is devise a system that a) will do exactly what we want it to do; and b) won’t change. **** (2002)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The World The Railways Made (1990)

     Nicholas Faith The World The Railways Made (1990) Readable social and economic history of the railways. There are a few minor errors, and a few too many typos, and the picture selection has little bearing on the text (which seems to be a common fault of British books.) Faith’s journalistic training shows in the breezy style, the unerring selection of the telling anecdote, and the logical muddle of what little analysis he attempts. A fun read, and probably a good source for high school students. **-½ (2002)

Merry Murder (1994)

     Cynthia Manson ed. Merry Murder (1994) Collection of mysteries set at Christmas time. Light confections for the most part, varying from elaborate shaggy dog stories to police procedurals. "On Christmas Day in the Morning" by Margery Allingham goes beyond the usual lightheartedness, and prompts a meditation on memory and love. Stories vary from ** to **** (2002)

The Night the Gods Smiled (1983)

     Eric Wright The Night the Gods Smiled (1983) Charlie Salter makes his debut in this novel. I read it many years ago, and it wears well on second reading. Sidelined because he backed the wrong man in the internal political games, Charlie now has a chance to redeem himself. He does so, with the help of Henri O’Brien, and his low-key questioning, which slowly but surely excavates facts and motives. But is is his decision to join a squash club gives him the missing pieces, the motive, and the murderer. Nicely done, with a promise of interesting developments in Charlie’s character, and his relationships with his wife and co-workers. **½ (2002)

The Salterton Trilogy (1986)

Robertson Davies  The Salterton Trilogy (1986)
     Tempest Tost (1951) The Salterton little theatre company puts on The Tempest, and a number of complications in personal and social relationships ensue. Solly Bridgetower and Pearl Veronica Vambrace appear for the first time; they hardly notice each other until near the end, when Solly takes Veronica home from the ball, and her father berates her. Hector McIlwraith suffers mid-life blues, and pursues Griselda Webster, a girl with more than her fair share of common sense, but who nevertheless is briefly flattered by a cad, Lt. Roger Tasset. The love-lives sort themselves out, not without a little pain, and some of the social relationships are, er, clarified, like butter.
     This book is a social comedy much in the style of Jane Austen, and like hers, Davies’ satire is sometimes very sharp. The persona of avuncular good will slips from time to time and reveals an irritated distaste for hypocrites, moral cowards, social climbers, and pelf-hunger; in this, Davies resembles Stephen Leacock. From time to time Davies preaches, but he does it so gracefully, and makes his sermonettes such natural parts of serious or semi-serious conversation, that one hardly notices. This is Davies’ first published novel, and shows some creakiness here and there, but any writer would be happy to have made such a well-crafted work. One of my favourite books. ***½
      Leaven of Malice (1954) A mischievous fake classified ad announces that Solly Bridgetower and Pearl Veronica Vambrace are to be married on November 31st. This starts the story; the inevitable joining of Solly and Veronica ends it. In between we have a mystery (who is the mischief maker?); a parent blinded by egotism even to his own love for his daughter; two shy and sensitive people discovering they are made for each other; and a variety of social enmities, some of which end in satisfying poetic justice.
     As in Tempest Tost, Davies’ tongue is often sharp enough to cut deeply into small-town Canadian pretensions, but his focus is family tragedy or near-tragedy. Davies is a comedian, with a comedian’s cruelty (something he discourses on in the third book). So although the story veers close to tragedy, and certainly includes a great deal of pain, his characters prove themselves resilient enough to survive and even to find happiness. Another favourite book. ****
     A Mixture of Frailties (1958) Mrs Bridgetower dies, and her will enjoins her son and daughter-in-law to produce a son before they can inherit her considerable fortune. In the meantime, its income is to be devoted to the European education of a young woman in the arts. The lucky girl is Monica Gall, a singer, and the book centres on her. I get the feeling that Davies started out with the intention of telling the story of Solly and Veronica’s marriage under the blight of the dead woman’s’ malicious testament, but that Monica got away from him. In any case, he’s more interested in the education of an artist than in a blighted marriage, albeit that education causes enough trouble.
     But the social and personal relationships and their effects on the characters, which is the stuff of novels, seems not to interest Davies as much in this book as in the other two. Rereading it, I realised how much I had forgotten of the discussions of art and art education, and how much Monica’s life reads like a case history. The satire is almost perfunctory – it’s as if Davies is discovering some new aspect of comedy. He can make fun of silliness as well (and as gently or roughly) as ever, but his heart isn’t in it. I suspect he has come to a realisation about his talent here, and that’s why this book seems to be an experiment in the themes and forms he uses in his later trilogies. Although all three books tell how troublesome, and even wicked, choices may cause unintended good, it’s in this book that this theme becomes explicit. Nevertheless, because it has the requisite happy endings, it satisfies. ***½
     The Trilogy: I reread these three novels over almost two months. I’d forgotten how much happens in them, how many characters there are, how lightly Davies wears his learning, how well the plots develop, how naturally the dialogue fits into the story. As a group, these books would make a lovely TV series (it would have to be a full season in length), or a set of three longish movies. However, if such a production kept Davies’ astringent tone, it would not be very popular. Davies is very hard on Canadian pretensions, and especially on our peculiar mix of self-deprecation and vanity, and on a trait we share with the Americans: our conviction that ignorance of politesse is a virtue. (2002)

