Review of The Maltese Falcon: The Quintessential Film Noir; In Book Form

Nowadays, pretty much any major movie hitting theaters comes with a novelization. Typically these are shot-for-shot, line-for-line remakes spread over a few hundred pages. They’re probably for those that think the book is always better than the movie, and a nice way to earn a little extra dough from existing properties.

If you’ve seen the movie, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett comes across as one of these books. While it preceded the Humphrey Bogart movie by 11 years, if you’ve seen the film you’ve read the book, well, nearly so. This is, by no means, a bad thing. The movie is first-rate, the pinnacle of the film-noir detective story – hard-bitten detective, damsel in distress, mysterious foreigner, and promise of riches bought at the cost of your life – it’s all here. The movie is nearly a complete recreation of Hammett’s book, making it difficult to review the one without touching on the other. So I won’t try.

[quote position=”right”]“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.”[/quote]

The book itself is very visual. Characters are drawn rather than expressed. Sam Spade, the smooth, calm detective at the center of the novel, is made of evocative Vs, the V of his shoulders and upper body, and particularly his cold, V-shaped smile. Hammett evocatively describes Spade as “rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.” Heck, one of the main villain’s, a rotund man of genial humor is named “Mr. Gutman”.

As you’ve guessed, this is not a subtle book. Actions are clearly defined. If a character’s motives are not, you can be sure, at the least, they’re no good. The story isn’t complex and surprises are few. Emotions are shown rather than felt: a trembling hand, a guttural swear, and, most often, a cold stare.

The book moves swiftly and the mystery easily excites attention. Honestly, if there is one failing of either, it’s that the film is not even more faithful to its source. Sam Spade in the novel is similarly smooth to Bogart’s depiction, but he’s also harsher and almost cruelly detached. The setting of the book is darker, smokier, and more sinister. Everything, and everyone, gets tied up into ominous knots. In Spade’s office, early in the book, “ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.”

A general sense of malevolence permeates the pages. Without spilling the beans, the book sets up Spade’s actions in the end much better. The movie ends with everything neatly tied up, the sharp detective seeing justice is done. The book ends on a darker note. One of the last times we hear of Sam Spade: “His voice was not loud. It was bitter. Sam went out and slammed the door.”

Review of Cat Sense: Deconstructing the modern cat; with only partial success

I’m a cat owner. My little Sasha is a bundle of fur, energy, and perplexing behaviour. Cat Sense, which promised to unravel my feline friend, peaked my interest. Written by an anthrozoologist, John Bradshaw, the book covers the past, present, and possible future of the common feline. It’s a compelling read, and worth the time of the considerate cat owner, though it isn’t perfect.

The book is structured in roughly three sections: past, present, and future.

The Past

The history section is an entertaining read. In the ancient world, cats were revered as personifications of the gods, inspiring religious cults from Greece to Egypt. In the Middle Ages, they were viewed as the devil incarnate and actively persecuted. Many believe that killing cats probably helped spread the black plague since rodents, prime carriers of the disease, could reproduce unchecked. Bradshaw notes this is probably true, though likely exaggerated.

The evolutionary side is less interesting, partly because the  genetic lineage is quite muddled but also because the narrative meanders too much.

The Present

[quote position=”right” cite=”John Bradshaw, Cat Sense”]”The meow is usually directed at people… Cats need to meow because we humans are generally so unobservant.”[/quote]

The second part, looking at the present-day cat, explores everything from cat physiology, early feline development, to how cats manage manage relations with humans and other cats. It even explores the question: “Do cats have feelings?” (They do, probably.) Bradshaw supports many of these sections with his own personal cat experience, which adds levity but helps cloak one nagging issue with this book. Despite the subtitle, “The New Feline Science”, there doesn’t seem to be much depth to feline science. While the book seeks to explain many common feline behaviors with the latest research, this is often one or two studies with tiny sample-sizes. Bradshaw routinely notes there’s just not enough evidence to reach solid conclusions. While the transparency is commendable, it makes it harder to become “…a Better Friend to Your Pet” as the subtitle concludes.

Playing for cats still closely mimics hunting, unlike dogs, which have abstracted play far from the original intent.
Playing for cats still closely mimics hunting, unlike dogs, which have abstracted play far from the original intent.

This section could also be better organized. Many earlier chapters cover similar ground, so the same points are often reiterated. Nonetheless, there is some interesting content here. Particularly compelling is how significant the first few weeks of kitten-hood are on the personality and habits of a cat. Delaying human interaction with a kitten by only a few weeks can make it much less friendly toward humans for the rest of its life. Bradshaw also provides an intriguing and balanced summary of the controversial impact non-native cats have on local wildlife.

