Tuesday, April 30, 2013

M. C. Beaton. Agatha Raisin and the Fairies of Fryfam (2000)

     M. C. Beaton. Agatha Raisin and the Fairies of Fryfam (2000) Beaton is the author of the Hamish McBeth series, so I expected some wit and farce, but this is a perfunctory potboiler. The fairies of the title are mentioned a few times, but have no bearing on the plot, which involves the murder of a wannabe squire by his wife. Agatha has rented a cottage in the Norfolk village of Fryfam to get away from James Lacey, a cold fish of a man with whom she is desperately in love (or lust). Her friend Charles comes down to help her out, but she doesn’t recognise his good qualities compared to James. Nevertheless, the two of them solve the riddle, there is a brief moment of lethal danger, and everything ends more or less happily. The book is clearly part of a series whose connecting thread is Agatha’s love life, but that’s treated as superficially as the crime story. Mildly amusing, if you let your attention wander a bit. Not nearly as good as the Hamish books. ** (2003)

Stefan Zweig. The World of Yesterday (1943)

     Stefan Zweig. The World of Yesterday (1943) I picked this up at a yard sale, and have read the preface, chapter 1 and parts of chapter 2. Chapter 1 is an interesting survey of Viennese life around the turn of the century, when the “better classes” of the Hapsburg Empire (and indeed all of Europe) were enjoying the last few decades of a secure and pleasant life. That Zweig seems oblivious to the actual conditions of the working classes that supported this petit-bourgeois lifestyle (one that was also enjoyed by the aristocracy, actually) is symptomatic: he loves grand generalisations, which no doubt express his impressions accurately, but don’t tell us much about what was really happening.
     For what was happening was of course the working out of ideas that would cause revolutions and the overthrow of the old order. Europe sleepwalked into the First World War, and Zweig seems unable to accept the fact that the ideals that he espouses (centred around personal freedom) were largely irrelevant to these events. I’ve not read any of his other work – he seems to have had a small reputation as a historian of ideas and literature – and I probably won’t. I may read a few more pages of this work, but there are other books I want to read first.
     Zweig’s talent seems to consist mostly of making accepted platitudes sound profound, which was no doubt a comfort to his readers. His childhood reminiscences have some value as a record of the way life felt before the First World War, but the absence of concrete details unfortunately robs them of real interest. One has to have some prior knowledge in order to understand Zweig’s generalities, which is always a bad sign. * (2003)

James Churchward. The Lost Continent of Mu (1959)

     James Churchward. The Lost Continent of Mu (1959, but published earlier) Churchward is a crank. He believes that there was a continent in the Pacific Ocean that sank some 20,000 years ago, and he jackdaws facts from all over to support this thesis, as well as inventing all kinds of “explanations” to account for the phenomena for which he has no facts. Wonderfully silly stuff, but I fear (after a google on the title) that there are lots of people who believe it.
     Churchward also believes in reincarnation, the special creation of humanity (with a soul, of course, which is the only “real life” on Earth), planes of existence, and the superiority of the white race. Besides reincarnation, he also believes that all modern religions are corruptions of the original, pure religion of mankind by a scoundrelly priests who want to enslave people. And so on.
     There is no clear line of argument, but much assertion of “incontrovertible” facts as conclusions. He reproduces what he claims are “glyphs” and “vignettes” from old clay tablets and stone sculptures. These, he says, are really a form of writing, and guess who knows how to read them? As, I said, wonderfully silly. It belongs with the class of writings about Atlantis (which Churchward mentions in passing as a colony of Mu) and The Chariots of the Gods. * (2003)

Lillian O’Donnell. A Wreath for the Bride (1990)

     Lillian O’Donnell. A Wreath for the Bride (1990) A romance built around a mystery. Three women are killed shortly after or before their weddings, so their husbands are the prime suspects. But Gwenn Ramadge, going on nothing more than a vague hunch, connects the three murders and unmasks the murderer. Along the way she meets Her Man, a pleasant cop by name of Len Sackler. The style is typically romantic, with constant references to clothes and hair, and vague gestures in the direction of police procedural, supported by copious use of technical terms when they aren’t needed. The plot almost falls flat, some essential clues are deliberately withheld, and there are a few careless mistakes. I won’t be reading another by this writer. *½ (2003)

David Cecil. A Portrait of Jane Austen (1978)

