Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Mount TBR #4

I read this book for the Mount TBR 2018 Reading Challenge.

A Murder of Quality - John le Carré

This 1962 mystery was the second novel of the author of the Karla Trilogy and, more recently, The Constant Gardener and A Legacy of Spies. At only about 150 pages, A Murder of Quality lacks elbow room. That is, it feels like the novelist had to restrain himself from exploring themes such as the lingering effects of WWII on those that had to fight it in particular but how the past haunts the present in general; the suffocating environment of public schools; religious differences between Church of England and Nonconformists; and the overall deceptiveness of mere appearance and persona. Retired spy George Smiley, for example, looks like “the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation.” But the inoffensive appearance masks the fact he has, one colleague observes, “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin.”

To sum up the plot, Smiley is contacted by a wartime coworker who has received a strange letter. A woman who lives in a public school town writes that she afraid that her husband, one of the masters there, has designs on her life. Smiley recalls that Terence Fielding, brother of one of Smiley's colleagues in intelligence during the war, teaches classics at the school. However, Smiley hears that the letter writer has been murdered. Smiley is invited by the local police to investigate since the local chief of police knows a little of Smiley’s WWII exploits, wants to hold off Scotland Yard, and the middle class chief is not comfortable investigating the quality that are connected to the public school.

Like Maigret in a Simenon novel, or Campion in an Allingham novel, Smiley finds himself investigating  the crime in a world with its own rules of manner and conduct. Also in the whodunnit manner, there are red herrings and odd characters galore. This early novel is well-worth reading for fans of le Carré, Alan Furst, and whodunit writers with a little edge like Tey, Marsh, Innes and Highsmith.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

St. Patrick’s Day

Troubles – J.G. Farrell

A character in this novel says that history is what is remembered, but ‘everything else’ – that is, daily life as what we ordinary people get up to - tends to be forgotten. This story examines people that are trying to carry on their regular lives while history is unraveling their Irish world.

It is 1919. Major Brendan Archer is a gentleman, a believer in honor, chivalry, and playing the game even after the Great War by the end of which some members of his generation like Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves  had said “goodbye to all that.” Too English, however, he is, not to be regarded by a dynamic Irishwoman as standoffish and stuffy. Archer has been released from his hospitalization for shell shock brought on by his service in the trenches. He visits the Victorian-era Majestic Hotel in County Wexford, Ireland, to find out if still on is his accidental engagement to Angela Spencer made while he was on a brief leave from the war.

Angela’s father Edward owns the hotel, which like British rule in Ireland, is going to pieces. Edward is hard to respect, given his snooty airs and anti-Catholic prejudices, but his dogged optimism has a certain pride.  A master of self-deception, Edward frets about renovations and conducts amateur experiments in psycho-physiology. The hotel and science are distractions so he can disregard the political troubles between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists. The escalating violence and resulting stress gradually seize his attention and steadily unhinge him.

Archer feels high-strung and restless due to his war experience. He feels tired of conflicts of any kind. Ireland, with its “vast and narcotic inertia,” casts its spell over him. He insensibly becomes involved in the Anglo-Irish family's issues and tensions with servants and tenants. Lacking boldness to get on with his life, he makes friends with the old ladies who permanently reside in the hotel. He’s also unlucky enough to fall in the love for the first time. He’s pretty defenseless, not that that makes us readers pull for him since the love object is so worthless.

Human beings are not at their best in this novel.  An old order goes poof.  But it is by no means grim or dejecting. Farrell manages cutting satire and blackly comedic situations without being mean or depressing. Long at 400+ pages, this novel has spots where nothing much happens except atmosphere and curious detailed descriptions, yet overall it’s a satisfying and enjoyable read. Farrell had soul. For readers into highly literary fiction, Ireland, or the effects of sectarian violence on ordinary people, this is a moving story. This novel won the Lost Man Booker Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.

