The Suspicions of Mister Whicher

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
By Kate Summerscale, narrated by Simon Vance

When the three-year-old son of an upper class landowner goes missing in Victorian England, the authorities become concerned.  When he’s found murdered and left in an outhouse, things go from bad to worse.  In Kate Summerscale’s meticulously researched book, she tells the story of the infamous murder of Saville Kent, and the detective sent from London to investigate the crime.  Summerscale uses the investigation, widespread interest in the case, and the lives of the characters to paint a picture not only of how sensational crime was handled in the mid-19th century, but how detectives came to be what they are today, evolving from the early fictions of writers like Poe, Collins, and Doyle into a regular and real part of the police force.

A few thoughts:

  • One of the reviews I glanced at before starting this piece called the book “over-researched.” I would instead say “under-edited.”  Summerscale does often include too much detail in her descriptions of things — I noticed this particularly in her tendency to name the price individuals paid for everything.  While the occasional discussion of incomes was certainly in line with her larger discussion of the role class played in the circumstances, the constant reference to costs felt like too much.  I also felt like the epilogue-like biographies of the principle players following the murders should have been trimmed significantly.
  • My favorite of the facts I gleaned from the book (and there were many, to be sure), was to learn that the antiquated spelling of clue was an etymological hint about the origins and meaning of the word.  Apparently, the original spelling of clew (we see this in lots of Victorian-age detective stories) springs from its Greek ancestor, the word for string or thread that one would follow, as in a line of thought.  The metaphor comes from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, as the string he threaded through the labyrinth allowed him to walk back out.
  • If you decide to read the book, you’ll come to a point at the end when Summerscale seems to be doing a long-form version of the end of Animal House, telling you where each character went and what they did after the mystery was resolved.  While this takes too long, it sets up her Epilogue, which reveals some really interesting additional facets to the case that have only come to light in the last sixty years or so.  So feel free to skim some of the biographies, but be sure to read the last chapter.
  • One thing this book highlights, for me, is how much sensational crime has always been a part of the popular press.  Summerscale does an excellent job exploring how much public interest there was in the case, how this influenced the magistrates and the investigation, and its ramifications for larger discussions of policing in Britain.  She also highlights the way class played a key role in everything people in Victorian England did, particularly in the way half the people in the house had a lot less suspicion placed on them because they were gentry.  Regarding the public interest in the case, this book reminds me both of how the penny papers in New York cultivated crime writing as one way to generate popular interest in newspapers, but also of the art form journalists had made of such writing by the 1920s.
  • In looking over the reviews of the book that disliked it, I’d say it’s a marketing problem.  Summerscale’s book uses this specific murder to explore the rise of detectives as a cultural institution.  It’s a historical work that uses the crime to achieve a larger end.  Most of the reviews seem annoyed with that larger end.  When coupled with the over-use of details, I can see how the casual reader wouldn’t enjoy the book.  For me, though, the history of detectives at the core of the book becomes all the more interesting as Summerscale highlights just how much the police detective is a product of the literary engines that were creating him as much as they were imitating him.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a solid, enjoyable book with immense depth of detail and an intense story at its core.  At the same time, it runs a bit longer than it needs to, leaving the reader without the punchy ending that would have suited the tale better.

See also: Murder City and The Sun and the Moon

The Underground Empire of Joseph Wunderkind

I won’t review this book here, since it’s not published yet, but I just finished reading an early draft and enjoyed it very much.  You should check out the teasers over at Andrew Kozma’s blog, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump.

And for visual enjoyment, here are six first-page images that the novel’s title yields in Google image search (but do not come from Kozma’s blog):




Critical Regionalism

Critical Regionalism
Critical Regionalism

Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape by Douglas Reichert Powell

*Full disclosure: the author works in my department and is a friend of mine.

In Critical Regionalism, Reichert Powell proposes a mode of critical inquiry one might describe as palimpsestic. Recognizing the multiple forces that go into shaping concepts of regions, scholars should explore and engage with as many perspectives as possible, seeking to understand how all the interested parties understand their region. By highlighting these different perspectives and histories, a critical regionalist scholar can work to build bridges between the parties and make positive change in the way regions are defined and explored.

