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27 March 2017

Book Review: Sarum

Sarum: The Novel of EnglandSarum: The Novel of England by Edward Rutherfurd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rutherfurd writes grand-perspective historical novels that center around a particular place. So it's like watching a timelapse video; from 6000 BC to 1985 AD in 1000 pages.

I love books like these; where normal people are placed in an important place with important people as almost secondary characters. These characters are all that matters in that moment in time.

But, at the same time, books like this highlight the futility of it all. Because the characters that were so important in 60 AD, no on knows about in 1066 AD. The place remains. The meadows. The hillforts. The henge. The cathedral. People are like so many ants, swarming around the behemoths that operate on a different, slower time scale.

So what's the point? In 100 years, no one will remember me. Or what I worked so hard to accomplish. So I might as well take it easy, have a beer, and read a book. Hell yeah.

This was a re-read, because I finally visited Old Sarum, Salisbury and Stonehenge. I remembered very little detail from my first read (and, truth be told, once I got to the end of the book, I remembered very little about what had happened at the beginning...) but I enjoyed it as much, if not more, than the first time I read it. Maybe it's my age and wisdom. Or maybe it's that I had finally laid my own eyes on the landscape and could envision a real reality from Rutherfurd's descriptions. The landscape is the main character, after all.

But besides making me feel small and insignificant, this book is steeped in history. I cannot say how complete Rutherfurd's scholarship is; there are no footnotes, but it's the little details like one finds in Sarum that make history come alive.

Things like;

In Roman times, one would often see this on walls;
ROTAS
OPERA
TENET
AREPO
SATOR

These words form a palindrome, yes. But they can also be rearranged to form
.................P
.................A
.................T
.................E
.................R
P A T E R N O S T E R
.................O
.................S
.................T
.................E
.................R

Or that Pelagius, in Roman times, had the gall to suggest that men had free will and needed to choose God. "For were it to be true that a man could really make such a choice for himself, then that man would be a separate being, an individual entity with absolute power to choose to embrace God or the Devil as he liked. How could any right-thinking Christian suggest such a thing when the Church taught that man, like everything in the universe, was created by God and belonged to Him?"
Such thinking makes Absolute Rule and the power of the church so much clearer. And also highlights how revolutionary ideas of education and self-determination actually were.

Or the theory that the legends of King Arthur likely originated only two generations after the Romans; "They were probably Christian; they won a great battle against the Saxons at a place, still not identified, called Mons Badonicus; and it is quite likely that they had a general named Artorius. Behind the legend of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table lie several elements of historical reality, however. The world of Arthur, though it is chivalric and romanticised in a way that belongs to a later era, is nonetheless a Celtic, Christian world, with ties not only to Wales and the west country but also across the English Channel to Brittany, to which, in the century that followed the end of Roman Britain, a number of British families emigrated."

Or the fact that in the 800s and 900s, Saxon justice turned not on truth or falsehoods, but on how many people you could get to swear to your side of the story and what rank they were.

Or the messy mixture of cultures and religions as humanity is developing; "Although many generations of Anglo-Saxons had been Christian, the memory of the pagan past was alive, an accepted part of everyday life which no church could attempt to stifle. Were not the gods still celebrated in the days of the week, like Wodensday? Did not the code of honour that made a man loyal to his lord, the law of blood feud and wergild, and the songs and poetry they loved all come from pagan times? Aelfwald the thane did not try to cudgel his brains over the fact that the Saxon culture he loved and the Christian religion he believed in were logically incompatible. He was an Anglo-Saxon Christian and he was content."

Or that Europe wasn't Europe in 1066; "No people claimed a single country as their nation state: Europe was a huge patchwork of estates to be bought, sold, fought for, or obtained by marriage."

Or that the extension of the 1215 Magna Carta in 1258 was authored by Simon Montfort, who had no interest in democracy. He didn't even like the English. But he couldn't resist a challenge and swooped in to fix messes that Henry III kept getting himself into.

Or that Charing Cross derives its name from 1290 when Edward I lost his great love, Eleanor of Castile. The king accompanied the queen's body from Lincoln to London and every place the party stopped for the night, a cross was installed in the dead queen's honor. The last one was at Charing.

