Sunday, March 26, 2017
P.D. James died at age 94 in 2014. The creator of Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, she was a keen student of crime fiction and in 2009 published "Talking About Detective Fiction" ($14 in paperback from Vintage; also for Amazon Kindle), an enlightening exploration focusing especially on the flowering of British detective fiction between the two World Wars.
James considers the staying power of Sherlock Holmes; hard-boiled detectives; female novelists; how the story is told; and critics and fans. Along the way the reader will be regaled with James' readings of her fellow novelists and will likely find authors and titles little known today but central to the development of the form. It is wise to keep a notebook nearby.
The origin of the detective story is really quite recent. James' choice for the first detective novel is The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (a friend of Charles Dickens), from 1868. "In my view," she says "no other single novel of its type more clearly adumbrates what were to become the main characteristics of the genre."
"The Moonstone," she writes, "is a diamond stolen from an Indian shrine by Colonel John Herncastle, left to his niece Rachel Verrinder and brought to her Yorkshire home to be handed over on her eighteenth birthday by a young solicitor, Franklin Blake. During the night it is stolen, obviously by a member of the household. A London detective, Sergeant Cuff, is called in, but later Franklin Blake takes over the investigation, although he himself is among the suspects."
There are clues aplenty, "clever shifting of suspicion from one character to another," lots of eerie atmosphere, and a detective that is "eccentric but believable"; I've read it twice.
While detective stories often contain great violence they are "novels of escape. … For whomever the bell tolls, it doesn't toll for us. Whatever our secret terrors, we are not the body on the library floor." And, in the end, the mystery will be resolved.
"Very few readers," she observes, "can put down a detective story until it is solved, although some have fallen into the reprehensible expedient of taking a quick look at the last chapter."
You have been warned.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
"I will not forget what I have seen. How can I forget such terror? How can I forget such joy? How can I forget such beauty?" Micah is a climber inexorably drawn to the White Mountain and a vision of the summit, whose "dark night of the soul" is recounted in a moving and profound allegory, "The Pilgrim's Ladder" ($9.99 in paperback from CreateSpace).
Author Ryan Montoya is the 23-year-old University of Colorado Boulder student, and Paradise High School graduate, who survived a 1500-foot fall down the face of Pyramid Peak near Aspen, Colorado, dislocating his elbow and fracturing his pelvis. Though newspaper accounts reported what happened, Montoya's novel explores the deeper call of the mountains, why a bold young man would seek to touch the summit.
The words of the Elder of the valley echo throughout the novel. "Beware the long journey," the Elder tells young Micah, desperate to know about the northern mountains, "beware The Divide. Though along it you may find your answer, remember that by pain are its answers revealed."
The chapters in the four sections ("The Valley," "The Divide," "The White Mountain," "The City Of The Gods") are titled with a single word, such as pride, courtship, pain, atonement, most of which begin with an observation about the "seeker."
"The seeker is but a novice to love, for he has spent his life in the wilderness. As a child he was curious, for he had wonder. As a youth he was determined, for he had powerful desire. As a man he feels love, for his passion points to purpose. But the seeker has not yet found his purpose. … Passion and purpose, these are the seeds of love."
For Micah, and his sometime climbing companion Zachary, the mountains are almost living beings. The Twisted Peak, pridefully reaching for heaven, is punished by the gods with a kind of "malicious energy." What hope is there for a mere man to reach the summit?
Yet if the gods will, the man will live. "I will live as a man should," Micah says, "not in the realm of the gods, but in the lands far below. But … I will not forget…."
Sunday, March 12, 2017
The Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science brings academics, students, and independent scholars together each month to wrestle with big issues, such as "what does it mean to be human?" We've been meeting for over a decade now and recently the group considered the work of Ian Tattersall, a curator in the Division of Anthropology at New York's American Museum of Natural History. Trained in archaeology, anthropology and vertebrate paleontology, Tattersall has specialized in the evolutionary analysis of the human fossil record and most especially the mysterious origin of human cognition.
His "Paleontology: A Brief History of Life" ($19.95 in paperback from Templeton Press; also for Amazon Kindle) is a lucid overview of the field. Part of Templeton's "Science And Religion Series," the book begins with the development of the "Tree of Life" and ends with an exploration of Homo sapiens.
Tattersall maintains that "the traditional paleo-anthropological expectation that human evolution has been a single-minded, unilinear slog from primitiveness to perfection" is just plain wrong. "At virtually all points in human evolutionary history," he writes, "several hominid species have coexisted (and at least intermittently competed). That Homo sapiens is the lone hominid in the world today is a highly atypical situation."
His final chapter considers "A Cognitive Revolution," and Tattersall writes about the identification of "symbolic artefacts," such as engravings, cave paintings, or necklaces, and the development of language, as pointers to a new kind of thinking. The bottom line: "Symbolic Homo sapiens is not a simple extrapolation of what had gone before; it is a qualitatively different entity, not an incremental improvement."
There is an important place, Tattersall says, for human spirituality, and the author considers science and religion to be complementary.
His conclusion, using the image of a rocket, encourages continued thoughtful conversation: "Starting firmly in the material world, you can ride the scientific first stage to the point at which its fuel is exhausted, the point that lies at the limits of testable knowledge. From there—if you wish, or feel the need, as most people seem to—you can ignite the spiritual second stage, and be transported to the limits of the human ability to understand."
Sunday, March 05, 2017
Cartoon by Steve Ferchaud used by permission of the artist
Back in the last millennium I realized that, though perfect in every other way, the E-R lacked a regular book review. My wife, bless her, encouraged me to do something about that, and to call it the "Biblio File." Though the details have flown the memory coop, I was given my first chance to lay an egg when the column debuted in March 1987, thirty years ago this month. Since then, of course, I've made many omelets possible.
In the early days, way before the digital revolution and the flourishing of local authors, pickings were slim. In one column I reviewed the newly redesigned telephone directory. You want local names? The book was full of them!
Another column was devoted to letters from Chico-area writers published in such prestigious places as The Wall Street Journal (yes, I reviewed letters from locals) and when that vein played out I resorted to connecting my own life experiences.
A memory book recalled my being in a speech contest in which another speaker, who had tried to memorize word for word, stumbled, stopped, and then cried out, "I can't believe it. I just forgot my whole life." Over the years I talked about my uncle's apple orchard, a failed attempt being the family plumber, and about Larry's Little Diner on the Skyway.
As time went by, not only did my picture change (more distinguished now, don't you think?) but so did the column. Personal stories fell away; most weeks now feature a book by an area author or visitor. My goal is to evoke the tone of the book and let readers know what it's about so they can make up their own minds.
Along the way there have been some gratifying notes from readers. Among the most cherished is from the college instructor who wrote in 1997 that "I'm finally compelled to write, simply to thank you for broadening my world…. I am continually inspired by your writing. I appreciate, too, your variety of books."
Variety has been the watchword; from teen romances to government contracting, from travelogues to game wardens, from sci-fi to an elephant ballerina, my own world has broadened as well.
Thank you, writers, and thank you, readers, and thank you, Dear Editor.