The book suggests a methodological approach to the study of place that weaves among regional studies, geography, history, culture studies, and literary criticism. Much of the book centers around Johnson City, TN and Appalachia. The multivalent perspectives of the region that come into play are fascinating and delightful, and the critical regionalist approach develops on fronts both historical and literary. Reichert Powell also calls for a more engaged academy, suggesting that universities construct themselves as bubbles separated from their home communities and we would do well to dissect our own concept of the “place” of the university in the larger world.

I also noticed some connections to other scholars and scholarly projects (aside from those directly mentioned by DRP):

  • Jeff Rice’s work on place seems particularly relevant in the context of this book. Not being someone who studies place much, I can’t say where this book settles into such discourses, but there it is.
  • I’m reminded a bit of Ulmer’s Heuretics, with its intensely personal lens used as a guiding and structuring device.
  • Reichert Powell mentions De Certeau a couple times, but I couldn’t help noticing the connections between this book and The Practice of Everyday Life.

A solid scholarly work and definitely worth a read.

Here Comes Everybody

Here Comes Everybody
Here Comes Everybody

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations
by Clay Shirky

My Writing for New Media class finished reading this last week, so I thought I’d post a few thoughts.  Shirky’s book makes a strong argument for ways to understand how the new digital environment shifts how we behave and how we collaborate.  He outlines a number of key concepts (none particularly striking or new, but a good primer for them) and explains how the digital era has changed them. A few notes:

  • Tagging and digital groups reverse the order from “gather, then share” to “share, then gather.”  In other words, groups like those on Flickr spawn independently of organized effort.
  • The power law that applies to online collaborations is an useful idea: a few people contribute a whole lot, while most contribute hardly anything.  Oddly, it’s the same distribution as money in our current system.
  • As costs of failure drop, online communities can afford to have lots of it. This explains the open source community, which has literally thousands of failed projects, but which isn’t hurt by these in the way a commercial business would have been.
  • I like Shirky’s careful approach to the realm of the digital, neither lauditory nor grim.  He suggests that the changes bring about changes, but that they cause disruptions in some places and benefits in others, often at the same time.

One quote for you today:

One of the arguments for new technologies is that they enable new freedoms to their citizens.  This argument “assumes that the value of freedom outweigh the problems… because freedom is the right thing to want for society.  The pro-freedom argument does not imply a society with no regulations.  Two acts of civil disobedience in the twentieth century history of the United States demonstrate this.  The decisions of much of the population to ignore the constitutional prohibition on alcohol consumption in the 1920s, and the fifty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit in the 1980s, ultimately destroyed those restrictions.  The restrictions failed because the cost of enforcement, especially the level of surveillance, was incompatible with a free society.” (306)

I couldn’t help but hope that in fifty years a third regulatory change will be in evidence: the demise of old-style long-lived copyright.

It’s an interesting book, and worth reading.

McLuhan, Fiore, and You

My students turned in their “media massage” assignments yesterday and they’re pretty great.  With that in mind, here’s one quote that stuck with me from my most recent reading of The Medium is the Massage.

Professionalism is environmental.  Amateurism is anti-environmental.  Professionalism merges the individual into patterns of total environment.  amateurism seeks the development of the total awareness of the individual and the critical awareness of the groundrules of society.  The amateur can afford to lose…. The “expert” is the man who stays put. (93)

This reminds me of Ze Frank’s “I knows me some ugly myspace” contest, in which he suggests that amateur web designers are overturning professional makers of media by finding new ideals for taste and design, what Ze Frank calls “Ugly.”

The discussion has come up in my New Media class, where many of the students feel ambivalent about the ubiquity of these authoring tools, in part because they’re training to be the professionals who are losing market share in McLuhan’s comment here.  We had a chat about how Columbia’s film department is moving away from film production and toward moving image production.  There’s a discipline in having limited stock of film, one student argues.  But does the value derived from that discipline vanish when you can do as many shots as you like?  Or do the practices we call “discipline” vanish because the constraints they answered have vanished?  As clear handwriting is less important for ubiquitous typers than it was for medieval scribes.

Boy that feels curmudgeonly

I just got a free copy (thanks, Tarcher Penguin!) of THE DUMBEST GENERATION by Mark Bauerlein.  Here’s the description on the back:

They are The Dumbest Generation. They enjoy all the advantages of a prosperous, high-tech society. Digital technology has fabulously empowered them, loosened the hold of elders. Yet adolescents use these tools to wrap themselves in a generational cocoon filled with puerile banter and coarse images. The founts of knowledge are everywhere, but the rising generation camps in the desert, exchanging stories, pictures, tunes, and texts, savoring the thrill of peer attention. If they don’t change, they will be remembered as fortunate ones who were unworthy of the privileges they inherited. They may even be the generation that lost that great American heritage, forever.