Or that our weird and confusing language, with all its inconsistencies, was created when a fellow named Caxton started printing books with a printing press. "Caxton had, as most men did, his own views about how English words were to be pronounced and had chosen to spell them accordingly. The result on the newly printed page was a curious mixture of dialects from several parts of the island. 'See--he writes 'plough' like a northerner,' the merchant-turned-gentleman complained: for as written, the word would have sounded more like 'pluff' or 'rough.' Robert said nothing. He was not interested. But his father was right, and the confused and illogical spelling chosen by Caxton's whim was to be the hallmark of written English from then on."

Or a moment after the English Civil War when a group of Protestant radicals called the "Diggers" foreshadowed practical communism.

Or how much our polite societal manners, and the words we use to refer to them, have changed; "The clergyman said several kind words about his valour in the American campaign; and the company in general did him the honor of speaking to him as if they had known him all their lives. In short, they practiced the art known then as condescension--which meant not at all what is meant by the word today, but rather the art of letting a man know, through perfect politeness, that you do not seek to patronise him"

So much learning. So much history. So much life that the trees and the meadows and the hills quietly watch from their stately perch, amused to be considered the background for our tiny lives. So I'll close with a quote Rutherfurd puts on an 18th century gentleman's sundial; "Life is but a walking shadow."


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28 January 2017

Book Review: Galieo - AntiChrist

Galileo Antichrist: A BiographyGalileo Antichrist: A Biography by Michael  White
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Michael White used to be a Thompson Twin, apparently.

This has nothing to do with the book, of course, but when I first read that, I hoped he was the lead singer. He wasn't. That's Tom Bailey. But I really enjoyed thinking of that guy sitting down to write a pseudo-intellectual biography of Galileo.

Perhaps "pseudo-intellectual" is too harsh. But what I mean by that is "accessible" and "readable." A popular history.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first several chapters, which set up the world Galileo lived in. White describes the era as a time when, "a small group of well-heeled Europeans seeking novelty, knowledge, and (it must not be ignored) coveting prestige and social kudos, actively sought out the literary and philosophical treasures of the ancients."

These well-heeled seekers had a thirst for knowledge that made them early humanists. They were also Catholic and deeply religious. But they "held the view that an alternative thought system such as humanism could offer new ways to understand the human condition."

Not so, said the Catholic church. Thought and logic and faith were poor bedfellows back then. Still are, frankly.

The Renaissance, and the Reformation, was made possible by Gutenberg's printing press, which allowed ideas to be spread at a more rapid, egalitarian way than was possible previously. The Catholic church was caught sleeping and found themselves fighting a battle that wasn't previously necessary; convincing an ever-growing educated populace to continue to view the declarations of the Catholic church as the only truth.

But the funny thing about that truth is that, scientifically, it relied on Aristotle, a heathen Greek. His ideas were "...placed above all others by future generations and his philosophies were hijacked by theologians for their own ends. Dogma turned to absolutism, and his teachings were passed on virtually unquestioned. This led astray later thinkers and pushed science towards a dead end."

So any attack on Aristotle became an attack on Christianity. And Aristotle was wrong about a lot. Aristotle's Unmoved Mover becomes God. Aristotle's four elements theory of matter became sacrosanct, negating theories like atoms or even the idea that what something tastes like or looks like is very open to human interpretation.

This was a time when you just believed because someone told you to believe. The idea of coming up with a new idea, then testing out that idea with experiments designed to prove, or disprove, the theory was foreign. And, if that idea ran counter to the truth the Catholic church espoused, heretical.

This is where Galileo ran into trouble. Which is well-known.

But White also trots forth the conspiracy theory that the thesis for which Galileo was punished, his book presenting the Copernican model of of the universe, with the sun in the center, was NOT the real reason he was convicted of heresy. The true reason was science he espoused which stood in direct opposition to the Catholic church's dogma about transubstantiation.

Transubstantiation. I didn't lead a completely sheltered childhood, but the first memory I have of realizing the eccentricity of the concept was as a young adult, when I read Maupin's Tales of the City, wherein a murderer confuses transubstantiation with cannibalism.

