Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Hidden Brain

We function on autopilot.  Our brains have to take in and analyze so much that if we we had to think about everything, we'd be paralyzed.  Imagine having to think about how to walk, how to drive a car, how to act in a social situation.  In those situations, the Hidden Brain takes over, and the effects are much more consequential than we think.

Shankar Vedantam uses a series of news stories and individual narratives to illustrate studies showing how autopilot affects us on both a small and large scale.  It affects our choice of partner (and how we see ourselves in that relationship), whether we'll survive a disaster, the accuracy of a witness's identification of an alleged criminal, how access to guns increases the chance of suicide, and who we'll vote for in a presidential election.  He also explains how our hidden brains, programmed to stick to the average/normal situation, both cause discrimination and make it harder to stamp out.  That helps explain why what I thought of a critical mass of women studying computer science when I was an engineering undergrad in the late 80s/early 90s turned out to be a peak - pop culture showed almost exclusively male geeks, so 13-year-old girls in 1992 who wanted to become engineers received more, not fewer, raised eyebrows than I did in 1982, and why I Look Like an Engineer is important.


I think I'll put the Sergeant Cribb mysteries into the "commute book" category.  They're light, entertaining, but not too taxing at 7 am or so engrossing that they can't be put down when I pull into the station after 20 minutes.  Abracadaver fits the mold - an entertaining trip backstage at Victorian music halls where performers' careers are being murdered by sabotage.  Sergeant Cribb decides to investigate so he and Constable Thackery are watching from a box when the strongman's bulldog attacks him.  They help him to his rented room, only to disappear the following day.  They find him, along with the other disgraced performers, preparing for their return to the stage in an 'after hours' show for the elite; a show which ends in death.  Cribb eventually solves the crime, and I found both the identity and motive of the murderer unlikely.  I still enjoyed Abracadaver for the same reasons I enjoyed the previous installments in the series.  Peter Lovesy amusingly depicts a segment of the Victorian entertainment world.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Young Victoria

When Princess Charlotte died hours after giving birth to a stillborn son, George III, father of eleven, had no legitimate grandchildren.  Since Charlotte was the unlikely result of the single night her mutually repulsive and repulsed parents spent together and the king's surviving daughters were in their 40s and 50s, it fell to the king's sons to renounce their mistresses, find wives, and save the kingdom.

Edward, Duke of Kent won the race.  He married his niece's widower's widowed sister (European family trees didn't branch much) and died eight months after the birth of their daughter Alexandrina Victoria.  It wasn't a promising start for the woman who would eventually rule half the world.  The Duchess of Kent was an avaricious, controlling woman who slept in the same room as her daughter, insisted on reading all of the princess's diaries and correspondence, and fell in with an even more manipulative courtier, John Conroy.  Victoria later described her childhood as dull and unhappy, and despite being the heir presumptive to the throne she spent most of those years isolated and desultorily educated, with only her governess able to act as companion or confidant.  As she approached 18, Conroy and her mother tried to force her to sign a document postponing her majority until age 21 and therefore allowing them to act as regents.  When that failed, they began to spread rumors that Victoria was not mentally capable of ruling.  That failed as well, and when William IV died shortly after Victoria's 18th birthday, she began what was to be a 64 year reign.  Her first act as queen was to banish her mother from her bedroom.

Plowden does a good job of describing the dull and surprisingly vulgar world that shaped the woman who loaned her name to prudishness.  George III's sons made Randy Andy and Bad Boy Harry look like a amateurs (just imagine what modern tabloids would have done with the dozen FitzClarences), but his granddaughter became associated with families covering furniture legs to avoid scandal.  I'd read that Victoria wasn't the prude, it was Albert and she fell under his spell.  That's probably true to some extent, but even her happy marriage was influenced by her mother.  Even as a Queen Regnant, as a single woman she couldn't attend functions without a chaperone of appropriate social rank.  Since the only person of rank was her despised mother, she married her cousin Albert rather sooner than initial planned.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present

No one objects to my wearing trousers.

That sounds silly, doesn't it?  But in 1960, Lois Rabinowitz tried to pay her husband's parking ticket while wearing slacks and the judge threw her out of the courtroom.  The judge later lectured Mr. Rabinowitz on what he should do to control his wife.  55 years ago, in a world we'd mostly recognize, and a woman couldn't wear pants to traffic court.  It's a small victory, but I think that's why Gail Collins chose to open When Everything Changed with that story.  We've made great (although not complete) advances in women's place in society, but some of the "little things" have major day-to-day impact.

From 1960, Collins travels to 2008, blending oral and traditional history to illustrate how American women fought against discrimination within the Civil Rights movement, earned the right to have unchaperoned (and co-ed) dorms, made inroads into professions other than teaching and nursing, forced and dealt with changing standards of beauty and fashion, became able to hold credit in their own names, died for their country, and pushed towards more a equal division of home duties and codified family support.  Collins's tone is a bit more serious than in her New York Times columns, but still very enjoyable, and she allows both famous and ordinary women to tell their own stories.  It's definitely worth reading (although because of its structure, hard to review).

