Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Book Review: The Mystery of Three Quarters

The Mystery of Three Quarters
Sophie Hannah

[WARNING: Unlike some people, I generally try not to put spoilers in my reviews. This will be an exception. Then again, if you still want to read the book after reading this post, you deserve what's coming to you. Also: long and screed-y.]

I read Hannah's first Hercule Poirot pastiche when it came out and thought it was pretty bad. The plot was all over the place, she had a tin ear for dialogue and names, one character showed strong signs of being a Mary Sue, and the narrator character was afflicted with pointless and ultimately trivial psychological hand-wringing.

I skipped the second book. But then I spotted the third in the library, and it opened surprisingly well, and I thought, what the hell. (What can I say? I'm not bad, just weak and easily led.) The good news is that the aforementioned problems have been minimized. The bad news is that they've been replaced by new, much worse problems.

Look: if you're going to pastiche Agatha freakin' Christie, the third-best-selling author of all time (behind the Bible and Shakespeare), there's one thing you've got to have. You've got to have a puzzle. This is the one fundamental overpowering thing that Dame Agatha did better than anyone else before, during, or since. She'd set up a puzzle, give you all the clues, and then pull out a solution that (a) you didn't see coming, and (b) seemed totally, logically, inevitable. That "aha!" moment--or, more specifically, that "I can't believe I didn't see that!" moment--is why people read Christie in the first place.

Sophie Hannah's moment is not an "aha!" moment. It's a "chuwhuuuuh?" moment. Actually, it's a series of "chuwhuuuuh?" moments--an elaborate, rickety structure of improbable psychological hand-waving combined with utterly nonsensical internal logic. There are too many ridiculous bits for me to describe them all. A few particularly egregious examples should give the flavor.

The central clue that makes no sense whatsoever. 

Throughout the book, an enormous fuss is made about identifying the typewriter that produced several letters. Let us suppose that you are the villain, and do not wish this typewriter found. Do you:

  1. Hide the typewriter under a bed. Buy two brand-new typewriters. Beat up one so that it looks like an old machine. Tell the detective "We have two typewriters, a new one and an old one. You can test them both."
  2. Throw the typewriter into the lake. Buy one brand-new typewriter. Beat it up so that it looks like an old machine. Tell the detective "That's our typewriter."
If the answer is #1, for God's sake, WHY?

The absolutely ridiculous fundamental premise.

Your cunning plan is to accuse your sister of murder, so that she will be hanged and you will get the money. The death in question was, and was assumed to be, natural. You write letters vaguely asserting that there has been Foul Play. Which of these things do you do?
  1. Sign these letters with the name of the most famous detective in the world, thus assuring that he will take an interest.
  2. Give your sister an unassailable alibi.
  3. Fail to provide any further evidence whatsoever, other than an dubious and not-very-incriminating clue in a place where anybody in the world could have put it.
  4. None of the above.

The butler did knows it.

The point of having a detective is to have him, you know, detect stuff. Having the butler listen at doors and basically spill the whole plot does not count.

I could go on . . . and on . . . but why bother? Sophie Hannah might well be a good writer for a different sort of book--there are flashes of that--but as constructor of puzzles she's absolutely hopeless.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Book Review: Don't Point That Thing at Me

Don't Point That Thing at Me: The First Charlie Mortdecai Novel
Kyril Bonfiglioli
Mystery, humor

Upon the outer integument of this opus a statement is prominently plastered, averring it to be "The result of an unholy collaboration between P. G. Wodehouse and Ian Fleming". This doesn't quite whang the nail on the crumpet. I blame it on the New Yorker having a low taste for literary fiction, thus starving its writer johnnies of the oomph necessary for the Higher Criticism. Only a sadly underfed critical faculty could have lighted upon Fleming while fluttering past the clear thematic and semiotic debt to Leslie Charteris's "The Saint" canon. For myself, I should also have identified a smidge--perhaps even a modicum--of Fraser's "Flashman" epos; but this is a subject upon which reasonable chaps might non-concur.

