Sunday, May 19, 2019

Ellis Peters' Fallen Into The Pit (Not Brother Cadfael)

Ellis Peters wrote another mystery series before the Brother Cadfael ones started; it's set in contemporary England and features Inspector George Felse, often assisted by his son Dominic, his wife Bunty, and not infrequently by Dominic's current girlfriend. It's a family affair.

This is the fourth of the Felse mysteries I've read and it's the first in the series, from 1951.

The war hasn't been over long when this takes place, and a German P.O.W. named Helmut Schauffler, is still in England, working on farms and waiting to be repatriated. Helmut insists he was just an innocent soldier, and all that Nazi stuff never meant anything to him, but we quickly learn that's not true, and he's slyly hiding his real white supremacist/anti-Semitic feelings. Well, everybody in the town knows, too, and when he's discovered murdered, there are plenty of suspects. High on the list is Chad Wedderburn, now the Latin master, but recently a ruthless Army commando.

It's Dominic and his not-quite girlfriend Pussy (they're both thirteen in this one) who stumble on the body, and from that moment Dominic thinks of it as his murder, even though his father tells him quite forcefully to stay away. A second murder complicates things--Dominic is the last person to see the victim alive except for the murderer--and it ends with a trap sprung on the perpetrator and some nice suspense.

I started reading the Felse mysteries when I was nearly out of Cadfaels, and they are a pretty good substitute. They're perhaps not quite as charming as her better-known series, but still a lot of fun. You will know, if you're at all a reader of Peters, that since Chad Wedderburn is in love with Io the barmaid, and she loves him back, there is no way Wedderburn will turn out to be the murderer.

That said, this is the first of the series. Peters was no tyro when she wrote this, but she would get better. This would be stronger if it were fifty pages shorter, and the identity of the murderer was signalled much earlier than it needed to be. Wikipedia tells me that it was ten years until the next Felse came out, and her style had changed substantially between the two, and I think, for the better. No need to read them in order.

Another book I read from Ellis Peters' Felse mysteries.

An entry for the Gold card in the My Readers' Block vintage mystery challenge:
Where. Set in a small village.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Disch

Ballade of the New God

I have decided I'm divine
Caligula and Nero knew
A godliness akin to mine,
But they are strictly hitherto.
They're dead, and what can dead gods do?
I'm here and now. I'm dynamite.
I'd worship me if I were you.
A new religion starts tonight! 
No booze, no pot, no sex, no swine:
I have decreed them all taboo.
My words will be your only wine,
The thought of me your honeydew.
All other thoughts you will eschew.
You'll call yourself a Thomasite
And hymn my praise with loud yahoo.
A new religion starts tonight. 
But (you might think) that's asinine!
I'm just as much a god as you.
You may have built yourself a shrine,
But I won't bend my knee. Who
Asked you to be my god? I do,
Who am, as god, divinely right.
Now you must join my retinue:
A new religion starts tonight. 
All that I have said is true.
I'm god and you're my acolyte.
Surrender's bliss. I envy you.
A new religion starts tonight.

-Tom Disch

Tom Disch is better known as a science fiction writer, but he was also a bravura formal poet. He died, alas, a suicide, in New York in 2008.

That's two ballades in three weeks. It's not always a comic verse form--"Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear?"--but somehow it seems to be one now.

Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness has Robert Graves this week.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Quoting Mr. Russell, #3

"There once was a mayor who had adopted Aristotle's doctrine [of the golden mean]; at the end of his term of office he made a speech saying that he had endeavoured to steer the narrow line between partiality on the one hand and impartiality on the other."
Oh, so clever, Mr. Russell. This is, of course, meant to be a satire on Aristotle's idea of the golden mean, that a virtue consists of hewing to the medium between two extremes, which are both vices. But, hey, I come from Chicago: a mayor who could say that and do so truthfully sounds just fine to me.

I could even build an argument that, in an elected official, too much impartiality is not entirely desirable, a little partiality to one's partisans is called for, and that Aristotle actually wins this round. But we'll save that for another post, on a more political blog...

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Jeffers

Wonder and Joy

The things that one grows tired of--O, be sure
They are only foolish artificial things!
Can a bird ever tire of having wings?
And I, so long as life and sense endure,
(Or brief be they!) shall nevermore inure
My heart to the recurrence of the springs,
Of the grey dawns, the gracious evenings,
The infinite wheeling stars. A wonder pure
Must ever well within me to behold
Venus decline; or great Orion, whose belt
Is studded with three nails of burning gold,
Ascend the winter heaven. Who never felt
This wondering joy may yet be good and great:
But envy him not: he is not fortunate.
-Robinson Jeffers 

Robinson Jeffers was an American--and mostly Californian--poet who died in 1962. I always think of this as a poem for being outdoors, in the wilderness, maybe around a campfire. And have been known to declaim it under such circumstances.

