Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mount TBR #21

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.

Spill the Jackpot – Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair

Gardner wrote 29 Bertha Cool-Donald Lam mysteries. This 1941 entry, the fourth, is one of the better ones. It opens with Bertha checking out of a sanitarium where she was recovering from a combined form of flu and pneumonia for six months. In a well-plotted story, Lam investigates a disappearance and a murder.

When Gardner wrote as Fair, he allowed himself more digressions from the plot than in Perry Mason novels. He describes the desert country of Nevada and Arizona with affection and awe. He gives the reader the feeling that she’s learning something with a tangent on the inner workings of slot machines. For athletes he gives retro advice on the road work and training that goes into becoming a pugilist. He explores Lam’s moral ambiguity with his relationship with a bad girl on the run - who is using whom?

He also touches on the variety of complex relationships between men. A punch-drunk boxer takes an unaccountable shine to Lam and offers to teach him how to box. A hyper-masculine father sees his son as too sensitive and makes bad choices in protecting the kid.

I highly recommend this vintage mystery.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

European RC #6

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

Conquered City – Victor Serge

This novel is set in Petrograd in 1919, the first year of the Russian Civil War. Serge, whose real name was Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, was a professional revolutionary with a specialties in the skill of journalism and the craft of printing. He returned to Russia in 1919 in order to work in the Comintern as a journalist, editor and translator. He wrote this book in the early 1930s in the shadow of Stalin’s early purges because Serge was a member of the Left Opposition to Stalin’s policies.  So this book has the feeling of novelized memoir, with a text written in different times in various places.

Serge organizes the novel in 20 episodes spread out over course of about one year. Like more traditional Russian novels I don’t need to name, Serge creates scores of characters, whose hard names need to be remembered, which is a challenge. Transitions between episodes seem jerky, which also requires attention. He wrote this book under the threat of imminent arrest by the secret police and sent the novel to France in fragments so one can understand the lack of smoothness. However, on the other hand, this bumpiness gives a feeling of beleaguered and muddled life in Petrograd at this time.

There are too many ideas in this novel to deal with in a short review. The one that burned brightest for me was the Serge’s ambivalence about the use of the organs of repression. On one hand, as a democratic socialist, he saw the Russian Revolution as a great hope. Fearing counterrevolution, he was for using Czarist-type repression of spies, speculators, wreckers and traitors. He felt, then, there was a place for secret police, truncheons, jails, torture, internal exile, and treachery. On the other hand, he felt for workers and peasants that stole in order to eat, for soldiers who deserted because they’d been fighting one battle or another since 1914. Serge’s disenchantment is palpable – thus the typical disappointment of socialists in the wake of communist terror.

For me, the two topics of the American Civil War and Russia between the wars hold endless fascination. But I can’t say it’s for everybody.  Basically, this is an unrelenting novelized memoir that I can recommend only to the most unwavering student of topics such as state terror, St. Petersburg, and failed revolutions.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Mount TBR #20

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.

The Sawdust Trail: The Story of American Evangelism – Gordon Langley Hall

This pop history tells how evangelism started in the US with John Wesley and George Whitefield. In chronological order he examines Father Dyer, Dwight Moody, Rodney Smith, Billy Sunday, Evangeline Booth, Daddy Grace, Father Devine, Aimee Mcpherson, Reba Crawford, and Billy Graham. Hall researched newspapers and unearths some curious stories and facts. The writer was a journalist so the prose is readable and pleasant with nary a controversial word. Thus, readers looking for more substantial fare or critical takes on the origins of American evangelism or where Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry was coming from will have to go other books.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Mount TBR #19

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.

In the Best Families – Rex Stout

Arch criminal Arnold Zeck was Nero Wolfe’s Professor Moriarty. This is the last novel in what Wolfe fandom called “the Zeck trilogy,” the first two And Be a Villain and The Second Confession. Zeck was just a voice on the telephone in the first two but he actually appears in this one. Wolfe’s assistant Archie Goodwin observes: “[His] eyes were the result of an error on the assembly line. They had been intended for a shark and someone got careless.  

Our story begins with the wealthy Mrs. Rackham consulting Wolfe. Her younger husband used to ask her for money but now he never asks but still seems to throw green stuff around like a lottery millionaire. She wants Wolfe to find out his source of moolah. Since it smells like a divorce case, Wolfe tells her that he is not interested in taking it up. But after she lays a check for $10,000 (about $150K nowadays) he changes his mind.

The next morning, a package of sausage that gourmet Wolfe has been anxious about is delivered, only to turn out to be a bomb of tear gas. The blackmailer Arnold Zeck tells Wolfe to back off the case, or else. To identify a connection between Zeck and the young husband, Wolfe sends Archie under a pretext to Mrs. Rackham’s Westchester estate to have a look-see at the hubby.

