Saturday, December 16, 2017

Mount TBR #58

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – William Irvine

So many people today seem to believe that meaningful and satisfying lives can be achieved only if they have bought the latest version or feel that they are not missing something. But they quickly get past the rush of purchase or being in the know and soon being seeking the next greatest thing. So feeling serenity or satisfaction or fulfillment, they spend all their time working and buying the latest fashionable stuff.

To jump off the treadmill of getting, buying, having, wanting, we could read this book by a college professor in philosophy. It begins with simple arguments that advocate the need for a philosophy of life, or at least an orientation to work, love, friendship, civic duty, etc. Irvine argues that we can develop such a way of thinking with Stoicism, one of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophical schools.

The Stoics emphasized the development of the four virtues: bravery, prudence, wisdom and fairness. One goal of the Stoics was to live frugally since the more shit we have the more we have to take care of, thus distracting us form what is really important like living virtuously. Another goal is to use our reason to maintain tranquility. The more involved we are in other people’s business - like working overtime so the company can simply make more money , like volunteering too much and spreading ourselves thin - the more tumultuous our lives will be. They believed that our reason was the key to freedom from fear, lust, anger, and greed. In our days of non-stop rage fed by social media and communist and fascist bots, this stoic advice about anger really strikes home.

Readers into Albert Ellis or cognitive behavioral therapy will be attracted by the encouragement to determine what is “up to us” – i.e. what we can control (our approaches and responses to inevitable trials and tribulations). Furthermore, we had better stop being anxious about with what we can’t control (our health, wealth, reputation, promotions, the Dotard, etc.), since obsessing and fretting become bad mental habits not to mention stealing joy. Irvine uses examples from his own experience which makes his ideas easy to connect with for readers with health challenges, aging parents, and demanding colleagues.

The lucid prose is easy and a pleasure to read. It presents various useful devices for the toolbox: 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Mount TBR #57

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Fun in a Chinese Laundry – Josef von Sternberg

This autobiography, named after an early Edison movie, is by the director of the 1930 German tragicomedy, The Blue Angel. Also hits but much less known today were six other movies, also starring Marlene Dietrich, such as Morocco and Dishonored and The Devil Is A Woman. Audiences liked these films too in spite of – or maybe because of – a beauty, irony, unease, exoticism and eroticism missing from most Classic Hollywood product,  hackneyed dreck brought about by the code of self-censorship, irony-free Tinsel Town executives, and the pressure to churn movies out like sausage.

This acerbic autobiography is well worth reading for fans into Hollywood during the Twenties and Thirties. He’s reticent about his early years, as many abused children from hard backgrounds and unstable families tend to be. In fact, the more Hollywood books one reads, the more one doubts the Good Old Days ever existed: the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries were not easy for people wo had to scramble for money. \

He must have been an autodidact since he never had time to attend school, but developed his artistic sense with a popular touch by attending amusement parks, magic show, flea circuses, cock fights, etc. His descriptions of travel prove him to be a curious and intrepid travelers eager to see all the low entertainments in various Asian cultures that he experienced on the eve of WWII.

He also reports, tellingly, that when his copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations wore out, he carried around Epictetus’ Handbook for in the moment reading.  His stoic acceptance must have influenced his worldly realism to take the world as it comes and control only what was up to him. This responsible attitude was to serve him well on the chaos of a movie set. Also stoic is his sense that life is a test of self-respect and faith – in his case, the faith that good work is possible even in the crass dream factory of Hollywood. His sense of duty to do his utmost despite the odds calls mind Marcus Aurelius’ admirable albeit boy-scoutish injunctions.

Even if Von Sternberg’s work ethic dates him, his honesty is searing – he tells it the way he sees it. He worked with Emil Jannings on The Last Command (1928). Sternberg found Jannings hard to manage” “To direct a child was one thing, but when the youngster weighs close to three hundred pounds it is not easy to laugh at all his pranks.” Sternberg claims this movie made William Powell a star despite the unsympathetic role he played, but humble-brags that Powell later inserted in his contracts the stipulation that he would never be assigned to a Sternberg set again.

Von Sternberg also writes that on the set of The Devil Is A Woman Joel McCrea “managed to survive meeting me, fled in terror after his first scene with me, and I had to replace him with another 6-footer.” He does not mention that he almost killed McCrea by requiring 35 takes of him ordering a glass of water. McCrea refused to continue, even after Dietrich enlightened him that there was nothing personal about being subjected to Von’s perfectionism. “He speaks to me in German and calls me an old cow,” Dietrich said. “Ignore him.”

