January 21, 2019

Book review: “A Mind to Murder” by P.D. James

. A Mind to Murder, published in 1963, was the second mystery novel by P.D. James to center on British police detective Adam Dalgliesh, and it shows James as a still-developing writer. The plot is more than a bit complicated, having to do with the murder of the office manager of a psychiatric clinic, and the relationships among the suspects are intertwined in an awkwardly proliferation.  What I mean is that, in three cases, two suspects are having or have had affairs with one another — a total of six people in all, or nearly the entire suspect pool. Yet, those inelegances are rather minor inasmuch as, already, James is showing herself to be a serious writer, more interested in personality and character than in “characters” and plot.  This is evidenced in her evocations of the various personalities in the clinic, but, most, in her descriptions of Dalgliesh, a minor poet and major crime-solver. He feels a great deal For one thing, Dalgliesh is very much unlike the cold, calculating detectives of many other authors.  Indeed, he feels a great deal, such as when he considers that the slaying could as easily been the work of a woman as a […]
January 9, 2019

Book review: “Grant” by Ron Chernow

      Ron Chernow’s 2017 biography of Ulysses S. Grant, military victor of the Civil War and a middling American president, contains much of value but is ultimately disappointing in capturing Grant as a person and public figure. His 959-page Grant is over-written and unfocused.  It is repetitive, making the same point — often in very similar words — over and over again, and rarely uses one quotation on an aspect of Grant’s life without following it with several more, frequently saying essentially the same thing. One very positive aspect of Grant is its clear-eyed look at its subject’s alcoholism.  Chernow writes in his introduction that a key aim for him in writing the book was to deal with the question of drinking, not as a moral failing (as earlier biographers had) but with the modern understanding of alcoholism as a disease.  He writes: The drinking issue, both real and imaginary, so permeated Grant’s career that a thoroughgoing account is needed to settle the matter.  This biography will contend that Grant was an alcoholic with an astonishingly consistent pattern of drinking, recognized by friend and foe alike: a solitary binge drinker who would not touch a drop of alcohol, […]
January 7, 2019

Book review: “The Reptile Room: A Series of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snicket

    The Baudelaire orphans find themselves yet again in an unfortunate event — in the clutches of Count Olaf. Midway through The Reptile Room, they are discussing the sad fact that the nefarious count wants to get ahold of their family’s fortune. “And,” Klaus continued, “once he gets his hands on it, he plans to kill us.” “Tadu,” Sunny murmured solemnly, which probably meant something along the lines of “It’s a loathsome situation in which we find ourselves.”   Tadu = “A loathsome situation” That’s funny. It’s always funny when Sunny has something to say.  As an infant with only four very sharp teeth, she says what seem like nonsense syllables, and author Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler, in real life) explains what she means, usually a fairly long, complex statement, serious and sober. The sheer ridiculousness of it all — that Sunny could actually mean all that Lemony Snicket says she means, in this case, about “a loathsome situation” — is what makes this repeated trope in the Lemony Snicket books funny. Such humor is easy to understand.  What I’m more interested here, though, is why Lemony Snicket’s 13 books about the ever-so-many Unfortunate Events that befall the Baudelaire […]
January 1, 2019

Essay: The twelve best books of 2018

    Here are the twelve best books that I read in 2018: “Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying” by Sallie Tisdale “Barchester Towers” by Anthony Trollope “David Copperfield“ by Charles Dickens “Golden Hill” by Francis Spufford “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America” by Garry Wills “Native Son” by Richard Wright “The Art of Biblical Narrative” by Robert Alter “The Art of the Wasted Day” by Patricia Hampl “The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography” by Alan Jacobs “The Christ of the Miracle Stories: Portrait through Encounter” by Wendy Cotter CSJ “The Path to Power” by Robert A. Caro “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene These aren’t the best books published in 2018.  In fact, only two of the books hit bookshelves during the year.  The rest are older, in some cases, a lot older. I find it interesting that two of the book titles have to do with “The Art of…”  Two, with power, from different yet, perhaps, complementary perspectives.  Five are novels.  Two are book-long meditations on subjects that are far from run-of-the-mill.  Five have to do with religion in some way.  There’s a […]
January 1, 2019

Book review: “Being Dead” by Jim Crace (2019)

