Duck Duck Book

44 – water room
04.8.2007, 12:03 am
Filed under: fiction

The water room / Christopher Fowler.
New York : Bantam Books, 2005.
[MCL call number: MYSTERY FOWLER; seven copes, no holds]

One interesting (and perhaps disturbing) feature of cities is their wholehearted subjugation of the natural environments they replace. Of course any group of people taxes natural resources — water, air, fuel, food, and so on — but a city’s high concentration of people in a small space over a period of time produces such an intense use of resources that it is impossible for the local natural environment to continue in its original course.

Many cities are built on rivers, or alongside ocean or lake ports. Available water is one of the most basic requirements for human settlements, but when settlements grow into towns and then into cities, people are very quick to interfere with their water sources, in various ways and for various reasons. Perhaps one of the most common ways is to divert, drain, or bury any water that is in the way of development. The city is built to seem as if none of this has happened, but underneath the streets and houses and parks and office buildings, much of that water is still there.

The mystery in The Water Room is predicated on the continuing existence of rivers underneath the city of London, and on their continuing ability to exert pressure on the fabric of the city. As the book opens, Detectives John May and Arthur Bryant are occupied with the project of re-forming London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, a small and decidedly unorthodox police unit which investigates freaky things — kind of like a more sedate, more intellectual, and tweedier version of The X Files.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit has no assigned cases, and when an old friend comes to Bryant with news of his elderly sister’s odd and sudden death, Bryant seizes on the project of puzzling out what happened. How did she drown in water from the River Thames, sitting up in a chair, fully dressed and tidy as can be, in her own completely dry basement? Soon the entire unit is occupied with researching Egyptian mythology and Victorian spiritualism, tracking the history of local buildings, questioning the deceased’s neighbors, tailing a wayward academic as he travels to clandestine meetings with gritty underworld types, and of course opening up sewer grates and wandering around underground. The rivers become major characters in the story, and like any truly three-dimensional and well-written characters, they are complex and unpredictable even as they become familiar and interesting to the reader.

[thanks, Mary Lou]

* * *

For those of you who want to read another mystery featuring London’s underground rivers, try the Lord Peter Wimsey / Harriet Vane mystery Thrones, Dominations, by Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh (St. Martin’s Press, c1998; mentioned in a review of another Paton Walsh novel in Duck Duck Book number 34). Or, for a nonfiction discussion, consult N. J. Barton’s The Lost Rivers of London : A Study of Their Effects Upon London and Londoners and the Effects of London and Londoners Upon Them (Phoenix House, 1962, and Historical Publications, 1992; reviewed in Duck Duck Book number 20).


44 – kurosagi corpse delivery
04.8.2007, 12:02 am
Filed under: comix, fiction

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service [comic book series] / story, Eiji Otshuka ; art, Housui Yamazaki ; translation, Toshifumi Yoshida ; editor and English adaptation, Carl Gustav Horn ; lettering and touch-up, IHL.
Publication info. Milwaukie, Or. : Dark Horse, 2006- .
[MCL call number: GN OTSUKA; number of copies and holds vary for each volume]

As you no doubt know if you pay attention to popular culture, anyone who has a special, secret gift is in danger of finding himself starring in a comic book. It’s just one of those things.

Kuro Karatsu is a relatively uninspired student at a Buddhist university who is in need of a job. While looking at the university career center’s bulletin board, he hooks up with a group of fellow students who volunteer to chant prayers for the dead. Of course, it turns out they all have unusual abilities that combine to make them especially suited to the work of moving dead bodies around so that their restless spirits can find peace before shuffling off to the afterlife.

Karatsu’s secret turns out to be an uncanny ability to communicate with the recently dead, if he touches them. The rest of the crew have interesting talents as well: Numata is a dowser — only instead of locating water underground, he zeroes in on hidden dead bodies. Sasaki is a computer hacker who makes small change selling pictures of dead bodies on the internet. Makino spent some time studying abroad and learned the embalming trade (rare in Japan, where most people are cremated), and Yata channels a perky alien through a vaguely fish-shaped hand puppet.

In the first episode, Karatsu and his comrades attempt to reunite a suicide victim with his lover, who has also killed herself. They find that the work is both fulfilling and lucrative, and so their de facto mastermind, Sasaki, sets them up as a business concern: Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, “your body is their business!” And more adventures ensue in good time. The story is told with a light hand, and even though many of the details are grim, the overall feeling of the comic is upbeat. It is definitely low-impact reading, but I found it just weird and charming enough to hold my interest.

* * *

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is translated from the Japanese, but in a way, it is not completely translated. Comics are a visual medium, and since one of the systems for writing the Japanese language is in vertical lines, read right to left (the other way is written just like English), the panels of the comic are laid out accordingly — right to left, top to bottom. The book’s front cover has the spine on the right side to accommodate this. I found it fairly simple to acclimate myself to the visual structure (maybe I’m used to being confused; I often have trouble figuring out which panel comes next in comics that were composed in English), but it did feel weird at first.

In any case, don’t worry: if you open the book backwards, you will find a helpful set of manga-reading instructions inserted by the U.S. publishers. The back of the book also contains an explanation of the history of the different Japanese writing systems and their use in manga, and a very thorough and helpful glossary to sound effects (which are mostly written in the text in Japanese, outside the word bubbles). There readers will find, among other things, that “batan” is the sound of a headless body hitting the floor; and that when Yata’s puppet’s mouth flaps it makes the noise “paku paku,” which is the sound that the video game Pac-Man is named for.

44 – traditional american farming
04.8.2007, 12:01 am
Filed under: technology

Traditional American farming techniques : a ready reference on all phases of agriculture for farmers of the United States and Canada / Frank D. Gardner ; introduction by James R. Babb.
Guildord, Conn. : Lyons Press, 2001, c1916.
[MCL call number: 630 G226t 2001; one copy, no holds]

If you were a farmer, or planning to be one, in 1916, you would have been wise to consult Frank D. Gardner’s book, Successful Farming (reprinted here, unabridged, as Traditional American Farming Techniques).  It covered every aspect of agricultural planning and management in astonishing detail and plain language.  No matter the specifics of your interest — beekeeping, growing gooseberries, tree farming, whatever — Gardner wrote something helpful that you needed to know.  He covered the economics of farming (different types of tenancy, how to maintain your books, marketing and profit margins, capitalization), the practicalities of choosing your crop and then growing it successfully, agricultural education, soil management, the integration of the farm as a business and a home, and many other topics, enough to fill more than a thousand pages.

It seems that the information in Successful Farming might be old and not irrelevant today, since the book is ninety years old.  But so much of the information in it is basic and practical that it is hard to imagine a time when the book would cease to be helpful for gardeners and farmers — for example, the illustration showing a worker turning under a cover crop of clover with a horse-drawn plow in preparation for planting cotton (page 336) is quaint indeed, but the essence of Gardner’s advice about managing productive land with cover crops remains as current as ever.

So, if you need to plan a system of farm bookkeeping, if you are deciding on the placement of the house relative to the chicken coops and the shed where you keep the tractor, if you need to know how many pounds of beet seed should be planted in an acre plot, if you wonder about the best system for pruning a quince tree, or if you need practical information on draining a soggy field, you will find your answers here.  The very latest and up-to-date scientific information and labor-saving techniques of 1916 turn out to be very useful for solving many of today’s problems as well; and unsurprisingly, it is a pleasure to learn from the experience of those who have gone before us.

Traditional American Farming Techniques has no index, which is most unfortunate, but the level of detail in the table of contents should make up for most of this deficiency, especially since the chapters are grouped into logical sections.