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review 2018-01-17 18:00
Everything you've ever wanted to know about your toaster (and your afternoon cup of tea) but so far never even thought to ask.
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

My high school physics teacher was a very nice gentleman who clearly loved his subject -- but who equally clearly lived in a very different world from that of us rowdy teenagers, and to whom it never even seemed to occur that his way of thinking might just be a tad too alien and abstract for most of us (or if it did occur to him, he didn't have the slightest clue how to bridge the gap).  It certainly also didn't help that he was teaching in what was to him a foreign language -- and that he had no clue how to police cheating: whatever method he came up with, we were always at least a step or two ahead of him.  (Which, back in the day, was virtually my only saving grace when it came to tests, though in the long run it of course didn't help at all.)  In short, he'd probably have made a stellar physics professor at university -- as a school teacher, however, he was entirely miscast.

 

Now, far be it from me to blame my own deficiencies on the deficiencies of my high school education: Though I've always loved biology (and been fascinated by the scientific / theoretical aspects of medicine), it's unlikely I would ever have chosen science as a career.  However, with the exception of optics, I've always struggled more to get a grip on physical concepts than on biological or chemical ones.  Even maths presented decidedly less of a challenge: I didn't particularly care for it, but it was never a subject apt to seriously endanger my grade point average.  That dubious honour always went to physics alone.  As a result, for the longest time and until I somewhat grudgingly decided to remedy that fact much later in life, my understanding of physics -- other than optics -- was essentially a "reflected" understanding, to the extent that the laws of physics were relevant to other subjects, such as biology and chemistry (e.g., in the composition and behaviour of cells and atoms).

 

Part of this, undoubtedly, was due to the fact that other areas (history, languages, music and literature) were far more of a focus of my early upbringing: Helen Czerski's afterword to Storm in a Teacup, where she recounts how both her family background and growing up in industrial Manchester helped shape and foster her interest in science and technology, spoke to me just because I can relate to precisely the opposite; notwithstanding the fact that both my grandmother and her twin sister studied medicine (they were among the earliest women to enroll in that field in Germany) and several of my aunts -- cousins of my mother -- are doctors as well.

 

But I also would wish my high school teacher had taken a similar approach as Czerski in Storm in a Teacup, because the first of several things she achieves (and the importance of which my teacher missed entirely) is to make her readers understand why physics matters to each of us and what it has to do with our daily lives, above and beyond the puny truisms that we've all heard of.  ("Yeah, I know that there's such a thing as gravity, but what does it really mean and why does it matter to me except for -- literally -- keeping my feet on the ground and making things fall down if they're not securely resting on something else?")  That doesn't mean, of course, that from suddenly gaining a basic understanding how your toaster works -- or why popcorn pops, why buttered toast almost always lands on the floor with the buttered side down, why ketchup initially stays in the bottle (and how to get it out of there without spilling half the contents all over your plate, the table, and your clothes), or from devining the secrets behind the innumerable mysteries associated with a cup of tea (with or without milk in it) -- it's only a small step towards a full understanding of astrophysics, nuclear physics, or even just "ordinary" university level physics.  But as Czerski doesn't tire to point out, the laws of physics apply to our daily life in the same way as they apply to the universe at large; and I'm pretty sure if my teacher way back when had understood how to get us to make a connection with our everyday world, and understand how physics matters to each of us in a million different ways every single day of our lives, many of us would have found it fascinating -- instead of writing it off as unbearably dull, unattainably abstract, and / or totally irrelevant to our lives and even our potential career paths.  As Czerski puts it:

"There is sometimes a bit of snobbery about the science found in kitchens and gardens and city streets.  It's seen as something to occupy children with, a trivial distraction which is important for the young, but of no real use to adults.  An adult might buy a book about how the universe works, and that's seen as being a proper adult topic.  But that attitude misses something very important: the same physics applies everywhere.  At toaster can teach you about some of the most fundamental laws of physics, and the benefit of a toaster is that you've probably got one, and you can see it working for yourself.  Physics is awesome precisely because the same patterns are universal: they exist both in the ktichen and in the furthest reaches of the universe.  The advantage of looking at the toaster first is that even if you never get to worry about the temperature of the universe, you still know why your toast is hot.  But once you're familiar with the pattern, you will recognize it in many other places, and some of those other places will be the most impressive achievements of human society.  Learning the science of the everyday is a direct route to the background knowledge about the world that every citizen needs in order to participate fully in society."

