Thursday, May 30, 2013

Jay Ingram. The Theatre of the Mind (2005)

     Jay Ingram. The Theatre of the Mind (2005) An exploration of what was known, hypothesised, and speculated about consciousness up to 2005. There have been a few advances and some additional knowledge since then, but the central thesis, that we still don’t know enough, and may never know enough, to give a good account of consciousness, still stands.
     Ingram surveys the field, with his usual knack of explaining difficult ideas by lacing concrete examples into the abstractions of science. He illustrates the difficulties of the topic by reminding us that experienced drivers may well drive unconsciously for many kilometres, realising with some surprise that they can’t recall the last ten or twenty minutes of driving.
     Some certainties have been established. For example, we know that most of the processing done by the brain occurs well below consciousness (why do we refer to “below” here?), and that consciousness consists of consonantly shifting attention. It’s also pretty well agreed that language is somehow essential. Then there are the experiments that show that conscious awareness of a decision occurs many milliseconds after the chosen action has already begun.
     There’s in my mind also no question that what we think of as our conscious experience is the result of major filtering, processing, combining, and recombining of data presented to us by our senses. It’s a fabrication, but one which is true enough to enable reasonably accurate predictions of future states of the world, and so makes useful choices and decisions possible. That process suggests why consciousness has survival value, despite its slow-as-molasses reaction to the environment compared to unconscious reflexes or conditioned responses.
     As the title indicates, Ingram prefers the metaphor of a theatre, not one presented for the delectation of a single homunculus, but as a process of selecting and disseminating information to an audience of unconscious homunculi, who receive and process that information and pass on the results to many other modules. (But “module” is a misleading metaphor useful only with the caveat that the assemblages of neutrons implied by it are largely ad-hoc and temporary). This metaphor is in my opinion somewhat misleading. True, Ingram remarks that the audience and the actors change places, but I think it misses something. That something is expressed in Yeats’ question: “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?”
     I think that consciousness is not the theatre but the play. It’s an improvised play, its action changes from moment to moment, the scenes change without warning as actors leave the stage and others enter or re-enter, but the play follows and keeps returning to certain central themes. Some of these are built in: we have human brains, after all, and not equine ones. Others are developed as we become Selves: the plot of the play, ephemeral and inconsistent as it is, is what we experience a “me”. That “me” is not fixed. We experience change in ourselves, we expect it, we often glory in it. But the thread of the story is somehow not lost. That thread gives us the feeling that we are the same person, no matter how many changes have been visited upon us.
     Ingram’s book may be heavy going for people who haven’t acquired some background in brain studies, even though he tries hard to frequently bring us back to familiar experience. But I think the book is worth reading and re-reading. It’s also a pleasure. Ingram comes across a person who wants to figure things out, who wants us to accompany him on his journey of discovery. He’s not so much a guide as a fellow seeker. He's good company.
     There’s a good deal more in this book than I’ve mentioned. ***½

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cleve F. Adams. The Black Door (1941, reprinted 1952)

     Cleve F. Adams. The Black Door (1941, reprinted 1952 in a Popular Library edition) Flagg has been given a do-nothing job because his fiancée is the daughter of a tycoon. Some social and some business secrets get all mixed up and he finds himself investigating a friend of his fiancée’s, who is after his bod. I stopped reading halfway through this “Hard-Boiled Detective Novel,” as I couldn’t care enough about the characters or their predicaments. The story would work quite well as B-movie, which would also have the advantage of requiring only 90 minutes or so of my time instead of several hours.. As it is, it has historical interest only, as an example of its genre as produced in the pre-war period. * (2005)

I binged on Charlie Salter: Four book reviews

     Eric Wright. A Sensitive Case (1991) A massage therapist is murdered, and several of her clients get nervous, so Charlie, head of Special Affairs, gets the case. The usual false leads, multiple mysteries, and family crises make for the usual enjoyable mix. Charlie solves three puzzles, his assistant, Sgt Pickett, borrowed from Bail and Parole for the occasion, has his own personal mystery and problem to solve, and it all comes out right in the end. What makes this series work is Charlie, a believable middle-aged husband and father who happens to be a cop, and a pretty good one. In many ways, the series is like a comic strip, with familiar characters getting into familiar disputes and resolving them in plausible ways.
     The puzzle is well done, although Wright withholds information from the reader, and doesn’t have Christie’s knack for mixing the disinformation into the significant clues. His murderers tend to be losers, committing their killings more by accident than intent, and then attempting to cover their traces, so that it’s not the method of murder that is puzzling, but the who and why. And tangentially involved people have their own secrets; their efforts to keep them hidden add irrelevant information, Charlie’s main task is to sort out the two or three irrelevant stories so as to get at the one that matters. Just like real life, actually. *** (2005)

      Eric Wright. Final Cut (1992) This time Charlie is seconded to “advise” a film crew, after his old boss Orliff bows out because sabotage has turned his advisory role into an investigative one, and as he’s retired he won’t do it. Charlie unravels the puzzle, which involves East Bloc intrigues of many years ago. In the end, Salter lets the perp go, not because he has any real qualms about the justice system, but because he won’t ever be able to prove his case; and he discovers he doesn’t want to, as the murder was itself a kind of justice.
     The atmosphere of the filming rings true, that is, it conforms with what little I’ve observed going on in Toronto when there’s filming, which is getting to be an annoyance. In the back story, Seth is entranced by ballet and eventually, it seems, decides he wants to act. The usual minor tiffs threaten the tranquillity of Salter’s domestic life, but he and Annie manage to muddle along.  *** (2005)

     Eric Wright. A Fine Italian Hand (1992) Special Affairs is called in because a motel clerk thought that a suspicious character was Italian, so it looks like a mob hit. But it isn’t. Nor is the victim an unlucky gambler. And so on. The misdirection misleads Charlie for a while, until he gets messages from the mob that this was not one of their hits. It turns out that it was intended to look like a mob hit, but the intended victim turned the tables. Charlie and his latest sidekick solve the puzzle, of course, and Wright gives us more of Charlie’s story, this time an old college flame. Annie’s father has had a stroke, so Annie is in PEI trying to cope with her mother’s demands. Entertaining as always. **½ (2003)

     Eric Wright Death by Degrees (1993) Salter’s Dad has had a stroke, and to take his mind off his misery, Salter takes on an inquiry into the death of a careerist instructor at a college. He uncovers the usual unsavoury secrets from the past, and one of these provides the key to the solution. Wright doesn’t like pat psychobabble reasons for murder, so this one (like other recent cases Salter has investigated) turns out to be an accidental homicide, with just enough motivation to make that verdict doubtful. Nicely done, and apparently the last of the Salter novels, until I find some more. **½ (2005)

Two more Charlie Salter novels (by Eric Wright)

     Eric Wright. A Body Surrounded by Water (1987) The title alludes to the setting, which is Charlie Salter’s holiday on PEI with his family. As in all Charlie Salter novels, the family dynamics are as important as the crime puzzle, and we see here how the dynamics change as the boys grow up and Charlie and Annie discover, again, new facets of each other. Nicely done. The puzzle is pretty good, too, involving the Great Seal of the province, which was stolen a long, long time ago, and two accidental homicides. Salter gets on well with the Mounties, who police this Province, mostly because he’s not a pushy guy, but also because he provides a handy conduit to the politicians, which the Mountie sergeant needs. *** (2005)

     Eric Wright. A Question of Murder (1988) A bomb kills a man in van parked underground shortly after the Princess tours Yorkville. Salter is saddled with the unsolvable crime, unsolvable because the bomb is a professional type, so it looks like a hit. But Salter manages to tease out the truth, and arrives at a satisfactory conclusion, which is good, since his boss is retiring, and Salter will take over the job at Special Affairs. At home, Seth has decided his grandfather is lonely, which upsets the old man; but then Seth wants Mr Salter’s oral history, which smooths the waters. Angus wants to stay in Toronto over the summer with his girlfriend. Annie’s career has solidified, so she can tell Salter, who’s waffling about whether he wants to retire too, that his decision can and should be made entirely by himself. He won’t jeopardise his family’s security, financial or otherwise. Another satisfying read. *** (2005)

Isaac Asimov, Greenberg, Waugh, eds. Starships (1983)

     Isaac Asimov, Greenberg, Waugh, eds. Starships (1983) The editors have chosen a variety of stories, grouped in the table of contents under headings such as The Complement (ie, the crew, etc). The stories are uniformly very good, well written, focussing as much on character as on technology, yet providing that staple of good SF, the technical, or sociological puzzle, or that staple of fantasy, the what if the future were not that much different from the present? ** to *** (2005)

James Thurber. The 13 Clocks (1950)

     James Thurber. The 13 Clocks (1950) A strange and wonderful little fairy tale, packaged as a children’s book, but I think more than satisfying for adults. Prince Zorn, disguised as Xingu, a wandering minstrel, must find a thousand jewels and restart the 13 clocks that have frozen at 5 minutes to 2, else he will die at the hands of the Duke, which is bad enough, and lose the fair hand of the Princess Saralinda, which is worse. With the help of a Golux he accomplishes his task, but not before a string of outrageous puns and sly allusions to other fairy tales threaten to derail the plot. But the plot is craftily plotted, and Zorn and Saralinda ride off on two white horses, while the Duke suffers a well-deserved and ignominious end. Another book to try out on Bria. *** (2005)

Ellis Peters. The Assize of the Dying (1958)

     Ellis Peters. The Assize of the Dying (1958) Two novellas, both psychological crime stories, neither very good. These are Peters’s early works, and it shows. The style is dilatory, lacks tension, and the pacing stumbles, with a lot of unnecessary foreshadowing. The plotting is good, and the puzzle is decent in the first novella. I didn’t finish the second one, though. * (2005)

Eric Wright Smoke Detector (1984)

     Eric Wright Smoke Detector (1984) #2 in the Charlie Salter saga. An antique dealer dies because of arson. Charlie gets the job because homicide is busy on other things. The murder turns out to be accidental, but the second one is not. Their roots lie in the past, when a man took on safe-keeping of a box containing Japanese prints. He kept this commitment until his son-in-law stole the box and sold it to the antique dealer, whereupon a chain of the usual coincidences and misunderstandings and withholding of information precipitate another murder and finally the solution to the case. Trouble is, the suspect Charlie dislikes is innocent, and the one he likes is the murderer. Charlie’s family figures prominently in this novel, and again it seems like Wright is working out his own family problems through his fiction. Or reporting on them; it’s not clear. **½ (2005)

