Sunday, March 30, 2008

Death at the Medical Board (1944)

Death at the Medical Board by Josephine Bell (1944 -- although this cover is the 1964 edition reissued by Ballantine), really couldn't be more wartime British. At every twist of the plot something turns around petrol rations, board reviews for military service, false doctor's certificates to avoid conscription, secret German spy rings, and the fact that it is apparently very hard to find lipstick in your favorite shade when the country is at war. Add to that the complicated inheritance rules surrounding British landowners with twin sons, and you have the makings of a rather complicated mystery on your hands.

Josephine Bell was a physician herself, and the medical parts of this mystery make it read like a 1940s CSI. In fact, our amateur-detective hero, David Wintringham (who is featured in many of Bell's books), is actually a doctor who just enjoys solving mysteries. Somehow his top-secret appointment for the war effort qualifies him to start investigating the mysterious death of Ursula Frinton, a young member of the local gentry who may or may not have had heart trouble and who drops dead at the Medical Board after being examined for war service. Her death is actually rather awesome (slight spoiler ahead, but it comes up rather early in the book so it doesn't give away too much): She gets it from a hypodermic needle filled with nicotine and embedded in her lipstick. When she twists the lipstick tube the needle is armed, and when she presses it to her lips, she is injected with the poisonous nicotine.

And then a bunch of other people start dying, and everyone seems to have a motive. Will Dr. Wintringham be able to solve the mystery before the murderer catches up to him? I'll just leave you in suspense on that one.

[And did you know that back-of-the-book advertisements work? I saw an ad for the recently (in 1964) released book Dewey Death by Charity Blackstock and I ordered up a copy from the wonderful Internet. Murder in the stacks! I can hardly wait...]

Friday, March 28, 2008

The new high

Try this: donate blood, then drink two tallboys even though they tell you not to drink after giving blood. Then watch Decasia. You may get sleepy at a few points during the movie, but it will make quite an impression and then give you crazy light-headed floaty dreams.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sister Carrie (1900)

Sister Carrie (1900) was Theodore Dreiser's first book, and the tale of the small-town girl coming to the big city was loosely based on the experiences of Dreiser's sister. In Sister Carrie our protagonist takes the train from her small town in Wisconsin to the big city of Chicago in order to take the extra room in the apartment of her older sister and her family and to make her way in the world. She is 18, very pretty, not very curious and more than a little naive.

Carrie gets a job in a shoe factory, barely makes enough money to pay her rent, and pines for all the beautiful clothes she sees in the department stores on her long walk to work each morning. After losing her job due to illness, Carrie can't find more work and is on the verge of going back home when she reconnects with Charles Drouet, a dapper and smooth-talking salesman she met on the train to Chicago. Drouet sets Carrie up in an apartment and takes care of all her expenses. This seems to satisfy Carrie for awhile, but after meeting Drouet's much richer friend George Hurstwood, Carrie's eye begins to wander. Not really maliciously or hurtfully (since Carrie doesn't seem to think about anything strongly enough to really mean it), but enough to set Hurstwood on a path of adultery, crime and deception that eventually leads to a hasty retreat for both Carrie and Hurstwood from Chicago to the anonymity of New York.

Although originally published in 1900, Sister Carrie was buried by its publisher and had little success. After an extensive editing by Dreiser and his wife, a new version was published in 1912 to wider acclaim. Even in its edited version, the contemporary audience was shocked by the implied sex in the book and the lack of comeuppance for the immoral characters. It all seems pretty mild today, but you can see how a character like Carrie, no matter how naive and well-meaning she is supposed to be, who basically sleeps her way to comfortable living and attains fame and riches, could rub a turn-of-the-century audience the wrong way.

Although I loved the detailed descriptions of life in Chicago and New York, the philosophical/moralizing sections are insufferable, and the characterization is (probably intentionally) very two-dimensional. Carrie couldn't be more boring or unlikeable. The only things she gets excited about are new clothes and, to a lesser extent, her acting career (but really only to the extent that she can get more money). She lives with men for years without really seeming to care for them, to think about their pasts, or to ask any questions or show any interests in anything at all. So, when she is still melancholy at the end of the novel, despite her success on the stage (which is hilariously based on her ability to pout), I can't say I feel that bad for her.

Sister Carrie is definitely worth reading if you have the time, but if you don't, I'd probably start with one of Dreiser's other books...

[And the full text of Sister Carrie is available here if you'd like to give it a shot.]

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Family Funtimes

Dr. M and I have survived and enjoyed another visit of family excitement. This time we interspersed our constant eating in restaurants with a visit to McKinney Falls State Park and a day out near Burnet, Texas at Longhorn Cavers State Park where we spent about an hour and a half in the caverns and a lot of time above ground enjoying the architectural wonders of the Civilian Conservation Corps (I love that stuff). San Antonio was sufficiently Eastery and my sister's boyfriend (who had the flu) and my dad were good enough sports to spend several hours walking around the fancy shopping center with me, my mom and my sister.

[full photo documentation here]

Now back to real life...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


I have removed all traces of dust, dirt and mildew from the apartment and am now ready to receive a visit from my family. Expect not a whole lot of posting as I spend all my time eating at restaurants, walking through state parks, and Eastering it up in San Antonio.

