Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

When I was a nipper I used to go into John Menzies, pick up an Agatha Christie with an intriguing cover, and see how much I could get through before the staff started sniffing around.  I must've read at least the first few chapters of quite a few that way.

I think this could've been one of those, because I remember the set up well, but not the denoument.  It's the first Miss Marple novel, and I do marginally prefer her to Poirot, though they're both pretty great.  It has the classic opener - kill off the most detestable character whom everyone's got a beef with. Then throw in some red herrings, then a few reverse red herrings.  By the end your head's buzzing, but the solution was right on front of us all along.  Of course.

What I always like in these books is the attention to detail in the plotting.  Things are revealed in the correct order and at the end it's like a clockwork apparatus with everything in the right place.  Realism isn't the goal, but strict internal consistency.  But it's Christie's view on human nature which is the secret ingredient.  She seems to understand what drives people, whether to love or to murder, and I always find the characters interesting and convincing.  She also has a dark sense of humour, and understands that a passion for murder, which she shares with her readers, is perhaps a little unhealthy.

Not my favourite of her books, but I've got plenty more for the kindle now when I want the literary equivalent of a KFC.  Hmm, now I want a KFC.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Superfreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

The follow up to this, but with an even more annoying title.  Luckily it's still a great read, with lots of myths busted, patterns teased out and sacred cows turned into burgers.

For instance: pimps generally do a good job.  Prostitutes who use them on average make more money per week and are safer than those on the street alone.  In fact, the figures suggest they do a better job than US estate agents.  I also learned working girls have different tariffs depending on the colour of the client's skin.  I knew it!  See, this is why God wants me to punish them.

There's a fascinating section on altruism, kicking off with the Kitty Genovese murder - a famous case in New York which 38 people apparently witnessed and did nothing to stop (also where Rorscharch got his mask, Watchmen fans.)  The authors then look at the history of economists' games like Dictator, which suggested that people were a lot kinder than thousands of years of history and common sense would've lead us to believe.  The lessons learned from both these stories are pretty amazing.

The book also has a nice bit of controversy - anthropogenic global warming.  It looks at the issues from an economist's point of view and compares it to the manure problem of the early 20th century, which was solved by the invention of the internal combustion engine.  Several potentially easy fixes are suggested, often to do with pumping sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, but the authors question whether fixing it as an engineering problem is the real goal of Al Gore et al.

The main lessons in this book are the same as in the first one, but no less salient for that.  People respond to incentives, but not always in ways which are easily predictable.  And, perhaps more importantly, never take the pronouncements of vested interests at face value, whether they're from politicians, the media, or filthy lying whores.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Eden by Stanislaw Lem


Here's a good thing about getting a kindle - you can download a stack of science fiction from behind the Iron Curtain which would otherwise be pretty hard to find in Aberdeen.  I've got a job lot of Lem and the brothers Strugatsky to plough my way through now.

First up is Lem's Eden from 1959.  A spaceship crashes on an unexplored planet and the first part is really enjoyable as the crew (known only as "the Captain","the Cyberneticist," etc) try and figure a way out of the upended ship.  Things get a lot weirder when they find a way outside.

Where this book really works is in the unfathomable strangeness of the place and its inhabitatants.  The crew theorise about what they're seeing, but they also know they could be projecting their own human experiences on things they have no frame of reference for.

There's an unsettling mood to much of their explorations, but unfortunately (for my tastes, at least) it never takes a turn for the horrific.  Instead it becomes political.  They finally communicate with one of the inhabitants, who describes a system not unlike communist Poland in the 50s.

This is all interesting stuff, but the problem is there's no plot, or at least no forward momentum.  The exploration of the alien landscape is just that - exploration.  They don't have any specific goals except looking around.  The repair of the spaceship is, again, very interesting, but it does seem pretty straightforward.  I especially liked one bit where the Engineer's having problems moulding a new plastic control panel - something I'd never considered before in SF, but I guess you don't want to be dealing with a lot of bare wires when you're up in space.

I suppose I've got lowbrow tastes, but I'd have liked a bit more peril.  None of the crew are injured (aside from some coughing at poison gas) and you never feel like they're in any danger.  A missed opportunity for some Lovecraftian unknowable terror, but praise at least for the depiction of a truly alien world.

Right, I'll have another couple of reviews soon.  I've finished another two books and I'd better get them done before I forget what they're about.

Friday, 13 January 2012

1493 by Charles C. Mann

The follow up to 1491, which makes sense thematically, if not numerically.  The previous book looked at the Americas before the arrival of Columbus; here we find out what happened next.

