Sunday, January 21, 2018

Mount TBR #1

I read this book for the Mount TBR 2018 Reading Challenge.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion - Jonathan Haidt

In this clearly written and deeply researched book, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out we can predict many preferences based on the trait of openness. According to research based on hundreds of studies, liberals really are more open to new experience and more tolerant of ambiguity while conservatives stay with the tried and true and clear-cut answers with no grey areas. As W once said to Senator Biden, “Joe, I don’t do nuance,” infamously to some, and approvingly to others.

What is the origin of morality? Where do these preferences for tolerance, cleanliness, or fairness come from? Developmental psychology shows that kids come into the world not with a blank slate, but a first draft (Gary Marcus). The first draft of the moral mind, anthropology and psychology research indicates, has five foundations. Our programming from nature makes us care for the weak and vulnerable, especially our children, but not limited to them. This also makes us object to harm to the weak and defenseless. Our module for fairness/reciprocity underlies religious beliefs and ethical behaviors. Another module, in-group loyalty even in very large groups, is unique to human beings, probably from our living in tribes for millions of years. Authority/respect in humans is based on a predisposition for voluntary deference and affiliation. Purity/sanctity is about an idea that tells you that you find virtue by taking care of your body and avoiding contaminants.

The first draft is revised by culture, upbringing and individual experience. For instance, liberals are raised to care about harm and fairness issues. But liberals aren’t raised to consider loyalty, respect, and purity as having all that much to do with morality. Conservatives agree that harm and fairness matter but regard the other three as very important components on morality. People learn and develop intuitive reactions to issues like patriotism, immigration, social justice, rights, greed, duty, crime and punishment. Then, they marshal arguments to support those intuitive reactions. Intuition and emotion come first, then reason develops arguments to back them up, mainly for the sake of the team.

Morality and politics, Haidt points out, are team sports. Nature has programmed human nature to bind into teams (hives), which calls for loyalty to the team’s truth instead of the reality of a given situation. When people share inclinations like morals, they form teams to work toward common goals. Team members cheer each other on when they win and comfort each other when they lose with rational and irrational arguments that the other side is stupid and brutal, they cheated, our side didn’t play dirty enough, etc.

But the team may be dreadfully wrong in its stances. Or traits that were useful to us as hunter-gatherers don’t cut it on our current work sites and around the Thanksgiving dinner table with mouth-breathing relatives. Maximizing fairness and minimizing harm may merely lead to thinking wishfully about having more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Nor does it bode well to ignore the stern reality of climate change because the team says it’s a hoax.

Haidt, as we would expect, makes a plea for tolerance. Of course, it is up to liberals to understand conservatives since conservatives have a better fix on loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity and liberals had better start talking to them in those terms if they ever want the White House back. More practically, Haidt advocates for less partisan gerrymandering so that politicians can no longer pick their own voters and must then appeal to a wider more diverse audience.

On the individual level, Haidt urges readers to think more objectively about their own beliefs. Following what Marcus Aurelius said in Book IV, Part 3 of the Meditations, “The universe is change and life is opinion,” we need to use our reasoning more consistently in order to see our lives as social beings as they had better be lived, not as nature and culture have programmed us to sleepwalk through life without thinking. Mainly, calm down, stop getting annoyed with the other side all the time since anger and disgust won’t get anybody anywhere.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Two by Bainbridge

The Birthday Boys  & Every Man for Himself – Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge (1934 - 2010; obituary) was an English writer of short, readable historical novels.  The Birthday Boys (1991) told the sad story for Capt. Scott’s disastrous journey to the South Pole in 1912. Every Man for Himself (1996) was about the first and fatal voyage of the Titanic a month later. In an interview with TheParis Review, Bainbridge said “Those events were emblematic, as they seemed to presage what lay ahead—the First World War and all that followed.”

Told from five points of view, The Birthday Boys describes the decisions and rivalries that doomed the men on the expedition to the Pole. Out of a misguided sense of honor and lack of sense that Creation gave geese, Scott decides in favor of going on foot instead of harnessing dog teams. And the followers, out of duty, carried out their orders. The courage that makes them heroes also leads to their lonely deaths in their tents in Antarctica. It brings to mind the First World War, when generals sent men over the top into No Man’s Land without ever seeming to learn that hammering the enemy was rough on the hammer.

Researching J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, Bainbridge discovered he and Scott had been great friends. She said, “I thought what a strange couple, but of course, the idea of lost boys in Never Never Land leads logically (to my mind) to my next book, The Birthday Boys. And that led to the Titanic.”

