Thursday, September 29, 2016

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers; A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway; Ernest Hemingway by Carlos Baker: A Life Story and TinTin Au Congo by Herge



Antonin Dvorak's Czech Suite is playing and I must once again breeze through four books in order to shelve the pile of books that is becoming higher on my dining room table.  Hopefully this does not diminish any analysis I am able to give, but I do find that I do better when I try to be succinct when writing book reviews so as not to blather.




My parents had come to visit me and I read this book to my mother, who has mostly peripheral vision due to Macular Degeneration (we read a lot of books together).  We started the book here in Texas and finished it in Florida where I drove my parents back to their home.  I tell you this to say that as much as I enjoyed reading, the enjoyment was doubled because I was experiencing the story with my mother.  It was a real pleasure to read a chapter then discuss it with someone who had as many strong opinions as I had.

Without appearing too gushing, I do not believe I can exaggerate how much I love Dorothy Sayers.  I didn't always feel this way.  The first book I read, "Whose Body" didn't impress me at all. I felt Lord Wimsey was rather callous in his glee at discovering a dead body in the bath and Oh boy! another murder to solve.  How considerate of the murdered man.

Sayers is a complicated person and I have a couple of biographies of her waiting for me and I will be very interested to get more information on what I so far am finding to be a fascinating individual.  

What little I know of her already leads me to believe that "Gaudy Night" has some autobiographical overtones in it. 

We have a woman in her thirties, Harriet Vane, who has come to an occasion at her Alma Mater, Oxford.  The occasion is called a "Gaudy", which according to the Web, is a college feast that also serves as a reunion for past students.

Harriet does not want to go for a number of reasons.  She lived with a man without marrying him, which in those days was condemned as much it is approved today (unless you're a homosexual, then a marriage license is necessary, judging from recent lawsuits. Sorry, moving right along...). 

To make matters worse, her lover got murdered and she was the primary suspect until Sir Peter Wimsey saved the day.  Wimsey, a social butterfly, finally alights and falls in love with Harriet, but she is unable to trust anyone.  This theme is thread throughout the book and thus the book serves as both a mystery and also possible romance, neither of which is resolved until the end.

So Harriet returns to Oxford for the Gaudy.  Now, without giving anything away, this story is not so much about a murder as it is about people and human relationships.

The first chapter sets the stage and we meet Harriet's previous friends and colleagues.  We then meet the faculty and later the students.

Each chapter is a careful study in the characters, flaws and foibles, personality traits of the different people populating Oxford:  Faculty, students, and hired help.  These chapters were sufficient in themselves to make a very interesting story without any adventure at all.

The story does not follow a usual formula.  At first it seems someone is playing amateurish pranks.  Ugly drawings with obscene subject matter, dresses and gowns stolen to be turned up later in effigies of a hanging.  But the pranks become increasingly sinister and attack all sorts of people from the professors to the students.

The Head of the Women's college does not want publicity, so she asks Harriet to stay at the school as if she were doing research but in reality to catch the culprit.

Harriet is not a detective only a detective story writer.  So she now has the double task of solving a growing threat at Oxford while trying to meet a deadline.  We get to hear Harriet struggle through the challenges of making a mystery story both logical and believable.  Not an easy task.

Harriet wishes Peter were available to help her but he has gone abroad so she is stuck with using her powers of deduction, usually reserved for writing a mystery novel.

I won't reveal the rest of the story but know that it is a lot of fun to read with all the ingredients that make a story so enjoyable:  mystery, suspense, character development and, of course, romance.  The book is longer than a lot of mystery novels and by the time you get to the home stretch you are chomping at the bit to discover who the guilty party is.

Again, without revealing anything I will also say that I found the motives to be an interesting example of hating and seeking revenge for crimes that have not been inflicted on the perpetrator, but rather for crimes that the guilty party cannot own up to and have projected on to everyone else.






"A Moveable Feast is a memoir that Hemingway wrote towards the end of his life about the beginning of his life.  Or at least the beginning of his writing career in Paris.  Some of the chapters are sweet, tender memories of his time with Hadley, his first wife.  One gets the impression that at the end of the day he concludes that his problems started with the abandonment of the woman whom he seems to have regarded as his first and true love.

Other chapters are not so tender.  He does not have fond memories of anyone else.  Gertrude Stein comes across as an arrogant, writer "wanna be" and he includes some highly unflattering episodes of her, one of which is rather disturbing and he could have left it out and the reader would have been none the worse.

He also writes of other people he once knew in Paris in unflattering terms at the least and brazen skewerings at the worst.  One wonders if he was trying to avenge himself on everyone who ever slighted or wronged him.

A couple of chapters are devoted to F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I do not know how reliable Hemingway's version of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda are.  He must have hated Zelda because she comes across as a Troll Queen bent on destroying her husband out of jealousy for his writing.  Maybe this is true, maybe Hemingway hated her as he seemed to hate a lot of women.  Perhaps she reminded him of his mother?  Fitzgerald himself comes across as a helpless infant lost in the clutches of drink.