Susan Pearson The Tap Dance Mystery (1990)

     Susan Pearson The Tap Dance Mystery (1990) “Eagle Eye Ernie”, aka Ernestine Jones, is the Sleuth of, um, er, Grade Two? That’s about right, I think, considering the reading level of this nicely done “Book for Young Readers”, as Simon and Schuster touts it. Ernie has to find out who stole Marcey’s tap dancing shoes, after Marcey has made herself very unpopular with her bossy and superior ways. She is supposed to teach Ernie’s group how to tap dance, you see. Well, in the end, Ernie finds the shoes, hidden in the piano. And Marcey turns out to be OK, and Jason turns out to be a better tapper than Marcey, and Marcey admits it. And Ernie’s group (with Marcey and Jason leading) put on a great performance. So that’s all right.
     I have no idea how early readers would respond to this carefully “correct” story, with the boys and girls doing the same kinds of things, and everyone finally all lovey-dovey. The book was a discard from the Blind River Public Library, but it looks well and often read. ** (2005)

Eric Wright A Single Death (1987)

     Eric Wright A Single Death (1987) Charlie Salter’s ex-wife Gerry shows up demanding that he look into the death of a friend of hers, who was apparently raped and murdered. Along the way to the solution, Charlie shops for Christmas, listens to some feminist lecturing by his wife Annie, and generally lives the life of a middle-aged Canadian male with the usual domestic responsibilities. He just happens to be a cop. Wright makes Charlie a little too good to be true; I suspect that Charlie is fighting Wright’s battles, but more sensibly and sensitively than Wright himself. Or maybe not. Wright tries a little too hard to set the scene in Toronto, dropping the names of TO streets and neighbourhoods isn’t enough: one needs descriptions, too. Anyhow, the series is pleasant to read. I’m slowly accumulating a complete set. **½ (2005)

David Brin. The River of Time (1987)

     David Brin. The River of Time (1987) Brin writes everything from straight technological what-ifs to surreal (meta-)physical fantasy. He’s most interested in what would happen if some of the so-called hard realities, both physical and social, of our universe were different. Even in his most didactic mode, he creates credible characters. His style is clear. He is quite good at conveying the fantastic but logical consequences of his premises. He approaches tragedy in some of his tales, yet on the whole he has an optimistic outlook; humanity, in whatever form and whatever reality, will prevail. Worth reading again, but not worth keeping. **½ (2005)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

J. W. Campbell. The Mightiest Machine (1935; reprint of 1947)

     J. W. Campbell. The Mightiest Machine (1935; reprint of 1947) A “classic hard SF” story, about the building of a faster than light drive and a galactic war that Terrans presumably win. I didn’t read that far. The SF of the 30s was heavy on “science”, mostly bad speculation based on largely misunderstood theories, theories which were themselves very tentative, that is more or less wrong. The tech talk gets rather tedious. SF has changed a lot since then. For example, one of the virtues of Star Trek was its emphasis on character; the success of the series gave SF writers permission to ignore “explanations” of how the marvellous technologies actually worked. And when the technology was one of the protagonists, it was based on a good deal more than high school bowdlerisations of physics, as in the STNG story about the crew member who was afraid to be transported. His knowledge of the principles underlying the transporter gave him the willies, justifiably so, as it turned out. Anyway, I didn’t finish Campbell’s opus. The story just didn't engage me at the level that really matters, the characters. Campbell eventually edited Astouning Stories, which later became Analog. He was a far better editor than writer. * (2005)

W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy (1968), & Wycliffe and Death in a Salubrious Place (1973)

     W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy (1968) The Pussy in question is Pussy Welles, who has a slight deformity, revealed when her killer strips the deformed leg of its stocking. Pussy was bad, Burley doesn’t use the word “psychotic”, but that’s what she was. Wycliffe digs up her past (as he always does), and her past holds the key. Psychologically not believable these days, but I suppose in 1968 it seemed plausible, since Freud’s baleful influence on psychology still had its effects. I’ve noticed that Wycliffe’s sidekick seems to change with each book. Does Burley not keep track, or does he not want to be burdened with having to develop another relationship? Wycliffe’s marriage is barely hinted at, which suggests that Burley doesn’t want to deal with it; perhaps he was afraid that whatever he shows us of Wycliffe’s relationship to his wife, it would reflect on himself. ** (2005)

     W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and Death in a Salubrious Place (1973) I seem to be on a Wycliffe kick, I guess they are easy and pleasant enough to take my mind off my worries (mostly having to do with the commitments I’ve made: volunteering is getting to be as stressful as working.) A girl is found dead in a quarry on the Scilly Isles, and a local pop-star is the favourite suspect. But when he is killed, too, it’s clear that the murderers are islanders, and Wycliffe gets the final help he needs to solve the case. Not that it matters, as the one murderer sets a fire that kills them both. Another well done puzzle, but with less human interest than most Wycliffe books (not that any of them are all that subtle in characterisation.) Books like these, with simple but well differentiated characters, are probably the best source for TV series, as the scriptwriter, director, and actor can add the subtleties that attract the viewer enough to care about the characters.. ** (2005)

Loren Eiseley. The Firmament of Time (1960)

     Loren Eiseley. The Firmament of Time (1960) The text of six lectures given while Eiseley was Visiting professor at the University of Cincinnati in 1959, this book gives many hints of the political and spiritual conditions of the times. The American fear and loathing of the Soviet Union increased the threat of nuclear war, especially since at the time no one fully understood the weakness of the USSR. Thus, Eiseley expresses his gloom about humanity’s future in terms of the apparent descent into the maelstrom of nuclear war. Nowadays, we fear the terrorists, who strike without warning and detection, and the crazy tyrants such as Korea’s Kim Il Jung.
But the relevance of Eiseley’s themes doesn’t depend on any particular historic circumstance. He argues that our development of science without spiritual and artistic values is moving us towards an inhuman future, one on which the ordinary decencies will be meaningless. Yet he hopes that the human capacity to love and transcend oneself may yet rescue us from our diminished selves. In the last lecture, Eiseley expresses himself in mystical and poetic terms rather than scientific and philosophical ones. He knows that what he has to say can make sense in no other mode. An interesting and valuable book, even though Eiseley’s style and manner don’t quite suffice for the grand reach of his themes. Worth reading at least once. **½ (2005)

Three short reviews: Bent is the Bow, Whatever Happened to...?, Wycliffe and the House of Fear

     Geoffrey Trease. Bent is the Bow (1967) One of a projected series of books intended to help kids “To grow in imagination”, etc. This story reads like the opening sequence of a longer work about the Welsh border wars in the time of Henry IV and Owen Glendower Ca. 1400). The narrator, Hugh Vaughan, and his sister Megan are invited to be “guests” of a neighbouring English lord who appears to want to eliminate the boy so that his sister will become heiress, and hence marriageable to his weedy son, Stephen. The story ends on a positive note, with the children restored to their mother, but there is clearly much more to tell. I don’t know if Trease ever finished this tale. Illustrations by Charles Keeping. I’ll pass it on to Bria, and see what she thinks of it. It’s a “chapter book.” ** (2005)

     A. Mourby. Whatever Happened to...? (1997) Just what the title says, except that it’s fictional characters’ afterlives that Mourby has discovered. Most are 1st person accounts by the character or a related one. All come to a bad end, except the Big Bad Wolf, who is protected by bureaucratic ass-covering and myopia. Amusing, but not a keeper. I’ll give it to a Deserving Relative, who may pass it on as (s)he wishes. ** (2005)

     W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the House of Fear (1995) Wycliffe, convalescing in a cottage rented from the Kemps, is drawn into the investigation when Kemp’s wife is murdered. The Kemps, a dysfunctional family, abound in suspects. Roger, the current holder of the estate, is a weakling with too much family pride, which has led him to do stupid things. Wycliffe uncovers the truth, of course, after a nice meander round and through family relationships and history. A pleasant entertainment. A more thorough treatment of Wycliffe’s relationship with his wife would add to the story, which as it stands is little more than a well done puzzle in the English manner. **½

P. Collenette, ed. Winter’s Tales 23 (1977)

     P. Collenette, ed. Winter’s Tales 23 (1977) A collection of the kind of well-made short stories that at one time appeared regularly in pulp magazines of varying quality and target audience. By the time this series was published, that kind of story was already obsolescent, and collections like this were about the only channel for them. They are like bonbons or chocolates: after one bite, you know what kind of story it will be, and you can enjoy the confection. Forgettable but well-constructed fiction. * to ** (2005)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Anne Perry. Bethlehem Road (1990)

     Anne Perry. Bethlehem Road (1990) A “Victorian” mystery, quite well plotted, with adequate but somewhat unbelievable characters. The author provides helpful explanations for artefacts and customs, which I think mar the narrative, and the dialogue is often too modern American in idiom. There’s also a tremendous amount of clothing lore, which I suppose delights the apparently intended audience - middle-brow American women of a certain age and sensibility, who want to fantasise about being ladies a hundred-odd years ago. The detecting is perfunctory; the ‘tec’s wife is a lady, which gives her an entree to the upper class that he can’t access in the same way. I may read another of these if I find one at 10 cents at a yard sale. * (2005)

Agatha Christie. The Harlequin Tea Set (1997)

     Agatha Christie. The Harlequin Tea Set (1997) Some uncollected stories, most of them written early in her career, obviously pot boilers, and done according to the conventions of the period. The only successful story is a late one about Mr Sattersthwaite and Mr Quin. Of interest to Christie fans only. * to *** (2005)

J. Bronowski. The Common Sense of Science (1978)

      J. Bronowski. The Common Sense of Science (1978) Bronowski argues that the core values of science are profoundly human, and that science offers a way of seeing the world an oneself that can, perhaps, guide us through the perilous times ahead. In particular, he emphasises that science’s acceptance of uncertainty can promote tolerance, that its attitude of seeking knowledge to guide decisions can give us hope. A good book. *** (2005)

Martin Gardner. The Colossal Book of Mathematics (2001)