Near the beginning of Every Man for Himself, the novel’s rich young narrator, Morgan, takes an unauthorized tour of the engine rooms of the huge ship Titanic. Heis "dazzled” -- "I was thinking that if the fate of man was connected to the order of the universe, and if one could equate the scientific workings of the engines with just such a reciprocal universe, why then, nothing could go wrong with my world."

Such optimism and self-confidence in the face of the plaguy fact that we can’t control anything outside of our own heads. Such faith in technology. Nature, guised in the shape, size, and solidity of a great bloody iceberg, has something to say about such self-assured modernity. And a couple years later, the First World War showed, like the American Civil War did, that once started wars take on an intransigent momentum of their own. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Mount TBR 2018 Sign Up

For the  Mount TBR 2018 Reading Challenge I will go for Mt. Ararat (48 books) from my TBR pile because I barely made Mt. Kilimanjaro (60 books) in 2017.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Red Box

The Red Box -  Rex Stout

In the fourth novel (1937) starring rotund PI Nero Wolfe, three poisoning deaths bestir the immovable orchid fancier and gourmet to solve the case with the assistance of his PA Archie Goodwin and operatives Saul, Frank, and Orrie. The pace moves much faster in this one compared to the longer Fer-de-Lance and the decidedly sluggish The League of Frightened Men (which I feared was never going to end).

Stout has little interest in describing so readers have to be patient with the vague depiction of the fashion house at the beginning. But this lack is balanced by many quips and quotable asides. Archie’s down to earth pragmatism comes out often. “…I’m a great one for the obvious, because it saves a lot of fiddling around….” And “…As I understand it, a born executive is a guy who, when anything unexpected happens, yells for somebody else to come and help him.”

Plus, a reader wishes our leaders read Stout when they teenagers so they could have thought about Archie’s realistic and logical view of torture:

They [the cops] had Gebert down there, slapping him around and squealing and yelling at him. If you're so sure violence is inferior technique, you should have seen that exhibition; it was wonderful. They say it works sometimes, but even if it does, how could you depend on anything you got that way? Not to mention that after you had done it a few times any decent garbage can would be ashamed to have you found in it.

Who says mysteries are just escapist genre fiction? The roots of the murder in The Red Box are as ghastly but plausible as in a Maigret novel by Simenon with the theme How Families Get Balled Up.

Wolfe, however, gets the best of the best lines. He loftily scolds a mouthy client, “…I know you are young, and your training has left vacant lots in your brain.” Touching on a theme dear to his fans, he chides Archie, “Someday, Archie, I shall be constrained … but no. I cannot remake the universe, and must therefore put up with this one. What is, is, including you.” He says with tongue firmly in cheek, “Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth.” But he gets right to the pith of human relations with The central fact about any man, in respect to his activities as a social animal, is his attitude toward women.”

I don’t read Nero novels in any kind of order so I don’t think other readers have to either. One critic said, “Stout's material succeeds on general mood alone.” I’d agree -  it’s the characters, humor, and the fantasy nostalgia of old time Manhattan  that make this one a classic Nero novel.

Reviews of other Stout Novels
The Golden Spiders
Hand in Glove
Not Quite Dead Enough
The Rubber Band
The Second Confession
The Silent Speaker
Where There's a Will
The Case of the Black Orchids
Too Many Cooks
Trouble in Triplicate
Over My Dead Body
And be a Villian
In the Best Families
Some Buried Ceasar

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Devil Loves Me

The Devil Loves Me – Margaret Millar. 1942
Dr. Prye, I have arranged a little surprise for you. Knowing how interested you are in murders, I have decided to give you one on your own doorstep, as it were. I am leaving this note in a friend's pocket. (Unsigned).
What best wishes to receive on one’s wedding day. Worse when psychiatrist-detective Dr. Prye’s wedding is stopped and postponed by a queasy, fainting bridesmaid, who turns out to have been poisoned. She pulls through but two ax murders and a fatal shooting ensue.

In this early Forties mystery, Dr. Paul Prye, Millar’s series hero, should not to be confused with Erle Stanley’s Gardner’s Paul Pry, a short-lived PI in the pulps, or the proverbial Paul Pry, any inquisitive meddlesome guy. Dr. Prye does not ask many questions. His manner seems rather above it all. Luckily he teams up with Millar’s other series hero, Detective-Inspector Sands. The Toronto sleuth is more used to upper class crimes such as scions forging checks or wealthy manufacturers suffering convenient lucrative fires in their factories. The opposite of the quietly charming Pry, Sands is "an odd little man ... the type who encourages you to talk by his very quietness, until you talk too much."

