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18 October 2019

Book Review: Death in Ecstasy

Death In EcstasyDeath In Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**note: I'm reading through all the Alleyn mysteries in order**

Perhaps the greatest thing about this book was the cover art of the edition I read; the Jove edition of 1983, which works really hard to portray the gratuitous sex and occult that is only hinted at. Heroin, which does play a large role, is not depicted. Interesting.

I do enjoy Marsh and her characterizations; even when she's not placing her mysteries in a theater filled with actors, she places theatrical people in the plots. Exaggerations of types. Like the guard who "seems to speak in capitals." And Alleyn, in another character's words, has "British Manufacture stamped some place where it won't wear off. All this quiet deprecation--it's directly from a sure-fireBritish best-seller." And Mr. Ogden, who is "so like an American as to be quite fabulous." Highly entertaining.

Further description of Mr. Ogden; "He was a type that is featured heavily in transatlantic publicity, tall, rather fat and inclined to be flabby, but almost incredibly clean, as though he used all the deodorants, mouth washes, soaps and lotions recommended by his prototype periodicals."

"Oh yeah? Is that so?" continued Ogden; and then, for all the world as if he was an anthology of Quaint American Sayings, he completed the trilogy by adding in a soft undertone: "Sez you?"

Then there's Miss Wade, who the detective keeps forgetting to consider, but is finally interviewed; "Before that I had not been aware of her presence in Father Garnette's rooms. She had arrived before I did and had gone through the hall, no doubt. I left my overshoes outside," added Miss Wade with magnificent irrelevancy.

And Inspector Fox, who "chose the only small chair in the room and made it look foolish."

Then there's the moment when Marsh acknowledges she's writing a mystery of a type and she is walking in some pretty big footsteps. Alleyn ask Nigel, his Watson, who is pick for the murderer is after the initial interviews; "It depends on the author. If it's Agatha Christie, Miss Wade's occulted guilt drips from every pate. Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter would plump for Pringle, I fancy. Inspector French would go for Ogden."

I have said this with Marsh before; the mystery is secondary for me. I just like wandering around in the worlds she creates.

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11 October 2019

Book Review: Nursing Home Murder

The Nursing Home Murder (Roderick Alleyn, #3)The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So a nursing home in this era of British history is not a place where old folks live out their days, so this mystery did not feature a wheelchair chase through a hall-way or a weapon concealed in a walker.

Instead, a nursing home is a private hospital. And the conceit of this mystery is that an important politician dies after surgery, having been poisoned.

Marsh is still trying to do more than a cozy, here, with Bolsheviks who want the proletariat dead being a distracting side plot. But, again, Marsh's strength lies in characterization. At one point, Alleyn speaks with Nigel, who kind of functions as his Watson.
"I have reached that stage in the proceedings when, like heroines in French dramas, I must have my confidante. You are she. You may occasionally roll up your eyes and explain 'Helas, quelle horreur!' or, if you prefer it, 'Merciful Heaven, can I believe my ears?' Otherwise, beyond making sympathetic noises, don't interrupt."

In another moment, Marsh confesses her "laziness." "It would be tedious to attempt a phonetic reproduction of Mr. Sage's utterances. Enough to say that they were genteel to a fantastic degree. 'Aye thot Aye heeard somewon teeking may neem in veen,' may give some idea of his rendering of the above sentence. Let it go at that."

And at the end, Angela, Nigel's betrothed, hopes for a happy ending. Alleyn replies, "'I'm afraid you've got the movie-mind. You want a final close-up. 'John, I want you to know that---that---' Ecstatic glare at short distance into each other's faces. Sir John utters an amorous grow; 'You damned little fool,' and snatches her to his bosom. Slow fade-out.'
'That's the stuff,' said Angela. 'I like a happy ending.'
'We don't often see it in the Force,' said Alleyn.
'Have some port?'
'Thank you.'

The end. Kind of film worth, huh?

