Thursday, December 31, 2015

Mount TBR 2015Final Checkpoint

Click the date posted to go to the review.

37/ The Image – Daniel Boorstin

38/ All Tomorrow’s Parties – William Gibson

39/ Anger – Albert Ellis

40/ The Crystal Spirit – George Woodcock

41/ Zen and Zen Classics I – R.H. Blyth

42/ The Case of the Lame Canary – Erle Stanley Gardner

43/ Houdini: The Untold Story – Melbourne Christopher

44/ The Old Man Dies – Georges Simenon

45/ The Real Frank Zappa Book – Frank Zappa

46/ Dear Dr. Menninger – Faulkner & Pruitt

47/ The King of Pirates – Daniel Defoe

48/ The Case of Half-Wakened Wife – ESG

49/ No Name – Wilkie Collins

50/ Masters of Sex – William Maier

51/ Murder a la Mode – Patricia Moyes

52/ Blood of Victory – Alan Furst

53/ The Perils of Sherlock Holmes – Loren Estleman

54/ The Case of the Empty Tin – ESG

55/ Murder to Go – Emma Lathen

56/ Some Buried Caesar – Rex Stout

57/ In and Out of  Character – Basil Rathbone

58/ The Destructive War – Charles Royster

59/ The High Wire – William Haggard
Post: Thursday, December 31

Mount TBR #59

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The High Wire – William Haggard

Elated by his divorce and an unexpected vacation, our protagonist Rex talks too much about Project A, of which he is the project manager, to three urbane strangers he meets at an Italian ski resort. Series hero Col. Charles Russell of British counter-intelligence is made aware of Rex’s possible indiscretion about a new Cold War weapon. Russell’s radar really starts to buzz when one of the urbane strangers is killed in suspicious hit and run.

This spy thriller does have car chases, gunfights, and attempted kidnappings with helicopters. But Haggard’s gift is imparting the feeling to the reader than anything can happen. Tension and suspense add to the intricate plot and unique incidents. But what’s realistic is that everyman Rex, a war veteran not easily beaten, is way out of his depth dealing with both the gentleman spy and the thug spymaster. Haggard, a conservative that calls to mind John Bingham, assumes that authority must keep the spears sharpened against malevolence and evil.

Mystery critic Robin Winks, in Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays (1988), notes: “What has given Haggard his readership is his unwillingness to shed blood unnecessarily, his sympathy and insight into all of his figures, who are seen less in the traditional roles of villain and hero than as actors in a stylish drama in which all are motivated by a reasonable self-interest, and his subtle, ironic, detached voice. His books are not for the impatient.”

Mount TBR #58

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans – Charles Royster

This is the most serious, most profound book I’ve ever read about the American Civil War, a conflict I’ve been reading about for the last 30 years. Now-retired LSU professor of history Charles Royster documents the wild talk in both sections that called for one side to exterminate the other. Royster argues and shows how it took time for the generals to catch up with clamor in support of “drastic war.” His poster-generals for destructive war were Thomas Jackson and William Sheridan. Both ``epitomized the waging of successful war by drastic measures justified with claims to righteousness.'' The war was fought so hard because the two sides had fundamental differences about individual liberty, nationality and the meaning of citizenship, labor’s role in creating wealth, and federal authority dating back to the American Revolution.

He also documents how both sides, however, were still surprised at the American aptitude to wage violence on such a massive scale. Buffs looking for discussion of weapons and troop movements and battle narratives will have to look elsewhere. Instead of stirring, his narrative are sobering. In cool tones, Royster narrates of the burning of Colombia, SC in the first chapter and the battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Interesting but not as smoothly handled is the complicated story of the shooting of Jackson by his own men at Chancellorsville.

Royster has obviously read everything and he passes along extremely curious facts. Besides being a deeply religious man, Jackson was also very much into self-improvement and read the self-help authors of his day. As for Sherman, his experiences with lying, chiseling, stealing, and such outlawry in California both pre- and post-Gold Rush, made him fear disorder and see secessionists as those who took themselves out of the protection of legitimate government and the laws of property. Sherman said, “They brought it on themselves. . . . They need to learn the folly of making war against the government.'' Royster follows Sherman’s post-war career as main occupied with justifying the violence Civil War as necessary to the progress and prosperity of the USA in the 1880s.