      Just before the first page of Jim Crace’s 1999 novel Being Dead, Joseph and Celice, zoologists married to each other, have been murdered in a clumsy, random robbery. They were the oddest pair, these dead, spread-eagled lovers on the coast:  Joseph and Celice. Both had been teachers…Hardly any of their colleagues had ever seen them together, or visited them at home, let alone witnessed them touch.  How unexpected, then, that these two, of all couples, should be found like this, without their underclothes, their heads caved in, unlikely victims of unlikely passions.  Who would have thought that unattractive people of that age and learning would encounter sex and murder in the open air! For a novel of only 196 pages, Being Dead has a great deal going on.  It is, in a minor way, a mystery, first, about how these two met their deaths, and, second, about whether the much-delayed search for them would ever find them. It is also a literary tour-de-force in which Crace dazzles the reader with his clear-eyed description of such aspects of human life as the inner workings of a daughter’s thoughts and emotions, the mastications of the insect and mammal world […]
January 1, 2019

Book Review: “Being Dead” by Jim Crace (2012 review)

  When she and her husband Joseph were murdered on an isolated stretch of beach, Celice’s body fell onto the sand, upending a dune beetle and trapping him in the folds of her black wool jacket. As the beetle worked his way out from under the fabric, English novelist Jim Crace writes: He didn’t carry with him any of that burden which makes the human animal so cumbersome, the certainty that death was fast approaching and could arrive at any time, with its plunging snout, blindly to break the surface of the pool….It’s only those who glimpse the awful, endless corridor of death, too gross to contemplate, that need to lose themselves in love or art. His species had no poets….He had not spent, like us, his lifetime concocting systems to deny mortality.  Nor had he passed his days in melancholic fear of death, the hollow and the avalanche.  Nor was he burdened with the compensating marvels of human, mortal life.  He had no schemes, no memories, no guilt or aspirations, no appetite for love, and no delusions.    “Feast on the blood” On the opening page of Being Dead, Joseph and Celice are already dead, their bodies just starting […]
December 26, 2018

Book review: “Moving Pictures” by Terry Pratchett

  As Terry Pratchett created his series of 41 Discworld novels, he took his world from a fairly medieval place into modernity through his introduction of a variety of civilization’s great innovative technologies. These included a form of telegraph, the clacks (The Fifth Element, 1999), the news media (The Truth, 2000), a postal system (Going Postal, 2004), coinage (Making Money, 2007) and railroads (Raising Steam, 2013). My suspicion is that, in some vague way, Pratchett had plans for bringing still more innovations to Discworld, as, maybe, the telephone, computers and supermarkets.  Alas, he didn’t get the chance, cut down as he was at age 66 in 2015 by Alzheimer’s disease. In the books he did write about innovations in Discworld, Pratchett brought his usual skeptical eye to the great dreams and pitfalls of such changes to the everyday world.  The introduction of a new contraption often resulted in a crisis of some sort, but, by and large, when the novel was finished, the contraption with all its warts had become part of life for the Discworldians.  (Discworldites?) Except the innovation that was introduced in Pratchett’s 10th Discworld book, Moving Pictures, published in 1990.   Not benign As the title suggests, […]
December 19, 2018

Book review: “Eric” by Terry Pratchett

  Thirteen-year-old Eric Thursley conjures up demons.  Except, in this case, his first successful conjuration, he gets the hapless wizard Rincewind. The result — detailed in Terry Pratchett’s ninth Discworld novel, titled, appropriately, Eric — is a trip through time and space to such locales as: the Tezuman Empire (the Discworld equivalent of the human-sacrificing Aztec Empire), Tsort (the Discworld equivalent of Troy with its own version of Helen, a lady called Elenor who isn’t quite the looker she once was), an immense blackness where “a little rat-faced man” identifies himself as a creator (the Discworld equivalent of the Big Bang) and Hell (the Discworld equivalent of Hell).   Rincewind’s talent Rincewind, being Rincewind, much of this novel has to do with him doing what he does best, i.e., running away, and dragging Eric along with him.  As Pratchett explains: Pre-eminent amongst Rincewind’s talents was his skill in running away, which over the years he had elevated to the status of a genuinely pure science; it didn’t matter if you were fleeing from or to, so long as you were fleeing.  It was flight alone that counted.  I run, therefore, I am; more correctly, I run, therefore with any luck, […]
December 17, 2018