Interestingly Hemingway presents himself as a the norm by which to measure others.  Methinks he was not being entirely honest.  Other sources indicate he wasn't quite so innocent.  Which brings us to the next book:





This book, at 672 pages, is quite a marathon to finish but it thoroughly writes each detail of Hemingway's life with an objectivity that is neither flattering nor smearing.  I have another biography to read but based on this one I conclude that Hemingway was an extremely strange individual who was either playing a role all his life or was a brute.

According to Baker, Hemingway hated just about everybody.  The more established writers liked him and helped him, the more he held them in contempt.  Not everyone.  He loved James Joyce and Ezra Pound, but he roasted Sherwood Anderson, in a parody and did pretty much the same to Ford Madox Ford in his memoir.  T.S. Eliot comes across badly even though he supported his work.

Then there were the victims who had done nothing to him except befriend him.  This was most evident in his first successful novel, "The Sun Also Rises."  OK.  He hung around an immoral bunch of people, but who appointed him as judge over them and how was he any better?  I know, I know,  he includes himself as an impotent jerk but Baker describes an unfathomable glee Hemingway took in exposing this "badly behaving" group (I take this from a recent biography titled, "Everyone Behaves Badly").

And he was always challenging men to boxing duels.  If they didn't like what he said or wrote about them they could duke it out with him in the ring.  I mean, really, Ernest?  Are you a man or a thirteen year old boy in a state of arrested development?

Then there was his appalling selfishness toward women.  He was married to Hadley, but that didn't stop another woman, Pauline from moving in and taking over, even though Ernest and Hadley had a young son at the time.

When I say moved in I mean both figuratively and literally.  Pauline moved into their house, then followed them across Europe and to America.

How does that work?  You see a married man with a small child and think, "I want to marry him and I'm going to get what I want."  That kind of mentality is inexplicable to me.  At least it kept me from feeling sorry for Pauline when it happened to her years later, although I thought it was too bad for her two boys.  I guess what's best for children isn't taken into consideration.  All three boys paid a price, judging from their own sad lives.

Another disturbing trait of Hemingway's character, is his lust for killing animals or watching them die.  He loved it. He really, really loved it.  He couldn't enough of the bull fight and describes with glee, the slow, tortuous death of the bull as well as gored horses and even injured fighters.  He writes with the same enthusiasm of his own hunting expeditions in Africa.  It's not enough to say he killed a beast.  He has to describe their roaring and bleeding.

He also enjoyed bear hunting and baiting them with the carcasses of horses that he rode and didn't like.

Are you disgusted yet?  

Yet I've read most of the man's novels and all of this short stories.  I like the precise weight with which he measures his words.  The sentences don't plod but the step with aim and determination.  Some of his stories are quite wonderful, others are repulsive.  

One feature of Hemingway's stories were his travels.  He lived in Paris, Spain, Austria, Italy, Africa, Cuba, the Florida Keys and the America mid and northwest that his stories hold a lot of colorful variety and cultural diversity because of their national backdrops.  That is one of my favorite attributes of his work.

After reading his biography I wonder if I would have been better off simply reading Hemingway rather than reading about Hemingway.  I definitely need to read other sources before I form firm conclusions about this complicated man.

And finally,

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I read this book primarily to practice French and I like TinTin. However, I must say that this book is a rather appalling reminder of just how racist people were towards Africans not one hundred years ago. And also the callous cruelty to animals that apparently are not so unique to Hemingway's stories as I thought.

The story is not without its fun and adventure and I think it was useful to read it in order to remember history so as not to be doomed to repeat it.

I still love TinTin and I must remember that Herge was a product of his time period. He would probably not write such a story today.


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Many Masks: A Biography of Frank Lloyd Wright by Brendan Gill


In a previous post I reviewed a book that focused on a particular time and circumstance in Frank Lloyd Wright's life.  Death in a Prairie House by William R. Drennan gave the reader a fairly thorough account of the events in Wright's life leading up to the grisly murder of Wright's mistress and others in his original Taliesin home.  

Brendan Gill's biography fills in the facts before, during and beyond this event, allowing us to get a fuller portrait of the man considered the greatest American Architect of the twentieth century.  Gill knew Wright personally and conducted a number of personal interviews with him as well as with his wife and children.  He also had access to many of Wright's letters, which he quotes at length.

Wright's relationship with his domineering mother, narcisstic personality and philosophy of elephants and ants (the elephants may do as they like, including stomping on the ants; guess which animal Wright considered himself) have largely been explored in Death in a Prairie House and is not glossed over in Gill's book, but Gill wisely understands that these topics are charted territory so he comes from a different angle.

Many Masks takes the reader through the main building projects of Lloyd, his relationship with his clients and the final result of his schemes.

I call them schemes because Wright projects seemed to follow a  pattern, whether he was building a hotel in Tokyo, a Prairie House for a wealthy family, a church, or a business building.