Any serious and focused reader interested in the mentality of people in the North and South during the Civil War era should read this book. The book ends with Royster’s description of the federal army’s victory review through Washington, D.C. Sherman irritably pushed his way past visitors, cursing at the spectators. No reason – wars, once started, are not governed by reason.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Mount TBR #57

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

In and Out of Character – Basil Rathbone

Rathbone is a literate, fluent writer, and a fine story-teller as the English, the Irish, the Scots, and American Southeners often are. The content about his theater acting is interesting, especially for readers who know The Theatre well enough to know who Katherine Cornell was.

He covers his Hollywood years broadly, because he felt that his work in films was sub-par. However, there are some fascinating production stories here and there. He relates, for example, how MGM nixed his nuanced idea about how to play Karenin, forcing him to play the part as the dumb heavy to contrast with Garbo’s tortured – and over the top, to our eyes nowadays – Anna. O classic Hollywood – waster of talent in mediocre movies!

Rathbone was an actor-artist, pouring study and thought into making his characters different in every production.  Rathbone says this is the difference between an actor (always different ) and an entertainer (always himself or herself). Recall (if you’re old enough) Peter O’Toole’s memorable line in My Favorite Year, “I’m not an actor – I’m a movie star!”

From Buffalo in western New York to Perth in western Australia, moviegoers knew Basil Rathbone for his role as Sherlock Holmes in 17 Universal movies from 1939 to 1946. However, in this autobiography, he spends just eleven pages telling about the various productions, Nigel Bruce, and his sympathy with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who tried so hard to kill off Holmes and write the historical novels he wanted to write:

He had created a sort of Frankenstein that he could not escape from. And so he decided to kill Mr. Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls and be done with him. I frankly admit that in 1946 I was placed in a somewhat similar predicament — but I could not kill Mr. Holmes. So I decided to run away from him.

Rathbone writes that he was typecast as a villain (think Sir Guy in Robin Hood) and then “buried,” creatively speaking, as Holmes. I think he’s rather hard on the Holmes movies. While the first two are brilliant and the remaining much less so, Rathbone does play Holmes in different ways. Professional as he was, Rathbone never seems to be mailing it in.

Since Rathbone was a typical guy of his generation (born in 1892), his default inclination is reticence. In the trenches during the Great War, he had a premonition of his younger brother’s being killed in action at the exact time he was in fact getting killed in action. Rathbone concludes the story as if to give the impression he's done talking about this topic forever: “We had always been very close to one another.”

As a consequence of the  writer’s discretion, readers of Hollywood books looking for juicy gossip will be disappointed by this book. As an example of how trying reading this book is, Rathbone, a dog-lover, tells some moving stories about his canine buddies. But the pictures don’t include any shots of him and the dogs. Weird.

This is a frustrating autobiography. Mercifully, though, the book does not cover twilight of his career which included monstrosities like Queen of Blood, Hillbillys in a Haunted House, and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. It would be fun to be snarky, I guess, if it weren’t so goddamn sad.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Back to the Classics 2015 Final Wrap Up Post

I read these books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015.

Click on the title to go to the review.

•  19th Century Classic: My Lady's Money - Wilkie Collins

•  20th Century Classic: Kappa - Akutagawa Ryunosuke

•  Classic by a Woman: Among the Tibetans – Isabella Bird

•  Classic in Translation: Magic and Mystery in Tibet – Alexandra David-Neel (original in French)

•  Very Long Classic: David Copperfield – Charles Dickens.