The laws controlling the spin of the Hubble Telescope's gyroscopes are the same that make a raw egg spin.  The laws that make popcorn explode and that help create focaccia bread are the same laws that control the Santa Ana winds in California, move a steam engine, propel rockets, and which any sea-bound mammal, such as a whale, needs to cope with when hunting hundreds of metres below the surface of the ocean.  Bubble baths form according the the same laws that are at play in the formation of a layer of cream on top of milk (and that are now used to get rid of that layer of cream in the process of homogenization), that make sponges and towels absorbent, that are used by every tree, from those in your back garden (if you have one) to the giant redwood in order to pull water up to its very top, and which modern medicine uses in order to be able to perform tests on the basis of a single drop of blood where a whole vial used to be necessary before.  The flow (or not) of ketchup out of a bottle and the sloshing of tea in a mug is dictated by the same laws that are at play in a lock gate and at the Hoover Dam ... etc., etc.

 

Czerski assumes virtually no understanding of the laws of physics (or anything related, such as mathematics) on the part of her readers going into each individual topic, and while that occasionally results in some talking down to the reader ("One nanometre really is tiny -- there are a million of them in one millimetre" ... thank you, Ma'am, I knew that much at least already!), most of the time she meets her readers at eye level -- and I really have to hand it to her; I'd never have thought there could be so much suspense associated with the details of heating popcorn, baking focaccia bread, or making a cup of tea.  And I just love her sense of humour:

"In 1964, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias detected waves from the sky at microwave wavelengths that shouldn't have been there.  They spent a long time trying to work out which bit of the sky on their telescope was messing up the mesurement, sure that something was generating extra microwave light.  They also cleared out some nesting pigeons from the telescope, along with their droppings (euphemistically described as 'white dielectric material' in the paper they wrote).  The unwanted background light persisted.  It eventually turned out to be the signature of the Big Bang, some of the most ancient light in the universe.  There is something special about an experiment that has to be very careful to distinguish between the after-effects of pigeon poo and the after-effects of the formation of the universe."

There possibly won't be much in here that is news to a trained physicist, or an enthusiast of the subject matter, but I'll gladly take Elentarri's word that even a scientifically trained reader may find this book enjoyable.  For many of the rest of us (even those who were able benefit from a somewhat more enlightened physics instruction in school than me), this is in many respects eye-opening in the best of all ways, in addition to being an engaging and well-written read.

 

 

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review 2018-01-10 21:00
Mr. Campion of 17A Bottle Street, Piccadilly, London
The Tiger in the Smoke - Margery Allingham,David Thorpe
The Fashion in Shrouds - Margery Allingham,Francis Matthews
Flowers for the Judge - Margery Allingham
Sweet Danger - Margery Allingham
Mystery Mile - Margery Allingham
Dancers in Mourning (Albert Campion Mystery #8) - Margery Allingham
Police at the Funeral - Margery Allingham
Death of a Ghost - Margery Allingham
The Case of the Late Pig - Margery Allingham
Look to the Lady - Margery Allingham

I started the new year with a minor Allingham binge and, having now read a fair number of her Campion mysteries (12, i.e. 2/3 of the 18 novels that she herself completed), I think I can safely say that while I won't ever like this series as much as I do those of Christie, Sayers, and Marsh, when Allingham is good, she is really good and can easily measure up to the other Golden Age "Queens of Crime."

