Friday, May 25, 2018

Back to the Classics #11

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

Wanderer – Sterling Hayden

What might be considered classic about a memoir by a not-terribly-well-known Hollywood actor?

Sterling Hayden seems fiercely honest. Honesty is timeless. Honesty is a model. So that is why I consider this a classic not only with a one-word title but a classic written by non-writer, up there with James Webb’s Fields of Fire and Albert Ellis’ A Guide to Rational Living.

Probably best known as mad general in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, Sterling Hayden (1916 - 1986) was also in The Asphalt Jungle, Kubrick’s The Killing, the noir Suddenly, and played a bent cop in The Godfather. Knowing full well that he had all the acting chops of, say, George Raft or Robert Stack, Hayden wasn’t really at ease with his image as the hunky, strong, stolid type. When Paramount Pictures signed him up in 1940, they dubbed him ''The Beautiful Blond Viking God. '' Hayden wasn’t easy with that but he said “the money was good.”

He married a Hitchcock ice queen Madeleine Carroll. But they didn’t see much of each other because he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps under an assumed name. He didn’t want to be seen as just a Hollywood actor poser. As John Hamilton, he earned both the Silver Star and Bronze Star. He served with the ur-CIA, the Office of Strategic Services, in Yugoslavia, Italy and Germany – one of the very few Marines not in the Pacific for WWII. He knew Wild Bill Donovan, founder of the OSS, and had dinner with FDR.

War affects different people in different ways (see Suddenly). War solidified Hayden’s belief in nonviolence, civil disobedience, and his identification with poor and the oppressed people.  War also briefly made him a Communist. He joined the Party but was not active because politics interfered with dating and romance. In 1951, after being summoned by the House of Un-American Activities Committee, he named names of Hollywood friends who had naively dabbled in communist / left groups after WWII.

 If I have any excuse, and it's not a good reason, the FBI made it clear to me that if I became an "Unfriendly Witness" I could damn well forget the custody of my children. I didn't want to go to jail, that was the other thing. The FBI office promised that my testimony was confidential. And they were very pleasant. So I spilled my guts out, and the months went by, and I was on some shit-ass picture, and I got a subpoena. The next thing I knew I was flying to Washington to testify. The worst day of my life. They knew it already, and there is the savage irony.

The government knew it already but wanted to humiliate him, just like they wanted to torment Edward G. Robinson into saying he was a dupe even when he never acted out of being duped. Stories like this make me amend the Irish invocation, “God between us and evil” to “… us and the goddamn government.” After the HUAC, Hayden lost his lefty buds and had a B-movie career though John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle keep him in the public eye.

Hayden writes in a unique style, to produce a sprawling hodge-podge of a book. Over the course of 400+ pages, though some memorable passages are well-realized, the melodramatic tone takes patience, parts in need of strict editing a time-pressed reader just has to skim. But as I said above, without being embarrassing, he is honest and the parts about sailing would really appeal to a sailor.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Movie: Suddenly

Image result for Suddenly+sterling hayden

1954 / B & W / 75 minutes
Tagline: A cold-blooded thriller!

A young widow lives with her eight-year-old son and her father-in-law in the sleepy SoCal burg of Suddenly. Because she lost her husband in the Korean conflict, she forbids her son from playing with toy guns and joining the Cub Scouts. Her father-in-law, an ex-Secret Service operative, speaks out against over-protecting the boy, arguing that if he doesn’t develop strength of mind, he will be unable to take his turn in fighting cruelty, hatred, and tyranny and contribute to making the Declaration of Independence stick. The village sheriff has romantic designs on the widow, but hurts his case when he buys the boy a cap pistol. A crisis occurs that tests the mettle of all the characters.

The script is just okay, setting up the paper-thin characters. Frank Sinatra puts in a convincing performance, here just as suitably larger than life as his Maggio in From Here to Eternity. He plays a detestable killer who learns to like killing during WWII. Nancy Gates, who appeared with Sinatra in Some Came Running, is okay as the pacifist widow.  The sheriff is played by hard-nosed Sterling Hayden, best remembered as the mad general in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and the hard-bitten copper Michael Corleone shot in the restaurant with Solozzo. Also good was James Gleason as the father-in-law, mainly because he gets off cool Americanisms like, “shucks to you,” “tan your hide,” and “hurt like blazes.”

I suppose a viewer could label this movie a late 1950s artifact and make the expected allowances. We could identify themes of defending the country against domestic terrorists, the motivations of betrayal and violence, the different ways that wars influence individual personalities, the importance in family values, and realistic men controlling idealistic females. We could also see the movie as simply a concise thriller that compresses four hours of action into a tight 75-minute film.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Mount TBR #11

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

The Reverse of the Medal – Patrick O’Brian

This novel is the 11th of 21 about Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend Dr. Stephen Maturin of the Royal Navy in the late 18th century. The title is a 17th century expression that means the opposite and usually less favorable aspect of an affair or question.