There's some semblance of some kind of plotty thingamajob in this book. It might make what is termed "a lick of sense", but definitely not two licks, and a full serving is jolly well out of the question. Cavil not! Don't permit the pale cast of thought, or any color cast really, to sickly o'er your reading, and you'll be a better and happier person.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Book Review: When Einstein Walked With Gödel

When Einstein Walked With Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought
Jim Holt
Science, mathematics, philosophy

I really like Jim Holt's 2012 book Why Does the World Exist? It's both a meaty intellectual challenge and a playful, engaging read. When Einstein Walked With Gödel is equally engaging, but less meaty. The difference is simply that Why Does the World Exist is a focused collection that deeply explores a single topic, while When Einstein Walked With Gödel is a diffuse collection that shallowly explores many topics.

This isn't a diss. Jim Holt is a very good writer, and his essays are not unreminiscent of Carl Sagan in both their discursiveness and their humanity. He's especially good at weaving together biography and abstract ideas. These collected essays cover twenty years of writing, though; inevitably there is some overlap. The individual pieces are excellent, but too short to give more than an overview of their subjects. The thing as a whole is brilliant, but fragmented--kaleidoscopic isn't too strong a term.

And it's nobody's fault but my own that my brain insists on setting the book's title to the tune of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World
Steve Brusatte
Natural history, paleontology

As a wee shaver, one of my oft-reread books was All About Dinosaurs, by Roy Chapman Andrews. Andrews was a character--he may have been one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones--and his books are a mixture of derring-do, science, and personal history. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is as close as I've ever come to an adult equivalent. Like Andrews, Steve Brusatte is obviously having an enormous amount of fun.

The book is at once a good overall introduction to the natural history of dinosaurs, a charming and discursive autobiography, and an up-to-date survey of modern scientific thinking. Brusatte knows a lot of colorful characters (and he seems to like them all, which is nice). If they never quite get rescued from starvation by the last-minute arrival of their camel caravan in the Gobi Desert, there are still a lot of exotic locales and bone-finding adventures. Oh, and the information itself is really interesting.

The writing is good, too. Brusatte uses a conversational, intimate tone, reminiscent of Ed Yong (that's a good thing). He doesn't dumb anything down, but he does make everything perfectly accessible. For instance, I was particularly and professionally interested in the ways that computers, statistics, and basic machine-learning techniques, are being used now in paleontology; in this, as in general, Brusatte strikes a good balance between too much and not enough information for the general reader.

I wouldn't have minded if The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs had been 50% longer, but that's hardly a complaint. Hopefully there will be a sequel.

For a biography of Andrews, see Dragon Hunter by Charles Gellenkamp. Though not exclusively dinosaur-related, Douglas Preston's Dinosaurs in the Attic tells the story of the American Museum of Natural History and provides a good recounting of the Bone Wars.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Book Review: How Do We Look

How Do We Look: The Body, the Divine, and the Question of Civilisation
Mary Beard
Art, psychology

I very much liked Beard's SPQR, with the caveat that she sometimes descended into a kind of erudite waffling--it might have been this way, but on the other hand we should be skeptical, but on the other hand Plutarch says such-and-such, but nonetheless on the other hand . . . How Do We Look contains some germs of an interesting idea, but the caveat has grown to consume the book. 

It's not much of a book, to be honest. It's short. Almost half of it consists of (gorgeous) illustrations. Even within its text, it's divided into two largely disjointed sections: one where Beard considers portraiture (especially sculpture), and another where she considers religious art. The tenuous thread that unites the halves is . . . Um. Well. That's the problem, really. I'm not sure there's a thread even within the sections, much less between them.

I mean, there's something. Beard is trying to write a thought-provoking book about how we, the viewers, respond to art--how our expectations shape our experience of the piece, how the piece communicates to us across time and culture, how the concerns of the artist are or aren't relevant to us. It's got interesting bits: Christians are commanded not to worship graven idols, for example, yet they dress up the Crying Madonna of Macarena like a Barbie doll and parade it through the streets. That says something interesting about the way people project their desires onto an artwork. I'm just not sure what, and Beard doesn't really want to tell me.

