THE SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER or The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale

An interesting piece of non-fiction, the story not only of a mysterious murder in a house in a small English town in 1860, but also the story of the creation and development of the police detective.

The detective was originally considered something of a hero, having to the mind of the public the style of Sherlock Holmes.  But this particular murder of a 3-year-old boy whose body was found on a ledge in the outhouse prompted such investigations into the lives and intimacies of the family, that it turned the public against detective-ing, and ruined the career of the famous detective assigned to the case.

Inspector Jonathan Whicher quickly believed the unbelievable—that someone within the family was responsible for the murder of young Saville Kent. Without sufficient evidence or a confession, though, his case was circumstantial and he returned to London a broken man. Though he would be vindicated five years later, the real legacy of Jonathan Whicher lives on in fiction: the tough, quirky, knowing, and all-seeing detective that we know and love today…from the cryptic Sgt. Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone to Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade.  [from the plot descrption.  I stole it. I don’t write that well.]

I learned some interesting stuff.  For instance that the word clue comes from the late Middle English variant of clew. The original sense was ‘a ball of thread’; hence one used to guide a person out of a labyrinth (literally or figuratively). This meaning dates from the early 17th century.

‘Do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach, sir?  and a nasty thumping at the top of your head? Ah!  not yet?  It will lay hold of you… I call it the detective-fever.’  -from The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins.

The first fictional sleuth, Auguste Dupin, appeared in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the rue Morgue‘ in 1841.  But Inspector Jonathan Whicher was real.  In fact, he was one of the original eight detectives of the first detective squad of the London Metropolitan Police.

Along the way in the telling of the murder, we learn about the lives of the various members of the household, the police force, judges, lawyers, and all kinds of interesting minutiae which made for some fascinating reading. The book is thoroughly and meticulously researched, the Notes containing the sources taking up almost a third of the book itself.

If you are a fan of police procedurals fiction, and detective fiction, you might like this book for the meta look it gives the genre.

(And no, in this case, the butler did not do it.)




This is a memoir by Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg about his life growing up poor, and I mean really, really, poor in the south, in the Alabama foothills of Appalachia.  His father was an abusive alcoholic, probably suffering from PTSD after his stint in North Korea, and his mother raised the three boys mostly alone, and mostly on money earned picking cotton, and ironing, etc.  It was a hard scrabble existence, the kind that either makes you or breaks you.

It made Rick, as he pursued his love of journalism, broke his younger brother who became a ne’er-do-well  alcoholic, and created a hard-working man, responsible and dependable but never prosperous of his older brother.

I wasn’t in love with this book.  The style waffled between humble brags, barely concealed vilification of his father, and almost saint-like worship of his mother.  He finally saved up enough money over the years to buy his mother a home,  which it seems tuned out to be a four-bedroom split level on an acre and a third.  Where she lived alone.  Eye rolling here.  But until that time, in spite of his adoration, yada yada yada, she still lived in a tiny shack and had no money, except what little he sent her every once in a while.  So, yeah, that big split level?  Too much, too late.

He has been praised for his poetic style, but for me, it felt a bit precious, you know, worked at.  But there was some fine writing, and some serious southern story-telling.  But it is tainted for me by his firing (OK he resigned under pressure)  from the New York Times in 2003 for writing a story that was basically written by an unpaid and uncredited intern.  One of those deals where the reporter flies in to a city for a short time to get the location dateline, then leaves and writes the article based on others’ info.  There was quite a controversy over this at the time.  It seemed right in keeping with also the barely concealed condensation and sense of superiority that flows through the book.  And An Ego Runs Through It.

So, bottom line, the writing itself, qua writing, is fine, as it should be coming from a Pulitzer Prize winner.  It is the content, and the agenda that grates.

But many people really loved the book, so keep in mind this is only my opinion, which is worth exactly what you paid for it.


SCIENCE INK by Mary Roach and Carl Zimmer

A kind of fun book about the tattoos that the science-obsessed get, along with a short explanation of the particular science which the artwork represents, and often a little blurb about the person with the ink and why they chose that particular representation.

