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19 August 2017

Book Review: The Moving Finger

The Moving Finger (Miss Marple, #4)The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Miss Marple doesn't even show up until page 175! How can you call this a Miss Marple Mystery, I ask you?

But the narrator, Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna are charming lead characters in a mystery that didn't really intrigue me or entice me much at all.

Jerry has been in a horrible flying accident and is sent to the country to slow down and recover. When he first arrives, he gets a letter. He turns it over "in the idle way one does when time goes slowly and every event must be spun out to its full extent."

Yes, life was slower in 1943, when this book was originally published. Consider this; "The human mind prefers to be spoon-fed with the thoughts of others, but deprived of such nourishment it will, reluctantly, begin to think for itself--and such thinking, remember, is original thinking and may have valuable results." One imagines if staying away from being spoon-fed was difficult in a small village in 1943, it is nearly impossible now with talking heads and social media screaming at us all the time.

At one point, a character says, "God doesn't really need to punish us, Miss Barton. We're so very busy punishing ourselves," which was about the only allusion to the fact that this was written during WWII.

And, finally, describing a character as speaking "with that maddeningly complacent confidence in herself which was her chief characteristic," Christie finally gave me the vocabulary to describe a type of person who I find extraordinarily tedious and annoying. I could never quite give that feeling that certain people give me, that annoyance and eye-roll-inducing tedium, accurate description. Until now.

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16 August 2017

Book Review: Murder at the Vicarage

Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple, #1)Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the first full-length Marple mystery, but she's almost a secondary character. The narrator is the local Vicar, who initially judges Miss Marple to be just like the other old biddies in the village, who would fit very nicely into the "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little" scene in The Music Man. The Vicar thinks about one of them, "It is difficult with Miss Hartnell to know where narrative ends and vituperation begins."

But Miss Marple, while an inveterate gossip, also is the "type to notice things." So wisdom and truth come because she putters in her garden not only because she loves flowers but also loves watching the comings and goings in the neighborhood. Because she watches birds through binoculars and, if she also sees the activities of her friends and neighbors, so be it. What makes her charming, though, is that she is aware of her predilection for over-reaching inquisitiveness. It's her hobby. And she makes no apologies.

And thank goodness. Because these bumbling inspectors and constables would never have figured it out without her help.

"I wish you'd solve the case, Miss Marple, like you did the way Miss Wetherby's gill of pickled shrimps disappeared. And all because it reminded you of something quite different about a sack of coals."

"You're laughing, my dear," said Miss Marple. "But, after all, that is a very sound way of arriving at the truth. It's really what people call intuition and make such a fuss about. Intuition is like reading a word without having to spell it out. A child can't do that, because it has had so little experience. But a grown-up person knows the word because he's seen it often before."

Later, Miss Marple says, "I remember a saying of my Great Aunt Fanny's. I was sixteen at the time and thought it particularly foolish. She used to say, 'The young people think the old people are fools--but the old people know the young people are fools!"

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13 August 2017

Book Review: The Basque History of the World

The Basque History of the World: The Story of a NationThe Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation by Mark Kurlansky
My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Couldn't get through this one, even though I have a hearty desire to know more about Basques and Spanish/French history.


Before I quit reading, right in the middle of a convoluted section that started several pages earlier declaring it would explain the Basque beret but getting bogged down in so much poorly-told history that I threw the book down in disgust, I did learn a couple of things.

Basques have the highest percentage of Rh negative blood in the world. Other places originally occupied by Cro-Magnon man, like the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and the Canary Islands, also have high percentages of Rh negative.

The Basque language, Euskera, is not related to any other language. It has no Indo-European roots. At all. Which is remarkable because once those Indo-Europeans started spreading, they left virtually no European language untouched.

The only defeat Charlemagne ever suffered was at the hands of the Basques in 778. The story is told in the Song of Roland.

I wish I could hang in and keep learning. But I just can't read this darn book any more.

