Thursday, November 7, 2013

Hotel Pastis

Sometimes I just want to read something that makes me smile.  Something lightweight but not disposable, a book in which I can immerse myself and imagine that I'm not riding a commuter train in the dark both to and from work.  A book where I can feel the sunshine and taste the multi-hour meals.  When I'm in that sort of mood, I reach for Peter Mayle.  After careers in advertising and educational books (he wrote the "where did I come from?" books my grade school teachers used for introductory sex ed), Mayle moved to Provence in the late 80s and chronicled his year of renovation.  More travelogues followed, and then Hotel Pastis.  It's about a recently divorced ad man named Simon Shaw who falls in love both with Provence and a woman with whom he opens a hotel.  Oh, and there's a gang of bank robbers disguised as a cycling team doing training runs, and the son of Simon's former firm's biggest client who's not sure if he wants to win the Tour de France or earn three Michelin stars.  Add in an extremely competent assistant, an old man with a high ladder, an ex-wife who reappears every few months, avaricious fellow ad men, a disreputable relative, assorted tourists, a sour-tempered "journalist," the mayor's beautiful daughter, a commanding female chef, and a bull terrier, season with lavender, basil, and champagne, and sit back.  It's a pleasant vacation disguised as a 380-page paperback, and place to revisit every few years.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine

There cannot be two kinds of medicine.  There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not.
        - Marcia Angell

The above quote by the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine sums up my attitude towards alternative medicine - either it works or it isn't medicine.  It's no coincidence that Dr. Paul Offit used Dr. Angell's quote to introduce his chapter on nutritional supplements.  As he points out, some of them may work, but because they're generally untested, we don't know which ones work, and what side effects they may cause.  Unlike Ben Goldacre whose Bad Science took on several affronts to science and sense, Offit focuses on supplements and the anti-vaccination movement, where he can focus on facts rather than outrage.  I'm not saying that Offit isn't outraged or that Goldacre didn't support his work, but the books have very different tones.  In contrast to Goldacre's slightly snarky wit, Offit writes in a more clinical voice.

Part of me understands why alternative medicine is so appealing.  It's personal, calming, and (mis)uses the word natural.  Clinical medicine is, well, clinical, dispensed by people whose demeanor usually ranges from slightly distant through cold to a combination of arrogant rudeness with a dash of God complex.  Natural remedies don't list adverse events; pharmaceutical ads include a laundry list of frightening side effects.  And many drugs originally came from plants, so supplements must be both effective and safe right?   Well, no, that's not true, and simple logic should tell you that.

Simple logic, however, can't stand up to repeated assaults by celebrities, by doctors who should know better, and by a federal law protecting supplement makers.  I was working in a testing lab and considering law school in 1994, and thoroughly horrified when I read that the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act passed.  Basically, anything not classified as a drug can be marketed with no testing whatsoever, and cannot be withdrawn until a critical mass of dead bodies can be traced to its use.  It's perfectly legal for your supplement (which you think will improve your memory or increase your energy or just make you healthier over all) to contain no active ingredients, or to have failed every well-designed effectiveness study, or to be contaminated with known toxins (or, as the New York Times reported this week, may contain entirely different herbs than are listed on the label).  For the most part, this modern snake oil just drains the consumer's wallet, but due to the lack of testing, we just don't know which supplements are toxic or allergenic - and thanks to the DSHEA, we cannot know.  Offit tells us why this is the case - a supplement-loving Senator (Orrin Hatch) from a supplement-producing state (Utah) pushed through the law against the advise of the FDA thanks to the general weakness of scientific knowledge among the general public.

That lack of scientific knowledge explains why people are willing to believe B-list actresses rather than doctors when it comes to autism and menopause.  Jenny McCarthy now co-hosts The View, so her false claims that vaccinations cause autism are once again front-page news.  They are wrong, they are hazardous, and, as Offit explains, are just one item in a laundry list of potentially dangerous claims which charlatans use to prey on desperate parents.  Suzanne Sommers has been relegated to the infomercial circuit with her bio-identical hormones, and that probably makes her less of a threat.  Her position that bio-identical hormones (basically, the same molecule but from an herbal source) are safer and more effective than commercially produced pharmaceuticals, though, just doesn't make sense.  If it's the same molecule, it should have the same effect - and the same risk of side effects.  She's profiting from the ignorance of the general public.

Supplement producers, McCarthy, and Sommers are dangerous, but at least they're working from their own ignorance.  What about those who should know better?  Offit criticizes Dr. Oz for highlighting faith healers and therapeutic touch practitioners (therapeutic touch was disproved by a middle school student's science fair project) by providing a national platform for their unverified (and unverifiable) but deeply moving stories.  Andrew Weil - another doctor who should know better - promotes herbal cures based on small, badly designed studies.  There's no evidence they help anything other than Dr. Weil's financial well-being.

Offit also criticizes the late Dr. Linus Pauling, calling him both one of the greatest scientists and greatest quacks of the 20th Century.  A brilliant chemist and renowned peace activist, Dr. Pauling became a vitamin evangelist in the 1970s.  Clinical trials conduced in the ensuing decades, however, showed that high doses of anti-oxidant vitamins shorten life spans and increase cancer rates.  Too much of a good thing can kill you, but Pauling's earlier brilliance overshadows the hard facts put forth by faceless university academics.

Most of this is familiar territory.   Where Offit differs from other debunking doctors is that he explains how and why alternative remedies work.  Goldacre mentioned regression to the mean (we reach for remedies when we feel our worst and would feel better soon no matter what) and the placebo effect.  Offit actually explains what should really be called the placebo response.  Pain isn't all in our minds, but we can use our minds (through relaxation and trickery) to release endorphins.  These naturally produced pain killers can dull pain and cause other physiological responses.  When acupuncture or a supplement works, it's because we've fooled our brains into releasing endorphins, dulling our pain but not fixing the cause, be it a pulled muscle, an infection, or cancer.  This is why I think Do You Believe in Magic may be slightly more effective than Bad Science in convincing the public that most alternative remedies are ineffective.  Offit seems to understand why people want to believe in magic when Goldacre just snarks at their ignorance.  Goldacre is a more entertaining writer (Offit is perhaps a bit too clinical for some), but he's probably more likely to turn off those who need to hear his message.  I'm cynical enough (even when my office mate isn't expounding on health theories which only show he might not pass 4th grade science), though, to think that they're preaching to the choir.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

After the Funeral

Agatha Christie can still get me.  I've read most of her books now, and even when I read a "new" one, I can guess the murderer, or at least narrow it down to a small group that includes the culprit.  Not this time - I'd identified three suspects and completely missed the murderer.

After the Funeral begins after Richard Abernathie's funeral.  A widowed septuagenarian mourning the death of his only son, his own death was not unexpected.  After his solicitor, Mr. Entwhistle, reads the will to the heirs, Abernathie's surviving sister says, "But he was murdered, wasn't he?"  No one takes her seriously - Cora had always been, well, a bit off, and she'd been estranged from the family since her marriage to an artist decades before.  Then (because this is an Agatha Christie novel), someone murders Cora, hacks her to death with a hatchet while she slept.  Does this mean that Cora was right?

Mr. Entwhistle isn't sure, so he calls on his old friend, Hercule Poirot.  Disguising himself as the representative of a refugee organization, Poirot invites the survivors - two grand-nieces and their 'unsuitable' husbands, a grand-nephew involved in questionable financial deals (doesn't every Christie novel have a young man cooking the books?), Richard Abernathie's "invalid" brother and his wife, Richard's favorite sister-in-law Helen, and Cora's paid companion - to Abernathie's home which he says his organization is buying..  A somewhat estranged family, visiting the about-to-be-sold family estate and bickering over the inheritance…so of course someone is attacked.  With one suspect hospitalized with a concussion, Poirot again gathers the family and accuses…the last person I would ever suspect.  And yet, once revealed, the murder's identity is completely obvious.