     Martin Gardner. The Colossal Book of Mathematics (2001) Probably the final collection of Gardner’s Scientific American columns, with addenda reporting on reader response and new developments in the math discussed. These columns describe and discuss more than set problems. They range over the whole of mathematics as she is now known. Martin is not only an excellent explainer, he is also knows the difference between hypothesis and speculation, both of which show up when math is applied to the real world. I could follow most of it.
     Two people I know were mentioned: Leo Moser, who taught Marie math at U of A; and Bas van Fraassen, one of the group of grad students who produced the U of A literary magazine (which we renamed from Stet to March , because it always came out in March); and hung around together. Bas has apparently made a name for himself as a “young philosopher” at U of T. I’ll have to google him. -- Anyhow, this is another keeper, a book that will be a pleasure to reread (in parts, not all at once.) ***
     Addendum: I found Bas’s website, and read a book by him (see below). He now has tenure at Harvard, likes mountaineering and cats (although he doesn’t have one), and seems to be concerned with making theology respectable. I’ll contact him, and see whether he’s willing to re-establish a connection. (2005)

Dubeck et al Fantastic Voyages (2004)

     Dubeck et al Fantastic Voyages (2004) This textbook bills itself as teaching science via SF films. It’s aimed at first year non-science majors in US colleges, and has the great merit of being written in mostly clear language. Occasionally, terms are used without explanation; I suppose the instructor will take care of that. Occasionally also, the need to write simply results in statements that are misleading and even false. For example, the authors claim that evolution leads to ever more complex organisms because more complex organisms are more successful, which is patently false. If it were true, the simple bacteria and protists would not have survived for billions of years.
     The discussion of The Andromeda Strain illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the authors’ approach. They claim that the Andromeda strain is not life as we know it, which is correct. However, they could have used the movie as an opportunity to consider the problem of definition. Life is defined in two ways. First, life is characterised by its behaviour (e.g., it utilises external energy to grow and reproduce, and reacts to external stimuli as either friendly or hostile to its existence). The second definition describes its content and structure (its chemistry is carbon-based, it consists of a cell whose covering protects it from the external world, it consists of a number of internal structures that carry out the life processes, and it can consist of any number of cells specialised to carry out one of the organism’s life processes). The fact that the Andromeda strain doesn’t have the chemical or physical structure of terrestrial life should raise questions about the sufficiency and meaning of these definitions, and the question of definition or conceptualisation generally.
     There are three sections, the first an overview of several general science topics, each including brief discussions of one or more relevant movies. Section two describes a number of SF movies and adds “literary commentaries”, which provide some background and comparisons to the source text (when there is one.) The last section summarises a number of movies without further commentary. The movies seem to be chosen partly with an eye on what the incoming freshmen have mostly likely seen, or what’s available at the video store, and partly as examples of both correct and incorrect science in SF.
     One of the authors is a professor of English Literature: it looks like she did the actual writing, and the other two contributed the knowledge and the organisation. Since the book is in a 2nd edition, it must have been successful, but I’d be wary of using it. It could have been done better -- the series of books beginning with The Physics of Star Trek are in my opinion better done. They are more precise in their explanations, and just as clear. This book would work as a reference in a Canadian senior high school science course. It could have a more complete listing of SF movies, but I suppose space/cost constraints govern such matters. ** (2005)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Ronald Blythe. The View in Winter (1979)

     Ronald Blythe. The View in Winter (1979) Blythe interviewed a number of elderly and some of their caregivers, edited the answers into coherent narratives, and connected them with comments of his own. As one might expect, old people have varying views about the ending of their lives, the possibility of an afterlife, and what purposes they might still fulfill in the winter of their days. But most of them are cheerful in their acceptance of the disabilities of age, and have few if any regrets about the lives they lived. The worst thing seems to be feelings of uselessness, but few of them suffer from these. An odd mixture of hope and realism that is quite comforting. *** (2005)

Jeff Wilson. Basic Structure Modelling (2005)

     Jeff Wilson. Basic Structure Modelling (2005) An excellent introduction to the craft, written by a man who knows his stuff. The only flaw is the separation of too many text references from the relevant photos. Formatting each chapter as a series of extended captions to the photos would have worked better. Apart from that, the sequence is logical and clear, starting with simple projects, and treating items such as roofs, doors and windows, signs, and painting in depth. A listing of manufacturers at the end directs the reader to sources of kits and supplies. Now, if Wilson will do a similar book on kitbashing, the beginner should have no problems at all filling up the layout’s empty real estate. *** (2005)

Jeff Wilson. Freight Cars (2005)

     Jeff Wilson. Freight Cars (2005) A summary account of freight cars in the 20th century, by type, with many photos. Running text and short captions that repeat the info in the text make cross referencing data and pictures difficult. Extended captions would have worked much better. The summary table of freight car history lacks references to the pictures, which would make finding data much easier. There’s a list of currently available or recent models, but it’s limited to HO and N. The end chapters on freight car equipment (trucks, brakes, etc) and lettering are very well done, however. There should be a bibliography for further research. The book is OK for occasional use, but it’s not as well done as it could be even for that. * (2005)

Jacob Bronowski. Science and Human Values (1956, 1964)

     Jacob Bronowski. Science and Human Values (1956, 1964) Bronowski reworked some lectures he gave at MIT in 1953. His deep humaneness informs his thinking, and his style is a model of clarity. Lovely book, worth rereading. His thesis is that science, because of its creativity and “habit of truth” is a profoundly human enterprise, and that the values we consider democratic and humane arose from the scientists’ habit of truth, or perhaps from the same source. For that habit demands both individual freedom to ask whatever questions one wants, and social responsibility in submitting one’s concepts and ideas to the criticism of others.
     Science is both an individual and a collective enterprise. Whatever scientists have proposed must be tested by experience – does it work? Does it conform to the tests of experiment and/or observation? Bronowski argues that human values are subject to the same tests, which is why they also change over time. In particular, the values we consider to be democratic and humane arose because people realised that what they thought was right or wrong had bad consequences, so they adapted their views.
     I think Bronowski is right, but the forces of faith and superstition are also powerful, and threaten to destroy the freedoms we have come to take for granted. It is difficult for later generations to recognise the fragility of their world view, since they haven’t had to establish it, but have merely inherited it. The struggle for freedom and dignity must be renewed in every generation.
     Bronowski ends the book with a quotation from himself:
     Poetry does not move us to be just or unjust, in itself. It moves us to thoughts in whose light justice and injustice are seen in fearful sharpness of outline.
     Well said. *** (2005)

Jeff Wilson. Great Northern Railway in the Pacific Northwest (2001)

     Jeff Wilson. Great Northern Railway in the Pacific Northwest (2001) Another in the Classic Trains series. Kalmbach seems to have overestimated the market for these books, since I got this deeply discounted. Anyhow, it’s worth a read. Wilson has a good sense of how to arrange the facts and pictures (which are very well reproduced.) He doesn’t give quite enough information; I prefer the BRMNA method of extended captions to the pictures. There are not enough trains-in-the-landscape pictures, which is as much an effect of the photographers’ preferences as of the editors’. Film was expensive the b/w days (a 3x5 photo cost the equivalent a $3-$5 in today’s money), and the photographers naturally wanted to get nice closeups of the locomotives -- never mind the rolling stock, or the mountains. Nevertheless, I’m happy to have this book in my library. The Great Northern is one of my favourite railways, maybe because of the mountain goat herald. **½ (2005)

Friday, May 24, 2013

Jan Karon Out to Canaan (1997)

     Jan Karon Out to Canaan (1997) Number four in the series. Tim has now been married about a year, Dooley is growing apace, and the Hope Home is operational. A mayoralty race, funded by Tim’s old nemesis Edith Mallory, who also wants to buy Fernbank and assorted other properties, provides what plot there is. Otherwise, people just chug along.
     Tim decides to retire, Tim and Cynthia take in Harley, when he is seriously ill, Lace Turner practically moves in to nurse her old friend, Winnie Ivey marries, as does Andrew Gregory (who buys Fernbank out from under the nose of E. M. in order to start a restaurant with his new bride from Italy and her brother), and so on. Tim gets a facial from Fancy Skinner, which turns his face green. Absalom Greer dies. There are assorted festivities. Buck Leeper returns to renovate the church loft into a suite of Sunday school rooms and begins renovating Cynthia’s house. He also falls for Pauline Barlowe. Barnabas the dog is nearly killed in a hit and run, Dooley does what’s needed to keep him alive until Oakley can operate, and calls Tim “Dad”. Tim decides to buy the rectory, using his mother’s inheritance. Tim and Cynthia have their first fight, but the sex is good (though very discreetly hinted at). So all in all life in Mitford moves along as it always has, with a few crises and slow and steady change. Religion plays a role, of course. It’s not as intrusive as in books two and three, buts more organically fused with the story, as in book one. Another pleasant read. **½ (2005)

Hugh Garner. Men and Women (1973)

   Hugh Garner. Men and Women (1973) The short stories collected in this book display Garner’s craftsmanship. He is good at plotting, moderately good at characterisation, and uses a plain style that tells the story in a straightforward manner. He clearly wrote for a market (the original publications of the stories are not listed, unfortunately), and that market was the (waning) general and occasionally special-interest magazine that included fiction as one of its staples. Many of these tales have a twist or punch line, but one always sees it coming, so it’s usually unnecessary. Like Callaghan, Garner writes thematic tales, and his themes are the same as Callaghan’s, with perhaps a somewhat more cynical cast to them. Women and men betray each other for all sorts of reasons, but chiefly because of weakness. The psychopath is rare in these tales, and when present is labelled as such. Like Callaghan, Garner often lets his characters condemn themselves out of their own mouths, expressing commonplace views and attitudes in situations that reveal their banality, pretentiousness, or prejudice. The stories are not great literature, they have no pretensions to being great art, but what they set out to do, they do well. They entertain the reader, and perhaps prompt him to think about what’s wrong with the world. ** (2005)

Kenneth Grahame. The Wind in the Willows (1905)