•  Classic Novella: The First Men in the Moon – H.G. Wells

•  Classic With a Name in the Title: Best Max Carrados Mysteries – Ernest Bramah

•  Humorous or Satirical Classic: A Rogue’s Life -  Wilkie Collins

•  Forgotten Classic: Hoaxes - Curtis Daniel MacDougall

•  Non-fiction Classic: The Naturalist in LaPlata – W.H. Hudson (lesser-known work by a famous author of Green Mansions)

•  Children's Classic: The Lost World – Arthur Conan Doyle

•  Classic Play: Volpone – Ben Jonson

Cloak & Dagger 2016 Sign Up Post

2016 will be the second year that I’ve joined the Cloak & Dagger Challenge. The object is to read books in the genre of mystery, suspense, thriller, and crime.

I will read 20 books to reach the Detective level.

Mount TBR 2016 Sign Up Post

2016 will be the third year that I’ve attempted the Mount TBR Challenge. Because in the past year I’ve bought far fewer books now than in the past, I’ve made serious progress in converting shelf space from books to family pictures, knick-knacks, and d├ęcor objects.

I read 59 books for Mount TBR in 2015 but in 2016 I will go for Mt. Ararat – 48 books.

Back to the Classics 2016 Sign Up Post

I read these books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

Click on the date to go to the review.

1/ An adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction): Tent Life in Siberia by George Kennan

2 / A volume of classic short stories: Trouble is My Business – Raymond Chandler

3 /A 19th Century Classic:  : The Three Clerks - Anthony Trollope

4 / Re-read a classic: Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

5/ A classic by a non-white author: Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

6 / A classic detective novel: Over My Dead Body – Rex Stout

7/ A classic in translation: Uncle Charles has Locked Himself in – Georges Simenon

8 / A classic which includes the name of a place in the title: London Labour and the London Poor - Henry Mayhew

9/ A fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic: Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

10/ A classic by a woman author: The Englishwoman in America – Isabella Bird

11 / A 20th Century Classic (1900 to 1966): Jesting Pilate – Aldous Huxley.

12 / A classic which has been banned or censored: Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller

Mount TBR #56

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Some Buried Caesar – Rex Stout

This mystery is the sixth the Nero Wolfe series, first published in 1939. Like many Golden Age mysteries, it is rather long but it is not too long like the first four are too long (Fer-de-Lance, The League of Frightened Men, The Rubber Band and The Red Box).

The draw of this one is that it is the first appearance of Archie’s love interest Lily Rowan. Also, Nero Wolfe has to leave the brownstone. Archie and Wolfe are taking a road trip to fictitious Crowfield, NY where Wolfe is showing some orchids when they have a car accident. Archie and Wolfe end up in a paddock being chased by a bull.

While the car is being repaired ($66.00, i.e. $1,100 in our 2015 money). He is hosted by the founder, Pratt, of a fast food chain, Pratteria. The vulgarian’s plan is to barbeque a $45,000 ($755K now) prize bull, Hickory Caesar Grindon, as a publicity stunt. His neighbor deplores this plan and then hires Wolfe to find the killer of his son who was found dead, apparently gored by the bull.

As mentioned above, this novel never feels too long except in one place near the end when Archie is jailed by local cops as a material witness (I assume this novel was first serialized in a magazine). The incidents are consistently funny

Monday, December 28, 2015

Mount TBR #55

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Murder to Go – Emma Lathen

The Sloan Guaranty Trust has invested 12 million dollars in Chicken To Go, a home delivery chicken franchiser, when hundreds of their customers are taken ill – with one codger’s death in Elmira, NY – due to product tampering. That is, the Chicken Mexicali was dosed with zinc salt. Our series hero, John Putnam Thatcher of the Sloan bank, unwittingly finds himself with the responsibility of protecting Sloan’s huge investment with a little investigating of the case. He uses the investigation to sidestep another responsibility, however: getting involved in the cut-throat office politics of planning an anniversary reception for a colleague.

Published in the late Sixties, this is the 10th of the 24 Thatcher business mysteries. Lathan gently satirizes company cultures, corporate fads such as mega-mergers, and franchisers, who range from the rich to people who sunk their life savings and life into the business. She also deftly describes the range of troublemakers, from those just born to raise to hell to those who fight out of fear of the future and everything else.