Six Feminist Books

    When I use the term “feminist book” here, I’m referring to strong, muscular books written by strong, muscular writers who happen to be women.  To me, these books are part of what feminism is all about — the creation of great art. I greatly admire the six writers in this list.  The book I highlight for each writer is an example of her skill and insight.  I would recommend reading any of the works by these six.  Of course, there are many other women writers whom I could have included in this list. Here’s the list: All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West If you’re not familiar with Vita Sackville-West and her writing, you’re missing out on a lot [I wrote in the Chicago Tribune in an essay, “Deriving pleasure from books read, and unread,” published December 9, 2007]. Born into British aristocracy — she grew up in a stately 15th Century mansion that had been a gift to her family from Queen Elizabeth I — Sackville-West was deeply in love with her husband, Sir Harold Nicolson, a prominent British politician. Which might not sound like much, except that, throughout her life, she took a series of lesbian lovers, […]
December 12, 2018

Book review: “Plague Ship” by Andre Norton

  Andre Norton’s 1956 Plague Ship is a rip-snortingly inventive yarn that’s one of her better novels, a combination of medical mystery, anthropological adventure and space gallop.  And it features a rare guest appearance by the Earth, or Terra as Norton, like most sci-fic writers, calls it. Indeed — in one of those science fiction moments that, for the character, represents a look at an horrific past while, for readers, especially those in the 1950s, it calls to mind a possibly horrific future — the Solar Queen trading ship lands on Earth in the Big Burn. The Big Burn was the horrible scar left by the last of the Atomic Wars — a section of radiation poisoned land comprising hundreds of square miles — land which generations had never dared to penetrate. Originally the survivors of that war had shunned the whole continent which it disfigured. It had been close to two centuries before men had gone into the still wholesome land laying to the far west and the south. And through the years, the avoidance of the Big Burn had become part of their racial instinct as they shrank from it. It was a symbol of something no Terran […]
December 10, 2018

Book review: “Sargasso of Space” by Andre Norton

  The traders of the Solar Queen have set a trap for some hardened criminals who are hiding on the planet Limbo.  One of the bad guys gets out of his crawler, a Jeep-like vehicle, to investigate something, and, then,…. A stone thudded against the helmet of the would-be investigator, sending him off balance to clutch at the tread of the crawler for support.  Dane slammed another in his direction and then aimed for the driver of the machine. The bad guys don’t use their deadly blasters but, apparently stunned by this rock-throwing attack, flee out instead into the distance. Limbo is a world where the remains of a great many space ships have been found, including remnants of the mysterious, little-understood Forerunners race that had populated the cosmos eons ago.  The world is filled with a multitude of machines able to do amazing things. Yet, I can’t help but smile to see that Andre Norton, writing initially as Alex North, has this key episode in her 1955 Sargasso of Space turn on the ability of her hero Dane Thorson and his fellows to throw rocks — like any Neanderthal of the distant past.   “Those angles are wrong” Another […]
December 3, 2018

Book review: “Soul Seeing: Light, Love, Forgiveness” by Michael Leach and Friends

  Brian Doyle’s essay “The Day I Stood Shimmering in Shame” begins this way: Committed a sin yesterday, in the hallway, at noon. I roared at my son, I grabbed him by the shirt collar, I frightened him so badly that he cowered and wept, and then he turned to run, I grabbed him by the arm so roughly that he flinched, and it was that flicker of fear and pain across his face, the bright eager holy riveting face I have loved for ten years, that stopped me then and haunts me this morning; for I am the father of his fear, I sent it snarling into his heart, and I can never get it out now, which torments me. Here’s the start of Ginny Kubitz Moyer’s essay “The Hands We Hold Are Gifts”: I was sitting at my prayer desk the other night, two flickering candles in front of me, letting my mind wander as I looked at the small framed icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help that once belonged to my grandmother.  It’s an inexpensive framed image, that she must have had since the 1960s at least, but in the candlelight it shone like pure gold.  […]
November 28, 2018

Book review: “Through the Bookstore Window” by Bill Petrocelli

  I picked up Bill Petrocelli’s Through the Bookstore Window in the midst of reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.  I wasn’t looking for a break, but I had already gone more than 500 pages into what is a book of nearly 900 pages, so maybe I was wanting a small respite.  In any case, I picked up Through the Bookstore Window, and the opening chapter was enough to entice me into reading the whole book. I’m not sure if it’s fair to any author to try to read the author’s work while also reading Dickens.  So, when Petrocelli’s book dragged a bit — well, a lot — in the first half, I figured it might not be his fault. In the end, it was a workmanlike book that, for me, collapsed under the weight of too many social issues, trends and controversies that were crammed into its 278 pages.  To wit, in no particular order: Incest The Bosnian War A kidnapping A back-alley abortionist Two near suicides A workplace shooting A drive-by shooting A sniper shooting A rape The Vietnam War Sex trafficking A gay female couple A gay male couple A pregnant teen A transgender character Fundamentalist Christianity […]
November 26, 2018