Farrell's other two major novels also turn on a British community dealing with threats. In The Siege of Krishnapour, hostile local Indians attack a lonely British outpost in the 1857. In his masterpiece, The Singapore Grip, the Japanese invasion of the Malayan Federated States and Singapore in 1942 hands the British their most ignominious military defeat in their history of Empire.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

European RC #4

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge

When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light under German Occupation, 1940-1944 - Ronald C. Rosbottom

I’ve figured that I’ve read enough in recent years about war and its effects on society and individual soldiers and civilians. As I grow older, I find that I’m more easily appalled at the terrible lingering effects of war on survivors and less able to shake off the contemptuous sadness that politicians don’t seem to get smarter or less irresponsible.

However, when I saw this book sitting in a little library, I couldn’t stop myself. I felt curious about what happens when the worst totalitarians in the world occupy a city known for its openness, tolerance, and liberty. Surprise, surprise – the Nazis really liked the whorehouses, drinking, and looting and plundering, but they did everything they could make daily life impossible and hazardous for the French. They controlled time with curfews. They controlled urban space with no-go zones and barriers. They had a made a of rules and regulations that made everybody guilty of some infraction if the authorities bothered to look. They controlled behavior like eating with shortages, ration cards, and long lines for food. A Latvian once told me the Soviet strategy was to keep people off-balance by making mere errands a huge tiring hassle, so people would have no energy left for protest.

Rosbottom describes the collective trauma imposed on the French by the Germans. Deprived of information from the outside world, the French were starved for facts about Allied progress in other theaters. The French had no idea how long the Occupation was going to last, so they felt the uncertainty that contributes directly to anxiety and depression. Over time, in daily life it was often difficult to say where the boundary between collaboration and adaptation to a new reality was set. This is an interesting theme as our country wrestles with the lines between “collusion” and “cooperation” and “conspiracy.”

He also tells about local police and authorities playing a major role in, among other things, the implementation of the Holocaust. A special squad of French police went hunting for Jewish people to deport. And the French authorities were efficient in the summer 1942 round-up of Jewish people who were imprisoned at Vélodrome d'Hiver and transported from there to death camps.

Rosbottom arranges the book both thematically and chronologically.  He did research with printed materials and looked for perspectives in many different interviews. In addition to soldiers, politicians, members of the resistance movement and ordinary civilians, he gives capsule views of a number of well-known artists and writers such as Picasso, Camus, Cocteau, and Duras, whose work and production were involved in examining the occupation. Rosbottom is a professor of French, not a historian, so his interests and expertise is more related with the humanities, not economics or sociology.

Readers who want background to Albert Camus's The Plague and Anthony Beevor's Paris After the Liberation 1944-1949 may find this book interesting. Although many readers will find Rosbottom’s prose easy enough to comprehend, readers who prefer history written novelistically a la Erik Larsen should stay away.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Mount TBR #3

I read this book for the Mount TBR 2018 Reading Challenge.

My Country and My People – Lin Yutang

This book was released in 1936, yet another tumultuous year for the Chinese people. In the Suiyuan Campaign, two puppet forces founded and supported by Imperial Japan fought to wrest control of the Suiyuan province from the Republic of China. Late in the year a crisis came about when Chiang Kaishek, the leader of the Nationalist government, was kidnapped by his subordinates Chang Hsueh-liang and Yang Hucheng to persuade Chiang to change his policies toward imperial Japan and the Chinese Communist Party. Chiang believed Japan was a disease of the skin, but saw the Communists as a disease of the heart so he didn’t want to ally his party with the CCP.

China thus was an object of interest in the US, due to its problems and the attention brought to it by Pearl Buck with her best-seller The Good Earth. Lin Yutang was also an explainer of Chinese life and culture. He must have been popular because publishers released many of his books, which were easy to read, wise, and daring.

