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Not in the least related to books -- but I just came across this on YouTube and absolutely love it.  That's my city, everybody ...

Elephants

Lynn and MbD's exchange about elephants reminded me of Beryl Markham's comments on the subject in West With the Night, which FWIW I'll just render here verbatim:

"I suppose, if there were a part of the world in which mastodon still lived, somebody would design a new gun, and men, in their eternal impudence, would hunt mastodon as they now hunt elephant.  Impudence seems to be the word.  At least David and Goliath were of the same species, but, to an elephant, a man can only be a midge with a deathly sting.

 

It is absurd for a man to kill an elephant.  It is not brutal, it is not heroic, and certainly it is not easy; it is just one of those preposterous things that men do like putting a dam across a great river, one tenth of whose volume could engulf the whole of mankind without disturbing the domestic life of a single catfish.

 

Elephant, beyond the fact that their size and conformation are aesthetically more suited to the trading of this earth than our angular informity, have an average intelligence comparable to our own.  Of course they are less agile and phyiscally less adaptable than ourselves -- Nature having developed their bodies in one direction and their brains in another, while human beings, on the other hand, drew from Mr. Darwin's lottery of evolution both the winning ticket and the stub to match it.  This, I suppose, is why we are so wonderful and can make movies and electric razors and wireless sets -- and guns with which to shoot the elephant, the hare, clay pigeons, and each other.

 

The elephant is a rational animal.  He thinks.  Blix [NB: Baron Bror Blixen, Karen Blixen's husband and Markham's close friend] and I (also rational animals in our own right) have never quite agreed in the mental attributes of the elephant.  I know Blix is not to be doubted because he has learned more about elephant than any other man I ever met, or even head about, but he looks upon legend with a suspicious eye, and I do not.  [...]

 

But still, there is no mystery about the things you see yourself.

 

I think I am the first person ever to scout elephant by plane, and so it follows that the thousands of elephant I saw time and again from the air had never before been plagued by anything above their heads more ominous than tick-birds.

 

The reaction of a herd of elephant to my Avian [plane] was, in the initial instance, always the same -- they left their feeding ground and tried to find cover, though often, before yielding, one or two of the bulls would prepare for battle and charge in the direction of the place if it were low enough to be within their scope of vision. Once the futility of this was realized, the entire herd would be off into the deepest bush.

 

Checking again on the whereabouts of the same herd next day, I always found that a good deal of thinking had been going on amongst them during the night.  On the basis of their reaction to my second intrusion, I judged that their thoughts had run somewhat like this: A: The thing that flew over us was no bird, since no bird would have to work so hard to stay in the air -- and anyway, we know all the birds.  B: If it was no bird, it was very likely just another trick of those two-legged dwarfs against whom there ought to be a law.  C: The two-legged dwarfs (both black and white) have, as long as our long memories go back, killed our bulls for their tusks.  We know this because, in the case of the white dwarfs, at least, the tusks are the only part taken away.

 

The actions of the elephant, based upon this reasoning, were always sensible and practical.  The second time they saw the Avian, they refused to hide; instead, the females, who bear only small, valueless tusks, simply grouped themselves around their treasure-burdened bulls in such a way that no ivory could be seen from the air or from any other approach.

 

This can be maddening strategy to an elephant scout.  I have spent the better part of an hour circling, criss-crossing, and diving low over some of the most inhospitable country in Africa in an effort to break such a stubborn huddle, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

 

But the tactics vary.  More than once I have come upon a large and solitary elephant standing with enticing disregard for safety, its massive bulk in clear view, but its head buried in thicket.  This was, on the part of the elephant, no effort to simulate the nonsensical habit attributed to the ostrich.  It was, on the contrary, a cleverly devised trap into which I fell, every way except physically, at least a dozen times.  The beast always proved to be a large cow rather than a bull, and I always found that by the time I had arrived at this brilliant if tardy deduction, the rest of the herd had got another ten miles away, and the decoy, leering up at me out of a small, triumphant eye, would amble into the open, wave her trunk with devastating nonchalance, and disappear."