Clearly, like Alfred Hitchcock, von Sternberg treated thespians like cattle, also referring to Marlene Dietrich, "No puppet in the history of the world has been submitted to as much manipulation as a leading lady of mine...." Despite his cold manipulative ways and biting sarcasm, he became known as a woman’s director. And like Woody Allen, he doesn't seem to care if his movies will be remembered or not, pleased by the chance to work.

Anyway, lots of good stories - especially about the emotional breakdown of Charles Laughton during the filming of I, Claudius - in sometimes forbidding prose from the last director, a la Cecil B. DeMille’s dressing up, who wore high boots, riding britches, a shooting jacket, and, at times, a silk turban.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Three Sisters Flew Home

Three Sisters Flew Home - Mary Fitt, 1936

I’ve read only two mysteries by Mary Fitt, the other being Death andPleasant Voices. Even with little evidence, I have to conclude that though she was writing at the same time as Christie and Sayers, her stories don’t have the familiar elements of the Golden Age mystery. It takes a long time to get a corpse. No clues. No red herrings. No detective so no detecting. Nothing cozy that I can see, except that the action occurs in country houses filled with the rich, good-looking, and glamorous.

In fact, this story ends with the death of the character that we readers knew all along would be the vic. A cruel female artist invites her admirers, hangers-on, and enemies to a New Year’s Eve party. The guests include the enigmatic three sisters of the title. Each of the guests has a motive to knock her off. They play The Murder Game in the dark. In short, it is inevitable that the cruel artist will get her fatal come-uppance.

Inevitability is what Mary Fitt explores, as well as the psychology of women and the interplay of characters who are educated beyond their intelligence.  Kathleen Freeman (1879-1959) was educated at the University College of South Wales (Cardiff). She lectured there in the Greek classics from 1919 to 1946. English crime fiction writer H.R.F. Keating said, “As might be expected from a lecturer in Classical Greek, the novels of Mary Fitt are patently the product of a cultivated mind. A character in them is likely to comment on a situation with the words ‘as in Turgeniev’, and the reader is expected to pick up the allusion.”

Clearly, the novels of Mary Fitt are not for every reader. She’d be appreciated by readers who like academic mysteries by writers such as Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake, or Josephine Tey.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, 2017

The War Complex: WWII in Our Time – Marianna Torgovnick

For about twenty years, historians have examining how members of Anglo- American cultures collectively remember war and its consequences. Examples are Sarah Purcell’s Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory inRevolutionary America and David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The CivilWar in American Memory. English professors have also taken on collective memory, such as Paul Fussell’s incredible  The Great War and Modern Memory.

English professor at Duke Marianna Torgovnick studies WWII as a cultural touchstone, especially in light of the Bush administration invoking it as a rallying exhortation in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In a series of essays she covers topics such as D-Day, Adolf Eichmann, the Shoah, WWII films such as Saving Private Ryan, and the fiction of W. S. Sebald. Mercifully, she keeps the jargon of Theory out, so the general reader can follow her line of thinking. For instance:
The war complex . . . is the difficulty of confronting the fact of mass, sometimes simultaneous, death caused by human volition under state or other political auspices, in shorter and shorter periods of time, and affecting not only the military but also, and even more, civilians . . . The war complex shows up as gaps or ellipses in public discourses around histories of quick, technological mass death.
As an example of mass death she cites the “Taipei Rebellion,” which I think an editor should have caught and corrected to the “Taiping Rebellion,” a little-known civil war that killed about 20 million men, women, and children between 1850 and 1864 in China. I’ve often wondered how (and why) English professors have cottoned to the philosophy of Sigmund Freud so it was interesting to see her examination of Freud’s idea about the altered state of consciousness produced by large-scale war and its lasting effects beyond the end of hostilities.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Big Clock

The Big Clock – Kenneth Fearing

This inverted mystery was made into two movies, The Big Clock in 1946 and No Way Out in 1987. It was a best-seller when it was released in 1946 and has morphed into a cult classic since the late Forties, so the New York Review of Books published it in 2006 as one of its well-regarded re-issues.