On the positive side, Millar is a graceful and vivid writer. For instance, of a character descending into a basement: “The cold air swept past her like ghosts clammy and chill from their graves, laying damp fingers on her cheeks. The steps sighed under her weight.” The dialogue is funny in a waspish way. Since the tragic destiny of the characters inexorably comes out of their flawed personalities, one can tell Millar studied the classics while she lived in Toronto.

However, despite the vivid but not showy writing and amusing talk, the characters are not differentiated clearly. Prye’s fiancĂ©e and her mother don’t have much to do. The mystery side of things is slighted. Even I, always dense about clues, was able to guess the culprit. I could see many readers becoming bored with the urbane barbs traded by what sour old Kirkus Reviews called “morally questionable characters.”

This was Millar’s third novel. She had been working in the Craig Rice tradition of the comic mystery. But with this 1942 book, probably because of her education in those darn classics and the utter seriousness of WWII, she took up heavier themes than we’d expect in a lightweight genre. Millar went on to have a successful career as a writer of suspense stories and novels. She was granted the well-deserved Grand Master award for lifetime achievement by the Mystery Writers of America in 1983. Her obit is here.

As time goes by, she is becoming a neglected writer.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Best Westerns

In my list of best westerns you can see that my tastes are old fashioned and inclinations literary (no gun-slinging is listed below). But I post just a list of suggestions to somebody new to westerns. You can see that the western takes in a lot of different kinds of novels. You'll never go wrong with L'Amour and Kelton and Estleman.

1. Indians: Oliver, Chad -- The Wolf is My Brother

2. Family Saga: Braun, Matthew The Kincaids

3. Cowboys: Capps, Benjamin: The Trail to Ogallala; Schaefer, Jack – Monte Walsh;

4. Adventure: L'Amour, Louis – Down the Long Hills

5. Passing of the Olde West: Kelton, Elmer - The Good Old Boys

6. Historical Western: Estleman, Loren  - Billy Gashade

7. Literary Western: Hall, Oakley – Warlock

8. Custer Novel: Henry, Will – No Survivors

9. Epic: McMurtry, Larry - Lonesome Dove

10. Stagecoach Drama: Leonard, Elmore – Hombre

11. Old Timey: Gray, Zane – Nevada, A Romance of the West

12. Pioneers: Guthrie, Jr., A.B. – The Big Sky

13. Short Stories: Johnson, Dorothy - "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" among many others

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Too Much of Water

Too Much of Water – Bruce Hamilton

This 1958 mystery is set on a small steamer going from Liverpool to Barbados, carrying cargo and passengers. The unusual setting would be easy to visualize for readers who’ve been on a cruise. Ditto for people who have travelled on smaller ships for overnight runs like Helsinki to St. Petersburg or back in the day four-day hops like Naha to Kaohsiung.

The main character is orchestra conductor, Edgar Carrington. In his mid-fifties, he is intelligent and avuncular, but not sickeningly so. The characters – that is, suspects -- vary from a classics master, a Barbados planter, a chemist, an architect, a drunken major, a counter-tenor, a YMCA organizer and a socialite. Hamilton effortlessly helps the reader visualize the characters in terms of appearance and personality. For instance, to introduce a character at table: “He dived instantly into the menu, rather in the manner of a hen investigating her feathers, so that almost all immediately visible of him was a satisfying bald head.”

The mystery plot, clues and solutions all play fair. Aside from the clear and pleasant prose, Hamilton appeals to thinking readers with asides about serious music, bridge, and the culture of Barbados such as the hospitality of the planters and the mania for cricket. The writing and the story never bog down and the reveal is satisfying. All in all, a good read.

Bruce Hamilton (1900 - 1974) was the brother of the better-known novelist, Patrick Hamilton, who wrote a play called Rope that Alfred Hitchcock made into an interesting if flawed movie. Martin Edward, British crime writer said, “Hamilton’s policy of avoiding formula in his writing meant that his career as a crime novelist never had the success that I, at least, think he deserved.” It’s true – I think a mystery writer with a formulaic series character is more likely to be remembered.

Like many writers of his generation, Hamilton’s writing career was interrupted by WWII. I could not find any details about his professional life apart from the bare fact that he wrote well-regarded detective thrillers. Too Much of Water was his last mystery and is listed on Roger Sobin’s “The Essential Mystery Lists.”