     David Cecil. A Portrait of Jane Austen (1978) A charming introduction to Jane Austen’s life for anyone who has fallen under her spell. Cecil certainly has, for he finds practically no warts at all on the amiable Jane. He contends that Austen found her fulfilment as an artist, and if he feels he has to defend comedy generally and hers in particular against the charge of lack of seriousness, that merely reflects the lingering influence of Leavisite stupidity. Leavis explicitly renounced his chapel faith and upbringing, presenting himself as a modern man, but could never escape its suspicion of the imagination and its playfulness. He has had a pernicious effect on a whole generation of scholar-critics.
     The illustrations support the text, especially since many of them show watercolours and drawings made by the Austens, who seem to have been not only a very loving but also a very accomplished family. The maps date from the eighteenth or early nineteenth century.
The Austen family sounds almost too good to be true; but then we have limited documents on which to base any judgments, as Cassandra destroyed a large part of her correspondence with Jane. Cecil, bless his adulatory heart, thinks the missing letters deal mostly with deeper and more personal feelings, the kind that the Austens (and their class generally) did not exhibit in public and rarely in private; but I think that Jane’s “realism” gave rise to rather harsher judgments of friends and relations than Cassandra was willing to leave as a memorial to her much-loved sister.
     Still, the portrait of Jane Austen that emerges has the ring of truth, largely because Cecil is careful to place her in her time and culture, a time and culture that he presents with admirable thoroughness heightened by an equally admirable conciseness. I enjoyed this book, and now want to read all Austen’s novels, something I have promised myself I would do in the past, but never with real conviction. Some serious printing errors mar the book a little. ***½ (2003)

Agatha Christie. Peril at End House (1932)

     Agatha Christie. Peril at End House (1932) Poirot is, for once, misled by the murderer, but in the end he sees things the right way round and Maggie Buckley’s killer is unmasked.
     Drugs, the frivolous life, elegant hotels, a long low red car, fireworks, and mysterious strangers all figure in this book, in which Christie drops heavy hints that she is about to finish off Poirot. He is supposedly retired, and Japp is near retirement. Hastings has returned from the Argentine, but is as dense and as easily misled by appearances as ever.
     A pleasant confection, even though we see the murderer from a long way off. The typical gathering of the suspects is handled better than in most of the Christies, although she as usual ignores proper police procedure throughout; of necessity, since otherwise Poirot would have nothing to do. This copy is a coverless Crime Club edition, fifth impression, from The New Popular Lending Library of Bertles Drug Store in Camrose, Alberta. I see by the date that I bought it in 1973, must have been in a yard sale. Have no idea where the cover went. **-½ (2003)

Emma Lathen, Emma Going for the Gold (1981)

     Emma Lathen, Emma Going for the Gold (1981) The setting is Lake Placid, the crime is murder. John Thatcher must investigate the problem of a half million dollar scam involving fake Eurochecks. It turns out the two crimes are related, and after an attempted second murder is barely averted, Thatcher gets to explain how the deeds were done, and how he finally solved the puzzle. Lathen is a good crime writer. “She” (it’s actually a twosome) creates characters just believable enough to draw one into their lives, the plotting is brisk and clear, and the red herrings are as carefully placed as the real clues. The addition of social comedy and light satire makes for pleasant reading. **½ (2003)

Jim Davis. Garfield at Large (1980)

     Jim Davis. Garfield at Large (1980) The first of the Garfield books shows very clearly how the drawing has changed. Garfield in 1978 was a fat cat with jowls and a Kliban look. By 1980, his image was simplified, as was Jon’s. The content got a little edgier, too, but in the long run there’s only so much you can do with fat-cat jokes. The introduction of Odie helped a lot, but again, there’s only so much you can do with dumb-dog jokes. I’ve had enough of Garfield. ** (2003)

Michael Pitts, Footprints Through Avebury (1992)

     Michael Pitts, Footprints Through Avebury (1992) This is one of those thorough and beautifully organised and illustrated guide books that the British do so well. I have found no others like it anywhere in the world. This one takes the reader/walker on a series of walks in and around Avebury, noting everything worth seeing (at least to someone – tastes will differ), and providing brief histories of them all. The walks range in length from a few hundred metres to a few kilometres in length. The sights range in age from several thousand years to a few decades. Not the kind of book one reads just for fun, unless one has an obsessive interest in pre-historic Britain; but one that one would re-read after one’s visit as a reminder of the pleasures of seeing what there is to see. As Yogi Berra said, You can learn a lot by just looking; and one can learn a lot more when one has a friendly, lucid guide such as this booklet. **** (2003)

Humbert Fink. Kärnten (1998) (book review)

     Humbert Fink. Kärnten (1998) A book of lovely photographs of the Province, along with an introductory essay which is written in that terribly convoluted academic style that so many educated Germans and Austrians think they must inflict on their readers. It was sent to Mother and Father as a gift, and I got it when Roswita was sorting Mother’s things. It’s worth looking at, and reminds us of our happy visits with our Carinthian cousins. Pictures ****, text * (2003)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Maeve Binchy Heart and Soul (2008)

