Monday, November 13, 2017

McCone and Friends

I'd already read a few of the stories in The McCone Files, Marcia Muller's first short story collections.   All of the stories in McCone and Friends were new to me, but since they were written in the 1990s, I was still visiting past lives.  Sharon's nephew/operative Mick Savage was still living with co-worker Charlotte Kiem and Rae Kelleher was dating Willie, a fence-turned-legitimate retailer (she married Ricky Savage over a dozen books ago).  Some of the stories take place at All Soul's Legal Cooperative, which dissolved before I took the bar in 1998.  Sharon's still the same - adventurous, and an engaging mix of logic and instinct, as is her friend and office manager Ted Smalley.  While some of the stories are a bit dated, they're all engaging.  Whether the issue is drug smuggling, missing persons, or an antique jukebox, Muller uses the short form to create brief but satisfying puzzles and gives us the chance to visit with old friends.

Patents: Ingenious Inventions, How They Work and How They Came to Be

Just what it says on the tin, Patents: Ingenious Inventions is a collection of patent summaries.  Ben Ikenson gives us a brief description of the invention, a few clams from the patent, and a few paragraphs about the invention's significance.  It's not quite an ideal commute book (the narrow hardback is heavier than it looks and the language is too simplistic to be fully engaging), but there are plenty of obscure facts to be amusing.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Evolution of Useful Things

Form follows function - except when function follows form.  This follow-up to To Engineer is Human (which has been on my shelf, unread, for at least 15 years) traces the origins of items such as table flatware and paperclips from their origins as natural items (shells and thorns respectively) to their modern forms.  The chapter on metal cans is particularly interesting because it shows how some solutions bring up additional problems - first, how do you open it, and later how do you deal with the waste of pull tabs?

America Walks Into a Bar

If you look hard enough, there's a book about anything.  I've read the histories of the zipper and the cookstove, salt and aniline dyes, and of course I have all of Mary Roach's books.  I love used and remaindered bookstores because I can browse the odder reaches of non-fiction at less risk to my budget.  America Walks Into a Bar is a perfect example of the sort of book I love and which makes most people say, "There's a book about that?"  Christine Sismondo traces the history of the American bar from Colonial days to their current, often characterless incarnation.  We're all taught that beer was the standard beverage in the 17th and 18th Centuries because the water wasn't safe to drink, but Sismondo tells us how those necessary businesses (sometimes with cause, sometimes because they were run by women or African Americans) were also seen as a source of crime and moral turpitude.  They remained suspect throughout history, with that hint of danger leading both to crackdowns (as happened in Teddy Roosevelt's NYC), the propagation of stereotypes (the drunken Irishman, in both his belligerent and comic incarnations), and safe rebellion by slumming socialites.  Bars also led to real revolution.  The Sons of Liberty plotted the opening shots of the American Revolution while drinking in public houses, and the fear of revolution as well as snobbery led to crackdowns on working men's bars.  Feminists in the 60s and 70s fought to get into exclusive bars because that's where lawyers and businessmen met and made deals; opening those clubs was as important to allowing women into Ivy League colleges.  Without the inn, the saloon, the speakeasy, and your local, we wouldn't be who we are without a place to drink.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Lost Abbot

If I'd read The Lost Abbot before Death of a Scholar, I might not have felt like I was missing something while reading the latter.  Or perhaps not, because I was alternating chapters of Susanna Gregory's novel with articles on recent developments in treating drug resistant bacterial infections.  While reading The Lost Abbot, my mind was clear of almost everything but whether Expressway traffic would allow me to finish the chapter before the bus reached the train station.

The Abbot of Peterborough has disappeared and the order has sent Brother Michael (scholar, courtier, and Matthew Bartholomew's closest friend) to investigate.  He's accompanied by several Michaelhouse colleagues.  Master Ralph de Langelee is a retired soldier who's still good in a fight (and his latest lover's husband has discovered the relationship), Brother William has once again alienated much of Cambridge, Matt has become too close to the surgeon's wife, and gentle Clippsby can't be separated from his protectors.  Once in Peterborough, they find an abbey full of intrigue and a town whipped to the edge of revolution by the 14th Century version of a millionaire socialist.  Gregory wrote a satisfying mystery with hints of workplace comedy.  We've known Matt, his book bearer Cynric, Michael, and William for 19 books and the other two travelers for more than a dozen.  We see how they know and play to each other's strengths and foibles, and how even prickly and unlikable William is a friend who the other can count on to "have their backs."  Once again, I want to binge-read the series from the beginning so I can see how the friendships have developed.

