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28 January 2017

Book Review: Galielo - 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


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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Book Reivew - Unnatural Death

Unnatural Death (Lord Peter Whimsey, #3)Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Working my way through these old paperbacks I've had on my shelves for years. And more years than I originally would have guessed, as evidenced by the ad in the back of the book that says, "By the year 2000, 2 out of 3 Americans could be illiterate."

Also, the binding fell apart while I was reading. But I'll tape it together. Because I love the cover art on these old things. I have often wandered through a used book store, wanting to complete my collection (I am missing at least four Lord Peter mysteries) but I will not buy them unless they are this particular edition. Certainly Lord Peter would think me a buffoon too place such import on the covers and not the content.

I clearly remember liking Sayers when I read these the first time, in the first blush of my 20s and the first blush of my marriage. But I also remember also thinking I was SUPPOSED to like them; realizing that to be an educated sophisticate, one must, of course, be engaged by the high-brow antics and the lettered references. So I pretended, not really understanding what drove these people who were engulfed in the blase, devil-may-care indifference of middle-age. Now I understand. All too well.

So diving in them again has been the best kind of mid-life crisis. And this time I like them for realz, as the kids say, with not even one thought to whatever classification liking these books puts me in as a supposed intellectual.

There are still references that I do not understand...many, MANY references I do not understand. But in my 20s, I understood even fewer and confess that I found these books almost impenetrable then. They are not so now.

Lord Peter is a joy.

"I haven't come to sell you soap or gramophones, or to borrow money or enroll you in the Ancient Froth-blowers or anything charitable. I really am Lord Peter Wimsey--I mean, that really is my title, don't you know, not a Christian name, like Sanger's Circus or Earl Derr Biggers."

And Miss Climpson? God love her and her all-caps and her italics in her letters to Lord Peter as she, in his employ, pursues the mystery with old-maidenly zeal.

"In enclose a careful statement of my expenses up-to-date. you will excuse the mention of underwear, which is, I fear, a somewhat large item! but wool is so expensive nowadays, and it is necessary that every detail of my equipment should be suitable to my (supposed!) position in life. I have been careful to wash the garments through, so that they do not look too new, as this might have a suspicious appearance!"

And London?

"Where no one knows his neighbour. Where shops do not know their customers. Where physicians are suddenly called to unknown patients whom they never see again. Where you may lie dead in your house for months together unmissed and unnoticed till the gas inspector comes to look at the meter. Where strangers are friendly and friends are casual. London, whose rather untidy and grubby bosom in the repository of so many odd secrets. Discreet, incurious and all-enfolding London."

And then there's Inspector Parker, in whose thoughts the above paragraph seems to be put, until Sayers sets us straight.

"Not that Parker put it that way to himself. He merely thought, 'Ten to one she'd try London. They mostly think they're safer there.'"

One must choose to forgive the dated references to other races, as Sayers was a product of her time. But I look at it as a welcome example of how far our society has come, which is particularly welcome in an election year when mostly I think about how far we still have to go.

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