What I’ve been reading lately, part 24

Zeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a Philosopher — Nicholas Fearn

I’ve been keeping this book in the bathroom and reading it in short segments as circumstances dictate. You know what I’m saying. It’s a fascinating overview of the history of philosophy, told in 25 short chapters. Each is about a single philosopher (Wittgenstein alone gets two), and consists of a brief biographical sketch and an outline of his key ideas.

(I say “his” ideas, because every single philosopher discussed in the book is male. For much of the history of thought, that was the reality, and it’s right that the book reflects that. But it does seem odd that in the later chapters, influential female philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir and Elizabeth Anscombe are overlooked in favour of the likes of Jacques Derrida and even Richard Dawkins.)

Fearn tries to make each philosopher approachable by focussing on a cognitive tool that he invented or used. Some of these make perfect sense: Ockham’s razor, Plato’s cave and Turing’s machine for example. Others seem to be reaching: Aristotle’s goals, Bacon’s chickens, and so on. This conceit breaks down often enough that it might have been better abandoned, but the book remains an interesting and digestible introduction for interested laymen like myself.

Twelve Types — G. K. Chesterton

A collection of a dozen essays, written with characteristically Chestertonian panache, so that even when you don’t quite understand what destination he’s aiming for, the journey is a delight. Each essay is about an individual — Charlotte Bronte, St. Francis of Assisi, William Morris, etc. — and is mostly directed at drawing our attention to the subject’s merits. The same author’s Heretics, in which he points out the mistakes of H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and many others is funnier, but Twelve Types is more positive, and perhaps more uplifting for that reason.

Return of the Timewaster Letters — Robin Cooper

In the original Timewaster Letters, Robin Cooper writes childishly earnest letters to a variety of organisation proposing ill-considered ideas, offering terrible poems, and making trivial complaints. The book includes his letters and the replies from his targets — sometimes deadpan, sometimes completely taken in, occasionally contemptuous. It’s laugh-out-loud hilarious, especially as some repeating themes start to warm up (the ill-conceived mascot character of Parmaynu the table-tennis bat, for example), and Cooper’s idiosyncratic diction starts to feel familiar.

This sequel — more of the same — is not quite as good as the original, but still very funny. Our middle son took it with us when we went on a week’s boating holiday this summer, and at least three of us read it cover-to-cover in that time, constantly reading choice bits out to each other. Highly recommended; the original, even more so.

The Moving Finger — Agatha Christie

An interestingly different novel by Agatha Christie. This time, the story seems to be about finding the author of a series of poison-pen letters, and only later in the day does a much more serious crime occur. (Yes: murder. Well, it is Agatha Christie.) I enjoyed this one without feeling it was absolutely in the top rank.

Towards Zero — Agatha Christie

Whereas this one is among Christie’s very best, to my mind. The setup is classic: a dashing young man visits an elderly relative with his new wife — but his ex-wife is also there, along with an assortment of other characters with interesting back-stories that suggest lots of different people might have motives for the various murders that soon begin happening. There’s also an rehabilitating would-be suicide, an aged lawyer who offers commentary, a side-story about thefts in a girls’ school, and a generally well-fleshed-out plot. If you’re interested in trying Agatha Christie and you don’t know where to start, Towards Zero would be a good choice.

It’s an oddity that there seems to be no trajectory to the quality of Christie’s work. The novels of hers that I have enjoyed most — which include The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder of Roger AckroydPeril at End HouseThe A.B.C. Murders and Towards Zero — seem pretty evenly sprinkled across the half of her career that I’ve read. And the worst of her books are similarly spread seemingly at random, including the execrable The Big Four, which followed hard on the heels of the universally acclaimed Roger Ackroyd.

What’s going on here? There’s no apparent evolution in Christie’s style, just a wild unevenness of quality. Did she know, as she was writing these books, which ones were good and which were weak? If so, why didn’t she fix the weak ones? But if not, how could she be so tone-deaf about her own work?

Didn’t You Kill My Mother-in-Law? — Roger Wilmut

We previously met Wilmut with his history of British 1960s/70s sketch comedy, From Fringe to Flying Circus, and I was delighted to discover shortly after that re-reading that he’d also written this history of British 1980s alternative comedy. This book talks about live shows that of course I never saw, along with some TV series that I loved (e.g. The Young Ones), others that never did much for me (e.g. French and Saunders) and a fair few that I’d never seen (e.g. Filthy, Rich and Catflap).