Christie tired of her most popular detective long before the public did.  She couldn't retire Poirot, but his appearances became less frequent as time went by.  It may not just have been weariness with the Belgian detective, though.  I've always though of Poirot as belonging to the era between World Wars (and Miss Marple, in her sleepy village where electricity and cars may replace candles and horses but nothing else changes, belongs to the post-war era).  Seeing Poirot in the 1950s and talking about death duties and societal changes, well, it just doesn't fit.  He was always more of a caricature than a character, but so were the Bright Young Things and the characters which populated screwball comedies.  The 1950s were more subdued, and Poirot was just a bit too unreal.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Big Short

Grant decided to investigate these strange Wall Street creations known as CDOs. Or, rather, he had asked his young assistant, Dan Gertner, a chemical engineer with an a MBA, to see if he could understand them.  Gertner went off with the documents explaining CDOs to potential investors and sweated and groaned and heaved and suffered.  "Then he came back, " says Grant, "And said, "I can't figure this thing out."  And I said, "I think we have our story." - page 177

That passage made me feel good.  Not about the financial market manipulations which nearly brought down the world economy five or six years ago, about myself.  Because I'm a chemical engineer with a JD and I could not follow the logic behind CDOs.  I read the business section of the paper, listen to Planet Money, understood enough about the difference between what banks would let me buy and what I could afford when I was house hunting, and I just could not wrap my mind around the financial instruments

Michael Lewis is an accidental insider to the world of finance.  He worked for Salomon Brothers in the late 80s, left, wrote Liar's Poker as a cautionary tale to save new college grads from losing their souls to large bonuses, and was shocked to find those kids he wanted to save used his book as a how-to manual.  When he escaped (his word), he thought that the investment world would eventually revert to a saner form, but he was wrong.

My college newspaper published this cartoon, lamenting the lack of moral career options for the late-80s math major.  A dozen years later, those math majors headed for Wall Street and created financial instruments which claimed to be "diversified" because they included risky investments from several different companies.  A subprime mortgage is a bad investment - that's why the borrower is paying a high interest rate.  Logically, 100 subprime mortgages should be a very bad investment - but when presented as 100 different investments, it magically becomes a "diversified" and therefore safer.  The housing market didn't collapse because individual borrowers were irresponsible per se - it collapsed because the experts figured out how to make money by essentially running an elaborate con game.

Lewis shows us this world through the eyes of a few outsider members - two guys who almost stumble into success, a doctor-turned-trader who's diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome at the height of his success, and a man hired through nepotism who might have been the rudest man in New York City.  They took advantage of the system, but they also saw the warning signs a few months before the rest of the financial world and tried (too late) to warn others.  They made millions, and got out as the world collapsed.

One thing nagged at me throughout the book.  How much money is "enough?"  I like money, but I have a sense of enough, and of the trade offs involved.  If I work extra hours, I'll have a few more dollars two weeks later but if I leave early, I can meet a friend for dinner or go to the ballet.  It's a matter of finding the right balance.  Lewis's traders throw around seven and eight figure bonuses like the money in the change purse I keep in my glove compartment.  They can buy condos the way I buy a medium twist cone with chocolate jimmies - it's beyond what I can comprehend.  And yet, they want more.  People complain about athletes' and movie stars' salaries - but if Jimmie Rollins pops up or if Reese Witherspoon's movie tanks at the box office, no one gets hurt - and Rollins and Witherspoon actually do something.  Not necessarily something which will have much effect on the world as a whole, but they're doing something few others have the ability to do.  The Wall Street traders profiled in The Big Short make more money than all but the biggest stars, and they came close to destroying our entire financial system in the process.  And yet, no one complains about their paydays.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Constant Gardener

Warning - possible spoilers

Two weeks ago, the journal Science published an article claiming that reading literature improves your social skills.  While I generally agree with Neil Gaiman that so-called "fluff" reading has imaginative value, I also take issue with the assumption that genre fiction is fluff.  Some of it is - but some literary fiction is so concerned with being "literary" that the author downplays minor details like plot and characterization, resulting in a book that one can admire, but not really like.  Yes, there's some mediocre (or worse) genre fiction on the market and selling well, but I can't agree that a mystery can't be literature.

My first exhibit?  The Constant Gardner.  It appears to be an action-movie-in-waiting: a well-known espionage novelist, exotic locales, and an unsolved murder.   Lift off the first layer and you'll find an indictment of the modern pharmaceutical industry, and below that a love story in retrospect.  It also takes place largely in the mind of a grieving man, desperate to solve his wife's murder before he too dies violently.

Le Carre's novel starts as a conventional suspense novel.  Sandy Woodrow, a British diplomat in Nairobi, learns that another diplomat's wife has been found, murdered.  Tessa Quayle was, well, a bit of an embarrassment to the embassy; much younger than her undistinguished husband, flirty, and prone to quixotic forays into social justice.  Woodrow and his wife organize the funeral and hide Justin Quayle from the press, both men submit to police questioning about Tessa's life and death, and Justin returns to England.  So far, an ordinary if well-written mystery, highlighted by acidic sketches of domesticity in the diplomatic corps.  Once Justin returns to England, though, The Constant Gardener changes, becoming a more reflective piece which takes place more and more in Justin's mind as he travels through Europe, to Canada, and finally back to Africa, trying both to solve his wife's murder and to complete her mission.

You see, the diplomatic corps had completely misjudged Tessa.  She wasn't a flirt, but deeply in love with Justin (and Justin with her).  Neither was she a quixotic campaigner, but an Oxbridge trained lawyer and human rights campaigner who'd discovered that a promising anti-malarial drug had toxic side effects and that a corner-cutting pharmaceutical company didn't know - or care.  Using Justin's grief to frame the flashbacks, le Carre subtly transforms Tessa Qualye from a shallow dilettante to a fully realized character.  Perhaps she's a bit too "good" (after all, we're seeing her through the memories of her widower), but she's real, too stubborn and perhaps naive to be a saintly victim.  Justin also transforms from a middle-aged, mid-level, mediocrity into a man desperate to complete his wife's quest, even (or perhaps hopefully) at the cost of his own life.

I mentioned above that I believe The Constant Gardner is literature, despite its genre status.  It engaged both my emotions and my intellect more than some classics have (coincidence-heavy Jane Eyre, with the two-dimensional Mr. Rochester, for example).  Le Carre also had a more difficult task than the non-genre novelist, because he had to stay within a framework.  Genre fiction isn't easier than straight fiction - it's harder.  The author has the same duty to use rich language, create engaging characters, and craft a believable plot as any other novelist, but has to do so without violating the genre's rules.  Le Carre succeeded on this level as well.  After finishing the novel, I woke up in the middle of the night.  It wasn't because of a noise outside, or because I was thirsty or uncomfortable - it was because I second-guessed myself on the identity of Tessa's killer.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Devil's Brood

I love The Lion in Winter - brilliant dialog, double and triple crosses, and all performed by an amazing cast.  It's a manipulated snapshot, though, a single event which didn't actually happen but which distills the complicated relationships between Henry FitzEmpress, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their squabbling sons.  Sharon Kay Penman takes a more historically accurate approach as the third book in her Plantagenet series sprawls through the final 17 years of Henry's reign.

Penman writes long, complicated novels with frequent shifts in location and point of view, and in Devil's Brood does so deftly.  It helps, of course, that one of her protagonists is the brilliant, proud, and stubborn Eleanor who saw herself as Duchess of Aquitaine above all other roles.  It was this pride which led Eleanor to back their sons in a revolt against her husband, a decision which led her to spend years as Henry's prisoner.  While she's a captive, her sons continue to rebel and repent, constantly shifting alliances among themselves, their father, and Phillipe of France (who, apparently, did not look like a young Timothy Dalton, more's the pity).

Interestingly, Penman leaves Richard as a supporting character, whom she portrays as a dashing soldier with little internal life.  Instead, she focuses on Henry the Young King and Geoffrey, who are less well known.  Henry comes across as a bit like Tom Bertram - a rich, handsome, rabble-rousing frat boy given more power than he can handle.  He's a lousy general and has little promise as a ruler, but he's already been named king so his father has little choice but to forgive him for his rebellions.  Ultimately he's a tragic figure who, like so many of his era, dies from dysentery, an uncrowned king.  Penman's characterization of Geoffrey owes a bit to Goldman's play.  He's a forgotten son, a scheming spare given Brittany through his marriage to Constance, the true heir.  Geoffrey is also the most intelligent and tactically-minded son, and his marriage to the equally clever Constance echoes his parents' marriage.

