Friday, December 9, 2016

Mount TBR #61

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Stamping Ground – Loren D. Estleman

This is the second of the Page Murdock series, published way back in 1980. Estleman , a professional writer down to his fingertips, has written for the western, crime, and mystery markets his whole career. This story offers the action adventure we like in westerns combined with noir elements of his own Amos Walker PI stories.

In the late 1870s, Union veteran of the Civil War and ex-cowboy, Murdock finds himself as a lawman since long days and nights on the trail were taking their toll on his middle-aged body. His supervisor sends him to Dakota to bring in a rebel Cheyenne for hanging. Murdock goes on the mission with another middle-aged lawman and a meti guide. All the characters are sketched out briskly and clearly. The action never lets up. Estleman brilliantly describes landscape. He is vivid with sensory details involving hearing, texture, and smell. Like Cormac McCarthy, he has no illusions  about ethnic cleansing, but unlike with CM, we readers don’t need a week to recover from Estleman’s depictions of violence. The Cheyenne and tribe members are depicted as defiant, brutal, war-loving fighters, an image that I, being a brute, much prefer to the caring and sharing natural aristocrats living in harmony with nature stuff of which stereotypes are made.

I used to read a lot of westerns by notable writers in the genre, but gradually grew tired of them because the characters started to feel all the same: stoic, tight-lipped, amazingly quick-thinking, and never apologizing because it shows weakness - that hyper-masculine bullshit that never realizes if you don't say "I'm sorry" over screw-ups friends and relatives won't trust you. Also I grew weary of that constant theme, both latent and manifest, of the “inevitability” of the “vanishing” of the Red Man.

But in the last year or so I have made the exception for Loren D. Estleman. I’ve found his historical novel westerns to be well-written and clear eyed about the social and political context the time. Readers looking to stretch a little and get out of the comfort zone, I think, may want to consider these historical westerns by Estleman:  The Branch and the Scaffold and Port Hazard

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Those People Were Always Ugly

William F. Buckley wrote on Sept. 8, 1964 about the Beatles: “They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as the crowned heads of anti-music.”

I seem to recall WFB calling Lennon a "vulgar Liverpudlian" on TV when Lennon was killed on this day in 1980. I couldn't confirm the quotation though. But from the National Review in 2005 this:

Dear Mr. Buckley: Request for a judgment call: It's about the use in the press of the verb "assassinate." 

It's been my understanding all my life that private citizens are "murdered." To be "assassinated" you have to be either a head of state or at least a political figure, and by the way doesn't your murder also have to be politically motivated, or at least appear to be? Gandhi, JFK, and Lord Mountbatten were assassinated. Bob Crane, Bonny Lee Bakley, and the Notorious BIG were murdered. Right or, wrong? 

I bring this up because, for 25 years now, I've been hearing from the news media that John Lennon was "assassinated." With the 25th anniversary of Lennon's murder approaching, I expect to hear it again. In my view, to claim "assassinated" status for John Lennon is to imply that he was an important political figure, which I'm sure is the intent of certain balding, pony-tailed journalists, nostalgic for the '60s, as they hum Give Peace a Chance, puff pot, and swill Metamucil. 

I say Lennon was murdered, not assassinated. What say you? 

Sincerely, K---

Dear Mr. K---: I agree. But perhaps the assassin--murderer-was putting on airs? 

Cordially, WFB

Isn't this just like those people? The letter writer sounds literate and reasonable, if a bit preening with vocabulary and tone, then takes off the mask and wallows in nasty stereotypes about the old hippies swilling Metamucil. And then there's Bill being puckishly mean, implying the killer was pretending to be more powerful than he was by killing somebody who mistakenly thought he was more influential than he was. Taking the occasion to sneer and jeer instead of simply noting a story of one troubled soul senselessly killing another troubled soul. 

But then those people express ugly, cruel opinions not because they hold those opinions. They are saying mean things for an effect, to disconcert and bewilder people like us, people they don't like. We had better not give them the satisfaction of getting a rise out of us. "You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength," said Marcus Aurelius.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Mount TBR #60

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Lost One: The Life of Peter Lorre – Stephan D. Youngkin

This book is a long, deeply-researched, credible, and even-handed biography of the classic Hollywood star. For me, the major revelations were two. Lorre was addicted to painkillers virtually his entire adult life whereas I had thought his addiction was the result of the stress of overwork and exhaustion in Hollywood. The addiction to tobacco and drugs took such a toll on his health that he died when he was only 59, leaving his survivors in hard financial straits.

Nor did I know of his kindness and humor both on the set and in personal life. Those of us with Hungarian, Jewish, or Hungarian-Jewish  grandparents will recognize Lorre’s mordant sense of humor and capacity for love and good feelings. He often helped young actors to hone their craft. He was very open-handed with money, much to his own financial detriment.