Initially, the client would have a vision for his business building (or house, or church or synagogue) and decide who they would like to design and build it.  Sometimes someone would recommend Wright, sometimes the client would ask him and more than a few times, Wright suggested himself.

The client's reaction would tend towards awe and disbelief.  The great Frank Lloyd Wright would deign to  undertake his (sometimes her) project?  Why yes.  I, the great Frank Lloyd Wright, would be inclined to acquiesce to your request.  

The reality was Wright needed the money because he could never hold on to it.  He fully believed in his right to an outrageously extravagant lifestyle, regardless of his financial situation.  He was forever in debt, huge debt, and so yes, he most certainly was inclined to acquiesce to any wealthy person's request.

But acquiesce is a really a farcical word to use here, because apart from taking the contract, Wright acquiesced to nothing else.  Every project Wright took he viewed possessively and proceeded to incorporate his own vision at the client's expense.

One such project was Unity Temple in Chicago.  The Congregation wanted a religious ediface focused on the worship of God.  Wright made a temple to Man worshipping Nature.  To the dismay of  the members of Unity Temple, his intention was unmistakable.

The most famous example of this would Fallingwater, a residence built by Wright for the Kaufmann family.  The family owned property in western Pennsylvania in a mountainous area near a waterfall.  The family envisioned a home where they could enjoy the rural environment, including a spectacular view of the waterfall.

What they got was a house right on top of the waterfall.  Wright, in his ingenuity, put the house in the one place where no one could see the falling water.

But they could hear it.  I have not visited the place, but I've read that it is rather loud inside of the residence due to the roaring waters rushing underneath.

This, however, was not Wright's concern.  His intention was to create something so stupendous that people would remark of it for years.  He succeeded.  All of Wright's creations were about announcing his genius to the world.  Gill called this one of Wright's many masks.

Con man was another mask.  Wright could reel them in and then hook them, leaving the poor battered client practically bankrupt.  This is how he did it:

 Invariably Wright would estimate a modest figure for the building and equally invariably the project would cost much more. It's would be hard to exaggerate how much Wright underestimated the cost.  An original cost projection that would be, say ten thousand dollars, would end up running into hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars.

You'd think his reputation would precede him, but Wright had a wonderful mask to wear, that of snake charmer.  His clients were so over awed by his genius and then charmed by his affability and eloquence, especially in his letters, that he got away with it every time.

The tug of rope contests between Wright and his clients, while of the same cloth, each have their own individual color and are fun to read about.  

A good example of this is the history behind the Guggenheim Museum.  Solomon R. Guggenheim, who commissioned the project wanted a place to house his collection of modern art.

The museum is cylindrical in shape and is wider at the top than the bottom.  There are no stairs inside.  Visitors walk up a slow spiral while observing the art.

http://designgallerist.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/4-Frank-Lloyd-Wright-Guggenheim-Museum-architecture.png

On a side note, I attended the Guggenheim with my mother and it was more fun to watch my mother's reactions to all this modern "art" than to look at the art itself. Probably because in order to appreciate it, one had to use a good dose of personal imagination. At least I did.  

My mother was a little more concrete and deemed the whole lot of it a "bunch of pretentious tripe!"  I only wish she hadn't spoken her mind in the museum.  Or so loudly.

But back to Wright.  As per usual, the museum cost far more than the architect's beginning price and was completed some years after Solomon Guggenheim's death.

A final sad fact on his buildings:  the roofs had a propensity to leak.

Frank Lloyd Wright's houses are often easy to identify.  They are blocky, as though modeled after a child's wooden building blocks, but with poured concreted and lots of overhanging structures jagging out.

https://static01.nyt.com/images/2016/01/22/arts/22ANTIQUES1/22ANTIQUES1-master768.jpg

This sounds unflattering, but I like his houses. No one has made concrete an aesthetic art form like Wright. They are unique for his concern for the interior was as thorough, and as domineering, as the exterior.

http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/fa267/flw/martin.jpg

The other aspect of Gill's book are Wright's personal relationships.  After the death of Mamah Cheney, the lover he left his wife for, Wright married Miriam Noel.  Noel was a domineering drug abuser that caused more grief and anxiety than any joy.  After much publicized drama, they divorced and Wright married Olga Hinzenburg.  Hinzenburg was  an equally dominating force in his life and introduced him to mysticism.  This is only hinted at in this book but I believe other books describe this eerier attribute, which also characterized his Taliesin school.

Which leads us to his final mask, that of teacher.  Many students, with plenty of disposable cash, dropped out of other colleges to become a part of Wright's Taliesin fellowship. This was a needful source of income for Wright especially during the Depression. For the right sum of cash, wealthy young people got the privilege to serve Wright as grunt workers doing menial tasks, such as copying out blueprints and buffering irate clients and other dirty work.   How much training they got is debatable.  Not many of them became notable architects.  However, the Taliesin Fellowships still continue today at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.