It's Eleanor, though, who ties the threads together.  She's a prisoner, but a high-status one who receives news and occasional visits from her rebellious children.  Eleanor also has, for the first time in her life, time to reflect.  She doesn't regret placing Aquitaine ahead of her marriage, but she accepts the truth and misses being both Henry's lover and advisor.  Their relationship is unsurprisingly strained, but never totally broken, with affection buried under the frustration, most obviously when Henry has the unenviable task of telling Eleanor of their grandson's death, and those of the Young King and of Geoffrey.  Jailer and prisoner, they're still grieving parents who have not completely forgotten their passionate relationship, and her release on his death is bittersweet because she's lost the one person who was truly her match.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Think Twice

I was in Tower Books on South Street with my ex-boyfriend Steve when I first saw Everywhere That Mary Went.  Or rather, Steve saw it and said I should buy it - it was about a Mary in Philadelphia.  The following Saturday, I decided to read a chapter or two before going to sleep, and the next thing I knew it was 4 am and I'd finished the book.  I loved Scotoline's first 8 or 9 books, tightly written mysteries that really capture my home town.  When I read her books, I feel like I know her characters because I do - or at least I've stood behind them in line at the Wawa.  A few years ago, though, she lost my interest.  Timeline issues with her Rosato & Associates series-that's-not-quite-a-series nagged at me, and her stand alone novels just didn't grab me.  I stopped looking for her newest books, and mainly bought this one because I saw it at the Center City Borders' closing sale.

I wasn't particularly optimistic about Think Twice which includes two tropes (the evil twin and the recurring villain) of which I'm not particularly fond.  Bennie Rosato's twin Alice Connelly is a cartoon, a manipulative cypher who knows exactly what her twin thinks without ever letting us into her mind or motivation.  She's allegedly reformed when she drugs Bennie and buries her alive before assuming her identity.  All she has to do is pretend to be Bennie for a few days, then she'll fly to the Cayman Islands with Bennie's money.  Easy, right?  Well, it might have been if the field where she'd buried Bennie hadn't been mowed a few hours later, uncovering enough of the coffin for Bennie to break free.  Or if Bennie's ex-boyfriend Grady hadn't shown up on her doorstep, hoping for a reconciliation.  So instead of simply convincing Bennie's associates, Mary DiNunzio and Judy Carrier, that she's Bennie, Alice has to convince her twin's former lover that she's Bennie - while Bennie (whom everyone thinks is Alice) tries to convince the police that she's the victim of identity theft.  This illustrates why I generally don't believe in conspiracy theories - there are too many things that can go wrong.

Anyway, Scotoline uses two plot devices I don't like involving a character I particularly dislike, but instead of being headed for probation, I'm actually eager to read the Scottoline books I've missed.  The Alice as Bennie/Bennie Hunts Alice story works until the slightly forced ending, but I'm OK with that.  Scotoline allows Grady, Mary, and Judy to doubt Alice just enough, and Alice gives reasonably plausible explanations.  More importantly Think Twice brought back Judy and Mary, along with the senior DiNunzios (and a distant relative whose appearance I'd normally consider padding, but whose few scenes were entertaining and well-integrated into the story).

Mary and Judy don't just remind me of people I've met - I could be either one of them, asking for advice or troubleshooting a plan with someone I've known forever and who can finish my sentences.  Their conversations (about work, about their love lives, about Mary's real estate purchases) sound like the conversations I've had, and Judy's assimilation into Mary's family reminds me of my mom reminding my friends that they "know where the glasses are" and have earned the right to open the fridge without asking.  Event their arguments are real, with the guilty party feeling, well, guilty, and regretting words as they hang in the air.  I don't see enough real, believable women in entertainment.  Bridesmaids stood out not because it was the first time women were allowed a gross-out scene, but because it showed women as actual friends, with real conflicts and regrets.  Mary's and Judy's relationship is like Annie's and Lillian's at the start of the movie, shadowing an outdoor exercise class and joking over breakfast.  It's how women really act - and how we're so rarely allowed to act in the media.  I'd like to think that an adaptation of any of the Rosato & Associates books would change that, but unfortunately, it's more likely that Hollywood would change the characters.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager

My cohort and I were never teenagers.  Or at least that's what Thomas Hine seems to believe.  We're used to it, sandwiched between the Baby Boom and the Millennials, Gen-X got saddled with a non-descriptive (and kind of stupid) name and were portrayed as whiny navel-gazers in Reality Bites and countless songs by grunge bands.  So maybe it's not a surprise that we only got a few paragraphs between the end of the Boomers' innocence and the rise of the Evil Teen shortly before the publication of The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager.

This was another of my, "Hmm...looks interesting" purchases (at the still-mourned Atlantic Book Warehouse instead of Daedalus - it's been on my shelf for about a decade), and I probably should have passed on it.  Hine's material is interesting, describing how American society viewed young people from the early Republic through the late 90s, but his style is bland and slightly sloppy.  I had a nagging feeling that he was drawing wider conclusions than his research supported and then throwing a veil of vagueness over complicated issues, or skipping cohorts (like mine) which didn't fit his narrative.  What I did find interesting was the look at then-contemporary teens.  The Millennials (now in their late 20s and early 30s) are the golden children - smart, entrepreneurial, and socially aware.  Quite different from the thrill killers and murderous prom-parents whose avatars starred in several Law & Order episodes.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Brief History of LIfe in Victorian Britain

Another one of my "this looks interesting" selections from Daedaus Books.  Michael J. Patterson starts out by comparing the end of Victoria's reign to current day England, with a popular and long-serving Queen with sometimes scandalous children (well into middle age) standing as the one constant in an era of rapid change.  After a brief chronology of Victoria's life, Patterson outlines the evolution of 19th Century tastes and practices in food, decor, clothing, and entertainment.  It's the equivalent of a survey course - interesting facts well-presented, but without much depth and leaving the reader to decide whether to take the 200-level course.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Murder in Mesopotamia

Don't get on a novelist's bad side, because you may find yourself unflatteringly portrayed in her next book.  That's more important if the novelist writes mysteries, for your avatar may end up deservedly dead. Agatha Christie accompanied her husband, Max Mallowan on an archaeological expedition and did not get along with Leonard Woolley's wife, so she wrote a novel in which an archaeologist's wife dies violently.

"Lovely Louise" Leidner is afraid.  She's received anonymous threats, and suspects that either her late husband did not actually die in a train wreck or that his younger brother wants to avenge his death.  Her devoted husband, the head of an archaeological dig in Iraq, hires a nurse, Amy Letheran, to keep an eye on her.  Nurse Letheran arrives, meets the various archaeologists and support staff, and the next day finds Louise's corpse in a locked room.  From here on out, it's classic Christie.  Everyone has a motive, no one has opportunity, and Hercule Poirot just happens to be nearby.  With Nurse Letheran filling in for Captain Hastings, Poirot spends a few days questioning the staff of the Hassanieh dig and letting the  little grey cells do their work.  After a second violent death, he assembles the suspects, explains why each one could and could not have committed the crime, and unmasks the true killer.

The murderer's identity is a surprise, and a bit of a risk, but the ingenious way in which the murder was committed makes up for any disbelief at the culprit's identity.  I usually don't like unbelievable solutions to my mysteries, but this one was just well enough supported.  Maybe it's because the characters (apart from Nurse Letheran) weren't very interesting, with the younger members of the group almost indistinguishable.  A friend recently read Sleeping Murder (her first Christie), and wasn't impressed.  Murder in Mesopotamia is perhaps a half-step above, but it's a bit forgettable and probably not a good choice for introducing someone to Dame Agatha.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Mysterious Mr. Quinn

As Delicious Death works its way through Dame Agatha's literary output, I'm re-reading both old friends and books which I read once, more than 25 years ago.  The Mysterious Mr. Quinn falls into the latter category.  I know I've read it before, but only once - for the most part, I haven't re-read her short story collections.  They don't have enough atmosphere, and the mysteries are a bit too straightforward.  The titular Mr. Quinn adds a supernatural aspect to the collection, and that generally doesn't appeal to me.  I did enjoy the narration of Mr. Satterthwaite, an aging socialite moving from house party to upper-class spa; living a life that was dying out and not quite approving of the Bright Young Things who tolerated his existence.  He's the link between the stories, the witness to a crime (or second-hand reporter of the event), whose mysterious acquaintance guides him to the solution, usually over drinks or a meal.  Christie is almost always diverting, but The Mysterious Mr. Quinn is little more than that - a book to read with one's eyes, rather than one's mind.