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Book Review: Enter a Murderer

Enter a Murderer (Roderick Alleyn, #2)Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have embarked on a quest to read the Alleyn mysteries in order. Most of them I've already read, but I picked them up randomly, so there was no through-line.

Marsh hasn't quite yet hit her stride in this book. The main characters--Alleyn, Fox, Nigel--are still trying to figure out who they are; or, rather, Marsh is still trying to figure out who they are. But there are references to the first Alleyn mystery, which indicate Marsh is trying to create the through-line I so hope I will find when I read them through in order.

The characters in this one are all stage actors and this is where Marsh excels in my opinion; creating the caricatures of type that she, being involved with stage productions, seems to know well. Take this description of the actors at the inquest;

"Barclay Crammer gave a good all-round performance of a heart-broken gentleman of the old school. Janet Emerald achieved the feat known to leading ladies as 'running the gamut of the emotions.' Asked to account for the striking discrepancies between her statement and those of Miss Max and the stage manager, she wept unfeignedly and said her heart was broken. The coroner stared at her coldly, and told her she was an unsatisfactory witness. Miss Deamer was youthfully sincere, and used a voice with an effective little broken gasp. Her evidence was supremely irrelevant. The stage manager and Miss Max were sensible and direct."

Perhaps the most charming part of this book is the forward;
"When I showed this manuscript to my friend, Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn, of the Criminal Investigation Department, he said:
'It's a perfectly good account of the Unicorn case, but isn't it usual in detective stories to conceal the identity of the criminal?'
I looked at him coldly.
'Hopelessly vieux jeu, my dear Alleyn. Nowadays the identity of the criminal is always revealed in the early chapters.' 'In that case,' he said, 'I congratulate you.'
I was not altogether delighted."

Suffice it to say, even though I had read it before, and somewhere in my head knew the identity of the murderer, I didn't figure it out until the late pages. I am apparently no Alleyn.

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07 September 2019

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

Where the Crawdads SingWhere the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lovely read, marred by the impossibility of it all and by the overwrought construction with flashbacks and flashforwards. It seemed to be working a bit too hard; in plot and prose and dialogue.

But, even so, lovely. Once in a while, Owens hits the sweet spot and the reader feels like Kya when she is just learning to read; "I wadn't aware words could hold so much. I didn't know a sentence could be so full."

But other times, Owens overwrites. By a long shot.

Nevertheless, she got closer than anyone else I've ever read in allowing me to understand Einstein. I mean, I still don't understand it, but her explanation is the closest I've ever come;
"...time is no more fixed than the stars. Time speeds and bends around planets and suns, is different in the mountains than in the valleys, and is part of the same fabric as space, which curves and swells as does the sea. Objects, whether planets or apples, fall or orbit, not because of a gravitational energy, but because they plummet into the silky folds of spacetime--like into the ripples on a pond--created by those of higher mass...Unfortunately, gravity holds no sway on human thought, and the high school text still taught that apples fall to the ground because of a powerful force from the Earth."

And when Kya is trying to muddle through her mother leaving; "...you told me that a she-fox will sometimes leave her kits if she's starving or under some other extreme stress. The kits die--as they probably would have anyway--but the vixen lives to breed again when conditions are better, when she can raise a new litter to maturity. In nature--out yonder where the crawdads sing--these ruthless-seeming behaviors actually increase the mother's number of young over her lifetime, and thus her genes for abandoning offspring in times of stress are passed on to the next generation. And on and on. It happens in humans, too. Some behaviors that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in what ever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn't be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive--way back yonder."

But there's the rub. All this is being said in conversation by a kid who grew up without parents or formal education. A little unlikely as dialogue, but fascinating nonetheless.

"The language of the court was, of course, not as poetic as the language of the marsh. Yet Kya saw similarities in their natures. The judge, obviously the alpha male, was secure in his position, so his posture was imposing, but relaxed and unthreatened as the territorial boar. Tom Milton, too, exuded confidence and rank with easy movements and stance. A powerful buck, acknowledged as such. The prosecutor, on the other hand, relied on wide, bright ties and broad-shouldered suit jackets to enhance his status. He threw his weight by flinging his arms or raising his voice. A lesser male needs to shout to be noticed. The bailiff represented the lowest-ranking male and depended on his belt hung with glistening pistol, clanging wad of keys, and clunky radio to bolster his position."

