Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Last Mr. Moto

Right You Are, Mr. Moto – John P. Marquand

The last Mr. Moto novel has had numerous titles:  The Last of Mr. Moto, Stopover Tokyo, and Right You Are, Mr. Moto.

The Pacific War and American Occupation are over, but Mr. Moto is still working in Intelligence.
He teams up with two American spies, Jack Rhyce and Ruth Bogart, to expose Communist subversives who want to force Japan into the Red Camp. Jack and Ruth are standard Marquand characters (blue-bloods, natural aristocrats) who are going through changes in their lives that conflict with their duties.

Marquand like the themes of passages in life and feelings versus duties. An ex-intelligence operative himself, he describes closely and realistically the stress and fatigue of always having to play a part while undercover.

C. Hugh Holman, a University of North Carolina professor who helped establish the National Humanities Center, considered this book to be the best Mr. Moto novel of the six that Marquand wrote. I agree that readers who like the serious spy fiction a la John Bingham or John Le Carre would probably like this one too.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Today the VFW was established in 1899.
A Passionate Prodigality - Guy Chapman

This memoir of the First World War was first published in 1933. Frank and fluently written by a sensitive Oxford-educated lawyer, it exclusively focuses on Chapman’s war experience. He arrived in France in 1915 and served in the Army of Occupation in Germany four years later

He tells more than a couple stories of the sheer exhaustion of war and the decisions weariness made:

"Do you remember a corporal with the Messina medal?"

"Oh, yes; a dark stocky man."

"He went off with an officer we'd caught. Presently I found him back in the trench. I knew he couldn't have got down to the cage and back; so I asked him what had happened. "Well, sir," he said, "it's a very hot day. We sat down in a shell hole and he gave me his watch and his field-glasses and his money. It's very hot day and a long way down. So I shot him."

"What did you do?"

"There wasn't any need to do anything," said Vaughan with a curl of his thin lips; "he was killed that afternoon."

As Chapman witnessed men's feelings and behavior in war, he came to realize that war is such an overwhelming emotional experience that it takes on a momentum and allure all its own:

There grew a compelling fascination. I do not think I exaggerate: for in that fascination lies War's power. Once you have lain in her arms you can admit no other mistress. You may loathe, you may execrate, but you cannot deny her .... Every writer of imagination who has set down in honesty his experience has confessed it. Even those who hate her most are prisoners to her spell.

Like Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front, Chapman argues that comrades make the war worth fighting because one does want to let down those that are depending on one’s actions.

"Looking back at those firm ranks as they marched into billets, to the Fusiliers' march, I found that the body of men had become so much a part of me that its disintegration would tear away something I cared for more dearly than I could have believed. I was it; it was I.

My love is of a birth as rare
As 'tis for object strange and high:
It was begotten by Despair
Upon Impossibility.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Bleak House

Bleak House – Charles Dickens

Granted, reading a massive novel by Charles Dickens such as Bleak House has its trials. Dickens satirizes pompous lawyers’ prolonging lawsuits to line their pockets and selfish do-gooders whose children go hungry and wild. But nowadays such satire strikes us as just antique. In our litigation-loving society, we don’t need warnings to keep the hell away from courts.

Dickens employs an almost bewildering number of characters. When he introduces a new major character, lawyer Vholes, on like frickin’ page 500, even the staunchest reader cries, "Uncle!"
Dickens pits the impossibly good (Esther Summerson, John Jarndynce, Allan Woodcourt) versus the impossibly bad (Tulkinghorn, Krook, Vholes).

The book is not overlong, but it at times feels long to us post-moderns who don’t revel in joyous reunions (Esther and Ada, Mr George and the Iron Master) and death scenes with kids like the Victorians did.

Dickens' humor also makes us post-moderns uncomfortable rather. The Victorians took in stride jokes about toddlers falling down stairs and getting their heads caught in iron fences, angry stressed kids striking out, and demented old people. More sensitive, we post-moderns have to make sure we're alone before we laugh

Many of the characters are case studies in obsession. Sometimes it is just a bee in the bonnet, like when Mrs Woodcourt, Allan Woodcourt's widowed mother, puts people off by talking about Welsh royal ancestors too much. Old Mr Turveydrop is driven by attention to proper deportment. In other cases, the obsession is common but more acute. William Guppy stalks Esther after she rejects his proposal. Sir Leicester Dedlock is a conservative who bases his unthinking pride on family and station, which is acted out by keeping people in their place. A third group is the crazy obsessed. Richard Carstone, Miss Flite, and Mr Gridley are all driven mad by their suits in Chancery. Mrs Snagsby is irrationally jealous of her blameless husband and makes their domestic life a hell (hmm, maybe this marital torment is supposed to comic?). 