In conclusion, Wright the person was probably not someone I'd want to know, but his architecture is groundbreaking and enduring and, to me, beautiful. I have another biography by Meryle Seacrest in the wings.  It will be interesting to see what she has to say about this brilliant, if astounding man.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts by Doughlas Bond, Medieval Monsters by Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert; A Night on the Moor and Other Tales of Dread by R. Murray Gilchrist

Listening to Beethoven Symphony Opus 21, Symphony no. 1. Beethoven wasn't 28 years old when he wrote it.  You can listen here.

As usual the books are piling up so I will attempt to give you a drive by review on three of them. 

 Here we go:

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The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts by Douglas Bond

 I read this book out loud to my parents while they were visiting here in August much to everyone's delight.  We all grew up attending traditional church and singing hymns.  So learning about one of Christianity's major hymn writers was a treat.

Isaac Watts is considered the creator of the English hymn and perhaps second only to Martin Luther to constructing Protestant hymnody. 

Like Beethoven, Watts was a child prodigy, writing poems at the age of eleven.  Watts grew up in a Puritan family and as such was not allowed into the Anglican Universities like Oxford or Cambridge but studied at what was then called a "non conformist" or "dissenting" university, Newington Green Academy.

Watt's never married, but wanted to, once.  He wrote extensively with a young lady who fell in love with him through his letters.  Upon meeting the very short, homely-faced man, she fell out of love with him but remained friends.  Watts spent most of his life with the wealthy Hartopp family, teaching their children and writing hymns.

Watts introduced the radical notion that one could create their own poetry put to music and sing it in the context of formal worship.  This seems normal to us, but back then only Psalms from the Bible was deemed appropriate for church service.

Watts wrote other things besides hymns.  He was also a powerful preacher and put many essays in book form.  Some of his books are definitely going on my to be read pile.  Being alive during the Enlightenment, Isaac believed that it was every Christian's duty to use their intellect.  One of his books is titled:  Logic:  or the Right Use of Reason in the 
inquiry after Truth with a Variety of Rules to guard against error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Science.  Quite a title.  Not pithy back then, were they?

Other books include:  An essay towards the Encouragement of Charity- Schools, for teaching the Children of the Poor to read and write;  The Doctrines of the Passions Explained,  Discourse of the Love of God and the Use and Abuse of the Passions in Religion etc..

This book adequately conveys the beauty and eloquence of Watts' thought and how he expressed his great love for God in the form of poetry.  It also gives a history as to how Watts came up with some of the more famous hymns he wrote.  After reading the book, I flipped through a hymn book to look at the hymns by Watts included.

Even more briefly:

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Medieval Monsters by Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert

I simply adore Medieval art and this short volume gives pithy, if not always accurate, explanations of monsters painted in art.  It gives the legends, Biblical stories and histories to different mythical beasts.  The best part of the book is the colorful photos of the art it discusses.

And finally:

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A Night on the Moor and Other Tales of Dread by R. Murray Gilchrist.

I bought this book at a used bookstore thinking I had stumbled across a new author of scary and suspenseful stories of the 19th century, along the lines of M.R. James and E.G. Swain.  Well, yes and no.

Gilchrist, never married but lived with his mother and a male companion his whole life.  Perhaps that explains the misogynistic overtones of his stories.

The positive:  Gilchrist paints a lovely picture.  I can see the mists across the moors of England, the valleys, woods with dark verdure, and the unearthly beauty of the women who star in every tale.

Then there's this:  Every woman dies in a gruesome way. Oh sure, not in the same way and it's quite suspenseful. Occasionally the man dies at the hands of the woman.  In fact, most of the stories make you think that it is the man who is walking into a trap.   If that's your cup of tea, by all means get the book.  I'll mail you my copy.

The book did raise an interesting question.  Stories that take place on the Moors of England often refer to the supernatural or the residuals of past pagan beliefs of fairies, imps, and "little people".  We see this in books by the Bronte sisters, even Virginia Woolf as well as other writers.  Perhaps it is a part of the cultural heritage and make up of the people who were raised there.  As the American South is known for its Gothic tales and Ghost stories, maybe it's in the native north Englander's blood.

Certainly a topic worth exploring.

Well, that helped me catch up a little.  I think the next review can be about just one book.  Have a wonderful week.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

One of the Few: A Marine Fighter Pilot's Reconnaissance of the Christian Worldview by Jason B. Ladd






I opened an e mail one day that stated the following:

Sharon,
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING BOOK MAY BE SUITABLE FOR LICENTIOUS BOOK-PURCHASING FREELANCE MUSICIANS. 

Please let me know if you would be interested in receiving a copy and providing a review on Amazon and Goodreads.

How could I refuse a request like that?  Besides, being a Military Brat, not to mention living in Texas, a state that probably produces more Marines than all the other states combined, these sort of stories always hold a place in my heart. (My husband has just informed me that California produces the most marines, then Virginia; Texas is third but I don't believe it.)