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07 July 2017

Book Review: Murder in Mesopotamia

Murder in MesopotamiaMurder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I scrolled WAY down the list of editions to find this edition because when I pulled this book off the shelf to take on vacation, I realized that I bought it for 25 cents at the used bookstore that benefitted the Manchester Cancer Society in Mandeville, Jamaica. There's even a date stamp; 09 March 1982.

I don't remember reading it. Though I'm sure I did. There were moments in the text that I remembered. But I didn't remember whodunit.

I DO remember, as a young teenager, being enthralled with the setting; an archeological dig in the middle east. As an adult, I saw the disdain Christie had for the non-British vagaries of that society; the imperial sense of superiority. But I didn't see that as a kid; I superimposed Raiders of the Lost Ark over Christie's setting and, for a while, I wanted to be an archeologist. It's rather disappointing to re-read this as an adult and think "no running water?" "oh, how tedious!" "that sounds hot and miserable!" instead.

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Book Review: The Labors of Hercules

The Labors of HerculesThe Labors of Hercules by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read a 1964 Dell edition that was originally 45 cents and truly fit in my pocked. Back when we didn't have phones to keep us occupied on trains and buses.

Enjoyable set of stories, wherein Poirot decides to take 12 cases that will parallel the 12 labors of Hercules. Since his name is Hercule (and his brother's name is Achille, though he only shows up here in a mention).

I don't, as a rule, enjoy short stories as much as full-length novels because once I get to know the characters, boom, the story is over.

For example, in "The Horses of Diomedes" Poirot is in a small town, gently pumping an old hen for information. He asks if she is acquainted with the classics and then reveals that the case he's working on emulates his namesake, Hercules and his taming of the wild horses of Diomedes.
"Don't tell me you came down here to train horses--at your age--and always wearing patent leather shoes! You don't look to me as though you'd ever been on a horse in your life!"
"The horses, Madame, are symbolic. They were wild horses who ate human flesh."
"How very unpleasant of them. I always so think these ancient Greeks and Romans are very unpleasant. I can't think why clergymen are so fond of quoting from the classics--for one thing one never understands what they mean and it always seems to me that the whole subject matter of the classics is unsuitable for clergymen. So much incest, and all those statues with nothing on--not that I mind that myself, but you know what clergymen are--quite upset if girls come to church with no stockings on--let me see, where was I?"

I would like Poirot to have 100 more conversations with this gal.

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16 June 2017

Book Review: The Ivy Tree

The Ivy TreeThe Ivy Tree by Mary  Stewart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I didn't like this book at first because I didn't like the main character. At all.

Then plot happened, things were revealed, and I DID like her.

So now I need to read it again, because I think I'll like it better the second time knowing about her what I know now.

Good training for life, really. Try not to pass judgement; everyone has a story but you wandered in the middle of the 3rd act and don't know it yet.

Also, this, when one character asks another to give her advice.

"Why in blazes should you imagine I could be of any help to you? I made a pretty fair mess of my own life, you know."
I half expected the routine and automatic response of kindness and reassurance, but it didn't come. She said immediately:
"That's why. It isn't the people who've had things their own way who--well, who get wisdom. And they haven't the time to think about what life does to other people, either. But if you've been hurt yourself, you can imagine it. You come alive to it. It's the only use I can ever see that pain has. All that stuff about welcoming suffering because it lifts up the soul is rot. People ought to avoid pain, if they can, like disease...but if they have to stand it, its best use might be that it makes them kinder. Being kind's the main thing, isn't it?"

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01 June 2017

Book Review: The Secret of Chimneys

The Secret of Chimneys (Superintendent Battle, #1)The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I visited my elderly uncle two summers ago and he implored me to take some of his collection of old paperback mysteries off his hands. I gladly absconded with several Ngaio Marsh, G.K. Chesterton, Earl Derr Biggers and Agatha Christie.

