Saturday, October 5, 2013

Book Review : "Among the Mad" by Jacqueline Winspear (a Maisie Dobbs mystery)

Among the Mad (Maisie Dobbs, #6)Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't know if the Maisie Dobbs books fall in the 'chicklit' category or not, but I have a secret weakness for them. I am reading this one on my fancy new Kindle, which is skinnier than I would ever have thought possible. Life is good.

The burning question, of course, remains the same. Will this be the book where Maisie finally gets laid? Will she even get a chaste peck on the cheek? Lord knows, it's time - it's been 14 years since the end of the Great War, and the shell-shocked fiance who was confined to the loony bin was killed off a few books back. Surely, even the virtuous, feisty, wise Maisie HAS NEEDS.

But I'm not holding my breath. Much as I enjoy Jacqueline Winspear, it's clear by now that she's more interested in studding her books with those colorful period details mined from the bowels of the Bodleian than broaching a topic as indelicate as allowing Maisie a bit of nookie more than once a decade.

Not that we don't enjoy those lovingly researched period details - they warm the cockles of our BBC/Masterpiece Theatre/PBS-loving hearts. In general, Ms Winspear has a fairly light touch. Her books are fun to read, and this latest instalment is no exception. It seems churlish to point out that it would have been better to relegate the whole dead baby/bereaved mother subplot to whatever Dickens story it escaped from. A writer as talented as Ms Winspear has no need to resort to that kind of emotional manipulation.

added, July 16th, 2010:

Now that I've had a few days to digest "Among the Mad", I feel I should add that I think it's one of the best in the series. The main plot (escalating acts of terrorism by a wounded WWI veteran, involving the release of nerve gas, first targeting members of the government, then the general public, with a down-to-the-wire manhunt to find him before his planned New Year's Eve finale) could be taken from today's headlines. The slow buildup of tension is extremely well done - Winspear has a gift for pacing, and her account of the interactions among the various parties involved in the chase (Scotland Yard, the Special Branch, government research labs, Maisie and her assistant) is entirely convincing.

You could turn on your TV on any given Tuesday evening and find an episode of NCIS* whose plot is virtually identical to that of "Among the Mad". The forensics would be much glitzier, and the threat would be some kind of bio-weapon, but the themes and issues explored would be remarkably similar. We are used to thinking of Ms Winspear as someone who brings the past to life in her stories - the themes explored in this particular story still resonate in 2010.

*: another guilty pleasure of mine; comparison with NCIS should be considered as high praise (but it's frankly a relief that Maisie Dobbs doesn't have an iphone, particularly if you're a closet Luddite like me).

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Hannibal Lecter's Bedside Table (not for the squeamish)

On Wednesday, I went with my friend Ai to visit the Museum of Medical History at the Sorbonne. It was a stark reminder that we can be glad we actually live in the age in which we do -- some of the exhibits were downright grisly. Here are some of the tamer items on display:

a rather dashing prosthetic hand, from the 17th (?) century

the less said here, the better

a surgeon's battlefield kit, from the Napoleonic era

with a rather dashing surgeon's hat.

The Victorian obsession with trepanning was well-represented.

And we were reminded that the very first chainsaw was developed for "medical" purposes (for performing Caesarean sections, if you must know). See also the first few minutes of this episode of QI:

Here's a rather charming olde-worlde hearing aid

Need some headphones for your new Apple gadget?

Or would you like to figure out just what horrific ocular ailment you have?

But - hands down - by far the creepiest item on display at the medical museum was this initially fairly innocuous-looking table:

Hmm. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Yes! That's right! The delightful inlay is made up entirely of human body parts.

And there, I think, we can safely leave the matter. Be thankful that I spared you the equipment for removing kidney stones.

But if you are really curious, more photos can be found below. Be warned, you click on that link AT YOUR OWN RISK:

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Glorious Week in the City of Light (Part 1)

I am in the middle of a two-week break from classes, as I get the distinct impression that once classes (finally!) begin at the Sorbonne, things will get quite busy. There will be homework assignments, for example, in addition to an average of 4 hours lectures/phonetics lab a day. Last week the weather was gorgeous, so I thought I would just upload some photos, with a little bare commentary. I don't feel up to piercing commentary on French social mores just yet -- maybe later on in my stay.

On Monday, I had to check in at the building where our classes will be held, to do the mandatory level placement test. I was somewhat taken aback at the relatively young age of the others doing the test, and at their relatively low level of French (judging from their questions). But the professor who administered the oral exam was encouraging, indicating that "at your level", there will be a higher level of "mature students". I do hope she is right; nothing against twenty-somethings, but they tend to socialize when others of us are already tucking up in bed. Anyway, the building where classes will be held seems pleasant enough:

After the test, I walked all the way home, through the Jardin de Luxembourg:

As I approached this fountain, it was still turned off, but then this little guy appeared, winked at me, and vanished underground to turn it on, as if he were doing so just for me!

If I am not mistaken, this is a statue of Mary Queen of Scots. Not sure how she ended up in the Luxembourg.

Back past the Palace of Justice

and these animal guardians of the Marais

in time for an aperitif at one of my local caf├ęs:

This iconic fountain, known as a Wallace fountain, was just feet from my table; in fact the waiter was concerned I might get splashed. They are dotted all over Paris, and have an interesting history, which you can read about here

Well, that's probably enough for one post. To be continued ...

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Expat Survival Strategies : the BBC on YouTube

No matter how much fun it is exploring life in a foreign city, there are times when you yearn for the comforts of home. In my experience, Sundays can be particularly tricky -- sometimes you wake up missing home, and the day seems to stretch ahead of you interminably. But I have developed some coping strategies (as you do). One of the things that keeps me entertained, and without which my life would be distinctly poorer, is the availability of fresh episodes of some of my favorite BBC programs on YouTube. Not talking about "Doctor Who" or "Broadchurch" or "Sherlock Holmes" or "Downton Abbey" here (these last two are actually available on French TV, which is otherwise forgettable, except of course for the weekly Friday night "NCIS" marathon). No, it's the smart and often hilarious quiz and panel shows that keep me happy.

My three particular favorites are:

QI, hosted by the inimitable Stephen Fry:

Only Connect, the world's toughest quiz, hosted by the delightful poker wizard, Victoria Coren Mitchell:

and the slightly more juvenile, but always funny, Mock the Week, hosted by my compatriot, Dara O' Brian:

On those cloudy Sunday afternoons, when I miss my friends in SF (and my kitty), these fine programs help cheer me up enormously.

Why not give them a try? You might enjoy them too.