 

Campion starts out as a fairly thinly-drawn cipher in The Crime at Black Dudley, but that is due to the fact that Allingham wasn't initially intending to make him her main detective: he was her publisher's preference over the character that Allingham herself had had in mind as the lead.  So, in the following novels, she willy-nilly had to put some more flesh onto his hitherto meager bones, and pronto.  Unfortunately, she didn't do likewise for the plots (nor for her books' other characters), which in books 2 and 3 (Mystery Mile and Look to the Lady) remain variations on the same theme -- a treasure hunt with murder interlude, complete with an international crime syndicate led by a master criminal, various abduction schemes, and supporting characters so unrealistic and twodimensionally cardboard they'd go up in flames if you only held a lighter vaguely in their direction. 

 

That said, in book 2 (Mystery Mile) already Allingham did come up with one of the greatest sidekicks ever in the history of mystery writing -- Campion's "gentleman's gentleman" Maggersfontein Lugg, who (being an ex-burglar) is anything but gentlemanlike -- and even by the time she wrote this book, she had already made great strides towards finding her style, and she'd definitely also learned a thing or two about tightening up a meandering plot.

 

The first one of her books that I really enjoyed (or had, on an earlier occasion, even though I didn't revisit it for this particular exercise) is book 4, Police at the Funeral: There still is a bit too much of a "woman in distress" element for my liking at the very beginning of this book, but essentially it's a classic country house mystery with a clever plot and a cast of unusual characters that are definitely showing signs of being more rounded than their confrères of the earlier novels -- the whole thing could easily give Agatha Christie a run for her money (even though the solution won't surprise anyone who knows their Conan Doyle and Christie tolerably well).

 

With book 5, Sweet Danger, we're back, alas, to the "treasure hunt with murder interlude and crime syndicate led by a master criminal" plot phenomenon, this time even with one of the Golden Age's most overused tropes thrown in (a tiny fictitious principality in the Balkans as the origin of the unsavory doings on British soil), all of which by this point had me thorougly gritting my teeth.  What elevates this book (somewhat) above its earlier predecessors, however, are its characters; first and foremost, then-17-year-old Lady Amanda Fitton, who even at that age is completely Campion's equal and manages to bowl him over completely in no time at all.  (She'd return in several subsequent novels and eventually end up as his wife; not without first having taken up a careers as a mechanic engineer.)

 

Book 6, Death of a Ghost, is based on an ingenious idea, set in the arts world, featuring a range of fairly over the top (although not necessarily always likeable) characters and, though Campion tumbles to "whodunnit" fairly early on, the "howdunit" and "whydunit" are far less clear.  One of my favorite installments from the bunch that I've read so far (albeit speaking from memory -- I haven't revisited this one recently, either ... I probably should).

 

Book 7, Flowers for the Judge, begins like a classic Golden Age locked room mystery set in the world of publishing: halfway into the story it becomes clear we're on a sort of treasure hunt yet again (or rather, on the hunt for a manuscript that may or may not exist and provide a vital clue to the murder), but it's clear here that the manuscript is merely a tool and Allingham's chief interest is in the characters -- one in particular --, so I'm willing to forgive Allingham for (semi-)falling back on her favorite ploy here.  (Also, I really like the ending, which provides a twist that rather made me smile, and which for a Golden Age mystery is anything but P.C.)

 

Book 8, The Case of the Late Pig, is an oddity in that it's told from Campion's point of view -- what with its distinctly outlandish plotline and the exchanges between Campion and Lugg it reads like Allingham's take on Jeeves and Wooster (though it's less clear who is supposed to be who), with another locked room puzzle thrown in for good measure and, like in Death of a Ghost, some monkey business associated with a (not-so) dear departed.  I rather liked its twists when I first read it; I've only ever revisited it on screen since, though, where the different narrative point of view isn't as apparent as in print.  Probably I should reread it at some point to see whether the first person narrative voice bothers me more now that I've read more books of the series overall.

