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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

..and so we come to the end of a slightly extended Love & Relationships Month! I hope that you enjoyed at least some of my posts. Tomorrow starts Mad March, so expect things to get a bit more crazy here - although I'll never be able to compete with REALITY these days.... [lol] 

Just Finished Reading: Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton (FP: 1936) [221pp] 

It was suicide – obviously. What else could explain Sir Wilfred Saxonby’s death? After all, he was on a moving train in a single private carriage, alone. A single gunshot to the chest had finished him off, the gun was found a few feet away. What else could explain it? But Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard has his doubts. No one can think of a reason why Sir Wilfred would have taken his own life – not financial or personal. Then there was the mystery of just why the train had stopped momentarily in the tunnel. The crew had reported a red stop light, but no one was working there, and no fault had been reported. So, what, or who, had caused to train to halt. Then there was another mystery that bothered the Inspector – where was Sir Wilfred's ticket, the one he needed to hand over at his destination? It seemed to be a trivial matter, but it bothered him. He would need to talk it over with his friend Desmond Merrion who was a gifted amateur in Criminology. It was during this chat that they decided to check the tunnel for anything out of the ordinary. Searching in the blackness they caught a glint of something, metal, glass, something that reflected their torches back at them. It was a lamp with lenses of green and red. Someone had stopped the train alright, and the 'suicide' of Sir Wilfred started to look very much like murder... 

I must admit that I loved this mystery almost from the first page. I’m a great fan of mental puzzles – especially where human behaviour is concerned – so I really liked the way this novel was structured. We are presented with a sudden violent death and an apparent ‘obvious’ cause but are quickly introduced to some contrary evidence that points in a quite different direction. Then the investigation starts for real – examining the tunnel and the carriage where the event took place, examining the body and effects, the mystery of the missing ticket – all giving lovely food for thought and opportunity to build theories. Throughout the rest of the novel, we are presented with interviews of those involved in one way or another, forensic evidence including ballistics and the opinions of handwriting and typewriter experts. Each piece of additional evidence or testimony adds to or modifies theories of whodunnit and why – finally after much debate and a red-herring or two - points to the who and the why. I did, at least, suspect the person who had the final finger pointed at them. I couldn’t really say with any great confidence why exactly I suspected them of being a baddie, but they seemed to be in the right place at the right/wrong time a little too often. I’m guessing that I would have finger pointed correctly eventually! The ending, when it came, was completely satisfactory and I honestly closed the book with a smile on my face. If you like evidence led police investigations and chewing over theories with the investigators themselves this is definitely the book for you. One of the best of the BLCC books I’ve read, and I’ll definitely be looking out for more books in this detective's series as well as more by this author. Highly recommended to all Classic crime buffs.   

Monday, February 26, 2024

Just Finished re-Reading: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (FP: 1893) [261pp] 

As with my previous re-read (last read around 40-45 years ago!) this is a series of 11 short stories, and as before they run the gamut of crime, mysteries and puzzles with the Holmes and Watson duo at the centre of things. Being SO long since I first read these stories most of them appeared fresh although I did remember bits of several of them. Overall, I was certainly entertained although I didn’t think I was wowed as much as I’d been expecting. Some things did, however, stick out for me: 

‘The Gloria Scott’ was both an intriguing and fun read. It did rely on (again!) an exposition from one of the main players in the drama regarding past indiscretions and foreign climes – this time Australia – that ACD seems inordinately fond of. But it did give a taste of the exotic to things. The most interesting aspect to the whole thing though was the fact that it was Holmes’ first ‘case’ on behalf of a university friend and was instrumental in Holmes taking up the consulting detective mantle. Although he never said *which* University he attended I’m guessing from his use of “college” that he went to either Oxford or Cambridge. Although I’m not 100% sure I don’t know of other universities using a collegiate system at that time – although I could be wrong!  