Fierce Pyjamas (2001)

     David Remnick & Henry Finder Fierce Pyjamas (2001) An anthology of New Yorker Pieces from the 1920s to 2000. There are more pieces from more recent decades; humour dates very quickly, but for that very reason a more balanced selection would have been far more interesting. A pleasant read, with the advantage that it can be done in short takes. ** to **** (2002)


     Bread is called the staff of life. When I was a kid, I thought of a staff as made of wood. A staff made of bread made no sense. That was before I understood metaphors of function: just as a staff supports a man, so bread supports life.

      But in fact through most of human existence, there was no bread. The earliest archeological evidence for bread of a sort is about 30,000 years old. By that time homo sapiens had existed for at least 200,000 years. That bread was a cooked or semi-roasted porridge made of grains; I don’t think anyone nowadays would recognise it as bread. Flatbread baked on hot stones or a griddle are the modern equivalent. The archeology shows that these first bread makers relied on hunting and gathering for most of their food. Cereal grains were one among several types of seeds gathered for food. It took several thousand years to develop cultivation of grains; perhaps someone noticed that spilled grain would provide a crop the following year, and decided to experiment. However it began, that invention or discovery of bread began the constantly accelerating development of technology that has made our species the dominant life form on this planet.
     Bread as staple food and agriculture go together, in fact agriculture makes no sense without bread. The earliest agricultural settlements were villages, some fortified, some not, surrounded by fields and pastures. The last users of stone tools built them about 10,000 years ago. When metallurgy was invented around 3500BCE, that technology developed swiftly, and within a few hundred years we find cities dominating the farming villages in their vicinity. These complex polities require writing, an armed force, and centrally administered law to survive.
     I think it’s no accident that the invention of bread and the earliest forms of writing, mnemonic symbols, are nearly contemporary. These symbols were used to help the reader recall everything from lists of trade goods to signs of future events to myths, those stories in which the sacred and secular histories of the tribe were mingled. Surprisingly quickly, these early mnemonic systems developed into scripts.
     Bread as staple requires agriculture, which requires a hierarchical social structure to ensure that the backbreaking (and boring) work of plowing, seeding, and harvest was done. A hierarchical society needs an agreed body of rules and customs. Law, in other words, enforced as much by common beliefs as by physical force. Customs, religious and otherwise, express the common understanding of how the world does and should work. Written law codifies those beliefs; the law describes what is to be done and what is not to be done. Writing is also handy for keeping accounts, so much so that writing numbers may have predated writing words.
     Bread is not only the staff of life, it’s the driver of those changes in human society that we are pleased to label progress.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Original Hitch Hiker Radio Scripts (1985)