Youngkin builds a strong case for Lorre’s vast talents as an actor; thus, we can add Loree to the lengthy list of European actors Hollywood hired out of the yen for a little class in the stable, but had little idea of what kind of parts they should play.

The author’s plodding style at least keeps his subject front and center. The few judgments he puts up seem fair-minded. I admire that he interviewed just anybody living who knew or worked with Lorre – such as Frankie Avalon and Roger Corman. The book slows down when he describes projects that never got produced. This is balanced by some excellent production stories, especially of Beat the Devil, with quirky John Huston, star of Lillian Ross’ classic long journalism Picture.

Given length of this bio, I can recommend it to only hardcore buffs of classic movies. It appears to be one of the very few biographies of Lorre out there. I can’t imagine those books to be more heavily researched than this one.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Top of the Heap

Top of the Heap – Erle Stanley Gardner, writing as A.A. Fair

Published in 1952, this is the thirteenth of 29 novels starring the PI partnership of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam that were written by Erle Stanley Gardner under the pen name of A.A. Fair. After reading about half-dozen of this series (a misnomer since they needn’t be read in any order), I think that Fair’s Cool and Lam novels are smarter, sexier, wittier and just more entertaining than Gardner’s Perry Mason novels.

Top of the Heap is worth reading because it is both characteristic and uncharacteristic of Gardner’s approach to mystery writing. As usual, the murder is a relatively small part of an intricate scheme, plot, or scam. As the running joke, Bertha Cool plays the comic miser like Uncle Scrooge and Mr. Krabs. Her hard-charging ways comically contrast with ex-lawyer Donald Lam’s subtle questioning of persons of interest and cunningly holding off the cops that want to put him in the hoosegow. Another constant is that because gentlemanly Lam is such a considerate listener, all the female characters fall like dominoes for him in spite of his short stature and poverty due to Bertha paying him so little.

Unusual, however, are the social science observations, especially involving female characters. Gardner puts on his sociologist’s hat to have a young working woman describe Sex in the City / Sex and the Single Girl in LA circa the early 1950s:

You’re not independent. You’re a cog in the economic and social machine. You can get just so high and no higher. If you want to play you can get acquainted with a lot of playboys. If you want anything you’re stymied.

Through an ex-strip tease artist, we get the anthropological view from a participant-observer. The self-possessed stripper describes her sense of her power over the audience and her teasing of it as the core spectacle of old-time burlesque shows:

I had the most supreme contempt for the individuals in the audience, but the group of the contemptible individuals became an entity, an audience. I loved to hear the roars of applause….

A publisher called Hard Case Crime got this novel back into print in 2004, its first publication in 30 years. It was an excellent choice.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Mount TBR #59

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

In The Private Wound by Nicholas Blake, from page one we get Anglo-Irish poet and classicist meets The Postman Always Rings Twice:

When I remember that marvelous summer of 1939, in the West of Ireland almost thirty years ago, one picture always slips to the front of my mind. I am lying on a bed drenched with our sweat. She is standing by the open window to cool herself in the moonlight. I see again the hour-glass figure, the sloping shoulders, the rather short legs, that disturbing groove of the spine halfway hidden by her dark red hair which the moonlight has turned black. The fuchsia below the window will have turned to gouts of black blood. The river beyond is talking in its sleep. She is naked.

I’m always game for a mystery melodrama if it is as well-written as this. And the writing ought to be fluent and engaging since Nicholas Blake was the pen-name of Cecil Day-Lewis, who wrote this, his last novel, while he was Poet-Laureate of the UK in 1968. 

Last novels are often products of exhausted creative energies, but this is worth reading and savoring. A young writer wants to save his pennies and pounds so he rents a house in rural Eire. He knows the war is inevitable and he wants to get one more book out.

He meets his neighbor’s wife, an attractive, sexually insatiable and deceitful woman. I’m saying as little about the story as possible. But know that the local scenery, the national character of the Irish at the time, and the theme of being a foreigner (aka the object of intense curiosity) all contribute effectively to the mystery story.

Friday, November 25, 2016

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, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 - Jeanine Basinger

In mid-November Turner Classic Movies showed the woman’s movie Invitation (1953), giving us veteran movie buffs a chance to run down the melodrama checklist.

·         Deception, check: For the very best of reasons, a father and fiancĂ© tell terrible lies to a wistful vulnerable woman. 
·         Setting, check: Upper middle class or lower upper class family, unspecified Northeastern town.
·         Check and double-check: No mother, but a doting father.
·         Love & marriage as central issue, check: Reconciled to being a spinster, Plain Jane blonde – indeed, we should all be as homely as Dorothy McGuire.
·         The bad brunette rival, check: Ruth Roman, of course.
·         Point of rivalry, the genial though fickle male, check: boyish Van Johnson, of course.
·         Lots of flashbacks, check:  to the point of maddening and pointless, in fact.

