Friday, January 31, 2014

2014 Year of the Horse

Happy Chinese New Year

Translations from the Chinese – Various Chinese Poets, tr. by Arthur Waley

Both experts and amateurs agree that this collection of Chinese poems is a classic. Waley was among the first to introduce Chinese literature to the West. This book bundles A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918) and More Translations from the Chinese (1919). All the major poets such as Li Po and Po Chu-I are represented. Anybody interested in world literature would get much out of this anthology.

Also, I found that after reading these poems I understood Chuang Tzu better. At least, I just wanted to go somewhere and be idle. If you know what I mean, then you’ll like this book.

You had better go where Fate leads
Drift on the Stream of Infinite Flux, Without joy, without fear:
When you must go—then go,
And make as little fuss as you can.

That’s by T’ao Ch’ien, a cool recluse. I don’t know, maybe readers that prefer more hearty poetry may find this backhanded, vague, pointlessly navel-gazing, reticent, slight, neurotically introvert. But for me, for whom poetry is unknown country where I have zero expectations (except that it’ll he hard to understand), maybe middle-age makes this kind of withdrawn, private poetry more appealing, since the topics are reactions to war, loss and grief, separation, illness, politics and vanity (not just love and nature).

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Tragedy of the Korosko

The Tragedy of the Korosko - Arthur Conan Doyle

This action-adventure novel was written by the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle tackles the genre “foreigners in trouble,” a genre I relish since I spent ten years overseas teaching English. A group of tourists – English, Irish, American and French – are kidnapped in the Libyan Desert by fanatics. We post-moderns will give a nervous shudder at this tale torn from the headlines - “Taliban wipes out mountain climbing party in Pakistan.” 

The best point is that story always moves.  The white-man’s burden stuff is easy to make allowances for since the fanatics are so easy to despise, with their hatred of the other, easy to loathe for their contempt of human life. One fundamentalist says, “[N]one but a blaspheming dog and the son of a dog would say that all religions are one as good as the other.” So much for preaching individualism and pluralism to thems that ain't havin' 'em.

The negative point is sometimes the tone gets pompous. Readers who can still read John Buchan with only a few qualms will like this.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Vintage Mystery #5

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1960 and be from the mystery category.

I read this for E-5: Read a Book with a Detective Team. Few beat the team of Perry, Della, and Paul.

The Case of the Calendar Girl – Erle Stanley Gardner

The 57th Perry Mason novel begins by introducing us readers to George Ansley, an honest contractor. George feels lowdown at having to bribe influence peddler and extortionist Meredith Borden to call off building inspectors that are giving George’s crews a hard time. Distracted, George is involved a car accident. The gorgeous driver of the other car persuades him to drive her home, despite possible injuries. The beguiling beauty sidetracks him even more by smiling, acting fragile and helpless, showing extreme legginess and, most diverting of all, kissing him.

After beauty’s adverse effects on his better judgment wear off, he begins to fear that he's taken a legal misstep.  The same night night Honest George consults Perry Mason, buttonholing him and Della Street in a restaurant. Mason wants to examine the accident scene, so they return to Borden’s estate. They get scared off by savage watchdogs and barbed wire catches threads from their clothes. As it turns out, Borden is killed about this time and the police are combing the city for witnesses and suspects. In efforts to save George from the gas chamber, Mason tracks down a couple of calendar girls – women who pose for amateur and professional photographers for ads and “art photography.”

To my mind, late Masons, say from 1958 through the Sixties, are readable but just okay. The reader has qualms. For instance, in this one, no question is raised whether or not the murder gun had fingerprints on it. Although it provides rather an interesting twist, it also seems far-fetched when Mason saves a client by throwing a party to the wolves and then takes the thrown one on as his client. 

Despite the fact that Gardner’s narrative pyrotechnics always overshadowed fair play, usually we readers can forgive Mason sitting on evidence and not giving us a chance to figure the case out. In this one, the lack of fair play is harder to forgive since there is more explaining and reported speech than showing us action. Gardner’s usual narrative magic droops and it’s mildly disappointing

After 56 Mason novels, we can’t blame Gardner for trying new gimmicks, for the sake of his own sanity and ours. In this one, I don’t think the tricks and devices worked as well as they did in other late Fifties outings such as Gilded Lily (1956), Lucky Loser (1957), Daring Decoy (1957), Foot-Loose Doll (1958), and Long-Legged Models (1958).