Daring because he grouped in “culture” not only political, artistic, or literary pursuits but also the ordinary doings of everyday life. Dr. Lin blames China’s parlous state on two influences: Confucius and the difficult written language. Confucius, he says, forgot to include “a person and a stranger” in the list of important human relationships, so the Chinese never developed a strong civic sense of duty to the community. Second, if the written language were not so formidable to learn in ancient days, education would have been possible for all and ordinary people would have been able think more independently and force change in society more readily. Thus, China in 1936 would have been very different.

Granted, the chapter on the place of women does not pass muster in our day. And, of course, events and change have rendered much of the information of only limited interest. But for readers interested in traditional China and looking for general information about national character and wonderful translations of Chinese poems and light writing, this is a good book.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Back to the Classics #4

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.

Rear Window and Other Stories – Cornell Woolrich

Among fanatics of noir, Woolrich is up there with Hammett, Chandler, and Cain, though most admit, I gather, that his prose is the most purple and pulpy of the founding bunch. Among non-fans of noir, Woolrich is probably best-known through the movie adaptations: The Bride Wore Black is a 1968 French film directed by François Truffaut and Rear Window is a 1956 corker by Alfred Hitchcock.

It Had to Be Murder was the original title of Rear Window, which he published in 1942 in the late lamented pulp Dime Detective. Left obscure in the story is why the narrator is trapped in his Big Apple apartment and so idle that he takes to secretly observing the lonely city lives of his neighbors through their windows. He realizes that the man across the way has very likely done away with his invalid wife. And he enlists the help of his “houseman,” an African-American, to break into the possible killer’s apartment. It’s a solid story that’s fun, though allowances are asked to be made by the casual racism and all of us readers know the reveal, more or less.

Though the fanatics seem to regard Post-Mortem (1940) as a mediocre story, I think the over-the-top premise redeems it. A widow wants to have her recently deceased husband disinterred so that a pocket of the last suit he’ll ever wear can be checked for a missing but winning sweepstakes ticket. Hey, $150K back then had the purchasing power of $2.5 million today, so I don’t think many people would think twice on this unique problem. The oddity is that her current husband puts his foot down and refuses to go along with the disinterment. Why?

The story Three O’Clock made its first appearance in a 1938 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly. A concussion turns a mild-mannered watch repairman into a deviser of infernal engines of death. He rigs up a homemade bomb to blow up his house with his wife in it. Oh, what these nimble-fingered handy guys will get up to when they go off the rails. But circumstances prove that Creation is not above having its little joke on the unwary makers of infernal engines. The suspense in this story is so killing that the smart reader slows down to get the maximum effect.

Change of Murder (Detective Fiction Weekly, 1936) is the shortest story of this collection. It is a noir story with gangster characters, one named Brains and the other Fade (as in the craps term). What makes it worth reading in our jaded day is Woolrich’s surprise ending, which will call to mind the tradition of H.H. Munro (Saki) but a lot grimmer.

Momentum was originally published as Murder Always Gathers Momentum in 1940. In a story with a persuasive Depression-era bleakness, an ordinary guy, half of a young married couple, has the wolf baying at the door. He runs into a peck of trouble when he accidentally yet fatally shoots a conscience-free rich guy who owes him money. This fast-moving, ironic story will persuade even the most skeptical reader that doing a bad thing once makes it more likely to do so again. And again. And again.

In Woolrich’s view, the universe has endless space, time, and flux. In other words: so many people are bouncing off so many other people – especially in cities, the usual setting of his stories – that mischief and turmoil and irony are inevitable. The characters in Woolrich stories think to get across muddy roads they are walking safely on planks but really they are walking on tightropes over abysses. With no pole.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Massacre Day

The Boston Massacre, known as the “Incident on King Street” by the British, was an incident on this day in 1770, in which British Army soldiers, fearing for their lives under relentless attack by snowballs thrown by a jeering crowd, shot into said mob and killed people. Nine British regulars were charged; seven were acquitted and the other two were found guilty of manslaughter.