We learnt a bit more about Sherlock’s habits in ‘The Musgrave Ritual’ where he is described as both being VERY untidy and an obsessive record keeper – after Watson complains their shared accommodation is becoming unliveable – and the fact that Holmes used an end wall for target practice with his pistol! I couldn’t help but wonder exactly how bullet-proof his wall was, what was on the other side and did any GAS pipes go through it – to say nothing of people innocently passing through the room not expecting to get shot! 

In ‘The Greek Interpreter’ we are finally introduced to Sherlock’s older (by 7 years) brother Mycroft who is equal to Holmes intellectually but far more sedentary and rather portly (so, not as portrayed in the last TV adaptation). We also learn that Holmes’ grandmother was French and the sister of a famous artist – although it's unclear which of three artists of that name he was referring to. That was certainly something new to me. 

The thing that struck me in ‘The Naval Treaty’ - apart from the shockingly inept handling of highly classified documents – was the fact that Holmes had at one-point, curried chicken for BREAKFAST. Now, I do like my curries.... but breakfast? I think not. It was clever how Holmes worked out what happened to the document though! 

Finally, in more ways than one, we have ‘The Final Problem’ where Holmes finally crosses paths with the Napoleon of Crime Professor Moriarty (who also has a brother). This was an interesting story on multiple levels and honestly quite breathless at times as Holmes races against Moriarty’s plans. This all comes to an end – or does it! - at the Reichenbach Falls. I thought that the introduction of a Moriarty type character was inevitable given Holmes’ status as a super-sleuth. The problem with any ‘super’ is that they need – eventually – to be pitted against someone almost as good as they are. Super-heroes need super-villain's and super-sleuths need super-criminals. Seemingly ACD had had enough of Holmes at this point and decided to write something else. Apparently, his numerous readers had other ideas (I’m not sure who much myth surrounds this) and the rather ambiguous ending in ‘Final’ allowed some wriggle room! But next in the tales of Sherlock Holmes is my favourite outing: ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. I wonder if I’m going to like it as much as I remember back in my teens/early 20’s? I guess we’ll see in a few months! 

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Birthday Dinner Party – 24th February   

This week it’s a smaller more select bunch of people as it appears that quite a few military men were born today, and I didn’t want it to be a fully military affair. I have dropped in a few military men – how could I avoid these two historic characters? - but I have added a few others – again how could I avoid Jobs – to lighten the conversation somewhat. The guests are: 

John Burgoyne the British general who surrendered at Saratoga during the American Revolutionary War. I’m sure that he could provide some fascinating insights into why England lost America. 

Wilhelm Grimm of Grimm’s Fairy Tales fame first published in 1812 with 86 stories. By the seventh edition in 1857 211 stories were included. I think we all grew up with Grimm’s tales and I'm sure it would be really interesting to know how they were collated. 

Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, commanding Allied air, land, and sea forces during World War II. I think it goes without saying that any conversation with this titan would be fascinating – especially to military history buffs like me. 

James Farentino, American actor who starred in The Final Countdown – on board the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. I thought this was a cheeky invite because of the Nimitz angle. I’m sure the movie star and the Admiral could have a few laughs over the coincidence of their birthdays. 

Steve Jobs, obviously the co-founder of Apple Computers. Who wouldn’t want to spend some time with such a person – even one, like me, who has never owned an Apple produce and who thinks their whole mystique has been overhyped since the start. 

I think that would be a FUN evening for all concerned. I wonder if any of them play piano....? 

As we enter the 3rd Year of a 15 day conflict..... Hopefully THIS year it'll all be over and the Ukrainians can start to rebuild.......

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Fathoms – The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs (FP: 2020) [326pp] 

It all started with a beached whale. After repeated attempts to return it to the sea it finally died a long way from home crushed under its own weight and cooked by its own internal temperature. The question uppermost on everyone’s mind was: why? What causes a whale, and sometimes multiple whales, to do that? As with any inquiring mind one thing led to another and, finally, to this award nominated book. 