The Future

Due to breeding preferences, the future may be cloudy for our furry little friends.
Due to breeding preferences, the future may be cloudy for our furry little friends.

Lastly, Bradshaw looks into the crystal ball of human behavior and cat genetics to get a sense of where the common feline is heading. Unlike dogs, which evolved over thousands of years in close quarters with humans, cats are a recent addition to human households. As such, they’ve had less time to develop the emotional and behavioral cues that make dogs such exceptional pets. And cats may not get the chance. Bradshaw notes widespread spaying and neutering means feral cats are more likely to reproduce, selecting against traits ideal for domestication. Furthermore, human-managed breeding is often done for appearance rather than behavior. Without more pressure to select domestic-friendly traits, Bradshaw sees a cloudy future for the domestic cat.

Despite the deficiencies, if you’d like to get a better sense of where your cat is coming from, Cat Sense is worthwhile read. It may not be the manual decoding your cat’s behavior the subtitle suggests, but it will give you a better understanding of where your cat came from, and where its brethren are likely heading. Hopefully more researchers will take up the study of our inscrutable feline friends, filling in the many gaps in our understanding that Bradshaw brings to light.

The Black Nile: One Man’s Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World’s Longest River

[image src=”” caption=”The Black Nile: One Man’s Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World’s Longest River” align=”left”]

While the The Black Nile‘s subtitle boasts, “One Man’s Amazing Journey…”, a cliched line that probably should be forbidden from any future use, it is nonetheless quite accurate. Tracing the waters of the Nile from Uganda to Egypt, Morrison brings us on a journey not only across thousands of miles of Africa but also through a vast diversity of peoples and their rich and often troubled history. Weaving recent and historical events with the story of his own journey he provides an unique window onto a part of the world all too easily and often ignored. Furthermore, he casts light onto the diverse forces at play behind the conflicts that occasionally make headlines in Western newspapers. What many often portray in simplistic terms as strife between Christianity and Islam, Morrison exposes as complex and fluid allegiances and schisms. Often these are less about religious differences and more about the dynamics between the wealthy and poor, those in power and those outside, competing tribes and families, and other fault lines.

The book’s core however is really a travelogue, and it moves at a swift and compelling pace. The first half of the book focused largely on the interplay between Morrison and a long-time friend who has joined him on the first leg of the journey. During his recounting of their procession up the Nile he delves into their personal histories, the author’s work as a journalist stringer and his friend’s easy life working in a resort in the United States and frequent trips to the bottom of a bottle. Unable to get a visa into Sudan, and burnt-out from the oppressive heat and relentless insects, his friend leaves Morrison midway into the narrative. Once alone, Morrison spends more time examining the people he meets, the history of the places he visits, and on his own reactions to the situations he encounters.

The narration is occasionally gritty, making the rugged, unpredictable, and often sad lives of the people he meets tangible. Sometimes this tangibility is off-putting, reducing people to the mere the functions of their bodies. More often however the realism of the situation stands in contrast to these people’s humble perseverance. Simple dichotomies, between good and bad, friends and enemies are turned on their heads when presumed enemies are gracious and welcoming.

“Life in extremity is difficult to explain-things happen and people don’t know why they are happening. Some events were fortunate and others were disastrous and that’s how it went.”

There are no simple answers in the book. The alliances he examines are constantly reshaped and reevaluated. The landscape similarly is in constant flux, changed by logging, droughts, and streams of garbage. Massive dams threaten rich farmland and traditional ways of life, while bringing much needed electricity and development to impoverished towns and cities. This book raises questions, answers a few of them, and leaves a lasting impression.

False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World

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False Economy, a new book by Financial Times writer Alan Beattie is both ambitious in its geographic and historical scope and quite reserved in drawing monumental judgments. Written for a the general reader, it is light on the economic theory and, when raised, explained clearly and succinctly.

The book’s basic treatise could be summarized thus: a nation’s economic fortunes rise or fall based on a wide variety of variables, typically due to domestic actions and often not those promoted by conventional wisdom. Over the course of the book, Beattie rejects many oft-blamed reasons for nations staying poor: religion, culture, natural resources and other such stalwarts. His reasoning is frequently compelling, rarely relying on abstract economic theory, instead elucidating his point through provocatively eye-opening examples.

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