Faith and Treason

I first heard of Guy Fawkes when Paddington Bear used his grumpy neighbor's suit to make a dummy for Bonfire Night.  It seemed like a cute, quaint custom when I was 8, and I didn't learn until years later about the political implications.  Antonia Fraser focuses on the religious and political background to the Gunpowder Plot because it's more interesting, and, well, the plot wasn't well planned or executed, and Guy Fawkes was actually a minor participant, more notable for being discovered than for his actual role.

More interesting than the actual plot was the analysis of the highborn secret Catholics in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.  Elizabeth considered religion a private matter; Catholics weren't allowed to publicly practice their faith, but she didn't pursue private practices.  Still, it led to separate public and private lives, and houses with "priest holes" where the family's spiritual guide could hide if the authorities searched.  Elizabeth's death left a bit of a succession crisis (she hadn't named a successor, although James was the logical choice), and the Catholic underground hoped he might legitimize - or even follow - their practices.  They were wrong, forgetting that James's upbringing was more strictly Protestant than the compromise theology of Anglicanism.  More importantly, religion and politics were so closely entwined in the early 17th Century that one decided the other - it wasn't just that Anglicanism was the state religion, but Catholicism implied (often accurately) an affinity for England's enemy, Spain.  While Frasier couldn't have completely skipped the Gunpowder plot, I understand why she concentrated on the three year lead-up.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Elisabeth Sladen: The Autobiography

Imagine you move into a new neighborhood, and the woman next door looks familiar - very familiar, but you can't place her.  A few weeks later, you're chatting on the doorstep and she invites you in for coffee.  Walking through the house, you see a piece of memorabilia that tells you where you know her from - 35 years ago, she spent a few years as the star of a long-running TV show.  You ask, and she admits that yes, she was an actress, and with some prompting she tells you about her career.

She tells you about growing up in Liverpool, taking drama classes as a child, and joining the National Youth Theatre (where her classmates included Helen Mirren and Diana Quick).  Back in Liverpool, she joined a repertory theater where a cast mate made her giggle when she was playing a corpse - they've been happily married for decades now, a truly devoted couple.  Opportunity took them to London and fate cast her in a now-iconic role.  Then?   Well, through a combination of typecasting, the relatively low status of her show's genre, and (she admits) tactical errors on her part, her career sort of fades away.  She goes to conventions devoted to her old show, has a daughter, and essentially retires around 40.

That's how Elisabeth Sladen: The Autobiography feels - like a conversation with a very nice lady who happened to be very famous for a few years and while she enjoyed it, has no need to dwell on it.  It's full of warm memories of friends and co-workers (sometimes bittersweet memories of those who have died), descriptions of the mid-70s working conditions at the BBC (let's just say that the actors are not quite as nostalgic about the cardboard-set era as I am), and a few mildly cautionary tales about missed opportunities.  She drops several names - famous, not-so-famous, and hey-it's-that-guy - and usually has nice things to say (although Jon Pertwee still comes off as a complete jerk on occasion).  The overall effect is, well, a pleasant conversation with someone who's had some interesting experiences.

Ms. Sladen's memoir doesn't end with that conversation.  Russell T. Davies brought her, and Sarah Jane Smith, back to Doctor Who in 2005, and then gave Sarah (and Lis) her own spin-off show, making her more famous in her 60s than she had been in her 30s.  Sadly, there will be no follow-up volume, because Ms. Sladen died at age 65, shortly after sending the manuscript to the publisher.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Death Comes as the End

My mom bought and read Death Comes as the End some time in the early 80s, shortly before I'd graduated from YA to Agatha Christie.  It must have been one of the first Christies I moved to my own shelf, and I tried out the "from the library of" embosser someone gave my dad for Christmas around that time.  Somehow, though, despite 30+ years of access and 30+ years of my ancient history minded mother's nagging, the book sat unopened until it popped up on my Agatha Christie group's reading list.

Recently widowed Reinseb returned to her father's estate and saw that nothing had changed.  Her father held tight to the responsibilities that he should have ceded to his sons and her sisters-in-law argued and sniped and manipulated their husbands, just as they had before Reinseb moved away.  Then her father, Imhotep, returned with a new concubine, a pretty young woman named Nofret who altered the household dynamics - and died violently while Imhotep was away on business.  Don't be fooled by the exotic setting; to Christie, Ancient Egypt is no different than an English country town.  Other violent deaths followed Nofret's, and Reinseb helps set the trap to unmask the murderer.  It's one of Christie's best novels, cleverly plotted (she "got"me, which doesn't happen very often), and the exotic setting added to rather than detracted from the mystery.  I'm surprised it's not better known.  Perhaps a faithfully adapted movie could solve that problem.

The Hypochondriacs: NIne Tormented Lives

The Hypochondriacs is essentially a collection of biographical essays, connected by contemporary or retrospective diagnoses.  While the sketches were interesting, the linkage was weak.  A few (Charles Dickens springs to mind) fits our current definition of someone who interprets ordinary variations in health (or the effects of Victorian overindulgence) as deathly illnesses, and other were indeed ill (Florence Nightingale probably developed PTSD and/or brusellosis during the Crimean War).  Others, like Glenn Gould, apparently had a variety of psychological problems besides hypochondria.  Unsurprisingly, six of the nine hypochondriacs lived in the 19th Century, when ill health was a way for ladies to escape the tiring yet mindless round of social calls and for gentlemen to explain away the natural effects of a rich diet and sedentary lifestyle, and the most interesting sections of The Hypochondriacs describe how the definition of hypochondria has changed over the years.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Curtain

Hercule Poirot is a fictional character, and not even my favorite.  I've read Curtain at least once before, although long enough ago that I only remembered a small subplot, and yet I teared up a bit when Hercule Poirot died.

Agatha Christie got tired of Hercule Poirot long before her readers did, but there was little she could do other than have Ariadne Oliver complain about her own foreign-born detective.  It must have been cathartic to kill him off, even if she knew no one would read of his death until his creator was dead or dying herself.  Written during WWII, when Christie (along with much of London) spent sleepless nights hiding from the Blitz in the Underground, Curtain finally saw publication in 1975, shortly before Christie's death.  Christie avoided any "dating" references, but the manuscript's age shows.  There are no TVs at Styles (reborn as B&B of sorts), and Styles itself is still semi-rural despite being close to London and its sprawl.  Cash-poor gentry still live on declining shares rather than entering professions, and a woman with a university degree is called a doctor's "secretary" instead of his research assistant.  As a teenager, I didn't notice quite how dated Curtain is - 1975, although barely a decade in the past was the semi-distant past of my childhood - but this time, the differences between timeless-1945 and real-1975 jumped out at me.

My copy of Curtain says that it's "Hercule Poirot's Last and Greatest Case."  I found it to be more of a middling Christie, with a classic set-up.  Poirot, now wheelchair bound, invites the recently widowed Captain Hastings to join him at Styles to help him catch one last murder.  "X" has killed - not directly, but insidiously, through other people - at least five times, and Poirot believes X both will kill again and is currently staying at Styles.  Hastings job is to stop X.  Needless to say, Hastings not only does not identify X but also becomes unwittingly enmeshed with X's plot.  It's up to Poirot to solve the mystery and serve justice of a sort.  As in Murder on the Orient Express, the solution may be more "just" than "right," only this time, the instrument of justice also dies before the final page.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Reading Agatha Christie is like opening a time capsule.  Every time I open one of my old, slightly battered, paperbacks, I walk into a flood of memories.  Cover prices usually under $5, stamps from long-gone used book stores, out-of-fashion cover art, inserts, and odd bits I apparently used as bookmarks bring me back to my teens and early 20s.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles is one of the Christies I bought new, so there's no Book Swap mark, and it's about as unworn as a 30-year-old paperback can be after multiple readings.   I did find a card from a United Jersey MAC machine, so I must have last read this when I lived near Princeton - and then I remembered my plan to read all of Christie's books in order (I got up to Murder on the Links before, well, I don't know why I dropped that plan).  It's a Bantam paperback - for some reason, they published a handful of the titles which Pocket didn't - and looking at the cover art, I remember reading Christie's last-written book, Postern of Fate, and thinking something didn't add up. 