Whale beaching have happened throughout recorded history but appear to be happening more often in the modern age. Various theories abound, as always, including pollution – chemicals such as pesticides, the ubiquitous plastic in all its many forms and, of course, noise – as well as the more exotic idea that whale navigation can be disrupted by subtle changes in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by Solar storms. But despite being a (comparatively recent) ‘charismatic animal’ and one of the icons of the Environmental movement its surprising how little we still know about whales in general and individual species in particular. Until very recently our ‘knowledge’ of cetaceans depended on the less than neutral observations of whalers – both old and modern – and somewhat scientific experiments undertaken by various navies, at large waterparks and aquariums with small numbers of the smaller whales and dolphins. Only in the last few years have larger, harder to find and harder to track, creatures been tagged, filmed and examined in any detail in their natural environments. There is still MUCH to learn. 

Written by a non-scientist this is often a quite chatty book about a subject the author is clearly passionate about. But this in no way diminished either my interest in or enjoyment of the contents of her book. Not only did she do her research (properly!) but talked to scientists, whale watching guides, environmentalists, and even Japanese whalers! The reader is introduced, using a rather scattershot narrative, to just about every aspect of the whale that you can think of from its ‘use’ in the early Industrial age to the change in attitude of the public – most notably after the wide release of recorded whale ‘song’ - to conservation efforts and beyond. Slowly we are uncovering where whales fit into the oceanic ecology and their place in moving nutrients around the world.  

Of the three books I read recently about whales – yes, two more to come – I'm glad I read this one first because of its lack of laser-like focus on any one particular aspect. Not only did this allow me to refresh any already existing knowledge but it also gave me a broad understanding of topics I’d be diving into somewhat deeper in the other books. If you’re interested in these majestic creatures at all and have wondered about them in any way, then this is definitely the book for you. Deeper dives to come. Recommended. 

[Highest page count of the year so far: 326pp][+7pp]

Monday, February 19, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Double Indemnity by James M Cain (FP: 1936) [136pp] 

Walter Huff (played by Fred McMurray and, for some reason called Walter Neff, in the 1944 movie adaptation) had an idea for the perfect crime. He was an expert after all, being in the insurance business. He’d seen it all, all the mistakes people made when filing a false claim, all of the ways their attempted deception could’ve been smarter and more lucrative.  Then in walked Phyllis Nirdlinger (played by Barbara Stanwyck and again renamed, for some reason, Phyllis Dietrichson) with a request for accident insurance for her husband. The catch, which Walter saw immediately, was that she didn’t want her husband to know about the policy – so as not to ‘worry’ him. On confrontation Phyllis brakes down and admits that she intends to kill her husband because of the way he treats her. To her amazement Walter doesn’t turn her in, instead he starts to tutor her on the best way, the foolproof way, to get what she wants. Even better Walter tells her about a part of the policy that most people never get to see in action: Whatever the final claim is can be doubled if, and only if, the accident happens on a train. It would seem that Mr Nirdlinger is going on a trip – one way only. 

The Classic noir movie version is one of my favourite films, so I was looking forward to reading this slim volume. Whilst it does match up pretty well with the film, I did find the variations from that plot to be quite interesting. Apart from the odd name changes, the first part of the book fits very well with the movie screenplay almost scene for scene. One thing the novel – despite it being super slim – does is give several of the people, most especially Phyllis and her stepdaughter's boyfriend a far deeper background story which explains their actions much better than the movie. The other major difference was the ending. I’m guessing that the movie codes of the time (1944) just couldn’t accommodate the book ending and needed a more brutal and final finish. It was weird though, especially after most of the plot matching so well with the film, when the ending goes completely off-track, and you begin to wonder where and how it will all end.  

Overall, this was a pretty good noir novel and is worth reading, especially if you’re a fan of the movie or the genre. It’s a classic for a reason and was an enjoyable quick read. Recommended for all crime fans.  

Saturday, February 17, 2024

What a *voice* he had! It still sends a shiver through me after all these years...!

What can I say........... [lol]

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Or.... You could just live in a country with decent maternity/paternity leave entitlements and one where having children is free and bringing them up is subsidised by the State.....