The caveat to my caveat is that How Do We Look isn't really a stand-alone work. It's a companion piece to a new BBC TV series, a response to Kenneth Clarke's deservedly famous and influential Civilisation. What works poorly on the page would, I imagine, work better on screen. I don't often recommend viewing over reading, but How Do We Look is an exception.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Book Review: Germany

Germany: Memories of a Nation
Neil MacGregor
History, sociology

This book works better than it has any right to. MacGregor's thesis is that it's impossible to write the history of Germany, because for most of history there hasn't been a single "Germany". The Holy Roman Empire overlapped with "Germany", but it wasn't the same, and the empire itself was a jigsaw puzzle of little Mini-Germanies. (As late as the 18th century, most of them had their own currencies.) Various historically-German-speaking regions and cities are now parts of other countries. The German Empire only lasted from 1871 to 1918, and the middle of its three emperors only reigned for 90 days. There were two actual Germanies from 1945 to 1990. And these are just the political fragmentations!

So MacGregor wrote a book about how various things, places, people, and ideas have been used to construct an idea--the titular "memories"--of Germany. Often the same subjects are used in multiple ways: the sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider got stamps from both East and West Germany, for example, with quite different messaging. It would be frightfully easy to turn this material into a mess. How can you write one book that encompasses the Iron Cross, the VW Beetle, Charlemagne's crown, the gates at Buchenwald, porcelain, the psychology of the forest, and the defeat of the Roman Legions in AD 9?

Somehow it all works. It doesn't hurt that the individual chapters are excellent little mini-essays in the mold of James Burke's Connections, or that the theme--the manufacture and use of "memories"--is consistently sustained. It's a remarkable stained-glass-window, adding up to more than the sum of its excellent parts. If it never does resolve the twists and contradictions of this thing called "Germany" . . . .well, that's sort of the point.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Book Review: The Age of Genius

The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind
A. C. Grayling
History, philosophy, science

The first hint that The Age of Genius might have problems comes on page xiv, in the Author's Note. 
The section on the Thirty Years' War might be of less interest to some readers than the rest of the book . . . [they] may skim that section and pass on to the rest. It might be enough for them to have the bare report as here given . . .
It is never a good sign when, before your book even starts, you have to tell your readers that they can skip over the first third of it.

Needless to say, I skipped nothing. I can't say that I'm much the wiser thereby, though. Military history is a demanding discipline, and A. C. Grayling doesn't show much mastery of it. He has moments of clarity, but overall he never makes sense of the Thirty Years War (which would be hard to do for anyone).

Nor, more critically, does he really tie it into the rest of the book. His warning is all too true: the first 100 pages of The Age of Genius are not only disjoint in themselves, but they fail to tie into the argument of the book. That argument--that the 17th century represents a watershed moment in human intellectual history--is a defensible one; but Grayling doesn't really make it. Too much of the book consists of a series of examples, like the "Before" and "After" shots in a magazine ad, where what's needed is some illustration of how Before became After. 

Furthermore, the examples themselves are sometimes dubious. For example:
In 1606 Macbeth was stages for the first time. Shakespeare was able to rely on the beliefs of his audience . . . to portray the killing of a king as subversive of nature's order, to the extent that horses ate each other and owls fell upon falcons in mid-air and killed them. In 1649, a single generation later, a king was publicly killed, executed in Whitehall in London before a great crowd . . . The idea of the sacred nature of kingship as premised in Macbeth had been rejected . . . 
Leaving aside the fact that killing off the occasional king was hardly uncommon in previous centuries, Shakespeare's audience was not stupid. We can accept for the sake of entertainment the proposition that vampires walk among us, or that the Nazis won World War II. I have no doubt that seventeenth-century people were just as capable of accepting certain things in fiction, as fiction. By Grayling's logic, Goethe's Faust--written in the heart of the Enlightenment--shows that 19th-century Europeans generally believed in the literal truth of the deal-with-the-devil narrative, which (if it were true) would falsify The Age of Genius's main thesis.

Actually, to call it a thesis is to give too much credit. The book is full of inconsequential side quests. What does it matter whether Descartes was a Rosicrucian or a Jesuit spying on the Rosicrucians? Why spend so much ink contrasting Hobbes and Locke when both of them clearly belong on the "modern" side of the philosophical divide? Grayling proposes at one point to set up a contrast between the world-view of an educated man in 1600 and one in 1700, and then fails to do so (or, if he does it, it's awfully well-hidden). In any case, the fact that a change occurred is hardly in doubt; the attempt to box it into one arbitrary calendrical period doesn't seem to add much value.

The book ends well. The last chapter is a robust defense of reason, the Enlightenment, liberal thought, and education. It's a pity that the rest of The Age of Genius doesn't really lead there.