 

Book 9, Dancers in Mourning, is Allingham's visit to classic Ngaio Marsh territory -- the world of the London stage --, combined once more with a country house setting.  At this point Allingham is very assured in creating interesting characters and a plot that holds together (also, this book is firmly within established Golden Age traditions), all of which makes for a rather enjoyable read. -- Side note: This is also the last book in which Campion is shown as unlucky in love with one of the story's female characters; in this particular instance, a married woman, which makes for quite a bit more depth than his previous forays into the territory of romance, mostly with the sisters and daughters of his friends and / or clients.

 

Book 10, The Fashion in Shrouds, sees Campion reunited -- of sorts -- with Amanda Fitton, who is now working as an engineer: what starts as a (purported) ploy of Amanda's designed to disentagnle her employer from the married star actress he has fallen in love with ends up with Campion and Amanda taking the first steps towards a bona fide union.  Topically, this is Allingham's take on career women; besides Amanda and the aforementioned vampish actress, the third woman on whom the story focuses is is Campion's sister Valerie, co-owner and chief designer of a fashion house.  In approach and execution, this novel is nowhere near as accomplished as Dorothy L. Sayers's Harriet Vane novels (particularly Gaudy Night, which was published three years before The Fashion in Shrouds) -- and the only truly independent and self-assured female character is Amanda, as well as Campion and Valerie's "Tante Marthe", the co-owner of the fashion house -- but I suppose given its publication date, it's worth mentioning that Allingham is placing career women center stage in a (mostly) favorable light at all.

 

Book 11, Traitor's Purse, to me is a hot mess; a fallback of the worst kind into Allingham's early "treasure hunt with assorted villainy" plotlines, replete with incomprehensible decisions on Campion's part that not even a head injury can satisfactorily explain away (in fact, in light of that head injury they're even more inexplicable), cipher characters, and a thoroughly implausible plot.  Seems Allingham, like Christie, got caught up in the "5th column" / "enemy at home" noise echoing through Britain (like through most, if not all European countries) in WWII, when this book was published; and again like Christie, she just simply didn't know enough about the world of espionage to pull it off convincingly.

 

Books 12 and 13 (Coroner's Pidgin and More Work for the Undertaker) are, as yet, on my TBR -- I don't know when I'll get around to them, but after this recent little binge, I doubt it will be anytime soon.

 

Which finally brings us to Book 14, The Tiger in the Smoke; in terms of characterization and atmosphere undoubtedly one of Allingham's strongest -- at least of the first 14 Campion novels.  Yet again we find about halfway through the book that we are on a treasure hunt, but for once even the villains -- and we know who they are almost from the get-go -- are fully rounded characters with an inner life and both a past and a present (albeit not much of a future if it's down to Campion and the police).  Campion's Scotland Yard sidekick of the earlier books, Stanislaus Oates, has climbed the career ladder all the way to the top, so the day to day police work is now being done by a very sympathetically drawn and, again, fully rounded new character, D.C.I. Charles Luke (side note: like Amanda's path from teenager to career woman to (now) Campion's wife and equal opportunity "lieutenant", another instance showing that unlike Christie, Allingham allowed her characters to age in real time).  And towards the end of the book, just before the final resolution, we even get a finely-drawn downright Dostoevskyan exchange between a priest and the worst of the bad guys that a younger Allingham might have given her eye teeth to write, but would not have been able to pull off anywhere near as accomplished. What's not to like?!

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review 2017-12-31 16:50
16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 3 - Armistice Day / Veterans' Day: Murder at Castle Cloon
Death in December - Gordon Griffin,Victor Gunn

This novella by Victor Gunn (one of several pseudonyms of Edwy Searles Brooks) also forms the centerpiece of the second British Library Christmas mystery short fiction anthologies edited by Martin Edwards that I read this month (Crimson Snow), but I listened to it in the audio version narrated by Gordon Griffin, who is fast becoming one of my favorite narrators of classic / Golden Age British mysteries.