This was one of them. The edition I read doesn't exist on Goodreads. It's tiny. Pocketsize, truly, from when we carried books around to entertain us instead of smartphones. Dell. 1959. 35 cents.

It wasn't typical Christie. No Poirot. No Marple. Superintendent Battle appears (in fact, it is now listed as Battle #1 on many lists) but he is not the main sleuth. There IS no main, sleuth, really. The story revolves less around a central figure-out-er and more around a delicious cast of characters.

Originally written in 1925, the between-the-wars intrigue is palpable. A Balkan country called Herzoslovakia. Deposed monarchs. A group called the Red Hand. British imperialism in Africa.

Patently dated but completely enjoyable along the lines of one of my top five favorite Christie novels Man in the Brown Suit and Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk?.

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22 May 2017

Book Review: American Gods

American Gods (American Gods, #1)American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars


That one word review will either get me lynched or make me a hero of the anti-alternative-not-so-indie intellectuals.

I have this thing that if characters in books don't ask enough questions and instead wander through set-pieces as overly-malleable creatures who function to further the action rather than being personalities that mold or reroute the action I soon tire of the book and want it all to stop.

I like characters who take control, even of uncontrollable situations.

None of these characters really do that. They are all passive results of other people's actions and thoughts.

Which makes this a very difficult book for me to enjoy.

Add to that the fact that I am a simpleton who enjoys modern takes on mythology more in the realm of Rick Riordan, then you understand my three-star rating and dismiss it as the ravings of a cretinous know-nothing.


There were still moments that resonated. Not enough for four stars, but enough that I kept reading even when I wanted to put it down and move on. These moments, interspersed with a few of Gaiman's impish slaps at humor, made the book worth the two days I spent on it.

But I wouldn't spend more than two days, frankly.

"The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes.
"Say 'Nevermore,'" said Shadow.
"Fuck you," said the raven."

"Back in my day, we had it all set up. You lined up when you died, and you'd answer for your evil deeds and for yoru good deeds, and if your evil deeds outweighed a feather, we'd feed your soul and your heart to Ammet, the Eater of Souls."
"He must have eaten a lot of people."
"Not as many as you'd think. It was a really heavy feather."

Then there is the moment when one of the gods short-changes a waitress. Shadow, the main character, rectifies it, telling the god the waitress hadn't done anything wrong.

"No? When she was seven years old she shut a kitten in a closet. She listened to it mew for several days. When it ceased to mew, she took it out of the closet, put it into a shoebox, and buried it in the backyard. She wanted to bury something. She consistently steals from everywhere she works. Small amounts, usually. Last year she visited her grandmother in the nursing home to which the old woman is confined. She took an antique gold watch from her grandmother's bedside table, and then went prowling through several other rooms, stealing small quantities of money and personal effects from the twilight fold in their golden years. When she got home she did not know what to do with her spoils, scared someone would come after her, so she threw everything away except the cash. She also has asymptomatic gonorrhea. She suspects she might be infected but does nothing about it. When her last boyfriend accused her of having given him a disease she was hurt, offended, and refused to see him again. They all do the same things. They may think their sins are original, but for the most part they are petty and repetitive."

Then there's Sam's off-the-cuff creed, which is amazing and several pages long, but includes;
"I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies."

But I suppose the book was made completely worthwhile with this little nugget.

"There was a girl, and her uncle sold her, wrote Mr. Ibis in his perfect copperplate handwriting. . That is the tale. The rest is detail."

Detail is the tale. Telling the story.

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Book Review - Gaudy Night

Gaudy Night (Lord Peter Wimsey, #12)Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I mean, was there a mystery here?

Don't get me wrong. It was fun to read along while Harriet finally falls for Lord Peter, but the pace was ponderous and the clues few and far between.

I also found myself wishing for a cast of characters to refer back to, like one finds in certain editions of Agatha Christie books. I couldn't keep all those learned ladies apart.

Written in 1936, this book spends quite some time thrusting forth early feminism, the world wherein it is preferable to stay single and study than get married and procreate.

