Monday, February 19, 2018

Marriage with My Kingdom

The third book in Alison Plowmen's Elizabeth Quartet serves as the non-fiction counterpart to Alison Weir's The Marriage Game.  Both explore Elizabeth's relationship with Robert Dudley, although bound by verifiable facts Plowden emphasizes their common background as child prisoners over their alleged love story, and both emphasize the political issues involved in a Queen Regnant's potential marriage.  For Elizabeth, marriage was necessary but also a no-win situation.  If she chose one potential suitor she'd create enmity with another kingdom, and she'd also have to cede some of her ruling power.  Perhaps it was a phrase she used to distract her subjects from her single status, but there was truth to her statement that she was married to her kingdom.  Like a modern politician, she was married to her job, putting political policy (lack of enemies being better than a single strong alliance) ahead of her personal matters.

The Case of the Love Commandos

The Love Commandos are real, a group that whisks away couples who wish to marry for love and avoid arranged marriages.  As an American, even one who's hopeless when it comes to the dating scene, I can't imagine entering an arranged marriage.  For millions of people, though, it's not only normal but leads to a successful partnership and happy life.  That's Vish Puri's point of view.  He and Rumpi had an arranged marriage which quickly turned to a love match.  Decades later, they're grandparents and still in love.

Puri's operative Facecream, though, doesn't agree.  She's been quietly working with the Love Commandos, and as the book opens she's "kidnapping" Tulsi, daughter of a rich and ruthless upper-caste family so that she can marry her Dalit boyfriend, Ram.  Ram, however, disappears from the safe house and Facecream calls her reluctant boss for help.  Puri doesn't believe in love matches, but he also doesn't believe in vacation, even if the vacation is a family pilgrimage.  So he visits Ram's home town and comes across both political corruption and unethical pharmaceutical testing.  Like The Case of The Deadly Butter Chicken, Tarquin Hall seamlessly integrates serious social matters into a fairly light mystery.  He also gives Mummy-Ji a chance to remind us that she's a skilled detective as well, when her recovery of Vish's stolen wallet leads to her solving the robbery of a shrine.

The Theory of Death

There's not a lot of violent crime in picturesque small towns - unless you're a mystery writer (or live near the Cabot Cove Serial Killer).  If you're a mystery writer who moves her police lieutenant protagonist to a college town in upstate New York, you should expect a crime wave, or at least annual murders.   In The Theory of Death, the first corpse belongs to Eli Wolf, a Mennonite math genius found naked and shot to death in a clearing in the woods.  Conveniently, Detective Peter Decker's former/future partner Tyler McAdams has escaped Harvard Law to study in the Decker's quiet home. To him, investigating a murder is a break from studying for the degree required by his grandfather's will.  While determining whether Eli's death was murder or suicide, the two stumble upon academic jealousy and fraud, the sexism that plagues academia as well as the rest of the world, an affair, and another dead body.  I thought Kellerman's last book, Murder 101 was a better novel than mystery.  The Theory of Death reverses that, a satisfying mystery that got the non-mystery parts wrong.  For me, it was how Kellerman portrayed science students.  Granted, I'm nearly 30 years removed from Carnegie Mellon, but I'm tired of seeing STEM majors portrayed as socially awkward and blind to anything but their research.  Sure, I knew people like that - but I also knew many students far more well rounded than my law school classmates and the lawyers with whom I've worked.

The Violinist's Thumb

Paganini, regarded as the world's greatest violinist, had freakishly flexible fingers.  Due to a genetic quirk, he could stretch and bend his thumbs and fingers into remarkable positions with ease whereas the rest of us who play (or attempt to play) the violin have to stretch and twist and pull our fingers, often to the point of discomfit and rarely with such easy dexterity.  What blessed his music career cursed the rest of his life.  Paganini's flexibility was probably due to Ehlors-Danos syndrome, a hereditary disease affecting the amount of collagen people can produce.  His tendons broke down and his lungs and colon stopped functioning properly, leaving him in pain and leading to his early death.

Sam Kean uses Paganini's story to title his follow-up to The Disappearing Spoon, but it's an aside in the story of genetics.  Kean traces the science from the first knowledge that parents pass on traits, through Mendel's pea plants (and the administrative and political headaches that interfered with his work), past horrifying experiments in cross-breeding primates, and to the success of the Human Genome Project.  Along the way, he outlines the conflict between genetics and Darwin and spends a few chapters with fruit fly scientists.  I particularly enjoyed that part, because the scientist, instead of giving their genes dry alphanumeric names, decided to be descriptive, giving us Tudor (leaving males childless), Lost in Space, and Cheap Date (for those of us with low alcohol tolerance).  Like his prior book, The Violinist's Thumb is accessible without being condescending and slips in the right amount of humor.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases

I've read two of Paul Offit's other books and mostly enjoyed his mix of righteous indignation and scientific explanation.  Vaccinated could have used a better editor.  Part history of vaccine production, part "as told to" memoir of Dr. Maurice Hilleman who developed or co-developed nine vaccines, and with a few chapters of public health warning tacked on, Offit's book never fully comes together.  I think the problem is that he's telling two stories linearly, one the life of an important but paradoxically ordinary man, the other of the diseases Hilleman's work prevents.  It's a bit jarring to move from the small, generally ordinary, glimpses into the life of a man who appeared to be fairly ordinary if driven to the history of a now-vanquished communicable disease and its horrifying consequences, to the discovery and development of a vaccine, and back to Hilleman's personal life.  Definitely worth reading, Vaccinated requires the reader to mentally shift gears each chapter and would have been a better book either without the Hilleman biography or with that thread in its own section.

