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.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Bright Young People

The Kardashians are not original.  Before they infected our tabloids there were Studio 54 denizens who were famous by proxy and before that fur-and-diamond wearing socialites and social climbers.  Even they weren't the first superstars who were famous for being famous. Nearly 100 years ago, British newspapers breathlessly followed the exploits - real and imagined - of the Bright Young People.  A strange mix of the titled, the noveau riche, and pretenders to both titles, they flitted from party to manor house to elaborate practical joke, entrancing the public and (in some cases) horrifying staid parents.  DJ Taylor engagingly catalogs the parties and scandals, but was perhaps a bit too even-handed in applying attention to the range of characters.  Perhaps that's because Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell were on the edge of the group, and the Mitford sisters (save Diana) were too young to fully participate in the social whirl.  Elizabeth Ponsoby and Brenda Dean Paul, on the other hand, staggered from party to scandal to salacious exploit, and they feature more prominently in Taylor's book than the truly accomplished members of their generation.  In a way it's comforting to see how prominent they were and contrast that with how obscure they now are.  It gives me hope that in a dozen years or so, the "reality" TV starlets who infect the magazine covers I see while buying groceries will have faded in to blessed obscurity.