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a time capsule in another sense as well.  It's Christie's first novel, published in 1920 and set during World War I.  While on sick leave after being injured on the front, Captain Hastings runs in to an old friend, Lawrence Cavindish, who invites him to stay with him at his stepmother's estate.  A country estate owned by a widow recently remarried to an unsuitable man, what could possibly go wrong?  The characters may have been surprised when Lawrence's stepmother died, apparently poisoned by her evening coffee, but readers expect it.  We also expect that everyone - her husband, her stepsons, her secretary, her daughter-in-law, and her "poor relation" (who works in a hospital dispensary) - has a motive and opportunity.  Only Captain Hastings and a Belgian refugee of his acquaintance (Hercule Poirot, of course) escape suspicion, and they solve the case.

What struck me on this reading was how although this was Christie's first novel, her formula was clearly set.  Hastings bumbles through the case, the innocent cast suspicion upon themselves while covering up lesser secrets, and the evidence clearly supports the surprise ending.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles feels like the work of a long established writer, hinting at Dame Agatha's enduring career.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Templar, The Queen, and Her Lover

I used to love Michael Jecks's mysteries featuring Sir Baldwin de Furnshill.  I don't anymore.  I still enjoy the scenes between Baldwin and his friend Simon Puttock, but they no longer solve mysteries I care about.  Baldwin is not a political creature - please send him back to Devon, Mr. Jecks.  I'm sure you can create some local murders for him to solve.

Edward II released his wife from house arrest in 1325, and made her his envoy in negotiations with her brother, Phillip IV of France.  Isabella's entourage includes musicians (who've been blackmailed into making the trip), spies (both for and against the Queen), knights, ladies-in-waiting, and an unwilling Sir Baldwin.  Someone drowns one of the musicians in a gutter before the group set out, then someone stabs one of the knights with Baldwin's knife.  This happened about 100 pages into the book, and it's about where I lost track and lost interest.  I'm still not sure who committed either murder, or how they tied into Isabella's diplomatic mission or her affair with Roger Mortimer.  Jecks overcomplicated The Templar, The Queen, and Her Lover with too many bland characters, too many POV and setting changes, and too many disparate threads.  I have two or three more of his books on my shelf, and I will read them.  After that?   I don't know.  I feel like I've invested too much in this series to give up (literally - I've gotten most of the books from amazon.co.uk), but that's also why buying the next book in the series is, literally, a bit of an investment.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Witch in the Well

And now, the chanson is complete.

I've read a lot of final installments.  Some don't feel final, and other series seem to limp to the end of the author's contract and bear the mark of a creator bored with his or her creation.  The Witch in the Well falls into neither category.  I assumed it was the final chapter in Catherine LeVendeur's saga because Sharan Newman has moved on to other series, but it doesn't read like a conclusion...and yet it does.

Catherine and her children are spending the summer at her brother's castle when they receive a summons.  All their grandfather's descendants must return to their ancestral home to fulfill a prophesy and save the castle's well.  Everyone includes Catherine's sister Agnes, who married a German man, and their mother, Madeline, who broke with reality several years before and has been living in the Paraclete convent and has been escorted to Boisvert by Edgar's younger half-sister Margaret, as well as Catherine, Edgar,  Guillaume, Marie, and both couples' children.

They arrive at Boisvert after a strange encounter with an old woman who was trampled by one of their horses, and then disappears as if by magic.  Things get stranger when they meet their cousins.  There are no children and people seem unable to die.  That is, until one of Catherine stumbles across the body of one of her cousins, apparently stabbed to death by Madeline.  Madeline disappears soon afterwards, and all assume that she drowned herself in the drying well.  While Catherine tries to solve the prophesy, the castle prepares for a siege and tries to discover the traitor in their midst.

Newman's solution ties both plot threads together nicely, covering the mysticism with a layer of rational cause and effect, but more importantly, she brought the LeVendeur family saga to a happy ending.  Catherine and Agnes still bicker like children, but they love and appreciate each other.  All three siblings and their spouses work well together and love each other through the occasional exasperations of family life.  The ending for high-born Margaret and Catherine's cousin Solomon is more bittersweet, but delicately written and the best the characters can expect.  The Witch in the Well is a good mystery, bookended by scenes from an affectionate family's ordinary life.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Sometimes I'll read a classic that I admire more than I like.  The Postman Always Rings Twice falls into this category.  It landed on several "Best Novels of the Century" or "Essentials" lists, and I understand why.  It just left me cold.  Perhaps it's the coldness of the characters, but the casual anti-everyone language (which was true to the era) may be part of it as well.

We view the appropriately sordid events that unfurl around a Southern California road stop through the unreliable eyes of Frank Chambers.  He's a drifter who finds a job at Nick Papadakis's diner and begins an affair with Nick's wife Cora.  She's a Midwest beauty pageant winner who came to California for a screen test and instead of being "discovered," discovered that she had no talent or screen presence.  Frank and Cora plot to kill Frank, fail in their first attempt and then succeed.  It's a steamy, brutal book, with an unexpected twist.

So why didn't I like it?  I don't need nice or sympathetic characters, but Frank, Nick, and Cora are tissue-thin.  I don't usually mind brutality, but there was a sexual tinge to the violence that made me uncomfortable, and the blatantly prejudiced language seemed extreme, even for a 1940s pulp novel.  Maybe I was also comparing it to Mildred Pierce, Cain's non-genre novel which I found so compelling.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

City of Sin: London and Its Vices

London, City of Sin
London, the place we grew up in
Just one great big loony bin
London!
                  - Opening song of "Elephant!" in The Tall Guy

I thought of The Tall Guy as I read City of Sin: London and Its Vices.  The third book in Catherine Arnold's trilogy is more entertaining than the first two installments due to some strategic name-dropping, but in the end it didn't make much of an impression.  A historical assay of adultery, prostitution, and pornography, sprinkled with tales of well-known sex scandals, it's not boring, but it's not deep either.  Very little of it seemed new and fresh, but then again, that's why they refer to prostitution as the oldest profession.  More diverting than its predecessors, City of Sin is only slightly less ephemeral.

Strip Jack

Inspector John Rebus may be congenitally incapable of happiness.  Either that, or he's incredibly unlucky.  His new relationship seems to be failing from the start, he's a pawn in the battle between his alcoholic boss and the man who wants to replace him, and he's dealing with three totally unrelated crimes (a politician named Gregor Jack caught in a prostitution sting, stolen rare books, and a homeless murder suspect who's disappeared).  Normally, I'd consider it too coincidental for these three threads to tie together, but Ian Rankin manages to combine them cleanly, and with a murder - that of Jack's wife.  As Rebus investigated her wealthy, fast-lane friends and Jack's "old gang," it becomes clear that Jack has been betrayed and doesn't know it.  The final scenes, with the murderer holding Jack hostage before being chased through a wooded area during a thunderstorm are a bit contrived, but somehow the book held together for me.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

My parents bought a VCR when I was in 7th grade.  My mom taped shows from PBS to use in class; I became a serious movie fan, not only watching movies but reading reviews and thinking critically about cinematography, costumes, and the technical aspects of filmmaking.  The first movie I remember wanting to see for reasons other than the plot or the star was Tess, but it was rated R and I was 12.  By the time I was old enough to see it, the movie had fallen into the good-but-not-classic category that doesn't get shown very often, so I still haven't seen it.  It also took me 30 years and Ravelry's Classic Literature group to get around to reading the book.