     Douglas Adams The Original Hitch Hiker Radio Scripts (1985) The whole lot, including bits snipped to shorten the scripts to the mandatory 29 minutes 30 seconds. I bought this book in 1986, and it promptly disappeared into Jon’s library in the spare bedroom. Marie found it recently when she was dusting the book shelves, so I finally got to read it. It was worth the wait.
     As we all know, Arthur Dent and his friend Ford Prefect (actually an alien from a small planet near Betelgeuse) manage to hitch a ride minutes before a Vogon space constructor fleet demolishes Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass. The subsequent episodes detail their rescue by a ship powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive, meeting Ford’s semi-cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian (an astrophysicist and the only other Earth survivor), Marvin the depressed robot, and so on. The central trope is the search for the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Throughout, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy informs Arthur (and us) of various background stories needed to make what sense we may of the impossible events that the five adventurers survive (but only just).
     The first six episodes were made into the TV series that introduced me and (probably) millions of other people to the Guide. Adams used the latter six when he wrote the Hitch Hiker’s trilogy of four books. The different media versions differ in detail, and occasionally in story-line, but throughout we have the picaresque quest, and Adams’ amazing ability to make deep philosophical and scientific conundrums intelligible via jokes. And it all makes the kind of absurd logical sense that only the English, it seems, are able to convey.
The book includes notes on each episode by the producer Geoffrey Perkins with interpolations by Adams. ****

Sorry, wir haben uns verfahren (2012)

     Stephan Orth & Antje Blinda Sorry, wir haben uns verfahren (2012) A collection of anecdotes about the German Federal Railway. The events range from the silly through the bizarre to the scary. One example will suffice: An elderly lady boarded the train. The conductor and fellow passengers helped her to find her seat and stow her baggage. Then she needed a place to hang her coat, and spied a lovely bright red knob. Perfect! She hung her coat on it, and promptly stopped the train. The bright red knob was the emergence brake.
     Each anecdote is signed, so presumably the events actually happened, even the ones that sound like urban legends. The title alludes to a commuter train that stopped several miles up a branch line. The train had been diverted from its planned track, and the engineer had no idea where they were. So he announced, Ladies and gentlemen, it seems we have lost our way. Amusing enough. My cousin, a ferroequinologist like me,  received two of these from his family and decide the share the surplus. I’m glad he did, the book entertained me for a two or three hours. **½

Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten (2001)

     Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten (2001) Jon gave me this book for Christmas, and I’m glad he did. Sacks tells us of his childhood and adolescence, when he was consumed by a rage for chemistry, in part stimulated by his uncles. Uncle Abe ran a factory that made light bulbs with tungsten filaments, hence the title. But the real focus is Sacks’ fascination with the elements, and his discovery of their properties. He read voraciously about the history of chemistry and chemists. He set up a lab in which he did experiments duplicating (as far as he could afford it) the discoveries of his heroes. That he didn’t destroy himself and the house was I think as much a matter of luck as of caution. Nowadays, such a course of study would not be possible, even in a well-equipped high school lab. Liability insurance has imposed safety regimes that make independent lab work by high school students almost impossible.
     Sacks, as in all the his books, comes across as a charming man with a lively curiosity, intellectual rigour, and the kind of imagination that can see the patterns that matter. This impression is strengthened by his TV interviews, which have the quality of conversations that we have the privilege of overhearing. Sacks spent some time at a horrible boarding school when he (along with thousands of other children) was evacuated from London during WW2. Reading was an escape, science, especially chemistry, promised stability and security. His large family gave him a diverse society, that loved him and his bothers unconditionally. These combined to heal the wounds inflicted by a sadistic headmaster (who, on the little evidence provided by Sacks, was a monster with demons of his own).
     I enjoyed this book enormously. The writing is graceful, intimate, intelligent, witty, wry, and above all vulnerable. One gets the impression that this is the authentic Oliver Sacks, a man one feels privileged to know in person. ****
     Update 26 March, 2013: My son Jon died on 19 March. He was 48 years old, but to me he was still the boy with whom I had conversations on our walk to school, about history and anything else that caught his interest.  I don't know how much of what I think I know of history I learned from him, but by now it's most of it. His choice of books for gifts was always thoughtful; he had little money to spend, and must have searched yard sales and library books ales all year long. He liked yard sales, actually, he was a great searcher-out of treasures that others didn't value. I shall miss him. Grief seizes me without warning. Obituary via or