     Kenneth Grahame. The Wind in the Willows (1905) Rereading this book, I see what charmed me as a child: the camaraderie of Rat and Mole, the sturdiness of Badger (the perfect older brother or uncle), the silliness of Toad, the messing about with boats, the absence of domestic chores (apart from occasional busying oneself with unspecified work), and above all the sense that the narrative voice is telling you the story. I read the book when I was laid up with the mumps at nine or ten years old. I thought it was wonderful, and couldn't make up my mind which of the animal I'd most like to be.
     I also see clearly what I missed as a child: the latent sexuality, curiously gentle in the scene with Pan; the unquestioned class structure, seen from an upper middle-class perspective and unaware of the resentments and tensions below the surface of pleasant service and respectful encounters; and the conflicted attitudes to Toad, which I think express Grahame’s conflicted attitudes to his son Alastair. The structural problems are also obvious: Grahame was not a novelist, but a writer of short stories and anecdotal essays, and this book is structurally a connected set of such works, loosely linked through the adventures of Toad.
     The final chapter, in which Toad is tamed, does not ring true, perhaps because Grahame was expressing a wish for a change in character in Alastair rather than describing him; for that Toad is Alastair is I think quite certain. Whether Alastair saw this and identified with Toad’s self-congratulation and vanity (without of course recognising their silliness) is something I would like to know. I suspect he did: his suicide was I think his way out of Toad’s world. In real life, it’s impossible to change one’s character, the best one can do is to change the way one plays the role. *** (2005)

Peter Wegenstein. Die Bahn im Bild 96: Die Salzkammergut-Strecke (1996)

     Peter Wegenstein. Die Bahn im Bild 96: Die Salzkammergut-Strecke (1996) Dieter sent me this book, and a lovely little book it is. A well done history and description of the line prefaces a collection of 100 or so black and white pictures, most of them full page. They follow the line from south to north, and show not only the variety of scene and landscape of this mountain railway, but also a good selection of locomotives and rolling stock from all eras. I rode this line often as a boy, travelling to and from Graz, where I went to school in a Bundeserziehungsanstalt, which despite its name was no jail but a boarding school. I enjoyed my time there, probably because the masters left us pretty well to our own devices outside of class and mandatory homework. This book will help a lot with my modelling efforts. It also caused a hefty case of nostalgia. *** (2005)

Alison Prince. Kenneth Grahame: An Innocent in the Wild Wood (1994)

     Alison Prince. Kenneth Grahame: An Innocent in the Wild Wood (1994) Prince treats Grahame as a child that never grew up, but learned to act like an adult when needed. He had a wretched childhood, lightened by his joy in nature, which stayed with him all his life long, and moved him towards a Pagan pantheism (most clearly expressed in the “Pipes of Pan” chapter of Wind in the Willows). He made a reputation for himself with magazine pieces, stories and essays about children in nature that were essentially autobiographical, and which attracted those who felt unease at the industrialisation of England. He became secretary of the Bank of England, and discharged his duties conscientiously, though perhaps without real engagement, which eventually led to his early retirement from that post.
     When he was forty, Grahame made a disastrous marriage to Elspeth Thomson, a woman with romanticised notions of her own importance and creativity, who did not share Kenneth’s attitude to nature (though she was good at faking it). They had one child, Alastair, born with defective sight, and cosseted and indulged to the point where he was incapable of living in the real world, and committed suicide at Oxford. The parents had little direct contact with the boy, but in his early years, Kenneth made up stories for him, and later wrote him letters continuing the saga of Toad, Mole, Rat and the others. These eventually became Wind in the Willows. Kenneth died at the age of 73, and Elspeth set about sanctifying his memory, as she had that of their son.
     Kenneth Graham was one of those writers whose public persona, private life, and writer’s voice were all different. As a public person, he was courteous, but avoided contact with strangers as much as possible. To his closest friends he was dear and charming. To his wife he was an enigma, as she was to him. These two people were incapable of being truly themselves in each other’s company. Their marriage was founded on a fantasy of a shared interest in “fairyland”, and their married life was in some ways an attempt to avoid admitting they had made a serious mistake. Towards the end of their lives, after Alastair’s death, they travelled much, and perhaps achieved an accommodation with each other, if not a sharing of interests and enthusiasms. Prince regrets their unhappiness, and the profound loneliness of these two people, but also believes that the dysfunction of the family was necessary to the writing of Wind in the Willows.
     An interesting book. Prince rarely speculates, with gives it a certain dryness. ** (2005)

Jan Karon. These High, Green Hills (1996)

     Jan Karon. These High, Green Hills (1996) Tim and Cynthia settle into married life. The plot meanders, as a good soap should. Tim and Cynthia are trapped in a cave, which leads Tim to a personal epiphany. Sadie Baxter dies soon after a birthday celebration in her honour. Dooley comes home apparently estranged from Tim and Cynthia, but that’s OK later. Pauline Barlowe, Dooley’s mother, is burned by her partner, and barely survives, but she and Dooley connect again. Lacey Turner enters Tim and Cynthia’s lives. J. C Hogan courts and wins the police woman. And so on.
     Karon avoids the dark side. Her evil-doers are all disreputable people who can’t cope with life; they drink and worse merely because they lack self-control. In other words, they aren’t good, middle-class citizens. If only they would pull up their socks and take responsibility for their lives, they wouldn’t do such awful things. In the previous book, there was a truly evil person, Edith Mallory, who wanted Tim for herself, and almost got him, because he’s too nice to stand up to her until it’s almost too late. And then he does it behalf of someone else, not himself.
     But in this book, all the respectable people are good people. They may be annoying and irritating, but they aren’t bad. Since these books are heavy on religion and its beneficial effects on people, this avoidance of true evil is a failing. It may be that Karon is accommodating the tastes of her readers, for religion is more evangelical and less Episcopalian in this book than in the first one. I think the books would be stronger if they were darker. As it is, the religion is more set-piecy than ever, and the prayers even more of the grant-me-a-special-favour kind than before. The only exception to this is the incident in the cave, in which Tim undergoes a spiritual crisis that resolves his conflicted feelings about his father, and relieves him of his burden of the fear of not getting it right. Here, his prayer is a true communing with God, an opening of the self to possibility, and not a form of magic. ** (2005)

Two short reviews

     Truman Capote. A Christmas Story (1956; originally published in Mademoiselle) A reminiscence about the young Capote’s friendship with his elderly cousin, and their annual ritual of gathering the makings of Christmas fruit cakes and baking them. The old lady was a little simple, but to the 9-year-old boy that meant only that they understood each other as true companions. *** (2005)

    Wm D. Middleton. The Pennsylvania Railroad Under Wires (2002) Middleton gives a brief history of the Pennsy’s electrification to accompany a diverse collection of excellent photographs mostly drawn from the David P. Morgan memorial Library of Kalmbach Books. One in a series on “Classic Trains”, and very nicely done. Not a typo anywhere, clear and informative prose, and beautiful reproduction of the photos. Any fan of the Pennsy or electrification will enjoy this book. I did, and I learned few things about the Pennsy’s locos too. *** (2005)

Don Mitchell. Walkaround Model Railroad Track Plans (1991)

     Don Mitchell. Walkaround Model Railroad Track Plans (1991) Mitchell’s talent for track planning is not quite up to John Armstrong’s, but he is very good. Like Armstrong, he designs layouts, not track arrangements, and focuses on the expected style of operation. The graphic style of these plans varies annoyingly. It’s not clear whether that’s because of Mitchell’s experimentation with different styles, or because of Model Railroader’s unwillingness to redraw them to a common standard. Most irritating is the use of call-outs for everything from curve radius to elevation. Mitchell’s comments on the ergonomics of layout design are worth attention. ** (2005)

Jan Karon. A Light in the Window (1995)

     Jan Karon. A Light in the Window (1995) Tim is in love with Cynthia, but he isn’t willing to commit, and this provides the plot of the second instalment of the Mitford series. The rest of the town is up to its usual day to day troubles and pleasures. This book is somewhat weaker than the first. Religion appears as set pieces, each of which makes a theological point. Prayer is here less a communing with God than a request for favours. The characterisation is somewhat perfunctory, the book is more of a soap opera, with its comic-strip swiftness of narrative, than the first book, in which Karon took time to relax into the tale. Still, it brings us up to date: at the end of the book, the banns for Tim and Cynthia’s wedding are announced. I’m enjoying this series, probably because it’s really a soap opera. **½ (2005)

Mike Schafer, ed. Traction Guidebook (1974)

     Mike Schafer, ed. Traction Guidebook (1974) Despite its date, most of the information in this book is still useful and valid. The only chapters that show their age are the presentations of actual layouts, which show the effect of the lack of sufficient scenery materials and still inadequate scenic techniques of the late 60s, and the modelling technology, which relies heavily on soldering, paper and wood for the rolling stock, and cardboard and plaster for streets. The prototype information (three railroads profiled, many plans, and overhead construction data) never ages. The track plans offer as much inspiration now as they did then. A good book for the traction fan and modeller. **½ (2005)

John Armstrong. Track Planning for Realistic Operation (2nd ed. 1979)

     John Armstrong. Track Planning for Realistic Operation (2nd ed. 1979) Every time I look into this book, I notice something that I’ve either forgotten, or didn’t pay enough attention to previously. And it’s always good to refresh one’s understanding of Armstrong’s concepts. This time, I reconsidered curvature and “squares,” Armstrong’s brilliant insight that since layout design is constrained mostly by curves, a square within which one can fit a quarter circle of minimum or design radius is a basic measurement.
     I have decided that my 12'6" x 12'6" space (actually slightly larger, but it’s best to design for a slightly smaller space) will allow 5x5 squares with a design radius of 26". A skewed U design with stacked loops would produce a nice long run, but entails duck-unders to the centres of the loops. Round-the-wall plus peninsula would be a walk-in design, but would still entail a duck-under to permit access to the track along the base of the peninsula where it meets the wall. A swing-away or drop-leaf entrance section would also be required. No matter what, a smallish square space like this one means severe compromise with one or another desideratum. Oh well. Anyhow, Armstrong’s book was a pleasure to look through. I even re-read a couple of chapters. *** (2005)

Jan Karon. At Home in Mitford (1994)

     Jan Karon. At Home in Mitford (1994) Mother gave this book to Marie, who enjoyed it thoroughly, and read all the other books in the series (there are now eight.) I finally read it, too. It tells of a year or so in the life of an Episcopalian priest, Timothy, in the village of Mitford, where he has ministered for some thirteen years. He’s bachelor, used to a relatively quiet life (interrupted only by the crises of his flock), but he acquires a dog, Barnabas, who calms down only when he hears scripture; an 11-year-old foster child, Dooley, who comes from a badly ruptured family; and a delightful neighbour, Cynthia Coppersmith, who writes and illustrates children’s books, and has very good legs.
     It’s charming. Most “Christian” literature sets my teeth on edge, but in this story, faith is merely a part of everyday life. The matter-of-factness of Timothy’s prayer life is very nicely rendered. The story rambles, as all good slice-of-life soap operas do, and a couple of the set pieces are perhaps a trifle too evangelistic in intention. The people have quirks and foibles rather than vices, and Karon develops most of the townsfolk as “characters”, but many of them eventually morph into believable people. Timothy, who likes sweets rather too much, develops diabetes, doesn’t keep up his regimen of exercise and diet, and suffers a diabetic coma which nearly kills him. The book ends with his setting off on a long-overdue vacation to Ireland with his cousin. No doubt there will be a sequel (in fact, there are seven more so far). Karon belongs to one sentence paragraph school of writing, which I find irritating, but you get used to it. **½ (2005)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tough Politicians

“In These Tough Economic Times,” politicians claim, “We have to make tough decisions.”

