Saturday, July 22, 2017

Death of a Scholar

I just realized I skipped an installment in Susannah Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew series.  I have it, but a month ago grabbed the wrong book.  While you can read her books out of order, there are enough continuing characters that it helps to read consecutively.  Maybe that's why I was confused by some of the interactions between Matt and Julitta Holm, the wife of the local surgeon.  Or maybe it's because I was in the process of researching antibiotics for MDR resistant infections - I'm pretty sure that's why I had trouble keeping characters, deaths, and motives straight.  

Death of a Scholar starts with the death of a merchant, Matt's brother-in-law Oswald Stanmore.  His death is followed by the deaths of several members of the Guild of St. Mary which Oswald started to assuage his conscience over his shady business deals.  Matt and Brother Michael, his friend and the University's Senior Proctor, suspect that the deaths are related not only to each other but to the new college being rapidly built to train lawyers.  The new Wynwick Hall - and every other college and hostel in Cambridge - has attracted more scholars than they can accommodate, adding to the always tense town-gown relations.  Even in my distracted state, Matt's and Michael's detection held my attention.  I didn't solve the puzzle, but Gregory left enough clues to support the murder's identity and  transmitted them to the audience through the gentle, delusional, but surprisingly observant Clippesby.

Scientific Discovery from the Brilliant to the Bizarre

You can't go wrong with an Ig Nobel Laureate.  Chemist Len Fisher achieved immortality with his study of how to properly dunk a biscuit in a cuppa, and in Scientific Discovery from the Brilliant to the Bizarre, he takes on several well-considered - but ultimately wrong - scientific discoveries.  His first example, the soul-weighing Dr. Duncan MacDougall, appeared in Mary Roach's Spook.   Fisher uses MacDougall's experiments to demonstrate the scientific method, and how you can do everything right but still be wrong.  He follows that thread through Benjamin Franklin's lightning rod (helpful, but the best shape isn't the pointy rod Franklin created but one with a ball on the top), alchemy, and why pre-microscope ideas of reproduction made sense at the time.  It's the perfect commute book - amusing, intelligent, and easily read in snatched moments.

Wolf to the Slaughter

An artist, his missing sister, a recently released criminal,  and a cop's obsession with a shopgirl.  That's what Ruth Rendell used to frame her third Inspector Wexford novel, Wolf to the Slaughter.  Artist Rupert Margolis reported his sister Ann missing the same day that Wexford received a letter claiming that a woman named Ann had been murdered.  Rupert is neither helpful nor worried (he reported Ann's disappearance by asking the police to find someone to clean his house), and Wexford looks down on the Margolis siblings (Rupert is too disconnected to reality and Ann gets a bit of slut-shaming).  Still, he can't let a possible murder go uninvestigated, particularly since Monkey Matthews is out of jail.  While I found the psychology (Rendell's trademark) a bit out of date, I appreciated her surprising but well-supported plot twists.  The world she depicted is still a bit too foreign for me, but Wolf to the Slaughter was an extremely enjoyable novel.

A Share in Death

In an online discussion a few years ago, someone mentioned that she liked starting a series around book 3 or 4 because the author had by then worked out some of the problems with the characters and set-up.  I'm obsessive about reading series in order, and it's only because my mom was so enthusiastic about No Mark Upon Her that I was willing to enter Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series about a dozen books in.  I loved the book, so of course I went back to the beginning.

I met James and Kincaid as newlyweds with a long-term relationship and three shared kids (one hers, one his, one in the process of being adopted by both - No Mark Upon Her takes place as James ends her parental leave and Kincaid starts his).  It's odd to meet them as near-strangers, both divorced and Gemma's son the only child making even a cameo appearance.  She's not even around for most of the novel, which is an interesting way to introduce a dual protagonist mystery.  

It's also a nice twist to introduce police detectives into a "cozy" structure that Agatha Christie could have written.  After several weeks of particularly hard work, Duncan drives to Yorkshire to spend a week in a time share loaned to him by a relative.  We get the usual Christie treatment - large house, people from diverse walks of life thrown together, a hint of romance - and a mysterious death.  Here it's the assistant manager of the resort, a young man whose life centered upon bon mots and stored information.  Soon, there's another death, and the Christie-like assumption that one murder was committed to cover up another.  That's true, but exactly which murder was the core is a real surprise, and one I didn't discover until about two pages before Duncan (with the aid of his DS and not-yet-girlfriend Gemma, working independently to provide the crucial information).  I'm eager to see how quickly (or slowly) their relationship develops - and to read more of Crombie's well-plotted puzzles.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science

James Hannam starts God's Philosophers by criticizing a list of historians, including James Burke who's one of my favorites.  I'll forgive Hannam, though, because his book is so interesting and his premise so strong.  We've been taught that the Medieval period was the Dark Ages, a time when scientific discovery stopped dead and people fell back on superstition.  Obviously, that wasn't true, and Hannam shows how the discoveries of the Sixth through Fourteenth Centuries laid the groundwork for the scientific breakthroughs of the Renaissance.  More importantly, he breaks the myth of the dogmatic, unreasoning, anti-science Church of the Medieval era.  Members of religious orders were almost the only people who were literate or had any sort of education, and instead of relying to bling reputation of legends, they engaged in scientific experiments and rational thought.  If not for the monks of the so-called Dark Ages, there would be no scientific revolution.