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pride and Prejudice (book review)

     Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice (a school edition published 1958) I like this book very much, and reread it after having seen parts of yet another TV version. This time round I noticed that Lydia’s elopement and seduction by Wickham was a far more serious thing than I had thought. We tend to impose our own values on the past, and have difficulty understanding the depth of feeling surrounding what we no longer see as serious moral lapses. No doubt the past would have the same difficulties with our moral judgments.
     I had also forgotten how much Elizabeth censured herself for her prejudices, and how much his pride had mortified Darcy. It seems to me that in praising Austen for her social comedy critics have often failed to notice how close she comes to tragedy. I suppose that is because marrying and being married seem to be mere domestic concerns, and so a romance of courtship and marriage could not express suitably tragic themes.
     But for most people, marriage is the most important decision in their lives. Our easy divorce doesn’t change this; in fact, it underlines it, for divorce is an admission that one has made a serious mistake. Besides, many of the great and powerful have been destroyed by their unfortunate choices in marriage. And Austria’s history suggests that marriage has more to do with politics than many other, apparently more important, concerns.
     So Austen, although she confined herself to a small canvas, nevertheless treats large themes. Her satire on romantic love doesn’t hide her conviction that marriage is the primary source of both happiness and misery. A good marriage is good not only for the partners but also for their children, and their community; a bad marriage can have devastating effects on everyone, not only the children. The Bennetts did not have the best of marriages, but Mr Bennett’s retreat from his paternal responsibilities magnified the bad effects of his wife’s foolishness. Money is not necessary to a good marriage, but careful stewardship of one’s wealth is. While Austen is fully alive to the benefits of a good income, she also knows that a large income can tempt to extravagance.
     One could continue drawing morals of this kind from the book, but I don’t want to emulate Mary. I enjoyed my brief stay with the Bennetts and their friends, and will likely read this book again. **** (2002)

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954)

     P. G. Wodehouse Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954) Bertie Wooster and Aunt Dahlia get into the usual mix of pickles, some home-made by themselves, some constructed by others. Jeeves once again provides advice and action, and all ends happily. As usual, Bertie gets mixed up with a female who wants to marry him, there is the threat of physical retaliation from the spurned lover, love at first sight, missing necklaces, dark secrets, and so on. Wodehouse’s style as always amuses: he is the master of the twisted cliche and the apt (if often unattributed) quotation. Wonderful stuff. I see by the notes in the book that I bought it in 1979. Left it on the shelf for future pleasure, which it provided. ***

My Uncle Oswald (1979)

     Roald Dahl My Uncle Oswald (1979) I started this book some years ago, and found it again recently while trying to reduce the pile of books in the case by the bed. I won’t finish it. It’s silly and “clever” in the worst sense, like most of Dahl’s work. The plot of the novel is that Uncle Oswald discovers an aphrodisiac, and decides to use it for a spot of blackmail in order to get very, very rich. I think Dahl fancies himself as a writer in the Saki tradition, but he lacks the underlying moral sense of Saki, so that what should be black satire is merely nasty farce. Witty in places, and avoids the grosser kind of pornographic writing – which may not be a virtue. *

A Book of Courtly Cats (1986)