And a little later she warns:

"Elephant hunters may be unconscionable brutes, but it would be an error to regard the elephant as an altogether pacific animal.  The popular belief that only the so-called 'rogue' elephant is dangerous to men is quite wrong -- so wrong that a considerable number of men who believed it have become one with the dust without even their just due of gradual disintegration.  A normal bull elephant, aroused by the scent of man, will often attack at once -- and his speed is as unbelievable as his mobility.  His trunk and his feet are his weapons -- at least in the distateful business of exterminating a mere human; those resplendent sabres of ivory await resplendent foes."

And she proceeds to prove her point by recounting an instance where she and Baron Blixen literally came within an inch of being reduced to dust themselves, courtesy of a large elephant bull.

 

Markham, one of aviation history's great female pioneers (among several other accomplishments), was hired as an aerial scout by elephant hunters in a time when the ecological devastation wrought by their dubious occupation was not a noticeable concern; and she makes no bones about the fact that this was part of how she was earning her living at the time.  Given her comments in the opening paragraphs of this excerpt, however, and her alertness to the the unconscionable havoc that humans with guns can wreak, I would like to think that she'd be on the side of conservation these days (even if she'd probably also be unapologetic about her past) -- having grown up in Africa and considering it home, she clearly loved its wildlife vastly better than most of its human society.  Her comments elsewhere in the book (as well as, again in the opening paragraphs of this excerpt) also make it quite clear that like most of those who have seen the damage that guns can do in action, she was appalled by the notion of easy access to guns, and of guns in hands where they don't belong.  In another part of the book, she quotes with approval her friend (and flying instructor) Tom Black's disdainful comment on an amateur hunter's severe injuries at the claws of a lion he'd shot but not killed immediately: "Lion, rifles -- and stupidity" ... and she makes it perfectly clear that from her point of view, the lion's later death from its gunshot wounds was the vastly more regrettable and anger-inducing outcome of that encounter than the hunter's injuries.

 

Should come with several prescriptions / warning labels:

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

The first caveat, obviously, being "don't ever try this at home."  Most of the poisons Harkup discusses are much harder to obtain these days than in Agatha Christie's time, so for most of them the risk of being used as a murder weapon may have been mitigated in the interim, but that's not true for all of them -- belladonna, phosphorus, opiates, ricin, and thallium are still scarily easy to obtain (or distill) if you know how and where, and the story of Graham Young (aka the stepson from hell) is a chilly reminder that (1) it may not actually be a particularly wise idea to present your 11 year old son with a chemistry set for Christmas for being such a diligent student of the subject -- particularly if he has taken a dislike to your new spouse -- and (2) there are still poisons out there, thallium among them, that are but imperfectly understood and may, therefore, be misdiagnosed even today.

 

My second caveat would be to either read this book only after you've finished all of Agatha Christie's novels and short stories that are discussed here, or at least, let a significantly large enough amount of time go by between reading Harkup's book and Christie's fiction. (Obviously, if you're just reading this one for the chemistry and have no intention of picking up Christie's works at all, the story is a different one.)

 

There are exactly two instances where Harkup gives a spoiler warning for her discussion of the books by Agatha Christie that she is using as "anchors" for the poisons under discussion (morphine / Sad Cypress and ricin / Partners in Crime: The House of Lurking Death), and in both instances, my feeling is that she is using the spoiler warning chiefly because she is expressly giving away the identity of the murderer. 

 

In truth, however, several other chapters should come with a massive spoiler warning as well; not because Harkup is explicit about the murderer (she isn't), but because she gives away both the final twist and virtually every last detail of the path to its discovery.  As Harkup herself acknowledges, a considerable part of Agatha Christie's craft consists in creating elaborate sleights of hand; in misdirecting the reader's attention and in creating intricate red herrings that look damnably convincingly like the real thing.  But in several chapters of A Is for Arsenic, Harkup painstakingly unravels these sleights of hand literally down to the very last detail, making the red herrings visible for what they are, and even explaining just how Christie uses these as part of her elaborate window dressing.  The effect is the same as seeing a conjurer's trick at extreme slow motion (or having it demonstrated to you step by step) -- it completely takes away the magic.  Reading Harkup's book before those by Christie that she discusses in the chapters concerned makes you go into a later read of those mysteries not only knowing exactly what to look for and why, but also what to discard as window dressing -- the combined effect of which in more than one instance also puts you on a direct trail to uncovering the murderer.  This applies to the chapters about hemlock (Five Little Pigs, aka Murder in Retrospect -- see my corresponding status update), strychnine (The Mysterious Affair at Styles), thallium (The Pale Horse), and Veronal (Lord Edgware Dies); as well as, arguably, though perhaps to a lesser degree, to the chapter about belladonna (The Labours of Hercules: The Cretan Bull).  In fact, in at least one of these chapters