But that night Mrs. Rackham and her pet dobie are knifed to death in the woods of her estate. Archie returns to the brownstone, only to find that Wolfe has decamped. Skedaddled. A distraught Fritz asked, “What is he going to eat?” In a note Wolfe directs Archie not to look for him.

Archie then strikes out on his own, even getting his own office. Nobody believes he doesn’t know where Wolfe is. But the Rackham case won’t go away.

Any more info would spoil one of the best Wolfe-Archie novels in the canon. It took me a long time to get into this series, only taking them up in the summer of 2012. But since then they've turned in my go-to for comfort reading.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Mount TBR #18

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.

From London Far a.k.a. The Unsuspected Chasm – Michael Innes

Richard Meredith is a middle-aged classics professor who specializes in Martial and Juvenal. As an absentminded intellectual (is that redundant?), he finds himself in his tobacconist’s shop and mutters a phrase from Dr. Johnson’s London, a Poem. He is surprised when the clerk opens a trap-door and ushers him down into the depths of London. He comes upon scores of art masterpieces. Against the smugglers of looted art, he finds an ally in Jean Halliwell, a young scholar in archeology with a specialty in Minoan weapons. In an exciting if far-fetched scene, they and two bloodhounds escape being put in a sack and dropped into the Channel by fleeing across the rooftops of London.

They proceed to have adventures that are so zany as to lead us readers to think that John Buchan’s rousers like Greenmantle are being parodied. As usual, the villains are bizarre. For example, one is an eccentric rich guy – with the typically American name of Otis K. Neff – that will call to mind the unhinged oil millionaire Jo Stoyte in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley. 

Also as usual, there are plenty of erudite laughs:

Mrs Cameron was given to religious enthusiasm and so, in Jean’s view, was on the thither side of sanity also.

The man was … simultaneously enjoying the remains of a cigar and a thoughtful study of the girl’s knees. Habit apart, there seemed to be no reason why he should not study the superincumbent parts of her anatomy as well, for the girl was stripped for bathing to a degree which Meredith could not at all approve.

At 300 pages, some snipping in the middle and near the end would have been in order. But members of the thinking audience – i.e., us avid readers -- will be able to pat themselves on the back for understanding allusions to The Perfumed Garden and knowing already what pygmalionism is.

It’s not, however, merely learned yuks. Innes describes rural Scotland and its remote fastnesses so vividly we wish we could visit Caledonia someday. He makes wise observations of religion in Scotland, art appreciation, and the mentality of collecting. Published in 1946, it also touches on the heavy subject of Europe pulling itself together after the most destructive war in history.

I think that Innes had a middle-aged, middle-class, educated and bookish target audience in mind. However, he always portrays his female characters with lots of smarts and capacity for action. Against stereotype, Jean Halliwell combines dedication to fighting evil-doers with a zest for adventure. There’s a wonderful parody of academic disputation near the end when Jean incisively supports her position in an argument where she and Meredith are trying to account for the art collecting mania of Otis K. Neff.

Michael Innes was the pen name of J.I.M Stewart (1906 – 1994), an English prof in the UK, Ireland, and Australia until his retirement in 1973, after which he wrote mysteries full-time until about 1985. Most of his mysteries starred Sir John Appleby, a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector. But many of his books are independent novels like this one and Lament for a Maker.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Mount TBR #17

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.

Gable & Lombard – Warren Harris

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were able to overcome the pressures on a marriage between Hollywood stars.

Their acting talents were different. While Gable did win an Oscar for his part in the comedy It Happened One Night, he was usually cast as the rugged, handsome hero as in GWTW or in guy movies like Mutiny on the Bounty and Run Silent Run Deep. He was justifiably modest about his acting abilities. Gable and Lombard worked together on No Man of Her Own (in 1932, before they were an item) and generally got on each other’s nerves. At the cast party, Gable gave Lombard a pair of oversized ballet shoes, to go with her prima donna ways. She gave him a present that she said stood for his acting abilities: a large ham with his picture on it.

With her sexy voice and athletic grace, she was a striking presence that lent a little credibility to melodramas like Man of the World and Vigil in the Night. With amazing timing, Lombard was a comic that could do both madcap (My Man Godfrey) and satire (Nothing Sacred).  As with many funny people, sources of her humor were sadness, anxiety, and more than her fair share of adversity: tight finances as a kid in a single-mom household, a disfiguring car accident, sudden deaths of friends, nervous breakdowns, and an unhappy marriage with William Powell.

Besides feeling no professional jealousy toward each other, as this biography shows, they loved each other deeply. Their personalities were such that one balanced the other. Gable was reticent, Lombard was boisterous and blunt. Gable was easy-going, Lombard was tightly-strung and competitive. He could live without going out to party and schmooze, and she loved him enough that staying home most nights was fine with her. When they did go out, he would be reserved, while she was animated and lively.