I am not much of a fan of tatoos, and have none myself, so my opinion on the various art isn’t worth a bottle of ink.  Some of it looks lovely, and some of it is awful, and some of it makes me go why?, but basically, if you like tattoos, and mostly what you have seen on your friends and family and the folks at the rock festival or the local bar run to eagles, hearts, snakes and such, you will enjoy seeing the creativity here.  Physics equations, the entire solar system, the world at a glance, Cambrian fossils,  huge quotes from famous scientists, vaccine tree, danger signals, motors, crystal radio parts, and a New Yorker cartoon, just a few of what people hold dear enough to themselves to want to have it permanently etched on their person.

People have tats of stuff I never even heard of:

The Fourier Transform
the Dirac Equation
the Lazarus Taxon
Taylor’s Sine
Cantor’s Theorem
the Zermelo-Fraenkel with Choice axioms of set theory
Infinity Laplacian

Here’s some stuff I learned:

In 1939, French mathematician named Nicolas Bourbake, published one part of a multi-volume work called Elements of Mathematics.  Bourbake called for a symbol for the set that contains no elements in it, and proposed a circle with a diagonal slash to represent “la partie vide”.

Nicholas Bourbake, it turns out, was himself an empty set.  In the 1930’s a group of French mathematicians started meeting to write a new mathematics textbook. They decided that they would publish their work not under their real names but as a single pseudonym – Nicholas Burbaki.   The name came from an old mathematician who called himself Nicholas Burbaki, but who turned out to be another student who put on a fake beard and spouted nonsense.

and more

Tattoos are not a recent thing.  Tattoos are etched deep in our species.  The body of a 5300-year-old-hunter was found in the Austrian Alps, and his freeze-dried skin sported a number of tattoos.  Tattoos are preserved on other mummies from ancient civilizations from the Scythians of Central Asia to the Chiribaya of Peru.   Two hallmarks of Homo sapiens are decoration and self-identification.

You can find more books by Mary Roach just by plugging in her name in the search window here on the blog.



The gods of Olympus died with the advent of Christianity – or so we have been taught to believe. But how are we to account for their tremendous popularity during the Renaissance?  This book offers the general reader a multifaceted look at the far-reaching role played by mythology in Renaissance intellectual and emotional life. After a discussion of mythology in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Jean Seznec traces the fate of the gods from Botticelli and Raphael to their function and appearance in Ronsard’s verses and Ben Jonson’s masques.  [Official blurb.]

This wonderful book was written in 1940, long before Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,  which I talked about here.   The conclusion implicitly, if not explicitly, reached in The Survival of the Pagan Gods is the same as in Gaiman’s work:   they are still around, …. but nobody cares.   Well, no, that is wrong.  It is not that nobody cares, it is that no one actually worships them anymore, the poignant point made in American Gods.

What is clear is that the Ideas which the ancient gods of Olympus represent continue on, and during the middle ages were turned into Virtues and allegories.  The ancient gods changed wardrobe over the ages, appearing as personages in the then modern dress, but during the Renaissance, the wheel of cosmic fortuned made a complete turn, and the gods once again appeared in their original forms.

Seznec has shown that the Olympian gods, and the earlier spirits of field and spring, did not die with the advent of Christianity, but lived on. His work traces the process in which they were already transformed during Late Antiquity, whether embedded within history as transfigured former human beings in the Euhemerist view that was embraced by Christian apologists. or given planetary roles as astral divinities in the worldview of astrology and magic or allegorized as moral emblems. They survive in pictorial and in literary traditions and among the common people went underground to feature in folk culture, took on strange new guises and were transformed in various ways, their myths recast to suit some of the mythic saints of Late Antiquity. Their imagery permeated Medieval intellectual and emotional life. The transformed mythology re-emerged in the iconography of the early Tuscan Renaissance, with new attributes that the ancients had never imagined, and enjoyed tremendous renewed popularity during the Renaissance. [Stolen Copied from Wikipedia.]

