Wednesday, April 30, 2014

War Challenge #6

I read this for the 2014 War Challenge with a Twist at the reading challenge blog War Through the Generations

The Soldier’s Song – Alan Monaghan, 0330505793

This WWI novel chronicles the experience of Irishman Stephen Ryan. Brilliant enough to have won a scholarship in mathematics to Trinity College in Dublin, he still feels awkward about his working-class origins and ability to fit in with students whose families possess more wealth and status. He is too tongue-tied to get closer to fellow math-whiz Lillian Bryce, austere  but attractive in her own fashion like many intelligent women are.

When the war breaks out and with only a year to go before he is conferred, he volunteers to fight for the King’s Army. This exacerbates his already strained relationship with his younger brother Joe. Joe’s activities with republican Irish Citizen Army – a group opposing home rule - distract him from contributing to the care of their crippled widowed father.

At Gallipoli, Stephen becomes a hero due this sharpshooting and leadership skills. On R&R back in Dublin, he takes part in the Easter 1916 Rising on the opposite side of his brother. This was a sadly common division in Irish families at the time. Though he is interned, Joe is not among the executed thanks to the timely intervention of Lillian’s sister, a nurse.

Stephen is awarded a Military Cross for his actions at the Battle of Messines in June, 1917. The description of the process of mining in order to plant mines is a cut above the other battle action scenes. He goes through a hellish experience in the mud at Ypres, tearing up his knee and barely making it back to his own lines. But he is struck dumb and has to see the psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers, whose most famous patient was Siegfried Sasson and who also appears in Pat Barker’s novel The Ghost Road. Treating Stephen with early cognitive-behavioral therapy, Rivers mercifully does not resort to the usual treatments of shell shock such as shaming, use of electric shock, solitary confinement and withholding food.

Stephen finishes his war battered physically and mentally. Author Monaghan is at his strongest at handling  Stephen’s PTSD terrors. Back then people didn’t know much about battle fatigue. They didn’t realize PTSD was a condition. In this novel, it just gets a grip on a returning soldier, seemingly out of the blue. Not knowing its origins, there was no knowing how long it would last or how severe symptoms would be. Monaghan captures vividly this pained frantic unawareness.

The matter of fact writing is clear and readable. The supporting characters of Lillian and his best friend Billy are refreshing. The conclusion is open-ended, making us sure sequels were in the works. Knowing the background of the battles and the Easter Rising aids enjoyment but is not required. I’d recommend this novel, wide-ranging in setting and three year’s  time, to anybody interested in WWI stories.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Mount TBR #5

I read this book for the Mount TBR reading challenge 2014.

Murder at the Pageant -Victor L. Whitechurch, 1920

In the late 1980s, Dover Publications reprinted many classics from the golden age of British mysteries. In this one, during a pageant commemorating Queen Anne’s visit to the country estate Frimley Manor; in 1705, murder and a theft of a pearl necklace happen in tandem. The Pageant description in the opening chapter 1 attracts us with the description of clothes and the sedan chair, which later plays a part in the crimes.

The clues are presented clearly, the subplot doesn’t muddy details up. Helping the local police of Superintendent Kinch is Capt. Roger Bristow, by no means the gifted amateur beloved in whodunits but of the Secret Service. Neither has much personality but the edgy pride the copper and his sergeant feel against the spy-catcher is well-done.

Whitechurch was a curate, vicar and canon is real life and came to writing rather later in life. His writing is more careful than graceful, with long sentences salted with a remarkable number of commas. People talk like people in a novel. Still, this mystery is worth reading for its tight plotting and for the sake of variety. I mean, we need to read some new old-fashioned puzzlers from between the wars.

Friday, April 25, 2014

2014 Classic #4

Kokoro – Lafcadio Hearn

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries journalist Lafacdio Hearn published magazine pieces on Japanese life and folklore. These articles were collected in books such as Kokoro.

For fear of being embarrassed for lack of literary taste, I don’t want to be caught reading Hearn because of his arts for art’s sake, fin de siècle prose. Ornate. Needless hard words. Word order funny. In the piece A Street Singer, he writes as the ugly blind samisen player plays, “A tenderness invisible seemed to gather and quiver about us.” And more: “For out of those ugly disfigured lips there gushed and rippled a miracle of a voice—young, deep, unutterably touching in its penetrating sweetness. ‘Woman or wood-fairy?’ queried a bystander.” Yish. So many “sensations of places and of times forgotten” and things intangible and evanescent and ineffable that rolling our eyes, we readily believe one of his favorite writers was Poe.

I feel embarrassed at not being more skeptical after I find out that reporters I believed have played fast and loose with the facts. Hearn kicks off Kokoro with the story that Hearn says he saw with his own eyes. At a train station, a killer is confronted with the four-year-old son of his victim. The killer breaks down in repentance, providing proof of, Hearn asserts, "that potential love of children which is so large a part of the soul of every Japanese." A Japanese scholar, Ōta Yuzō, looked up the original newspaper accounts of this incident. He reports that the killer did not address the boy, gave only a curt apology to the widow, and generally acted with as little remorse as the cold-blooded thugs that have shot somebody to get an iPhone.

That otherwise bright people believe woo-woo such as the collective unconscious is embarrassing. Years before he arrived in Japan at the age of 40, Hearn came under the influence of the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. A Lamarckist of sorts, Hearn considered genetic memory to be a fusion of memory and heredity. Kokoro is dotted with numinous, preternatural notions like this:

·         How deeply-reaching into the life of the race some of these sensations are, such as the pleasure in odors and in colors, Grant Allen has most effectively suggested in his "Physiological Aesthetics," and in his charming treatise on the Color-Sense.