Because I know that burgeoning authors are trying to sell their product, I went ahead and bought Jason's book for $2.99 on Kindle.

The following review is entirely my own opinion and I wish Jason professional success.

The downside of reading a Kindle is that I do not know how to turn back to specific pages to get my quotes or incidents correct; therefore this is going to be a generalized overview of the book with the intention of giving the reader as informed a review as possible.

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One of the Few is a non fiction account of Ladd's  spiritual journey from growing up nonreligious, developing questions as to whether there is an afterlife and finally embracing Christianity.

Jason grew up in a Military family, met his wife in high school while stationed in Japan and became a Marine.  He eventually got accepted into flight school and became a Marine fighter pilot.

That right there is the stuff adventure stories are made of.  Anyone in the material world is thinking: "Hoo yah! Captain America in the flesh!"

Ladd was deployed to Iraq and there are plenty of good stories here that rival anything Marvel's comics come up with, the more so because it's true.  

However, Ladd wasn't satisfied with adventure and valor.  There was something else he yearned for and felt was missing in his life.  Risking life and limb brought the subject of death up more than once and Ladd began to wonder just what happened when a person died.

"'What do you think happens when we die?' Karry asked.

'I don't know.  Nothing?  Blackness?'"(From the book)

Why are any of us alive?  I remember once I called a fighter pilot a "flight jock" to his face as a joke.  His expression told me that he didn't think that term was appropriate or funny.  Probably because he was a family man (I taught his son piano) and a church goer.  I feel certain that Jason Ladd wouldn't appreciate the term either. (And I've never called anyone that again.)

Because "flight jock" has connotations that someone is "macho" and "permiscuous" and not a deep thinker.  Jason Ladd's book shows that he is none of the first two traits and all of the last trait.

Each chapter begins with a quote from a secular thinker as well as a Christian thinker.  The comparisons are challenging and interesting.  Here are a few quotations:

"I've begun worshiping the sun for a number of reasons.  First of all, unlike some other gods I could mention, I can see the sun."  George Carlin

"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see by it, but because by it I see everything else."  C.S. Lewis

"We are survival machines-robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."  Richard Dawkins

"It is the very act of self-sacrfice that demonstrates that there is something more noble than mere survival."  Ravi Zacharias

Ladd describes the training he receives to become a Marine and eventually a fighter pilot.  He sees many parallels between his earthly experiences with spiritual truths.  He lists a number but I will only list a couple:  

After challenging his Sergeant to a pugil stick match, he makes the comparison that we cannot pound people who oppose our world view but must "display a life of love and service to everyone you wish to reach."

He goes on to describe getting bloody boots because he focused only on his toes and not on his heels.  He makes the analogy that "some worldviews focus only on the possibilities ahead and fail to address the damage they may leave behind."  And when, during training, one is walking through the woods half asleep we sometimes need to "be jolted awake in order to ask important questions."

A lot of what Jason Ladd discovers I had already arrived at so some of his conclusions were not new to me, like discovering that our present social climate does not respect the Christian world view.  This can be a challenge when you are used to being respected every time you walk into a building wearing that flight suit.  Ladd proves, however, that authentic faith overrides any concern over society's opinion.

Ladd has obviously read the Bible in depth, judging from his  references to it and one chapter is devoted to the need to read the Bible over and over again.  He compares it to flight training:  "Study tactics, fly by the book, and repeat.  Read, fly, repeat.  Read the Bible, live by the Book, and repeat.  Read, live, repeat."

"...(Man's) origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms..."  Bertrand Russell

"A human being is a collection of atoms in the same way that Shakespeare's plays are collections of words, or Beethoven's symphonies are collections of notes."  Dinesh D'Souza

If you are interested in Military culture and how one man came to faith in Christ inside of that culture;  if you like to read modern war stories and how a fighter pilot comes to reconcile his worldly mission with his spiritual one, this is an excellent book and one I highly recommend reading.

Photo:  
Jason B. Ladd is an award-winning author, US Marine, and Iraq War veteran. Ladd served on active duty with the Marines for fourteen years and has flown as an instructor pilot in both the F/A-18 and the F-16 fighter jets. He is the founder of Boone Shepherd, LLC and creator of IndieListers.com, the largest live online database of book promotions results built by authors. He and his wife, Karry, are the parents of five children.

His book One of the Few was awarded as Finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.  (
From Amazon)


The following are links for further information on Jason and his books:

www.OneoftheFewBook.com

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B016X0HL84/

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26253930-one-of-the-few

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Robots and Murder by Isaac Asimov



Today is a review on books in the Science Fiction genre.  It is only fitting we listen to Hearts of Space.  You can listen here.

Robots and Murder is a trilogy comprised of three books:  The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn.  I had read these books in college back when, thanks to a geeky friend, I had a fling with Science Fiction that lasted during my twenties.

By the time I had reached thirty, however, it had become a case of been there, done that.  No new concepts were being introduced to blow my mind, as they did when I was twenty and the hard core science fiction that I loved had somehow syncretized with fantasy, a genre I dislike, so that I could not see much of a difference.