The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution - Alfred F. Young

In colonial times, George Robert Twelves Hewes worked a Boston shoemaker, a trade that paid little and garnered less respect. The coming of the British troops after 1768 activated his militant leanings. He entered the political arena and participated in the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party. He was less proud to have been at the tar and feathering of the Britisher who beat him bloody. Rejected by the army because he was too short, he put in service during the war on a privateer, crewed during the capture of several prizes, and got screwed out of the prize money.

After the war Hewes, like many artisans, moved out of Boston, only to fail to find greener pastures. He lived in destitute obscurity in Otsego county, in upstate New York. In the 1830s, however, the national mood had changed from willful forgetting of the revolution and its veterans to celebrating the few remaining vets.

Young builds a persuasive case that in the 1830s radical labor organizers and radical abolitionists portrayed Hewes as a heroic working-class icon. Hewes was feted in Boston to during the Fourth of July celebrations of 1835. The rads appropriated Hewes to make the point that it was not only General Washington and men of property like Hancock who made liberty in America possible. It was humble people, like Hewes, who contributed equally, and by God should be treated equally with shorter work hours and more tolerable work conditions.

Social conservatives, argues Young, had been active in minimizing the radical aspects of the American Revolution. They downplayed the fact that the Tea Party had been a revolutionary act. Men of property developed Boston to the point that places like The Liberty Tree and familiar places and buildings associated with the Revolution were left to rack and ruin or pulled down. The Fourth of July was privileged over all other holidays that once celebrated the prewar events such as the Boston Massacre.

The book is divided into two parts, Hewes’ life and times and an examination of the role that personal and collective memory play in influencing of understanding of history. This book is an interesting and accessible read for general readers who want a deeper insight into how is history is used by conservatives and progressives for their own social and political purposes.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

European RC #3

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge

Eminent Georgians: The Lives of King George V, Elizabeth Bowen, St. John Philby, and Nancy Astor - John Halperin

Four 50-page examinations of an exceptional quartet connected to the United Kingdom between the wars comprise this interesting book. The title is taken after Lytton Strachey’s infamous book, which debunked four Victorian worthies in astonishing prose. However, this book is merely readable nor does it undermine the reputations of the four subjects, though Nancy Astor takes some serious lumps, all of them richly deserved.

Of George V Halperin says, “[T]here can be little doubt that he strengthened the throne in terms of its place in the hearts of his people, both by the role he played in the political affairs of the nation and the affection he commanded and held among his subjects in the Empire. Once could argue that, for the British monarchy, his reign was the most salutary in three centuries." I think even readers like me – i.e., people with little interest in royals – will get food for thought from the king’s refusal to provide asylum to his deposed Romanov cousins and his isolationism toward the Nazi threat.

Readers who liked The Death of the Heart, her best novel will like the overview of the life and work of Elizabeth Bowen. Halperin emphasizes her debt to Henry James rather uncritically. There is also the argument that her Irish exuberance was tempered – not in a good way – by Jamesian methods.

The third chapter gives an account of St. John Philby, the greatest of the Western explorers of Arabia and father of the destructive spy Kim Philby. Halperin makes clear that St. John Philby was the wrong kind of maverick personality to work in government, much less in foreign service.

American Nancy Astor, oddly enough, became the first woman to serve in the House of Commons. Despite her spotty education, her Virginia charm coupled with canny show-biz instincts enabled her to hold on the seat for Plymouth for 25 years. She fought for women and children, much to her credit. Halperin, however, smacks her around on the grounds of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and the dumb McCarthy anti-communism that gave serious anti-Communism a bad name.

Any reader who enjoys reading popular histories in search of general cultural literacy will like this book. It’s full of curious anecdotes. For example, at one dinner Nancy Astor interrupted Winston Churchill, who hated being interrupted, with “If I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee,” to which Winnie replied, “If I were your husband, I’d drink it.”