"It would have been such a bore to be the mother of morons, and it's an absolute toss-up, to be the mother of morons, and it's an absolute toss-up, isn't it? If one could only invent them, like characters in books, it would be much more satisfactory to a well-regulated mind."

Not that Sayers looks too fondly on some of the female scholars; "...that curious little creature dressed in unbecoming pink, who looked as thought she had been carelessly packed away in a drawer all winter and put into circulation again without being ironed..." It's as if she is judging them for not being feminine, though she judges for being feminine, too.

And the men? Well, the men are mostly treated kindly; "He had the appeal of a very young dog of a very large breed--a kind of amiable absurdity."

But Sayers is still stuck; a product of her time. Trying to walk that tightrope of having a bevy of strong, independent female characters who, in the end, still rather want to get married.

"I once got engaged to somebody," one of the female scholars expounds. "But I found I was always blundering--hurting his feelings, doing stupid things, making quite elementary mistakes about him. In the end I realized that I simply wasn't taking as much trouble with him as I should have done over a disputed reading. So I decided he wasn't my job."
"I suppose one oughtn't marry anybody, unless one's prepared to make him a full-time job," another character replies.

Enter Lord Peter, with his cosmopolitan description of the political state in Europe in the 1930s, "The old bus wobbles one way, and you think, 'That's done it!' and then it wobbles the other way and you think, 'All serene;' and then, one day, it wobbles over too far and you're in the soup and you can't remember how you got there," but, in the next breath, wishing to trade his role as a diplomat for the simpler life of the scholar; "Here's where real things are done, Harriet--if only those bunglers out there will keep quiet and let me go on. God! how I loathe haste and violence and all that ghastly, slippery cleverness. Unsound, unscholarly, insincere--nothing but propaganda and special pleading and 'what do we get of this?' No time, no peace, no silence; nothing but conferences and newspapers and public speeches till one can't hear one's self think. If only one could root one's self in here among the grass and stones and do something worth doing, even it it was only restoring a lost breathing for the love of the job and nothing else."

And, of course, Lord Peter is an enlightened man. At one point, when asked if he approves of education for women, he replies, "You should not imply that I have the right to either approve or disapprove." We should all remember that little tidbit as we are navigating the comment threads of various social networking sites.

"Lord, teach us to take our hearts and look them in the face, however difficult it may be."

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06 May 2017

Book Review: Have His Carcase

Have His CarcaseHave His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers

Dammit. I figured this one out. But it was still a good read.

It would have been fun to know Sayers, I think. Not that she probably would have enjoyed knowing me, if her condescension to the reader is any indication of her attitude towards mere mortals. Here, just as in Five Red Herrings, Sayers makes several side comments that indicate just what she thinks of you.

At the same time, I understand why she despises me. She's a hermit. A judgmental hermit. A brilliant, judgmental hermit. So, sometimes, when she throws off-hand comments that level judgment on the masses, I nod and say, yes, you truly understand the human condition. Or, more specifically, MY human condition.

"A solitary rock is always attractive. All right-minded people feel an overwhelming desire to scale and sit upon it."

"You know what people are. The minute they see anyone having a peaceful feed they gather in from the four points of the compass and sit down beside one, and the place is like the Corner House in the rush hour."

And then, superior to me or no, she has the capacity to make me laugh. Take this exchange, during which Wimsey shows both his charm, his knowledge of literature, and his grasp of science.