(Veronal)

(show spoiler)

she as good as discloses both the murderer and the final twist before she's ever gotten to a discussion of the drug used in the first place.

 

As a result, Harkup's book loses a half star in my rating on this basis alone, and I'm left with one of the odd entries in my library where I'm checking off the "favorite" box for a book that I'm not rating at least four stars or higher.  Because the fact is also that I immensely enjoyed Harkup's explanations just how the poisons used in Christie's novels work (and where they occur naturally / what they derive from), which has both increased my already enormous respect for Christie's chemical knowledge and the painstaking way in which she applied that knowledge in her books, and also served as fascinating background reading and a chemistry lesson that is both fun and instructive.  I just know that this is one of the books I will come back to again and again in the future, not only when revisiting Christie's catalogue but also when reading other books (mysteries and otherwise) involving poison -- from the beginning of this read, I've had repeated flashbacks to books by other writers (and I'm gratified that Harkup hat-tips at least one of them, Ngaio Marsh's Final Curtain, in her discussion of thallium, even if I'd also have liked at least a little word on the effect of the embalming procedure described Marsh); and I'm fairly certain that particularly my future mystery reads involving poisons will prompt some considerable fact-checking at the hands of A Is for Arsenic.

 

Which in turn brings us back to caveat No. 1, I suppose ... don't ever try this at home!

 

Reading progress update: I've read 236 out of 320 pages.

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Phosphorus and Ricin -- two particularly nasty ones.  And the way she's describing the discovery of phosphorus, it sounds like something straight out of a sorcerer's lab ... byproduct of the search for the philosophers' stone.  Why stop at gold, anyway?!

Reading progress update: I've read 202 out of 320 pages.

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

What does it say that I read the opium chapter this night, after having woken up at 4:00AM (against all habit)?

 

I can see the temptation in using Sad Cypress as the anchor book for this chapter, and I'm glad Harkup gave an unambiguous spoiler warning this time around before proceeding to give away the final twist, in order to be able to address a compound that Christie uses in this novel (and which she only mentions by name in Poirot's final round-up of the suspects).  Still, it's not like this is the only book by Christie where morphine plays a prominent role, and Harkup would have been able to do without a spoiler completely by choosing, say, By the Pricking of My Thumbs (which was likely inspired by one of the real life cases Harkup addresses anyway), discuss morphine, heroin / diamorphine and codeine exactly the way she does here, and then, without specifically identifying Sad Cypress, tag on a paragraph beginning with "In another book, the poisoner ..." -- and then proceed to describing the solution of Sad Cypress.  Ah, well.  But, as I said, at least this time around there's a clear spoiler warning ... which should absolutely be heeded by anybody who hasn't read Sad Cypress yet.

 

Notes on the previous chapters:

 

I'm now wondering whether the murderer in Ellis Peters's Monk's Hood would really have made it all the way to being found out by Brother Cadfael, a considerable time after the murder, without suffering the slightest effects of the drug himself.

 

And while I thought I couldn't possibly be more scared of both nicotine and opiates than I already am anyway, just reading about the chemistry involved all over again was a not-very-much-needed refresher of just how scary these really are.  And, um, why kicking the habit (smoking) once and for all some 20 years ago was definitely the right thing to do.

Happy Mothers' Day!

 

In other news, my BFF and I went shopping at that store again yesterday ... (and yes, the white chocolate tartufi and Florentine cookies I got my mom for Mothers' Day are from there as well).