Once nicknamed Lucky Jack Aubrey for his outstanding success in service against HM’s adversaries, in this novel Jack suffers a downturn of fortune. Like many sailors an innocent babe on land, Jack is set up to be the patsy in a massive scam of the stock market. Sent to trial, he is unlucky enough to be the object of political passions in that both the ruling party and the judge (a member of the Cabinet, no less) are against him. Jack himself is a high Tory but he must pay for the sins of his chiseling father who is a loud disliked Radical in the Parliament.

Friend Stephen Maturin and his mentor in the secret service Sir Joseph Blaine suspect that the intricate financial swindle was cooked up and bankrolled by powerful interests. Stephen hires a PI and crack lawyer to defend Jack. But the lawyer fears that without witnesses for the defense Aubrey's being fined, imprisoned, and pilloried are about certain.

But this novel is not totally dark, however filled we loyal readers are with consternation that our favorite characters are facing disgrace and the ruin of their careers. In fact, it opens with a great sea chase that takes about a third of the novel. Plus, there are humorous situations and scenes. In Jamaica, Jack meets Sam Panda, his natural son by Sally, the woman for whom he got in trouble deep when he was a mid. Sam resembles his African mother, but otherwise calls to mind his father for anybody that knows Jack. For Jack, the fact that Sam is becoming a Catholic priest is not nearly so alarming as the inconvenient fact that he has met Jack’s wife Sophie, who takes a dim view of behavior that produces natural children.

In an immensely satisfying set piece, Stephen twists the nose of an officious bureaucrat. In another, familiar friends like Bonden and Killick help Jack spruce up Ashgrove Cottage before Sophie returns from a trip. In a bright change of foturne, Stephen, upon becoming rich, becomes a sharp man with the pounds and pence, unlike his former distracted poor scholar self. How O’Brian makes sailors doing a house-cleaning poignant and fun to read is a tribute to the writer’s power as a storyteller.

The climax, too, will make the sensitive reader bawl, being moved by the loyalty of Jack’s men.

Read the books all in order and keep the Kleenex handy.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Mount TBR #10

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

Many Happy Returns a.k.a Who Saw Her Die? – Patricia Moyes

The eccentric Lady Balaclava requires her daughters Primrose, Violet, and Daffodil and their European husbands to cross the Channel to visit their mother in order to wish her many happy returns on her natal day.  Fearing that she may be murdered, Lady B. has leaned on her influential friends to have Yard Inspector Henry Tibbett attend the party and prevent any killings.  

Much to Henry’s chagrin, Lady B. croaks during the celebrations.  A forensic autopsy reveals, however, that no toxic agent seems to have been responsible for this unfortunate blow to Henry’s police pride. Though the death is ruled natural causes, Henry knows there is a plethora of suspects collected at the run-down country house. Who is culprit, dammit?

This 1970 mystery won the Edgar Allan Poe Special Award from the Mystery Writers of America. It is a worthy updating of standard whodunit elements (country house, rich people, ingenious weaponization). Lady B. is a mild satire on the good-time aristos that populate Margery Allingham’s smart Campion mysteries from between the wars (see The Fashion in Shrouds and Dancers in Mourning). Moyes seems to be saying, “Not pretty in old age, are these fashionable people? But still good grist for the whodunit mill!”

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Defence of Duffer’s Drift

The Defence of Duffer’s Drift – E.D. Swindon

When Major General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton was a Captain, he served in South Africa during the Boer War. In 1904, he published this short description of small unit tactics of the regular army versus local irregulars or guerillas. 

The book features six responses to one scenario. A young lieutenant has command of a 50-man platoon. His job is to hold Duffer's Drift, the only ford (river crossing) for wheeled traffic for miles around, until additional troops can relieve his unit. Both he and his men have plenty of martial ardor. Young and confident, he recalls his course work and thinks "Now if they had given me a job like fighting the Battle of Waterloo, of Gettysburg, or Bull Run, I knew all about that, as I had crammed it up...." But in six dreams, he related how every time he and his troops are wounded, killed, captured, utterly defeated. Finally, he is able to do his duty and get relieved. 

I am not trained or skilled in thinking through small unit tactics and the uses of position and terrain to mount an effective defence. The maps helped a great deal in the 0895293234 edition. What impressed me was the willingness to learn on the part of the narrator, giving a lie to the oft-repeated barb about the phrase “military intelligence” having an internal fallacy. Any book that encourages critical thinking, in our scheming chaotic world, will get a thumbs-up from me.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Back to the Classics #10

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

The Genius and The Goddess – Aldous Huxley

In 2011, I first read this short 1955 novel as part of my ongoing campaign to read lesser-known novels by famous novelists. I kept it because I knew I would have to re-read this novel as I’ve re-read After Many a Summer Dies the Swan and Brave New World. Huxley bears re-reading because his novels of ideas are mainly people talking with each other about Huxley’s wide-ranging views of God, sex, literature, art, thinkers of the past, and the perpetual circus of people – being all too human – making terrible mistakes, not the least of which is making trouble for each other out of anger, lust, and greed.