Just Finished Reading: The Blood of Free Men – The Liberation of Paris, 1944 by Michael Neiberg (FP: 2012) [280pp] 

Covering much the same timeframe as well as the same overall events as my last Liberation book, the focus of this interesting volume was quite different. Although the major players highlighted in the previous book are still mentioned – if only sometimes in passing like General Eisenhower – they are very much in the background here. Even De Gaulle gets a bit-part role with the focus mainly on him trying to control events as well as control the major Resistance groups headed by the Communists. Despite the fact of the German occupation of the city, it was the danger of a Communist take-over before the Allies arrived in force that was foremost on De Gaulle’s mind, and he made great efforts to ensure that this did not happen. Both the British and especially the Americans concurred and, despite loud protestations from Resistance elements inside Paris, steadfastly refused to air-drop any weapons to Resistance units. A re-run of the 1871 Paris Commune as well as the death and destruction which followed was very much in the minds of those who knew their history and did not want to repeat it.  

Most interestingly, I found, was the almost total side-lining of the ‘hero’ of the previous book – the cities German military commander Dietrich von Choltitz. In the previous book it was he how saved Paris for the world largely because of his reluctance to destroy one of the treasures of Europe (if not the world) on the say so of a madman. Here we have a very different interpretation and a very different portrait of a man. Here, the author highlights the reluctance of von Choltitz to act partially for purely practical reasons – he wanted the bridges to remain intact so that German units outside Paris could still retreat over them towards the East and home. Other, very practical, reasons prevented him for organising any widespread demolition – the lack of sufficient explosives as well as the lack of sufficiently experienced demolition experts. There was only so much he could do with so little. When pressure was applied from his superiors it was already too late – Paris was rising and von Choltitz had missed the opportunity to reduce the city to rubble. 

So, if the major players barely got a mention who or what was this interesting book about. Simply it was about the group (or rather groups) that where surprisingly side-lined in the previous book – the Resistance and people of Paris itself. After the false hope of D-Day for instant Liberation had passed, the local Resistance units in and around Paris accepted the order to ‘stand down’ until the Allies broke through the German defences and had already approached the capital. As the weeks went by the Resistance grew frustrated (and ambitious) and wanted to both strike at the hated Occupiers and the Collaborators in their midst. Further they wanted to liberate themselves – in large part to give themselves a place at the future political table – in effect restoring their honour after so long in the shadows. Eventually, when no Allied tanks had arrived despite months passing by the Resistance decided to rise and take the city themselves. It was not going to be an easy fight, but their actions certainly concentrated the minds of all involved. The Free French forces outside the city insisted on rushing to their aid and, eventually, the Americans agreed. The German forces inside the city, who were still much stronger than any Resistance forces ranged against them, saw the writing on the wall (all too literally) and decided to wait until captured by the Allies rather than either fight or surrender to Resistance fights or civilians. Meanwhile, the Collaborators either made hasty deals with the future administration, fought on the streets and hoped for some kind of atonement bonus or fled Paris with as much as they could carry and with or without their German ‘friends’. 

This was a very interesting compliment to my previous Liberation read and really brought home that two views of a rather narrow subject can end up have a very different focus. After reading both of them, especially so closely together, I think I have a much more rounded and nuanced view of the Liberation of Paris. Definitely recommended. Further down the line, although not any time soon, I have one more book on the subject that goes up to 1949 so, hopefully, dealing with a lot of the aftermath of both the Occupation and Liberation. But that’s in the future...

Monday, February 12, 2024

Just Finished Reading: The Railway Children by E. Nesbit (FP: 1906) [319pp] 

Their adventure began with the arrival of two strange men to see their father. When they left, with their father between them, it was strange enough. When he didn’t return that night strangeness transformed into worry. It seemed that in no time at all they were with their mother on a train heading into the countryside. When they arrived late that evening, none of them knew where, the house – actually more of a cottage – was dark and deserted. Without any servants they had to light their own (small) fire and make their own beds. Mother could tell them little except that their father would be staying in London for a while, and they must make do until he returned. With a new place to explore the children were happy, if still worried, to spend their days watching the trains rumble by and waving at the passengers who, sometimes, waved back. But the real adventures began when they watched in horror as a landslip engulfed the track and only they could prevent a terrible accident from occurring! 