Funny how tough it is to reduce unemployment benefits, social supports, disability pensions, housing subsidies, programs for homeless, and so on.

I guess it must really hurt those politicians to make these tough decisions. I mean, the pain of having to say no to people who need help. Doesn’t bear thinking about. The poor devils must be lining up for treatment for Post Tough-decision Stress Disorder. We really should be feel more kindly towards the politicians. After all, they do our dirty work.

The really tough decision would be to raise taxes, of course. Especially at the top end of the income pyramid. (2012)

1812 War (Canadian War Museum, Ottawa)

1812 War (War Museum)
Viewed 31st July 2012
     The war of 1812 is the strangest one I know of. Nobody won it. After three years of conflict and diplomacy, and some 35,000 dead, the result was pretty well the status quo ante, albeit accepted by all parties, and therefore strengthened. There were no major changes in territory. The general shape of North American political divisions was confirmed. The First Nations, who might have been able to forge the beginnings of a permanent and independent confederation of nations if the British had won, were no further ahead. The main players, the still young and weak USA, and the loosely collaborative Canadian colonies, acknowledged each other’s territorial claims, and made them a basis for future frontier drawing as both expanded westward to the pacific. Britain, which had already shifted its geo-political focus elsewhere, reestablished friendly terms with its erstwhile colonies.
     The show at the Canadian War Museum sets out the four participant’s perspectives on the war. It’s very well done, with enough detailed information mixed into the overview to individualise the participants’ experience of the war, and to suggest what it was like for ordinary people like ourselves. The arrangement was a bit confusing, as viewing all the exhibits required a partial retracing of steps in each room; but that’s my only complaint. That, and the usual limitations of the computer survey, which began by asking which of the four parties you identified with. I identified with all and none. I could understand and empathise with all four perspectives. I have a visceral antipathy towards war, this is no doubt a reason I can’t feel comfortable taking sides.
     Rating for the show: ***½ (2012)

Truth (Post in a newsgroup about artificial intelligence; 2010-07-19)

Posted in 2010-07-19

I don't think "exist" is a good word to use about truth. I prefer "subsist" as the technical term. But that's a side issue.

This sub-thread on truth is marred by an absence of definition. Exactly what do you mean by truth? What do Curt and the others mean?

All the examples used are statements, which should be a clue. That is, an implicit stance in all the arguments so far is that truth is a property of statements. I don't think that is a good enough concept, as part two of this screed will I hope demonstrate.

A) Formal (logical) and contingent truth

I taught formal logic in high school, (I sneaked it in under the aim of "teach critical thinking".) As you might expect, some students twigged to the fact that "truth" is a vague, ambiguous, polysemous, slippery term.

"Logical truth" is clearly defined: A statement is "logically true" when it has the form X = Y, where X and Y are well-formed statements in some language, and the rules of inference allow the transformation of X into Y, and vice versa. Note that this is a characterisation of a statement.

However, it is not clear that X or Y are themselves true. A logical argument can demonstrate that some conclusion follows from some premises. If the premises are true, then so is the conclusion. But logic cannot demonstrate that the premises are true. You can show that the premises follow from some other premises, and so on, until you get to the axioms. But the truth of the axioms must be assumed. IOW, we need some means for agreeing on the truth of the premises.

At this point in the discussion, students started invoking experience, common sense, obviousness, etc. And realised that "what is true for one person is not true for another." It was difficult to get them past that, but in the end most accepted that some replicable procedure could guarantee a limited truth: if we have the same experience, and say the same things about it, then the odds are that what we say is true, more or less. If we differ, then what we both have said is more or less wrong. Since someone can always disagree about what we have said, all statements about common experience are more or less wrong (and conversely more or less true). This too is a characterisation of statements: here we have contingent truth.

B) Truth as a relationship

So, what do we mean when conceive "truth" as a property of statements? A statement is an image of a concept. It has the same relationship to a concept as a photograph has to its subject. Of both we say that they are "true" if we apperceive some similarity between the statement and the concept, the photograph and its subject. Ditto for a theory (model) and the slice of universe it refers to.

IOW, "truth" is a relationship between image and object, where "image" can be a sentence, a picture, a piece of music, an equation, etc, and "object" is whatever those images "are about".

That relationship between image and object is an unanalysed given: we either get it or we don't. It rests on some formal equivalences, on patterns. We are a pattern-perceiving species, so much so that we perceive patterns "that aren't really there", in the sense that a slightly different point of view may destroy the pattern, while a "real" pattern can be perceived from several (sometimes drastically different) points of view. (Science has been characterised as the search for patterns that remain the same no matter how you look at them.)

In a sense, we are democratic about truth, as Curt seems to be claiming: if a lot of people can see the same pattern from many different points of view, and/or if many people can replicate the pattern by some agreed-upon process, it is "really there." But we are also elitist: some patterns can be perceived only after more or less arduous training. But amongst those who have undergone this training, there is a pretty strong consensus on what the "real" patterns are, hence on what can be truthfully said about them.

It should be obvious that "consensus" truths are contingent. They are also empirical: some unanticipated future experience may change our notion of what they refer to, of their limits as true statements. This is so even in the realm of formal truths, where we often do not know a priori whether any two statements are logically equivalent, or whether some set of premises implies some set of conclusions. Only the experiment of devising proofs can decide the question. And those proofs may show that the equivalence or conclusion is limited to a range of values (ie, objects that it refers to). In this respect, mathematics resembles empirical science.

For more on how we arrive at some consensus about what's true, see Bas van Fraassen's "The Empirical Stance", Yale University Press, 2002.

Disclosure: Bas and I were classmates many years ago, and discussed much of what I've distilled above. He discusses these themes much more expertly than I can. Hence my recommendation of his book. We do not entirely agree: ask two philosophers a question, and you'll get four answers. At least. ;-)

Roger Cook and Karl Zimmerman. Magnetic North: Canadian Steam in Twilight (1999)

     Roger Cook and Karl Zimmerman. Magnetic North: Canadian Steam in Twilight (1999) In 1954 and ‘55, the authors, then teenagers, travelled from New York to Montreal and Canada to observe and photograph Canadian steam locos. Their account of their travels and their encounters with Canadian steam is evocative and personal. The photos are very good; and they were able to persuade Jim Shaughnessy, Don Wood and others to contribute photos to complement their story and illustrate the long ending of the steam era in Canada. Marie gave me this book for Christmas. It’s published by Boston Mills Press, and exhibits their usual very high standard of bookmaking, no typos, good looking page layouts, and superb photo reproduction. It's unlikely that teenaged railfans would be allowed to go on a similar quest these days. *** (2005)

Two books I didn't finish

     Kinky Friedman. When the Cat’s Away (1988) Friedman is one of those authors who thinks that obvious puns and wordplay are signs of wit and intelligence and will persuade the reader that plot, character, and narrative structure must be up to the same level. They aren’t. Or rather, they are, namely abysmally low. Didn’t finish this book, even though it was a present from RoRo, so I felt a little guilty tossing it.

     Graham Wright. Jog Rummage (1974) Billed as a fantasy in the same league as Tolkien’s work, this book is tedious in the extreme. The world Wright imagines never takes on the kind of compelling reality that a fantasy world must, else we lose interest. There are a few puzzles that I may regret never solving, such as why the world seems to be in darkness, illumined only by a Moon that occults at regular intervals, and the differences between the Rats and the Jogs, but I can live without that knowledge.


Four track planning books

     John Armstrong. 18 Tailor-made Track Plans (1983) I’m reading a number of track planning books. Why? Because I don’t to get down to actually building a layout, I suppose. Anyhow, these plans show how a different aspects govern or influence the plan. Lots of good ideas. Armstrong’s favourites, the double-sided backdrop and the empties in - loads out pairing of mine and power plant - show up on most plans. He also tries hard to make walk-in plans, and will accept an 18" aisle in order to achieve it. A couple of his plans could be cut up and rearranged to fit the 12'10" x 12'6" space I have available. Armstrong is always a pleasure to read. ***

     Mike Schafer ed. Railroads You Can Model (1976) A collection of good prototype information and rather strange track plans based on the railroads described. Armstrong would have done a better job. I don’t know who designed the plans. They are OK for operation, but waste space, using neither staging yards nor two-sided backdrops. The result is huge layouts, well beyond the capability of most people to build without assistance. The plans include interesting examples of how to adapt prototype track layouts to models, but otherwise this book has little value. That may be the reason it went out of print early on. *

     Linn Westcott. HO Railroad That Grows (2nd ed, 1972) The update consists partly of rewriting for clarity and concision, partly of redesign of the illustrations (including some new ones), and partly of updating the bench work and other technologies. The concept is still one of the best: write a book that follows what people actually do, namely set up a loop of track, then add to it. But show ways of changing and undoing earlier work so that the end result is a more interesting layout. I’m not sure how a novice would interpret this book. Would the bite-size projects reassure, or would the total of the work done intimidate? Anyhow, the book covers all the aspects of model railroading, and as such this book is as good as any other for introducing a neophyte to the hobby. **½

     Mike Schafer, ed. More Railroads You Can Model (1978) Better than the first book, since the plans assume a fixed space, and so show buildable layouts, whereas the first book showed assemblages of possible track plan elements. There’s also some use of two-sided backdrops and greater use of staging. The discussions of possible operations are more thorough. The Graham County RR is shown as a shelf layout with some care taken with the scenic design, the Milwaukee’s brewery branch is shown as both a shelf and a 4x8 two-deck switching pike, which would work quite well if structures were chosen to emphasise the cramped quarters of down-town railroading. But as with the first book, the real value lies more in the information about the prototype than in the track planning. Layout design has come a long way since these books were published. **½

Love sonnet

Love sonnet

You can’t write a love sonnet these days.
Regular rhythm & rhyme are out of fashion.
Let line and subject wander any way
they want.  You can’t limit passion
to fourteen lines.  So they say.
Now memories of your skin and hair distract
me. Your eyes, blue and grey, recall skies of fall weather,
bounded by winter’s cool and distant pact
that defines our endings. We don’t know whether
in our encounters we should yield or act.
But either way, we know we’ll be undone
by love’s illusion that we will still be one.