 

From Twitter (for the resident ESC Aficionados): Eurovision Acts as EarlyModernists

 

 



 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 

Let the cult begin!

Brilliant

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus - Margaret Atwood, Laural Merlington The Penelopiad - Margaret Atwood

Irreverent, insightful, funny, deeply humane and empathetic.

 

The myth of Odysseus is one of my favorite parts of Greek mythology: in telling it from the perspective of Penelope -- with a good bit about Penelope's childhood and youth, and her and Odysseus's marriage thrown in for good measure, as well as with her 12 slain maids acting as a very Greek chorus -- Atwood turns it inside out, gives it a feminist spin, and puts it together again in her very own way.  And Laurel Merlington's narration is sheer genius ... if you're into Greek mythology and audiobooks, get the audio version now.  (If you're not into audiobooks but into Greek mythology, still get the edition of your choice.)

 

Absolutely loved every second of it.

Reading progress update: I've read 140 out of 320 pages.

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Oh, FIE.  Major spoiler alert.

 

In the "Hemlock" chapter, Harkup gives away -- without any prior warning whatsoever -- the identity of not one but two of the key suspects in Five Little Pigs who ultimately turn out to be innocent, and she also reveals the answer to the question that Poirot is chiefly asked to resolve.  This concerns persons whom Christie builds up as particularly "promising" suspects with great skill throughout the novel, with many clues pointing in their direction, and the revelation that they are innocent (and how the clues pointing to them are actually red herrings, and what they really mean) is a key part of Poirot's eventual summing up.  Even worse, knowing that -- and why -- these two persons didn't do it, and what the clues pointing to them actually mean, opens up direct lines of reasoning pointing to the true killer (whom Harkup doesn't reveal, but who is fairly easy to identify once you start questioning / rethinking those clues -- or at the very least, Harkup's hints also help eliminate other suspects).

 

If you haven't read Five Little Pigs yet, I strongly suggest you don't read the Hemlock chapter of Harkup's book until after you've read the novel.  For all I can see so far, there are no cross-references to this chapter with other parts of A Is For Arsenic, so it's not like you're missing anything that you need to know to be able to follow the rest.

Reading progress update: I've read 108 out of 320 pages.

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

I just finished the digitalis chapter -- a fairly fast read, since for once this was one dealing with stuff of which I had at least a working knowledge going in. Christie herself discusses some of the basics re: digitalis in Appointment with Death and some of her short stories (most notably, The Herb of Death), and more importantly, one of the key characters in Dorothy L. Sayers's The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is a doctor -- the very same doctor who prescribed digitalis to his fellow club member, the victim, for his heart condition, in fact -- and he discusses the workings of digitalis with Lord Peter Wimsey in some detail after they've both "viewed" the body. Sayers was as obsessed as Christie about getting the chemistry of her novels involving poison right (she even co-wrote The Documents in the Case with a chemist, Robert Eustace, and they performed lab tests together to make sure the murder could really have been carried out the way they were, um, plotting it). It's obvious that she'd read up on digitalis as well.

 

Hmm, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club was published in 1928, and the RL case that Harkup thinks may have inspired Christie -- the Marie Becker murders -- happened in 1932. Mme. Becker, for her part, wouldn't happen to have been inspired by Sayers, would she?! At any rate, I'm fairly certain that Sayers was aware of the other case that Harkup mentions (Pommerais / Pauw); though the facts are not identical, there are certain elements of that case that also show up in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.

 

Reading progress update: I've read 82 out of 320 pages.

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Harkup recounts the story how Rasputin's enemies allegedly lured him to a lunch featuring

"cake and [Madeira] wine ... said to be laced with enough cynide to kill 'a monastery' of monks, but it left Rasputin unaffected.  He was then shot, at least twice, but was still alive and fighting back against his would-be assassins.  At this point he was beaten into submission, tied up in a carpet and dropped into the frozen Neva river.  His body was recovered two days later, and a post-mortem revealed that he had died from drowning."

She continues:

"There are a number of theories that might explain what happened that day:

 

1. His assassins were terrible poisoners and did not put enough cyanide in the food to kill him, or mistook an innocuous substance for cyanide salts.