Sadly, while this book is every bit as historically detailed as From Fringe, it somehow didn’t engage me in the same way. It’s hard to say why. Perhaps Wilmut himself doesn’t quite love the newer material as he did the older, and that lack of passion is subtly apparent. Or maybe it’s more that I love the older comedy more — after all, it’s tough to top Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Goodies and Fawlty Towers: three shows that four full decades on have arguably yet to be surpassed in their formats. Or perhaps it’s that the standup-dominated format of 1980s alternative comedy doesn’t transfer as well to the page as the sketch-dominated format of the 60s and 70s. Both of Wilmut’s books contain transcriptions of representative passages, but much of the 1980s standup doesn’t really come across without the distinctive delivery of its writers.

Whatever the reason: while I am glad I read Didn’t You Kill My Mother-in-Law?, I don’t have the feeling I’ll be back re-reading it soon.

BTW,. on that strange title: it arises from a one-off short film, Didn’t You Kill My Brother?, made by the Comic Strip group that was made up of several 1980s Brit-comedy stalwarts. Wilmut mashed that title together with the mother-in-law, the archetypal butt of jokes by old-style club-comics like Bernard Manning, yielding a title that suggests alternative comedy killed old-school gag merchants. There’s some truth in that assertion, but — as the survival and continued success of people like Roy Chubby Brown and Jimmy Carr suggests — not enough.

Agatha Raisin: As the Pig Turns — M. C. Beaton

Funny story. I had bad gout in my right big toe so I couldn’t drive. I also had a chunk break off my first lower left molars, so I had to go to the dentist and get it fixed up. So Fiona had to drive me to the dentist, drop me off, then come back and pick me up half an hour later because there was nowhere to park. But the dentist just took a look at the broken tooth, decided it wasn’t urgent (and to be fair it didn’t hurt) and told me to make a non-emergency appointment to get it seen to. Which left me with 20 minutes to kill in Cinderford while not really mobile enough to walk anywhere.

Just opposite the dentist is one of those shops that sells a strange combination of things. It’s mostly a reptile rescue shop, but it also has a rack of second-hand paperbacks outside the front door, and I passed the time by flipping through these. After a while, the owner came out and asked whether he could help me. Being British, instead of just saying no, I said I wanted to buy the book that happened to be in my hand at that moment — As the Pig Turns. So I did, for some nominal amount like 50p. And the moment I’d paid, Fiona arrived, I got in the car and we went home.

Did I say “funny story”? Sorry; should just have said “story”.

Aaaanyway, I wasn’t going to waste a good 50p. Having bought this book, I thought I might as well read it. I found it sort of enjoyable in a workmanlike way, but uninspiring. It certainly left me with no great desire to rush out and buy any of the other 27 — yes, 27! — Agatha Raisin books. It turns out that M. C. Beaton (who sounds like a very bad D.J.) has been churning out an Agatha Raisin book every single year since 1992 — and two of the wretched things some years (1999 and 2003).

But that’s not all: she’s also cranked out 34 Hamish Macbeth novels since 1985 — again at a rate slightly better than one a year. (Hamish is a policeman, while Agatha is a private detective.)

But that’s not all. Beaton has also written three stand-alone novels in the gaps between all this, for a total of 65.

But that’s not all. M. C. Beaton turns out to be an alias of Marion Chesney who has written a further 57 novels under her own name, starting in 1980.

But that’s not all. She has also published further novels under the additional aliases Anne Fairfax (4), Jennie Tremaine (12), Helen Crampton (3), Charlotte Ward (just the one) and Sarah Chester (also only one).

I make that a total of 143 novels in the 38 years since 1979, for an average of 3.75 per year, or one every hundred days. So As the Pig Turns is, to put it politely, hack work. I am in awe of Chesney’s productivity and sheer work ethic, but I simply don’t believe it’s possible to create actual art at that rate unless you’re J. S. Bach. No wonder I found it underwhelming.

Flesh: the Dino Files — Pat Mills et al.