·         Scientifically we know that within one tiny living cell may be stored up the whole life of a race,—the sum of all the past sensation of millions of years; perhaps even (who knows?) of millions of dead planets.

·         The strength of Japan, like the strength of her ancient faith, needs little material display: both exist where the deepest real power of any great people exists,—in the Race Ghost.

·         The explanation [of acceptance of impermancy] is in the race character,—a race character in more ways than one the very opposite of our own.

·         Well, the emotion of beauty, like all of our emotions, is certainly the inherited product of unimaginably countless experiences in an immeasurable past.

Millions of dead planets. The Race Ghost. As an ex-Jungian, I blush.

Clearly, I feel acute embarrassment when I see others embarrassing themselves in ways in which I embarrassed myself in the past. Not just me. Any sojourner who has lived and studied or worked in a foreign country for a couple of years has gone through the same stages Hearn went through.

First is initial excitement and infatuation. For Hearn, everything Japanese was polite, graceful, quaint, small, tidy, tastefully artistic, as well as clean and smelling like a gardenia. But we squirm when we recall our first reactions to a new place were just as smitten, with a tendency to gush as Hearn did in the above story about the killer.

Second is culture shock. For Hearn, it was maddening that traditional Japan was being mindlessly Occidentalized. Hearn frankly states, “I confess to being one of those who believe that the human heart, even in the history of a race, may be worth infinitely more than the human intellect, and that it will sooner or later prove itself infinitely better able to answer all the cruel enigmas of the Sphinx of Life.” I for one shudder a bit when I recall my youthful romanticism, nostalgic for times long past, places to flee where I didn’t have to worry about finding a job in the downsizing Eighties.

Third is the realization that the local people exhibit all the strengths and faults, commonsense and quirks of folks back in the old hometown. After about four years in Japan, Hearn was writing to his friend Basil Hall Chamberlain (a much more clear-minded observer of Japan): "Lowell says the Japanese have no individuality. I wish he had to teach here for a year, and he would discover some of the most extraordinary individualities he ever saw." Having taught in Japan for six years myself (1986 - 92), I can only agree whole-heartedly that is better – in the sense of easier on the stomach – to accept people and places as they are.

As I grow older, I consider the will to avoid embarrassment to be a motivator in life. Not as strong as greed, lust, love and hate. But strong enough to make people procrastinate out of fear of failure and its perceived damage to self-confidence and reputation.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mount TBR #4

I read this book for the Mount TBR reading challenge 2014.

The Case of the Green-eyed Sister – Erle Stanley Gardner

What has poor old Ned Bain done to deserve such a troubled old age? He’s got the guilts on account of over-dutiful daughter Hattie who’s sacrificed her chance at a loving husband and family so she could nurse him and his dodgy heart. Instead of getting an honest job like any man should, his son Jarret has married rich and spends his wife’s money looking at ruins – i.e. fallen down buildings --  in the Yucatan. His daughter Sylvia is a loose-cannon manipulator and divorcee to boot. Snooty and cold Sylvia makes a poor impression on intuitive Della Street who says of Sylvia, "She'd cut your heart out for thirty-seven cents."

As if his children were not worry enough, a rum friend, J.J. Fritch from the past is trying to blackmail him. J.J. is threatening to tell the bank that Ned’s fortune is based on money stolen in a heist, which would wipe out the Bain family. J.J. is using crooked PI Brogan to plague him. Daughter Sylvia goes to Perry Mason

The action careens around tight corners with the upshot being Perry Mason finds himself having to defend daughter Hattie on a murder charge. Who would have thought such a mousey woman would take a bad guy out with an icepick?

Gardner has fun – and certain readers will too – as Mason dissects improper police procedure such as witness priming and sloppy police procedure such as not bothering to look for evidence. This happens so often in Perry Mason novels that they could be considered anti-police procedurals. The trial scene in Chapter Fourteen, about 50 pages, is one of the longest in all the Gardner novels.

The reveal is quite clever and counts as one of the more famous endings among Mason fans. Mystery fans who like retro 1950s fashion and word play (“lead pipe cinch”) will enjoy this readable book.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Vintage Mystery #10

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-2: Mystery with Courtroom, Lawyers

According to the Evidence – Henry Cecil, 1954

"It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer,” goes the formulation by the English jurist William Blackstone.  But in this novel, due to a lack of evidence a serial killer is acquitted, and goes on to kill not one but two women. An ex-commando, Alec Morland, takes the law into own hands and dispatches the serial killer over the edge of cliff.

The evidence tying Morland to the murder is tenuous, but  Morland’s fiancé Jill worries that suspicion will never be dispelled and thus blight their family life.  She asks con man turned stockbroker Ambrose Low to figure out a way to get Morland to trial and get him acquitted. Low turns to witness tampering (interfering, in British English), which blows up in his face.

Henry Cecil was a barrister and high court judge himself so his views on evidence, judges, juries, lawyers, and clients are worth listening to. His legal fiction from the Fifites and Sixties is still in print, because his wit, style, intelligence, and deft plotting still provide much interest and sheer reading pleasure. The writing is lucid, simplified for the lay reader, but we never feel condescended to.

While this is not a typical whodunit, I still recommend it to mystery fans. Cecil’s humor is very English, wise, and humane. He uses Wodehousian characters such a dim-witted colonel to delightful effect, putting them in situations designed to exploit all comic potential.