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Gate

The Gate - Natsume Soseki, tr. William F. Sibley, 1590175875

“To define is to kill. To suggest is to create,” said poet Stephane Mallarm√©. In this bittersweet novel, Natsume Soseki suggests the quiet melancholy of a young couple, husband Sosuke  and wife Oyone. They have married for love in unconventional circumstances, which means in early 20th century Japan that they are paying a price beyond what fits the transgression. Past regrets for youthful passions and three terrible losses weigh on the couple. Their life proceeds generally without events, though other people, inescapable as usual, will impinge and demand attention.

Sosuke works at a tedious but exhausting job as a minor public functionary.  Feeling exactly like what he in fact is -- a little wheel in a vast machine that could fire him at any time -- Sosuke is so dissatisfied with life that he reaches out in friendship to his landlord, Sakai. He stretches out a little more and takes a retreat to practice Zen in Kamakura. Although he meets an inspiring monk, he does not, he feels, make any progress toward peace of mind.

I know, this novel sounds as if it has very unpromising material. But I’ve read this novel three times and respect it more deeply as I find myself in middle-age. The Japanese fondly revere Natsume Soseki (1867 - 1916) for his comic novel Botchan. While that novel is worth reading, his later sad novels help us see the beauty of art in the hopeless, delight-free lives of fictional characters. It’s magic.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Mount TBR Reading Challenge

Mount TBR Reading Challenge: Pike's Peak: Read 12 books that have been on the shelf a long time.

  1. The Case of the Sun Bather’s Diary – Erle Stanley Gardner My review is here.
  2. The Stammering Century – Gilbert Selde. My review is here.
  3. Too Many Cooks – Rex Stout. My review is here.
  4. The Perfect Spy – John LeCarre. My review is here.
  5. The Case of the Green-eyed Sister – Erle Stanley Gardner. My review is here.
  6. Murder at the Pageant– Victor L. Whitechurch. My review is here.
  7. The Case of the Grinning Gorilla  - Erle Stanley Gardner. My review is here.
  8. The Zebra Striped Hearse – Ross Macdonald, 1963. My review is here.
  9. Maigret’s Revolver – Georges Simenon, 1952. My review is here.
  10. The Case of the Negligent Nymph  - Erle Stanley Gardner. My review is here.
  11. Night Ferry to Death – Patrica Moyes. My review is here.
  12. The Far Side of the Dollar – Ross Macdonald.
  13. The Case of the Angry Mourner – Erle Stanley Gardner. My review is here.
  14. Midnight Rising – Tony Horwitz. My review is here.
  15. The Missing Man – Hillary Waugh. My review is here.
  16. The Case of the Buried Clock – Erle Stanley Gardner. My review is here.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Vintage Mystery #4

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1960 and be from the mystery category.

I read this for D-4: Read a Book Published by an Author You’ve Read Before

The Golden Spiders– Rex Stout, 1953

Many un-Nero-like points surprised me. Usually Nero titles feature people and this is the only novel whose title refers to a creature. Nero Wolfe’s right-hand man gets involved in a shoot-out, when gunplay is very rare in the series. After carefully describing the preparation so we can try it at home, Archie later “stimulates” information out of a suspect.  As if torture were not enough, one of the murder victims is a 12-year-old kid.

Crikey, this is not what I read Rex Stout for. Rex Stout is supposed to be about as cozy as I can tolerate.

Remember when A&E had shows that had art and brains, rather than the reality TV antics and shenanigans of people that we thank heaven we don’t know? A&E based a show on Nero novels. The actor who played Saul Panzer, Saul Rubinek, said “Rex Stout was a great humanitarian, and he did a tremendous amount of charity work, and he was very compassionate towards immigrants to the United States. It's not out of keeping with Stout's personality that he would have written about victimization of immigrants who are being blackmailed.” At least, the plot hinges on a scheme that we can relate too, in our days of immigration reform angst.

Wolfe, happily, is his cranky conceited self. Talk about the master of asteism:

Take Mr. Goodwin. It would be difficult for me to function effectively without him. He is irreplaceable. Yet his actions are largely governed by impulse and caprice, and that would of course incapacitate him for any important task if it were not that he has somewhere concealed in him — possibly in his brain, though I doubt it — a powerful and subtle governor.