"We believe in you, Miss Kohn," said Wimsey, solemnly, "as devoutly as in the second law of thermodynamics."
"What are you getting at?" said Mr. Simons, suspiciously.
"The second law of thermo-dynamics," explained Wimsey, helpfully, "which holds the universe in its path, and without which time would run backwards like a cinema film wound the wrong way."
"No, would it?" exclaimed Miss Kohn, rather pleased.
"Altars may reel," said Wimsey, "Mr. Thomas may abandon is dress suit and Mr. Snowden renounce free trade, but the second law of thermodynamics will endure while memory holds her seat in this distracted globe, by which Hamlet meant his head but which I, with a wider intellectual range, apply to the planet which we have the rapture of inhabiting. Inspector Umpelty appears shocked, but I assure you that I know no more impressive way of affirming my entire belief in your absolute integrity." He grinned. "What I like about your evidence, Miss Kohn, is that it adds the final touch of utter and impenetrable obscurity to the problem which the Inspector and I have undertaken to solve. It reduces it to the complete quintescence of incomprehensible nonsense. Therefore, by the second law of thermo-dynamics, which lays down that we are hourly and momently progressing to a state of more and more randomness, we receive positive assurance that we are moving happily and securely in the right direction. You may not believe me," added Wimsey, now merrily launched on a flight of fantasy, "but I have got to the point now at which the slightest glimmer of common sense imported into this preposterous case would not merely disconcert me but cut me to the heart. I have seen unpleasant cases, difficult cases, complicated cases and even contradictory cases, but a case founded on stark unreason I have never met before. It is a new experience and, blase as I am, I confess that I am thrilled to the marrow."

And THEN she makes me feel like I might be superior, too, when I catch that her well-meaning but plebian and gruff police inspector keeps mixing up Congreve quotes, Biblical quotes, and Shakespeare quotes.

Or understand exactly what the theater agent is talking about when he goes on a discourse about the problems of character construction in Shakespeare's Richard III.

"Inconsistent to my mind. You mightn't think it, but I do a bit of reading and thinking now and again, and what I say is, I don't believe W. Shakespeare had his mind on the job when he wrote that part. Too slimy at the beginning and too tough at the end. It ain't nature. Not but what the play always acts well. Plenty of pep in it, that's why. Keeps moving. But he's made Richard two men in one, that's what I complain of. One of 'em's a wormy, plotting sort of fellow and the other's a bold, bustling sort of chap who chops people's heads off and flies into tempers. It don't seem to fit somehow, eh?"
"I always think," said Wimsey, "that Shakespeare meant Richard to be one of those men who are always acting a part--dramatising things, so to speak. I don't believe his furies are any more real than his lovemaking."

But in the pages where she tediously has Harriet and Wimsey figuring out a code, which she walks the reader through, step by step, she has a helpful footnote explaining that the most obvious solution eventually "proved to be untenable, so the calculations relating to this supposition are omitted." I laughed out loud. Then skipped the next four pages of discussion and diagrams. I had no need for that footnote, nor for the in-depth explanation of the code so, obviously, I don't even reach the lowest rung of her expectations of her readers.

I didn't even know who Ninon de l'Enclos was, for pete's sake. Thank heavens for Google.

I am likely not worthy of her constructed world. But I enjoy inhabiting it for a few days at a time anyway.

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02 May 2017

Book Review: Strong Poison

Strong Poison: Lord Peter Wimsey Book 6 (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries)Strong Poison: Lord Peter Wimsey Book 6 by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading through the Harriet Vane/Lord Peter trilogy.

Damn, he falls in love fast. Whirlwind. I would have loved a little more insight into his head-over-heels-ness with the reticent accused murderess.

But in love he falls. So clear her name he must.

And he does, because there is another book. Then another. Then another, with the word "Honeymoon" in the title, so we all know where it's going. We just have to wait until they get there.

Sayers is at her sarcastic peak in this short novel. And, yes, I call it a novel because the mystery was so thin I actually figured it out quickly, so I just read for the love story and the banter.

Like this conversation between two unnamed observers at her trial;
"And how do you know what a murderess looks like? Have you ever met one?"
"Well, I've seen them at Madame Tussaud's."
"Oh, waxworks. Everybody looks like a murderer in waxworks."
"Well, p'raps they do. Have a choc."

