Tuesday, June 18, 2013

OT: Go Girls

Thirty years ago today, Sally Ride rocketed into history.  Today, NASA selected the US' next eight astronauts, including an unprecedented four women.  And . . . the services detailed plans today for how women will have the opportunity to compete for spots in elite combat units.  What a world.

What's next?

 The White House - Front View

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sum-mertiiiiiiiime, and the reading is . . .

My bathside bookpile has grown enormously after my birthday - so excited to have the newest le CarrĂ©, A Delicate Truth on top.  But I find myself uncharacteristically too distracted to dive in immediately to his elegantly bleak worldview, so I may need to check in instead with Salvo Montalbano in perpetually summery Sicily, in The Dance of the Seagull.  For tropical splendor, there is also Graeme Kent's One Blood, the next in that Solomons Islands series although I seem to recall reading an interview with the author somewhere that left me a little unsettled about the series (I have a recollection of his coming across as a bit colonialist - but maybe my antennae were overtuned).  If it is winter that I need for a break I could always pick up Detective Inspector Huss where I left off.  I dropped it because it was kind of boring - everyone was so pleasant and it had a stilted quality that you sometimes find in translated works. Talking about winter, and cold, pretty much all year, I also started Melanie (M.J.) McGrath's The Long Exile, because I so enjoyed White Heat.  The exile in question is a forced removal of Inuit from the eastern side of Hudson Bay well north to Ellesmere Island.  I stopped reading after a while because I found it pretty dull, but it had a glowing review in the NYT in 2007, so maybe I should try again.  The reviewer found it mesmerizing; must be something wrong with my glasses.  

While stocking up at Porter Square Books for my son's camp session this year, I discovered Matthew Pearl's The Last Dickens in the sale box, as well as P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction.  The latter should provide some good fodder for Crime Pays, and if nothing else, a brisk reminder of how really smart people think and write.

And these are just the books in the house; I have a long list going of things that I want to read that I haven't even laid my hands on yet.  Damn this working business.

But how have I come this far and not read any of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels?  Good god, this must be rectified immediately.  It may require a trip to the library, since the Wolfe stories are many and old.  

Wolfe reminds me that I'm starting to read a few food blogs regularly, too.  I like David Lebovitz, and Dinner:  A Love Story (although it veers close to cute at times).  I read Smitten Kitchen even when it feels a little full of itself (does a book deal do that?), and My Little Expat Kitchen (she's Greek!).  A recent discovery is the charming Miss Foodwise, who writes about British food (a whole article on a watercress farm - imagine!).  And I just can't decide if I love or hate The Wednesday Chef.  Mostly the former, and the latter is just jealousy of that damn perfect Italian place so get over it.  That chicken curry with sweet potatoes was pretty good.

Slash and Burn

Even with a trippy opening scene of a stoned helicopter pilot crashing in the jungles of Laos, I still have a little tingle of delight every time I start a Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery.  It is a hopeful tingle, too, since I don't really know what is going to happen in this one and who knows, maybe it won't live up to its predecessors in this marvelously original series.  

Happily, Slash and Burn (2011, Soho Press) is a fine extension of the Dr. Siri brand, so no worries there.  Although you have to wonder how much longer Colin Cotterill's aging communist and reluctant coroner but still game amateur detective can stay in the hunt.  And you also have to wonder how many more plot lines Cotterill can come up with that will accommodate Dr. Siri's delightful but growing group of crazy-like-a-fox comrades-in-arms.  Because the gang is all here in Slash and Burn, and they meet up with a bunch of similarly eccentric Americans in the search for the remains of the aforementioned pilot, or perhaps even the pilot himself.

The premise is really that simple:  an American team needs a Laotian counterpart in order to search in the hills of north Laos - where conflict is still live between the Pathet Lao and rebel Hmong - for the remains of the downed craft and its pilot.  It is apparent almost immediately to Our Hero that the US mission is murkier than its apparently clear objective, and that's where the plot thickens.  Cotterill piles on the atmosphere in a slightly heavy-handed fashion, with an awful lot of actual smoke literally and figuratively obscuring things, the apparent result of an annual local agricultural technique designed to clear space for planting.  The resolution is a bit more dramatic than maybe might happen in reality (OK, it is a novel), but Cotterill is clearly working from a non-American, one might even say anti-American point of view here.  There are a couple of good Yanks on the US team, or at least some thoughtful ones, but for the most part they all harbor nefarious intentions.  The story is not entirely anti-US, but you know, we're not ALL bad, and one feels that it casts a fairly negative light on even domestic US politics, not to mention US policu in SE Asia.  Of course, this would have been the prevailing opinion in the region in 1978 so maybe I should stop being so sensitive.