Lathen’s portrait of the founder of Chicken To Go is a portrait of a stoic business executive who exercises self-control so his emotions won’t cloud his business acumen and practices negative visualization (identifying the worst thing that can happen and taking measures to stave it off). Thatcher concludes: “Thatcher was beginning to appreciate why Frank Hedstrom had shot to the top in the business world. Understanding money is a rare talent. Understanding people is even rarer. Understanding both is damn near nonexistent.”

Thatcher has the knack for ingratiating himself with all kind of people. So he’s able to put disparate pieces of the puzzle together to arrive at the reveal. Still, he’s rather a funny detective in that he doesn’t do much except talk to people. He doesn’t stir the pot like a Perry Mason does.

The reveal is a little twist on the “gather all the suspects in a room” gambit. Like other Lathen mysteries, the small pool of suspects makes this a little bit easy to figure out, but the prose is so agreeable that I don’t have any qualms recommending this one who like old mysteries

Be warned that there is something in the Lathen novels that makes us post-2008 Great Recession readers feel bittersweet: Lathen’s between the lines assumption that, follies and foibles notwithstanding, captains of business and Wall Street executives are essentially honorable and, like us ordinary people, want what best and decent for the country – an assumption of course that nobody not a ninny believes nowadays.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

My 5 Fave Classics

Tie for #1. I can't decide. Forever 19 in me says Jones, The Sober Adult says Kesey

From Here to Eternity - James Jones / Sometimes a Great Notion - Ken Kesey

The Good Soldier - Ford Madox Ford

Framley Parsonage - Anthony Trollope

The Crying of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert Pirsig

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Mount TBR #54

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Case of the Empty Tin – Erle Stanley Gardner

I highly recommend this 1941 Perry Mason mystery. Usually Mason novels start in the lawyer’s office or some public place where a client can button-hole him for legal advice. But this one starts in the cozy Gentrie household. The family owns a small hardware store so they have to watch every cent. They take in a roomer for extra income, they can preserves to save money on food. They depend on both a spinster sister and hired woman to keep the housekeeping and cooking in order for the three busy kids. It has its share of strains but what family doesn’t?

I suppose a certain kind of Mason fan will find the beginning slow, but as a hardcore fan who’s read a couple dozen of them, I’m relieved when it starts out in a different way.  Also, in a way that brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s making the mundane suspenseful, Gardner puts the typical middle-class family in the center of the mystery.

Other elements make this mystery outstanding in the canon. Mason blithely breaks the law with lying to police officers, house-breaking, and breaking traffic laws with reckless driving and speeding. Della plays a much bigger role, helping Perry break into houses and elude the law. She also helps Perry think by asking germane questions and introducing points that women know but men have no clue.

Remember that this novel was probably serialized in the Saturday Evening Post before it was published between two covers. Therefore, there is a certain amount of recapitulation in the dialogue to get new readers up to speed. We post-modern readers can skim these sections.

Finally, there is no courtroom sequence in this one. This may disappoint some fans and elate others. My bottom line is that this should be the next Mason to read in the coming year.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Laugh out loud reads

Merry Christmas.

Get yer "Laugh out loud and clean" right cheer:

My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber (all of which, I think, is included in The Thurber Carnival; Raising Demons and Life among the Savages by Shirley Jackson; any Peanuts collection by Charles M. Schulz; Charles Dickens has a passle of funny characters like Nick's mother and Mr. Mantalini in Nicholas Nickleby and most of the characters are funny in Pickwick Papers; Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O'Hanlon is break a rib from laughing funny.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

Mount TBR #53

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Perils of Sherlock Holmes – Loren Estleman

This short story collection was authorized and licensed by the estate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the world’s greatest consulting detective. A discerning reader need not be wary of a bad pastiche. The author is 70-some mysteries and historical westerns, Estleman has been a hardcore Holmes fan since adolescence but he doesn’t write fanfic.

Estleman is a master of the Victorian idiom: the prose sounds like Conan Doyle. However, he gives the stories his own stamp by taking our favorite duo to both the UK and US basing characters on real-life figures such Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and Sax Rohmer (the creator of Fu Manchu). There is even a story that takes Holmes and Watson to mansion formerly owned by Scrooge and now owned by grown up and successful Tiny Tim.

