Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Classic #10

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015.

Kappa – Akutagawa Ryunosuke

Akutagawa Ryunosuke  芥川 龍之介 was such an important writer in Japan that a major literary prize was named after him. Plus, his books have been frequently translated into English, as often as Kawabata, Mishima, and Tanizaki. Because his life story is little known to Western readers, however, the publishing company, Charles E. Tuttle Company, included in their edition a 35-page overview of his life and times by scholar G. H. Healey. Boldly crossing barriers between disciplines, literary critic Healey diagnoses Akutagawa as a sufferer of schizophrenia.

Akutagawa borrowed the kappa (河童, literally, river-child) from Japanese folklore. Roughly human in form, a kappa is a monster that frequents rivers and ponds, with reptilian skin that changes color like a chameleon. Japanese folklore is not for the squeamish, so I won’t provide details on how kappas kidnap, drink blood, rape, murder by drowning and steal our shirikodama (尻子玉), the ball that contains our soul, which is located up our anus. No wonder kappa are still portrayed on“No Swimming” signs in Japan.

This novel is an allegory. The setting is the land of the Kappa, which calls to mind Japan in the early 20th century. On one hand, the intellectuals freely read and discuss Goethe, Strindberg, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer. Artists and thinkers bicker about abstruse topics. On the other hand, the longer the narrator stays in the land of the kappa the more stern realities such as censorship and maintenance of class distinctions come to his attention. As for management-labor relations, workers who are terminated when their jobs are automated are killed for food. Reflecting the callous stance of the conservatives of our own day, a kappa philosopher says sympathy for the worker’s plight is “sheer sentimentality.” Still, this stomach-turning fact makes the narrator return to Japan, where he is incarcerated in a madhouse.

Readers into satires and utopias such as Gulliver’s Travels or Erehwon would probably like this. So would Japan buffs, into the psychological ructions caused by the modernization of Japan as evidenced in writers like Natsume Soseki and Dazai Osamu.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Vintage Mystery #10

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2015. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written between 1960 and 1989 inclusive and be from the mystery category.

I read this for the category “I-6 Woman in the Title.”

The Case of the Worried Waitress  - Erle Stanley Gardner

It’s against restaurant rules for a server to approach customers who are professionals in order to obtain free advice or information. But Katherine Ellis, Kit, was not only young and beautiful, it was obvious that she was deeply concerned about a problem. So after Perry Mason and Della Street had finished lunch, he left the message to the server, "My usual fee is $10. Under the plate there is a tip of $11." When Kit visits Perry’s office and tells her story, he concludes that she has every reason to be apprehensive - in fact, she had put herself in a very vulnerable position.

This is not the best Mason novel by any means. It would be a shame for a novice to read it and decide Gardner was not for her. The reason is that the twist is really far-fetched, even for a whodunit. I would recommend The Case of the Cautious Coquette and The Case of the Careless Kitten. For old school puzzlers there are The Case of the Buried Clock and The Case of the Crooked Candle.

This novel would be fine for any hardcore Mason fan.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Classic #9

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015.

The Naturalist in La Plata – W.H. Hudson, 1895

W.H. (William Henry) Hudson is best known for the modernist novel Green Mansions. This “return to nature” story from 1904 used to be popular among ecology-minded teenagers in the Sixties and Seventies. They liked the romantic fantasy cum with the beautiful descriptions of nature, not to mention Edward Abbey-like livid meditations on the loss of wilderness.

Green Mansions has not survived, however. Apparently, it does not appeal to delicate post-modern sensibilities. Not liking the grossly overwritten copiousness of words words boring words - yuck subordinate clauses -  post-modern readers deplore the racist, misogynist, ageist attitudes and call the self-centered pretentious hero a pedophile.

Sigh. So the greatest prose writer of his day is thus dismissed.

“For of all living authors–now that Tolstoi has gone“ said John Galsworthy, “I could least dispense with W. H. Hudson. “ Joseph Conrad once said that Hudson writes as the grass grows. This from, Ford Madox Ford:

You walked beside him, he stalking along and, from far above you, Olympianly destroying your theories with accurate dogma. He was very tall, with the immense, lean frame of an old giant who has for long stooped to hear men talk. The muscles of his arms stood out like knotted cords. He had the Spanish face and peaked gray beard of a Don Desperado of the Spanish Main; his features seemed always slightly screwed together like the faces of men looking to windward in a gale. He paused always for an appreciable moment before he spoke and when he spoke he looked at you with a sort of humorous anticipation, as if you were a nice cockatoo whom he expected to perform amusing tricks. He was the gentlest of giants, although occasionally he would go astonishingly off the deep end, as when he would exclaim violently: "I’m not one of you damned writers: I’m a naturalist from La Plata." This he would put over with a laugh, for of course he did not lastingly resent being called the greatest prose writer of his day. But he had a deep, dark, permanent rage at the thought of any cruelty to birds.