     Maeve Binchy Heart and Soul (2008) The title alludes to the setting: a newly established cardiac clinic in Dublin hospital. There are hints of office politics, but Binchy’s real interest has always been love and courtship. Bad things do happen (Dr Declan Carroll is severely injured in a car accident), and bad people take advantage of good people (Ania is seduced), but these events are little more than bumps in the road. Dr Carroll makes an almost perfect recovery within weeks, Ania (hard worker that she is) earns enough money to set her mother up in a proper shop, and she and Nick will be married despite Nick’s mother, who gets a well-deserved comeuppance. The cardiac clinic will continue, as Clara discovers that merely setting it up isn’t enough. She now has a team that works.
     Binchy writes the kind of romantic fantasy in which even the most fraught courtships end happily, or at least amicably. No one is permanently deprived of their one true love. Everyone pairs up at the end, and the horizon glows with sunshine and rainbows. One almost sees bunnies cavorting in the lush grass, nibbling the flowers. Bad things happen, but they are almost entirely random accidents. The bad people are either thwarted and disappear, or suffer a change of heart and become nice people (albeit sometimes grudging ones). In Binchy’s world, evil doesn’t exist.
     You might infer from the above that I didn’t like the book. You’d be wrong. I loved it. The fantasy is so disarmingly presented, the narrative moves so swiftly, each character’s backstory is so thoroughly explored, that one can’t help being drawn into the story. Binchy’s world may seem to be a naive fantasy, but the fact is that kindness, decency, joy in simple things, knowledge of what one really wants and willingness to work for it, are virtues that do make people’s lives better. That Binchy can’t bear to look evil in the face doesn’t diminish this truth.
     People with gloomier outlooks writing gloomier books may fancy themselves as being more realistic, but gloom and doom is just another fantasy. I’ve just begun The Murder Room by P D James, and while she is willing to gaze into the face of evil and show us the harm even minor vices can do, James also believes that kindness, decency, and joy in simple things are cardinal virtues. Where she differs is that she’s willing to acknowledge that these virtues don’t guarantee a happy life. At best, they help create islands of delight in the murky stream of time. Binchy presents us with the wish-fulfilment vision that evil cannot win, that we can arrive at and inhabit those islands. It’s pleasant to spend some time in her world. ***

Yoshihiro Tatsumi A Drifting Life (2009)

     Yoshihiro Tatsumi A Drifting Life (2009) Tatsumi is one of the major manga artists of the 20th century. He was one of a group that in the 50s and 60s transformed the medium from short strip comics to full length graphic stories, a development that influenced the growth of graphic narratives in the rest of the world. He was obsessed with manga from childhood. His family was not well off, and somewhat dysfunctional. His father was a feckless man, always looking for the One Big Score, and drinking too much. That left his mother to support the family by doing laundry.
     Tatsumi got his start submitting four-panel manga to the weekly magazines that wanted visual jokes to lighten the mood. His strips often won, which meant some extra income for his family. His older brother competed also, and was annoyed that Tatsumi won more often than he did.
     Tatsumi dropped out of high school for a time to devote himself to writing manga, dropped back in when things didn’t go as well as he hoped, met one of his heroes, an early proponent of extended narrative manga, joined a group of like-minded young men who promoted their own work, acquired an agent, was hired by a publisher who wanted to dominate the manga market, was seduced by his landlady, and so on and so on. Throughout he was obsessed not only by his desire to tell stories but also by his desire to draw them well. He watched a lot of movies, especially American ones, which influenced not only his stories but also his handling of the panels. He realised that a successful graphic novel was in effect an enhanced storyboard. The techniques he and others developed at the time have become standards. Modern graphic novels differ primarily in graphic style and narrative pace. It’s a very flexible medium, available for any genre.
     Tatsumi’s really was a drifting life: one damn thing after another, with failures as frequent as successes. The book ends at the cusp of the success that enabled him to make a living as a manga writer. I know nothing of Tatsumi’s subsequent life, but I do know that manga have become a stereotyped style of graphic story, have been transferred into movies (anime), and I infer that anyone who is famous in this subculture is worth knowing about. This memoir introduced me to a major talent. I will be looking for his work. Jon bought the book some time ago. I don’t know if he ever read it. ***

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Euromodel Rail Review, Nos 1-25 (1983-87)

