Friday, August 29, 2014

European RC #1

I read this for the European Reading Challenge 2014.

Tante Jeanne aka Aunt Jeanne – Georges Simenon 1950 , tr. By Geoffrey Sainsbury 1953

At Poitiers, where she had to change trains, she hadn’t been able to resist temptation. Ten times, dragging her suitcase, she had passed in front of the bar. The feeling of discomfort in her chest was really scary and it got worse each time she approached her goal. It was like a great bubble of air, certainly quite as big as one of her breasts, which was trying to force it way upward to her throat, to find an exit, and she waited anxiously motionless, staring in front of her, feeling sure at moments that she was going to die.

A  57-year-old woman returns to her home village not far from Poitiers after forty years of a marginal existence overseas. Tired, overweight, and suffering idiopathic edema in her legs, she seeks refuge and security in the bosom of her family, now headed by her brother Robert. He’s running the family business in the wine trade.

However, instead of the stability and security she was seeking, Aunt Jeanne finds an eccentric family in the throes of a recent tragedy. The first son, Julien, has been killed in car crash brought on by the usual symptoms of trouble, night driving at a high rate of speed, overuse of alcohol, and alpha-male stupidity.

Alice, the immature 20-year-old widow of Julien, displays indifference to her infant son Bob, and fights boredom by just leaving the kid at home and hanging out with her rummy friends. Henri, the second son, has a weak character. Madeleine, the daughter, is stuck-up about and wounded by her own promiscuity. Both despise their mother Louise, Jeanne’s sister-in-law, because she drinks too much and is prone to hysterics. It’s a troubled family beset by money worries, acting out dramas, slamming doors, and noisy arguments punctuated with frozen silences. As Alice’s mother, the inevitable tight-fisted and unpleasant in-law, tartly observes, “It’s a madhouse.”

Since everybody is incapable or apathetic, Jeanne takes over the management of the household. Simenon, indirectly as usual, illustrates that when we have to think about others we often forget our own problems such as despair, fatigue, overweight, and edema. Aunt Jeanne’s quiet efficiency earns the confidence of the family and their grudging gratitude, as far as small-minded people can feel it. The family faces a financial crisis that narrows their choices drastically, which is simultaneously lucky and unlucky for them. Aunt Jeanne herself then evaluates three possible responses to change, depending on family, depending on the state, and, as we’d expect in Simenon’s existential novels of the Fifties, doing away with herself.

But, like in the other non-Maigret novels, the characters find that though their alternatives are limited, they must face reality and settle for what life throws at them. Nothing is completely good or completely bad. We have to accept new exhaustions, new misunderstandings or new ungratefulness because it’s the world. Despite the simple plot and writing style, Simenon is complex and ambiguous. His novels plunge us readers in an intense world of forms, colors, scents, noises, flavors and feelings. Even secondary characters are vivid, in this case, Désirée, Aunt Jeanne’s old convent buddy; the cold as ice medico Dr. Bernard; and the reptilian ancient lawyer Monsieur Bigeois. Simenon only gradually, tantalizingly reveals reasons why people do what they do.

People live in the same house, sleep in the same bed or separated only by thin walls, sit down for meals together three times a day, and then are surprised to discover, one fine day, that they know nothing whatever about each other.

Who needs the overheated and hysterical and so frickin’ long Dostoyevsky when we can read Simenon? I found this novella a pleasure, from Jeanne's first slug of brandy  (for courage) at the train station to the tentatively cheerful ending in which people settle for what life tosses their way.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Vintage Mystery #16

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-3: Read a Book Already Read by a Fellow Challenger. See Pretty Sinister Books.

A Sad Song Singing – Thomas B. Dewey, 1963

Among such knowledgeable readers as the people who read this blog, confusion will inevitably arise due to the similarity of the names Thomas B. Dewey and Thomas E. Dewey. Thomas B. wrote mysteries starring the one-named PI Mac. Pictured at this link, Thomas E. was a New York Republican about whose facial hair Herbert Hoover observed, "A man couldn't wear a mustache like that without having it affect his mind."

Thomas B. Dewey wrote about 16 Mac novels from 1947 to 1970. A Sad Song Singing was written in 1963, about half-way through the life of the series. Mac’s stomping ground is Chicago. One theme in Dewey’s books is lost youth, so in this one features a seventeen-year-old girl who has been driven out of her country town by gossip to the big bad city. Her guitar-strumming folk song-singing boyfriend has left her with a locked suitcase, telling her not to open it and that he’ll be back for it. But three thugs are after the suitcase and will stop at nothing to get it. The girl hires Mac with money she made waitressing in a coffee house. As in the music-related mystery Blues for the Prince by Bart Spicer, this novel has cool period details about the folk music, beatnik, and hootenanny scene of the late Fifties.