Galileo didn't go that far, of course. But he had the temerity to question Aristotle's four element substance theory of matter. Which led to questioning transubstantiation.

You see, transubstantiation depended on Aristotelian substance theory, which states that when we strip away the accidents of a particular thing we are left with its substance, which cannot be observed. Thomas Aquinas used this theory to support the idea that the accidents of our senses' perception of the bread and wine don't change, but God changes the substance of those things to be the actual body and blood of Christ. After the elements are blessed by the priest, they cease being bread and wine, transforming into flesh and blood. The substance has been transformed (hence the term transubstantiation) but the accidents of the bread and wine remain as they were. Those accidents include all the ways our senses (touch, taste, etc.) interact with the elements.

In The Assayer, Galileo dipped his toe into what looks like early atomic theory, which would make Aristotle's theories invalid.

According to White, this is the real problem the church had with Galileo. Not Copernicus. But transubstantiation.

He doesn't make his argument very thoroughly. And the book suffers for it. But it sure wet my whistle to read more about this.

And, to me, that's the mark of a good book.


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02 January 2017

Book Review: The Documents in the Case

The Documents in the CaseThe Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A mystery told only in correspondence. Kind of like an adult version of Kate Klise. Or, I guess, Kate Klise is a young adult version of this (with more puns and plays on words, of course)

Mystery aside (and I solved this one on a hunch about 20 pages in) I most enjoyed the letters John Munting wrote to Elizabeth Drake. If fleshed out, they strike me as a couple that could hang out with Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. Strong individuals, luckily and messily in love. Frankly, I could have done without the mystery at all and just read Munting's letters.

Munting is a writer by trade, so his letters are full of great description, deep-yet-shallow philosophy, and, of course, whining about having to write;

"...he wears his forehead well over the top of his head..."

"I am increasingly not clear whether I am a mess of oddly-assorted chemicals (chiefly salt and water), or a kind of hyper-trophied fish egg, or an enormous, all-inclusive cosmos of solar-systematically revolving atoms, each one supporting planetfuls of solemn imbeciles like myself."

"Only a fortnight now and I shall be seeing you. Praise God (or whatever it is) from (if direction exists) whom (if personality exists) all blessings (if that word corresponds to any percept of objective reality) flow (if Heraclitus and Bergson and Einstein are correct in stating that everything is more or less flowing about)."

"...I am enjoying a magnificent illusion of importance and busy-ness."

Late in the book, a charwoman bribing someone else with the existence of written incriminating evidence says, "I was never one for writin' letters myself. A word's as good and leaves nothin' but air be'ind it, that's wot I say."

Wink and a nod from Sayers; thank heavens for letters. And books. The keepers of our history.


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04 December 2016

Book Review - Busman's Honeymoon

Busman's Honeymoon (Lord Peter Wimsey, #13)Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since I started my current Sayers odyssey with Lord Peter, a collection of short stories that ends with a story that has Lord Peter and Harriet ensconced at Talboys with their children, I didn't find reading this book before I read the Vane trilogy (Strong Poison / Have His Carcase / Gaudy Night to be too egregious. Maybe when I finally get to the trilogy, I should read it backwards.

It's not even a mystery, really. In an acknowledgement forward, Sayers herself calls it a sentimental comedy. "It has been said, by myself and others, that a love-interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective-interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love story. If there is but a ha'porth of detection to an intolerable deal of saccharine, let the occasion be the excuse."

And so the body isn't found until one-third of the pages have been read.

Sayers occupies herself instead with the problem of how Peter and Harriet and Bunter are going to be now that their lives, and their roles, have changed. Now that Peter is a husband and Harriet has a husband ("a repressive word, that, when you came to think of it, compounded with a grumble and a thump") and Bunter has a m'lady.

The three are as unpredictable as ever (one character tries to "...assess the financial relationship between Peter's title, his ancient and shabby blazer, his manservant and his wife's non-committal tweeds...") and plopping them down the English countryside to deal with a cast of colorful characters is fun reading.