Mann reckons 1492 marks the beginning of a new epoch in Earth's history - the Homogenocene.   It's the first time in 200 million years that the east and west hemispheres have had any meaningful interaction.  The New World gets Europeans, Africans, Chinese, smallpox, yellow fever and malaria.  The Old World gets potatoes, corn, rubber, and lots of silver and gold.  It's the start of globalisation, and it changes everything for better or worse.

This book has a wider scope than the previous one, and looks at the impact on China and Africa, as well as Europe, and at the amazing early years of the post Columbian Americas.  Potosi in modern day Bolivia became one of the biggest cities of the world in just a few years, thanks to the amount of silver ore nearby.  Mexico City was similarly cosmopolitan, with Spaniards, Africans, Indians and Chinese living side by side.  No-where like these cities had ever existed before, and they were a glimpse into the future.  Here's a cool fact - there were even exiled samuari in Mexico at this time, making their way by guarding the silver routes.

There's also a great and unusual look at the slave trade, which seems to have been largely fuelled by diseases like malaria and yellow fever.  Europeans just couldn't survive and died in staggering numbers, but Africans had already built up immunities.  This even explains the US Civil War - the Mason Dixon line, which seperates the Southern slave owning states with the rest of the USA, is also the cut-off point for mosquitos.  The Northern states never really had slaves because Europeans weren't dying of malaria there.

We also find out about new Maroon societies formed between escaped African slaves and Indian survivors, mostly in South America.  Many slaves were originally soldiers captured by other Africans, so they had military experience.  Along with Indian knowledge of the territory and ecology, these maroons became hugely troublesome to European plantations.  Even today these people and their histories are largely ignored.

As in 1491, there are plenty of amazing people.  My favourite is Esteban - probably the first African in North America.  In the early 16th century he was brought along with a group of Spaniards to explore the new continent, but soon he became their de facto leader.  He was worshipped as a powerful holy man in Indian villages and his legend grew.  What happened to him is still a mystery, but the best story is that one village worshipped him so much that they cut off his legs to keep him there.  He apparently survived for many years as a captive god, his wounds being tended with great care.

This is a cracking read for anyone who likes Jared Diamond or Felipe Fernadez Arnesto - a mixture of sweeping macrohistory with compelling personal stories.  And, as with the best histories, you're simultaneously hit by how relatable, but how bizarre, the past can be.

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Pythons' Autobiography by the Pythons

Essential reading for the Python nut, and indeed any fan of comedy, but what were they REALLY like, hmmm?

This book's mostly stitched together from new interviews and diary entries from the time.  That means Palin's diaries get quite a look in.  Especially memorable about filming the Holy Grail in the Highlands.  Remember when he has to eat mud as a politically aware peasant?   They mixed chocolate in to make it more appealing.  Yum.  Comes across as affable, level-headed, possibly a bit dull, but not markedly insanse.

Markedly insane.  Or at least horribly alcoholic, sexually promiscous, unreliable, lazy and with a bit of a cruel streak.  Since he's dead Chapman's contributions come from his family members, long term boyfriend and his own autobiography.  Comes across as pretty selfish and lonely, though he turns it around by sobering up for the movies and becoming an unlikely leading man.  He was even the official doctor on the Life of Brian.  On a Python reunion the 80s the other members kicked over what were supposed to be his ashes, which does sound pretty funny.


Picture, if you will, Terry Jones.  I bet he's wearing a dress, isn't he?  It's his womanly figure and high-pitched voice I suppose, but back in the day he was considered quite dashing as a man.  With his interest in history, he was the driving force behind the Holy Grail and Brian and directed them both.  Tried to get a sequel to Holy Grail going in the 80s, with the ageing knights of the round table going on crusade.  And no Chapman.  Sounds awful.

Very tall and very difficult.  Most of the Python friction over the years seems to have involved Cleese.  He bailed on the last series of Flying Circus and was generally pretty hard to get on with.  Accused by the others of being unsociable and greedy, but I do like how he's so serious about the business of comedy.  Most of his big tiffs were with.....

An interesting character.  Very canny with a head for business and a ruthless streak.  Most of the others started writing in partnership (Palin and Jones; Chapman and Cleese) but Idle always wrote alone.  His early life is telling:  his family were pretty poor and his father died, but he went to a brutal boarding school where he was both the school rebel and the head boy.  Always looking out for number one.  Gets a bit of a hard time for exploiting the Pythons, but I also think they were glad one of them knew what was going on.  Wrote all the songs, too, and was dragged up to sing Always Look on the Bright Side at Chapman's funeral.

It can't be easy for six creative and radical comedians to work together over so many years.  It wasn't all Morcambe and Wise chuminess, but neither was it Steptoe and Son viciousness.  Even between Cleese and Idle there's a deep respect about each others' talents.  And I don't think there's one you can pick out as head and shoulders above the rest, or one who's letting the side down.  Good work everybody!  Anyway, here's Confuse-A-Cat.