Sunday, April 1, 2018

Leave the Grave Green

One reason why my mom loves Deborah Crombie's mysteries (and pushed me to read them) is how she blends police department politics into her novels.  That's at play in Leave the Grave Green, where the Assistant Commissioner calls in Duncan Kincaid to take on the case of Connor Swann's drowning.   Connor's in-laws are a famous conductor and opera singer, both knighted in their own rights, and twenty years earlier their son had drowned in the same flooded stream.  As Duncan explores the family matters (and becomes attracted to the victim's widow), Gemma explores the world of opera.  Along the way they find several viable suspects and motives (the widow is always a suspect, and the victim's gambling connected him to a particularly unsavory local character).  Crombie created an unexpected conclusion, though, which surprised me and in which the separate worlds in which Connor Swann lived collide.

To Marry an English Lord

Although I read it at home, To Marry an English Lord is the perfect commute book.  Interesting enough to distract me from work but arranged in short, discreet sections so that I'd never reach my stop at *the good point*, it's the perfect book to pick up when you only have a few minutes.

The authors start by tracing the patterns of American wealth.  Old Money, as we all know, is quiet, and until the mid-19th Century, American society was less sparkling than its European counterpart.  As brasher, flashier families acquired wealth, the old (and not so old) families closed ranks.  Meanwhile, in England, old families had old homes which needed an infusion of cash and the outgoing daughters of robber barons outshone their sheltered English counterparts.  Add in the Prince of Wales's predilection for vibrant female company and you have the recipe for two generations of American girls marrying titled men.  To Marry an English Lord doesn't stop at the wedding, though.   It shows the dreariness of married life in a cold, run-down manor house and the need to produce an heir (it also touches on the acceptance of extramarital affairs once that heir had been produced).  What most struck me was how recent some of these marriages were.  English Lords started marrying American heiresses in the mid-19th Century, but the last marriages were shortly before WWI.  Some of the women profiled lived well into the 1960s and even the 1970s, relics in the modern world.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Cities of the Empire: The British Colonies and the Creation of the Urban World

Tristam Hunt's trip through the British Empire starts in 17th Century Boston and ends in 1980s Liverpool.  As he travels from the early stages of the empire to the riots and racial tension of an English city in a loosely affiliated commonwealth, the British desire to impose their ossifying social structure on every city they took over.  While the British do deserve credit for the roads, buildings, and cultural institutions they left in Cape Town, Hong Kong, and New Delhi, they also brought segregation and suppressed local cultures.  The British Empire made the modern world, but at what cost?

Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science

I'm not sure how I feel about Heretics.  Some segments were engrossing, but others (including the first three, on militant creationists, ghost hunters, and a meditation retreat), were a plodding mixture of dry facts and Will Storr's oversharing.  Storr's writing-as-therapy faded as his delved into more interesting topics, and I found the chapter on implanted memories of (presumably) false abuse particularly fascinating.  He finished the book, though, road tripping with Holocaust deniers, which I can only describe as disturbing.  Perhaps a better writer could have explained how these people developed their horrifying obsession, but such a task is far beyond Storr's skills.  Still, there were enough interesting topics and adequately written chapters for me to not quite regret reading it.

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.