All in all, I read these stories with a smile on face. Just amazing work, I can’t recommend it more highly.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mount TBR #52

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Blood of Victory – Alan Furst

In Furst’s first half dozen of the Night Soldiers novels (here and here, for example), his strong point was the atmospherics, especially to somebody who has lived in The Other Europe (like me, Riga, 1994-97).

But in this 2003 novel, I could hear the gears grinding. A little oil, please, on the dark romanticism, the telling flashbacks, the brooding intellectual of a hero, the married French seductress, and pithy asides about love, war, and persistence and resistance in the face of tyranny.

I mean, it delivers soothing enough, engaging enough prose and plot for flights, waiting rooms and other times when the reader is not up to reading something more deeply satisfying – like John LeCarre’s rocker The Honorable Schoolboy.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Xmas Toones

List of nearly forgotten Christmas songs, for your enjoyment, especially, I wonder, if you're a certain age.

Christmas Roses - Frankie Lane & Jo Stafford
Misteltoe and Holly - Jack Jones
Jingle Bells - Glenn Miller
Hello Mr Kringle - Kay Kyser
Santa Claus Is Back In Town – Elvis and Wynona Judd
The Coventry Carol – Joan Baez

Holiday In Harlem  - Ella Fitzgerald w/ Chick Webb’s Band
Marshmallow World by Brenda Lee
God Rest ye Merry Gentleman – Barenaked Ladies
Winter Wonderland by Johnny Mathis
Hard Candy Christmas by Dolly Parton.

Jingle Bells – Les Paul and Mary Ford
Suzy Snowflake – Rosemary Clooney
Rudolf – Tiny Tim
Santa Claus is Coming to Town – Alice Cooper

Christmastime in New Orleans - Louis Armstrong
Frosty the Snowman – Cocteau Twins
Merry Christmas Baby – Bootsy Collins
Christmas in Jail – The Youngsters

Jingle Bells by The Singing Dogs
Winter Wonderland by Johnny Mathis
Christmas Time is Here - Vince Guaraldi from A Charlie Brown Christmas
Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas? by The Staple Singers. Who is this "House" guy?

Ding Dong, Ding Dong by George Harrison. OK, it's a New year's song.
Old Christmas Card by Jim Reeves
Another Year has Gone By - Celine Dion

Christmas Eve (I Wanna Be Santa Claus) by Ringo Starr
Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas) - John Denver
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas ? Judy Garland.
I'll be Home for Christmas by Karen and her brother

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Mount TBR #51

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Murder a la Mode - Patricia Moyes

The smell of bitter almonds tells series hero Inspector Tibbett that it’s homicide. Who would want to murder an assistant editor at a fashion magazine?

Moyes usually takes readers into subcultures, realms of their own. In Death on the Agenda, the setting is an international convention of narcotics cops. In what some call her best mystery, Falling Star, it is a movie set.  

In this one, Moyes returns to a chaotic but irresistible setting, the world of fashion peopled by beautiful if dim models, pressed career women, and the creative types that are irascible and short with anybody or anything that gets between them and Their Vision.  The fashion world is as convincing as the movie set in Falling Star. Moyes had worked as a PA to actor and director Peter Ustinov, so she knew about the production and business pressures of movie making. She is knowledgeable about publishing a fashion magazine because she was an assistant editor at Vogue for a time. Moyes effectively evokes the pre-Twiggy swinging London of the early Sixties.

Moyes wrote 19 mysteries and many short stories starring the main characters of Scotland Yard Inspector Henry Tibbett and his wife and Emmy. The helpmeet Emmy does not appear as a major character in this one, however. This, I think, is the first appearance of Emmy’s sister Jane, brother-in-law Bill and niece Veronica, a model, all of whom show up in the other Tibbett novels.

I don’t like to think that I read cozy mysteries, but I guess I have to say this is a cozy because it is in the old whodunit tradition: amusing prose, persuasive witty characters, a little romance, a genial series hero, a well-plotted puzzle, all the suspects gathered in the same place, a surprise reveal and that smell of bitter almonds.