It's supposed to be a honeymoon, but the house isn't ready, there's no food and, oops, there's a dead body in the cellar. The stock characters that seem to always populate English villages circulate through Talboys' tackily-furnished sitting room, telling their stories, imposing their will, and, periodically, crying ("Harriet, who was as a rule good at handkerchiefs, discovered to her annoyance that on this particular morning she had provided herself only with an elegant square of linen, suitable for receiving such rare and joyful drops as might be expected on one's honeymoon.")

Sayers is, as I've come to expect, up to her usual tricks, quoting, often without citation, Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, and more. There are also long passages written in French. One wonders what else one is missing because one doesn't know that one is missing it.

But one keeps reading. And I am certain I understand more now than I did 20 years ago. Just think of how much more I'll see an appreciate in another 20 years!


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Book Review - Murder Must Advertise

Murder Must Advertise (Lord Peter Wimsey, #10)Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the mid-1990s, I went through a Sayers phase. Bought several of her books in paperback after my university professor uncle gifted me with one as we wandered through a bookstore together in Ann Arbor.

When I signed up for Goodreads in the mid-2000s, I rated this with five stars, based on my memory of reading it 10 years prior.

Now in 2016, I'm re-reading my way though Sayers because I live in a place with no English-language bookstores or libraries; the books I have are the ones I packed in my suitcase. There are weight limits on suitcases, of course, so only trade paperbacks made the cut, like these now aged editions of Sayers.

I don't have the whole Sayers series. Every time I went to the used book store, I'd scan the shelves, hoping to pick up copies of the titles I was missing. But I like the look of these editions--the design and the art-deco elegance--so much more than other editions I've seen, editions that make Sayers look like Danielle Steele or Grisham. I have spent half a lifetime rejecting "inferior" editions of Sayers.

That might be one of the things I'd use a time-machine to go back and tell myself not to do. These grey editions, though attractive from a cover perspective, have more typos than I would wish and are made with substandard paper, cardstock, and binding glue. Several of them have disintegrated in my hands as I read them.

But I digress.

So far, in my jaunt through Sayers, I've read Unnatural Death, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and Five Red Herrings. I must admit, as I was reading Five Red Herrings, I started to wonder why I became so enthralled with Sayers in the first place.

So when I picked this one up and saw my 25 year old five-star review, I was prepared to laugh at my naive self.

But I didn't. I still love this book. The five stars stay. The Sayers Abides.

And, again, like most of the mysteries I love by Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, the mystery is less important to me than the world created within the framework of the mystery. They are novels that use a puzzle to drive them, rather than a romance or a war or a family conflict.

Lord Peter, the aristocratic dilettante, is undercover at a 1930s advertising agency filled with clever fast-talkers that one can see fitting in to the His Girl Friday newsroom. Of course, Lord Peter turns out to be a fine copywriter and even launches a legendary ad campaign in his moments at the agency. He also gets to show off his cricket skills in an extended cricket match scene which, in the end, has nothing to do with anything.

At first, Lord Peter finds the whole advertising game distasteful. "I think this is an awfully immoral job of ours. I do, really. Think how we spoil the digestions of the public," he says to another copywriter.

"Ah, yes," the copywriter answers. "But think how earnestly we strive to put them right again. We undermine 'em with one hand and build 'em up with the other. The vitamins we destroy in the canning, we restore in Revito, the roughage we remove from Peabody's Piper Parritch we make up into a package and market as Bunbury's Breakfast Bran; the stomachs we ruin with Pompaye, we re-line with Peplets to aid digestion. And by forcing the damnfool public to pay twice over--once to have its food emasculated and once to have the vitality put back again, we keep the wheels of commerce turning and give employment to thousands--including you and me."

There's even this ode to the IKEA philosophy before IKEA was a twinkle in Ingvar Kamprad's eye.

"They've carried the unit system to the pitch of a fine art. You can sit on a Darling chair, built up in shilling and sixpenny sections and pegged with patent pegs at sixpence a hundred. If Uncle George breaks the leg, you buy a new leg and peg it in. If you guy more clothes than will go into your Darling chest of drawers, you unpeg the top, purchase a new drawer for half a crown, peg it on and replace the top."

