Friday, November 28, 2014

Mount TBR #32

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

After Many a Summer aka After Many a Summer Dies the Swan – Aldous Huxley, 1939

Critics often describe this as Huxley’s satiric “Hollywood novel.” For sure, Huxley, the most erudite writer of his generation, takes funny potshots at American superficial crassness, tasteless kitsch, philistine looseness of education, and worship of youth. However, Huxley does not focus on the toilers in Tinsel Town’s major industry. Instead, the story focuses on oil millionaire, Jo Stoyte.

Like Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ famous movie, Stoyte is a collector of art and people. To his gothic castle in Southern California, he has granted residence to his lascivious mistress, a battalion of servants, and the only childhood friend that treated him decently, an academic turned Vedantist sage. Stoyte also funds a private research lab whose director is a cynical doctor working on extending human longevity. Because he was brought up on mean religion, Stoyte fears death like nothing else:

Always, in the background of his mind, there floated an image of that circular marble room, with Roden's image of desire at the centre, and that wide slab in the pavement at its base--the slab that would someday have his name engraved upon it: Joseph Penton Stoyte, and the dates of his birth and death. And along with that inscription went another, in orange letters on a coal black ground: It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Huxley, to my mind, is not as hyper-intellectual or excessively articulate as Rebecca West. But the action is mainly the characters doing a lot of talking. While he includes dabs of fantasy and science fiction elements, Huxley delves into Vedantist thought, art, poetry, and morals. As usual, though, Huxley keeps his feet on the ground, exploring the interior of characters and identifying plausible justifications for their silly behavior, which is irrational in an ordinary way. The senseless homicide in the story will call to mind the TV reality cop show, The First 48 Hours, on which virtually all the killings are committed for reasons so trivial and stupid that it taxes belief. Huxley was a mystic, but he lived in this silly scheming lurid world  where too many people just DGAF.

He also wrote clear prose, even when the dialogue concerns the most fantastic issues  in Vedantist mysticism.  Huxley called this novel "a wild extravaganza, but with the quality of most serious parable" and later called it "a kind of fantasy, at once comic and cautionary, farcical, blood-curdling and reflective." Readers and advanced yoga fans in search of a funny, scary novel of ideas, just as relevant nowadays as it was 75 years ago may want to check this one out.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Nonfiction RC #15

I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014.

A Naturalist in the Amazons - Henry Walter Bates, 1863

This is the most famous book by the Victorian self-taught naturalist and travel writer. It became a classic description of landscape, wildlife, and inhabitants because of its blend of entomology, ornithology, primatology, and anthropology in the participant observer manner. Because of his work on insects, he contributed to the support of the theory of natural selection. He is not a well-remembered as his colleagues Wallace, Huxley, and Galton, perhaps because he had an extremely modest personality and lacked university credentials.

In 1848, at the age of 23, he sailed with Wallace in order to collect objects of natural history, with a special emphasis on beetles and butterflies. In his eleven years in the Amazon, he collected over 14,000 species, of which 8000 were new to science. He financed his research by sending back to the UK specimens that his agent sold to museums and eager affluent amateurs. He loved the forest and preferred the society of the locals to Europeans to the extent that he considered staying in Brazil permanently. But as he grew older, the discomforts and privations took a toll on his health and he returned to England. Though he published research papers and corresponded much with Darwin, he did not make a scientific career, becoming an official with the Royal Geographical Society.

Bates wrote large sections of the book at different times, in different places. Thus, the structure of the book feels strange, though prose in almost always interesting and readable. The first quarter or so spends much time on his initial months around Belém. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable to read of his sense of wonder at the beauty of the forest, calling to mind Lafcadio Hearn’s wide-eyed essay “My First Day in the Orient.” Then, he describes the regions of Ega and Santarém in a closely-observed fashion. Once he reaches the upper Amazon, he is back to writing in diary form.

The Dover edition I read retained the illustrations from an edition released in the 1870s. In one Bates is pictured looking very 1970s in a checked shirt and trousers. His large round glasses, too, make him look like unique if quiet and unassuming, a modest guy whose done extraordinary things. He writes like that too: modest, not in the way of his own prose (like Burton), saying, “Isn’t this wonderful?”

A great variety of other beautiful and curious insects adorned these pleasant woods. Others were seen only in the sunshine in open places. As the waters retreated from the beach, vast numbers of sulphur-yellow and orange coloured butterflies congregated on the moist sand. The greater portion of them belonged to the genus Callidryas. They assembled in densely-packed masses, sometimes two or three yards in circumference, their wings all held in an upright position, so that the beach looked as though variegated with beds of crocuses. These Callidryades seem to be migratory insects, and have large powers of dissemination. During the last two days of our voyage, the great numbers constantly passing over the river attracted the attention of every one on board. They all crossed in one direction, namely, from north to south, and the processions were uninterrupted from an early hour in the morning until sunset. All the individuals which resort to the margins of sandy beaches are of the male sex. The females are much more rare, and are seen only on the borders of the forest, wandering from tree to tree, and depositing their eggs on low mimosas which grow in the shade. The migrating hordes, as far as I could ascertain, are composed only of males, and on this account I believe their wanderings do not extend very far.