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24 April 2019

Book Review: The Revenge of Geography

The Revenge Of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against FateThe Revenge Of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate by Robert D. Kaplan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

But really two-and-a-half stars because the writing style was uber-annoying. Kaplan's favorite phrase seems to be "Let me explain." Well, duh. That's why I'm reading the book.

Kaplan's thesis is that geography still matters, even in a world where environmental possibilism seems to be changing how we relate to the spaces we are in and the spaces we desire. I'm not sure he proved his thesis, really, but along the way, I at least learned a lot.

Kaplan states that a "map is the spatial representation of humanity's divisions." The names in Africa and the border lines, created by European colonization, tell us the history of imperialism. To understand history, we have to look at maps. Mountains and plains divide civilizations; Ottomans from Austro-Hungarians, Kurds from Iraqis, Sunnis from Shia. Western Europe has dominated world history because of wide, fertile plains, indented coastlines providing deep-water harbors, navigable rivers flowing north, and an abundance of resources and despite its harsh climate. In history, transportation and communication outweigh comfort.

Looking at a northern polar map projections shows how close the continents of the northern hemisphere are to one another. A southern polar projection shows how far apart the southern hemisphere continents really are. This has been a driving factor to the dominance of the northern hemisphere in world history.

Geography, according to Kaplan, has always driven history. And perhaps always will.

One of the first pieces of evidence Kaplan cites is the fossia regia, a ditch dug in 202BC by the Romans to demarcate civilized territory (Roman) from uncivilized territory. In the 21st century, that line can still be felt, if not seen. Towns with fewer Roman remains tend to be poorer, less developed, and have higher rates of unemployment.

Then Kaplan sets out to justify Mackinder's Heartland theory, which basically states that whoever holds the "heartland" (basically Central Asia, Russia, and Eastern Europe) controls the world. He argues that WWII was basically about Germany wanting to control the heartland and that the Cold War was about the Soviet Union wanting to control Eastern Europe.

Russia, having been overtaken by Mongol Horde, has always valued the need for an empire; expand or die. Germany feels the same, with Raztel's theory of Lebensraum, or living space. The US, too, with the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. Land means power. And the where of the land matters.

One of the most fascinating discourses in the book falls in the chapter entitled "The Rimland Thesis" wherein Kaplan discusses the addition of Spykman's theory to Mackinder's. Spykman, and American, thought that control of the coastal edges of the heartland was as important as the heartland. Both Mackinder and Spykman's theories played out during World War II.

"Even as the Allies are losing and the utter destruction of Hitler's war machine is a priority, Spykman worries aloud about the implication of leaving Germany demilitarized. 'A Russian state from the Urals to the North Sea,' he explains (in 1942), 'can be no great improvement over a German state from the North Sea to the Urals.' Russian airfields on the English Channel would be as dangerous as German airfields to the security of Great Britain. Therefore, a powerful Germany will be necessary following Hitler. Likewise, even as the United States has another three years of vicious island fighting with the Japanese military ahead of it, Spkyman is recommending a post-war alliance with Japan against the continental powers of Russia and particularly a rising China."

In 1942, Spykman predicted how it would play out. Or, perhaps, it played out that way because he predicted it and the powers-that-were thought his ideas were sound.

With the benefit of hindsight, you can always connect geography with history.