There are also hints of the generation gap that was to receive so much attention in the middle Sixties. Mac is in his mid-thirties. As quiet, sensitive, and compassionate as Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, Mac thinks, "I had no way to read what was in her mind." This is a common enough response to teenager females but especially ones who learned at home from an early age never ever to disclose anything that was going on in their heads.

I thought the prose was subdued, if well-crafted and eminently readable. The thugs lack names, which implies that they are relentless forces that we can’t help fearing. From Elkhart, Indiana and having lived all over the Midwest, Dewey effectively evokes the country towns outside Chicago and Gary. This novel was good enough to put me on the look-out for others in the Mac series or his other PI hero, Pete Schofield who solved cases with his red-headed bombshell of a wife Jeannie (which I pronounce “genie”).

In 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction, critic and mystery writer Bill Pronzini hailed A Sad Song Singing as "one of the ten best private-eye novels ever written" and praised the book for its "emotional depth and impact." In 2007 Pronzini told an interviewer, “My favorite character is Thomas B. Dewey’s private detective Mac, who is hard when he should be but still human and sometimes vulnerable. I tried to create the same kind of mixture with Nameless.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Vintage Mystery #33

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 L-6: Mystery that involves a mode of transportation in a vital way

The Passenger from Scotland Yard – H.E. Wood, 1888
This novel fits the theme because the opening chapters feature the shenanigans on the overnight mail train to Dover and the crossing of the English Channel. Wood deliberately obscures what the five passengers are up to so we readers stay on guard. After a killing comes out of the blue, we wonder if the book will focus on the murder or the diamond theft.

Reading an early mystery, I had prepared myself for Victorian verboseness and digressions. I was pleasantly surprised by the tightly constructed plot. The characterization of the Scotland Yard man Byde, the fence Grandpa, the pickpocket Bat, and his vicious mentor St. John held my rapt attention. Only mildly stagey and wordy, the intricate and subtle conversations were enjoyable to read. The author feels affectionate toward Byde’s touching belief in education, especially the use of Euclidean geometry to consider and eliminate suspects. Mathematics fans will like Wood’s implicit assertion that training in math fosters clear thinking, a skill and habit that can be transferred to other areas of life.

The evocation of travelling by train in the 1880s is not the only effective period re-creation in the novel. Wood must have lived in Paris during that time because his believable descriptions of the people and places are full of life. Back then, when the cops were unable to identify a corpse, they would expose the remains at the morgue near Notre Dame so that worried friends and relative and perhaps curiosity-seekers and tourists too could stroll by and recognize the departed. I find descriptions like this most worthy tangents:

Passing to the rear of the cathedral, and skirting the little gardens which there lie, the inspector and his companions saw that groups of idlers had already congregated in front of the Morgue. Persons were also approaching from the bridges on both sides, and others were ascending the two or three steps at the entrance to the building. Visitors who had satisfied their curiosity lounged through the doorway, and down the steps, and augmented the knots of debaters scattered along the pavement. Some of the women and children were cracking nuts and eating sweetmeats, purchased from itinerant vendors who had stationed their barrows at the side of the road. One hawker was endeavouring to sell bootlaces; another was enumerating the titles of the comic songs which he exhibited in cheap leaflets, strung together on a wooden frame.

Just wonderful. In the midst of life, there is death, but in the face of death life rocks and rolls, cracking nuts and putting up song sheets on wooden frames. Fin-de-Siecle Paris I add to my list of places to have been cool to have lived.

In the introduction to the Dover edition released in 1977, editor E.F. Bleiler, whose job was to distinguish trash and treasure, considers The Passenger from Scotland Yard to be the best detective novel published between The Moonstone (1866) by Wilkie Collins and The Hound of Baskervilles (1902) by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Mount TBR #17

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

Florentine Finish – Cornelius Hirschberg, 1963

Mystery writers who have used their own personal or professional experience include Erle Stanley Gardner (lawyering), P.D. James (health care administration), Sarah Paretseky (insurance) and writing as Emma Lathen, Mary Jane Latsis (banking and law) and Martha Henissart (economics and finance).

Three years after publishing his autobiography, The Priceless Gift, Cornelius Hirschberg put his experience as a jewelry salesman to work in a crime novel, Florentine Finish. It is a fast-paced adventure of murder in the black market jewelry business. The story is about Saul Handy, an ex-police officer who sells jewelry. As the result of a private deal, he finds himself in the midst of three murders connected to the jewelry black market. He is being framed for the murders, so he decides to solve them himself.