Two of Wolfe’s would-be clients are later found murdered by being run over by a car. Wolfe immediately identifies the risk to his reputation: “I resent the assumption that people who come to me for help can be murdered with impunity.” The problem is that since Archie has tortured a suspect to get vital information, he does not need to go the deducing or detecting route.

My verdict: ho-hum. Recommended to only Nero fans that have to read them all good weak or ho-hum. Novices to Nero are hereby warned off. Read The Red Box.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

White Jacket

White Jacket, or The World on a Man-of-War – Herman Melville, 1598180703

This novel is not really a novel so it’s not helpful to judge it in terms of believable characters, heavy themes, appropriate drama, or scintillating dialogue. It’s a fictionalized memoir of Melville’s year on a man-of-war.

Micro-chapters of about three to five pages long describe various aspect of life and work in the world on a powerful warship. True, he calls out for reforms to ban flogging and damns the authoritarian military mind that protects members of a free republic. But mainly he describes ship’s duties, sleeping, theatricals, night watches, eating and various important and unimportant personages aboard. Readers into enthnographies of groups in closed and narrow institutions will surely enjoy analyzing Melville’s material in terms of (post-) modern theories.

I found the facetious tone grating at times but Melville is very funny in places. For example, the consultations of surgeons before an amputation is a brilliant send-up of professional conceits and courtesies and coverings on one’s hindquarters:

The assembled surgeons listened to this address with the most serious attention, and, in accordance with their superior's desire, now descended to the sick-bay, where the patient was languishing. The examination concluded, they returned to the half-deck, and the consultation was renewed.

"Gentlemen," began Cuticle, again seating himself, "you have now just inspected the limb; you have seen that there is no resource but amputation; and now, gentlemen, what do you say? Surgeon Bandage, of the Mohawk, will you express your opinion?"

"The wound is a very serious one," said Bandage—a corpulent man, with a high German forehead—shaking his head solemnly.

"Can anything save him but amputation?" demanded Cuticle.

"His constitutional debility is extreme," observed Bandage, "but I have seen more dangerous cases."

"Surgeon Wedge, of the Malay," said Cuticle, in a pet, "be pleased to give your opinion; and let it be definitive, I entreat:" this was said with a severe glance toward Bandage.

"If I thought," began Wedge, a very spare, tall man, elevating himself still higher on his toes, "that the ball had shattered and divided the whole femur, including the Greater and Lesser Trochanter the Linear aspera the Digital fossa, and the Intertrochanteric, I should certainly be in favour of amputation; but that, sir, permit me to observe, is not my opinion."

"Surgeon Sawyer, of the Buccaneer," said Cuticle, drawing in his thin lower lip with vexation, and turning to a round-faced, florid, frank, sensible-looking man, whose uniform coat very handsomely fitted him, and was adorned with an unusual quantity of gold lace; "Surgeon Sawyer, of the Buccaneer, let us now hear your opinion, if you please. Is not amputation the only resource, sir?"

"Excuse me," said Sawyer, "I am decidedly opposed to it; for if hitherto the patient has not been strong enough to undergo the extraction of the ball, I do not see how he can be expected to endure a far more severe operation. As there is no immediate danger of mortification, and you say the ball cannot be reached without making large incisions, I should support him, I think, for the present, with tonics, and gentle antiphlogistics, locally applied. On no account would I proceed to amputation until further symptoms are exhibited."

"Surgeon Patella, of the Algerine," said Cuticle, in an ill-suppressed passion, abruptly turning round on the person addressed, "will you have the kindness to say whether you do not think that amputation is the only resource?"

Now Patella was the youngest of the company, a modest man, filled with a profound reverence for the science of Cuticle, and desirous of gaining his good opinion, yet not wishing to commit himself altogether by a decided reply, though, like Surgeon Sawyer, in his own mind he might have been clearly against the operation.

One wonders in how many hospitals this scene is played out in our year 2014.

Obviously, this is not a classic for everyone, but readers of the Aubrey Maturin series will like this as will those who have braved Typee and Omoo and Mardi and Pierre.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Vintage Mystery #2

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1960 and be from the mystery category.