This novel won rave reviews when it was first published in 1963.  Critics Anthony Boucher (said like “voucher”) compared it to the best of Marsh, Allingham, and Blake.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mount TBR #50

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Masters of Sex – Thomas Maier
The middle 20th century saw great advances in psychotherapy and sex therapy. Scholars such as Alfred Kinsey and Albert Ellis built on the pioneering work of Havelock Ellis. This book is a popular biography about the pioneering sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson.

In the late 1950s, Masters and Johnson were the first to conduct observational research designed to understand human sexual response and disorders. Using medical devices – some standard, some of their own creation – they directly observed and measured the anatomical and physiological sexual responses of human subjects. 

They began their research at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis. The university allowed Masters to divert his fees from patients to fund the research. However, they were ousted by other doctors who were shocked that such research was going on. They then founded their own facility, the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation (later called the Masters and Johnson Institute), where they worked from 1978  to1994. They worked hard to attract funding in order to perform research and organize training for researchers, educators, and therapists. One generous funder, for example, was Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy magazine.

Dr. Masters was aloof and all-business. He relied on the attractive, personable Johnson to interact with volunteers. She had the knack for assuring subjects that their dignity would not be hurt. Maier reveals, however, that their relationship was – what’s the word here? – ignoble? Maier quotes Johnson and their colleagues that Masters hired Johnson, the divorced mother of two under the unspoken understanding that she would become his sexual partner. For the sake of the research, for the pursuit of scientific knowledge, Masters claimed.

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

"Sex for Virginia Johnson would become part of her job," Maier writes bluntly. Johnson herself tells Maier in an interview, “No, I was not comfortable with it, particularly. I didn't want him at all, and had no interest in him.” Johnson had sex with Masters because as a single-mother: "I had a job and I wanted it."

Sigh. What can one say? Maybe to take the sting out of this, Masters did go extremely far in the field considering that she had no degree at all. This is a miracle considering that the world of research places much value on credentials. Furthermore, Johnson is in fact given credit for developing the innovative therapy technique, "dual therapy," that Masters and Johnson used to counsel married couples dealing with sexual dysfunctions such as premature ejaculation. Maier says in passing that Johnson was influenced by one of my heroes, Albert Ellis, but does not go into any detail as to how rational emotive therapy, later cognitive behavior therapy, was used at the Masters and Johnson Institute. There’s relatively little about the larger context either – the pill, feminism, sex as product, calls for more frankness in talking about sex, etc.

This review is getting too long already so I can’t get into the last quarter of the book which is fascinating in its sadness. Masters and Johnson were on top of their profession. And then it came apart. The 1979 book on homosexuality argued that conversion therapy could turn gays into heterosexuals. Maier points out that there is evidence scientific misconduct may have been afoot in the production of this book. The book was skewered by experts and sunk with little trace.

Their 20-year marriage came apart too when Masters fell in love again with a high-school sweetheart. He ended the marriage with Johnson almost casually after she had, literally, given him everything. Masters died of complications due to Parkinsons in 2001. Johnson lived in obscurity until her death in 2013.

I recommend this book to people interested in the sexual revolution of the 1960s as well as those interested in the ramifications of sexual relationships in the workplace. Maier’s prose is smooth enough and the book has few misprints of the “reign in” for “rein in” type. I should also mention that this is the source biography for the Showtime adaption of Masters of Sex, with Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Mount TBR #49

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

No Name – Wilkie Collins

Critics and fans consider this one Collins’ third best novel, after The Woman in White (which he himself thought his best) and The Moonstone (still credited as the first detective novel). I found the plot of No Name absorbing, far-fetched but never ridiculous as in The Dead Secret. In fact, I think Collins wanted to showcase his own marvelous ingenuity in creating a plot and spinning out narrative with various techniques.  

This novel opens on a domestic Trollopian note. Two grown sisters enjoy life, loved by their rich parents and secure in domestic comfort. But a series of disasters occurs. The sisters find themselves without their parents and because of the cruel laws of bastardy, they are revealed as illegitimate and stripped of their parents’ estate. It lands in the avaricious hands of a mean cousin who refuses to help the girls even though he knows it was the intention of their father to provide for them.