Friday, November 6, 2015

Captive Queen

I have no illusions about Henry II's and Eleanor of Aquitaine's ruthlessness.  They were both brilliant and ruthless politicians.  What I can't imagine was that either one of them was petty.  Sure, they'd stab you (or each other) in the back, but for grander reasons than Alison Weir presents in Captive Queen.  Weir begins this, her third novel at the ceremony where Eleanor's husband Louis VII of France recognizes Henry's father Geoffrey as Duke of Normandy.  Their attraction is overpowering and Eleanor soon convinces Louis to ask for an annulment.  Eleanor and Henry marry and initial form a strong political partnership, but that disintegrates as he forms a close friendship with Thomas Becket.   As their marriage disintegrates, Eleanor and Henry both manipulate their children (who need little prompting) to view the other parent as an enemy.  Eventually, Henry imprisons Eleanor for her role in their sons' revolt and spends sixteen years as a prisoner.

We all know the story, through both fact and fiction, so it's the presentation that counts.  The Lion in Winter portrays the two as brilliant sparring partners enduring  a family Christmas.  Sharon Kay Penman's Plantagent books use 1300 pages and shifting narrators (including all four of their surviving sons, one daughter-in-law, and several advisors both real and fictional) to paint a more nuanced picture of Henry and Eleanor than Alison Weir has managed here.  Alison Weir is one of my favorite non-mystery writers, and I enjoyed Captive Queen, just not as much as the author's prior work and other books on the subject,  Maybe it's because Eleanor and Henry are too grand for a single 400-page novel.  Cramming their entire lives into a single volume turns grand gestures petty.

Death in the Floating City

As much as I've enjoyed Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily mysteries, I have to admit that they're a bit uneven.  They're always fun, but sometimes the mystery is a bit forced or the subplots aren't fully integrated into the story.  Death in the Floating City has none of those faults - it's her best book since Lady Emily's debut in And Only to Deceive.  Alexander uses the same literary construct (a parallel story told through a diary), and uses it well.

Lady Emily Hargraves grew up with Emma Callum.  Their mothers were friends, and Emma made Emily's life miserable.  Emma eventually scandalized society by eloping with a Venetian Comte, and as the story opens, she's showing Emily and her husband Colin the jeweled and blood-encrusted dagger found in her father-in-law's chest.  Emma can't (or won't) trust the local authorities, so calling Emily is her only option.  Emily agrees, and soon meets scholar and bookseller's daughter Donata Caravello.  Donata serves as Emily's guide through Venice, teaching her the social rules and multi-generational feuds of Venice.  Interspersed with Emily's 19th Century investigations are chapters of Besina Barozzi's and Nicolo Vendelino's 16th Century romance.  Though passionately in love (with each other and with Dante), they belong to feuding families so their love is clearly doomed.  

Alexander sprinkles enough clues in both the main story and the historical romance for the reader to solve the mystery shortly before the killer is revealed, so the book works as a mystery.  Death in the Floating City shines, however, as a novel.  The author's descriptions of Venice made me not only want to visit but to time travel so I could see what Emily saw, and there's some interesting commentary in the four romances (two "society" and two "doomed") portrayed in the book.  She also provides a bittersweet ending where the killer faces justice and a centuries long feud ends, but Emily once again faces a loss.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Beast

Faye Kellerman excels at mixing horrific crimes with domestic bliss which still manages to be believable.  The Beast lays a nostalgic gauze over both, as old friends contemplate moving on.  Peter and Rina's children are grown (even their sort-of foster son Gabe Whitman is at Julliard or touring most of the time), as is Marge Dunn's daughter, and even Scott Oliver seems to have settled down.  This is where I expected the series to shift to Cindy Decker Kutiel, but more on that later.  

The Beast features Kellerman's weirdest crime.  A reclusive billionaire has died in a seedy apartment with a full grown tiger.  The tiger turns out to be a red herring; the late Hobart Penny was shot, not mauled, and Penny was a sexually violent sadist.  Kellerman gives us enough clues and misdirection to solve the mystery right before Decker arrests the culprit and manages (barely) to avoid the level of creepiness that led me to stop reading her husband's books.  The plot worked, but felt a bit forced at times, although the scenes at a barely legal animal preserve were interesting and engrossing.