The violence in Florentine Finish is contrived at times, according to Elmer Pry of Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers. For example, Handy has a bloody body hanging out of his back seat as he drives for blocks. Finally, a police officer stops him and asks, "Who's your friend?" Overall, though, Pry was impressed with this novel. He wrote, "[Hirschberg's] use of the commercial setting is as intriguing, as informed and informing, and as central to his story as Wall Street's banking milieu is to any of Emma Lathen's Judge Thatcher stories, although Hirschberg's style is closer to the hard-boiled mode, with its colloquial language, violence, and isolated and cynical, but finally somehow sentimental, hero."

This mystery won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1964. He never wrote another book.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

War Challenge #16

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

Reconciliation Road: A Family Odyssey of War and Honor - John Douglas Marshall, 1993

The author is a grandson of S.L.A. Marshall (1900 - 77), author of highly respected descriptions of small unit combat such as The River and The Gauntlet and Pork Chop Hill. Marshall also wrote a book, Men Against Fire. In it, he argued that most infantry men don’t fire their weapons for various reasons and  that assertion strongly influenced how the army trained infantry troops in the years running up to the Vietnam era.

In 1989, an American Heritage magazine article said that after his death in 1977, Marshall’s papers did not include statistical analyses of the rates of fire of infantry soldiers. The article implied that Marshall did not even conduct individual and group interviews, a data collection technique that he pioneered.  

In order to clear up these charges of data monkey-business in his grandfather’s field research, Marshall set out on a cross country tour of research centers and interviews with military retirees who worked with his grandfather. This mission was colored by the fact that the family had disowned the author due to his honorable discharge from the Army as a conscientious objector in 1971.

While interviewing, he found out that the critics of his grandfather didn’t have much on which to base their beliefs but prejudice and animus. His grandfather’s supporters conceded that there didn’t seem to be statistics behind the assertions and conclusions, but his influence contributed to the Army in terms of battlefield doctrine. Not accurate, one granted, but meaningful (sounds kind of like the defenders of serious literary fiction). At the very least, he proved that Marshall conducted the hundreds of after action interviews to collect data

I think this would have been a better book if he had spent a little time on reviewing his grandfather’s books, getting at how the punchy writing style made them so popular with the general public. The last third of the book seemed rushed, with interviews summarized in only a perfunctory fashion. Overall, though, an interesting book about the family discord caused by the Vietnam War.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Nonfiction RC #5

I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014 reading challenge 2014.

The Blue-Eyed Salaryman: From World Traveler to Lifer at Mitusbishi - Niall Murtagh

I lived in Okinawa from 1986 to 1992, teaching English at a university. My Japanese language proficiency reached the intermediate level for speaking and listening and the level a Japanese 13-year-old  for reading and writing. So for me to take seriously a book about the expatriate experience in Japan, I have to trust the author whose credibility depends on time in country and language proficiency.

I trusted Murtagh because he has lived there a long time and earned an advanced degree in a language not his own. An Irishman, he arrived in-country the same year I did, during the period Japan was talking about kokusaika, or internationalization. He earned a PHD from the respected Tokyo Institute of Technology, majoring in computer science and engineering. He was hired as a research scientist by Mitsubishi Electric.

He tells stories that will be familiar to many foreigners in japan. He had to jump through hoops to get an apartment in Osaka since the old-fashioned landlord was nervous about renting to a foreigner. His blue eyes threw off eye exam devices that assumed everybody had brown or black eyes. His neighbors in Osaka attributed all his behavior to the fact that he was a foreigner,  who all have such odd ways.

He tells many excellent stories about dealing with the stodgy corporate culture of Mitsubishi.  He had to apply for permission to bicycle to work. He developed work-arounds to deal with the endless writing of weekly reports that nobody read. He endured the incessant meetings. With a light touch he makes telling points about discrimination against foreigners, a narrow and confining office culture, and the lack of independence of thought or action.

This book joins the few expat memoirs of Japan that are worth reading. Though I don’t think they spoke the language fluently,  Donald Richie The Inland Sea (1971) and Pico Iyer in The Lady and the Monk (1991) wrote classics. Leila Philip’s The Road Through Miyama (1989) is quiet memoir that covers her two-year apprenticeship in a pottery village in southern Kyushu, almost as far away as Okinawa. Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan (1994) is a must read about the uglification of Japan and the beating traditional Japan has taken from modernized Japan. Kerr’s language proficiency is such that he writes for Japanese newspapers. Two incredible books by the late Alan Booth are The Roads to Sata: A 2,000-Mile Walk Through Japan (1985) and Looking for the Lost (1995).