Perhaps this was an inevitable outcome because all the new ideas of time travel, space travel, alien life forms, real and artificial etc. had been thoroughly mined and the only direction to take was toward made up worlds in other times and dimensions.  

Unfortunately, bereft of inventing new concepts, the writer needed to create well-developed characters and story lines.  This is only my opinion, but most fantasy stories suffer from a lack of good quality writing.  As far as I know, there is no Jane Austin or Ernest Hemingway writing fantasy.

Because their original concepts were fresh, a number of the members of the old school got away with mediocre writing.  This includes our author du jour, Isaac Asimov.  This isn't to say he doesn't make thought-provoking sociological commentaries and futuristic worlds with sophisticated technology.  In his trilogy he seems to take Earth's presence course to its logical conclusion as our technology becomes ever more sophisticated.  I say "seems" but that's another topic.


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My all time favorite illustration for Robots of Dawn by Michael Whelan


Caves of Steel takes place on Earth.  We see a world that has become so overburdened with people that at one point in time, a number of people left to explore and settle other worlds.  The rest stayed home and retreated into domes.  In order to insure maximum survival for everyone, jobs are acquired and kept or lost then "declassified" which renders one incapable of ever getting a job.  Asimov doesn't explain, but I presume these people become welfare recipients.  Why this rule was invented I don't know since it would place a heavier burden on the rest of the population.

People travel on conveyer belts all over (or under as the case may be) the domed world, to work, to home...people live in tiny apartments and eat in community kitchens and wash in community bathrooms.  Food is synthetic and food tickets are highly coveted.  

The protagonist, Elijah Bailey is a detective and his job in all three novels is to solve a murder mystery.  All three mysteries surround robots.  On Earth, people are prejudiced against robots and want them out of their lives.  This makes it difficult for Bailey who finds that he has a partner who is a humanoid robot, R. Daneel Olivaw.

The murder is merely what propels the plot forward.  Asimov's real thrust is to show a dystopian Earth and how humans and highly intelligent robots would relate to each other. The same is true for the next novel, the Naked Sun.

In this story, Bailey has been sent to solve another murder on the planet Solaris.  Here we have a sparsely populated planet with several thousand robots per person.  The people here have a unique problem.  They can't bear to be around each other. 

Oh sure, they communicate and have relationships, going for walks, having dinner with each other, all the things people on Earth do except for one detail:  it's through three dimensional viewing.  Holographic telepresence is the only way Solarians will interact with each other. 

Of course, they get married and occasionally need to, you know, make children.  But this is done only when absolutely necessary and is presumably a traumatic experience for both parties.  Children are raised on farms and nobody knows who their children or parents are.

Again, the murder is solved by Bailey with the help of Daneel.

In the final novel we see Detective Bailey on the planet Aurora and a completely different set of mores.  Aurorans treat sex recreationally and is done casually with anyone (among mutually consenting partners, of course) and means nothing.  It's a truism that if you're intimate with everyone, you are close to no one.  And here we find that the Aurorans are just as alienated from each other as the Solarians are, but for opposite reasons.

I found The Robots of Dawn to be more interesting than the others because the murder victim, if you can call it that, is a robot.  Also because Asimov is far better at making interesting robot characters than human beings and this story spent a great portion with Bailey interacting with robots rather than humans, which made for better dialogue.

If creating robot characters was Asimov's strength, creating female characters was definitely his weakness.  He had a repertoire of two on each planet:  the petulant, moody, yet sexy girl/woman and the female Nazi.   Only Caves of Steel lacks the latter, which had only Bailey's emotional, irrational and irritating wife.

On the other two planets we had the above woman in the form of Gladia.  She has a role on both planets, having traveled from her home planet to Aurora.  The murders center around her home both times.  The other woman on Solaris and Aurora mainly serve to provide another character that Bailey interviews and must go into brain to brain combat with because each woman has serious anger issues against men and must conquer, Brunhilde fashion, all who enter her domain.  Asimov was married twice, I wonder if he based these women on his wives.

Gladia is an outlier on each planet.  She is socially outcast on Solaris because she wants greater physical contact with her husband, who naturally finds this horrifying and refuses.  Her husband is the murder victim and she is the primary suspect, having a motive.

On Aurora, she wants monogamy, something the Aurorans find laughable, so once again she is alienated.  Her only solace (before Bailey arrives) is her humanoid robot, Jander Panell who she decides to make her husband (I know, I know; don't go there.)  Jander ends up dead, well, his positronic brain has been frozen which is the equivalent of dead for a robot.  

This, however, does not make Gladia the primary suspect, because only one person in existence has the ability to destroy such a highly sophisticated robot's brain.  That is the roboticist who created Jander and Daneel.  He is the first to proclaim that he is the only one who could have done it but also says that he didn't do it.