     Euromodel Rail Review, Nos 1-25 (1983-87) This was a short-lived and erratically published magazine that couldn’t find its niche, and in particular couldn’t compete against Peco’s Continental Modeller, and presumably the European magazines such as Eisenbahn.
I found a copy of it, then bought back issues and subscribed. Rereading it reveals clues to its demise. The layout sketches (one can’t call them plans) are heavy-handed, with hard to read lettering, possibly blown up from smaller originals to fill space. The photo reproductions range from fairly good to execrable, especially the model shots. A lot of the editorial content is thinly veiled advertising. Too many of the photographs are mere variations on the same subject. And the ads constitute 20% of the page count or less, always a bad sign. The layouts featured in the early issues are generally of a mediocre standard, with too much of the European penchant for spaghetti bowl track plans, and so-so scenery at best, with toy-like trees, and buildings apparently chosen for their cuteness rather than their contribution to a believable illusion. It’s no wonder that a reader survey revealed a desire for more prototype information.
     And it’s because of the prototype information that the magazine does have value. There is a great deal about particular lines and branches, the colour photos are very well done, and if you want to work a layout prototypically, there is more than enough information about timetables and train makeup. A special issue about the centenary of the Arlbergbahn has a long essay, with goodly number of pictures (even if their subjects are somewhat repetitive). The occasional studies of locomotive classes are also well done, for example the ÖBB’s 1020 (DB E194) class. But the large scope of the magazine means that the information one wants is scattered; most of the magazine deals with railways one doesn’t care about.
     As I write this, I’m considering whether to clip the magazines for the stuff I want to keep, or whether to keep them intact. * to **** (2003)

Dale Wilson. A National Passenger Chronicle, Vol. 2 (2000)

     Dale Wilson. A National Passenger Chronicle, Vol. 2 (2000) A jackdaw’s collection of information and pictures about CNR and predecessor lines’ passenger services. The bias is towards Ontario, not surprising when you consider Wilson’s location (Sudbury). One of the more interesting chapters consists of W. A. Corkill’s recollections of his travels as a boy, mostly during wartime. The human interest bits add to the chronicle, and I hope Dale has more of them in future editions.
     The pictures are all interesting, though (as Paul Levin pointed out) they could have been reprinted a little better. Some of them show enough of the station and yard to have increased value, but most are cropped tightly on the trains. Pity; I like the incidental information in the background.
     Nevertheless, this is a valuable book for anyone interested in the subject, and full of other incidental information. For example, most of the local trains were short, half a dozen cars or less, including the head end cars. Also, heavyweight cars lasted well into the 60s, especially on local trains, and as work cars lasted into the 70s. Most sleepers and other special cars were rebuilt several times; they must have ended up like the legendary grandfather’s axe, which had two new heads and five new handles.
     The other tidbit I noted was the number of cars bought or leased from US roads; a table listing these would be useful to anyone trying to figure out which US models are convertible to Canadian roads. The lack of tables is the only real fault; but I guess Dale had enough troubles putting the book together. He alludes to desk top publishing, and must have used this book and its predecessor as a learning project. **½ (2003)

E. K. Milliken. Lancastrian and Tudor (1949)

     E. K. Milliken. Lancastrian and Tudor (1949; repr.1964) Old schoolbooks remind us of how attitudes and notions of common knowledge have changed, as well as providing glimpses of abandoned pedagogies. An old history book does more: it shows us how our concepts of ourselves as a nation have changed. This book does both. It’s organised in short, sharp chapters with boxed quotes and tables, both obviously designed to simplify the task of deciding what the pupils should be able to regurgitate. The impression of a Gradgrind style of teaching is hard to escape, and the “quick fire questions” in the book reinforce it. But then you read the writing questions, and you realise that this book was not intended as a textbook, but as a crib for both teacher and student. Its summary style assumes extensive lecturing by the teacher, and much student activity, including everything from making models of interesting objects (gunships, for example) through plays and skits, to student presentations. Realising this, one sees also that there are brief digressions from what is apparently the core of the book, which is a catalogue raisonne of people, places and events tied to dates and putative causes. In other words, Milliken assumes that names and dates form the skeleton of history, and that it’s the teacher’s and student’s task to put flesh on that skeleton.
     That being said, what view of British History does Milliken have? He (or she?) assumes that we know what’s right and civilised, even if our present times are not the peak of either ethical behaviour or civilised attitudes. He also assumes that most of British History demonstrates the superiority of the British way of life. But the intention to instill an enthusiastic patriotism does not prevent Milliken from passing sharp judgments on some of the people discussed. The brutality of Henry VIII, for example, gets a sharp rebuke, and Milliken is well aware of the social and economic effects of familial infighting among the nobility
     On the whole, Milliken’s history is one of men (and a few women) and their actions. There is little about the ordinary life of ordinary people, nor of the modern emphasis on technological change that brings about social change because it changes the range of choices available to people. Neither is there the modern belief that all cultures are equal. Some are clearly superior to others, and the European (Western) way of life is the most superior. History is a series of advances and retreats, with advances slowly gaining ground. Milliken’s judgments on art and science are particularly interesting: the Renascence revival of classical art, literature, and science is a high point, and painting and sculpture of that period has never been surpassed.
     Here, history is presented as a body of knowledge. The present doubts about our ability to understand the past are entirely absent. ** (2003)