When it comes to High Concept, the Flesh strip from the early issues of 2000 AD comic takes a lot of beating: cowboys from the 23rd Century travel back to the Cretaceous to harvest dinosaurs for their flesh. It’s a great set-up, written well and with strikingly distinctive and resonant art (albeit not very anatomically correct).

This volume collects all of Flesh Book 1 (from progs 1-19), together with the lesser but still enjoyable Book 2 (progs 86-99), the much later Flesh: Texas (progs 1724–1733), and a couple of one-offs. I loved re-reading the parts I was already familiar with, which I know from when I was nine. Texas was interesting: the dinosaur art is much more accurate and contemporary, and the story-telling much more adult — which is fair enough, since the original was aimed at ten-year-old boys.

I was just limbering up to really love Texas when suddenly, it stopped. I don’t know what the story is here, but having set up a great group of characters and a truly horrifying dinosaur antagonist, the strip just comes to a halt.

Still the collected volume is very well worth reading if this is the kind of thing you like. It’s hard to imagine it being done much better than it is here. Among the many things to love about both of the original books: the dinosaurs win. The humans, at best, get out with their lives. Most of them don’t even manage that.

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11 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 24

  1. I too recommend Towards Zero as an excellent place to begin reading Christie – it doesn’t come with any real baggage and she controls the inherent absurdity of the resolution perfectly. It’s probably in my top 5.
    (I am still amused that ITV chose to insert Miss Marple into this one when they were adapting everything that Poirot or the BBC hadn’t already done.)

  2. Return of the time wasters letters really did make me laugh out loud. Though I read lots of thrillers and who done its, I can’t get to grips with Agatha Christie. Strange.

  3. The thing about Agatha Christie is that her books are like a game of chess: they are limited as to setting, you know all the rules up front, and you have everything you need to “win” the book by figuring out the mystery. Some people simply don’t enjoy that kind of thing.

  4. I think the reason for the cut off in Flesh is that the final parts were only serialised in 2000AD in the last year or so. About 300 issues after the Texas stuff. It happens sometimes with 2000AD stories I’m afraid. Yeah looks like it’s finished up in prog 2010.

  5. So does Badlanders follow on directly from Texas?

  6. Ah yes, Marion Chesney. She wrote an amazing number of Regency romances, most of them quite hilarious. She also cranked out a series of almost as funny Edwardian romances as Jennie Tremaine. I always considered her MC Beaton work as inferior, though now and then entertaining.

    Romance writers are amazingly prolific. Look at Barbara Cartland who produced 700+ books in maybe 70 years. That’s almost a book a month. Agatha Christie, at about a book a year, was s slacker. I remember when the mathematician Erdos died. His obituary noted that he was a major contributor to over 1,500 papers in the field of mathematics, a field in which a lifetime output of 50 papers was considered prolific. I am not going to judge Erdos, Cartland or Chesney, for that matter.

  7. For Flesh after Texas you have: Midnight Cowboys (Progs 1774-1785)
    Badlanders (Progs 1850-1861) and Gorehead (Progs: 2001-2010)

  8. Oh, cool — that’s more than I’d realised. I don’t suppose there is a volume that collects them?

  9. Not collected as of yet. I suspect they are waiting for one more series though who knows when that will be!

  10. Cautious book recommendation for you. I just finished reading Move Fast And Break Things by Jonathan Taplin, and thought of you. It’s not a perfect book, it raises broad questions and often offers fairly shallow answers. But it does a better job than most books I’ve seen at getting into the questions about how the business model of the internet giants have evolved, the challenges that creates, and, in particular, how that affects creative arts — based on his experience in the music and film industries. His background is interesting in that he worked as a manager for The Band, and a producer for Martin Scorsese and also was involved in an early internet startup. So he’s seen various sides of the business, and his stories about 60s/70s pop music was part of what made me think of you.

    Reading it I was reminded, repeatedly, that I have a vague sense that the business models and practices of Google, Amazon, and Facebook have shifted (or evolved) significantly in the last decade and that I haven’t really kept up with that, and I don’t have informed intuitions about how that has played out. He’s convincing that it is problematic, in various ways, and that it both should be possible to imagine the technology to exist with different business structures and that it’s important to figure out if public regulation can be productive.

  11. Sounds really interesting — thanks, NickS!

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