Wrath of the Furies

Warning - mild spoilers for Raiders of the Nile and The Seven Wonders

After Gordianus rescued Bethesda from the Cuckoo's Nest in Raiders of the Nile, the couple return to the relative safety of a fishing village near Alexandria.  While guests of retired court eunuchs Kettel and Berynus, Gordianus get word that his former tutor, Antipater of Sidon is still alive.  Antipater had two purposes in escorting Gordianus to the Seven Wonders - showing his pupil the world and helping overthrow the Roman Empire.  Despite this, and the danger any Roman will encounter traveling in the outer reaches of the Empire, Gordianus feels a duty to rescue his mentor.  Posing as a mute to disguise his obvious accent and bringing Bethesda as a translator, Gordianus finds Antipater in a lower tier of Mithridates court and possibly regretting his decision.  Thanks to his disguise and his encounter with an undercover diplomat, Gordianus ends up witnessing the Ephesian Vespers, but can he save his tutor?  Or any of the Romans scheduled for execution?  Steven Saylor's latest Roman sub Rosa mystery is thoroughly engrossing and taught me about an ancient massacre I'd never heard of.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Brush Back

I've got mixed feelings about Brush Back, Sara Paretsky's most recent VI Warshawski novel.  At its heart is a murder in retrospect (one of my favorite tropes), but Paretsky's awkward use of retcon kept pulling me out of the story.  She probably though that rooting her novel in the past would emphasize VI's new age instead of reminding me that a character once just a few years younger than my mother is now barely older than I am.

If you can ignore Vic's obvious age shift, Brush Back fits in well with the other late Warshski novels. Vic's high school boyfriend Frank (the one who comforted her after her mother's death) wants her to investigate his sister Annie's murder, a crime for which their mother Stella served 25 years in prison.  There's no reason for Vic to take on the case - it's technically been solved, Stella hated (and hates) the Warshawski family, and Vic was slightly jealous of the striving girl her late mother took under her wing.  Vic's also hosting her late cousin Boom-Boom's goddaughter, a Canadian hockey prodigy whose presence both leads to the book's climax and helps set Boom-Boom's hockey career in the early 90s (7 or 8 years after his character was killed in Deadlock).  I enjoyed watching Vic dive into the past, unraveling her usual blend of political, financial, and police corruption, but would have enjoyed t even more if the time shift had been more subtle.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Color of Law

It's been an angry week, and The Color of Law added to my rage.  I'd heard Richard Rothstein on NPR, and I'm somewhat familiar with 20th Century urban history so nothing was new or shocking.  But it still infuriated me.

The average white family has a net worth of about $132K; the average African American family a net worth of about $10K.  Most of this is because American wealth is built on home ownership.  That's why my parents encouraged me to buy a house (even letting me live at home for a few years while I paid down law school debt and save for a down payment).  And my parents were able to do that because *their* parents were able to buy houses - my paternal grandparents' house had a deed with a white-only cause.  Home ownership means a stable living situation, costs that don't rise as quickly as rent, equity against which to borrow for education, and a nest egg for a comfortable retirement or to pass down to heirs.  A combination of laws (struck down by the Supreme Court in 1948) and real estate and banking practices made this simple step into economic security unattainable for one eighth of the population.

Federal programs - VA and FHA loans and the GI Bill for college education - and good union wages created a booming middle class in the middle third of the 20th Century.  African Americans didn't get those benefits.  New suburbs had restrictive covenants (later on, mob violence abetted rather than stopped by the authorities enforced the whiteness of Levittown, PA (among other places), and the federal agencies wouldn't guarantee loans to non-white borrowers.  Add in manipulated school district lines, earlier discrimination in New Deal jobs programs, and unions minimizing or outright disallowing African American membership and you have a country more segregated in 1970 than it was in 1900.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Shogun's Daughter

Five months after the earthquake chronicled in The Incense Game, Yanigasawa has found a new way to usurp the Shogun's power.  He's convinced Tokugawa that he's the real father of Yanigasawa's illegitimate son Yoshisato and the Shogun has named the boy his heir.  Yanigasawa uses his new power to demote those unallied to him.  Chamberlain Sano becomes a magistrate in charge of rebuilding while his son Mashihiro ends up as an ordinary page.  With no official duty to investigate crimes, Sino can refuse when the Shogun's wife asks him to find out who killed her stepdaughter but Sano's sense of justice won't allow him to neglect Lady Nobukura's request

The Shogun's Daughter could not inert on her own, but she could produce an heir. Her death from smallpox led to the succession crisis which allowed Yanigasawa to seize power.  Before Sano and his wife Lady Reiko can determine not only who murdered Tsuriheme - let alone whether she was murdered - he's arrested for the murder of Yoshisato.  There were far too many coincidences for a satisfying puzzle, but the suspense involved in the family's escape made up for that.  There's one one more book in Laura Joh Rowland's series, and I'll be sorry to reach the end.