The mystery in Robots of Dawn is well-developed and believable which is more than I can say of the first two books.  The verbal sparring that takes place between Elijah and the other characters are fairly well done, although, Asimov relies too heavily on every other character fencing with Bailey, even the ones on his side which seemed to provide mostly filler than dialogue constructed to move the story.

Asimov points out something else, whether intentionally or unintentially, I don't know.  He shows how life can be hard on a planet that is so overcrowded everyone is just trying to survive.  But he also shows how empty life can be even when all one's needs are met.  In other words, environment does not necessarily determine meaning and fulfillment to our existence.

Maybe he couldn't help it, but I found all the characters on every planet Asimov created to be little more than dolls a child plays pretend with and with as much dimension.  Something was definitely lacking.  I think I prefer the characters in C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy.  Lewis had a better understanding of human nature, I think.  But I could be biased.






Thursday, August 25, 2016

Mozart: A Life by Paul Johnson

 Guess what has come to live in my "salon" as a birthday present from my One and Only?



He also got me these:


     And a cake but that didn't last long enough to photograph.

 The piano is a 1981 Baldwin 6 foot 2 grand.  I gave away my 1920 Knabe player piano to a good home and upgraded.  We searched far and wide for a piano that possessed all the qualities I want: even action, bell like tone in the upper register, deep resonant bass and we finally found it in a piano that had been in a recording studio for many years.  It is such a blessing to play on this, especially since I have two recitals coming up, including one this Friday!




Yes ladies and gentlemen I am dishing out yet another biography of Mozart and I'm not even through reading all the biographies I've read on the man (I'm saving Otto Jahn's three volume work for last).  

The author of this book, Paul Johnson, believes that Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A K622, is the most sublime of his works so I create a link here for your listening pleasure.  The clarinet doesn't come in immediately so, as they say, wait for it.


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Some of you may be thinking what else can anyone say about the guy.  We have a sentimental chronological time line dramatized with great license from Marcia Davenport.  We have a thorough and exhaustive description of the cultural surroundings and political climate in Robert Gutman's Mozart:  A Cultural Biography.  What is lacking?

How about a biography that focuses solely on the composer's music? 

Paul Johnson's book is short, a mere 164 pages long.  But each chapter goes into different parts of Mozart as a composer and how he mastered every part of music writing.

The first chapter discusses his ability to create music when he was still young.  Chapter two goes into great detail as to how Mozart mastered most of the instruments of the orchestra and consequently catered his writing to the unique attributes each instrument possessed. 

 He was quite flexible.  If a certain orchestra was lacking in, say, clarinets, then he quickly rewrote the work to accommodate what wind instruments were available.  Or not.  Sometimes he transcribed the parts to another section altogether.  Some orchestra works are the same piece with the emphasis on the brass and others on the reeds, each successful with the diverse timbre coloring that comes with each family of instruments.

Johnson does not avoid timelines completely.  In addition to meticulously recording what compositions were written when and where, he also includes, in Chapter Three, when Mozart lived in Salzberg, Paris, London or Vienna. He writes of his marriage to Constanze and how that affected his composing.

Chapter four is about Mozart's operas, when and how they were written.  It is interesting that even though some of Mozart's greatest compositions were instrumental, what carried his career were his operas.  He wrote twenty-three operas, four in the last few years of his life, two in his final year (and his first when he was only ten). 

The last chapter concerns Mozart's death.  Johnson attempts to dispel prevailing myths, such as Mozart died a pauper and alone.  According to Johnson, many people attended his funeral and he was buried as most people were then, in a public burial lot.

It is interesting that Johnson has a different take on Mozart's father Leopold than the previous biographers who cast him in an ill-favored light.  Johnson takes the opposite stance, that his father was not the over-bearing monster, trying to make himself through his son, but rather was mostly trying to bestow good sense on him.  Frankly, that is the conclusion I had gathered from only reading Mozart's letters.

He also insists that Mozart was not perpetually poor and that writing "begging letters" as he calls it were normal during a time when paper currency was rare.  Mozart and later his widow, paid their debts faithfully.  Unlike the conclusions of Davenport who asserts that Constanze learned good economy from her second husband, Johnson insists that she was financially sensible all along and that Mozart actually made very good money for the time period in which he lived.

He supports this with comparing the salary of Mozart to many other professions of the time as well as the life-style he kept.  Davenport and Gutman conclude that Mozart lived beyond his means.  Johnson argued otherwise and states that borrowing money was a common practice then.

Reading these three biographies, as well as Mozart's letters, made me realize that different people can access the same information yet arrive at varying conclusions.

The most charming aspect of this book is Johnson's analysis of Mozart's work.  He openly inserts his own opinion as to his favorite compositions and his descriptions made me want to  run immediately to my Spotify and download as many of Mozart's compositions as possible.

Mozart wrote hundreds of compositions and it is impossible to have all of them catalogued although Ludwig von Koeschel valiantly attempted in 1862.  That is why when you look at works by Mozart it will have a "K" followed by a number opus.  The "K" or "KV" stands for K√∂chelverzeichnis.