Grace Paley. The Little Disturbances of Man (1959)

     Grace Paley. The Little Disturbances of Man (1959; Penguin edition 1985) Paley has the same melancholy realistic view of humankind, especially American humankind, as Raymond Carver, but she also has a hope and wit that he lacks. They can both break your heart with a few words characterising a relationship; but where Carver often sees a darkness that verges on despair, Paley sees glimmers of brightness in the acceptance of the way things are. Her characters have few illusions, and when they do, they know they have them. Both writers have the gift of seeing things clearly, and both escape the risk of sentimentality. Both show us people who have accepted the inevitable defeats of ordinary life yet manage to take what joy they can. The Americans believe in the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right. Paley (and Carver, along with other writers) shows that happiness is more often found in the small successes than the large, and that it’s more a matter of how you deal with life than of what life deals you. *** (2003)

Jim Davis. Garfield Gains Weight (1981)

     Jim Davis. Garfield Gains Weight (1981) This second book of Garfield shows that Davis is still finding the definitive line, and includes Lyman, Jon’s neighbour, who disappears soon after this series. But the ongoing motifs are all there: Garfield’s weight, his passion for lasagna, Jon’s doofus relationships with women, and Odie, who doesn’t have as much of a role here as he gets later. Reading a pile of Garfield strips one sees that Davis doesn’t have the wit and edge of a Watterson, nor the insight of a Johnston or Schulz, but he’s pleasant enough, and a Garfield book is a good way to pass some time. ** (2003)

Friday, April 12, 2013

John Grant Discarded Science (2006)

John Grant Discarded Science (2006) Or Ideas that Seemed Good at the Time. Nicely done historical survey of the development of science, which more often than not, and rather surprisingly when you think about it, turned out to be progress. Two take-aways: a) science, like any other human endeavour, is limited both by the available data and by the climate of ideas; and b) there is a rather wide fuzzy band between science and crackpottery.
     It’s extremely difficult to think outside the box, despite the many gurus who’ve claimed they’ve found fool-proof ways of doing so. We just can’t think thoughts involving facts and concepts we don’t have. Breakthroughs come not so much from brand new concepts as from rearrangements of the old ones. The type example is of course Einstein’s equating of gravity and acceleration, based on nothing more than the observation that the equations of motion can’t tell the difference.
     Sometimes, new concepts are literally unthinkable: we know that photons and other bits behave like both waves and particles, so some people promote the term wavicle to label them, but a label in this case doesn’t help us imagine what they are. Best to go with the current suggestion that wave-like and particle-like behaviour depends on context. How these entities behave depends on what they are interacting with. IOW, context is everything; and the interface (interaction) is the only observable reality. “There is nothing behind or before the mask. There is only the mask”.
     Contemplating the discarded theories that seemed reasonable at the time reminds us how difficult it is to translate even apparently simple ideas into testable hypotheses. It took a heap of very careful experiment to show that fire was not the gain or loss of phlogiston, for example. It also reminds us how limited our present concepts must be. Perhaps we have reached the limits of our ability to make sense of the universe. There’s no a priori reason to assume that we have the capacity to frame the ultimate Theory of Everything. After all, most of us have difficulty even understanding the questions that the physicists pose, let alone get an inkling of a notion of an idea of what the answers mean. Our concepts, even the most esoteric ones, are grounded in our sensory experience of the world around us. We construct an image of that world using sense data, and are pleased to call it true. But the reality is not what we think it is. We cannot in fact think what it is.
     Pseudoscience and other crackpottery comes in for (rather gentle) mockery. The index helps find Grant’s  witty and ironic comments, in case you need a good quote to underline some absurdity.
     Well done, a keeper. ***

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Miyamoto Musashi A Book of Five Rings Translated by Victor Harris (1982).

