What I’ve been reading lately, part 33

Ordeal by Innocence — Agatha Christie

Apparently one of Christie’s two favourites among her own books (along with Crooked House), and I can understand why. The two books share dark atmospheres, with the multi-generational inhabitants of houses deeply mistrusting each other. Some of Christie’s books feel like games; this one feels serious. The protagonist is a man who was unwittingly the alibi of a murder suspect who was convicted two years earlier and has subsequently died in jail. When he realises this, he goes to the dead man’s family to tell them the good news that he was not, after all, the murderer — only to find that they are not delighted. He had failed to realise that his news meant that one of the other family members had done it, and that they were therefore still living with a murderer. Good stuff; but not a good jumping-on point for new readers, as it’s rather atypical.

4:50 from Paddington — Agatha Christie

One of the better ones, kicked off my a murder witnessed accidentally: it happens as one train is passing another, and happens to slow to the same speed at the key moment. The police are alerted, but never find a body. So in the absence of a corpse, a victim, a suspect, a motive, or anything else, the investigation lapses.

Into this comes Mrs. Marple, an old friend of the woman who happened to witness the murder. She sees how it could have been done, and recruits a friend to investigate. From there, we find ourselves in the home of the family whose estate the body is subsequently found in — one where plenty of people have motive to murder the patriarch, but none has any apparent reason to kill the victim, whose identity remains unknown.

Unlike some of Christie’s middle-period books, which can retread old ground with some sense of ennui, this one feels fresh.

Orthodoxy — G. K. Chesterton

The third or fourth time I’ve read this: see my notes from the previous time, and consider them still pertinent. Chesterton is one of the most re-readable authors I know, with passages that remain in the memory forever and others that catch you by surprise each time. Here’s a passage in Orthodoxy on the crucifixion:

“That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already, but that God could have His back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents forever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point — and does not break.

In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologize in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in the terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God.

And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.

Doctor Who and Warrior’s Gate — John Lydecker

I have a feeling I bought this on a whim years ago when I saw it on sale for 10p at a jumble sale. Then I forgot about it until a few months ago, when I found it in pile of stuff, and decided to read it.

As a kid, I used to love the Doctor Who novelisations, and in fact Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters (based on The Silurians) was my first real engagement with Doctor Who — before I’d seen, or at least before I’d paid attention to, the actual TV show. I remember those books being lightweight but workmanlike, and I hoovered through them very quickly. This one didn’t really have that effect on me, though. I found it hard to visualise the strange spaces it was describing, hard to distinguish between the various human characters, and hard to care about it all. I finished it largely out of a sense of duty.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore — Robin Sloan

This is a rare example of a non-freebie that I saw in the Bookbub mailing and thought I’d take a spin on. I really enjoyed it, and went through it in a couple of days (admittedly days when I wasn’t working). The setup is that the narrator takes a job in a bookstore, more out of desperation than anything else, and stumbles on a long-running society that’s trying to decrypt an ancient book. They’ve not made much progress in 500 years, but then they didn’t have Google and Hadoop, so things have changed. Where it goes from there, I will leave for you to discover, but I’ll say that the writing has that draw-you-in quality that comes not just from tight prose but from a profusion of interesting ideas. More than anything else, it reminded me of Clay Shirky.

Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World — Greg Critser

A sobering but surprisingly readable account of all the factors that have conspired to create rocketing rates of obsesity and type-2 diabetes — particulary in America, but many of the same trends exist elsewhere in the world. I found it hard to look look away as Critser laid out policy disaster after policy disaster, all of it coming to together to create a situation where American schools are filled not only with fast-food adverts but with actual fast-food outlets: Pizza Hut concession stands where once were cateterias tasked with serving healthy food. It’s all too easy to see how it came about (not surprisingly, money is at the root of almost all of it).

Outside of schools, the pattern is similar. The most fundamental problem is this: if you’re running a branch of McDonalds or Taco Bell or what have you, your biggest costs are fixed: things like rent, heating, lighting and of course staff. The actual ingredients for the food are relatively minor. So it makes financial sense for these places to offer a double-sized portion of french fries, say, and charge customers 1.5 times the regular price. Customers get what in some respects is a better deal, and the outlet makes more profit. In a world populated by the selfish rational actors beloved of economists, this makes perfect sense: it’s a win-win. Yet the hidden costs in terms of health and life quality are astronomical.

What can be done to counteract these trends? (e.g. the percentage of Americans who are obsese increased from 12% to 20% in the nine years from 1991 to 2000.) If there are answers, they probably lie in education: both making kids aware of the implications of food choices, and encouraging them to be physically active. The good news is that what’s learned in childhood has a tendency to stick in adulthood.

Mother Tongue: the English Language — Bill Bryson

Bryson is on scintillating form in an anecdotal overview of the English language: surveying its use around the world, discussing slang, swearing, wordplay, and so on. It’s endless fascinating — I kept on and on stopping to read bits out to my wife — although by the end it was starting to feel a little relentless.

The Crystal Cave — Mary Stewart

I read this because The CRPG Addict mentioned it positively in an overview of Arthurian legends, in the same breath as T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which I absolutely adore. The Addict described it as “She manages to tell a great story while being true (in sometimes very clever ways) to the original sources, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth”.

I guess that assessment is not entirely unfair, but the book didn’t really work for me. An awful lot of it seemed to be taken up with the logistics of military campaigns, and there was little that I found moving. Perhaps it was set up to fail by being compared with TOAFK, but honestly I was relieved to reach the end.

And yet … there is part of me that wants to read the sequel. Make of that what you will.

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