Anyway, poor Dorothy McGuire learns the secret why her husband married her. And selflessly accepts the reality of the situation. Melodramatic, but convincing. Our hard-pressed heroine comes to an admirable stoic conclusion, “It is not enough just to survive – at the end of our lives we have to be able to say that we lived.” She echoes Seneca in On the Shortness of Life: ‘Show me that the good in life does not depend upon life’s length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little’.

Not Stella Dallas or Imitation of Life or Now, Voyager, but a worthwhile movie, I don’t demand the 90 minutes back again.

All in all, a worthy example of the “woman’s film,” a movie that was made to appeal to a female audience. Film historian Basinger argues it became a critically disrespected genre because many of the early 1930s movies for women really were trash. She also argues that modern film historians don’t like the genre because they think Hollywood movies supported anti-progressive views about women’s place at home, at work, in the world. Basinger makes the convincing argument that Hollywood made movies to make money so it tried to appeal to everybody and offend nobody. But, in fact, Hollywood writers and directors did manage to convey messages that all was not right with courting, marriage, the world of work, and motherhood.

In about 550 pages, Basinger provides plenty of plot explications to support her basic arguments. Because this book is for the general reader, not students at universities, it is written clearly, with humor and light-heartedness. I highly recommend this book to fans of classic Hollywood and others who tear up when, in Dark Victory, Bette Davis looks up at the bright noontime sky and says, “Goodness, getting darker, must be a storm coming….”

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly - Jennifer Fleischner (faculty profile)

ISBN 0767902599

In the eyes of some historians and ACW buffs, Mary Lincoln has the image of a shopaholic so unstable that her son Robert had to commit her to an insane asylum.  Her modiste and confidant Elizabeth Keckly is known dimly as the author of the controversial memoir Behind the Scenes, which gives us a fascinating look into the Lincoln White House.

Jennifer Fleischner (Department of English, Adelphi University) writes a sympathetic if unsparing portrait of Mary Lincoln.  Mary did have an excitable and immoderate temperament. Plus, she was loosely educated, like many Southern women of the day, to play the piano and ride in carriages. Her compulsive shopping – she bought hundreds of pairs of gloves in one shopping trip - had roots in her sorrow and feelings of emptiness.

Her southern family cut off ties with her after the ACW began. She had two of her beloved children die. Lincoln did not love her and when he wasn’t aloof and distant, he acted with bemused and weary tolerance at her vagaries. Her husband was shot in the head with her right next to him. She later lost a third son when he was just a teenager. Her own health was fragile: she suffered migraines and anxiety and she may have been suffering from untreated diabetes (she died of a stroke). This lonely and anguished woman had plenty of trials that would dog anybody, even those better educated and more philosophically equipped than she was.

Mrs. Keckly, on the other hand, Fleischner portrays as a strong figure. Born in slavery, she was raped for four years by a white man. She was impregnated by him and bore his son.  She lost this son, who passed as white to join the US Army, when he was killed in his first battle of the ACW. Determined and talented with her needle, she worked as a seamstress (custom dressmaking was required before mass production of clothes). She was able to buy her and her son’s freedom.  She built her professional reputation to the point where extremely influential women, such as Varina Davis wife of Jefferson, recommended her to others. That was how Mary Lincoln came to hire her and dominate virtually all her time.

Theirs was a complicated relationship that Fleischner describes clearly and plausibly. Mary Lincoln grew up assuming people would do things for her and make things right when the going got rough. Keckly took on that role, out of true liking, pity, and gratitude because Mary’s husband was the Moses of her people. When Lincoln was assassinated, Mary sent for Mrs. Keckly, though that terrible night Mrs. Keckly was unable to get past the jumpy guards.

Mrs. Keckly was a remarkable woman. She learned to read, write and figure. She owned her own dressmaking business and employed seamstresses.  She founded the Contraband Relief Association in August 1862. Mrs. Keckly said that the CRA was formed “for the purpose, not only of relieving he wants of those destitute people, but also to sympathize with, and advise them.”  After the ACW, she maintained her relationship with Mary Lincoln and tried to help her with her money problems.  Mrs. Keckly wrote Behind the Scenes to defend Mary Lincoln, but due to criticism rooted in racism, sexism, and classism, the book was controversial and disappeared soon after it was published. The book is well worth reading before this one.

Fleischner, mercifully, writes for the general lay reader and avoids the grating jargon of Theory. Her writing style is pleasant to read. I highly recommend this book.