Book review: “Barons of the Sea…And Their Race to Build the World’s Fastest Clipper Ship” by Steven Ujifusa

    Steven Ujifusa’s Barons of the Sea ends with a quote from Captain Charlie Porter Low, a man who had run away to sea and spent his life as the master of large, fast merchant ships plying the oceans between China and New York, London and San Francisco. One who loves the sailing of a ship is always watching for the wind to blow, and the wind is never in the same quarter for any length of time, and the sails have to be trimmed very often and the yards braced forwards or squared, to catch the veering winds. In the trade winds from Cape of Good Hope, you can run for weeks without altering the yards, in which time you can trice up all the running rigging clear of the rails, tar down all the standing rigging, scrape and oil the masts, paint the ship inside and out, holystone and oil the decks, and have her all ready to go into port in good shape; but in the variable winds, you must have everything ready for bad weather at any time. Barons of the Sea was written for two audiences: (1) sailors and those who love sailing, and […]
November 19, 2018

Book review: “The Talmud: A Biography” by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer

In 1997, near the end of the long-running television comedy Seinfeld, Larry Charles said that, when he and the other writers would sit down to produce a script, it was like “writing the Talmud — a dark Talmud.  You have a lot of brilliant minds examining a thought or ethical question from every possible angle.” It is highly unlikely that any of those writers had studied the Talmud, writes Barry Scott Wimpfheimer in The Talmud: A Biography, but “there is something profoundly Talmudic to the microscopic musings of a ‘Seinfeld’ episode and the way in which the characters free-associate in Talmudic fashion.” Indeed, this sort of hyper-detailed examination of the mundane from a wide variety of perspectives is also the hallmark of many Jewish entertainers, whether in standup comedy (Sarah Silverman), novels (Saul Bellow) or movies (Woody Allen), and it’s an example of what Wimpfheimer characterizes as the emblematic Talmud.   Three definitions In the opening pages of The Talmud:  A Biography, Wimpfheimer, an associate professor of religious studies at Northwestern University, explains that the Babylonian Talmud can be defined in three different, somewhat overlapping and equally accurate ways. First, the Talmud is a religious work of nearly two million […]
November 14, 2018

Book review: Three books about Shakespeare —3— “Religion Around Shakespeare” by Peter Iver Kaufman

    On the first page of Religion Around Shakespeare, Peter Iver Kaufman makes it clear that he’s not writing about Shakespeare the believer, Shakespeare the adherent to this or that religious faith. What I do in this book is give everyone interested in reading, watching, interpreting or performing the plays a good look at the religion around Shakespeare.  Circumstance is my subject. There has developed a cottage industry of books and other writings which attempt to use Shakespeare’s plays and poems as evidence that he was a Catholic or a Calvinist or the disciple of a “hybrid faith.”  But Kaufman asserts, “I am not mining for that metal…Circumstance — the religion around the playwright, not his faith or the plays’ proper interpretations — is my subject.” Take Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest personalities. Kaufman notes that some scholars read the plays in which Falstaff is featured and assert that he is a parody of puritans, at least as they were depicted by their opponents, since “Falstaff spouted sanctimonious judgments while remorselessly grasping at wealth and influence.”  Or, as one proponent of this argument writes, he is “a thoroughly worn out and flabby…type of Protestant hero.” On the other hand, […]
November 12, 2018

Book review: Three books about Shakespeare —2— “Lear: The Great Image of Authority” by Harold Bloom

    Twice, King Lear says, “Nothing will come from nothing.”  It is one of the most striking of the many striking lines in William Shakespeare’s masterpiece King Lear. Harold Bloom comments on the first instance in which this is said: “Nothing will come from nothing” to Lear means he will withdraw Cordelia’s dowry.  He cannot know that he has prophesied the final emptiness that will afflict his world. In the second instance, Lear is talking with his fool: Fool: Can you make use of nothing, nuncle? Lear: Why, no, boy, nothing can be made out of nothing. Here, Bloom asks the question: “Is Lear on some level cognizant that he is obsessed with ‘nothing’?” Certainly, as Bloom points out in his 2018 book Lear: The Great Image of Authority, Shakespeare’s play is obsessed with it.  He notes: “Nothing” is a term prevalent in this tragedy.  There are thirty-four uses of “nothing” and forty-two of “nature,” “natural,” “unnatural.”  The relationship between nothing and nature is a vexed one throughout Shakespeare and is particularly anguished in The Tragedie of King Lear.  In the Christian argument, God creates nature out of nothingness.  The end of nature, according to the Revelation of St. […]
November 7, 2018