An author named Braudel apparently does this very well. "Braudel’s signal contribution to the
way in which history is perceived is his concept of “varying wavelengths of time.” At the base is the
longue duree: slow, imperceptibly changing geographical time, “of landscapes that enable and constrain.” Above this, at a faster wavelength, come the “medium-term cycles,” what Braudel
himself refers to as conjonctures, that is, systemic changes in demographics, economics, agriculture, society, and politics. Cunliffe explains that these are essentially “collective forces, impersonal and usually restricted in time to no more than a century.” Together the longue duree and conjonctures provide the largely hidden “basic structures” against which human life is played out. My very highlighting of geography has been designed to put emphasis on these basic structures. Braudel calls the shortest-term cycle l’histoire evenmentielle —the daily vicissitudes of politics and diplomacy that are the staple of media coverage. Braudel’s analogy is the sea: in the deepest depths is the sluggish movement of water masses that bear everything; above that the tides and swells; and finally at the surface, in Cunliffe’s words, “the transient flecks of surf, whipped up and gone in a minute."

So I guess I should just read Braudel, who Kaplan as a "historian whose narrative has a godlike quality in which every detail of human existence is painted against the canvas of natural forces." Once in a while, though, I think Kaplan approaches this kind of writing.

"Obviously, human agency in the persons of such men as Jan Hus, Martin Luther and John Calvin was pivotal to the Protestant Reformation and hence to the Enlightenment that would allow for northern Europe’s dynamic emergence as one of the cockpits of history in the modern era. Nevertheless, all that could not have happened without the immense river and ocean access and the loess earth, rich with coal and iron-ore deposits, which formed the foundation for such individual dynamism and industrialization. Great, eclectic and glittering empires certainly flowered along the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages—notably the Norman Roger II’s in twelfth-century Sicily, and, lest we forget, the Renaissance blossomed first in late-medieval Florence, with the art of Michelangelo and the secular realism of Machiavelli. But it was the pull of the colder Atlantic that opened up global shipping routes that ultimately won out against the enclosed Mediterranean. While Portugal and Spain were the early beneficiaries of this Atlantic trade—owing to their protruding peninsular position—their pre-Enlightenment societies, traumatized by the proximity of (and occupation by) North African Muslims, lost ground eventually in the oceanic competition to the Dutch, French and English. So just as Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire succeeded Rome, in modern times northern Europe succeeded southern Europe, with the mineral-rich Carolingian core winning out in the form of the European Union. All this is attributable, in some measure, to geography."

Boom. If this book had been winnowed to engaging large-picture, connective discourses like this, I would have been much happier with it. I love that stuff.

But Kaplan, predicting the critics, I suppose, over-writes in the attempt to premptively out-argue the arguments. And the reader grows weary.

Peppered throughout the book are little nuggets of "oh, of course!" connections. Like the word "Cossack" comes from the word kazak. So Kazakhstan is really Cossackstan.

Also, Turkey controls the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates. Now THAT is power.

And "the rich forest soil of Northern Europe, which allowed peasants to easily be productive, ultimately led to freer and more dynamic societies compared to those along the Mediterranean where poorer, more precarious soils meant there was a requirement for irrigation that led, in turn, to oligarchies." And also, precarious agriculture led the Greeks and Romans to expand their empires in search of for fertile land.

I don't think I would have enjoyed this book at all as someone completely new to the concepts Kaplan discusses. I am teaching Human Geography this year, though, so my brain is currently wired with a geographic bent and filled with geographic terms and trivia. That base knowledge certainly aided my overall enjoyment of the book.

And a note about the maps in the paperback edition; so much is hidden in the spine crease that they were more annoying than helpful.

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31 January 2019

Book Review: Postern of Fate

Postern of Fate (Tommy & Tuppence, #5)Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oh My.

This is the second time I tried this book and, having learned from the first time I tried it that it wasn't really, by any stretch, a mystery, or even a thriller, or even a book with a relatable plot, I had better luck this time.

Apparently this is the last book Christie wrote. She didn't write it, though. She dictated it. There are some theories that she was suffering from dementia at this point in her life.

All that makes sense based on the words on the pages of this book.

Talky, talky, talky. Rambling conversations that go nowhere, only to have a version of that same conversation repeated 12 pages later by the same two characters.

I really have no idea what happened. Or who any of the characters are, save for Tommy, Tuppence, and Albert. Some of the characters seem to be overlap from A Passenger to Frankfurt which is, by all accounts, Christie's SECOND worst book, after this one.

