Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Bad and the Beautiful

The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties  - Sam Kashner and Jennifer Macnair

I like books about Hollywood from the silent era to the late 1970s. I don’t mind gossipy material unless it’s too snarky like Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. I mean, stars were only human, not equipped by nature, upbringing or education to endure the pressures of money and fame, not to mention anxiety and depression in the gilded cage of the meanest company town ever. Who the hell is Kenneth Anger to bag on these ordinary people under extraordinary pressures?

Mercifully, this book avoids excessive snark. There are, however, lapses of sense.  Twice the word “murder” is used to describe the justifiable homicide of “Johnny Stomp,” for instance. But generally speaking, this is worth reading for the inside information on Confidential Magazine, Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper and Sheilah Graham. Well-told are the production stories of Rebel without a Cause and The Sweet Smell of Success. Really interesting, too, were the sad stories of Hollywood treating like dirt the vulnerable Sandra Dee, Grace Metalious, and William Inge. Also you would have thought that intellectuals would have protected themselves more effectively but Ernest Lehman, Charles Laughton, and Alvah Bessie were chewed up too.

The writers acknowledge a debt to Otto Friedrich's City of Nets, a narrative of Hollywood history and culture in the Forties. But this book does not have the hard-eyed intelligence of that one and lacks the digressions that made City of Nets such a fascinating read.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Vintage Mystery #11

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-2: Mystery with a date/holiday/year/month/etc. in the title

Rose’s Last Summer aka The Lively Corpse - Margaret Millar. Random House, 1952

A long-forgotten actress is found dead in a family's garden. The sudden death is officially ruled natural causes, but a small town police chief and a psychiatric social worker feel reservations. The alert reader, thanks to Millar’s skill in inducing misgivings, feels that something is not quite right. Anyway, our qualms focus on the odd personalities and behaviors of the family in whose garden the remains were found. As the pair ask around discreetly they meet a range of other odd people.

Millar is enjoyable to read because her writing – especially the dialogue -- is beautiful. Her carefully plotted stories have lots of incidents and surprises. Millar draws characters sharply. She gives nods to social issues and problems in abnormal psychology, such as the psychopathic personality. But she’s skilled at ordinary everyday zaniness too:

. . . Mrs. Cushman, who had arrived late and taken a seat in the back row, assumed she had somehow come to the wrong funeral and she immediately rustled out again to look for the right one.

Malgradi could stand the agony no longer. He slipped out into the corridor. Here he met Mrs. Cushman who had been wandering in and out of rooms finding out a good deal about the embalming business. The experience had unnerved her and left her quite unprepared to cope with this sudden meeting.

'Eeeee,' Mrs. Cushman said, and made a frantic beeline for the nearest door, which happened to be that of the chapel. So she didn’t miss Rose’s funeral after all.

In the early 1940s she wrote Craig Rice-type comic mysteries. But by the early 1950s, her humor became less clowning and more witty, coming out of genuine characters and outlandish situations. So, the analogy would be Craig Rice is to The Lucy Show as Margaret Millar is to The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Readers that enjoy Patricia Highsmith and Dorothy B. Hughes should try novels by Margaret Millar.

Update: In case you don't know the allusion in the title, listen to a version of The Last Rose of Summer.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Fatal Eggs

The Fatal Eggs – Mikhail Bulgakov, tr. Hugh Alpin, 1843914115

This is an early novelette by the author of the famous novel The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov describes his main character Professor Persikov with a mix of respect and exasperation. Persikov is dedicated to his zoological and cytological research. But he is so disconnected from the real world that he doesn’t even read newspapers and his first wife left him for a mere entertainer.

Persikov makes a stunning finding purely by chance. The Stalinist government muscles in, sending in a dumb thuggish yes-man to take over Persikov's research and equipment. Due to bureaucratic muddle and ignorant misuse of Persikov's discovery, catastrophe ensues. This is sophisticated science fiction, on the level of H.G. Wells and Doris Lessing (who wrote the introduction to this edition).

I suppose one impression would emphasize that this book is really about how far the Bolshevik revolution went off the rails. Soviet critics branded Bulgakov as “a slanderer of Soviet reality.” But Bulgakov, I think, is not narrow. It wasn’t just in the Soviet Union that scientists have had to square the applications of their discoveries with their consciences– just ask J. Robert Oppenheimer. As for bureaucratic slowness exacerbating disaster, see Japan after the triple disaster of March 11, 2011. And as for luck, I think Bulgakov would assent to E.M. Forster’s observation, “There is much good luck in the world, but it is luck. We are none of us safe. We are children, playing or quarrelling on the line.”