     Miyamoto Musashi A Book of Five Rings Translated by Victor Harris (1982). I finally read this book; it’s been sitting on the shelf for about twenty years. I must have tried reading it once before; and reading it now, I see why I gave up on it. The introduction includes a brief life of Musashi; he was a killer, and in my opinion no amount of twaddle about sincerity, honesty, discipline and the Way will excuse that fact. It’s obvious that Harris admires Musashi and all that he stands for, and this affects his translation. I don’t know how opaque the original is, but the translation is riddled with vague abstractions and fuzzy language about the Way.
     Musashi does give some practical guidance, but he ends every short paragraph in which he describes some principle or strategy with an exhortation to study this deeply. Since he himself says he can’t describe his methods in detail, this exhortation amounts to nothing. Musashi clearly believes that if you want to succeed you must apply yourself and focus on your goal to the exclusion of pretty well all else. That’s a truism, and it doesn’t take a three-hundred-year old text to teach us that. More interesting is the assumption that the nature of the goal is irrelevant. Only the method of achieving it counts, and the only methods that count are the ones that lead to success.
Musashi does not question the rights and wrongs of setting out on a life of murder; he questions only the rights and wrongs of achieving success at killing. Underlying this is apparently some creed of martial honour. Musashi duelled with anyone who came his way and offered to fight, and killed about 60 people by the time he quit. Whether he quit because he’d had enough, or because no one else would challenge him, is unclear. In any case, he never questioned the rights and wrongs of wanting to live this way.
     The closest thing to an excuse for his behaviour is the wretched political and social conditions of 17th century Japan. The samurai had essentially lost their place in society, and their only viable trade was as mercenaries for the few warlords who were left, and who during that century were subjugated by the Tokugawa clan. One can argue that when murder is the only way to survive, murder is condonable. But the very conditions that made the samurai unnecessary also made murder unnecessary. Musashi did take part in battles, but most of his killing was done in the course of duels. Duelling is a particularly stupid way of maintaining one’s honour, and the honour one gains by success in duelling is indeed Nothing, or the Void, as Musashi calls it. In the end, Musashi’s philosophy amounts to little more than a fancifully packaged nihilism.
     Eastwood’s The Unforgiven has the best comment on this lifestyle: “Right and wrong ain’t got nothing to do with it.” Exactly; and while that ethos makes for a certain thrill in certain kinds of fantasy, it is not one on which to base a life. If anything, not fighting takes more courage in the kind of society in which Musashi lived than fighting does; but that’s an answer to a question that Musashi did not conceive of and perhaps could not understand if it were put to him. The fact that for a while this book enjoyed a vogue as a guide to corporate behaviour among American executives (who believed that the Japanese were beating them in market by using Musashi as inspiration) merely confirms the lack of morality of the American Way of Business. We can understand, and I can empathise with, the boys of all ages who find the figure of the Warrior attractive. But the confusion of the killer with the Warrior is disturbing. A killer kills because he wants to. A Warrior kills because he has to. * (2003)

James Sandoe compiler. Dorothy Sayers: Lord Peter (1972)

      James Sandoe compiler. Dorothy Sayers: Lord Peter (1972) All the published Wimsey stories, plus “Tallboys”, an unpublished one. A delight for the Sayers fan, and a torture for those whose snobbishness balks at her frank admiration of Lord Peter. Sandoe’s introduction is competent if a trifle too admiring; and Carolyn Heilbrunn’s closing essay isn’t much better in tone, but it adds a few bits of necessary information, and reminds her fans that Sayers’ other career as translator, scholar, and theologian was as important as her command of detective fiction, and in her own eyes more so. E C Bentley’s “Greedy Night,” a wonderful and affectionate satire, rounds out the volume.
      Well, what can I say? I like Sayers’ books very much, including her theological writings, and unlike many (apparently) male readers, I like both Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. I suppose I admire Harriet’s unwillingness to let gratitude for her rescue by Lord Peter (Strong Poison) cloud her judgment of her own feelings, an attempt that actually prevents her from recognising that she loves Peter. It’s not until Gaudy Night, after all, that she comes to realise her feelings are not tainted by gratitude. Since this volume was compiled and the essays written, Sayers’ illegitimate son has been discovered; Thrones, Dominions has been completed by Jill Walsh; and Sayers’ academic reputation has been revived. But that has no effect on the pleasure of rereading these stories. **** (2003)

Bill Watterson Weirdos From Another Planet (1990)

     Bill Watterson Weirdos From Another Planet (1990) Another Calvin and Hobbes collection, and as always a pleasure. Watterson’s trick is to present adult insights from a child’s perspective, without losing either. Not many people can do this, and I think it’s Watterson’s wonderful drawing that does it. The newspaper comic strip is an underrated art form; Watterson shows what can be done with it. If you infer that Calvin and Hobbes are two of my favourite characters, you're right. **** (2003)