Part of me grumbles “ho, yeah!”  But the other, less curmudgeonly part thinks this sounds an awful lot like “kids these days can’t write.”  Will post more after I read it.

A nice feature of being slow on BookMooch

Illustration credit Andrice Arp, courtesy of
Illustration credit Andrice Arp, courtesy of

So I’ve raved before here about Bookmooch, the best book swapping site on the interwebs:

  • You list books you want to give away, and get 1/10 of a point for each.
  • You give books away for 1 point each (or three, if you send them internationally).
  • You spend your points to request points books from other users.
  • You register feedback on the transactions, and get 1/10 of a point each time.

Jenny and I have been using the site for some time, to much success. I’ve given away roughly 170 books and mooched 260. In order to keep the process under control, I’ve decided that I will only send two books a month, using my walkin’ money. As a result, I nearly always have a wait for people who mooch from me. Right now, I’ve got two books slated to send tomorrow, two books slated for May 15, and one for June

The only down side of Book Mooch is that the system is a little scammable. You can offer a bunch of books to mooch right away, get points, and request them from others. Then, you can sit back and get a few free books before it becomes clear that you aren’t going to send any out. The advantage to the backlog system I use is that such scammers usually get booted out of the system before I get around to sending them my book.

If you’re interested, check it out, join up, and let me know, and I’ll smooch you a couple points.

Bookmooch logo

The Secular Conscience

The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life by Austin Dacey

This book is pretty heavy in its philosophy for a general readership, but worth the slog.  Dacey argues that the problem with modern secular liberalism stems from what he calls the Liberty Fallacy: that because matters of conscience are matters of individual Liberty, they’re also not open to question or criticism.  This fallacy results in ethical waffling and a reluctance to criticize ideas from other cultures.

By contrast, Dacey argues that religious belief is private, but conscience must be open and up to debate.  He weaves a long and interesting discussion of the issue, exploring the way that open societies have fostered respect for human beings and a separation of church and state, and that closed societies often violate those two elements.  He also suggests that regardless of personal reasons, public debate ought to function from a consequentialist perspective, namely that discussions about ethics and morals should focus on the human impact of those decisions.  He argues for an ethics of the golden rule.

Two interesting things emerge at the end of the book.The second to last chapter is a warning call to Europe, particularly, about fundamentalist Islam.  Dacey argues that in refusing to debate conscience decisions made due to religious reasons, secular liberals are giving away their culture.  He suggests that fundamentalist religious countries are railing against secularism, and Europe doesn’t get it.

The secular, open society has met its antithesis.  It comes in many forms: Salafist jihad, clerical totalitarianism, the rule of sharia law.  What unites them is the willing sacrifice of freedom and human rights before a sacred order and their dependence on Islam for their existence.  And yet there are millions of secular liberal Muslims, and potential alternative interpretations of the faith abound.  One would think that secular liberals would be at the center of this struggle. Instead, reluctant to “impose” their values on others, fearful of the taint of American imperialism, most are submerged into silence.  The result?  Public discussion of Islam tends to veer between chauvinistic denunciations by conservative Christians … and useless overgeneralizations by politicians.  Words are liberals’ first weapon of choice.  Unfortunately, they now find themselves facing something they’ve sworn they not to talk about–religion.  If it is to rise to the historical moment and engage with both faces of Islam, secular liberalism needs a new self-understanding. (185)

And then, in Chapter 11, he cites Open Source as a key model for modern knowledge generation.  Ha!

The traditional model of conscience is a mirror of revelation.  Not a voice from an angel in a cave or a burning bush, but a revelation from within, a “still, small voice.”  But from where?  In the picture of conscience developed in this book, the model is not a revelation but a network.  The network of open source ethics is a public, collaborative and critical enterprise that builds up a storehouse of shareable answers to challenges faced by a community.  The sound of conscience is the clamor of conversation, not the eerie whisper of revelation.(202)

And finally:

If secular liberalism is to continue to stand for reason and freedom, the separation of religion and state, personal autonomy, equality, toleration, and self-criticism, secular liberals must stand up for these values in public debate.  This means returning conscience to its proper place at the heart of secular liberalism.  Matters of conscience–including religion and values–are open.  Like the sciences and open source methods, they are fit subjects of public discussion, they are guided by shared, objective, evaluative standards, and they are revisable in light of future experience.  The point of open, secular society is not to privatize or bracket questions of conscience, but to pursue them in conversation with others.  Like a free press, conscience is freed from coercion so that it may perform a vital public function: reasoning together about questions of meaning, identity, and value.  (209-210).