Hardy heroines do not have an easy life, and Tess Durbeyfield suffers more than any character I've met in quite a while.  When her father is too hung over to drive the family's beehives to market, Tess goes in his place.  She falls asleep, so she doesn't see the oncoming mail carriage which runs her off the road and kills the family's donkey.  Her parents then convince her to ingratiate herself with noble alleged cousins, and after being hired to look after the noble "relatives'" poultry, she's seduced or raped by Alec d'Urbeville, returns home, and gives birth to a son who dies before she can give him a name.  Eventually, she becomes a milkmaid and falls in love with Angel Clare, a minister's son who apprenticed himself to the dairy farm so that he could learn the trade before emigrating.  On her wedding night, she tells Angel her history, thinking that he'll understand because he's just admitted to a sexual encounter of his own.  Instead he rejects her, leaving her essentially alone while he explores the possibility of farming in Brazil.  Tess finds work on a turnip farm and once again encounters Alec, now a fire-and-brimstone preacher who recognizes her and repeatedly tries to seduce her, while simultaneously blaming her for his loss of faith.  She resists, but after her father dies and her family is homeless and trying to sleep in a churchyard, he "rescues" her.  Of course, this is when Angel returns from Brazil, frail after a long illness but willing to forgive his wife.  He finds her in a resort town, living as Angel's mistress.  She tells him to leave, but runs after him - because she's murdered Alec.  They wander across the countryside, consummating their marriage in an abandoned manor house, and the authorities catch up with them as she sleeps on an alter at Stonehenge.

It's depressing and frustrating (particularly when you consider that Hardy was criticized for being too sympathetic towards Tess), but beautifully written.  There's a bit of a cognitive disconnect between Tess's hard life and the vivid descriptions of her beauty and the picturesque countryside.  I don't usually like Victorian novels - they're too florid and moralistic.  Hardy found the right balance in his prose and by keeping the ending depressing, avoided the moralistic uplift I too often encounter in the novels of that era.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sad Cypress

Back when I started buying Agatha Christie novels, I wonder if I tended to buy those I wanted to read immediately new and "filled in the gaps" at The Book Swap.  I've read a few of the bought used volumes multiple times, but when I pick up a never-read Christie, it's almost always one I bought used. My copy of Sad Cypress was twice-used - not only is there a stamp from The Book Swap, but also one from used book store in Muncie.  The book itself is a bit of a time capsule.  Not only is there a somewhat lurid cover (with a syringe, a tea cup, and blood stained finger sandwiches next to a medical bag with a knife and a rose poking out), but there are cigarette ads between pages 112 and 113 (and evidence of torn-out ads between pages 136 and 137).  Clearly, this book was printed to be displayed on a drugstore rack, back in the days before big box stores and when places like Clover (which was kind of like Target, only smaller and local to the Philadelphia area) had tiny book sections with an odd array which may or may not include best sellers.

Sad Cypress doesn't feel like a typical Christie, and I was surprised when I saw that it was written during her peak years.  It's a "murder in retrospect" but not quite, and a Poirot novel in which the detective doesn't appear until late in the book.  Christie starts the book during the accused's murder trial.    Elinor Carlistle pleads not guilty to the murder of Mary Gerrard, her rival for the affection of her cousin-by-marriage whom their recently deceased wealthy Aunt Laura Welman had always assumed she'd marry.  Mary was the daughter of the aunt's steward, not quite a lady but educated above her class thanks to Mrs. Welman.  When Mrs. Welman dies intestate, her estate goes to Elinor, who breaks her engagement to Roddy Welman and gives L2,000 to Mary who intends to take a massage course.  Then Mary dies after eating sandwiches prepared by Elinor, so the combination of flimsy motive and strong opportunity put Mary on trial.   The local doctor, who'd been in love with Elinor, hires Hercule Poirot to exonerate her - whether she's innocent or not.  Well, since this is a Christie novel, of course she's innocent, and the real murderer is someone whom I'd never suspect.  Christie plays a bit with the structure, melding a straightforward courtroom drama with a cozy village murder mystery, and I enjoyed it.  I'm sorry I didn't read it 28 or 30 years ago, when I first bought my twice-used copy.

Vile Bodies

My parents were pretty laid back about my education, except when I got my summer reading list for 11th grade.  We ended up not discussing it (because it had apparently been chosen by Sr. Maureen Christi - the department head - over the objections of my 11th grade teacher), but the third book on the list was Vile Bodies.  I'd never seen my parents so thrilled by anything I'd done in school.  Every time I picked it up, they rhapsodized about Evelyn Waugh and referenced his other novels.  I went through a Waugh phase myself in the early 90s, so I understand, and lobbied for Vile Bodies whenever Ravelry's Classic Literature group voted for our next read-a-long, particularly after reading Bright Young People.


It's been more than 20 years since I've read Vile Bodies, and while I wasn't disappointed, it wasn't quite as interesting as I thought it would be.  More a series of vignettes than an actual  novel, it follows Adam Fenwick-Symes through a series of financial windfalls and disasters (and corresponding engagements and breakups with Nina Blount).  They're actually a bit bland, but their story provides a framework on which to hang the stories of American evangelist Mrs. Melrose Ape (who's actually a madam) and her "angels" (who perform for wealthy and willing gentlemen), Nina's cinema-obsessed and apparently senile father, disreputable hotel owner Lottie Crump, tragic party-girl Agatha Runcible, and various caricatures of the nobility, the press, and the Smart Set.  Extremely amusing, but ultimately lightweight, it's a one-sitting book to be enjoyed but perhaps not analyzed.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Tears of Pearl

Genre fiction doesn't get enough respect.  While we've all come across mysteries, romances, and fantasies which weren't good novels but "ticked the boxes," more often the authors write good books within the limitations of the genre.  When an author only succeeds on one front, I prefer that the result be a good novel with a fair mystery than the other way around.  Tears of Pearl is an enjoyable novel, but not much of a mystery.

Lady Emily and Colin Hargraves have eloped and endured a month-long visit with her parents.  En route to Constantinople on the Orient Express, they meet Sir Richard Clare, a diplomat who makes an impression on them by losing important papers and then taking an accidental overdose of chloral hydrate during dinner.  Since this is a mystery, there must be a body and Emily stumbles across one after attending an opera at the Sultan's castle.  The dead woman was one of the Sultan's concubines - and also Sir Richard's long lost daughter, and (as usually happens in mysteries), one death leads to another.  As Colin investigates through diplomatic channels, Emily gets permission to play sleuth in the harem, solving the mystery as she walks in the footsteps of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

I found the mystery rather unsatisfying - I figured out the killer's identity about 40 pages too early, and the motive seemed far-fetched.  Lady Emily, though, is a wonderful character - adventuress, autodidact, fashion plate, devoted friend, and madly in love with a man who loves her even more.  She's someone I'd like to be, and Tears of Pearl succeeds as a romance and a travelogue through late-19th Century Constantinople.  I guess it's best described as an upper-level beach book - well-written but escapist - in which there just happens to be a crime.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Notorious Nineteen

Janet Evanovich still makes me laugh, but she's in a rut.  Sometimes it feels like she's started writing her Stephanie Plum novels with a checklist.  Grandma Mazur talks about her (desire for a) sex life?  Check.   Car death?  Check.  Proposition from Ranger?  Check.  Family dinner (during which Steph's mom chugs "iced tea")?  Check.  Bob the dog?  Check.  Appearance by one or more colorful recurring characters?  Check (in the person of Randy Briggs, little person and IT-guy-turned-security-guard).  Outrageous outfits on Grandma Mazur and/or Lula?  You had to ask?