She loved jokes, and he liked laughing. Their laughter fed compatibility where it counts a great deal for a couple who are crazy about each other. On his first day on the set of GWTW, she had draped his dressing room mirror with stuffed doves to represent peace for her man, who was going through the last stages of a nasty divorce. On the dresser, he also found a hand-knitted willy-warmer and a note, “Don’t let it get cold. Bring it home hot for me.”

As a laid-back guy wary of this scheming world and its gabby extroverts myself, I can totally understand why a quiet guy was nuts about such a feisty, independent, indomitable woman. We hardcore readers will be happy to know that they were both great readers, unexpected in people who left schools without diplomas. She read widely, mainly with an eye to adapting novels into movies she could star in. She also read about topics such as numerology and eastern mysticism, not uncommon interests back then. Gable, like Spencer Tracy, liked to read mysteries.

Gable and Lombard both liked outdoor pursuits like hunting and fishing. They enjoyed their dogs and skeet shooting. They like roughing it in rustic lodgings that were typical of travel in the 1930s. Their ranch was decorated simply. They kept a hobby farm with chickens, cows and horses. Their dream was to have a child, but one of her many misfortunes was an infertility issue. We know it wasn’t on Gable since he made a baby with Loretta Young, who sent the child to an orphanage and then “adopted” her, never receiving a dime of support.

Lombard was a deeply patriotic FDR Democrat, like Rex Stout. Her comments about taxes are refreshing for us readers who've had an adulthood of hearing the no-new-taxes crowd bellyaching about their goddamn taxes:
I get 13 cents on the dollar and I know it. So I don’t figure that I’ve earned a dollar, I figure that I’ve earned 13 cents. And that is all right with me, too. We still don’t starve in the picture business after we’ve divided with the government. Taxes go to build schools, to maintain the public utilities we all use, so why not?
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, in January 1942, she wasted no time to volunteer her star power to raising money for the war effort. In Indiana, her home state, she raised over $2 million in War Bonds, when the expectation was only a quarter of that amount. Weary from putting in long hours at events, she didn’t feel up to a three-day train journey back to California.

So she decided to take a plane. Due to pilot error, it crashed into Table Rock Mountain in Nevada killing all 22 aboard, including 15 Army service men and Lombard’s own mother Bess. Joan Crawford took over Lombard’s part in They All Kissed the Bride and proved that, as talented an actress as she was, comedy was not her strong suit. But this was the least of the fallout.

Gable never got over Lombard’s death. Though 41 at the time, he joined in the Army Air Corps to honor his wife’s oft-stated wishes that he enlist. After training in OCS, Gable lead a motion picture unit attached to a B-17 bomb group in England to film aerial gunners in combat, flying five combat missions and narrowly missing being KIA once. He married twice after WWII to women who tried but failed to replace Lombard. Gable drank too much. After he died in 1960, he was buried next to Lombard in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in LA.

This book was among the bumper crop of books about classic Hollywood released during the nostalgia boom of the early 1970s.  The author later made a specialty of couples books, including Lucy & Desi and Natalie & R.J. To his credit, Harris took on riskier project, a bio of forgotten Broadway star Marilyn Miller. His research for this book seems satisfactory, since he interviewed many people who knew the couple, though many of the quotations are discreetly not attributed. His writing style, mercifully, is not snarky. In those carefree days of the Seventies he felt free enough to tell ribald stories such as the cock-sock story above. A reader can tell, too, when a writer is a fellow movie nut: he seems to have been reading about movies and stars in newspapers and fan magazines since an early age.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Classics #7

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

The Claverings – Anthony Trollope

I recommend this stand-alone novel, first published in 1867, as Trollope approached the height of his powers with He Knew He Was Right in 1869.

Harry Clavering has a belief common among educated talented young men. He wants to be different, to do the uncommon thing in his personal and professional life. His life is going swimmingly enough when he is jilted by the noble-born and attractive Julia Barbazon – delectably-named, too, isn’t she? She accepts what she -- and the rest of our scheming world -- regards as the better offer. She marries Lord Ongar for the usual reasons: £7,000 per annum, a country house, parties with the best people, carriages always, cabs never.

But Lord Ongar’s feeble constitution buckles under his dissolute habits. After only about a year and half, his debauchery does in the worn-out body of Lord Ongar, in Florence, Italy, comforted by his dutiful Julia and two callous spongers, slick Edouard Pateroff and his atrocious sister Sophie Gordeloupe.

While Lord O. is dying in his protracted way, Harry Clavering makes his way in the world. He becomes a student of civil engineering in the firm of Beilby and Burton. He bugs himself by doing the common thing: becoming engaged to Florence, the last unmarried daughter of his employer, Mr. Burton. Florence also bugs him by insisting on the common stipulation of no marriage until the husband can provide for the wife with more than living on a potato and getting one new dress every year.