The middle of the novel returns to the atmosphere of intrigue in The Woman in White. That is, the passionate sister vows to take back the legacy by any means necessary. She is helped by a Count Fosco-type villain – ruthless, charming, and a delight whenever he’s in the scene. The book is worth reading just for Capt. Wragge. His gift of gab would have been perfect for W.C. Fields. The middle section features a game of wits and skullduggery between two shrewd gamesters.

The last quarter or so does not let up either, so right to the end I was engrossed. He uses exchanges of letters to speed the plot along. He cuffs around middle-class smug respectability and keeping up appearances too. He does not make a big show of cutting down middle-class hypocrisy, but he makes sure we know he stands on the side of the individual against mindless conformity and a society too submissive to antique laws, endless red tape, and modern regulation

Some readers may grumble that Collins isn’t as funny as Dickens and has fewer wise asides than Trollope. Still, I rather like these digressions

Examples may be found every day of a fool who is no coward; examples may be found occasionally of a fool who is not cunning; but it may reasonably be doubted whether there is a producible instance anywhere of a fool who is not cruel.

Resist it as firmly, despise it as proudly as we may, all studied unkindness—no matter how contemptible it may be—has a stinging power in it which reaches to the quick.

Collins doesn’t do scenery or weather either. It’s hard to know the season sometimes. I think he knew his audience – young, urban, busy, on the way up - enough to know lots of readers just skim that stuff anyway.

In conclusion, I think readers that liked The Woman in White would probably like this one.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Mount TBR #48

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from \

January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Case of the Half-Wakened Wife – Erle Stanley Gardner

This Perry Mason novel from 1945, the 27th outing featuring this hero, is a tad longer than usual. The reason is that Gardner provides more exposition on the background of the inevitable murder. He also characterizes at length Ellen Bedson Cushing as the attractive, shrewd businesswoman that knows her way around, the kind of professional female that Gardner respected.

The characterization and description of the real estate chiseling and scheming, while interesting, somewhat delay the appearance of crack lawyer Perry Mason, his trusty confidential assistant Della Street, and his put-upon PI Paul Drake. Gardner also includes a funny scene in which Detective Tragg speeds through LA at a breakneck pace with Perry and Paul being shaken about in the back of the police car. Paul, in contrast to his usual imperturbable and suave self, acts like a nervous wreck when he’s not driving.

One upside is that Perry really bungles the case when dealing with his worthy adversary Tragg, such that Tragg ironically calls him “Sherlock.” As a downside, Gardner skips whodunit conventions by not really playing fair with information. The reveal seems complicated beyond what an intelligent reader would be expected to comprehend.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Mount TBR #47

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The King of Pirates: Being an Account of The Famous Enterprises of Captain Avery - Daniel Defoe

Defoe was professional writer so if he didn’t write he didn’t eat. So he produced a lot beyond Robinson Crusoe.

Capitalizing on the success of that one, he followed it up in 1719 with another book of adventure on the high seas. He inserted language that gave the impression that it is a true story told in the actual words of the pirate king. In fact, Defoe made the story up, filling the 100 pages or so with tales of rousing adventure and the inside skinny on a criminal subculture, ever popular topic.

Practically speaking, it is one thing to plunder and rob and pile up pieces of eight. It is quite another to find a place where the authorities won’t ask awkward questions like, “Did you get all this gold by pirating, dear sir?” So it is easy to get rich by buccaneering, but without a royal pardon (after paying a big bloody bribe), an ex-pirate can’t really live anywhere in peace.

An early work on the Jolly Roger guys, it does not include any of the conventional incidents we would find in, say, Howard Pyle, like making unlucky lubbers walk the plank or keel hauling them.