The Alienist

The AlienistCarr’s book is pretty great. It’s the story of a serial murderer in New York in the 1890s.  The main character is a reporter who’s friends with Teddy Roosevelt (the chief of police) and with Lazlo Kretzler, an alienist (the term for a psychiatrist in the 1890s).  Because the murderer is picking out people he doesn’t know, the police are completely unequipped to catch him, and Lazlo builds a team to find the murderer by building a composite sketch of him based on his behavior and actions.  It ends up being a prototype of the killer profile we see in television police procedurals.

  • The writing works very well.  The characters are really solid, the environment skillfully crafted, and the story well-paced.  The mystery doesn’t feel forced, and the details fall into place nicely.
  • Carr does an excellent job with 1890s New York.  He chooses details that sing: the bar where people gather to bet on whether pedestrians are going to get run over by street cars, the houses of “ill-fame” where the young murder victims are kidnapped and about which the police do nothing, the immigrant tenements seethe with decay and grime.
  • The murders are very gruesome.  Not light reading.
  • The corruption in the city fits the historical record as far as I know, as does Roosevelt’s character and actions.

What actually interests me more is the method the characters use to catch the villain.  They develop a dossier of the criminal by exploring the traces of his crimes and looking for evidence of what he might be like.  Not only do they examine the evidence of his crimes, but they also interview other murderers to find out what drives them and how they differ from the subject of their investigation.

This method strikes me as a good metaphor for the way I am seeking the electrate detective: a sort of shadow effect, using the light from the other detectives to define the edges of the electrate detective, and defining pieces of their method by the evidence of their work.

The book also provides some insight into how I might use the methodology I used in my dissertation  toward this book: the story provides the method for evaluating it.

It also feels like there’s something going on in the time period and the method.  The prevalence of psychoanalysis in the story feels like a calling card. The book has lots of developing technologies: photography, retina imaging, fingerprinting.  But it also has the burgeoning craft of psychoanalysis.  Kretzler anticipates Freud in key ways.  The convergence of cinema and psychoanalysis yield Surrealism, an essential early perspective of electracy.  The traces of these ideas throughout the book made my antennae tingle.  I’m not sure what I’ll do with this book yet, but I’ll certainly do something.

Rhet/Comp and New Media

Fellow academics, please do read through (or jump) to the end and pick up the meme if you’re willing — it would be helpful to me.

When I was on the job market, I got three interviews at MLA.  One was a cattle-call interview where the interviewer and I exchanged “Oh, that’s nice” pleasantries with one another, me about the aspects of the school, him about aspects of my CV.  We parted mutual friends but pleasantly sure we’d never meet again.  The second was my interview with Columbia, which was all wine and roses.  The third was a disaster.

I should have been prepared for the question: “How would you teach a graduate seminar to Rhet/Comp scholars?”  I wasn’t.

To be clear, I’m a hybrid guy.  I do computers and writing, but I also do media studies.  I see them as the same thing, most of the time: I do Grammatology.  I wasn’t very good at making the argument for that perspective at the interview.  Here’s a rough transcript:

Lead interviewer: Hi Brendan.  We’re running behind so I’ll be blunt–you’re my candidate.  The rest of the committee thinks you’re too much media studies and not enough rhet/comp for this position.  Prove them wrong.

Me: Um, will do! [I’m sure I wasn’t really that inarticulate, but it would be close.  I proceed to talk a bit about how I teach writing.]

Lead interviewer: Okay, okay, okay.  But how would you teach a graduate seminar, to rhet/comp scholars?  Who would you read?

Me: Uh, McLuhan.  Ulmer.  Johnson-Eilola.  Manovich.  Bolter.  Robert Ray.  Jeff Rice.  [I could see this was getting me nowhere.]

Lead interviewer: Ah, but that isn’t really the field is it?  I guess what we were looking for were people like Cindy and Dicke Selfe, Ann Wysocki, [and I forget the rest.]

We parted with pleasantries about how great my writing sample was and how it got me there.  Then the Lead interviewer urged me not to let the door hit me on my way out.  This would have been a crippling interview had I not had the Columbia one first.