There are laugh-out-loud moments, like when Parker admonishes Peter with, "Never mind the generalizations. They always lead to bad reasoning."

Or when Lord Peter engages a n'er-do-well errand boy to be his junior detective;
"'Wild 'orses,' declared Ginger, finally and completely losing his grasp of the aitches with which a careful nation had endowed him at the expense of the tax-payer, 'wild 'orses wouldn't get a word out o' me when I've give me word to 'old me tongue.'"

But more than anything, Murder Must Advertise reminded me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or get worse.

"No doubt it was because agreement on any point was so rare in a quarrelsome world, that the fantastical announcements asserted it so strongly and so absurdly. Actually, there was no agreement, either on trivialities like tea or on greater issues. In this place, where from morning till night a staff of over a hundred people hymned the praises of thrift, virtue, harmony, eupepsia, and domestic contentment, the spiritual atmosphere was clamorous with financial storm, intrigue, dissension, indigestion and marital infidelity."





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23 November 2016

Book Review - The Five Red Herrings

Five Red Herrings (Lord Peter Wimsey, #7)Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What's a long, drawn-out, sesquipedalian, tedious way to say "tedious?"

Take this example of dialog; "Nae doot. The mon was deid before he got intae the burn. 'Twas the scart on the heid that did it. There's a wheen mair blows."

Scottish dialect, of course. But honestly. I can usually decipher textual fun with dialog and accents (and Sayers plays with that quite a bit in this book, with lisps and cockney and brogue, oh my!) but that much color made the whole damn book nearly unintelligible.

And then there were the endless train schedules and timetables that just made my head spin.

Maybe I would have liked this book better if I were smarter. Perhaps it was actually an IQ test and I failed. Sayers certainly hints at what she thinks of her less-than-astute readers while Whimsey is examining the crime scene. She breaks the fourth wall and interjects parenthetically, "Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was to look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page."

I could not readily supply the details. Therefore, I am not an intelligent reader. Feeling disrespected by an author makes it difficult to retain the element of goodwill, earned from past experiences with that author, that would keep me turning pages in an otherwise tedious tome.

But despite all of this, I kept reading. Goodwill trumps insult, I guess.

And I'm mostly glad I did because there were moments like this one;

"Your name is Halcock, is it not?"
The butler corrected him.
"H'alcock," he said, reprovingly.
"H, a, double-l?" suggested the Inspector.
"There is no h'aitch in the name, young man. H'ay is the first letter, and there is h'only one h'ell."

Or this description of an exacting housewife that also serves as a metaphor for the environment her husband is trying to escape; "Gilda Farren sat, upright and serene, spinning the loose white flock into a strong thread that wound itself ineluctably to smother the twirling spindle."

Or the man who said, "I was quivering like a blanc-mange."

Or the witness with a lisp; "My name is Clarenth Gordon. I am a commerthial traveller for the firm of Moth & Gordon, Glathcow--ladieth dretheth and hothiery."

But still. Tedious. Not one I'll probably come back to over and over. But I think Sayers probably knows this is one of her weaker efforts. When Lord Peter says, "Bunter, this case resembles the plot of a Wilkie Collins novel, in which everything happens just too late to prevent the story from coming to a premature happy ending," it was almost as if Sayers purposely deflected my frustration with her to Wilkie Collins. "If you think I'm bad, wait until you read Collins!"





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23 October 2016

Book Review - The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona ClubThe Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Unpleasantness"

Yes. Murder is "unpleasant."

But when Lord Peter is on the case, reading about the unpleasantness is extraordinarily pleasant.

So pleasant, in fact, that I forgot to pay enough attention to be able to pen a thoughtful review.

The mystery is simple, then complicated, then simple, then complicated, then simple. Lord Peter is delightfully whimsical. Parker is doggedly solid. A lovely female sculptress character named Marjorie Phelps make me think of Roderick Allyn and Agatha Troy and even though I know the outline of Lord Peter's love life, I still found myself wishing there could be a dalliance between the two; their conversations were delightful.


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