Julia, the widowed Lady Ongar, returns to Merrie Olde. Her brother-in-law, Sir Hugh Clavering, is Harry Clavering’s cousin. Sir Hugh refuses to meet her on her arrival because tittle-tattle that Julia has been bad, though unfounded, may cause him trouble. Horrified that her sister Julia’s reputation will be tainted even more due to this snub of her tyrannical husband, Sir Hugh’s wife Hermione urges Harry Clavering to make himself useful in helping Lady O. get settled in London.

Julia and Harry meet numerous times. Harry, as wobbly males do, comes to feel unsteady. Indeed, he acts very unbecomingly, not telling her he is engaged to poor Florence. Harry feels torn and tormented between his first love and his second love and can’t extricate himself from the situation. Harry thus joins the line-up of Trollopian  males like Charlie Tudor, Johnny Eames and Louis Trevelyan. In his autobiography, Tony grants the insipidity of Harry but rightly defends his sketch of a fickle character and convincing probe of Harry’s vacillations.

Julia, being a rich widow, is beset with two avaricious suitors. Count Paterhoff blends smooth manners with hints of blackmail to persuade her into wedded bliss. Archie Clavering, Sir Hugh’s brother, bribes Sophie Gordeloupe to put in a good word for him. Sophie is a distinctive character in that I can’t think of any parasitical, detestable woman like her in any of Trollope’s other novels. Trollope handles Paterhoff’s menace believably and Archie’s blundering comically. Archie, by the way, is also aided by the advice of Captain Boodle, a billiard parlor habituĂ© called Doodles. I think this monologue is brilliant at capturing what kind of character these people have:

"Well, now, Clavvy, I'll tell you what my ideas are. When a man's trying a young filly, his hands can't be too light. A touch too much will bring her on her haunches, or throw her out of her step. She should hardly feel the iron in her mouth. That's the sort of work which requires a man to know well what he's about. But when I've got to do with a trained mare, I always choose that she shall know that I'm there! Do you understand me?"

"Yes; I understand you, Doodles."

"I always choose that she shall know that I'm there." And Captain Boodle, as he repeated these manly words with a firm voice, put out his hands as though he were handling the horse's rein. "Their mouths are never so fine then, and they generally want to be brought up to the bit, d'ye see?—up to the bit. When a mare has been trained to her work, and knows what she's at in her running, she's all the better for feeling a fellow's hands as she's going. She likes it rather. It gives her confidence, and makes her know where she is. And look here, Clavvy, when she comes to her fences, give her her head; but steady her first, and make her know that you're there. Damme; whatever you do, let her know that you're there. There's nothing like it. She'll think all the more of the fellow that's piloting her. And look here, Clavvy; ride her with spurs. Always ride a trained mare with spurs. Let her know that they're on; and if she tries to get her head, give 'em her. Yes, by George, give 'em her." And Captain Boodle in his energy twisted himself in his chair, and brought his heel round, so that it could be seen by Archie. Then he produced a sharp click with his tongue, and made the peculiar jerk with the muscle of his legs, whereby he was accustomed to evoke the agility of his horses. After that he looked triumphantly at his friend. "Give 'em her, Clavvy, and she'll like you the better for it. She'll know then that you mean it."

It’s amusing in one way but grotesque in another. Selfish and greedy of money, these kinds of men, Trollope says, and disdainful of the feelings of all those with whom they came in contact. On the other hand, Trollope describes a family with approbation:

The Burtons were an active, energetic people who sympathized with each other in labour and success,—and in endurance also; but who had little sympathy to express for the weaknesses of grief. When her children had stumbled in their play, bruising their little noses, and barking their little shins, Mrs. Burton, the elder, had been wont to bid them rise, asking them what their legs were for, if they could not stand. So they had dried their own little eyes with their own little fists, and had learned to understand that the rubs of the world were to be borne in silence. This rub that had come to Florence was of grave import, and had gone deeper than the outward skin; but still the old lesson had its effect.

I like Trollope’s faith in resilience and indomitability as I do the stoicism of the Victorians, toughness still evident in the UK today. Also Victorian about Trollope is his earnestness – he is sincere in his opinions on the serious issues of love, money, profession, work ethic, the elements of good and bad marriages, and individual integrity (e.g. Priscilla Stanbury in He Knew He Was Right).

I must confess that in Trollope I tend to tolerate the love story and run with relief to other characters like Archie, Sophie, and Count Paterhoff. Lady Ongar, after her terrible mistake in marrying for money, holds her dignity and charm well. Sir Hugh is a portrait of a truly terrible husband with Hermione as his beaten-down wife who still manages to love him. Capt. Boodle, in his coarse advice given above, shows the hazards in the wake of marrying for money – to be the subject for such speculations can’t be comforting.