Thursday, November 16, 2017

Widow’s Web

Widow’s Web – Ursula Curtsis

Ursula Curtiss, like her sister Mary McMullen, wrote stand-alone mysteries and suspense stories. They often featured a dash of romance and the setting of a New England town. In Widow’s Web, the main character is a male reporter who suspects that his partner in journalistic exploits was done in by a wicked woman.

Curtiss grabs us in the first 30 pages, with a gothic atmosphere of suspicion, disbelief, and tension. She’s especially good with the noisy crashes and bangs of everyday life that scare the ever-lovin’ bejesus out of the reader. Like Victor Canning in The Rainbird Pattern, Curtiss contrasts decent people who want to earn what they get with psychopathic predators that unobtrusively exploit, steal, and kill.

She won the Red Badge Mystery Award in 1948 for Voice Out of Darkness. The Forbidden Garden was filmed as What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? by Palomar Pictures in 1969. Other books by Curtiss are creepily titled The Stairway, Out of the Dark, The Deadly Climate and The Noonday Devil.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Mount TBR #54

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.

Silent Stars – Jeanine Basinger

Even people who consider themselves buffs of Hollywood from Edison to the death of the studio system – that would be readers like yours truly – carry around lots of conventional wisdom that they never question. Rudolf “The Sheik” Valentino – kind of dumb, exploiter of the fantasies of silly females. Mary Pickford and her sick-making Goody Twoshoes image. Marion Davies, the real-life model for bitter lush Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. Lon Chaney as one trick pony with the monster makeup and all. Pola Negri as the Mad Hungarian, Clara Bow as the giddy party girl. Gloria Swanson the real life model for her own Norma Desmond in the immortal Sunset Boulevard. William S. Hart, the first in a line of tedious stone-faces a la Robert Stack. John Gilbert of the squeaky silly voice that sound movies made ridiculous.

Film scholar Jeanine Basinger explodes all these cliché misrepresentations. This is a highly readable book that blends biography, film criticism, and personal observations. She also provides deeply sympathetic portraits of Mabel Normand and the Keystone Kops; the archetypal he-man Douglas Fairbanks, and the unexpectedly interesting Rin-Tin-Tin (I had no idea that canine heroes were so popular in the silent era).

In about 500 pages, which never feel too long, Basinger provides plenty of non-academic-sounding arguments to support her basic arguments. She’s forthright about being unable to really comprehend how audience felt about such and such a star or movie because the past really is another country. Because this book is for the general reader, not her colleagues at other universities, it is written clearly, with humor and light-heartedness. I highly recommend this book to fans of classic Hollywood, the same readers who liked her other fine book A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Veteran's Day, 2017

Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America  - Sarah J. Purcell

John Adams, writing in 1815, said that he thought the Revolution began “in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.” So Adams concludes that the war, “was no part of the Revolution.” In contrast to this example of Adamsian hyperbole, by examining the military memory of the war for independence in the early republic, Sarah J. Purcell shows how selective memory of the war contributed to the emergence of our national identity.

The book opens with evidence showing that from the very start of the war, opinion leaders such as journalists, public speakers, politicians, and pastors extolled the patriotism of fallen heroes such as Joseph Warren and Robert Montgomery. Recall that because of many battlefield defeats, the emphasis on heroes bolstered people’s morale and fired up patriotism. Sacrifice made the cause legitimate and glorious.

After the war, the leaders emphasized that patriotism ought to be rooted in gratitude toward those who made the ultimate sacrifice. The concept of gratitude is a guiding theme of this book. It is made clear that public memory discouraged alternative, skeptical views of the war for independence and generally made one’s attitude toward the war an acid test for one’s patriotism.

This book is also about how Americans remembered the war for independence with celebrations, commemorations and other ceremonies. Purcell details how different groups in society – women, African Americans, the poor, war veterans – gradually demanded to be included in commemorations, to the discomfort of elites who wanted to shove back into the bottle the democratic genies  that had been released by the war. For instance, during the war, the franchise in Pennsylvania had been extended beyond property-owning males. After the war, the property owners tried to pass legislation restricting it again. Protesters used commemorations of the war to publicize their point of view.