I read this for O-2: Read a Book Published under More than One Title

The Rubber Band aka To Kill Again– Rex Stout

First serialized in six issues of the weekly Saturday Evening Post in 1936, The Rubber Band is the third novel featuring the heavy agoraphobic detective Nero Wolfe and his active wise guy of a personal assistant  Archie Goodwin.

The story begins with a highly successful businessman trying to persuade the lazy Wolfe to investigate the apparent theft of $30,000 from his office suite. Coincidentally enough, the woman that his colleagues are convinced is guilty of the theft, aptly named Clara Fox, visits Wolfe’s office. She tries to persuade Wolfe to take up the case of collecting an old, undocumented debt.

Given the debt, the theft, and the inevitable murder, the plot becomes complex. Count on Stout to keep the balls in the air, play fair, and end with a surprising reveal. On top of the story, though, is the attraction of being the fly on the walls of Wolfe’s brownstone on West 35th Street.  As J. Kenneth Van Dover wrote in At Wolfe's Door, “It is the center from which moral order emanates, and the details of its layout and its operations are signs of its stability.”

Though populated by four males, nothing brings to the mind the locker room as the place is spotlessly clean and gourmet meals are served on a rigid schedule. The place becomes a madhouse, however, because Wolfe allows Clara Fox to hide from the cops in the brownstone. Misogynist Wolfe falls for her a bit, while Archie looks askance and ribs him about reading her Hungarian poetry.

With such a safe domestic interior as the brownstone, I can’t see the Wolfe novels as hard-boiled. Archie is tough and ready with weapons, but he’s too funny and nice a guy to be compared with Sam Spade or Lew Archer. Sensing Goodwin’s genial soul, in the early Sixties a cousin of mine – a reader down to her shoes  -  named her basset hound Archie in his honor.

Plus, Stout hit on something with character of Wolfe. Wolfe is the thinking device, the heir of Sherlock Holmes, but his conceits and pompousness are a hoot. . "Confound it, Archie. I have you to thank for this acarpous entanglement." Stout, a lover of big words, reverses the roles when he has Archie complain about Wolfe’s eccentric ways: “I exploded, ‘If this keeps up another ten minutes I'll get Weltschmerz!’”

The League of Frightened Men and Fer de lance were the first two Wolfe novels. Both were too long, nearly painfully so. The Rubber Band is long also but it never feels long.  I think I would recommend The Rubber Band to a reader new to Wolfe, but tell them an even better place to start would be with the post-WWII outings such as The Silent Speaker. Then read Black Orchid and Some Buried Caesar. The novellas, which number about 50, are, in a word, perfect.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Lady Macbeth in Mtsensk

Lady Macbeth in Mtsensk – Nikolai Leskov, tr. Robert Chandler, 1843910683

The sensational plot will bring to mind Madame Bovary. The title character is a fed up wife in the provinces:

Katerina Lvovna would pass to and from through the empty rooms, start to yawn from boredom and then climb the stairs to the conjugal bedroom… She would steal an hour or two’s nap, but awake from it once again to that peculiarly Russian boredom, the boredom which reigns inside the houses of merchants, and which, it is said, makes even the thought of hanging oneself seem a cheerful prospect… no-one paid the slightest attention to the boredom that was weighing her down.

Enter Sergei, a farm hand and deceiver of women. Horseplay changes into lusty embraces, a la The Postman Always Rings Twice. The violence will shock even jaded readers of James M. Cain. I mean, Russian novels of the 19th century are supposed to realistic but really this novel approaches the down-sides of desire shading into lust just like the better noir novels of the Forties and Fifties did.

Before this one, I had read only On the Edge of the World (about Russian missionary bishop's meeting of The Other in the far reaches of Siberia) and his amazing short story The Steel Flea. Leskov (1831 - 1895) grew up in a small village in Orel, where he came into close contact with common people. He also travelled widely in Russian for various jobs, getting direct experience with a variety of types among the ethnic groups in Russia. His vivid characters are both familiar and foreign.

Leskov does not celebrate the lower classes, but takes the hard-boiled view that peasants and soldiers and cowherds are not more or less honest than anybody else. In Lady Macbeth, for instance, we meet lowlifes who find it fun to cheat somebody out of their woolen socks in a transit prison on the way to Siberia. So dumb, too, that they don’t even suspect that their amusements and antics can escalate to murder to suicide.