Harriet Vane herself has a very dry sense of humor. Lord Peter visits her in jail, fawns, proposes marriage and then, upon his leaving and promising to come again, Harriet says, "I will give my footman orders to admit you. You will always find me at home."

Lord Peter's investigations take him to a smoky club filled with pretentious artists. Lord Peter gleefully eggs one fellow on.
"Well, what can you do with the wretched and antiquated instruments of our orchestra? A diatonic scale, bah! Thirteen miserable, bourgeois semi-tones, pooh! To express the infinite complexity of modern emotion, you need a scale of thirty-two notes to the octave."
"Buy why cling to the octave?" said the fat man. "Till you can cast away the octave and its sentimental associations, you walk in fetters of convention."
"That's the spirit!" said Wimsey. "I would dispense with all definite notes. After all, the cat does not need them for his midnight melodies, powerful and expressive as they are..."

The murder victim, an author, is judged as a "perfectly foul blighter" because he "has his photograph on the dust-cover of his books, you know--that's the sort of squit he was."

I was terribly pleased the Miss Climpson made an appearance in this book and laughed all the way through her adventures finding a will in a week. Lord Peter, quite impressed with her work, signs off a conversation with her by trilling, "Bless you, may your shadow never grow bulkier."


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27 April 2017

Book Review: Inferno

Inferno (Robert Langdon, #4)Inferno by Dan Brown
My rating: 2 of 5 stars


I am glad Brown aimed in a different direction than the Catholic Church and the Masons, but, still, this one was a little annoying.

But, still, one moment of clarity that summarizes a lot of what I've learned over the past eight months living in a Muslim majority country; "Both Christianity and Islam are logocentric, meaning they are focused on The Word. In Christian tradition, the Word became flesh in the book of John: 'And the Word was made flesh, and He dwelt among us.' Therefore, it was acceptable to depict the Word as having a human form. In Islamic tradition, however, the Word did not become flesh, and therefore the Word needs to remain in the form of a word...in most cases, calligraphic renderings of the names of the holy figures of Islam."

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Book Review: The Lost Symbol

The Lost Symbol (Robert Langdon, #3)The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My kid went on a Robert Langdon binge during a week's vacation. This book was the first one he read. He then slammed through the other three, also in the wrong order. He didn't seem to care.

I've said in other reviews that Dan Brown takes a lot of flak for his work. And though he is a one-trick pony (or, rather, a 50 trick pony) his tricks are intriguing. And, with this book, new to me.

I'm living in north Africa right now for a couple of years, mostly so my kid can experience a non-US frame of mind. We live near all the amazing must-see European places; Rome, Venice, Florence, London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, etc.

But now I'm trying to figure out how I can get my kid to Washington D.C. before he's too old to want to travel with us anymore. Maybe next summer? Maybe not as much history as those other great European capitals, but certainly as much symbolism.

Things I learned reading this book;

ABC - the three prerequisites for an ideology to be considered a religion; Assure, Believe, Convert. Assure salvation, believe in a precise theology, and convert non-believers.

Magic squares.

All spiritual rituals can be frightening when taken out of context; "crucifixion reenactments, Jewish circumcisions, Mormon baptisms of the dead, Catholic exorcisms, Islamic niqab, shamanic trance healing, the Jewish Kaparot ceremony, even the eating of the figurative body and blood of Christ."

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Book Review: The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon, #2)The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Revisiting Dan Brown in the wake of my 13 year old plowing through all four Robert Langdon books in less than a week.

This one was, of course, less of a page-turner the second time through. What seems crazy-clever 15 years ago now seems old-news and old-school.

And the mystery is thin. Thinner than it was before I knew Brown's style and the fact that he has 25 points of interesting trivia that he's spun into several best-selling books.

But there were still trivia tidbits that made me raise my eyebrows and think, "Hmmm!" Even on second reading. One imagines 15 years ago, I raised my eyebrows at the same thing. Old age is a wonder. Everything old is new again because we can't remember learning it the first time.