Citing sermons, almanacs, paintings, plays, memoirs, and biographies, Purcell employs many interesting examples of the uses of public memory for partisan purposes. She discusses  Shay’s Rebellion and efforts to establish the independent state of Franklin as example of efforts to use the history of the war as justifications for their claims.

Purcell also looks at the resounding silences. Postwar writers avoided the topics of guerilla war in the New York, New Jersey, and South Carolina. She points out that loyalists maintained such a low profile after the war (probably afraid of harassment and intimidation from neighbors) that they wrote no books or pamphlets and thus created no alternative public memory of their own.  As Charles Royster has pointed out, “[O]vert loyalism vanished after the Revolution, surviving in politics only as an accusation and an insult.”

A historian at Yale, Joanne Freeman, asserts in her course that isn't only the ideas and events leading up to the Revolution or the war for independence or the Constitutional debates that mattered, but in fact how we remember them also matters, to us and to our posterity. The reason is that the way that we remember history constructs its meanings and its impacts. History – what happened and how we understand what happened - can thus have a profound effect on our country that we live in now.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Mount TBR #53

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.

A Tree is a Tree: An Autobiography – King Vidor

To my regret, I’ve never seen this director’s most notable works: "Show People," "Hallelujah," and "The Big Parade," "The Champ," "Our Daily Bread," "The Citadel," "Duel in the Sun," ". I’ve never see his version of Ayn Rand’s "The Fountainhead," mainly because I can’t stand Gary Cooper. Nor I have seen Bette Davis say her immortal line “What a dump” in "Beyond the Forest."

However, when I lived in Saudi Arabia, a TV station used to play “Stella Dallas” over and over. I’ve seen the birthday party scene a half-dozen times. I remain impressed. And everybody has seen multiple times the Kansas scenes that open “the Wizard of Oz” in which Judy Garland sings her signature song. Vidor took over for Victor Fleming for “Oz" when Fleming was tapped to do "Gone With the Wind." "Every time I see 'Over the Rainbow,' I get a thrill,” said Vidor, “because I directed that.” Vidor, from Texas, had great feeling for the natural world.

Anyway, this 1952 autobiography is worth reading for fans of classic Hollywood. Vidor witnessed the very beginning of the silent era. A true artist, he was always looking for something new and original to do and say. An early adaptor, he always took up new technology and techniques before they were forced upon him. 

He’s a man of his generation and therefore reticent about the personal side. This does not mean that he doesn’t tell moving stories. The story about Mabel Normand’s funeral – where he saw the clowns of the silent era all beside themselves crying – is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Mount TBR #52

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.

Hide My Eyes a.k.a Tether’s End – Margery Allingham

Allingham started the series starring eccentric PI Albert Campion in the early 1930s and kept developing as a writer of genre fiction until her early death of breast cancer at 62 in 1966. By the time she wrote The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) and this one in 1958, she was exploring suspense and character studies a la Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell (Barbara Vine).

Hide My Eyes is an inverted mystery. Allingham examines the personality of the culprit: methodical, logical, cautious, manipulative, emotionless but charming and ever so ruthless to anybody who stands in his way. Campion’s cop buddy Sergeant Luke has a hunch as to the location of the killer’s stomping grounds. Campion plays barely more than a cameo role in this novel. Luke is less exuberant and Campion less silly, both of which are mercies.

Allingham’s ability to set a scene is on display. Masterful are the descriptions of the eccentric museum in west London and the scrapyard in the East End. She’s excellent with the natural world (London rain) and artifacts (leather gloves and a lizard-skin letter case). We can also learn antique similes like “as close as a rock” for “taciturn.”