Notorious Nineteen ticks off all the boxes, and arrays them around a reasonable mystery.  Geoffrey Cubbin disappeared from a local hospital after an emergency appendectomy, but before his court date.  He'd embezzled from the retirement community he ran, and since her cousin Vinnie bonded him out, Stephanie has to find him, dead or alive.  It turns out that Cubbin isn't the first person to disappear from Central Hospital in the past few months, and one of the nurses on duty seems to be living far above her income.  It's a pretty well-constructed plot, but it's also about 75 pages short of a novel, so Evanovich pads it out with a homeless man trying to retrieve his magic statue from Uncle Sandor's Buick and/or Steph's apartment and Ranger's friend's wedding - in which Steph has somehow ended up as a bridesmaid.  It's Jersey, so I don't have to tell you the dress is...unique.  These subplots collide with only a tiny bit more coincidence than I like, and Grandma Mazur's costume when she goes undercover at the retirement home is a classic, but the series hasn't managed to combine the kind of humor that makes it a bad idea to read the book in public with a tight plot since about 9 or 10.  Evanovich now writes several series.  Perhaps it's time for her to slow down a bit so she can string together the set pieces with a little more plot.  Then again, I'll keep reading the Plum mysteries because they still make me laugh out loud.

Wobble to Death

Professional sports started oddly - a mix of mill teams with "ringers" and individual competitions set up for the benefit of gamblers.  Wobble to Death takes place at a wobble - a week-long footrace, with a belt and 500 pounds going to the man who walks and runs the most laps without collapsing.  The race starts out well, with the two favorites - Captain Chadwick and Charles Darnell - circling a shorter, inner track, away from the elbows of the pack of also rans, but on Tuesday, Darnell collapses and dies.  Was it tetanus (from walking barefoot with blistered feet)?  Just bad luck?  Or was he murdered?

Well, this is a mystery novel so of course he was murdered - but by whom?  Sergeant Cribb has a few suspects, including a threatened champ, an unfaithful wife, a crooked promoter, a "doctor"/competitor, and a drunken manager.  Lovesey's mystery is neatly crafted, but a bit too lightweight to last.  Like The Detective Wore Silk Drawers, I enjoyed it more for the glimpse into Victorian sports than for the enjoyable but essentially forgettable mystery.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks

I started reading Ben Goldacre's columns in The Guardian a few weeks before he suspended it to write his second book.  I decided to look for his first book, and promptly forgot until I saw the last few minutes of a talk Goldacre gave promoting Bad Pharma.  Since I'm still on the Book Diet, I took Bad Science out of the library, which was probably a wise decision.  I really enjoyed this book, but I'm also unlikely to read it again.

Goldacre is an Oxford-educated doctor, so his writing focuses on health-related topics.  He has an engaging style, and after a few pedantic (and by his own admission condescending) background chapters, he alternates between exposing "treatments" with no scientific support and more nuanced articles which explain how fairly simple statistical principles and concepts like confirmation bias lead us to believe lies wrapped up in technobabble.

Some of Goldacre's targets, like homeopathy, Brain Gym (a set of breathing and self-massage exercises that allegedly improves brain function - who falls for this?), and 'scientific' makeup get off fairly lightly.  They're mostly harmless, usually damaging only the consumer's checking account.  He's much harsher on targets whom he believes have done real harm.  Vitamin pusher Matthais Rath claimed that HIV does not cause AIDS and, by encouraging South Africans to give up antiretroviral drugs in favor of his supplements, probably caused tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of excess transmissions.  This truly horrifying chapter did not appear in the original edition of Bad Science because Rath sued Goldacre and The Guardian; in a just world, the survivors of those who died after exchanging HIV drugs for useless pills would sue him for wrongful death.  He rightfully faults Andrew Wakefield for the MMR scare which returned deadly but preventable diseases to endemic status in the United Kingdom, but he also blames the gullible and lazy science press and the Blairs for fanning the "controversy."

Nutritionists seem to fall between the two poles.  I don't see how they're as harmful to their 'patients' as charlatans like Rath and Wakefield, but he treats them much more harshly than homeopaths and cosmetics companies.  I think he's offended by the abuse of science - most of his examples feature Gillian McKeath, host of You Are What You Eat.  McKeath took something sensible (and not particularly marketable) - eat smaller portions, focus on greens and grains, and get some exercise - and wrapped it in pseudo-scientific explanations that would leave a scientifically-inclinded high school student giggling uncontrollably.  Instead of saying that darker greens have high levels of phytochemicals, she says they "oxygenate the blood" because they "have so much chlorophyll."  Seriously?  As Goldacre points out, you have no light in your large intestine, and even if you did, you have no gills with which to absorb oxygen.  McKeath and her ilk are just making it up and they don't care that they are.  That deeply offends Goldacre.

As I said above, I enjoyed Bad Science, but he didn't cover anything new to me.  I've got a science degree and have spent the past decade doing document review for large pharmaceutical litigations.  Bad Science was confirmation bias - it told me what I already knew, and gave me a chance to shake my head at the gullibility of my species.  I'll read his new book and his columns, but I won't regret returning this volume to the library.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Earth Moves: Galileo and the Roman Inquisition

In November, I handed my mom a Daedalus Books catalog with circled "suggestions" for Christmas.  All of them enforced my Pale and Geeky reputation, and one of them was The Earth Moves.  I probably should have skipped it.  I don't regret reading it, but Dan Hofstader's writing style is a bit dry and the book made very little impression on me.  Other than learning that the inquisitorial court was closer to modern appellate court than trial court and that Galileo didn't actually confirm Copernicus's theory (he merely said that there was evidence to support it), I didn't learn much.  Perhaps it just wasn't a good commute book, being neither lightweight enough to enjoy in short bursts nor engrossing enough to stay in my mind as I walked across the platform.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Shakespeare’s England


Our image of an era mutates over time.  There’s a meme about how teenagers dressed in the 80s (a screenshot from The Breakfast Club) and how sorority girls think teenagers dressed in the 80s (all neon, legwarmers, torn necklines/boatnecks and giant hair – as if the fashions of my junior high, high school, and college years were compressed into one horrendous image).  400 years on, we think of Shakespeare’s era as it’s portrayed in his plays, portrayals which in some cases have ossified into works more Serious than entertaining.  Shakespeare’s England uses contemporary documents – diaries, reports, guidebooks, plays, and poems – to give a more accurate view of what life was really like.  Elizabethan and Jacobean England was in transition.  The former backwater became a world power under Gloriana, and the Renaissance was soon to give birth to the Enlightenment and an explosion of scientific discovery.  The urban merchant  middle-class began to rise, although it had not yet eclipsed the agrarian feudal society and would not for a few hundred years.  Shakespeare’s England shows that transition.  It’s interesting and informative, but, like most surveys, doesn’t quite grab the reader.  It’s not exactly disjointed, but it doesn’t flow from chapter to chapter either.  Shakespeare’s England is best used as a reference.  Read it, file away a few facts, and then keep it on your shelf  to look up or confirm something  a few months down the road.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1985.  I remember reading the final chapters while sprawled across a chair in the entrance of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, after taking achievement tests in Math and American History and while waiting for my mother to come out of a lecture.  With that in mind, the cryptic message (a Boston phone number with "ask for Maria N.B. overnight") must refer to my application to MIT.  It's strange that I can remember so much about when and where I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but can only remember the identity of the murderer and how he did it and nothing else about the book.  Well, not quite nothing - I did remember Hercule Poirot hurling a vegetable marrow at Dr. Sheppard.

Dr. Sheppard narrates the mystery, and it's typical Christie.  A rich man invites his sister-in-law and her daughter, a gruff house guest, and Dr. Sheppard to dinner and confides in the doctor that he's being blackmailed.  A few hours later, Dr. Sheppard receives a phone call - Roger Ackroyd is dead.  He returns to the house and discovers Ackroyd's dead body behind a locked door.  Ralph, Ackroyd's stepson and heir is the logical suspect, but Flora (Ackroyd's niece and Ralph's fiancĂ©e), Ackroyd's butler, the housemaid, and a mysterious stranger all have motives or opportunity.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd made Christie's reputation.  Her first six books were generally successful, but this one made her part of the mystery cannon.  It's good, but for some reason it didn't grab me the way some of her other (often lesser) books do.  What interested me most was the possible confirmation of a theory.  A year or so after I started reading Jane Austen, I decided that Christie's debutants, fortune hunters, and widows living in genteel poverty could trace their linage back to Meryton and Bath.  The Murder of Roger Ackroyd features a semi-hysterical widow obsessed with her daughter's marriage prospects, and an unseen but frequently discussed character named Mrs. Ferrars.  Coincidence?  I don't think so.