Book review: Three books about Shakespeare —1— “Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics” by Stephen Greenblatt

  Donald Trump looms over Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics like one of the Bard’s ghosts, unavoidable, untouched, a dark dream of dread too fearsome to face. In his Acknowledgements section at the book’s end, Greenblatt writes: Not very long ago, though it feels like a century has passed, I sat in a verdant garden in Sardinia and expressed my growing apprehensions about the possible outcome of an upcoming election.  My historian friend Bernhard Jussen asked me what I was doing about it.  “What can I do?” I asked.  “You can write something,” he said.  And so I did. In the next paragraph, he writes: And then, after the election confirmed my worst fears, my wife Ramie Targott and son Harry, listening at the dinner table to my musings about Shakespeare’s uncanny relevance to the political world in which we now find ourselves, urged me to pursue the subject.  And so I have.   Nod-nod-wink-wink Note that Greenblatt writes of his trepidations about “an upcoming election,” and that “the election confirmed my worst fears.” He’s being coy, and that doesn’t help his book.  He’s talking about Donald Trump, but he won’t deign to use the President’s name here or […]
November 5, 2018

Book review: “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell

    There is much about Joseph Campbell’s 1948 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces that I find problematic. Campbell displays amazing erudition in this book and a vast knowledge of the mythologies, literatures and sacred writings of cultures from one end of the globe to the other.  Perhaps this is why so much of it, particularly the second half, seems so esoteric and arcane. Perhaps it’s because, intellectually, I can’t keep up with him.  Perhaps it’s because such myths as virgin births don’t resonate with me. For whatever reason, I read the first half of The Hero with a Thousand Faces with great excitement and enjoyment.  By contrast, the second half was heavy sledding.   “His deeds have been good” The book’s first half deals with the archetypal hero’s journey that shows up universally in all cultures — a call to search for some treasure, the endurance of many trials, the winning of that treasure and the return of the hero, much changed, to his or her old setting. For me, the epitome of Campbell’s look at the many ways this hero’s journey plays out in human mythology is his discussion of the Book of Job from the […]
October 31, 2018

Book review: “The Path to Power” by Robert A. Caro

  After 768 pages of text and more than 350,000 words, the reader of Robert A. Caro’s The Path to Power might easily come away wondering: “Well, who was Lyndon B. Johnson?” In this book — the first of what is now expected to be five volumes in a series titled The Years of Lyndon Johnson — Caro writes deeply about many aspects of LBJ’s personality. About Johnson’s flattery of older, powerful men, a latter-day Uriah Heep.  About Johnson’s physical and emotional restlessness. About Johnson’s need to be the center of attention. About Johnson’s ability to attract men of strong skills but weak personalities and his cold use of them, regardless their desires, for his own purposes for decades at a time.  About Johnson’s convoluted relationship with his father, the man in whose footsteps he followed, the man whose mannerisms he copied, the man he once idolized and then came to disdain. About Johnson’s compassion in teaching, for a year, a classroom of Mexican-American children in Cotulla in South Texas near the Mexican border and in obtaining for the isolated farms and towns of the Hill Country, then living a medieval existence, the miracles of electricity. About Johnson’s ability to […]
October 29, 2018

Book review: “Guards! Guards!” by Terry Pratchett

  The high point of Terry Pratchett’s eighth Discworld novel Guards! Guards!, published in 1989, comes when Carrot Ironfoundersson, the six-foot-six-inch dwarf and probationary member of the Ankh-Morpork Watch, arrests the Dragon which is approximately the size of a small battleship and has been terrorizing the city. Which comes before the Dragon’s romantic pas de deux in the sky. But after Captain Sam Vimes has gotten drunk, again. But before Vimes falls in love. But after Discworld readers have been introduced for the first time to Sgt. Fred Colon, who “was the sort of man who, if he took up a military career, would automatically gravitate to the post of sergeant…[or else] looked cut out for something like, perhaps, a sausage butcher; some job where a big red face and a tendency to sweat even in frosty weather were practically part of the specification,” and Cpl. Nobby Nobbs, “a small, bandy-legged man, with a certain resemblance to a chimpanzee who never got invited to tea parties” and about whom “the only reason you couldn’t say…was close to the animal kingdom was that the animal kingdom would get up and walk away.” But before Colon, Nobby, Carrot, Vimes and a growing […]
October 23, 2018