Readers interested in botany, entomology, the Amazon, intrepid Victorians or great travelers will like this book.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Mount TBR #31

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

The Glass Cage (La Cage de Verre) – Georges Simenon, 1971

Emile Virieu works as proofreader at a large printing works in Paris. After his graduation, he landed some go-nowhere jobs due to his lack of pep. Eventually he found his glass cage, where he is literally locked up with sets of proofs to read and repair throughout the day. The enclosed area comforts him in that he feels secure among his co-workers who are in view but not near enough to have to interact with.

To escape domestic loneliness, he entered a loveless marriage with a typist he met at the printers. She is three years his senior, a cold intellectual, and works at home as a translator for a publishing house. The high points of life include an Italian holiday and a puppy.

Their flat, calm, monotonous life is rocked by a family tragedy. His brother-in-law, Fernand Lamarck, is an ingenious and high-spirited lawyer. But one day he falls in love with a young girl that he intends to marry after he divorces his wife. However, the wife refuses to let him go. This complication leads the young girl to end their romance, a decision that drives a drunk and desperate Fernand to suicide.

This drama is not the only the event that stirs Emile out of his apathy and inertia. A young married couple moves into Emile’s apartment building.  The young wife flirts with Emile. “Uh-oh,” clucks the veteran reader of Simenon’s psychological thrillers.

Sure, you can guess her flirtatiousness meeting Emile's ticking bomb will end badly. But the suspense Simenon builds while getting to the climax provides enjoyable reading. Nothing like existential noir pulp.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Mount TBR #30

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

The Funeral Party – Lyudmila Ulitskaya

Alik is dying of a paralysis that started in his limbs and will suffocate him to death when it reaches his diaphragm. He emigrated from the USSR to New York in the early Seventies and made kind of a living as a painter, as in art, not houses. 1991 finds him on his deathbed, but surrounded by his wife, ex-lovers and friends. His wife Nina is an alcoholic who thinks Alik’s conversion from non-observant Judaism to Orthodox Christianity will help make medicinal potions effective. Valentina is an ex-lover as is Irina who has a fifteen-year-old daughter nicknamed Teeshirt.

The appeal of this short readable novel is that Ulitskaya creates thumbnail sketches of the characters. The reader can tell she likes to give details about her characters’ stories. But she never gives too many details. Nor does she dig into their heads much. The stories in this novel give a sense of the diversity of the Russian emigrant experience in New York City.

Granted, there’s a certain amount of stereotypical Russian large than life big-heartedness. But that never gets tedious. One plus for variety is that Ulitskaya introduces a group of Guaraní speakers from Paraguay. They provide diverting laughter and music.

I would start this book slowly in order to keep the names and relationships straight.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mount TBR #29

I read this book for the Mount TBR reading challenge 2014.
The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink – Erle Stanley Gardner, 1952

More than a couple of Perry Mason mysteries begin in restaurants. The super lawyer and his confidential assistant Della Street are just minding their own business after a long day of depositions and briefs and correspondence, when –blam! whoop! oof! – trouble finds them.

Waitress Dixie Dayton disappears from her shift, leaving behind a paycheck and a moth-eaten but still salvageable mink coat. Some brute tries to run her down in a back alley, and a mug tries to gun her down. She ends up in the hospital but she does a bunk.

Her boss, the twitchy Morris Alburg, hires Mason to find out why Dixie took her powder. Mason takes the mink in hand and finds in its lining a pawn ticket from a Seattle shop.

Through various twists, the police find out that Dixie pawned a diamond ring and more dangerously for her and Moe, a gun. Tests show the gun was the same weapon that killed a police officer in the line of duty. Dixie's boyfriend, Thomas E. Sedgwick, is the suspect-o primo in the police murder. Unusually  for a Mason novel, which are pretty non-violent except for an inevitable murder, the bodies mount up. Dixie and Moe are implicated in the murder of an all-round hard-case named George Fayette. Of course, Mason takes them on as clients.

This outing abounds in the strange and unexpected.
·         Not one but two strange messages are written in lipstick in a seedy hotel room.
·         In the courtroom scene, Mason doubles as the counsel for the defense and a witness for the prosecution.
·         One of Paul Drake’s employees turns out to be a semi-bad guy.
·         The nature of Moe Alburg’s ties to organized crime figures is left unexplained.
·         Not one but two witnesses possess extraordinary memory abilities.
·         Uncommonly for a Mason reveal, the solution is held until the very last page.
·         Dixie Dayton turns out to be an alias, and Gardner never bothers to tell her real name.
·         In the startling finish, Lt. Tragg shows himself to be one bad mother- - shut your mouth! But I’m just talking about Tragg, a complicated man, so you can dig it.

Gardner’s repetitive formula has three markers: fast tempo, almost entirely dialogue, and faith that forensic science will trump human error a.k.a. procedural goofs made by police due to illogic, incompetence, and prejudice. Readers looking for descriptions of crime scenes or landscapes or explication of the characters’ personalities had better look elsewhere. Gardner’s narrative style was narrow, but he was creative and exellent at what he did.