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April 27, 2021

How to choose a murder mystery when you're in a hurry

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Stanley Fish, in a New York Times Op-Ed essay, explained how to choose a mystery when you only have a couple minutes in the airport bookstore before boarding stops and the gate closes.

Hint: Not by its cover.

Here's the excellent piece.

Murder, I Read

You're at the mystery section of an airport bookstore and the loudspeaker has just announced that your flight is in the late stages of boarding. You have maybe three or four minutes to make a choice. (That is your assignment, if you choose to accept it.) How do you go about deciding?

Look at the back cover? No, back-cover copy is written by an advertising flack who probably hasn't read the book and is trying for something short and punchy like (and I will be making none of this up) "As unpredictable as trade winds" or "It couldn't get any worse. Until it does." Besides, rarely will the style of back-cover prose be anything like the style of the book itself, so reading it won't tell you what you want to know.

Depending on your taste, it might tell you something usefully negative. The moment I spot a reference to any country but this one, I move on. No international settings for me. Ditto for any promise that the book I am holding will be funny. Funny is for sitcoms and stand-up comedians. When it comes to mysteries, I'm a Matthew Arnold guy, all for high seriousness.

How about the blurbs, especially if a few of your favorites are touting the merits of an author new to you? I used to take direction from blurbs until I told a very famous mystery writer that he was right to have praised a book I had bought on his authority. He replied that he didn’t remember it, probably hadn't read it, and was no doubt doing a favor for his publisher. Members of that club, it seems, pass blurbs out to each other like party favors.

The only thing left — and this is sure-fire — is to read the first sentence. The really bad ones leap out at you. Here's one that has the advantage of being short (you can close the book quickly): "He cut through the morning rush-hour crowd like a shark fin through water." Enough said. Here's one that begins O.K., except for the heroine's name, but then goes on a beat and a half too long: "Brianne Parker didn't look like a bank robber or a murderer — her pleasantly plump baby face fooled everyone." You don't need the stuff after the dash. Brianne's not looking like a murderer is the hook that draws you in to find out why she is one. The "pleasantly plump baby face" bit lets you off the hook and dumps you on a cliché, which might be all right if the author gave any sign of knowing that it was one. This guy is going to hit false notes for 300 pages, but I won't be listening.

Sometimes a first sentence is bad because it's pretentious. "Some stories wait to be told." That’s an opening Tolstoy or Jane Austen might have considered (although they would have produced superior versions of it). But mystery writers usually aren't Tolstoys or Austens, and a first sentence like this one is a signal (buyer beware) that the author is intent on contemplating his or her "craft" and wants you to contemplate it too. No thanks.

Time is running out, the doors will soon be closing. Here's something much better: "Stromose was in high school when he met the boy who would someday murder his wife and son." High marks for compression, information, and what I call the "angle of lean." A good first sentence knows about everything that will follow it and leans forward with great force, taking you with it. As you read this one you already want to find out (a) what was the relationship between the two in high school (b) what happened that turned a "boy" into a murderer, and (c) what sequence of events led to his murdering these particular people? The only thing wrong is that the author is as impressed with the sentence as he wants you to be; it is written with a snap and a click of self-satisfaction.

And here, finally, is the real thing, efficient, dense, and free of self-preening: "Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride." The name is nicely cadenced and sounds serious; "eleven years old at the time" takes the seriousness away, but it comes back with a vengeance and with a question: descent into murder, how did that happen? The answer — "with a bus ride" — only deepens the mystery, and we're off. And look, the book is big and fat. Sold.

April 27, 2021 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Alexander Calder Online Archive

From Open Culture:

Like all great artists, Alexander Calder left his medium quite unlike he found it.

Nearly 45 years after his death in 1976, Calder's expansion of the realm of sculpture in new directions of form, color, and engineering remains a subject of voluminous discussion, including critic Jed Perl's Calder: The Conquest of Time and Calder: The Conquest of Space, a two-part biography published in full last year.

More recently, a wealth of material has become available that enables us to conduct Calderian investigations of our own: the Calder Foundation's online research archive, which as Hyperallergic's Valentina Di Liscia reports includes "over 1,300 Calder works across different media."

But wait, there's more: the archive also offers "1,000 photographs and archival documents," "48 historic and recent texts by the artist, his contemporaries, and present-day scholars," and "over 40 microsites exploring Calder’s exhibition history."

Pace Gallery, which represents Calder, notes the "new interactive map feature called 'Calder Around the World,' which allows viewers to find public installations of his monumental sculpture in 20 states domestically and 21 countries internationally, including museums with important Calder holdings and permanent and temporary exhibitions dedicated to the artist."

As that map reveals, much of Calder's work currently resides in his homeland of the United States of America, primarily in the northeast where he spent most of his life, but also the California in which he did some growing up — not to mention Paris where he lived for a time and met fellow artists like Marcel Duchamp and Fernand Léger, information about whom also appears in the online archive.

You may locate a Calder near you, even if you live in another region of the world entirely.

Though this ever more extensive Calder Archive can help us understand this most optimistic of all Modernists, there's nothing quite like being in the presence of one of his sculptures.

"Alexander Calder: Modern From the Start," his first big solo exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art since 1969 — 52 years! — is up through August 7 of this year.

April 27, 2021 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Walking Excavators

Res 

ipsa loquitur.

[via Ben Evans]

April 27, 2021 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The end of the Great Wall of China

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From Wikipedia:

Shanhai Pass or Shanhaiguan (simplified Chinese: 山海关; traditional Chinese: 山海關; pinyin: Shānhǎi Guān) is one of the major passes in the Great Wall of China, being the easternmost stronghold along the Ming Great Wall, and commands the narrowest choke point in the Liaoxi Corridor.

The pass is a popular tourist destination at the eastern terminal point of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall.

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The location where the wall meets the Bohai Sea  is nicknamed "Old Dragon's Head" (老龙头). 

The pass lies nearly 300 kilometres (190 mi) east of Beijing.

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More here.

April 27, 2021 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

What is it?

Close

Answer here this time tomorrow.

Hint: smaller than a bread box.

Another: no moving parts.

A third: ceramic.

Another view:

Try again

April 27, 2021 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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