All this came flooding back when a friend emailed and said:

I’d like to assign one student to write a review essay and introduce the class to the topic of computers/new media and composition. I want to assign three or four key articles in this field for them to read/review. Can you suggest some titles that they absolutely should read?

Good Lord, no I can’t.  But I tried anyhow.  Here’s my response, and then a meme for y’all at the end:

I tend to think the fields of new media and media studies are very closely related, and thus MY list of the essential articles would be:

Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” _Atlantic Monthly_, July 1945

Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” _Understanding Media_,  1964

Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” _Simians, Cyborgs, and Women_, 1985.

Lev Manovich, “What Is New Media?,” _The Language of New Media_, 2001.

Geoffrey Sirc, “Box-Logic,” _Writing New Media_, 2005.

Alas, this is a media-studies approach to new media and rhet comp. There are definitely overlaps, but the Haraway and the Manovich would probably be disputed by some more rhet/compy people.

Hrm.  This is actually a lot harder than I thought it should be.  There are a few names that come to mind as important people in the field, but for these I can think of books more than articles that capture their thinking.  Three important voices whose specific articles I can’t bring to mind are:

Cindy Selfe
Ann Wysocki
Johndan Johnson-Eilola
Gunther Kress

I’ll put a call out on my blog and see what other folks think.


I tried to figure out how to include Ulmer and Rice on those lists, but couldn’t think of anything digestible enough from Ulmer, and I haven’t (sorry JR) been keeping up with Jeff’s stuff as much as I should.  I was also tempted to say the person should just follow my blogroll and then those blogrolls, as the stuff appearing there rings very true to me (especially Digital Digs which has been on an intense, amazing roll lately).  But I’d like to know:

What do YOU think are the four or five essential must-reads for an emerging Rhet/Comp scholar?

Do your homework

My Writing and Rhetoric 2: Online! students are working their way through Lawrence Weschler’s Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences. One of the readings was a chapter called “Helen Levitt: Ilium Off the Bowery,” in which Weschler writes:

…we learn that one of the methods by which she accomplished such uncanny capture was through the use of a winkelsucher, a right-angle viewfinder … attachment which “allowed the street photographer to sight along the camera body while standing sideways to his subject, who consequently fails to realize that he is the subject.” (33)

and I asked this question:

Consider the “right-angle viewfinder” mentioned in the second paragraph of “Helen Levitt.” What does it literally do for Levitt? What kind of photographs does it take? Now consider the winkelsucher as a metaphor. What would it mean to approach a research subject as though you were using a metaphorical “periscopic device?” How might we examine a research subject at a right angle?

In her response, one student wrote:

I think it’s important to approach research with a “periscopic device” or examine it at a “right-angle” because taking a step back and looking at the subjects (or research) from another angle we may find things that we ordinarily would not have discovered. This is crucial becuase uncovering more than just the black and white research would be looking at the actual world and looking for the aesthetic but we need to see the aesthetic world within the actual world.

Hells yeah.

Also, it occurs to me that winkelsucher is a great name for some sort of website or web community.  What might it be?

The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Burglar

Cover image from The Confessions of Arsene Lupinby Maurice LeBlanc; read by various

With grading finished and my intellectual activity relegated, for the next few days, to the backburner, I’m doing some home excavation.  We’ve gutted the bathroom and are putting in an exhaust fan, new drywall, new light fixtures, new vanity and mirror/cabinet.  As such, I have plenty of time to audiobook it.  So I just finished reading The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin, a delightful collection of stories about France’s “national criminal” somewhat in the vain of The Scarlet Pimpernel, only he steals jewels and taunts his victims rather than stealing French nobles from the angry mob.

The book has lots to it, including at a couple interesting connections with my detective studies.  (I’ve placed several relevant quotes below the fold, for folks who’re interested.)

  1. In a couple spots, the book refers to the Bertillon system, a French protocol for documenting the physical characteristics of prisoners, so they can be positively identified later despite attempts at disguise.  Lupin regularly makes a mockery of this system, eluding the numbers and so on.  But the book also highlights a key idea from Robert Ray’s “Snapshots” essay, that photographs actually destabilize this process rather than enhancing it.  The Gentleman Burglar is able to evade the system through clever disguises because the photographs all “resemble” him, but not enough to be sure.  He also reveals several ways to disrupt his appearance so much that his nemesis doesn’t recognize him at one point.