(2006 & 2013)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Death is Now My Neighbour (1997) TV episode

      Death is Now My Neighbour (1997, a Morse Special) A young woman is shot through a drawn blind, the murderer aiming at her silhouette. The only clue is a silly greeting card from a lover. The next morning, her neighbour, a journalist, is shot to death. Morse is in top form, and Lewis supplies the missing link when he realises that a pair of initials written down by the second victim indirectly point to the murderer. The motive for the killings derives from academic ambition: a new Master of Lonsdale College is about to be elected.
     A satisfying mix of blackmail, secrets, sex, abuse of power, and assorted minor sleaze. But if one hasn’t ever seen a Morse, one will be hard put to follow the allusive and elliptical style of narrative, which depends on the viewer’s familiarity with Oxford, Morse, Lewis and academia. The solution is plausible, and fairly solved. The acting hints at enough back story that we engage with each character, even the maid who brings the breakfast to the hotel guests. As usual, Dexter has an uncredited part, this time he says a Latin grace. A couple of bonbons: we discover Morse’s given name, and he meets a woman that’s his intellectual, aesthetic, and emotional equal. Fade-out on their arm-in-arm entry into a posh hotel.
     The episode feels like a series-ender, but there will be two more, and Lewis will apply the lessons learnt from Morse in his own career as Inspector. The series succeeds because of the consistency its fictional world, and because it pays attention to the effects of evil. We also like Morse, despite his flaws. Or because of them. Take your pick. This is the third of fourth time we’ve watched this episode. It wears very well. ***

Monday, May 20, 2013

W. A. D. Strickland. Chronicles of a Garden Railway (1968)

     W. A. D. Strickland. Chronicles of a Garden Railway (1968) Strickland is an engineer, and it show. He doesn’t tell us enough about some things, and too much about others. The organisation of the book is somewhat haphazard, too. However, the personal tone, the odd flashes of family history, and so on, make up for these formal faults, and the result is a charming chronicle, just as the title promises. As with many English books, the illustrations are either badly or not at all keyed to the text,  it’s as if the person responsible for the pictures hadn’t read the book. The technology of garden railways has much improved since Strickland built his 4mm scale, 16.5mm gauge layout, but I doubt that anyone today has had any more fun building and operating a garden railway. It’s quite clear that it was a family hobby. It helped that Strickland, like his wife, was an avid gardener. The information about suitable plants is worth the price of the book (15/- or 75p in 1971). ** (2005)

D. A. Boreham. Narrow Gauge Railway Modelling 2nd rev. ed. (1978)

     D. A. Boreham. Narrow Gauge Railway Modelling 2nd rev. ed. (1978) Donald Boreham represents the old school of railway modellers rather than model railroaders, though he does admit to a liking for prototypical operation. His book is short on technical details (especially drawings; the descriptions are sometimes less than clear), and long on anecdote and personal observations, all which makes for a charming and randomly useful book. As is so often the case, the photos have little or no relation to the text. The drawings of miscellaneous Welsh and other prototypes at the back however are worth the price of the book. ** (2005)

John Betjeman. Ghastly Good Taste 2nd ed. (1971)

     John Betjeman. Ghastly Good Taste 2nd ed. (1971) Betjeman wrote the first edition when he was very young, and had decided opinions based on little knowledge. It shows. While the book is an entertaining read, as a history of architecture (which it purports to be) it lacks the factual grounding that even tendentious polemic (which this is) needs in order to convince. His few annotations indicate that he did change his mind or taste as the years went by. Its thesis, that architecture languishes because of a general lack of understanding and taste among its consumers, is as valid now as it was when he wrote this rant. Worth reading, and in some schools of architecture good for a class discussion, but otherwise already dated and quaint. Not worth keeping, though. * (2004)

O. S. Nock.S World Atlas of Railways (1978)

     O. S. Nock.S World Atlas of Railways (1978) Nock has an undeserved reputation as an expert. His work is riddled with errors, some of them so obvious they indicate careless proofreading, others the kind that are easily checked. The worst are the ones that imply wrong conclusions, chief among these the errors of omission, and his bias towards the UK. A Janes World Railways this isn’t. This big book has its uses, though, especially since it gives a snapshot of the state of rail in the 1970s, over thirty years ago now, and the expectations of the time which haven’t been fulfilled. There is for example no real understanding of the intermodal revolution, despite the fact that by 1978 about one third of all traffic in North America was of this type. It’s a “popular” work, ie, it caters to the expectations and prejudices of the nonspecialist. A very mixed bag of useful and useless information. Some good pictures here and there. Varies: * to ** (2004)

(Kalmbach Books) Popular Model Railroads You Can Build (1977)

     (Kalmbach Books) Popular Model Railroads You Can Build (1977) Reprints with revisions of four project railroad series. There are only two clues to the age of these articles: one, the repeated use of “man” for “person”; and two, the old scenery building technology of wadded newspapers and hard shell. Apart from that, the layouts are quite modern, with staging tracks and an emphasis on operation. **½ (2004)
     This is the last of the book review from 2004.

Penelope Lively. Next to Nature, Art (1982)

     Penelope Lively. Next to Nature, Art (1982) A group of “ordinary people” book an art-week at Framleigh Place, a decaying country house in Warwickshire. Its owner, an example of the decaying gentry, and his so-called staff are a bunch of self-centred twits, whom the ordinary twits at first regard with the awe due self-professed artists. A number of more or less strange things happen, and each of the ordinary folk achieves a kind of epiphany, while the artists remain stuck in their unskilled ruts (and rutting), with the exception of Bob the potter, an excellent craftsman and the only one with a real sense of what making things entails. A pleasant enough romp, with some mild but accurate satire of the silly sixties’ trust in doing your own thing, this book is worth reading – once. ** (2004)

Lawrence M. Krauss A Universe from Nothing (2013)

     Lawrence M. Krauss A Universe from Nothing (2013) Krauss shows how the universe as we know it came to be. He reviews not merely what we now know (or may hypothesise), he gives us the history of the investigation. He by showing that the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” can be rephrased as “How did something arise from nothing?”, which makes it answerable. The alternative phrasing, “What purpose does the universe fulfill?” is unanswerable. It’s also pointless to try to answer it, for if there is no evidence of purpose, any answer is mere speculation, driven perhaps more by wish-fulfilment than an real desire to know the answer. Science deals only with answerable questions, which means the “unanswerable” puzzles of late night, beer-soaked sophomore restructured in operational terms. “Operational” here means “answerable by some objective method”. If you can’t re-phrase the question so that it points to some method or evidence that might answer it, then it’s a non-question.
     In short, by dealing with the epistemology of the question, Krauss clears the ground for an answer. The answer is, as Sir Arthur Eddington and others have repeatedly reminded us, “stranger than we can imagine”. Or as Krauss himself puts it, “The universe is cleverer than we are”.
     And what’s the answer? That “nothing” is unstable. It cannot persist. It must, sooner or later, produce something. That something may wink in and out of existence in a very short time, or because of some random imbalance in its constituents inflate into a universe such as the one we inhabit.
     Krauss is careful to limit his claims. Based on what we know, mostly evidence garnered from predictions derived from quantum theory, the Universe is 13.72 billion years old. That’s four significant figures, ie, +/-  10 million years, or roughly the amount of time there have been hominids on earth. But there are still unanswered questions. One of the implications of "something from nothing" is the multiverse, a possibly infinite collection of universes, most of which would not operate on the laws of physics that give rise to matter, and hence to stars and galaxioes, and hence to life, and hence to us. There is at present no way to test this hypothesis, and it looks like there may never be one.
     Does Krauss make convincing case? Yes. He deals briefly with Creationist objections to evolution and cosmology. I like his “If you have no problems with an uncreated God, why do you have problems with an uncreated universe?” He does admit that he has no proof of the non-existence of some kind of god, but he declares that he doesn’t want to live in a universe created by a god of arbitrary whims and laws. He much prefers the amazing universe that physicists and cosmologists have revealed. It has one curious feature: because it is expanding, it will eventually reach a state where any future cosmologists will be able to know only their own galaxy. We live in a time that we are able to see evidence of the origins and history of the universe, and can extrapolate to a time when most of that knowledge will be practically impossible to discover. Why? Because it depends on observable evidence. Once those observations aren’t possible, neither are the testable hypotheses that we have been able to make.
     A sobering thought. It should, I think focus our attention on the more important big question: what kind of meaningful life can we live in a universe without apparent purpose? The answer is of course, a life that has meaning in human terms. If we begin \the construction of an answer with the observation that some of the things we do tend to damage or extinguish us individually and as a species, and that other things that we do tend to enhance our lives individually and as a species, then we won’t go far wrong in choosing rules of life that give us meaning and purpose.
     The book is longer than it needs to be. But it’s still worth reading. ***

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Niall MacKay. Over the Hills to Georgian Bay (1981)