Hudson (1841 - 1922) was indeed a naturalist and conservationist but he was a professional writer, too. Born of American parents on the pampas of La Plata, Argentina, Hudson loved observing birds, flowers, snakes, and insects. With no other kids around in a sparsely populated region, the sickly teenaged Hudson was influenced by Gilbert White's The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne.  He read everything he could about zoology and became an expert on South American birds.

From 1866 to the early 1870s, Hudson made living as professional collector and writer of essays. He moved to the UK, married, and made a living out of writing magazine pieces. They were collected in books such as The Naturalist in La Plata (1892), Hampshire Days (1903), Afoot in England (1909), and A Shepherd's Life (1910). Historians say that Hudson contributed considerably to an increased awareness of nature among the thinking public in the US and UK.

Hudson preferred to write in a simple style, with comprehensible grammar and straightforward word choices. Hudson wants to get to the essence of his subjects, but outline the complexity of the natural world. For instance, a pampa fowl makes her nest 400 or 500 yards away from the feeding ground. After the egg is laid, the hen flies directly from the nest 40 or 50 yards and then, silently, runs to the feeding ground. Only then does she make a low cackle. The cock, if within hearing, answers her, runs to her, and the cackling ceases.  Hudson speculates:

If we may assume that these fowls, in their long, semi-independent existence in La Plata, have reverted to the original instincts of the wild gallits bankiva, we can see here how advantageous the cackling instinct must be in enabling the hen in dense tropical jungles to rejoin the flock after laying an egg. If there are egg-eating animals in the jungle, intelligent enough to discover the meaning of such a short, subdued, cackling call, they would still be unable to find the nest by going back on the bird's scent, since she flies from the nest in the first place.

I feel it best just to step aside and show how Hudson writes about fireflies

I also once had the rare good fortune to witness [firefly gatherings]. Riding on the pampas one dark evening an hour after sunset, and passing from high ground overgrown with giant thistles to a low plain covered with long grass, bordering a stream of water, I found it all ablaze with myriads of fireflies. I noticed that all the insects gave out an exceptionally large, brilliant light, which shone almost steadily. The long grass was thickly studded with them, while they literally swarmed in the air, all moving up the valley with a singularly slow and languid flight. When I galloped down into this river of phosphorescent fire, my horse plunged and snorted with alarm. I succeeded at length in quieting him, and then rode slowly through, compelled to keep my mouth and eyes closed, so thickly did the insects rain on to my face. The air was laden with the sickening phosphorous smell they emit, but when I had once got free of the broad fiery zone, stretching away on either hand for miles along the moist valley, I stood still and gazed back for some time on a scene the most wonderful and enchanting I have ever witnessed.

The book will be of interest to fans of nature writing who enjoyed books such as In the Land of Blue Poppies by Kingdon-Ward or The Naturalist in the Amazons by Bates.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Vintage Mystery #9

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2015. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written between 1960 and 1989 inclusive and be from the mystery category.

I read this for the category V-2 With a Lawyer, Courtroom & Judge

The Case of the Blonde Bonanza – Erle Stanley Gardner, 1962

Mason drops in on Della Street’s beach vacation. She takes him to a restaurant where she has noticed a strange thing. A curvaceous young blonde packs away a 4000-calorie lunch. In conversation with her, they  learn she is packing on the pounds so that she can model a fashion line designed for real women, who average about 5’4” and 160 pounds. Gardner, through Della Street, expresses sympathy for women who are pressured by society’s demands to have the body shape size and appearance of 13-year-old boys.

Mason senses something amiss since the contract the woman signed forks over half her income derived from any source. With Paul Drake investigating, he stumbles onto a blackmail scheme. The blackmailer ends up cold on a slab in the morgue. Of course, the curvy bonanza ends up in the dock.

I like the Perry Mason novels from the early Sixties. But I readily admit they can feel formulaic. The formula holds our interest in this outing because Gardner adds a neat twist to the tried and true “time element” gambit. I’d recommend this one to fans who are happy to read any Mason story, not novices or readers picky about formulas or writing style.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Mount TBR #11

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 Big Bow Mystery - Israel Zangwill

In the introduction to this Victorian mystery, the editor claims that this novella may be the first true locked-room mystery. A landlady and ex-police detective bust open a locked door to find “the deceased lying back in bed with a deep wound in his throat… There was no trace of any instrument by which the cut could have been effected: there was no trace of any person who could have effected the cut. No person could apparently have got in or out.”

Zangwill tweaks the media of the day for its relentless pandering to the morbid curiosity of the ordinary reader. There are ironically melodramatic scenes of the arrest of the suspect and courtroom antics of the judge, lawyers, and jury. The explanations for the impossible crime range from the plausible (secret passages and trapdoors) to the hilarious (a razor-wielding monkey coming down the chimney). Red herrings abound. The suspect has a realistic if rotten motive.

Zangwill’s prose will ramble, but this is made up for by its high-spirits and humor. He’s a master of the quip and wisecrack, in the traditions of Groucho Marx and Woody Allen. For readers into mysteries of all sorts or those into reading the occasional pre-Golden Age mystery.