The Green Man

I've read a number of disappointing mysteries over the past few years.  A few of my favorite series hit lulls (or I reached the lesser installments), but I could rely on Kate Sedley to provide me with a crisply written puzzle which I could solve (but not too easily).  The Green Man isn't a bad book, but it doesn't live up to Sedley's prior books.

England is suffering from famine and turmoil during the summer of 1482 when Timothy Plummer (spymaster to Richard, Duke of Gloucester) arrives in Bristol with a mission for Roger Chapman.  Guard Alexander, Duke of Albany and prospective heir to the Scottish throne during a military campaign against the Scots.  Albany believes that someone is out to kill him, possibly someone close, and he believes that Roger's presence will save his life.  Roger reluctantly leaves Adela and their children and shadows Albany as someone apparently makes several attempts on his life.  Someone who usually disguises himself as the mythical Green Man.

I've complained about subplots in the past, but for me at least, the subplot to The Green Man, a murder charge against Rab Sinclair, one of Albany's closest friends, was more satisfying than the somewhat convoluted question of the threats against the Duke.  Perhaps it's because I'm less well-versed in the history of the English Monarchy (the years between Edward II and Henry VIII, particularly the Wars of the Roses, confuse me) than her average reader, but I just couldn't get a handle on the political implications.  It may be, though that Roger is more at home solving crimes in Bristol or in one of the settlements where he sells his wares.  There, as in the subplot, Roger merely has to discover and interpret the fact, and uncovering a simple lie (as happens in the Sinclair case) unravels the mystery.  Political intrigue is murkier and less easily solved.  Roger began his detecting career in the service of Duke Richard, but Sedley should probably keep him away from politics in the future. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Einstein's Refrigerator

I started this blog when I joined a 52 Books in 52 Weeks group on Ravelry.  25 years ago, I decided I was reading too many 'books without words' (as my parents called my science and engineering textbooks) and started keeping a list of the 'books with words' I read, with a goal of reading at least 52 each year.  I read at least 60-70 (and sometimes more than 90) every year I wasn't a student until 2003.  That's when I started my current 50+ hour job, but I managed to keep my total over 52 until I bought my house and shortened my train ride by 8-10 minutes each way.  That doesn't sound like a lot, but (assuming I read during 3/4 of my train rides), it's well over an hour a week and perhaps 8-10 books per year.  More than that, it affects what I can read on my commute.  A few years ago, I tried reading The Brothers Karamazov, but by the time I got the names straight and read three or four pages, it was time to get off.   19 minutes from platform to platform is maybe 12-14 minutes of reading time, not always enough time to lose myself in a novel or to contemplate a more serious piece of non-fiction so I've started choosing less challenging books as "commute books."

Einstein's Refrigerator is the perfect commute book.  I bought it on my last trip to Daedalus because it looked interesting, and it was interesting in a completely non-challenging way.  It's a collection of blog entries by a high school teacher who's interested in the odder points of history.  Some of his essays covered familiar territory - I remember when Larry Walters took flight in his lawn chair and when Hedy Lamar's contribution radar technology became public, and Steve Silverman read the same book about the history of the zipper that I did (the few regular readers of this blog should know that I have odd tastes in non-fiction).  Others, like the titular refrigerator (designed to keep food cold but ultimately used for scientific purposes) and the day Niagara Falls ran dry were completely new to me.  Ultimately, though, the book is amusing but disposable.  It's not something I'd even consider reading again, but I recommend it to anyone who likes the side alleys of history.  If this appeals to you, tell me - I'll give you my copy.

The Daughter of Time

I'd never heard of The Daughter of Time and always known it existed.  I know that doesn't make sense, but it's perhaps the first well-known book in my preferred sub-genre but until a few months ago, I knew nothing about it.  And yet...when others would mention it, something felt familiar.  Deja novel, I guess.

Inspector Alan Grant broke his leg while chasing a subject.  Not while making a grand leap to arrest the  fleeing felon, but by ignominiously falling into a hole.  Confined to a hospital bed and bored out of his skull, he tries to amuse himself with the pictures of historical figures which his friend, Marta Hallard has brought him.  He fixes on the portrait of Richard III who appears tortured to his eyes, rather than the historical monster of history textbooks.  He decides to read up on Richard, and finds that most of the "contemporary" histories aren't, but were written by Tudor courtiers.  With an adrift American doing the legwork, Grant discovers that Richard didn't have the motive, and may not have had the means to kill the Princes in the Tower, but another man *did*.  I won't name Tey's historical culprit here, but I will say that it makes sense to me.  As Sr. Maureen Christi told us in 9th grade, Shakespeare knew how to flatter his patrons.  Richard III may very well have been a victim of the playwright's lasting popularity.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Cloud Pavilion

Series authors sometimes get bored with their characters and decide to retire some of them and introduce replacements.  Fourteen books into her Sano Ichiro series, I think Laura Joh Rowland has reached that point.  Sano's fortunes have risen and fallen since he was plucked from the police force to serve Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, but The Cloud Pavilion feels like it's signaling a wider transition. 

A few years ago, I declared "the year of the subplot" - a comment on the number of (often poorly integrated) subplots the mystery series authors I read fell compelled to include.  Perhaps it was because their publishers required manuscripts of a certain length, but most of those novels would have benefited from either excising the subplot or adding 30 pages to better integrate them into the story.  In The Cloud Pavilion, Laura Joh Rowland gets it right.  

Several months after Yanigasawa's return from exile, Sano shares the position of Chamberlain with his old rival, warily expecting to be attacked when his uncle introduces himself.  Sano's mother's family had cast her off after a scandal; now, after his sister's rehabilitation, Major Kumazawa reluctantly asks his nephew for help.  Someone kidnapped Kumazawa's daughter Chiyo, and as Sano investigates he learns that a Buddhist nun and a gangster's teenage daughter have also disappeared under similar circumstances.  Sano finds the missing women and with the assistance of both his wife Reiko (who's better suited to questioning the emotionally and physically battered women) and his second-in-command Hirata, solves the thickly plotted but relatively straightforward crime.  He also uncovers Yanigasawa's plot with the help of an unexpected spy and manages to make peace with his estranged relatives, but at a social cost.  Because the ending ties the solution to the mystery and what I think is Rowland's new array of characters, I feel like I can't describe the latter without spoiling the former.  I'll just say that the political landscape of the Shogun's palace has become even more treacherous.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Vein of Deceit

Most of my friends read fantasy and science fiction, but those genres don't interest me.  Give me a suspicious death and some financial shenanigans any day.  That's exactly what Susannah Gregory gives us in A Vein of Deceit - a Sara Paretsky style mystery set in 14th Century Cambridge.

Michaelhouse College, while never prosperous, has at least been able to remain financially stable.  That has changed in 1357, leaving physician Matthew Bartholomew, theologian and university official Brother Michael, and college Master Ralph de Langelee to contend with oversubscribed classes, overcrowded quarters, and abominable food.  One evening, Langelee asks Matthew to look over the college's accounts to confirm that Brother Wynewyk has apparently embezzled from the college.  He apparently has, but before Langelee can confront him, Wynewyk literally dies laughing.  Did he have some sort of seizure, or could he have been poisoned?  Matthew's grief at his friend's death is compounded by his inability to determine a cause of death and the evidence of his financial duplicity.

Wynewyk's shady dealings center on two nearby settlements, so Matthew, Michael, and Matthew's three students travel to those towns in an attempt to recover some of their missing money.  They don't, but they do stumble into a murder and find their lives endangered when they explore an alleged coal mine.  They also come across information that lends credence to Matt's sister's theory that her friend, who recently bled to death during a pennyroyal-induced miscarriage, may have actually been murdered.

Gregory does a good job of hiding the solution under layers of town/gown conflict, squabbling medical students, inter-college competition, and the unintentionally hilarious actions of Master Langelee.  This is the fifteenth book in Gregory's Matthew Bartholemew series, and possibly the best.  They do not need to be read in order, but there is a minor subplot which requires backstory knowledge to fully appreciate.