I really enjoyed this book.  It is full of illustrations of the works discussed, and makes it easy to follow the transformations of the gods through their various guises and re-emergence again in the Renaissance.

I just wanted to add that the idea of the ancient Pagan deities still living on is delightfully explored in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.  I talked about two of them here and here.  So perhaps these days we are no longer creating sculptures, bas-reliefs and paintings of the ancient gods, but they continue to live on in literature.


PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF TERROR – Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida by Giovanna Borradori

Several weeks after the terrible events of 9/11, Giovanna Borradori, professor of Philosophy at Vassar College and a specialist in Continental philosophy, Aesthetics, and the philosophy of terrorism, conducted a series of separate lengthy interviews with Jacques Derrida and Jurgen Habermas.  After the interviews, she gives us essays in which she recapitulates the main arguments and relates them to the writings and the philosophy of the interviewees.  The skeletal structure around which the conversations revolve is the idea of the Enlightenment and what we can gain from its lessons with regard to the terror attacks of 9/11.

It is a very dense book, and I had to restrain myself from highlighting every single line.  Yeah, it was that good.

Jurgen Habermas is considered to be the most important German philosopher of the second half of the 20th century. A highly influential social and political thinker, Habermas was generally identified with the critical social theory developed from the 1920s by the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, also known as the Frankfurt School.  In his treatises and essays he has created a comprehensive vision of modern society and the possibility of freedom within it.

Jacques Derrida  was  [he died in 2004]a French philosopher best known for developing a form of semiotic analysis known as deconstruction.  He is one of the major figures associated with post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy.  He had a significant influence upon the humanities and social sciences, including—in addition to philosophy and literature—law, anthropology, historiography, applied linguistics, ]sociolinguistics, psychoanalysis, political theory, religious studies, feminism, and gay and lesbian studies.  In his later writings, Derrida addressed ethical and political themes in his work.

I am having a difficult time — not in condensing this book into something digestible for you,– but in selecting only one or two themes of these two interesting philosophers.  Especially since I have highlighted almost every line, I can’t just go grab a quote.  I would be quoting the entire book.  Let’s see what I can do.

The book tackles the questions:  What exactly is terrorism, and has it a political content? What has 9/11 to do with globalization? Are we facing a clash of civilizations? Are there chances of stimulating or even institutionalizing intercultural communication?

I found the discussion on what is terrorism to be instructive, as it made it clear that terrorism is not a state activity, but an individual one, and that it would seem that terrorism always has to do with religion — fundamentalism or extremism — in some form.  Both philosophers contend that terrorism is an elusive, ambiguous, reversible concept, a social construction – Derrida reminds the reader that the French “resistants” were labeled “terrorists” by the Germans during World War Two – but analyze it from a different perspective : Habermas “reconstructs” terrorism as manifested on September 11, in order to show that this terrorism, in opposition to national liberation movements, is deprived from any political content. Consequently, Habermas fervently denounces the current American “war against terrorism” designation, because it gives political legitimation to terrorism and, at the same time, reflects an “overreaction” against an unknown enemy. Derrida, on the other hand, claims that the deconstruction of the “concept” terrorism is the only politically responsible approach to terrorism, since the media, the officials and public use of the concept as a self-evident notion, manifests the democracies’ vulnerability and perversely serves the terrorist cause, by giving it “visibility”.

Derrida agrees  with Habermas in defense of the Enlightenment principles and even sides with cosmopolitanism as theorized by Kant himself. Both Habermas and Derrida refer to Kant’s Perpetual Peace, which anticipated the possibility of transforming classical international law into a new cosmopolitan order.  But, in order to achieve the full transition to cosmopolitanism, both thinkers agree that international law and the decisions taken by the international community should be respected. In this respect, Habermas and Derrida strongly denounced the American serious failings with regard to these commitments and especially during the deliberations prior their decision to wage a war against Iraq.