Monday, March 17, 2008


What 1985 event involved Liberace, Muhammad Ali, Hulk Hogan, Cyndi Lauper, Mr. T, and the Rockettes; made ample use of the previously unknown verbs "crotched" and "Pearl Harbored"; and featured persons from Parts Unknown? Why Wrestlemania 1, of course!

Watch the Wendi Richter (with Cyndi Lauper in her corner) vs. Leilani Kai (with the Fabulous Moolah) match right now while it's still up on You Tube.

And this guy's review of Wrestlemania 1 is great and truly shows how the Internet was made for wrestling fans.

Thank you Netflix for promising to deliver every single Wrestlemania to our door. I can hardly wait for the next one to arrive...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Wrack and Ruin by Don Lee (2008)

I got an advanced copy of Don Lee's upcoming novel Wrack and Ruin (April 2008) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program (which I will once again mention is super awesome). This is Lee's third novel, and has been compared by the publishers and other reviewers to Michael Chabon and the movie Sideways. I can see the basis for these comparisons, and I'd also add in a dash of Tom Robbins. Is that good? College-aged-Spacebeer would certainly think so, but thirty-something-Spacebeer is not so sure.

Wrack and Ruin, centers around Lyndon Song, a former golden-boy of the art world who gave it all up with no explanation to live an isolated life as a Brussels sprout farmer in a small, coastal, Central-California town. He is in the middle of an extended fight with a large corporation that is building a luxury resort and golf course in the area and needs his land to complete the 18th hole. Lyndon, of course, refuses to sell. To further complicate things, Lyndon's estranged, huckster, film-producing brother Woody has come for a barely-announced visit with the drunken, violent and aging Hong Kong film star Ling Ling in tow. Woody and Lyndon haven't been on speaking terms since Lyndon lost all their parent's money in some kind of financial shenanigans. To the core story of the mismatched brothers we add several lovers, a bunch of pot, philosophical discussions of Buddhism, a take-down of the pressures of the art world, and a wry look at both environmentalists and yuppie corporate types.

So: there is a lot going on here. Lee does a nice job of keeping all the parts of the story up in the air, and the book reads quickly and is very entertaining. However, the dialogue and characters are, sometimes, a little too quirky and glib and the philosophical moments don't always fit tightly with the rest of the book. The ending isn't entirely satisfying, but overall the book is a fun read and worth checking out. Especially if someone sends it to you for free...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Aw shit, I accidentally bought a MacBook today! Well, not accidentally since Dr. M was required to get one for school and our main computer has been acting squirrelly lately, but it was sort of an impulse buy to get it today. I am also proud to let you know that I successfully set up a wireless network with no problems. I think I just needed a distraction....

And just look at how distracted I am!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Skylark of Space, 1928

The Skylark of Space (1928) is the first in E. E. "Doc" Smith's Skylark series. He wrote the book between 1915 and 1921 with his friend Lee Hawkins Garby, the wife of one of his college classmates, while working on his doctorate and later as a food chemist. The Skylark series is known as the first great space opera, and (as you might expect) it reads like a model of the genre.

Our handsome, smart, and honorable hero, government scientist Richard Seaton, accidentally discovers a powerful reaction when he mixes a newly discovered element X (distilled from a meteor) with some copper and some kind of unexplained force field -- when everything comes together, the copper tub in which he was experimenting with the materials shoots out of the room in a straight line, blasts a big hole through the wall, and heads for the horizon. Instead of worrying who might get hit with the super-powered tub, he does more experiments, and even though none of his lab buddies believe him, he knows he is on to something big.

Seaton sets up a business to explore the possibilities of this new discovery with his friend, and fellow handsome, smart and honorable guy, Martin Crane (who also happens to be a billionaire), and their first plan (naturally) is to build a spaceship that can be powered by their element X. They are supported by the beautiful, smart and honorable fiance of Seaton, Miss Dorothy Vaneman, who provides plucky attitude, practical advice, foodstuffs, and occasional violin solos.

Unfortunately, the two are hounded by the handsome, smart, and dishonorable scientist Marc DuQuesne -- a former colleague of Seaton who wants to monopolize the development of element X, and will go to any lengths to do so. After awhile Dorothy is kidnapped, another girl enters the story (don't worry, she is beautiful, smart, and honorable), and everyone one ends up billions and billions of light years from earth in an unidentified galaxy with no fuel.

That is where the fun starts.

It takes him awhile, but Smith is at his best when making up crazy new worlds and alternate near-human universes. The second half of the book is full of them, and he even throws in an exciting space battle.

And don't worry, things turn out okay -- otherwise who could we follow over to Skylark Three!

[Back cover available here for completest sorts.]

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Suggested Reading

Nicholson Baker's recent article about Wikipedia in the New York Review of Books has gotten me all pumped up. I love the leaf-pile metaphor and the personal dissection of Deletionism vs. inclusionism. Read it!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Why I am skeptical of bangs

My hair looked weird like this for about ten years of my life, until I figured out the secret of growing it all one length. Lately I have given into the idea of very long bangs and am controlling them much better than I did in the third grade. See more nostalgic photos from my youth here. And thank pinprick for this journey back in time, which actually made me wish I had more of my embarrassing childhood pictures available for scanning...