Pagans were originally simple country folk who kept their tradition of nature worship but the church was so fearful of their faith that anyone who lived in a ville or village, was worthy the church's disdain. Hence, our current term "villain."

The planet Venus traces a pentagram in the night sky every eight years. A pentagram used to be a symbol of perfection and was almost a part of the Olympic seal (the Olympics every four years followed the half-cycle of Venus) but, at the last minute, they exchanged the symbol for the rings. Five rings. Hmmm.

PHI. 1.68. The Divine Proportion.

Yeah. We can make fun of Dan Brown. But he's smarter than I am. He's figured out how to make 100 points of arcane trivia into millions of dollars.

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Book Review: Angels and Demons

Angels & Demons  (Robert Langdon, #1)Angels & Demons by Dan Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I just revisited this book after having read it in the early 2000s, before my son was born.

Now my son is 13. We live in Morocco, where there aren't very many available books for purchase. No one in the family likes to read on a screen, so whenever we travel, we hunt down English language bookstores and stock up.

My husband picked up Lost Symbol, oddly on sale at our own Virgin store in Casablanca. My son read it quickly and devotedly. So when we went to Barcelona for a vacation, we found a great used bookstore and snapped up the other three Robert Langdon mysteries.

My son read them out of order. But as I noticed how intrigued he was by the adventures, I thought I ought to re-read and give myself a refresher course.

On second reading, the flaws are more apparent. But Brown, despite all the derogatory opinions about him, is a good story-teller. He uses the same 12 tricks, cliches and ideas over and over and over, but they are pretty darn good ones, especially for someone who grew up not questioning organized religion. The young me thought, "Holy shit! Really?!?!?!" The older me thinks, "Yeah. Prt. Dammit."

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Book Review: A Short History of England

A Short History of EnglandA Short History of England by Simon Jenkins

One of the blurbs on the back of my paperback edition calls this a "wry gallop through English history." Gallop is the key word.

For the history I already had more intimate knowledge of, the gallop made sense; driving by Henry VIII and the Tudors and the Stuarts and Charles I and William and Mary at 90 miles an hour was easy to do because I had the background information.

But for the many, MANY, eras of English history with which I'm not so familiar, the gallop became a blur. Often I would turn my horse around, canter back, and gallop by again, just to see if I could gather any more insight the second time. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't.

But what I did gain was a better understanding of the breadth and depth of English history. I also gained several points of poignant trivia:

Parliament comes from when England was more French than English; "parlement" means "talk about it;" a discussion. A conversation.

All English monarchs are descended from the wives of a man named John of Gaunt. Ever heard of him? Me either. He was the third son of Edward III. A nobody, really. But imagine the world had he, and his seed via several wives, not existed.

If Shakespeare had been writing in any other country, we might not have his plays. Anywhere else in Europe, his work would only have been shared with the elite. In Elizabethan England, his work was shared with everyone who could get to a theater.

Roundheads (Civil War era parliamentarians) were called such because they had dumbass haircuts.

Royal Oak, the ubiquitous name of pubs and American suburbs, derives from the Civil War era when Charles II hid for a night in an oak tree in Staffordshire before escaping to France, dressed as a servant.

The word "cabal" comes from the initials of a group of high-ranking men who supported Charles II during the Restoration; Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale.

The Seven Years War (1765-1763) was the first true "world" war.

The word "jingoism" comes from the late 19th century, during the age of imperialism and colonization, at which time there was a popular music hall song with the lyrics, "We don't want to fight but by jingo if we do, We've got the ships, we've got the men, and we've got the money too."

In 1910, when King Edward VII, the son of Queen Victoria, died, his funeral was a moment in history that Barbara Tuchman, the famous historian, described as "...the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last." Soon all of those gathered would be at war with one another.

And regarding WWI, the historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote, "Great armies, accumulated to provide security and preserve peace, carried nations to war by their own weight."

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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;

These words form a palindrome, yes. But they can also be rearranged to form

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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