There was some really intriguing discussion of the concepts of tolerance, hospitality and forgiveness,  with the idea being that tolerance is bestowed by someone or some institution which considers itself superior to those people or situations to which it grants tolerance, while hospitality can be considered in two forms:  invited guests and unexpected guests.  I found this particularly apt in today’s current political climate of non-welcoming of immigrants and refugees.

I found it necessary to read this in small readings.  It was too much to absorb in  big chunks.   I highly recommend it if you like contemplating the larger, meta ideas.




PHILOSOPHY IN CLASSICAL INDIA: An Introduction and Analysis by Jonardon Ganeri

Lest you think that all I read are mid-twentieth century noir detective stories, I bring you…. ta-da ….. philosophy.  I read a while ago an article which I now cannot find, the gist of which was our idea of philosophy is western-centric.  It is all about Aristotle, Plato, Hegel, Kant, etc. etc. with nothing about Eastern philosophy, which we tend to dismiss as ‘religion’, or ‘mysticism’,  not ‘philosophy’.

Gameri, a Fellow of the British Academy,  has set out to set us straight on this by way of this original work which focuses on the rational principles of Indian philosophical theory, rather than the mysticism more usually associated with it. Ganeri explores the philosophical projects of a number of major Indian philosophers and looks into the methods of rational inquiry deployed within these projects. In so doing, he illuminates a network of mutual reference, criticism, influence and response, in which reason is used to call itself into question. This fresh perspective on classical Indian thought unravels new philosophical paradigms, and points towards new applications for the concept of reason.

Some of that is from the official blurb, and it explains it very well.  This was certainly interesting reading, a lot of it concerning how to think about how to think.  Consciousness, ideation,  and what makes a rational thought.  Made me think of AI and how possibly we are approaching the task of trying to teach a robot to think when we don’t ourselves know how we think.

Just one quote for you, should you be in the mood for some mind bending:

… a sophisticated theory of content.  It is alleged that a person witnessing a mirage does not see the refracted sun’s rays, even if in the right sort of physical connection with them.  Neither does he see water, for there is none to be seen.  Someone witnessing a mirage does not see anything, but only seems to see water.  And a person who witnesses a ball of dust in the distance does not see the dust if he is uncertain whether it is dust or smoke.  An object is not seen if it is not seen distinctly.

So when you ‘see’ a mirage of water, you are not seeing the water, because there is no water to see, and you are not seeing the defracted particles, because they have been converted into the ‘water’.  What exactly are you ‘seeing’?

How do you teach an AI about mirages?


This is the definitive biography of Albert Einstein.  At least, that is what the blurb tells us, and after having read it, I can say it sure is a dandy, definitive or no.

How did his mind work? What made him a genius? Isaacson’s biography shows how his scientific imagination sprang from the rebellious nature of his personality. His fascinating story is a testament to the connection between creativity and freedom.

Based on newly released personal letters of Einstein, this book explores how an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk—a struggling father in a difficult marriage who couldn’t get a teaching job or a doctorate—became the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos, the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom, and the universe. His success came from questioning conventional wisdom and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals.

These traits are just as vital for this new century of globalization, in which our success will depend on our creativity, as they were for the beginning of the last century, when Einstein helped usher in the modern age.

Issacson obviously admires Einstein tremendously, and the book is filled with all kinds of trivia about his personal life, in which he emerges as the quintessential absent minded profressor, as well as an emotionally distant family man.  He was married twice, and Issaacson seems to dance around the issue of his many affairs.  He was something of a womanizer,  and was married twice.

The book is also filled with lots and lots of explanations of his theories and the quantum concepts, which I really loved as much as the info on his personal life.  He really did say God doesn’t play dice!  Who knew.  I thought that was just one of those internet memes somebody made up.

What I especially found fascinating was the fact that he developed his theories from visualization in his head … thought experiments, …. rather than from mathematical equations.  In fact, he disliked mathematics, and often acquired coworkers to do the math stuff for him.

Great book, extremely readable, wonderful especially considering the esoteric target of Einstein’s genius.