Slash and Burn does depart from the Dr. Siri norm in a pretty big way, which is that his spiritual connections do not play a major role in this story.  There is one episode where he departs from reality, and it is only vaguely explained later, so one wonders if Cotterill had perhaps been trying out an entirely different plot thread there, but abandoned it later without developing or completely excising it.  And the spirits do play a key role in the denouement.  But perhaps the mortal team - which now includes Siri, Madame Daeng, Civilai, Dtui, Phosy, Geung, Comrade Lit, Auntie Bpoo, very reluctantly Judge Haeng, and now a dog named Ugly - is just too big and unwieldy to allow for any spirits to tag along as well.  This series should be read in order of publication, to get the full story on each of these charming additions to Dr. Siri's circle.

But as kookily effective as his human pals are, how long can Siri count on his spirit allies and shamanic expertise to save the day?  One of these missions they are going to come calling for him to join them permanently, and then I guess things could get really weird if Cotterill tries to continue this series from Siri's grave.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

How It Works

If you want to know how things work, or if you want to know anything really, just ask my son, Peter.  He is a veritable font of knowledge on pretty much any topic, even some about which he actually knows very little.  Peter is also a great explainer, and I think has the makings of good teacher at the professorial level - he really enjoys explaining things, and is surprisingly patient with questions and follow-up.  I can see him mentoring future astrophysicists, once he attains that status himself.

Peter has started his own blog, How It Works, I think loosely modeled on David Macauley and Neil Ardley's The New Way Things Work.  Whatever his inspiration, it's great, and you are sure to learn a lot if you follow it.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Hanging Shed

A faux-sticker on the cover of my paperback copy of The Hanging Shed (Corvus, 2010, my edition 2011) proclaims this "The No. 1 eBook bestseller."  That's not a selling point in my view, in fact it gave me pause when perusing the book at my local bookstore, Porter Square Books.  And while I wouldn't say that this was the finest piece of crime fiction I've ever read, it was in fact engaging, well-paced, with likable (and hateable) characters, and just enough twists to keep me guessing.

Our Hero is Douglas Brodie, former cop, WW2 vet, turned slightly scotch-soaked journalist.  He's a little damaged by life, but not irreparably so, and seems to hold a slightly more positive view of the world than his countryman John Rebus.  Brodie is called home to Glasgow by his former frenemy Hugh Donovan, to try and prove Hugh's innocence in a heinous crime for which he is to hang in four weeks' time.  Naturally, Hugh has a smart and tough but overwhelmed female lawyer who is also working on the appeal.  You can guess how that goes, but I'll say this, even though the obvious pairing happens, it's not as central or drawn out as it might have been in the hands of a lesser crime-fiction writer.  In other words, it doesn't distract from the story.  In fact, Samantha becomes part of the story in a somewhat unexpected way.  I will point out that once again, however, we are presented with a Hero-ine who is presented plain and dowdy and sever while she is being smart, but miraculously becomes gorgeous and feminine after she sleeps with Our Hero.  I wonder if she'll appear in the next Brodie tale?

As usual in these tales from Celtic lands, there are priests involved, and they act in their usual priestly ways.

Author Gordon Ferris is lauded for his realistic description of the gritty underworld of mid-20th c. Glasgow, and who am I to say he gets it at all wrong?  It reads well to me, and provides the requisite tension that saves a story set in a well-known city from becoming a travelogue.  That's not to say that there is not a certain amount of travelling around, since parts of the story take place on the island of Arran, and even in Northern Ireland.  Ferris manages to convince this reader that this would be a very nice place to vacation (minus the bad guys, of course).  And, he's got a nice eye for character development by language.  Consider this exchange, when Brodie is trying to get information out of a nosy neighbor:
"We slipped back to the Reid-Kennedy house and I knocked on the neighbour's door.  She opened it fast, as though she'd been waiting behind it, eye pressed to the net curtain over the glass panel.
'I don't suppose you saw the number [license] plate, missus?'
She shook her curler-clad head.  'Nup.'
'OK, thanks.'  I turned to walk back to the car.  She waited till I was at the gate.
'But oor Alec did.'
I walked back.  Nosy wee boys seemed to pop up just when you needed them.  Alec was produced.  Standard-issue urchin.  Shorts hanging off skinny hips, a vest under a sleeveless jumper and a runny nose.  But wee Alec was also clutching a scrap of a notebook.
'He collects nummers,' his mother said.  'Nae trains here, so he collects car nummers.'
'See, in the summer, a' thae folk come ower here for the fair an' I get their nummers,' piped Alec.
'Don't taigle the man, son, just tell him the nummer o' the big car frae yesterday.'
Alec flicked through his little pad of childish scrawl and with his filthy finger tracing across the last page he proudly declaimed, 'An Austin 10.  SD 319.  That's a Glesga nummer, mister.
'So it is, Alec.  So it is,' I replied, only just forbearing to bend down and kiss his nitty head." (194-195)

Like Confederate-soldier speak, it is fun to read out loud and get the accent.  I don't know what taigle means, but I look forward to heading back to Glesga to find out.