Tuppence is still Tuppence. "He worried about Tuppence. Tuppence was one of those people you had to worry about. If you left the house, you gave her last words of wisdom and she gave you last promises of doing exactly what you counseled her to do: No, she would not be going out except just to buy a half a pound of butter, and after all, you couldn't call that dangerous, could you?"

Tommy is still Tommy. When someone asks how he is, he replies, "Much the same as I always was. Cracking. You know. Decomposing by degrees."

And everyone they talk to seems to be well past their personal prime; "One always seems to get talking about one's old pals and what's happened to them all. When you talk about old friends, either they are dead, which surprises you enormously because you didn't think they would be, or else they're not dead and that surprises you even more. It's a very difficult world."

Things that Christie might have edited out, or never written in the first place, in her earlier books, elevate themselves to a level of charm that is more likely to be found in the stories of your elderly relatives than in a published book. As Tuppence is dissecting and discovering a "clue," (though what that clue actually means is anyone's guess, frankly) Tommy's confusion is amplified in the dialog in a way that an editor might have cut.
"'Grin-he-Lo,' said Tuppence. "We've been reading it the wrong way around. It's meant to be read the other way around.'
'What do you mean? Ol, then n-e-h--it doesn't make sense. You couldn't go on n-i-r-g. Nirg or some word like that.'
'No. Just take the three words. A little bit, you know, like what Alexander did in the book--the first book that we looked at. Read those words the other way around. Lo-hen-grin.'
Tommy scowled."

I mean, you'll never get that 30 seconds back. But do you want them? If you do, don't read this book.

There's a James Taylor song with the lyrics "The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time," and I enjoyed passing the time with this book. It's not a GOOD book, but it's a comfortable one. Tommy and Tuppence are "elderly" (I have a real difficulty with Christie's timeline with these two...how old were they really in each of their outings?) and play the doddering old fools quite well. They have a dog named Hannibal, who gets his own chapter, even, in one of the weirdest tangents in print. Christie's ramblings are an insight into her childhood; barely veiled reminiscences about her childhood home and her family. Reminds me of how sad I am that I didn't record conversations with my grandmother, when she would go through old photos and tell me stories. I don't remember nearly as much about those conversations as I wish I did.

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05 January 2019

Book Review: The Secret Adversary

The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence #1)The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Charming. I first read N or M? when I was 12 or 13 and fell in love with Tommy and Tuppence but I had never read this one. Though it seems like it's a tired formula now, a plucky couple solving crimes, one assumes when Christie was playing with it, it was original. And striking for Tuppence to be such an independent and mouthy woman. Bless her.

Have I said I love Tuppence?

Tuppence's given name is Prudence. She's the daughter of a vicar, to whom Christie alludes once or twice, always indicating that he is rather befuddled as to what to do about his unconventional daughter. Her nickname, Tuppence (as in "I don't care tuppence"), sketches her attitude towards convention. Like Millie, who was thoroughly modern.

When Tuppence, who has made it clear that she wants to marry for money, finally realizes she's fallen in love with Tommy after she has received a proposal from a fabulously wealthy millionaire; "What idiots girls are! I've always thought so. I suppose I shall sleep with his photograph under my pillow and dream about him all night. It's dreadful to feel you've been false to your principles."

Have I said I love Tuppence?

Christie makes it clear that Tuppence is the brains of the operation, a convention that was not typical in 1920s spy thrillers, where intelligent women were evil and beautiful women were built into the plot solely to provide romance for the hard-boiled leading man. As the two are trying to convince a secret agent to let them continue the accidental investigation they've started, the agent thinks this;

"Outwardly, he's an ordinary clean-limbed, rather block-headed young Englishman. Slow in his mental processes. On the other hand, it's quite impossible to lead him astray through his imagination. He hasn't got any....The little lady's quite different. More intuition and less common sense. They make a pretty pair working together."

Christie's writing is a bit blase but I didn't really care in the end. A fun, quick read.

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