2. Rasputin suffered from alcoholic gastritis.

3. Suspecting someone might try and poison him, Rasputin dosed himself regularly with small amounts of poison to build up an immunity to a larger, normally letha. dose.

4. The sugary cakes and wine acted as an antidote to the cyanide.

5. The story is made up and rasputin was killed by a single shot to the head fired by a British secret service agent."

The she analyzes options 1 - 4, concluding that

 

* As no samples were preserved and the story changed several times (gee, where have I seen that happen lately?), option 1 is impossible to either prove or disprove in hindsight;

* Option 2 is "reasonable and based on good science" in theory, but equally impossible to confirm because there is no conclusive proof that Rasputin did suffer from alcoholic gastritis;

* Option 3 -- the so-called Mithridatism, named for the king of Pontus (135–63 BC), who is alleged to have done this very thing -- would have worked for animal venom, but not for cyanide; and

* Option 4, while needing more research, at least sounds "promising" on the basis of the comparatively limited amount of knowledge available to date

 

... only to end her analysis with:

"The fifth Rasputin theory is, of course, the most likely explanation."

Hah!

 

 

The Rhine on Fire

  

 (Source)

 

 

"Rhein in Flammen" ("The Rhine on Fire", or "The Rhine up in Flames") is an annual event, inaugurated in the 1980s I think, linking the towns along the Rhine, all the way from Koblenz to Bonn, by a chain of fireworks.   The whole thing gets kicked off in Koblenz as soon as night has fallen, and finishes in Bonn at some point after 11:00pm.  You can follow along by boat -- there's a regular train of pleasure boats offering "Rhein in Flammen" cruises, with on-board entertainment etc. ... or you just pick one location to watch from (of course, there's a carnival atmosphere on the shore as well, with food and drink vendors, carnival rides, and what have you).  Here are some impressions (not my own photos) from this year's fireworks in Bonn, which just ended.

 

More photos here and here.

Four Solid Winners in the Miss Silver Series

Latter End - Patricia Wentworth Latter End - Patricia Wentworth, Diana Bishop Poison In The Pen - Patricia Wentworth Poison In The Pen - Patricia Wentworth, Diana Bishop Miss Silver Comes to Stay - Patricia Wentworth Miss Silver Intervenes (Miss Silver Mystery) - Patricia Wentworth Miss Silver Intervenes - Diana Bishop, Patricia Wentworth

... lined up in order of preference.

 

I admittedly have so far only read two other Miss Silver books besides these four -- Grey Mask and The Chinese Shawl, respectively --, but based on the books listed above, my appreciation of the series is certainly increasing.  Like Georgette Heyer's mysteries (and to a lesser extent, Ngaio Marsh's), all the Miss Silver books seem to come with a side order of romance, which is probably not surprising, given that this is where Patricia Wentworth started out.  But once she had gotten the standard mystery and romance tropes out of her system that bogged down the first book of the series, Grey Mask, and are also still way too prevalent for my liking the fifth book (The Chinese Shawl -- what most annoyed me there was the predominant "youthful damsel in distress" theme), it seems that she found her stride somewhere between that book and the next one (Miss Silver Intervenes).  There are still common elements to all the novels; e.g., in addition to the invariably-included romance, like Marsh and Heyer Wentworth seems to be playing favorites: Once a character has been introduced as genuinely likeable, it is extremely unlikely that (s)he will turn out to be the murderer -- and if a superficially likeable character turns out to be the bad guy (or girl) in the end, there will be subtle hints all along the way that there might be more to them that meets the eye.  And of the four listed above, I think Miss Silver Intervenes is still the weakest.  But it's clear that Wentworth's apprentice phase as a mystery writer was over and done with.

 

In Miss Silver Intervenes, the detective (or "private enquiry agent," as she prefers to style herself) is called in to untangle a web of deceit, blackmail and murder in a London apartment building, against the background of WWII food shortage and other restrictions of daily life (and I confess I can't think of any other Golden Age mystery where one of the "good guys" is ultimately revealed to be

a sausage king.)