This novel is a narrative by John Rivers, telling a story of his youth, to “I” the writer. Rivers spent about a year and a half living with the family of Henry Maartens, a physicist, and Katy, his wife half his age and the mother of their two kids, child Tim and teen daughter Ruth.

Rivers is an inexperienced and clueless prig because he was raised by a pastor father and a mother who mistook her proud unemotionalism for Christianity. Often lost in the fog of ego and stark clarity of scientific theorizing, Dr. Maartens is like most geniuses – hard to live with. He is a distant father and the kind of selfish husband that expects his wife to take care of everything domestic. Katy is a lovely, giving woman, a devoted wife and mother. She knows how to live life well, to flourish, in every way. Her ability to live life in a fully human way makes her unto a goddess. Used to an arid home life, Rivers experiences a loving family for the first time. He comes to love Katy as Dante loved Beatrice.

Rivers considers himself lucky to be the research assistant to the genius Maartens. But Rivers soon tumbles to the fact Maartens depends on Katy for his reason for being alive. It’s not healthy. For anybody. When Katy is called away to take care of her dying mother, Maartens goes into a tailspin. The housekeeper Beulah knows a psychosomatic illness when she sees it as Katy returns to find Maartens in an oxygen tent. Beulah, alarmed at Katy’s haggard appearance urges her to rest, since she can’t help her husband if all her “virtue” has ebbed away.

Such is Huxley’s brilliance even in his lesser novels. He puts in the mouth of an ordinary person a profound truth. Socrates asserted that our virtue was all we need to be happy. But we are only human and our virtue – that immanent force that urges us to flourish, that impulse to life that we base our bravery, wisdom, fairness, and moderation on – is tested and buffeted by fatigue and prolonged stress.

I can’t possibly give away how Katy got her groove back, but it points to Huxley’s matter of fact view of love, passion, and the transience of life, happiness, and depression. Huxley thought it was important to define things clearly, especially to ourselves. How we describe people, places, and ideas make them our reality. If those descriptions are irrational, we live in fantasy, in Cloud Cuckoo Land like Maartens.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Back to the Classics #9

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

Red Threads - Rex Stout

The Barnes & Noble website touts its e-book version as “An Inspector Cramer Mystery” as if Stout made the hard-boiled head of NYPD homicide a series hero. Cramer was never a series hero. Cramer usually played the flatfoot foil in Stout’s classic mysteries starring the PI duo of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. And in this 1939 novel, he merely assists the heroine trap the perp.

This mystery contains the prototypical elements of a story from the so-called golden age of detective fiction. The close reader catches a whiff of the spiritualism and mysticism that was popular in the 20 years after WWI. The color prejudice – this time involving American Indians – is about what we would expect for the late Thirties. The usual whodunit snobbery is on display. The glamorous characters are well-off and famous in the arts, design and technology. The victim is a millionaire, killed in the ostentatious tomb of his wife, which is located on the grounds of his swanky country estate. As for the final debit, what can we say about the prose:

He stopped, gazing at her, and put out a hand and took it back again. “No,” he said. “I’m not going to plead with you. I did that, and what good did it do? But all the same, I won’t tolerate it – what you’re doing with Guy Carew. Now that the fortune is his – the wings for your ambition. I know you can do it – he’s a half-primitive infant – may be you’ve already done it – but I won’t tolerate it and I won’t allow it. I won’t, Portia! You’re mine! By God, you are!”

Pee-yew, is what I say, but maybe that’s just me. To be charitable, he wrote this in 1939, just after one of the better Wolfe and Archie novels, Some Buried Ceasar.  Too much to expect two home runs in a row.

On the credit side, Stout is a reliable feminist whose female characters work hard and enjoy success on their own terms. Smart cookies, too. A textile artist and fashion designer upstages Inspector Cramer by using a peach pit, a red thread from an antique weave, and the call of a whippoorwill to solve the mystery.

Also to his credit, Stout has a longish set piece with Cramer and the DA playing tag-team interrogating the fashion designer. Besides yelling and pressure, they use sleep and sensory deprivation, denial of food and drink, denial of clean clothes and hand and face washing, and denial of the toilet to break down the fabric artist’s resistance to answering questions about The Obvious Suspect who happens to be on the edge of being her boyfriend. Stout doesn’t make a big deal of sleep deprivation as torture, but the reader can tell Stout is not a supporter of harsh interrogation techniques routinely used in the good old days on basically anybody. It's admirable of Stout to kick against a practice that most people of the time accepted as part of the normal course of things.

Finally, in the tradition of Golden Age mysteries, the reveal tests patience and credulity in terms of to what degree will we accept silly and over the top.  I can recommend this one only to hard-core fans who have already read a fistful of Nero Wolfe mysteries and, bless us reading gluttons one and all, even read an Alphabet Hicks or a Doll Bonner.