     Niall MacKay. Over the Hills to Georgian Bay (1981) Niall MacKay provides a summary history of the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway, which connected the namesake towns (a rarity in railway naming), and provided J R Booth, its promoter and owner, with a means of bringing his lumber to market. If the Cashman Creek bridge, whose foundation had been undermined by a flash flood, had been replaced, the railway would probably still exist, as it was the shortest route by far between the Upper Great Lakes (and hence the Midwest) and New England (and hence European markets for lumber and other natural resources), and might now be one of the main west-east routes in North America. At its peak, it was running trains an average of twenty minutes apart.
     It was amalgamated with the Canada Atlantic Railway, which was the largest privately owned railway at the time. It ran through sparsely settled country, and after sale to the Grand Trunk, and later incorporation into Canadian National Railways, it was one of three routes across central Canada, a fact that assisted the decision to in effect abandon it, especially since the other two routes served more densely settled regions. It crossed Algonquin National Park, which meant a fair amount of tourist traffic before roads (built as Depression make-work projects) opened up the park to cars and busses.
     MacKay has mined the photographic sources, and these supply a good deal of the interest of this book; one wishes the pictures were larger and more clearly reproduced, but 23 years ago the printers were still limited to half-tone and letterpress. The profile and line map are well done, the general location map less so, since the latter doesn’t show enough of the surrounding settlements, roads etc. Nevertheless, the book gives one an excellent picture of the railway and the country it ran through. **½ (2004)

Lawrence Block. Burglars Can’t be Choosers (1977)

     Lawrence Block. Burglars Can’t be Choosers (1977) Written in what in the 70s passed for a “funny and feisty” style, this is almost unreadable, I gave up after about 30 pages. The narrator-hero is too cute for words. Apparently, he will find a corpse in his latest B & E target, but Block is so busy with his wink-wink nudge-nudge jokes that I lost interest, and didn’t get that far. (2004)

Dorothy Woodworth. Death of a Winter Shaker (1997)

     Dorothy Woodworth. Death of a Winter Shaker (1997) A “winter Shaker” is a homeless person that the Shakers take in for the winter. Occasionally one of them takes the vows and joins the community, but usually they move on when warmer weather comes. One of them has been murdered. Sister Rose, Trustee of New Homage, solves the puzzle of whodunit, but not before another death, the revelation of some shameful secrets, and a riot that could have resulted in worse than a few bloodied heads. Woodworth has done her research, but her portrait of this Shaker community has something Hollywood or TV about it: she hasn’t fully imagined the effects of being brought up in such a strict yet gentle sect. The story moves well enough. A number of subplots seem intended to add depth to the characters, but none, not even Rose and Gennie, become fully realised people about whom we care. ** (2004)

Hayden. Bob, ed. Track Planning Ideas from Model Railroader (1981)

     Hayden. Bob, ed. Track Planning Ideas from Model Railroader (1981) Although this book is now 23 years old, and many of the articles reprinted in it date from the 50s and 60s, the layout designs in it are still worth study. They range in seize from 4x8 or thereabouts to 20x20.
     Many of the most successful plans fit into a spare room or half a garage. All assume that the layout will be operated, and where space permits, continuous run cutoffs allow guests and perhaps the owner too to indulge in mere train watching. The urge to cram in as much track as possible affects the earlier designs, most of which could do with judicious pruning, but use of viewblocks (as advocated by John Armstrong) disguises the bowl-of-spaghetti track arrangements. The later plans have sparser track, and tend towards point-to-point concepts. Staging appears in most plans, but the concept wasn’t well-enough established to have its own terminology: instead we see “layover” or “holding” tracks.
     The language almost always assumes that the builders will be men; a few of the later articles don’t show this bias. The majority of plans derive from actual prototypes, at least in spirit; but several include hints on how to adapt the design to prototypes in other parts of the continent. Several are suitable for adaptation to my 13x13 space, and will be studied further. ** to **** (2004)

John Armstrong. Creative Layout Design (1978)

     John Armstrong. Creative Layout Design (1978) Still one of the best introductions to layout design, as opposed to track planning. Armstrong’s book consists of expanded versions of articles he wrote for Model Railroader. He expands on the backstory, the design criteria such as historical era, layout purpose, and so on, that are less obvious yet turn out to govern the design even more than the available space, finances, and time constrain it. Beginning with just such constraints (space or location, scale and gauge, etc), Armstrong shows how some one aspect of the design task governs all others. Recently, there have been a spate of books about design in general, and each agrees with Armstrong: that all design is a compromise of competing interests, desires, and constraints.
     Throughout, Armstrong relates his designs to specific prototypes, which guides not only the schematics of the track plan but also the scenic treatment and the inevitable tradeoffs. It also allows him to offer designs for all types of model railroaders, from the train watcher to the operation nut.
     Armstrong attempts to get the most operational track into the available space. At first glance, his plans look very much like the spaghetti-bowl style he reacted against. But closer examination shows that his careful placement of viewblocks and backdrops, his use of multiple levels, staging yards, and aisles, all work to control what the operator sees, and so create the desired illusion of one railroad alone, at work in land- or cityscape. The majority of his plans are buildable by a solo modeller, but most would benefit from the help of a circle of friends, both in building and for operation.
     Armstrong pioneered and established what many now consider standard practices: viewblocks, staging yards, multiple levels, reference to actual railroads, and so on. He built on Frank Ellison’s concept of the layout as a stage. Iain Rice has taken both these pioneers’ work a step further: he starts with a theme, and works backwards to the track plan, which sometimes seems to be mere afterthought, until you realise how cunningly it’s been integrated in the total design. ***½ (2004)

M. Richardson. Maddened by Mystery (1982)

     M. Richardson. Maddened by Mystery (1982) Subtitled “A casebook of Canadian Detective Fiction”, this is a pleasant and instructive collection. The title borrows Leacock’s from parody of Holmesian omniscience, still one of the best satires of pretentious guff ever written. But the other entries are all worthy, and most of them score high on the entertainment meter, the most important feature of detective stories. Since the anthology was published, Canadian authors have entered the mainstream of the mystery genre. This early collection makes a point that no longer needs making. What’s interesting is that the majority of these stories were published in the USA and England, then the major markets. Ironic, that Canadians imported their reading material from these sources unaware that much of what they read was composed by their compatriots. ** to ***. (2004)

R. Wingfield. Night Frost (1992)

    R. Wingfield. Night Frost (1992) Jack Frost has to find a murderer of old ladies, a maker of porn videos, a rapist and murderer, and assorted other miscreants, all the while enduring Mullett’s wrath and his new D.S.’s ambition. The latter, Gilmore, has his own troubles. The TV series, starring David Jason, gives us a much toned-down version of the book (it was made into a series of episodes), with Frost gentler and Mullet less egotistically ambitious. One thing Wingfield never underplays is the effect of crime on everyone involved, victims, perpetrators and police, and their relatives and friends. Evil is a stain that spreads. **½ (2004)

“Hyacinth Bucket” Keeping Up Appearances (1972)

     “Hyacinth Bucket” Keeping Up Appearances (1972) Hyacinth has decided to write a book of etiquette for the rest of us, the “socially less fortunate.” Adapted from the TV scripts by Jonathan Rice, it is a pleasure for fans, and probably a tedious bore for everyone else. I enjoyed it. Kathryn and Roy gave it to Mother in 1993, and it looks well read, so P&M etc must have read it also. I liked it, but then I like Hyacinth. Hyacinth’s determination to keep up appearances is after all her version of everyone’s desire to make something of oneself and be acknowledged as a real person. The TV episodes (written by Roy Clarke) at times achieve an odd pathos: the line between farce and tragedy is quite thin. *** (2004)

Hugh Greene. The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1971)

     Hugh Greene. The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1971) Collection of stories published at the same time as the Holmes tales. Generally not up to Doyle’s standard, very formulaic, and derivative, i.e., the writers are imitating each other, not writing from experience and knowledge. Most are at about Boys Own Paper level, which is not a bad thing, but does mean they are for enthusiasts only. The detection is either of the pure ratiocination kind, or the action-hero-winner kind. Romance, IOW, but generally of a mediocre standard. Despite Greene’s claims, these writers don’t merit a wider audience. 'tec story enthusiasts will find some pleasure in these tales, and some grad student working on a thesis about Edwardian pop culture will find it a useful source text. * to ** (2004)

John Lescroart. Nothing but the Truth (199x)

     John Lescroart. Nothing but the Truth (199x) John Hardy’s wife is jailed because a hot-shot careerist DA doesn’t get the answers he wants about a murder. I read about the first 1/6th of this written-for-TV tome, and couldn’t care enough about the characters to keep reading, even on the plane. Cliched characters, cliched writing, cliched scenes, and just a draft or two away from a shooting script. Junk, in other words, but not my kind of junk. (2004)

Brendan Gill. Late Bloomers (1996)

     Brendan Gill. Late Bloomers (1996) Gill provides one-page biographies to accompany photos of famous old people, ones whose achievements came late in life, sometimes after early success in other fields. Interesting, not least because of Gill’s ability to put much information into few words, and to convey the quality of a his subjects’ performances, a skill he honed as theatre critic for the New Yorker. **** (2004)

Sarah Paretsky. Guardian Angel (1992)

     Sarah Paretsky. Guardian Angel (1992) Victoria Warshawski drifts into investigating a disappearance for her friend. It turns into a murder investigation, then widens to include corporate fraud and junk bonds, and scamming the elderly out of their savings. She’s nearly killed, has several run-ins with her ex, and so on. Nicely plotted, with characters you care about. Chicago feels like any other modern city with its rotting centre, decaying former suburbs, gentrification of run-down neighbourhoods, and glitzy new-money properties on the fringes. Not a keeper, but worth getting more of (at yard sale prices, that is). **½ (2004)

Andrew Taylor. Caroline Minuscule (1982)

     Andrew Taylor. Caroline Minuscule (1982) A grad student discovers his tutor’s body, is approached by a mysterious stranger who wants him to translate a medieval manuscript, and what happens after that I just didn’t care to find out. The protagonist is an unpleasant dimwit, the author’s voice is pseudo-witty, and the plot wasn’t developing fast enough to overcome these flaws. I didn’t finish this one. (2004)

Martha Grimes. The Case Has Altered (1997)

     Martha Grimes. The Case Has Altered (1997) Two women are murdered within a couple weeks of each other. Eventually, the real murderer is found, but in the meantime Jury and Plant have to do all kinds of stuff, and neither is lucky in love. I just can’t care for these people. This is the third Grimes I’ve read, and it’s no better than the first two. I can’t see why she has the rep the blurbs give her. * (2004)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Dorothy Sayers. Unnatural Death (1927)

     Dorothy Sayers. Unnatural Death (1927) Wimsey is attracted by what may have been a murder of an old lady. His investigations startle the murderer into more crimes, and eventually Wimsey and Charles Parker are able to arrest the woman responsible. She commits suicide in custody, and the book ends on a darker note than usual. Sayers is here playing with the motif of successful (undetected) versus unsuccessful (detected, and usually solved) murders. Wimsey isn’t quite as much of a Bertie Wooster type as in other books, except when he deliberately acts the part. Parker is a faithful sidekick; Sayers later develops his character and makes him Wimsey’s brother-in-law. This is a pre-Harriet Vane story, and so follows the formula and adopts the conventions more faithfully than the later books, but Sayers already shows her interest in character rather than event, and the acute moral and psychological observations that Christie, for example, could never quite equal. *** (2004)

Greg Bear. Eon (1985)

     Greg Bear. Eon (1985) The Stone, a hollowed asteroid, appears out of nowhere, it’s investigated, and seems to be a gateway to multi-dimensional reality. Or so the story thus far. I’m not engaged enough by the characters to care whether or not the Stone is a gateway. Page 86 out of 502 is far enough.