This book surprised me in many ways, firstly because at just how readable it was despite its target readership being Middle class Edwardian children. The other big surprise was the number of times Russia and in particular the Russo-Japanese war came up... in a CHILDRENS book! It interested me that arguments broke out in the village between supporters of Russia or Japan based on newspaper reports of the conflict. A minor character of an exiled Russian author appeared looking for his family after spending time in prison and Siberia for his writing and was helped by the children's mother who could ‘get by’ in Russian. She explained to the children that the author was arrested and convicted for his political views and the authoritarian Russians really didn’t like that sort of thing! All very topical, given the publication date, but surprising just the same. 

Like most children’s books – especially of that time – this was largely a series of morality tales to teach (middle-class!) youngsters how to behave in public. It taught being truthful, being essentially good, being kind – especially to those less well off – but it also taught the values of courage, standing up for your principles, thinking things through, basic problem solving, fortitude under difficult circumstances and a whole host of other things. The age spread of the children – I think the boy was the middle child – meant that no one was in full authority, but it did allow the girls to take charge more often than not and to be proven right, more often than not. It was an interesting dynamic to use. This was a fast read and a surprisingly pleasant one. I’m really not sure if it would be appreciated by today’s childish readers but I think if you’re anything like me you will enjoy it – even if just for the nostalgia of a much simpler time. I’ll make a point of watching the 1970 movie (which I haven’t seen in decades) next time it's on. Recommended.  

[Highest page count of the year so far: 319pp]

[Edit: Oh, I'd forgotten one STRANGE bit.... Over half way through the children had a brief (maybe a page or so) discussion amongst themselves about how odd it would be if they were characters in a book! VERY meta....! Not exactly breaking the 4th wall, but interesting nevertheless. I'm not sure if I've read anything like that outside of some SF stories along the way. It was both weird and rather fun.]

Saturday, February 10, 2024

ONE reason why I love the English language SO much...!

Birthday Dinner Party – 10th February 

After enjoying putting together the last birthday dinner party for 27th Jan, I did toy with the idea of following it up with another the following week especially as Mendelssohn had his birthday then. But then I thought that it was too early to get into the habit of weekly ‘parties’ as well as feeling an obligation to do so – which is a dangerous idea where fun Blogging is concerned! So, no party last week. 

This week however, I thought I’d give it another stab especially as some rather interesting characters came up on the Birthday List. First off is the Russian author and poet Boris Pasternak who wrote ‘Dr Zivago’ (not read but I remember enjoying the movie). To accompany (and compliment) him I ‘invited’ the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. One interesting aspect of any conversation with and between the two is that they were both banned by their respective governments – on the opposite sides of the political spectrum! - with Brecht in particular having to go into exile. 

To mix things up a bit we have two sporting legends in the guise of American tennis player Bill Tilden who played in the US Open 1920-25, 29, Wimbledon 1920-21, 30 and the French Open 1927, 30. Then we have Allie Reynolds, American baseball pitcher, best known for his time with the Cleveland Indians (1942-1946) and the New York Yankees (1947-1954). He was a six-time World Series champion (1947, 1949-1953) and All-Star (1945, 1949, 1950, 1952-1954). I do seem to have a weird interest in baseball that I’ll be following up at some point, so it’d be fun to hear about the game from an insider.   

Then, as always, a few ‘wild cards’ for some no doubt interesting or fun conversations! We have American comedian Jimmy Durante, star of vaudeville, radio, film and TV. I’m sure that he could brighten up any room – and I’ve a feeling that we’d need his humour from time to time. Finally, we have Fanny Kaplan the failed assassin of Vladimir Lenin. I’m sure that she could tell quite a story! 

No world class musicians this week but I’m positive that the evening would be a fascinating one for all concerned! More parties to come no doubt...