 

The story concerns a Christmas visit to Cloon Castle in Derbyshire, the home of Johnny Lister, sergeant to Chief Inspector Bill "Ironsides" Cromwell, Gunn's gruffly iconic series detective.  And the two policemen haven't even arrived ante portas yet when they're running into their first mysterious appearance: a figure that seems to be walking in the snow at some distance; without, however, leaving so much as a single footprint.  When they are assembled around the fireplace after dinner with the other guests, the afternoon's strange encounter is duly followed by the legend of the castle ghost and by a visit to the "ghost chamber", but things take a serious turn when one of the guests engages to spend the night in the "ghost chamber" to disprove the legend once and for all, only to be found injured and of obviously disturbed mind hours later -- and when not long thereafter, a stranger's corpse is found in one of the graves in the family crypt abutting the "ghost chamber."  The solution, when ultimately revealed by "Ironsides", is very much down to earth and rather ugly, but there's plenty of derring-do to be had along the way, including a rather fiendish attempt on the Chief Inspector's life and much fine detection work (and enjoyable writing).

 

Since Johnny Lister's father, the host of this story's countryside Christmas gathering, is a retired general who has duly earned himself a DSO (I'm assuming in WWI -- the story was first published in the early 1940s, but it sounds like the general's retirement isn't a recent one, and retiring in the midst of WWII doesn't sound likely to begin with), I'm using this as my Veterans' Day / Armistice Day read in the context of the 16 Festive Tasks.

 

 

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review 2017-12-31 16:06
A Cornucopia of Holiday Stories
Murder On Christmas Eve: Classic Mysteries for the Festive Season - Ellis Peters,Margery Allingham,Various Authors,Ian Rankin,Val McDermid

Turns out I already knew five of the ten stories in this anthology:

 

 

Ellis Peters's The Trinity Cat

Julian Symons's The Santa Claus Club

Ian Rankin's No Sanity Clause

G.K. Chesterton's The Dagger With Wings

and Marjorie Bowen's Cambric Tea.

 

So I skipped those (though I do really like the stories by Ellis Peters, Julian Symons and Ian Rankin -- care somewhat less for the other two, though) and just read the remaining five entries:

 

Michael Innes: The Four Seasons

John Dickson Carr: The Footprint in the Sky

Val McDermid: A Wife in a Million

Lawrence Block: As Dark as Christmas Gets

and Marjorie Allingham: On Christmas Day in the Morning

 

Of these, far and away my favorites were the stories by Michael Innes and Lawrence Block (Marjorie Allingham's On Christmas Day in the Morning came somewhat close because of its bittersweet solution): Innes's The Four Seasons is a variation on the country house mystery set in the Fen Country and centering on a painting -- actually, it's a country house story within a country house story, because the actual story is being told by a guest at a country house holiday party in turn --; and Block's As Dark as Christmas Gets is an extremely cleverly conceived hommage to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries, in everything from tone to characters, setting, plot, book title name checking, and even solution.

 

Since this book has a(n, umm, mostly) black and white cover, for 16 Festive Tasks purposes I'll be using it as my read for All Saints' Day.

 

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review 2017-12-31 15:13
Southern Holidays
A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, & The Thanksgiving Visitor - Truman Capote

Truman Capote's charming, magical memories of his childhood Christmas and Thanksgiving with his mother's Monroeville, Alabama family -- particularly his much elder and much-beloved cousin Miiss Sook, who thanks to her own child-like nature was mother, grandmother and elder sister to him simultaneously; but, most importantly, the greatest source of warmth, love and compassion of his entire childhood.  In the book's second (individually, last-published) entry the Monroeville experience is contrasted with the one (sadly failed) attempt by Capote's father to make up for years of non-parenting, and seeing all three stories published together, the contrast -- and the boundless warmth of Capote's Monroeville home, and of Miss Sook -- is brought out in an even brighter light, (As an aside, it is easy, too, to recognize the place, and the traits of individual personalities, in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which was inspired by the same community.)

 

Since this book doesn't merely include two Christmas but also a Thanksgiving memory, for 16 Festive Tasks purposes I'm going to use it as my book for the Thanksgiving holiday book joker.

 

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