(show spoiler)

Though both of the book's main female characters have a whiff of snowflake / damsel in distress (and their beaux are consequently suffering from a mild form of white knight syndrome) -- and there is perhaps a bit too convenient a use of the amnesia trope (which I don't particularly care for, anyway) -- what I really like about this book is the way in which Wentworth brings the effect of WWII to life, chiefly in one particular character, but ultimately in all of them.  The mystery isn't quite on the level of Agatha Christie, nor does it in fact reach the cleverness of that presented in the previous Miss Silver book, The Chinese Shawl, but the characters -- especially some of the supporting characters, as well as the two policemen (CDI Lamb and Sergeant / later DI Abbott) -- here begin to come alive and take on three dimensions once and for all (though I will say that Miss Silver herself had reached that point by book 5 already).

 

I've yet to catch up with the Miss Silver novels between books 6 and 11, but by the time she got to Latter End (book 11), Wentworth had definitely also weaned herself of the need to have "damsel in distress" heroines.  There still are two such ladies as supporting characters, but the heroine is a young woman who can -- and does -- take care of herself extremely well, and is loved because (not in spite) of that by the hero ... and both she and the hero repeatedly refer to the two ladies in need of rescue as "doormats" (albeit in a spirit of genuine worry about these ladies' inability to put up a fight in their own behalf). -- In terms of plot, again this is perhaps not exactly Christie-level clever; also, the setting is, facially, an exponent of the "toxic family relations explode at country manor" Golden Age staple ... but it's all done with such incredible panache that the characters downright burst off the page; and the murder victim of the piece is in the best Golden Age tradition of a thoroughly despicable human being without whose presence and continuous bullying and intrigues everybody is decidedly better off. -- As in Miss Silver Intervenes, the policemen "formally" in charge of the case are DCI Lamb and Sergeant Abbot.

 

Miss Silver Comes to Stay (book 16) is an example of another Golden Age staple setting, the village mystery with sinister goings-on both in the village and at the nearby manor; and here we get to meet the third policeman that Miss Silver more or less routinely associates with, DI Randal Marsh, who is an old pupil of hers (Miss Silver was a teacher / governess and actually looking at a rather drab and modest sort of retirement before, by mere chance, she stumbled into becoming a "private enquiry agent"). --

Randal Marsh, in turn, also meets his future wife in this book.

(show spoiler)

This was the first book by Wentworth that I ever read, and I liked it well enough to continue my exploration.

 

Poison in the Pen (book 29), finally, is one of Wentworth's last Miss Silver Books -- there are 32 in all.  Again we're on Randal Marsh's turf, of which he has become Assistant Commissioner in the interim -- but the driving force behind Miss Silver's involvement in the case is DI Frank Abbot, who thinks "Maudie", as he privately calls her, is the ideal person to gently worm her way into the social circles of a village beset by poison pen letters.  This is, noticeably, also Miss Marple territory of course, and kudos to Wentworth, whose foray into this area I for once even prefer to Christie's ... albeit as always, not on the grounds of plot or intricacy of the mystery but chiefly on the grounds of the characters involved.

 

Based on these four books, I'm definitely going to continue my journey into Miss Silver's world ... and can I just say as a final note that I prefer my editions' covers of Miss Silver Intervenes and Miss Silver Comes to Stay -- both created by Terry Hand -- to those listed on BookLikes for the same ISBNs?

 

 

(Same ISBN as the covers listed on BL, so no legit grounds to change them, and I can't be bothered to create extra entries for the alternative covers.  But the new ones are stock images which -- probably not entirely coincidentally -- are also used for Georgette Heyer's mysteries, e.g., see the cover of Detection Unlimited, to the left ... where, incidentally, it fits decidedly less well than with Wentworth's Latter End; but then, a disjoint between cover image and contents of the book is common ailment of most of the recent editions of Heyer's mysteries.)

 

 

The audio editions of the Miss Silver books are, incidentally, read by Diana Bishop, whose narrations I've thoroughly come to enjoy.

Boleyn Is Back

Are any of BL's other resident history lovers following this? (On FB and Twitter -- #BoleynIsBack)  I confess I'm having a blast ...

 

 

 

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A few from yesterday: