Accept No Substitutes

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Michael Munger calls this quote "something amazing, a sentence with just 25 words but with a profound insight into how societies work, or could work.

The fact that my fellow man wants to acquire shoes as I do, does not make it harder for me to get shoes, but easier.

I bet you can figure out a number of implications of those 25 (short!) words, but click through to see if you missed any.

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Last Modified 2024-01-11 2:57 PM EST

Out of the Silent Planet

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Ever come out of reading a famous book and thinking, "Well, that wasn't at all what I expected."? That was my reaction here, and not in a good way.

It's a book I'm "supposed" to like, I think. Although I'm not particularly religious, I remember reading and liking Lewis's Christian apologetics. (Sorry, Clive, they didn't take.) I'm not big on fantasy, so I've avoided his Narnia books. But I heard … somewhere … that this book was the first entry in a "hard" science fiction trilogy. Got that impression anyway. I was expecting something Heinleinish, got instead Narnia-lite.

Poor Professor Ransom is on a walking tour of England, and in desperate need of a place to spend the night. Instead he's abducted by a "mad scientist" and his accomplice and taken on a spaceship joyride to Mars, which the inhabitants call "Malacandra". Where he learns that he's about to be offered up to the natives as a human sacrifice.

Ransom escapes from his captors and starts on a fantastical trek across the Malacandrian landscape, meeting the friendly inhabitants, learning their language, and (gradually) discovering the relataionships between the various Malacandrian species and their head honcho, Oyarsa, Ransom is grateful for the hospitality, but there's the small matter of the other two Terrans, who plan to take over the planet by violence.

You, reader, are expected to learn a lot of Malacandran lingo yourself: Hross, pfifltriggi, hnau, Handramit, … You might want to grab a glossary off the Wikipedia page.

At one point, one bad guy warns the other that "these devils can spllt the atom". Interesting; the book was written in the 1930s, and the potential for nuclear fission seems to have been well-known at that point.


Last Modified 2024-01-11 2:57 PM EST

The Life of Crime

Detecting the History of Mysteries and their Creators

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I think I picked up this book at the Portsmouth Public Library because I was impressed with an essay by the author (Martin Edwards) in the WSJ last year. Sadly, I was misled.

It's a tome: 622 pages of main text, which includes a few pages of footnotes at the end of each of the book's 55 chapters. And I'll tell you up front: the theme song of the book might be "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Crime Writers". Because the recurring motif in the mini-biographies of the authors discussed here is dysfunction: physical and mental infirmities (including both the authors and their families), violence, infidelity, substance abuse, perversion, left-wing politics, … Well, the list goes on. Edwards seems to have an eye for that sort of thing.

It's rough going in spots, and the coverage is idiosyncratic, with (I think) over-emphasis on the Brits. There's an entire chapter on BBC radio mysteries. But Elmore Leonard doesn't show up at all. No Robert Crais. Robert B. Parker gets a few lines, in one of those end-of-chapter footnotes.

In comparison, Danish writer Anders Bodelsen gets a few lines in the main text. Ever heard of him? (However, that mention inspired me to rewatch a movie based one of his books.)

There are a lot of interesting (if not particularly edifying) stories here. Want to know why Mary Roberts Rinehart was shot at for hiring a butler in Bar Harbor? Why Mencken called S. S. van Dine's behavior a "masterpiece of imbecility"? Why Howard Hawks thought Leigh Brackett was a guy? Who "joined an 'intellectual motorcycle gang' that took inspiration from Dostoevsky and Rimbaud"?

On page 553, Edwards gets around to observing that a "significant number of crime writers have faced mental health challenges". At this point many readers will say: Gee, ya think?

But the lurid stories are separated by long stretches of tedious "then-they-wrote" recounting of works that are often obscure. Spoiler-free as near as I could tell, but I may have skimmed.


Last Modified 2024-01-11 2:56 PM EST

Velvet Was the Night

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Well, first of all, I have no idea who that's supposed to be on the cover. A glamorous smoking lady, but the main female character is kind of plain and doesn't smoke. The title is a lyric from that old 1950s hit song "Blue Velvet"; the song plays a role here, but otherwise I couldn't detect what the title had to do with the book.

The book was on the NYT list of The Best Mystery Novels of 2021. I got a little worried that this was an "affirmative action" pick, chosen for its "diversity". The author, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, is of Mexican descent, but lives in Canada; the novel is set in 1970s Mexico.

I was pleasantly surprised. The writing here is good, and unsentimental.

The movie follows two main characters. There's Maite, a lonely secretary afflicted with minor kleptomania, self-esteem issues, a romance comic book fetish, and persistent money woes. And there's Elvis, working as a thug for the "Hawks", a CIA-sponsored street gang tasked with violently disrupting Communist "activists" looking to install a Marxist government in Mexico.

Both Maite and Elvis find themselves searching for a lost student, Leonara. Maite has a rather selfish reason: she was asked to take care of Leonara's cat, and she wants to get paid for that so she can get her car out of hock at the repair shop. Elvis is looking because he's been ordered to by the leader of the Hawks: Leonora apparently took incriminating photos at a protest rally, where the Hawks visited deadly violence on the Commie protesters.

And yeah, not kidding about the Communist stuff. There's a Russian spy, Arkady, who beats the crap out of Elvis at one point. I kind of liked him for that. He's probably the most competent character here.

Neither Maite nor Elvis are particularly sympathetic characters, but they're arguably more sympathetic than anyone else here. And (small spoiler) they don't meet up until near the end of the book, driven by Elvis's discovery of their shared love of old music and ineffectual self-improvement. There's a considerable amount of violence that happens just before this.


Last Modified 2024-01-11 2:56 PM EST

The Silent Partner

[4 stars] [IMDB Link]

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I remember enjoying this 1978 movie back in the day. A book I'm reading mentioned the Anders Bodelsen novel on which it was based, so I checked and … yep, it was free-to-me via the streaming service "Kanopy" and my Portsmouth Public Library card.

The violence here was considered pretty nasty back in 1978. Oddly enough, these days the violence seems, well, normal. But there's also considerable female nudity, which seems to have become rare. It's a funny old world.

Elliott Gould plays Miles, a nebbish stuck in a boring role at a boring Canadian bank. He's smitten with co-worker Julie (Susannah York) who's having an affair with the boss (to break out of her boring rut). She dismisses Miles' advances. But all this boredom stops when Miles detects a nefarious plan by "Reikle", a psychotic Mall Santa (Christopher Plummer), to rob the bank at gunpoint. He concocts a scheme of his own to counter the heist, and keep the proceeds.

Seemed like a good idea at the time, I guess. But it turns out to be a lot more complicated, and dangerous, than Miles probably planned. Christopher Plummer's character is about as far away from Captain von Trapp as you can get.

So: some sex and violence, a bit of romantic comedy tossed in. John Candy has a minor role. I enjoyed Miles' cat-and-mouse efforts to outwit Reikle quite a bit. This is the kind of movie they don't seem to make any more.


Last Modified 2024-01-11 2:56 PM EST