All in all, well worth reading for mystery fans who like hard-boiled novels, suspense novels, or urban crime novels but without any violence or bad words.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween, 2017

The Haunted House at Latchford - Charlotte Riddell

Charlotte Riddell (1832 - 1906, rhymes with "riddle") wrote her entire adult life, first to support her widowed mother and then to bail out her husband who struggled with financial reverses. Riddell was one of the first Victorians to write about people who had real jobs, instead of the idle upper middle-class so often found in novels of the time (I'm looking at you, Tony T.). But she also wrote mysteries with supernatural elements, such as Fairy Water, also known as The Haunted House at Latchford.

The narrator of this novel is a barrister who speculates. He alternately charms and annoys us with a confirmed bachelor’s view of the good life, which consists of dining out and eating strawberries. The first chapter is written in a glib tone that borders on the obnoxious. So much so that I knew I couldn’t handle even a novella if this cocksure prattling tone kept on.

The next chapters, however, reassured me with an introduction to the setting, "where beyond the fated house and ruined garden lay the belt of pine trees and the lake of the dismal swamp, which had furnished Crow Hall with no less than two tragedies." The first tragedy is a December-May marriage that becomes an ordeal to both partners. With the insanely jealous husband’s death, we get, per Victorian custom, his vicious will. The second tragedy is a ghost story that is perfectly integrated into the story lines of hopeless love and cruel last will and testament. We fascinated readers wonder why the ghost returns to the scene of her mortal troubles and why she approaches the living to reveal her sorrows.

An Irishwoman, Riddell has the keen senses we like in Irish writers: humor, exuberance, melancholy, uncanniness, and realism about the dark sides of marriage, child-raising, and materialism. Her sketch of a woman’s life wasted in an unhappy marriage begs for a dissertation by a student in gender studies. Convincing is her view on the harsh necessity of money. Delightful is her send-up of the impudent aristocrat Lady Mary Carey. While she deals in the themes of suffering femininity that the audience expected, her tone is not that of the stereotypical Victorian lady novelists, neither complacently know-all nor syrupy fluttery. This is well worth reading. I’d read more of Riddell’s fiction if I could find it. It’s one thing to be a minor writer but she ought not to be forgotten.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Mount TBR #51

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 Assassins - Robert J. Donovan

This is a well-written study of the mainly delusional reasons behind the attacks on the lives of eight presidents.

Four were successful: John Wilkes Booth on Abraham Lincoln, Charles J. Guiteau on James A. Garfield, Leon Czolgosz on William McKinley, and Lee Harvey Oswald on John F. Kennedy.

Four were not successful: Richard Lawrence on Andrew Jackson, John Schrank on Theodore Roosevelt, Giuseppe Zangara on Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola on Harry S. Truman

Donovan researched materials on the 19th century incidents and unearthed findings on psychology of the assassins, where available, on the more modern ones. His conclusion is one that we can take cold comfort from: the assassins were usually mentally unbalanced by delusions rather than political beliefs. Granted in the cases of Booth, LHO, and the Puerto Ricans, it’s hard to draw the line clearly between fanaticism and the insanity of narcissism and grandiosity. But the other assassins were plagued with cognitive and psychological problems that rendered them incapable of ordinary work and adult relationships.

Donovan observed that politics in our country has always been roiled by hysterical vitriol. Jackson, Lincoln, Garfield, FDR and Truman all had sustained inflammatory attacks directed their way. Donovan says given our sad history of assassination (not the mention the disgraceful response of the criminal justice system by putting insane people to death),”in an age apparently endless tensions” we should criticize with “a little more maturity, logic, and forbearance.”

Though the Depression stopped Donovan from going to college, he was a well-respected journalist covering the White House for the New York Herald Tribune. He had a reporter’s instinct for the telling detail and odd fact. He also includes curious artifacts such as the ballads that came out of the assassinations like Charles Guiteau.

His best-known book during this lifetime was the 1961 best seller PT-109, which recounted John F. Kennedy’s WWII Navy career. About half the content of this book was first published in the New Yorker in a series of articles in the early 1950s and collected in a book in 1955. The old paperback I read was apparently a version updated in 1964 after Oswald, an oddball loner misfit along the same lines as the killers in this book, murdered JFK.