Morris Wolfe, ed. Aurora: New Canadian Writing 1978

     Morris Wolfe, ed. Aurora: New Canadian Writing 1978 Short stories and poems, the latter mostly unreadable; the influence of the West Coast school destroyed a lot of writers’ ears, and most of the rest don’t seem to realise that a poem must sound good. Still, Al Purdy and Miriam Waddington are in good form. The stories for the most part are narrator-focussed tales of some sensitive soul’s scarring by the awful indifference of the Universe, or worse.
     Rudy Wiebe’s straightforward telling of the tale of Broken Arm satisfies. He has the knack of telling a story neutrally, so that protagonist’s point of view appears undistorted and clear. A great story in my opinion. Guy Vanderhaeghe’s “Man Descending” is one the few stories about a gormless twit that not only convinces but also arouses compassion. But most of the rest are at best of “academic interest”, the sort of stories that some student of Canadian literature will read dutifully in order to produce an essay. They even seem written for that purpose, with their self-conscious “social relevance”. * to **** (2003)

Simon Brett. Crime Writers and Other Animals (1998)

     Simon Brett. Crime Writers and Other Animals (1998) A collection of short stories, all with the usual Brett twist, and mostly amusing in a macabre way; poetic justice of a sort is Brett’s favourite motif. However, some stories are darker, and the most disturbing is told by an emotionally retarded man accused of murdering a child, but it’s plain that he’s innocent, and that his father’s rigid and narrow upbringing has caused the miscarriage of justice. He’s unable to contradict the investigating detective’s assertions because he is reminded of his father; and one of his father’s tenets was that it’s bad behaviour to contradict his elders and betters. It’s clear the man will be murdered in prison, although he expects his father’s admonition to be always on his best behaviour to stand him in good stead. ** to *** (2003)

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Ben Wicks. No Time to Say Goodbye (1988)

     Ben Wicks. No Time to Say Goodbye (1988) Ben Wicks was evacuated from his East London home in 1939 in order to escape the expected dangers of bombing. This marked him forever, as it did the thousands of other children who were moved into villages and country towns. Almost fifty years later, he decided to find as many evacuees as he could, and ask him to share their experiences. They range from very good to horrific.
     As might be expected, most children missed their families terribly. Their hosts ranged from grudging to welcoming, from kind to abusive. Some were strict, some were easy going. Some let their religious and other bigotries interfere.  Many children returned home as strangers, no longer comfortable in their own class; even those who were glad to be back often found themselves at odds with their families. Some found their host families an escape, others a model for future endeavours. Some told of their experiences for the first time in their lives. Most felt that their story had been ignored, and were glad to have chance to tell it. As a group, their discovery of how other people lived made them determined to change the social and political structure of England.
     Wicks narrates the story of the evacuation by connecting excerpts from the letters with brief links. It’s a combination of chronicle and theme, and works well. In each chapter he briefly recounts his own relevant experience, then gives us the letters. It adds up to a moving and detailed story, one that needs to be known. Worth reading. ***

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Primo Levi. The Periodic Table (1984)

     Primo Levi. The Periodic Table (1984) Tr. Raymond Rosenthal Part memoir, but meditation, part fiction, part sketches, this is wonderful book. It’s one of those books whose style reveals a charming mind, a beautiful person. The memoir is sketchy, partly because Levi wrote about many of his chief life events in other books, which I will look for. Each reminiscence and story appears under the head of an element, but despite the title, their arrangement does not follow that of the periodic table. Levi always completes his tales, but his digressions, sometimes merely a word or phrase, give them a richness and complexity that the otherwise spare style might prevent. That spare style makes it hard to summarise the book. I won’t attempt it. But this is a book I’d like other people to read. In many ways it reminds me of Oliver Sacks’ books. It hews to its subject, yet finds so many connections between that subject and so many other things that one comes away with the impression not only of a whole person, but of the wholeness of the universe. **** (2003)

James Reston Jr. The Last Apocalypse (1998)

   James Reston Jr. The Last Apocalypse (1998) A history of the turn of the last millennium, focussing on a variety of figures, such a Olaf Trygvesson, Harold Bluetooth, Sylvester II, and Otto III. Far too many typos, the kind that occur when a semi-literate is given the task of using a spell-check, as well as multiple errors arising from cut and paste operations. The book is also piecey, an effect of its plan and the lack of strong editing. The content is interesting enough, but the defects of the book make it a chore to read, and interfere with creating the memorable impression Reston apparently strives for. Reston is also much given to the foreshadowing portentous, which in the event usually disappoints, perhaps because he has forgotten just what he promised, and so changes his emphasis. The overall impression is that Europe of the late 900s was a brutal place, and that Christianity was more of a political ideology than a faith. * (2003)