A Gentleman A Book of Courtly Cats (1986) Excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays and poems paired with portraits of cats in the style of Elizabethan miniatures. Not a book so much as an extended greeting card. I think Mum gave this to Marie. It’s a charming object. I recognised most of the quotations; the one I liked best is:
       If I could write the beauty of your eyes
      And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
      The age to come would say, ‘This poet lies;
      Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.’
      So should my papers, yellow’d with their age,
      Be scorn’d, like old men of less truth than tongue.
     And your true rights be term’d a poet’s rage
     And stretched metre of an antique song
However, I don’t know which sonnet it’s from, so I shall have to read them all over again. Unrated (not a book). But lovely to look at and read. (2002)

Country Vet (1972)

     Denis Farrier Country Vet (1972) The blurb claims this books is in the Herriot vein, but I wouldn’t know. Its publication date suggests an attempt to cash in on vet-lit. Amusing enough, but very light reading. A few rants about the realities of animal life and death are worth keeping in mind when confronted by animal-rights activists, a stupidly sentimental lot without any real knowledge of animals. Farrier relates a few tales about his youth, his student days, his life as an assistant, and his life as an independent practitioner. Sentimental he isn’t, but he is annoyed, to put it mildly, by the mindless shooting of birds. *1/2 (2002)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Five Legs (1969), and a digression on James Joyce

     Graeme Gibson Five Legs (1969) I’ve read bits and pieces of this book for several years. I should say I’ve tried to read this book for many years. It made a splash when it first appeared (my copy is a First Edition), but as it turns out the ripples dissipated very quickly.  It looks like Gibson tries to do a Joycean stream-of-consciousness, but he’s no James Joyce. Not that this is in itself a disability, but it becomes one when you want to write like Joyce. Joyce is overrated in my opinion; Ulysses is barely readable (another book I’ve read at over the years), and Finnegan’s Wake will forever be merely a time- and academy-bound curiosity. No amount of scholarly interpretation will convince me that it’s worth the effort of deciphering the book for myself. Why should I, when the scholars have done such a good job of it?
     A book whose interpreters do a better job of telling the tale than the author did becomes a mere puzzle, and when it comes to puzzles we all have our tastes. I prefer jigsaws and crosswords. If I’m told that Ulysses does in fact trace the ancient legend of the title in a modern life and setting, I’m left wondering why I shouldn’t read the original. Reading Joyce’s book doesn’t dispel that wonder, but at least the digressions and pastiches have a charm apart from Joyce’s Grand Theme. In fact, I think they are more important than the self-conscious imitation of an old Greek tale. Joyce’s earlier work is better, especially the Portrait of the Artist. Perhaps Joyce didn’t trust the stories he had to tell, and felt he had to make them obscure in the telling to demonstrate that they had in fact the significance he ascribed to them. They certainly did, and the technique doesn’t add to that significance. For most readers it detracts, because it interposes itself between the tale and the reader.
     I was unable to discern much of a narrative in Gibson’s book; the central thread seems to concern the narrators’ trouble with women, but just exactly what that trouble is isn’t very clear. It appears to begin with the failure to impregnate his wife. But he is difficult to empathise with, despite Gibson’s obvious attempts to make his anguish palpable. But broken syntax and allusive phrases merely reveal a typically fractured consciousness, not necessarily an interesting mind. As for interesting digressions, there ain’t any.
     Perhaps Gibson thought that an avant-garde technique would lend significance. Perhaps he thought that a common-place mind would be more interesting when its working is exposed. We do have a puzzle here, but as I said above, that’s not enough. The puzzle must be worth solving, for its intellectual difficulty and/or for the solution. I didn’t find the rewards of solving the puzzle on either count sufficient to keep me reading. The stream-of-consciousness becomes an irritating impediment, and the solution (insofar as I’ve understood it) is mere commonplace. No stars. (2002)
     Update 2013: The book is out of print. Amazon offers 6 used copies of Five Legs/Communion. Various online entries report his work promoting Canadian writing, as well as his enthusiasm for bird watching. His Bedside Book of Birds looks like it's worth reading.