Bulgakov was skeptical about the Revolution – why else would the ray that causes disaster be colored red? Just focusing on the politics, however, detracts from the art. Take, for example, the wonderful combination of the exuberant and the yucky in his luscious descriptions of the snakes eating people.  It calls to mind that kind of sexy, kind of gross scene in The Master and Margarita where Margarita and Natasha are applying the rejuvenating cream. Also positively Gogolian are the grotesque scientists, reporters, cops, and frenzied mobs bent on murder.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Vintage Mystery #36

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 N-6: Mystery set in the US

Playback – Raymond Chandler, 1958
Critics, readers and profs regard Raymond Chandler as the co- founder of hard-boiled detective fiction, along with James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett. This final novel starring Phillip Marlowe, one of the world's most famous fictional PI’s, has its strengths. However, its weaknesses make me warn novices to read The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, The High Window or Farewell My Lovely if they want to read Chandler for the first time.

One strong point in Playback is an evocative feeling for place (tawdry Southern California). As usual, Chander uses language with flair: “The subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.” Chandler parodies snappy talk in noir novels and directs well-aimed smacks at the Mickey Spillane School of Hard Knocks and Violent Socks.

Some interest is generated by tangents. A beautiful receptionist demonstrates her broad-minded views of the relations between the sexes in a couple of hot chapters. I’m not complaining too hard but the “good parts” don’t advance the plot or reveal more about our hero Marlowe. One geezer gives a monologue about the filthy rich and another codger goes on about love, death, and god-concepts. We duffers into stoic philosophical systems may wonder if these characters are stand-ins for Chandler. But, to repeat myself like old jossers will, the monologues don’t advance the plot or deepen characterization.

Even tolerant readers who don’t hold whodunnits to the same literary standards as novels may be disappointed. The weak mystery doesn’t provide narrative interest. The reveal is easy to figure out, given the small cast of characters. The lack of plot obviously shows that this was written first as a film script and later fleshed out, probably under pressure of illness or time or stress. Chandler was widowed and lonely, timeworn, ill, alcoholic, and hard-pressed when he wrote this novel. The flaws reminded me of Erle Stanley Gardner’s last novel, All Grass isn't Green (1970), written when he was 80 and battling what folks used to call “The Big C.”

So, Playback is only for readers who like to read everything by an author. I’m glad I read Playback, because it made me respect Chandler more than I had previously. I hadn’t read him since I was in my twenties (in the 1970s). With the snottiness of youth, I had dismissed him as not as serious as Ross Macdonald and rather pretentious and not reliable at tying up loose ends (who killed the chauffer in The Big Sleep?). I was wrong. I mean, even at near the end of his career, at less than his best, Chandler was still very much aware of language, getting the right words the right places. And he was still creatively experimenting with technique. He was still thinking hard about somber themes. I have to respect a writer with so much grit, so much soul.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

First Footsteps in East Africa

First Footsteps in East Africa – Sir Richard Burton

Sir Richard Francis Burton gained notoriety by travelling to Mecca and Medina in the early 1850s. His journey to another Muslm holy city in the Somali country, Harar, in 1854-55 is one of his forgotten books. As far as he can believed, Burton’s chronicles of hard travelling are entertaining and idiosyncratic, to say the least. Here he criticizes millet beer and local indolence.

I tried this mixture several times, and found it detestable: the taste is sour, and it flies directly to the head, in consequence of being mixed with some poisonous bark. It is served up in gourd bottles upon a basket of holcus heads, and strained through a pledget of cotton, fixed across the narrow mouth, into cups of the same primitive material: the drinkers sit around their liquor, and their hilarity argues its intoxicating properties. In the morning they arise with headaches and heavy eyes; but these symptoms, which we, an industrious race, deprecate, are not disliked by the Somal—they promote sleep and give something to occupy the vacant mind.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of Burton’s descriptions of Somali manners and society. But his personal recollections, I think, retain their brilliance and power. Here he recounts thirst near the end of the journey:

Our toil was rendered doubly toilsome by the Eastern travellers’ dread—the demon of Thirst rode like Care behind us. For twenty-four hours we did not taste water, the sun parched our brains, the mirage mocked us at every turn, and the effect was a species of monomania. As I jogged along with eyes closed against the fiery air, no image unconnected with the want suggested itself. Water ever lay before me—water lying deep in the shady well—water in streams bubbling icy from the rock—water in pellucid lakes inviting me to plunge and revel in their treasures. Now an Indian cloud was showering upon me fluid more precious than molten pearl, then an invisible hand offered a bowl for which the mortal part would gladly have bartered years of life. Then—drear contrast!—I opened my eyes to a heat-reeking plain, and a sky of that eternal metallic blue so lovely to painter and poet, so blank and deathlike to us, whose [Greek kalon] was tempest, rain-storm, and the huge purple nimbus. I tried to talk—it was in vain, to sing in vain, vainly to think; every idea was bound up in one subject, water.