Colin Dexter. The Wench is Dead (1989)

     Colin Dexter. The Wench is Dead (1989) The last of the Morse books until the one that finished him off. Morse is in hospital on account of an ulcer, etc, brought on by bad food, too much drink, too little exercise, and overmuch stress. A fellow patient dies, and his widow distributes a pamphlet written by the dead man, which deals with a murder on the Oxford Canal. Morse becomes intrigued despite himself, and eventually decides that there was a grave miscarriage of justice.He infers that the murder was of another woman, done to collect the insurance on the putative victim. Lewis helps him dig out relevant files, as does the daughter of another fellow patient, who happens to work at the Bod, and so can supply Morse with data he wouldn’t have a hope of getting otherwise. The book is gentler than other Morse books. Dexter seems to be more interested in the characters (the women all fall for Morse, perhaps a clue to Dexter’s own fantasies). I saw the video version of this story some months ago on TVO. It expanded some of the hints in the book, and played down the erotic fantasies, but otherwise was faithful to the book, and as usual well done. **½ (2004)

Michael Rutherford. City of Truro: Main Line Centenarian (2003)

      Michael Rutherford. City of Truro: Main Line Centenarian (2003) A biography of the famous GWR engine that reputedly broke the 100mph mark in England in 1904. A competent survey of motive power development under Dean and Churchward, an analysis of the reasons why the record-breaking run probably didn’t happen as described, and assorted other remarks, as well as survey of the engine’s work as a relic make up this book. As is common with enthusiasts’ books on railways, there is little or no attempt to connect the pictures to the text, and the writing is very much that of an amateur. The author thanks a friend for correcting grammar and punctuation, but the friend had no better skills than Rutherford himself; there are not nearly enough commas. Still, a pleasant survey, with interesting photographs, most of which are excellent, and all of which are well printed. ** (2004)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Dorothy Sayers. Hangman’s’ Holiday (1933)

     Dorothy Sayers. Hangman’s’ Holiday (1933) Sayers wrote a number of short stories, apparently for the usual grocery-earning reasons. In these ingenious tales she takes time to develop characters a little beyond the immediate demands of the plot, and provides satisfying and plausible solutions. I reread a few recently; they hold up well. Wimsey solves a murder by impersonation, a theft of pearls at a country house, and a nasty case of domestic violence. Montague Egg, the wine merchant, does his stuff unobtrusively but efficiently; he’s a most attractive character, and would do well in a TV series. The last two stories show that Sayers can do the ironic plot twist as well as anyone, and less heavy-handedly than most. In one, a man’s running joke backfires with lethal results; in the other, an attempt to get rid of a blackmailer results in acquiring another one. *** (2004)

Louis L. L’Amour Utah Blaine (1954)

     Louis L. L’Amour Utah Blaine (1954) Originally published under the pseudonym of Jim Mayo, this story is a workmanlike tale of a man who decides to take up the cause of rightful owner of range rights. The usual cast of gunslingers, weak bankers, greedy psychopaths, and similar riffraff lines up against Utah and his sidekick. A couple of beautiful women (their roles aren’t fully developed), and some loyal retainers round out the cast. Utah takes a hell of a lot of punishment, which makes this story (like all L’Amour’s stories) more realistic than most adventure romances, but in the end the hero wins and gets his woman, as required. L’Amour describes fistfights in some detail, an effect of his training as a prize fighter, no doubt. ** (2004)

Louis L. L’Amour Bowdrie (1983)

     Louis L. L’Amour Bowdrie (1983) Bowdrie is a Texas Ranger, recruited when he was on the verge of sliding to the wrong side of the law. The tales are straightforward and follow a formula: Bowdrie, on the trail of some crook, arrives in town at a critical time, usually involving some old time pirate of a rancher and the new mixed-farming settlers. Bowdrie’s role as ranger protects him from immediate assassination, and his skill with guns ensures he’s the winner, albeit after taking some punishment. There’s always a girl, someone else’s girl, and the usual cast of characters: the old drunk, the evil gunslinger, etc. The stories were written to be published in the pulps, so they are light on character and skip over iffy plot points, but they move, and serve to pass a pleasant few hours. **½ (2004)

Harlan Ellison. Earthman, Go Home! (1962) & The Time of the Eye (1974)

     Harlan Ellison. Earthman, Go Home! (1962) A collection Ellison’s early stories, and vintage SF it is. It even has author’s notes introducing each story, a standard feature of anthologies of the time. Ellison has a sharp intelligence and a fertile imagination, and no mean skill in pacing his stories, These betray their pulp origins, he did make a living as a writer, after all, and vary in quality. Many are little more than shaggy dog stories, a genre that was popular in the more hip SF circles of the 1950s and 60s. Humans are either the butt of the joke, or the jokesters. Fun to read, but not particularly memorable, and the claims of significant themes notwithstanding, essentially pleasant fluff. ** (2004)
     Harlan Ellison. The Time of the Eye (1974) Another Ellison collection, some of them recycled from earlier ones. The tone of this one is darker, and Ellison’s introduction expresses if anything more grandiose claims of thematic relevance, but at bottom these are horror stories, and quite well done, too. ** (2004)

W. Gordon Smith, ed. Fallen Angels: Paintings by Jack Vettriano. (1994)

    W. Gordon Smith, ed. Fallen Angels: Paintings by Jack Vettriano. (1994) Smith, a great admirer of Vettriano, collected stories, poems, and fragments to juxtapose with the paintings. Smith’s choices have the same sort of eerie effect as Vettriano’s paintings: a cross between Edward Hopper and film noir, with a more than a whiff of a deep, almost despairing sadness. Yet despite the darkness in Vettriano’s paintings, a darkness emphasised by his handling of chiaroscuro, there is an odd air of innocence surrounding these sinners. Or perhaps it’s more an atmosphere of making the best sense of a world that doesn’t make sense. The effect is a gaiety that undercuts the sadness; I suspect that Vettriano is playing a joke on us, mocking our taking his paintings so seriously. The allusions to pulp fiction support this guess at Vettriano’s intentions. Not that it matters much: the paintings have their own attraction and power. One doesn’t need to second-guess their maker. In any case, I would like to have a Vettriano, but since they now sell in the 5 figures and up, I doesn’t look like I will. *** (2004)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Louis L’Amour. Monument Rock (1999)

     Louis L’Amour. Monument Rock (1999) A posthumous collection of stories by the master of the Western. These look like early efforts, or ones L’Amour didn’t have time to work over. The editor’s notes provide no dating, so I can’t confirm my guesses. At any rate, the plotting is clumsy, with shifting points of view and a here and there some string left dangling. The style is inconsistent: L’Amour can usually put you into the landscape more skilfully than he does here. All the same, I enjoyed the stories. ** (2004)

Maeve Binchy. The Lilac Bus (1984)

     Maeve Binchy. The Lilac Bus (1984) Seven people plus a driver ride a bus from Dublin to Randooth every weekend. Eight stories tell us what happens to them one weekend. The interconnections between the stories occur only as one might expect from a group of people who have little in common besides their bus ride and the village itself. The stories are women’s fiction with a bit of an edge. Binchy is almost as ruthless as Munro, but she softens the effect of her clear gaze by adding dollops of sentiment. Still, she has the power to imagine well rounded characters and to delineate the always problematical relationships between people who can hurt each other. **½ (2004)

Rex Stout. Black Orchids (1941/42)

     Rex Stout. Black Orchids (1941/42) Two novellas with the motif of black orchids common to both. In the first a sleaze-ball is murdered at a flower show via a rig that pulls the trigger on a concealed gun. In the second, a hostess famed for her inventively staged parties is killed via iodine that isn’t, but a solution of argyrol laced with tetanus. Wolfe figures things out as usual. Archie is in top form as narrator, and the whole thing is a pleasant romp. The date tells us it’s early Wolfe, before Stout got a swelled head from his fame and financial success, and tried to imbue his novels with seriousness and meaning. *** (2004)

Beth Harvor. Women & Children (1973)

     Beth Harvor. Women & Children (1973) An oddly dated collection of stories. They are earnest tales, lacking any sense of the absurdity of life, which is strange, since the situations Harvor describes are examples of the absurdity of life. Not a keeper. * (2004)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Marcia Muller. There’s Something in a Sunday (1989)

     Marcia Muller. There’s Something in a Sunday (1989) Sharon McCone is one of the first chick PIs among an ever expanding group. She’s a first person narrator, so we get her thoughts and reactions first hand, and occasionally they don’t ring true: she has to tell us stuff that we should be able to infer from her actions. And she should tell us more of her thinking about the case itself. It’s a complex one, starting with a murder that the cops want to pin on a homeless man. But Sharon knows there’s more to it than that, and eventually unravels it. A second man dies, and it’s this death that presumably gives Sharon the insight she needs. But since we don’t share in her thinking, we are left to guess and gasp with surprise when the murderer (the second victim’s wife) is revealed. *-½ (2004)