Book review: “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens

  Among the many distinctive characters in David Copperfield, I have a soft spot in my heart for Jane Murdstone. Actually, that’s wrong.  It’s not so much a soft spot for her.  It’s for the way Charles Dickens makes it clear who this woman is. David is still a very young boy.  His mother Clara has just remarried.  His stepfather — one might as well say “evil stepfather” — Edward Murdstone has Clara under his thumb.  Even so, he calls in his spinster sister as a reinforcement: It was Miss Murdstone who was arrived, and a gloomy-looking lady she was; dark, like her brother, whom she greatly resembled in face and voice; and with very heavy eyebrows, nearly meeting over her large nose, as if, being disabled by the wrongs of her sex from wearing whiskers, she had carried them to that account. She brought with her two uncompromising hard black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut […]
October 22, 2018

Book review: “The Christ of the Miracle Stories: Portrait through Encounter” by Wendy Cotter CSJ

  Twice in her 2010 book The Christ of the Miracle Stories, Wendy Cotter tells this story about the Roman emperor Hadrian: He was on a journey, and a woman on the roadside asked him to speak to him. “I haven’t time,” he said, brushing her off. “Cease, then, being emperor!” she cried out with sharp sarcasm. He stopped, went back and talked with her. This, Cotter says, is an example of the virtue of epieikeia, the willingness to hear — really hear — the words of someone else, even someone considered by society inferior in some way, and to recognize the wisdom in the person’s words. As the leader of the Roman empire in the early 100s, Hadrian was the most powerful man on earth.  Yet, in this and other incidents, he showed an open-mindedness in dealing with other people, a readiness to take in opinions and ideas that were different from those he held.   “Spunky, noisy, pushy and outrageous” It may seem odd to start off a review of a book about Jesus with an anecdote about a Roman emperor.  Yet, this story is an example of the way that Cotter has mined the documents of the […]
October 18, 2018

Book review: “The Mouse that Roared” by Leonard Wibberley

The Mouse that Roared, a comic, satirical, even silly novel by Leonard Wibberley, was published in 1955, a decade after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II. As one character notes, however, the end of the war didn’t bring peace. Indeed, Cold War tensions were high and getting higher, and everyone around the world was living under the pall of nuclear threat. So, this seemingly frivolous book with its outlandish premise — that the Grand Duchy of Fenwick, the smallest nation in the world, hoping to reap a miniature Marshall Plan, attacks the U.S. in a war it plans to lose, but unaccountably wins — is an oddly unsettling read for a citizen of 2018. The Q-bomb That’s because the plot centers on the Q-bomb, the only one in the world, developed by an American scientist and grabbed by the duchy’s invasion force when, as luck would have it, the couple dozen soldiers landed in Manhattan during a major air raid practice when virtually everyone was dutifully underground. One of the few exceptions is Dr. Alfred Kokintz who is taken as a prisoner of war along with his bomb. When the force and […]
October 17, 2018

Book review: “Murder on the Links” by Agatha Christie

Much of Agatha Christie 1923 mystery Murder on the Links seems, nearly a century after its publication, pretty hokey. There is a drawing-room, stage-set feel to its scenes, and Christie’s characters always seem to be over-acting: the loveable doofus Captain Arthur Hastings; Monsieur Giraud, the supremely arrogant Parisian detective who flashes his modern methods with the same élan as he does his disdain; the mysterious young woman Hastings dubs “Cinderella” with her “modern girl” manners and brightness; and, of course, Hercule Poirot, the retired Belgian detective who, as a private investigator, is persnickety in solving unsolvable crimes through the application of his “gray cells.” Murder on the Links has many more characters than those four, more than a few with more than one name, and they come across as roles that are being filled rather than as human beings. Indeed, the formulaic quality of the story and Christie’s writing had me wondering midway through the novel how she put her puzzle together so that it would be attractively puzzling. I wondered if she came up with the ending and then worked backwards to make things so muddy that no one could come up with the answer until Poirot pontificated. I […]