This expedition had a violent ending. Near Berbera natives attacked their party. Lt. William Stroyan was killed and Lt. John Hanning Speke was severely wounded. Burton himself had a javelin piece his jaw, which caused the loss of four teeth.  The book omits that an official board of inquiry blamed Burton for excessive confidence and ignoring warnings of danger.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Vintage Mystery #8

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: Mystery with a Number in the Title

The Three Couriers – Compton Mackenzie, 1929

I was going to read The Greene Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine (1927) in order to overcome my resistance  to mysteries written in the 1920s. I feel reluctant because they are too long and wordy. Beyond 200 pages, I find it hard to tolerate overly Dickensian characters, barely recognizable social situations, and casual prejudices of racist eras. Shades of the self-fulfilling prophecy, by page five of The Greene Murder Case, I was fed up with Van Dine’s 17th century English prose style that brought to mind Raleigh and Browne. I also could not get past the supercilious manner and affected speech of the profoundly irritating series detective. As critic Odgen Nash wrote at the time, “Philo Vance | Needs a kick in the pants.”

Still committed to reading a novel of the Twenties, I was lucky enough to have fall into my lap the 1929 spy mystery The Three Couriers by Compton Mackenzie. A prolific writer before and after his work in the secret world during the Great War, Mackenzie portrayed spying not so much as a clandestine fight against the Germans and Turks but as a running contest against His Majesty’s army and navy authorities and embassy and consulate employees that put the “dip” in “diplomat.” Stationed against his will in Greece, our hero, the unfortunate Waterlow, has to put up with endless French machinations and the never-ending nincompooperies of his own agents, both British and Greek. When he finally succeeds in counter-espionage, his masters and betters utterly ignore the vital intercepted message. “This is a Charlie Chaplin war” he mutters as he bravely moves on to the next fiasco.

In The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), Chesterton makes a case for the futility of espionage, an ironic theme Somerset Maugham was to exploit in the Ashenden stories. But it could be that Mackenzie was the first to write a spy story as a black comedy of errors. The Three Couriers does not have much plot. However, the incidents and set pieces are hilarious as the hapless spies move in on the couriers. The characters are Gogolian grotesques. One wonders if he involuntarily stored these outrageous impressions in his head and wrote to get shut of them.

It seems that Mackenzie had written earlier novels based on his Intelligence activities. Extremes Meet, was published in 1928, but as a Wodehousian light comedy, it was out-sold by the release of Somerset Maugham's ground-breaking novel as collection of short stories Ashenden, which came out the same year. Critic Anthony Masters says, “Mackenzie was considerably annoyed at being overshadowed in this way.” So in 1929 Mackenzie published The Three Couriers, another story based on his spymastering exploits.  A comedy with more of a satirical bite, it sunk with few traces until this review on this unique blog that you are reading this very minute.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Act of Passion

Act of Passion – Georges Simenon, tr. Louise Varese 9781590173855

During and after WWII, Georges Simenon, creator of homicide detective Maigret, wrote stand-alone novels s such as The Engagement, Red Lights, Tropic Moon, The Man Who Watched Trains, not to mention the profoundly unsettling analogy for the German occupation of France, Dirty Snow. 

The stories are often the same: a man is so alienated from himself and society that he feels like a robot, just going through the motions of daily life. Some event brings internal and external pressures to the bursting point. In Act of Passion, Dr. Charles Alavoine, haunted by urges for sex and a sense of futility, meets Martine, filled with self-loathing due to sexual abuse in childhood. Something has to  give.

This novel is told in the first-person, in the form of a letter to the examining magistrate from the perp. The perp does not ask for forgiveness, but seeks the understanding of another man who is able to understand the feelings as the motive of his act. I can think of only one other novel where Simenon uses the first-person, In Case of Emergency, in which a lawyer explains his existential rage and defiance of conventions, especially as enforced by fussy mothers and wives that take exception to affairs with a female wild-child (played by Bridget Bardot in the movie).

Act of Passion is well-worth reading. A bit longer than his novels usually are, he presents three clearly delineated characters (husband, wife and lover), suggesting the roots of their strengths and weaknesses.