    Along these same lines, at one point the story develops an analogy for the dangers of photography and their secret smuggling of disruptive details by having Lupin hide the jewels and money from a major theft inside the camera he’s carrying.

  2. Obvious connections with two literary detectives.  First, Poe’s Parisian detective is named “Dupin,” and the rise of a criminal named “Lupin” might just be coincidence, or it might be a magnificent rhyme.  Second, Sherlock Holmes shows up in the Lupin stories.  In the first one, he appears as Sherlock Holmes.  In later stories, because of protest from Doyle, he appears as “Herlock Sholmes,” apparently.

The counterpoint between Holmes and Lupin seems key here.  Both interface directly with photography, with Holmes performing the function of the classic detective story, to reinforce law and order, and also shoring up a rational worldview by reading the details that photographs reproduce in abundance.  Lupin does the opposite: using his superior intellect and attention to detail, he performs daring acts of theft and authority-taunting.  I’m not sure about how it connects yet, but Arsene Lupin seems an important figure in figuring out story of the detective and the emergence of electracy.

I read this book as a librivox recording.  It was pretty good, with several folks I’ve heard before making appearances.  Good work, everyone!

Below are some interesting quotes from the book.

Continue reading The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Burglar

Things that make you feel your age

I just had an “old moment.”  I saw a book in my list of books I’d given away on Bookmooch that looked really intriguing.  It was called Take-Down, and was about the pursuit and capture of Kevin Mitnick, a famous cyber criminal.  I found myself thinking, “Man, that sounds like a good book.  I should have read that before I gave it away.”

Then, in looking into the matter a bit more, I found that I DID read that book.  Not even two years ago.


Weekend media roundup

I finished and/or read a number of books in the last few days. Here’s a roundup:

The Interpretation of Murder
Interpretation of Murderby Jed Rubenfeld; narrated by Kirby Heyborne

I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. Rubenfeld mixes a significant amount of historical writing (almost like Erik Laarsen would write) in with his description of the murder and the psychologists involved. He also oscillates the narration quite a bit, shifting from third-person to first and back, without much clear distinction or reason for doing so.

I particularly liked his description of the Cason used to create the foundations at the base of the Manhatten bridge. I’d seen about that on the Discovery channel, but it was cool to hear about again.

The book tells the fictional story of Freud’s involvement with the murder of a wealthy young woman in one of New York’s most elite apartment buildings. A second woman, attacked but not killed, loses her voice and is unable to remember the attack. In come the psychoanalysts to help her overcome her amnesias.

Heyborne did a good job too. His voices, particularly those for the coroner and the millionaire, were solid.

Foundation and Empire
Second Foundationby Isaac Asimov

I read the Foundation Trilogy a long time ago, but recently re-read Foundation. I just had a hankerin’ to read the next section this week.

It isn’t as good as Foundation. I liked the first book’s insistence on using several parts to tell the story of the foundation over a long time. By contrast, Foundation and Empire focuses mostly on one period, the fall of the first foundation at the hands of The Mule.

Foundation‘s most interesting bit is its exploration of the various means for cultures to interact and react to one another. The small colony wins through detente, then through religious manipulation, and finally through free trade. In the second book, the colony faces a man–The Mule– who seemingly conquers with no effort at all, his enemies falling to his forces with virtually no fight. The more limited scope reduces the number of cultural templates Asimov can explore.

The bureaucracy of the Foundation has become complacent and magisterial, so confident in its own divine right (via Harry Selden) that it is unable to recognize the threat to its security until it’s too late. After all, Harry helps those who help themselves.

Chronicles, Volume 1
Chronicles, Vol 1by Bob Dylan; narrated by Sean Penn

Fascinating. Dylan has a poetic writing style, with an acute eye for detail (often describing passing moments from 20 years ago with striking intricacy). He uses lots of metaphors, describing how songs attacked him, shaped him, spoke to him. His discussion of other musicians makes similar moves.

The structure of the book is a bit strange, and for a while I thought I’d gotten one of the discs out of order. The disc marked “5” on my iPod would have fit much more appropriately as disc 2. At least, that was my impression at the beginning of disc 5. As it concluded, though, it was clearly wrapping up the book, ending at the beginning so to speak.