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Guilty Thing Surprised

Several books in, I'm still not sure how I feel about Ruth Rendell's Wexford mysteries.  They're compelling and well-crafted, but the psychology she used so well in her stand alone novels (both written under her own name and as Barbara Vine) feels archaic.

Elizabeth and Quentin Nightingale are the Lady and Lord of the Manor, owners of Mayfleet Manor and the social pinnacle of the community.  When Elizabeth's body is found in the woods, Quentin is a natural suspect.  He's not the only one - a recently patrolled murderer is in town, and Elizabeth and Quentin both had an odd relationship with her brother and sister-in-law.  While I followed the reasoning and psychology and enjoyed the "detection," I still feels like it falls into the uncanny valley.  I'm going to keep reading the Wexford novels because I enjoy them, but I hope that they begin to feel more natural as Wexford enters the 80s.

The Wyndham Case

A few years ago, I read Jill Paton Walsh's last Imogen Quy mystery, The Bad Quatro.  I enjoyed it, but Walsh's books appear to be out of print so it took a while to get to her first.  The Wyndham Case has a double meaning, both the mystery to be solved and a literal case of 17th and 18th Century books which St. Agatha's college must guard in exchange for a fairly generous stipend.  Once a century, a Wyndham representative makes a surprise inspection - if anything is missing, the college loses the money and Imogen's friend Roger, the librarian in charge of the Case, loses his job.

Needless to say, finding a dead body in front of the open case would violate the Wyndham will.  The body had been Philip Skellow, a scholarship student who had problems with his upper-crust roommate and a mysterious influx of funds.  It looks like someone surprised him while he was stealing from the Wyndham Case, but that doesn't feel right to police officer Mike Parsons.  He asks Imogen for some low-key help and she obliges, uncovering bullying, corruption, romance with a townie, and a calendar problem.  Walsh sets a brisk pace through the 223 pages she allots to her case, and produces a well crafted mystery that can be read in one sitting.

Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero

I'm the odd geek who isn't interested in superheroes or comic books.  They just never grabbed me.  I do have a soft spot for Superman and Superman II.  Some of that affection is nostalgia - they were the first crush-movies for my friends, one of whom kept me on the phone for 45 minutes in 5th grade as she wrote (and tore up a very gushy fan letter).  She was not one of the friends I invited over two years later to watch the movie on VHS (later that day, my mom found kiss-marks on the TV).  Despite my relative indifference, I realize how important Superman is to the American psyche.  Created by two Depression-era teens, he's a prime example of what my History and Fiction professor said - our literature shows both who we are and who we want to be.  A war hero (fighting racially stereotyped villains) in the 40s, the square-jawed hero of low-budget 50s TV, a Saturday morning member of the Legion of Justice in the 70s, and a modern teen in the 2000s, Superman has been both constant and altered to our ever-changing times.  Larry Tye's Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero traces our hero's history.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two outcast kids in a hardscrabble Cleveland high school, dreamed up Superman in the early 1930s.  Siegel was the writer, and the hustler - he wanted to make it, somehow.  Superman was his idea, but he needed someone to draw his creation so he turned to (or used) his classmate.  They hired a local model (actually another teenager who a decade later married Siegel), and poured their fantasies onto the page.  They should have been set for life.

They weren't.  Siegel and Shuster's character ended up in the hands of Jack Leibowitz, a pornographer who bought the Action Comics (later DC) from the more artist-accomadating but less business minded Harry Donenfeld and spent the rest of their lives alternating between mostly menial jobs and begging Leibowitz for payouts.  Superman thrived at DC, selling millions of comics and an almost unfathomable amount of tie-in merchandise.  He appeared on TV, radio, movies, and even in a Broadway musical.  Everyone knows Superman, and he's the hero you want or need him to be - even a stand in for Jesus.  He's showed us who we are as well as who he is.

A few words on the Superman Curse.  It's easy to believe - Christopher Reeve spent his last years paralyzed after a riding accident, George Reeves died in a suspicious suicide, and Siegel and Shuster lived most of their lives in or near poverty.  Tye addresses the curse, and demonstrates how it's not really true.  Reeve's accident was a freak event, but the other tragedies can be explained.  Additionally, there are the stories of Kirk Allyn (typecast, but not much of an actor, he spent decades happily cashing in on his fame, Noel Neil and Jack Larson (long lives and a life-long friendship), and Bob Holliday, the star of the Superman musical who left show business for a successful career in contracting in Pennsylvania where his former fame is a source of civic pride.

Sunday, January 21, 2018


Sharon Kay Penman originally intended to write a trilogy, but she couldn't let go of Richard I.  He was a supporting character in Devil's Brood, completely overshadowed by reckless Henry, scheming Geoffrey, and callow, spoiled John.  Richard was the dashing hero, more valuable but much less interesting.  Penman found something compelling in his character, though, and while Lionheart sprawls across three years and dozens of battles, it doesn't quite live up to her usual standards.  The problem, I think, is Richard.  He's not as compelling as his parents or brothers (or the Welsh heroes of her first trilogy), and the martial focus doesn't leave room for Penman's strength, finding humanity in politically astute schemers.  Richard comes across as more complex than in her prior books, but other than a few scenes with his Saracen opponents, he's working alone.  Lionheart is worth reading, but it didn't transport me the way her best books have.