Though it took me about 200 pages to settle into Dickens’ pace, I really became absorbed in this novel The characters of Inspector Bucket and the sly man-child Harold Skimpole are unforgettable. The descriptions rapidly show characters, rooms (especially squalor), landscapes, and slums. The chase scene near the end rivets us, we are not reading about Esther and Bucket in the pursuit, we are in the carriage with them as the snow and sleet fall. Incredible. Dickens' power to enthrall, to enchant still stands.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Charlie Chan

Behind that Curtain - Earl Derr Biggers

This novel is the third Charlie Chan mystery.  San Francisco is evocatively described so we readers can enjoy the vivid sense of place Biggers put across in the first two Chan outings. He handled the setting of Hawaii beautifully in the first one The House Without a Key (1925) and described the Mojave desert country in the second The Chinese Parrot (1926).

Like all the other Chan novels, this was originally published as a serial in the magazine The Saturday Evening Post, so some chapters end with cliffhangers. The plot is intricate, involving murders committed years apart and a woman who changes identities at the drop of a hat. Or in this case, the drop of a pair of Chinese slippers, which is the only clue that ties the two killings together.

Another plus is Biggers’ understated sense of comedy. His stand-in who gets off witty observations, Barry Kirk, is a rich bon-vivant who has funny exchanges with his society matron grandmother and his would-be girlfriend, an assistant district attorney named Miss Morrow. Biggers is sensitive to the career obstacles faced by working women, though he will often refer to Miss Morrow as “the girl.” Biggers was born in 1885, after all.

Activists and critics nowadays disrespect poor Charlie Chan for his inscrutability, servility, dainty walk, sing-song voice, and unidiomatic English (in Behind That Curtain, he says, “The facts must be upearthed”). Writer Gish Jen even dismisses Chan’s astute intelligence, designating him as “the original Asian whiz kid.” I wonder sometimes if nowadays critics are annoyed with Chan less because of the novels but more because of the movies which had Caucasian actors playing Chan and period stereotypes of blacks, Asians, and women.

For what it’s worth, I think in both the novels and movies Charlie Chan is wise, courageous, modest, patient, devoted to his family, and loyal to his friends. Like many non-native speakers, he uses English in his own unique way that, as a speaker of broken Japanese, I can’t help but respect him for the time and effort that he put in to get fluent in a second language as an adult. The Chan novels overturn Chinese stereotypes because Chan was playing the role of the Good Guy, whereas most Chinese characters in fiction back then were villains.  

 Generally speaking, I like detective fiction from 1920s and 1930s.  As formulaic as it is, I like the atmosphere, characterization, and narrative push. I like it that violence happens off stage. There is little or no moral relativism, film noir-ish nihilism or sociopathic tough-mindedness.  I must not be alone in this preference – for once  – since the Chan novels never stay out of print and are available on these new-fangled contraptions like Kindle.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Mount TBR #36

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.

Marilyn: A Biography –Norman Mailer

I like reading Hollywood life stories. So this biography of the most celebrated blonde in the world by a major literary celebrity seemed a natural to me. I also remember reading excerpts of it when it was first released in 1973, so I remember the vocabulary being hard. Anyway, Mailer sincerely argues that he did research for eight years before he started writing the book.  He freely grants that he leaned heavily on Norma Jean by Fred Guiles.

Mailer concludes that his subject was uneducated, unwise, unguided, and unmoored in the sense of lacking a firm sense of identity. Still Mailer argues convincingly that she was not a dumbo out of her depth. She really wanted to make herself into a serious actress and no less than Method acting guru Lee Strasberg thought that she could have been as great as Brando. To impress people like Strasberg and his followers, she had to know her own strengths and be committed to integrity. She also had to play the Hollywood publicity machine like a pinball table.

What undermined her – besides a probable diagnosis of borderline personality disorder -  and finally did her in was abuse of barbiturates like nembutal. Her medications for insomnia caused her to be late on set and in a daze. The resulting delays for her fellow actors and the technical people, due to her lateness and unreliability, gained her the reputation as a frivolous diva. Unprofessional, John Huston judged her on the set of The Misfits.

Mailer is not really into explications of the movies except for her last one. His production stories about The Misfits are excellent. What a snake-bitten movie, considering the fates of Clark Gable, Marilyn, and Montgomery Clift! Like Rebel without a Cause – Dean, Mineo, and Wood all had sad ends.

Mailer is weakest where any writer on this subject would be weakest: the marriages. What outsider can tell, in fact, the dynamics that ruined her marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller? Mailer gamely attempts explanations, but there’s no escaping we can ever really know why.

Mailer speculates that, bad with figures, in a fuddle of intoxication, she had just lost count of how many pills she had taken. However, we are on firm ground to conclude that when she died at 36 due to an overdose of nembutal and chloral hydrate, she intentionally committed suicide. The experts who did her psychological autopsy noted that she had recently been fired from a job, her three marriages had failed, and she was addicted to drugs. In her background was a miscarriage and a history of mental illness on her maternal side. Her father was a drug addict. As a child, she had bounced through a dozen foster homes. She had tried to do away with herself before but had telephoned for rescue before she went beyond help.

While this bio is not a persuasive as his biography of Lee Harvey Oswald (Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery), I think this is worth reading, despite some uneven and incomprehensible passages that offer occult explanations.

Oh, yes, this is a coffee-table book so it is full of outstanding pictures of the subject.