Even though this biography is brief, it contains a lot of indepth detail concerning the instrumentation of Mozart's work, which not everyone would find interesting.  However, I don't think it should deter even the lay person but encourage one to further appreciate the genius of Mozart and hopefully inspire them to listen to his music.




Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers


My post today is about a murder mystery in a church among the bells.  A little history:  Church bell ringing goes back centuries.  The church bell heralded danger, death, marriage and festivities.  In England, the tradition of bell ringing went even farther to where their steeples house whole teams of bells.  The art (or science) of rope pulling became a firm part of the Church service.

Whole sequences that lasted for upwards of an hour or hours developed and were played before or after church services, sometimes everyday at the same time.  When I visited Bradford on Avon I arrived at the time Christ Church's bells rang, which was for an hour every day.  You can visit their web site here.  This tradition was handed down to America in the form of hand bells.  The rope pulling can be loud and long so I've included here a short piece of a hand bell choir playing Capriccio by Kevin McChesney which I think will be a little more aesthetically pleasing.  You can click here for the link.

However, if you're interested in the real deal, you can click here.

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Dorothy Sayers did meticulous research on bell ringing and includes various types of bell ringing sequences. She also makes use of bell ringing terminology to provide clues to the mystery.  As much as I enjoyed the mystery, I will say I found the sections on bell ringing a little beyond my interest and skimmed over those paragraphs.

Other than that, however, Sayers makes a charming detective story, her ninth involving Lord Peter Wimsey.

Wimsey and his valet, Bunter, find themselves stranded in the town of Fenchurch of St. Paul after their car runs into a ditch.  It is New Year's Eve and the weather bodes ill.  For those of you who don't know (I didn't), the Fens are a marshy part of Eastern England, prone to flooding. 

Fenland is also known for its cathedrals and churches, hence the setting for Sayers' story.  Lord Wimsey meets the local Vicar, Theodore Venbales, a very friendly, if flighty Reverend who insists that Wimsey stay as his guest due to the bad weather and also because he needs a substitute bell ringer for the New Year service, one of his ringers having come down with the flu.  The Reverend has ambitiously planned a nine hour ring starting at midnight to usher in the new year.

A local Aristocrat, Lady Thorpe, dies the next day (requiring more pealing of the bells, ones that decode to the village that a lady of a certain age has died.  The bell sequence is different if a man or young person died.)  Lady Thorpe's death brings up the story about the robbery of the emeralds which were stolen, several years ago, at the Thorpe mansion, although they belonged to a relative who was visiting. The thief and the jewels were never apprehended.

So far so good.  But three months later, Sir Henry Thorpe, also dies.  Lady Thorpe's grave is dug up to admit the remains of her husband and to the shock of the grave diggers, they discover another body has been tossed in on top of the casket.  The hands have been cut off, presumably to avoid identification, and his face horribly disfigured for the same reason.

By this time, Lord Wimsey has gone, but he is called back by the local police to help discover whose body it is, how did he die and why.

If you want the solution you can read the book for yourself.  It is one of those fun, comfortable reads that should only take you an afternoon or two, ideally on a rainy day with a cup of tea.

I could not help compare Sayers' writing with Agatha Christie's.  A couple of observations:

One, Agatha Christie writes very good short stories.  Her stories are at their most effective if they provide a fast punch and a quick solution.  If she is required to develop the characters on a more than superficial basis as one would in a novel, she fails in my eyes.  Her forte is when she keeps the characters functional with minimal back story.

Conversely, I find Dorothy Sayers' novels to be far more enjoyable than her short stories.  I read her complete short detective stories and found only one or two that I considered worth reading.  The rest were "meh".

Her novels, however, allow her to fully develop her characters and she does so superbly.  I believe this is because, unlike Christie, Sayers created loveable characters.  Christie's characters are all equally selfish, which casts suspicion on all of them.  Sayers makes all her characters winsome and sympathetic (at least in this novel), making it impossible to  decide which one of these good people could have done it.

Now, just because her characters are likeable does not make them boring.  I find it interesting that the prevailing attitude seems to be that evil people are interesting and good people are boring.  Christie and Sayers together, whether intentionally or not, make a good case that bad people are boring and good people are fun to be around (and read about).

Dorothy Sayers was the only woman to belong to the Inklings, a writer's group that included J.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  I see common traits in her writing as theirs.  There is a coziness, a sense of comfort and contentment in the surroundings that I like.  The little details that they all add with the characters having tea, or brandy, sitting in front of fireplaces while torrential rains pour outside.  Yes, evil happens, but we can stand together and support and encourage each other.  In Christie's novels the characters are alienated from each other.

I suppose it has to do with the fact that I like British literature and lately I have been reading a lot of the stuff coming out of the first half of the twentieth century from both sides of the ocean.  I will be giving reviews of Graham Greene, another C.S. Lewis book of literature essays, and a biographies of Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright.

So, as they say in the U.K., Cheers, and have a jolly week!