The Warrior Queens

Antonia Fraser wrote Warrior Queens in the late 1980s, but I read it in the wake of Hillary Clinton's campaign and the months of (still continuing) "why Bernie would have won."  The nightly news dovetailed neatly with Fraser's categorization of women leaders (some legendary, some fully supported by the historical record).   Many gained power through family relationships and all had to balance their needed strength with the need to appear soft enough to be a "real woman."  Women from Boudica (the real figure behind the legendary Boadicea) through Cleopatra, Zenobia, Elizabeth I, and Margaret Thatcher walked a fine line, balancing the softness expected of a woman and the strength expected of a leader.  We have no margin of error as women - even when perfect, we're "trying too hard."  I'd like to say Fraser's queens were inspiring, but in 2017, their stories were actually a bit depressing.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Murder Must Advertise

Sometimes the adaptation is better.  I fell in love with Lord Peter Wimsey through the early-70s cardboard-set adaptations, and they're still highly entertaining.  So are Sayers's books, but on my third reading of Murder Must Advertise, I have to admit that it's not one of her best.  Someone killed copywriter Victor Dean, so the president of Pym's Publicity asks Lord Peter to go undercover as Dean's replacement.  Meanwhile, Peter's brother-in-law DI Charles Parker is trying to break a drug smuggling ring which centers around Dian DeMomerie - whom Dean had coincidentally dated.  The two men (well, mainly Peter) solve the crimes mostly through luck and it's not a particularly satisfying conclusion.  What makes the book worth reading are the scenes set at Pym's.  Sayers had worked as a copywriter in the early 1920s (some of her Guinness slogans are still in use) and she really captures the office politics and makes the minutiae of the profession entertaining.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Third Sister

Eliza's Daughter didn't impress me, but it's infinitely better than The Third Sister.  A disorganized (but mercifully brief) attempt to make Margaret Dashwood a fleshed-out character, it fails miserably.  Julia Barrett drags Margaret to Delaford and back and then to Bath, giving her no characteristics other than artistic talent and a vague feistiness.  Scenes with Mrs. Jennings's schoolmates (one of whom takes Margaret under her wing, another of whom manages to tame the Middleton children) serve only to pad the novel, and to bring Margaret into a situation I can only describe as Anne Elliot's dilemma with the names changed.  Barrett's worst crime, however, is to make Eliza Williams's daughter into a son (who bonds with Col. Brandon).

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

Contrary to what alarmist clickbait articles say, our species had coexisted with cancer since our emergence.  At its roots, cancer is a copying error, and the older we get, the more likely we are to accumulate enough errors to knock out the safeguards against our cells' uncontrolled growth.  It's such a terrifying disease, eating the patient from within and leaving strange growths, that doctors would hide the diagnosis from their patients.  We've declared war on cancer and have to wonder whether cancer has won.

Siddhartha Murkerjee alternates between telling the overall history of cancer with a chronicle of his fellowship year at Dana Farber Cancer Institute.  The first great leaps in treatment didn't come from a doctor who focused on patient care but from Sidney Farber, a pathologist who with the help of antifolates formulated by chemist Yella Subbarow, managed to induce brief remissions in his young leukemia patients.  He'd only postponed the inevitable by a few months, but from there doctors moved onto drug combos and eventually to modern chemotherapy.  That, in turn, led to battles between the surgeons and chemotherapists, neither believing the other was in the right and both more concerned at times with killing the disease than saving the patient.  In the aftermath of AIDS activism, patients stood up and fought for more responsive care - less disfiguring surgeries, drug dosages correlated to cure the disease and spare healthy cells, and palliative treatments.

Murkerjee doesn't neglect prevention.  The first recognized environmental cancer was scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps.  Naked young boys were sent into the tight shafts and many developed a cancer almost unheard of in the general population.  Strangely, that explains why the link between smoking and lung cancer didn't jump out at researchers in the 1950s - smoking was so common that it threw off the signal-to-noise ratio.  Researchers linked chronic inflammation to some cancers, leading to a fall in liver cancer with the advent of hepatitis vaccines and in stomach cancer with better sanitation and the antibiotic treatment of ulcers.  I remember as a child hearing about the search for cancer vaccines, and while that hasn't panned out, less than a decade of vaccination against HPV is already causing a decline in the incidence of cervical cancer.  There's also secondary prevention, like mammograms and colonoscopies which find cancers early when they're more treatable.  With the identification of oncogenes, researchers are developing treatments which can turn off those genes, stopping tumor growth without harming surrounding tissues.  

Periodically, Murkerjee brings us back to 2004 and the cancer wards at Dana Farber.  We see patients struggle through treatment.  Some survive and some don't, and occasionally the patient comforts the doctor who has to say, "There are no more options."  He opens and closes the book with one patient, 30-year-old kindergarten teacher Carla Reed.  Her fatigue, odd bruises, headaches, and bleeding gums  were symptoms of acute leukemia, and Muurkerjee's intake notes say that she'll probably die during treatment.  Six years later, he visits her with flowers - not on a gravesite, but at her suburban house where they drink tea and discuss her treatment while her children and dogs play in the garden.  At 5 years, her remission can be considered a cure.