Two observations that came out of this book for me:

  1. I already knew my dad was a folky. His preferred playing style with finger-picking, but he played a wide range of celtic and standard folk songs. He liked “Wabash Cannonball” enough to write his own verses to make it longer. But the extent of his interest (and expertise?) in the genre didn’t become clear to me until I listened to this book. At several points, Dylan mentions people who influenced him, people he was listening to or playing with. I found that I had a lot of those people on CD, all of them in the collection I had inherited from Pop. A couple I can remember right now: Jack Elliot, John Koerner, Leadbelly. Judging by the amount I like those artists, it makes me want to get hold of two others that Dylan talks about in glowing ways (no laughing that I don’t have these already): Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson.
  2. Dylan’s concern for his family that drove some of his strange musical choices in his middle career was surprising and endearing. It’s heartwarming to think of him as a family man.
  3. Dylan expresses a love for Denzel Washington at one point, commenting that the actor had played both the Mighty Quinn and Hurricane Carter, both of whom Dylan had written songs about. Dylan suggests that he didn’t know whether Washington had any interest in playing Woody Guthrie, but that Dylan would welcome the actor to do so.

Penn does a great job with the narration, bringing a growly character to the reading that fits Dylan’s style well, if not his voice precisely.

Band of Brothers, disc 5

Band of BrothersI finally finished the Spielberg/Hanks war epic Band of Brothers. My absolute favorite aspect of this story is that it could build such a relationship with the characters that the narrative was able to sustain a war movie in which the final two episodes did not have a single battle scene.

Episode 9: Why We Fight
I suppose I should have seen this episode coming, but I didn’t. The soldiers come upon a concentration camp. Such scenes are always going to be moving, but this sequence, coming as a surprise to the soldiers as well as to the viewer, stunned me to the core. The title for the episode come from a pamphlet one of the soldiers is reading, which explains that the Germans are “very bad.” The soldiers make light early on but the idea returns later.

One of the more effective bits of this episode is the way it shows how unexpected this was for the everyday soldier. I understand that stories of these camps had been circulating for a while, but the soldiers on the ground didn’t always know what was coming.

I am also intrigued by the ambiguity of character in the two sequences between Captain Nixon (Ron Livingston) and the haughty lady whose husband is an officer in the army. In the first, she finds Nixon rummaging through her living room, looking for alcohol. He has thrown a framed portrait of her officer-husband on the floor and shattered the glass. She watches him with disdain and he walks out without comment. In the second, Nixon sees her (seeks her out?) among the townspeople who have been forced to help bury the bodies at the camp. Their eyes meet again and she has lost her haughtiness, but it’s unclear what’s going on in Nixon’s eyes. I’d be interesting to see what folks think about this scene, if you’ve seen it.

City of Glass
City of Glassby Paul Auster

I re-read this book this weekend to prepare for my Mystery book club (which meets at the incomparable Centuries and Sleuths bookstore), which was discussing it at my recommendation. I was a bit worried, because the group tends to read mostly procedurals or other more straightforward mysteries, and this book was far different from those. My first question to the group was “Is this a mystery? Or, is this appropriate for this group to have read?”

The group really enjoyed it, for the most part. A few folks said they didn’t like it, though. One woman said she only read about 20 pages and then stopped:

It starts out and the main character is fractured! He’s lost his family, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’s hollow. It can only go downhill from there.

Some people didn’t like the book’s story, but they appreciated Auster’s writing or the depth of ideas at work in the book. We didn’t talk about the commentary on the mystery genre that interests me so much about the book, but that’s okay. Anyhow, my first recommendation to the group was a success. It also re-motivated me to dig back into Don Quixote.

The Final Solution: A Story of Detection

The Final Solution by Michael Chabonby Michael Chabon

Enjoyable, well written, as expected. A quote:

The application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at once dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings–the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life. And yet he had always been haunted–had he not?–by the knowledge that there were men, lunatic crypographers, mad detectives, who squandered their brilliance and sanity in decoding and interpreting the messages in cloud formations, in the letters of the Bible recombined, in the spots on butterflies’ wings. One might, perhaps, conclude from the existence of such men that meaning dwelled solely in the mind of the analyst. That it was the insoluble problems–the false leads and the cold cases–that reflected the true nature of things. That all the apparent significance and pattern had no more intrinsic sense than the chatter of an African gray parrot. One might so conclude; really, he thought, one might. (129-131)

And a question for anyone who has read the book and has a better grasp of the intricacies of German policies and the holocaust than I do. After the break for it presumes you’ve read the book…

Continue reading The Final Solution: A Story of Detection