I enjoyed reading this, the antique diction and punctuation were a welcome change of pace.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Mount TBR #46

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Dear Dr. Menninger: Women's Voices from the Thirties - Howard J. Faulkner & Virginia D. Pruitt

This is an interesting collection of about 80 letters from American women to a famous advice columnist in the early 1930s. Readers of the Ladies Home Journal, the writers were usually educated articulate women who were facing the usual problems of life as an adult and troubles involving mental illnesses such as OCD, anxiety, and depression. Menninger’s advice column "Mental Hygiene in the Home" may sound quaint to us now, but his advice was lucid, concise, sound, and interesting to read though a bit on the repetitious side (“Go get professional help”). He is not shy, telling a writer “I think you are dead wrong. I think you have the wrong attitude toward your husband entirely ... I think there is still time to change, but get busy' (pp. 136-7).” I must admit that his advice about dealing with cheating husbands – pretend you don’t know, make a pleasant home he’ll feel comfortable in – does feel rather dated.

The main attractions to this book are the voices of the women. Certainly, the well-educated and fluent are represented here since such women were more likely to take pen in hand and describe their problems.

I am thirty-nine years old, have been married nineteen years, have two splendid girls in high school and two boys in their graves. I have undoubtedly lost whatever attractiveness I ever had, but I am in no way dirty or repulsive ... I am an easygoing, comfortable sort of person. My worst enemy couldn't say I was a nagger. I have a good education and have held several responsible positions both before and after marriage (p. 131).

Over and over again we read the poignant words, “I feel better for having written this out.” The problems are no less relevant today: the role of sexuality in their lives, philandering husbands, problem children, and in-laws that loved to make trouble.

Of course, the economic slump of the times casts a shadow, often exacerbating existing personal and social problems. Readers interested in the Thirties, advice columns, the popular press, and changes in attitudes and values in the US will find this an remarkable book. The unique voices of real people from that time can’t help but move and inspire us with their clear-eyed vision of their own situation.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Mount TBR #45

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Real Frank Zappa Book - Frank Zappa, co-written by Peter Occhiogrosso, 1989

I gather from hints in this text that Zappa himself was not a reader. He spent his time being a perfectionist composer and musician and tour planner, leaving to his wife the business details (which she did for his estate and legacy until her death last month, at age 70).  

So it’s probably on Zappa that this anecdotal autobiography is organized in a way that would appeal to a non-reader. That is, the initial chapters are organized by time, then later chapters by theme. This makes this 300-page book surprisingly easy to skim.

Zappa in his own words provides numerous surprises.

For one, I did not know that health problems plagued him for almost his entire life. He was a sickly kid. In 1971 he was attacked on stage and suffered such injury that he was in a wheelchair for a long time. In 1993 he died of a prostate cancer that had gone undiagnosed for about a decade.  After a two-year fight, a few weeks shy of his 53rd birthday, he died too young and was buried in LA in unmarked grave. He didn’t really give a damn what people thought of him, even denying people the possibility of paying homage by leaving flowers. But then when we think about what Jim Morrison’s grave looks like, we can’t blame Zappa in any way.

Also, I took as true those terrible stories about him that people told each on the mid Seventies. But in this book he asserts, “For the record, folks; I never took a shit on stage and the closest I ever came to eating shit anywhere was at a Holiday Inn buffet in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1973.”

His misanthropy was not confined to music. Nor much of a reader, he wasn’t much of a talker either. He claims his family had to drag him to the dinner table for Christmas and Thanksgiving  feasts, since he just didn’t like sitting around over food and gabbing. Like lots of perfectionists, he disliked stupid people: “Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe.”

His opinions on music are uncompromising. He tells anecdotes about rock heroes like Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix. The stories are deliberately banal, undercutting slyly the whole rock hero thing.

The last couple of chapters feature his opinions on religion and politics. He was conservative in that he didn’t want to pay taxes to support large government programs, but he thought the Reagan administration was stuffed with fascist theocrats. He had no sympathy for the concept of endless war.

Published in 1989, this book feels dated, obviously, and feels very pre-internet. Sorry, this is hard to explain - but you can tell the book was designed with no computer. But upon finishing it, the reader feels pretty sure where Zappa would have stood on social media, which has given everybody the chance to parade their stupidity for the whole freakin’ world. One wonders though if he would have had effective uses for autotune.