Richard Buckle. Debrett’s U and Non-U Revisited (1978)

     Richard Buckle. Debrett’s U and Non-U Revisited (1978) Continues the discussion started by Nancy Mitford in her Noblesse Oblige. Mitford intended her book as a gentle satire on English class distinctions in the first half of the twentieth century. Buckle seems to take the whole thing seriously, which makes for a lot of unintended humour. There are a few useful nuggets, though: a reminder that in most countries of Europe titles of nobility are regulated by law, for example, and the distinction between the aristocracy and the peerage may have value for writers of historical and romantic fiction, or detective stories set in England. There exists an aristocracy in Canada and the USA as well, of course, and they are as jealous of their class privileges and rights as any anywhere. And like all aristocracies, they use linguistic and other markers to enforce them. Language, manners, and fashion's primary purpose is to mark the boundaries between Us and Them. *½ (2003)

John Jensen. Tonight, Josephine (1981)

     John Jensen. Tonight, Josephine (1981) A series of letters by various historical figures, composed by Jensen with intentions of serious humour and satire. Some of them succeed, most fall more or less flat. *½ (2003)

Willard Anderson, ed. Bridges and Buildings for Model Railroads. (1965)

     Willard Anderson, ed. Bridges and Buildings for Model Railroads. (1965) Another classic from the golden age, when modellers modelled, largely because they had to. Reprints of articles from MRR. This is the pre-styrene age: wood, paper, and metal are the materials used, and the results show that a good modeller can produce superb models with them. This was also a time of pioneering methods, with people like Jack Work showing that a truly prototypical structure was possible. His wood king-post truss bridge is a classic, and several kits have been based on it. Ken Smith shows how to build a through truss with wood and heavy paper, using jigs to make the members. W. Gibson Kennedy builds a Canadian Pacific enclosed water tank; Jim Findley a single stall engine house; Frank Hendren a crossing shanty; and Frank Titman an operating car dumper (and a barge to go with it). Most of these items, or variations of them, are available as laser-cut or styrene kits these days, but it was these people who showed the way, and by doing so raised the expectations of the modellers as well as their skills. Overall, *** (2003)

Theodore Sturgeon. The Worlds of Theodore Sturgeon. (1972)

     Theodore Sturgeon. The Worlds of Theodore Sturgeon. (1972) Nine of Sturgeon’s best. At his best, Sturgeon has the lyricism of Bradbury without the verbosity, and he can make your heart twist. But like all SF writers, he too often descends into bathos and sentimentality, mistaking the combination for tragic grandeur. Still, in these stories those flaws are slight or absent; and his satirical humour and taste for horror shows up well, too.
     In “The Skills of Xanadu” he presents a neat variation on the triumph of Thoreauvian libertarianism; “The Graveyard Reader” doesn’t quite become mawkish in its revelation of a husband’s insight into his wife’s true character after her death. “Shottle Bop” has a well-deserved reputation as a classic in the trickster-tricked mode, but I’ve read it several times before, and it doesn’t wear any better than others of its kind, no matter how skilfully written; it’s really a shaggy dog story, and their attractions wane after a while. The other stories are a little too didactic, especially the ones that sermonise on the human propensity to create terror weapons. Overall, a pleasant enough group of stories. * to *** (2003)

Anne Morice. Murder on French Leave (1972)

     Anne Morice. Murder on French Leave (1972) Actress goes to Paris, gets mixed up in murder prompted by espionage. Her husband is a Scotland yard cop, her cousin is a 16 year-old kid, etc. Silly plot, badly worked out, supposedly witty according to the jacket blurbs, unbelievably long sentences, and a generally cosy we-know-what-we’re-talking-about tone. Morice wrote several other books, but this one is enough for me. (2003)

Colin Dexter. Morse’s Greatest Mystery (1993)

     Colin Dexter. Morse’s Greatest Mystery (1993) Collection of stories; there’s no indication where they were published previously, if at all. Several feature Morse and Lewis, but only a reader familiar with them can fill in the details in the skimpy sketches of characters that carry these names. There’s a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes, very well done, and a not so sly send up of Holmes and Mycroft to boot. One story is set in the USA, and involves a multiple-cross and con game, which the narrator (not quite deservedly) loses. Dexter displays a better than usual British ear for American. The puzzles are well enough conceived in most of the tales, but not so well that one doesn’t want to read the next one in hopes of getting a more satisfying snack. **½ (2003)