I don’t want to risk spoiling this unique noir mystery with a plot description. Suffice to say, this “whodunit in reverse” provides plenty of surprising plot twists. What really sets this novel apart is the intelligent satire of corporate conformity. In the late Forties and early Fifties many social critics, malcontents, and beatniks were expressing their distaste for the Organization Man. Fearing gets in his whacks, as a characters describes the ideal writer for Futureways, a take-off on a Time-Life type of weekly magazine:

First place, you’ve got to believe you’re shaping something. Destiny, for example. And then you’d better not do anything to attract attention to yourself. It’s fatal to come up with a new idea, for instance, and it’s fatal not to have any at all, see what I mean? And above all, it’s dangerous to turn in a piece of finished copy. Everything has to be serious, and pending. Understand?

Another interesting theme is existentialism, another intellectual fad after WWII. The narrator of most of the chapters is George Stroud. Like a character in a Simenon novel set in New England in the Fifties (see here), he leads a routine tepid existence, not stunted but not contented either. Rejecting the illusion that life gives a “big prize,” he thinks, “The big clock ran everywhere, overlooked no one, omitted no one, forgot nothing, remembered nothing, knew nothing. Was nothing. “ Wanting to beat the big clock, he takes the usual Simenon way out by having an affair. When his adventuress-mistress is murdered, George finds himself facing that darn old hostile universe.

This is an excellent novel that I’d recommend to any reader into vintage mysteries.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Case of the One-Eyed Witness

The Case of the One-Eyed Witness – Erle Stanley Gardner

What distinguishes The Case of the One-Eyed Witness from the other 81 Perry Mason novels churned out by, in the author's own words, the Gardner Fiction Factory? This question must be answered, not for us Perry fans who will read any of them -- or heaven help us re-read them -- but for novices careful with their time and attention.

The Millennial generation, social observers assert, feels nostalgic for the Nineties. This is consistent with the tendency for us post-moderns to be nostalgic about the era just before and just after we were born. So for me, born in the Fifties, that would be what Gore Vidal called America’s Golden Age, 1939 to 1954, from WWII to the Cold War.

The Case of the One-Eyed Witness opens with so much antique Americana that we readers wonder if this is some post-modern author overdoing the period detail: movie theaters full on week-nights, drugstore soda fountains, nickels for a pay-phone, and an LA night club with a live orchestra, a floor show, a hat-check girl, a photograph girl, and a cigarette girl. People sport retro names like Medford, Myrtle, Clark, Arthman, and Carlton. They use vintage Americanisms “in a blue funk,” “thimblerig,” “look all over hell’s half acre,” and “You’ve got a lot of crust to….” As in Mad Men everybody smokes; in fact, Mason smokes Raleighs.

It’s not all cheesy nostalgia. In The Case of the One-Eyed Witness Perry and Paul’s investigation uncovers a racket engaged in human trafficking, a problem that has hardly gone away. They also expose a con that depends on the mark’s racism and fear of discrimination, two sides of prejudice still among us. The criminal justice issues Gardner raises plague us yet, particularly over-reaching on the part of the cops and prosecutors. Other issues that still burn include improper police procedures, mis-identifications by witnesses and incorrect understanding of circumstantial evidence. Recall, it is a system that is staffed by human beings, entities that have not reached perfection since I last checked.

Gardner was more interested in the puzzle than characterization and atmosphere. But in this one, he takes a stab at describing weather and a dispiriting room. Better – thank heaven – is that he tells a joke or two.  In Chapter 6 Perry and his PI Paul Drake are in a Turkish bath steam room, hiding from their nemesis Lt. Tragg, when the fully clothed policeman joins them. Tragg, sweaty and surly, insists that they come out to be questioned but they complain that they’ll catch their death if they go out into the cold.

Just as an aside, during her confirmation hearing to become a Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor said that the TV series starring Raymond Burr as Perry Mason awakened her to the vital role of the law in our society. Many lawyers of a certain age will cite Perry Mason and Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) as their inspirations to become attorneys.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Whispering Land

For most readers their gateway book to an unbreakable Gerald Durrell (NYT obit) habit is My Family and Other Animals, his memoir of growing up in Corfu between the wars with his eccentric family and native wildlife.

He also wrote accounts of animal collecting in South America, A Zoo in My Luggage and its sequel The Whispering Land. Durrell's prose is fluent and humorous. He relates his rough journey through austere Patagonia (Argentina) but we also get a sense of his respect at the diversity of wildlife: observing colonies of penguins and elephant seals, hanging out with guanaco in the wild, saving an abused ocelot, using himself as bait for vampire bats (before recalling the risk of rabies), and saving a baby peccary named Juanita.

It's not totally about animals though because unforgettable is the stout Rosa Lillipampila, his seatmate on a small plane heading for Jujuy.

I highly recommend this marvelous book.