Kellerman's domestic scenes, perhaps intentionally, are almost wistful.  Peter's tired of LA, tired of large crimes, but not ready to retire.  Marge Dunn's long distance relationship is moving towards marriage.  Both detectives are searching for jobs in smaller departments.  Those scenes feel like conversations with old friends, where not everything actually has to be said.  There's a sad tinge, though, to the conversations because the next book won't include the same team.   The domestic scenes aren't perfect - Gabe's scenes with his girlfriend Yasmine feel like a set up for a future plot, and I'm somewhat disappointed that Cindy's husband is entering medical school (he's a nurse practitioner, an important job that doesn't get enough popular notice or respect).  Overall, though, it's a slightly better than average installment in a series that has never slumped, with a nostalgic feel that makes me want to binge-read the series from the beginning.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

An Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enligtenment

An Entertainment for Angels is another one of my "looks interesting" purchases from Daedalus Books.  Better than some of those purchase, but not as good as most, it's a brief history of 18th Century electrical exploration.   While interesting and amusing, it included little that I didn't already know and was a bit simplistically written for my tastes.  It's not a bad book, but probably more suited to the tween with an interest in science who's moving away from YA and into adult literature.

The Mission Song

It's appropriate that I was struck by the language in The Mission Song - after all, the central character is a translator.  Perhaps that's why John le Carre used lyric cadences which washed over me, pulling me into the novel long before I became engrossed in the plot.  Bruno Salvador (Salvo), is the illegitimate son of an Irish priest and an African woman.  Raised in a series of missions and schools, his natural ear for languages has made him the top translator in London, specializing in African dialects.  Married to a socially prominent rising tabloid editor (bringing to mind a blonde Rebekah Brooks), he translates for whomever needs him, including MI6.

That's the "important client" which calls Salvo away from the black tie event celebrating his wife's promotion.  They need Salvo to translate (and not translate) during a delicate negotiation among several African leaders.  It's the "not translate" which piques Salvo's interest.  He's a translator, not just translating but interpreting what he hears, and he just can't turn that off.  He can't pretend to not understand all he understands, and when he learns that the plan MI6 has formulated will harm rather than help Africa, he can't let the plan stand.  Especially since he's fallen in love with a nurse from his mother's native region.  Salvo tries to undo some of the damage created by the meeting where he translated (and didn't translate), but he's naive and not as well connected as he thought.  It ends badly for him (although with some consolations), but because the language le Carre used is so beautiful, it's easy as a reader to minimize that fact.

The McCone Files

I first "met" Sharon McCone in 1990 (for me) and 1977 (for her).  Like most long-running series, she's aged in comic book time with a dash of retcon, so re-reading older installments are doubly nostalgic.  Not only do I remember what my life was like when I first read the book, but I'm also seeing a version of Sharon with a somewhat different background.  The McCone Files allowed me to experience the same sort of nostalgia while reading (mostly) new material.  It's a collection of short stories, starting with Sharon's first case for All Souls Legal Collective and ending as Sharon cleans out her office.  Of course Sharon was younger then, but the crimes are also different.  As the staff investigator for a legal collective which charged the poorer residents of pre-gentrification San Francisco on a sliding scale, the crimes she encountered were mostly smaller and more personal than the cases handled by McCone Investigations.  There are a few murders, but also missing persons, burglary, and an accident that's not one, really.  We also meet Sharon's old friends - Hank Zahn is still around, sort of, and Ted Smalley is McCone Investigations's office manager, and in the later stories see the cracks which led to the dissolution of All Souls.  For those who aren't yet familiar with Sharon, The McCone Files is a good introduction.  It's a series of well-crafted mysteries which provides a primer on Sharon's persona.

To Fear a Painted Devil

Before she started writing psychological thrillers as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell made regular detours into that sub-genre.  To Fear a Painted Devil is one of her earliest non-Wexford novels, and while interesting, the psychology doesn't stand up to the passage of 50 years.  Patrick and Tasmin Selby are replacement gentry - wealthy, aloof, married first cousins (as normal as that seemed to Jane Austen's characters, I'm assuming it was unusual by the 1960s) - who appear to have the perfect life.  They don't of course.  Patrick is remote, distant, and psychologically abusive; Tasmin was raised to be dependent and there are no other suitable and suitably rich men for her to marry, even if she could get a divorce.

The neighbors, of course, don't know the state of the Selbys' marriage when they assemble for Patrick's birthday.  It's an awkward grouping, including impoverished old money, social climbers, harried parents, Patrick's mistress, a middle-aged man and his much younger third wife, and the local doctor.  Just the ordinary social gathering in this newly built bedroom community, until Patrick and a late-invited guest try to eliminate a wasps' nest.  They end up disturbing the nest and the wasps sting Patrick several times, but Dr. Greenleaf treats his stings with an antihistamine and a sleeping pill.  When Patrick dies in the night, Dr. Greenleaf assumes he either took an extra sleeping pill or had an unknown heart condition.  That's not the case - he's been murdered, and Dr. Greenleaf solves the mystery (but not too easily).  I did as well, but I was somewhat hampered by the setting.  Mid-20th Century England is a bit of an uncanny valley for a modern American.  It's recognizable, but foreign enough that I can't really trust my perceptions.  That's only a problem when reading a mediocre book, and it didn't bother me while reading To Fear a Painted Devil.