I no longer recall where I first came across this poem. That's my poetry commonplace book above, a little tea-stained, in which this is written, a book now mostly obsolete, since poems I want to keep get typed into an HTML file and transferred to my phone. (Sigh. The modern world.) On the other hand, my handwriting is so appalling it may be all for the best.

Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness is featuring a Pablo Neruda sonnet this week.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Quoting Mr. Russell, #2

" is said he died by leaping into the crater of Etna to prove that he was a god. In the words of the poet: 
    Great Empedocles, that ardent soul
    Leapt into Etna, and was roasted whole."
Bertrand Russell doesn't tell you who that poet is that he's quoting but it seems the poet is...Bertrand Russell.

As for Empedocles (if the legend's true) his thought might have been, well, hey, it worked for Heracles...

Quoting Mr. Russell

'As to Aristotle's influence on him [Alexander,] we are left free to conjecture whatever seems most plausible. For my part, I should suppose it nil. Alexander was an ambitious and passionate boy, on bad terms with his father, and presumably impatient of schooling. Aristotle thought no state should have as many as one hundred thousand citizens and preached the doctrine of the golden mean. I cannot imagine his pupil regarding him as anything but a prosy old pedant, set over him by his father to keep him out of mischief.'
-from Bertrand Russell's The History of Western Philosophy.  

Ha! So much for all those who want to make Aristotle's tutoring of Alexander into something important.

Lazily, I rather wanted the most recent Classics Club spin to force me to read something long and challenging, but the random number generator refused. So I thought, well, I'll just have to do it myself then, won't I? Spenser's Faerie Queene and Plutarch's Lives are still sitting next to my reading chair, but it looks like it's going to be Bertrand Russell's The History of Western Philosophy. I'm 200 pages in (out of 800+).

I'm a bit shocked how readable, and even amusing, I'm finding it. Let me once get to the chapters about Kant and Hegel, and I'll probably start groaning.

The actual spin for me, Sheridan's The School for Scandal still awaits, but I'm expecting to find that a fun and easy read.

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Cyberiad

Well, perhaps it was just another empty invention--there are certainly fables enough in this world. And yet, even if the story isn't true, it does have some grain of sense and instruction to it, and it's entertaining as well, so it's worth the telling.
I pulled Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad off the shelf for the #1965Club, but didn't finish it in time. I read enough of it, though, to make me certain I needed to reread it.

I likely first came across Stanislaw Lem (and Borges and Raymond Smullyan and Thomas Nagel and, and, and...) when I read The Mind's I, (1981) edited by Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. It includes three stories by Lem, including two that come from this book. So, these are stories that give mathematician/philosophers something to talk about, "some grain of sense and instruction." But then they are entertaining, too.

Trurl and Klaupacius are constructors, that is they build intelligent machines to solve various problems. Mostly these are problems that didn't need solving, like Trurl's machine capable of creating everything that begins with the letter N. That makes it sound science-fiction-y, and it is, and quite possibly silly, which it is, too, though in a good way; but these are also fables, as the subtitle says. This may be a universe with robots, but it also has pirates and princesses and (repeatedly) kings who commission something from Trurl and then refuse to pay. So the proud are pulled down and the lowly exalted, generally, except when they ain't...and in any case it makes a good story.

Many of the stories in this are satirical in intent. Stanislaw Lem died at the age of 84 in 2006 in Poland, and so most of his career and, I assume, all of these stories, were written under the former Communist regime. Now I know from other things of Lem's I've read, he's capable of satirizing capitalism with perfect aplomb, but really, were the Polish censors completely asleep? Or did they simply not care about science fiction?
"Revolutionary solutions, on the other hand, boil down to either the Carrot or the Stick. The Stick, or bestowing happiness by force, is found to produce from one to eight hundred times more grief than no interference whatsoever. As for the Carrot, the results--believe it or not--are exactly the same,..."
This from a story in which Klaupacius assists a hermit in hunting down the population with the H. L. P. D., the Highest Level of Possible Development, in order to bestow human (and robotic) happiness throughout the universe. The hermit, undeterred, makes such a botch of things, he's stuffed in a cannon and fired across the galaxy to get rid of him.

The translator Michael Kandel is justly praised for his translations of Lem, and this one is full of brio; there are crazy, wonderful puns and poeticisms, just the sorts of things that are usually labelled untranslatable.

Very entertaining.

This will do for Poland for my European Reading Challenge, hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader.