Friday, March 24, 2017

Mount TBR #13

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.

Call for the Dead – John LeCarre

This is the first thriller written by LeCarre, who later became a best selling spy novelist in the middle 1970s. Published in 1962, it is the first appearance of his series hero spymaster George Smiley, who appears in A Murder of Quality and the Karla trilogy.

Tightly written, it spins out a plausible story with believable characters, especially Elsa Fennan, wife of a murdered diplomat. It gives the backstory on Smiley’s unhappy marriage to Ann and his early spying days in Germany in the late 1930s, a time and place not high on our list of historical times we’d like to visit.

Smiley’s trusted associate Peter Guillam, who plays a big part in the Karla trilogy, also appears as a character who teases Smiley like a school chum from the same generation would. Peter is younger in the Karla trilogy. Yard Inspector Mende is fiercely protective of Smiley in this one, as he is in later books.

There are mere hints that LeCarre would let himself stretch out, with only short digressions on the importance of individualism and on the sprawl that started around UK cities in the car crazy Sixties. All in all, well worth reading.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Mount TBR #12

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.

American Singers: Twenty-seven Portraits in Song – Whitney Balliett

The author was the jazz critic for the New Yorker from 1954 to 2001. He wrote book reviews, profiles and unavoidable in the Seventies, lots of obituaries. The book was released in 1986 to wide acclaim since many of the singers were in the twilight of their careers and fans wanted to appreciate them and their work while the singers were still around. The highlights

There is also a piece on Alec Wilder, a lyrical and moving songwriter and composer. In daring to assemble such a collection, one can always quibble. Like, where’s Julia Lee? And Oxford University Press, where the hell is the index? Anything published by a university press has got to have an index.

These should be read as they were published: as stand-alone pieces, separated in time by at least a week. Otherwise, Balliett’s poetical metaphor-loving style cloys a little.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Mount TBR #11

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 Ancient Explorers - M. Cary and E. H. Warmington

This 1929 book was republished by Penguin in 1963 in a pocket paperback for the interested thinking public and poor graduate students. It pulls together the observations and theories of ancient authorities and provides critical remarks on the views of both ancient and modern scholars, though not at great length. The main focus is on the actual adventures and routes followed by the ancient explorers.

Indeed, marvelous are the stories of Hanno the Carthaginian coasting down western Africa to Sierra Leone, Pytheas' voyage northward and his amazing tales, Diogenes and the Mountains of the Moon, Alexander's marches, and the agents of Maes Titianus journeying eastwards along the silk-routes.

Chapter 6 is an eye-opening look at the exploration of Europe by the Phoenicians and Greeks, as are the examinations of trips to Asia (chapter 7) and Africa (chapter 8.) Both authors taught at Oxford so it is definitely scholarly. The reader is presented with careful weighing of the historical grounds or evidence. I’m not a geographer or historian but I like to see a judicious, objective way of thinking of about what is possible versus what is probable. Perhaps I should note that there in nothing in this old book for folks that need more recent scholarly takes or Coast to Coast Insiders weighing the genetic proof that the pharaohs were hybrid aliens.

It’s a pleasure to read for the thinking lay audience that is interested in ancient exploration for commercial (for the luxuries of the orient), military and scientific purposes. Mercifully there is an index. The maps in this Penguin edition are very small and cramped, asking much of a brittle spine. Of a 50-year-old paperback a reader does not venture to demand of its spine what she would never require of her own middle-aged backbone.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Classic #6

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

Small Town D.A. – Robert Traver

Michigan's Upper Peninsula is known as God’s country, a great place for hunting, fishing, snowshoeing, skiing, and canoeing. Besides dairy-farming, its industries were mainly of the extractive kind – lumbering and mining. In this memoir of Traver’s 14 years as a D.A. in Marquette County, he describes offenders of descents such as Finnish, Scandinavian, Italian, Irish, Cornish, with the occasional American Indian tossed in. The crime to be prosecuted was often drunk driving, as we would expect. But there were also cases of rape and murder. For extra thrills, thankfully rare, there were kidnapping, adultery and even bastardy cases.

Each chapter of the book is an anecdote about a specific case or numerous stories about a certain kind of crime. His anecdotes of the brutal crimes that happen in remote places will prime us to roll our eyes the next time we hear somebody in the Heartland say, “Things like that just don’t happen here,” or see the headline, “Girl’s Violent End has Maine Village in Shock.” The chapter on the troubled teenager who killed a child will break hearts, as the kind of unfortunate story still ripped from the headlines. I think this will be my last true-crime book for a long time.

The tone, however, is generally upbeat, benevolent and humorous. Traver is inconsistent in that in the preface he believes the human nature is basically good and later he says we have to take human nature as we find it. But his stories also illustrate his belief that human beings are resilient and enduring. That we’re tough, tougher than we give ourselves credit for, is something I can believe.

The real name of the author was John D. Voelker. He was born in 1903 in Ishepeming, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He went to law school at the University of Michigan. He returned to his home region to lawyer, becoming a D.A. in Marquette Country. He wrote this memoir in 1954 and says in the preface that he did not aspire to higher political office or judgeships. People change their minds and he didn’t say no when Gov. G. Mennen Williams appointed him to the Michigan Supreme Court. During this stint, he somehow found the time to write, under the pen name above, the courtroom novel Anatomy of a Murder, which became a monster best-seller and hit movie starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, and Ben Gazzara (his best performance, probably), with the soundtrack composed by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Classics #5

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

The Complete Short Novels – Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov (1860 - 1904) mastered the short story form, but early in his career he wrote novellas. This volume collects five works Englished by the well-known team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

The first story, The Steppe, is apparently about the journey of a young boy across the steppe of southern Russia. I say “apparently” because there is no plot. Despite the journey, the form is neither a quest nor a picaresque. A merchant and a priest are travelling on business and to kill two birds with one stone they are talking the boy to a larger town so he can go to school.  Along the way, they meet a variety of characters, from a compassionate Russian mama to cold merchants preoccupied with gain to a Jewish trickster that calls to mind Diogenes. They have adventures, such as a session of scary crime stories around the fire, and misadventures, such as king-hell thunderstorm. The descriptions of nature bring to mind another plotless masterpiece, Dead Souls by Gogol.  Very stirring is the immense steppe – nature – as a backdrop for the smallness and fragility of human life.

In The Duel, Chekhov tells a simple story to expose the ethical dilemmas of the characters.  Set in a small town in the Caucasus, both the locals and occupying Russians live their lives without unusual mishaps or misfortunes and with the certainty that tomorrow will unfold in the same way as today. To this humdrum burg, a young couple has arrived from St. Petersburg: Lévsky and Nadejda Fyodorovna. He is a civil servant and she is married to another man.  Lévsky is a superfluous man who, although he holds a public office and has a rich social life, can’t be said to have ever accomplished anything new or original or admirable in his life. He lives at the expense of others, doing his job as little as possible, blithely incurring debt, stealing another man’s impressionable wife, and dragging her to a junky little town, far from her people and her friends. But he is starting to detest Nadejda Fyodorovna who isn’t nearly as clever as she is vain and is a creature of impulse. To this same podunk returns every year Von Koren, a zoologist with cold and radical ideas about the wholesale improvement of the county. He can’t stand Lévsky, who embodies everything he abhors about dilettante intellectuals.  Von Koren  has the kind fo mind eagerly recruited by the Bolsheviks later, a mind that would contemplate with relish the liquidation of whole classes of people. Though Von Koren does not sympathize with Lévsky's problems, it is he who, in the end, ends up giving Lévsky a solution to his no-exit, no-serenity life. At the beginning the tone is relaxed, but gets more intense as the extent of Lévsky and Nadejda Fyodorovna’s problems become apparent.  Chekhov effectively puts across the ghastly dead-ends that people find themselves in.

The Story of an Unknown Man opens with a revolutionary telling us readers he has taken a job a servant in the St. Petersburg house of the son of a high official in order to gather information about that official. He hints that an assassination plot in in the works. But the political goals are lost as the narrator observes the tortured souls in a love triangle. He also meets the old official and pities the old duff for his frailty: “It’s hard to strike a match against a crumbling wall.” He also feels strange, along with us readers, that becoming a servant has dehumanized him in the eyes of the household; they act as if he is not in the room. Despite this cruel incuriosity that reduces him to an object, he feels sympathy for people that are so weak and apathetic that they can’t even protect themselves from thieving servants. No wonder the Bolsheviks were able to shove them out of way so easily.

In Three Years, Chekhov deals with an unlikely love story. For no particular reason, Laptev falls passionately in love with Yulia. She hardly knows he is alive, but afraid of becoming an old maid, she is gradually worn down. Reader - she marries him! They then settle down to gamely, grimly make the best of a marriage. Like in Woody Allen’s spoof Love and Death, all the characters love somebody that is unattainable. In a set of pitiless stories more or less about love among imperfect human beings, this story is the most merciless. Readers who half-assing through a marriage –beware.

In My Life: The Story of a Provincial, the pretentiously named Misail, under the influence of Tolstoy, renounces his noble name and reputation. His father is outraged, his sister begs Misail to relent. The townspeople throw water on him, charging he is breaking the commandment to honor one’s parents. The village urchins call him an ugly child nickname. Misail and the liberal Masha marry and move out of the provincial town to a country estate. The couple is subjected to the indignity and idiocy and drunkenness of village life. The muzhiks also remorselessly cheat them and steal from them. As a chorus to these disillusioning goings-on, the doctor take the stance of the cool intellectual who sympathizes with everybody’s problems but in unable to frame any ideas toward solutions. Like most Russian writers, Chekhov is dealing with the “whither Mother Russia” issue, but he highlights all the personal and psychological problems that distract the characters from being active agents of change, sociologically speaking. In this story, everybody, at every level of society, seems stuck in a rut – who can say of whose making? And the reader feels that some of the reasons behind Russia’s terrible 20th century are explored in this late 19th century story.

I read one of these stories on every other weekend in January and February, though my original plan was to read one every other month. The stories were just too excellent to put off. But they are all sad stories. So many ways to keep it real, so many more to pretend, as we struggle to be good and struggle even harder to be happy.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Mount TBR #10

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.

History of Japan to 1334 – George Sansom

This book covers lightly the Asuka period (538 to 710), a period marked by cultural and technological influence from Tang China. But the main topics are the Nara period (710 – 794), the Heian period (794 - 1192), and the Kamakura period (1192 - 1333). The Nara period saw the assimilation of Buddhism and things Chinese such as a writing system, Confucianism, Taoism, codification of laws and bureaucracy. The Heian period was an age of cultural flourishing, at least for a narrow group of people, with Tale of Genji being the monument to the era. The Kamakura period saw the warriors pushing aside civilian control to introduce feudalism.

Sansom fulfills his goal of providing an overview useful to both historians and the interested lay public. Born in 1883 and educated France and Germany, in 1903 he entered the British diplomatic service. He was sent to Japan where he learned the language to the point where by 1911 he was able to translate texts from the Kamakura era. Declared physically unfit for the trenches, he put in Great War service by acting as a spy in Russia, espionage being right up the alley of smart people with languages. In the Twenties, he returned to Japan, following a long tradition of diplomats who were also top-flight scholars. In 1928, he published An Historical Grammar of Japanese. In 1931, he released the masterpiece Japan: A Short Cultural History, called “the finest work in Western languages on Japanese civilization” in The Journal of Asian Studies in Sir George’s 1965 obituary

The ambitious purpose of this book is to provide an examination of social, political, and cultural changes. He uses primary and secondary sources expertly, providing illuminating quotations. The quotations make important points and are not without humor. From the Admonitions of Fujiwara no Morosuke (909 – 960), this shows how deeply the Japanese were influenced by the Chinese conception of auspicious days to do everything: “Comb your hair once every three days, not every day. Cut your fingernails on a day of the Ox, your toenails on a day of the Tiger. If the day is auspicious, now bathe, but only once every fifth day.”

Sansom wrote terse, lucid and beautiful prose. Note what Somerset Maugham called concision in the observation on Murasaki Shikibu’s world "The prevalent mood . . . was one of sentimentality, or at best of sensibility, and not of anxious speculation about good and evil and the nature of being." I was intellectually relieved that he kept at a minimum material on conspiracy and intrigue and machinations among rival clans. I get lost in the thickets of who is allied with whom, though I know some readers of history revel in such information.

I read this book in preparation for tackling Tale of Genji later this year. I feel while it is imperative to approach a masterwork on my knees, having background knowledge is essential for me to be able to look Murasaki Shikibu in the eye as another human being, though far away in time and space, dealing with the desires, aversions, pains, and pleasures entailed in dealing with other people.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Mount TBR #9

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.

Double or Quits – A.A. Fair

Writing as A.A. Fair, Erle Stanley Gardner released the fourth and fifth Bertha Cool – Donald Lam mysteries in 1941. In March, Spill the Jackpot had portly Bertha Cool lose weight due to pneumonia.  In December, Double or Quits finds Bertha and her crack investigator Lam taking the day off to go fishing. Due to her health scare, Bertha becomes determined not work her life away without having any fun.

But another angler at the pier turns out to be Dr. Hilton Deverest, an M.D. with a big problem. Jewels from his safe have disappeared and so has Nollie Starr, his wife’s social secretary. He hires Cool and Lam to find the secretary, get the jewels back, and let her know that the doc will let bygones be bygones. Things get complicated for Cool and Lam when their client is found dead on the floor of his garage with his car engine running.

At this point with the case heating up, Gardner takes a little digression to tell the tale of how Lam pressures Bertha to make the agency a partnership. Bertha howls as if stabbed, but agrees. The first thing new partner Lam does is boost the wages of the agency secretary Elsie Brand. Not just a pretty name (I had two aunts named Elsie), she is a Gardnerian Ideal Woman: loyal, resourceful, game, insightful, quick-witted, kind, and easy on the eye.

As usual for both the mystery genre and Erle Stanley Gardner, the characterization is weak. But, more than in the Perry Mason novels, Gardner gets across the sense that the characters are plausible adults having real-life grown-up problems. Dr. and Mrs. Deverest have a marriage so troubled it borders on the sick. The doctor’s niece Nadine Croy is dealing with an ex that is milking her for money. Heartless con men exploit widows’ loneliness and discontent. In a fine scene, Elsie Brand’s cooking appeals to cop’s appetite which proves to be his undoing since after Bertha makes him pay for his greed and poor judgement. In another amusing scene, Lam plays another doctor like a fish, getting him to toss his professional ethics overboard.

More cheering is the relationship that Lam has with Elsie. It is not of the platonic nature of the one between Perry and Della. Near the end of Double or Quits, a nurse solemnly warns Elsie not to be alone with Lam because, under the influence, he might be “abnormally stimulated.”

Gardner writes, “Elsie Brand laughed in her face.”

True, the plotting gets convoluted. Granted, the deduction is rather improbable. But this is well worth reading just for the sheer enjoyment of the comical interplay between brainy Lam and miserly hard-charging Bertha, plus of the tender back and forth between Lam and Elsie. It’s funny how the Cool & Lam novels are a little hard-boiled and a little cozy at the same time.