Thursday, October 29, 2015

Mount TBR #40

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 Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell - George Woodcock
Woodcock knew George Orwell during and after WWII when they worked for the BBC. Woodcock immigrated to BC, Canada and wrote this book in the mid-1960s. When it was first published, it won Governor General's Award, a prize for academic and artistic accomplishments.
This interesting overview consists of a few biographical details, personal reminiscence, and old-time literary criticism before Theory made that field unintelligible to lay members of the public. Woodcock helpfully provides criticism of A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, novels that we are gratefully relieved of the burden of reading. He writes readable appreciations of  Burmese Days, the essays such as Charles Dickens and Such, Such were the Days, Animal Farm and 1984.
Well worth reading for people who like antique lit crit.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Voice of the Violin

The Voice of the Violin - Andrea Camilleri

This mystery is the fourth of a series starring Inspector Salvo Montalbano and set in contemporary Sicily. Character and setting drive the plot. Salvo is easily angered and distracted, both of which make him absent-minded and liable to make mistakes. He also has synesthesia, a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. For instance, Salvo’s brain may assign colors to smells.  Luckily for him, he’s a gourmand that demands silence when eating so as to enjoy the food better. The descriptions of food and eating are a foodie reader’s delight.

Camilleri does not make a big deal of Salvo’s synesthesia and doesn’t refer to it in every book. But it helps Salvo to make leaps of intuition when his emotions short-circuit his intelligence. Blending ideas and hunches creatively may also help him to understand quickly new social milieus and how people are compelled to behave in them. Readers that like the questioning of people in different walks of life and shrewd investigations of Simenon’s Maigret will find Salvo’s lack of method appealing.

Salvo is every scene and he has vigorous exchanges with this subordinates in the police station, his friends, and his long-distance romantic partner Livia. Dialogue and keen descriptions aid characterization and setting of small town Sicily. Camilleri also uses shifts in tone to excellent effect. For example, Salvo will be enjoying a traditional Sicilian dish. A couple pages later he will act as the cynical fighter for what he thinks is right. For him, it’s mainly uphill battles against the endemic corruption of Berlusconi’s government, the careerism of his colleagues, and depraved human nature that leads to grotesque crimes. Then a couple pages later the comic character Officer Catarlla will be making the reader crack up like Officer Toody did in Car 54 (boy, does that date me….). Then Salvo will be bemoaning Sicily turning into a concrete nightmare due to overdevelopment, sprawl, and road-building frenzy.

Readers who don’t require a puzzle will enjoy the characters and settings of Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano novels.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Case of the Fiery Fingers

The Case of the Fiery Fingers – Erle Stanley Gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner turned out 80-some novels starring lawyer Perry Mason. There’s bound to be a few clunkers. So, chary readers new to Gardner may wonder which is a good ‘un. I’d highly recommend The Case of the Fiery Fingers (1951).

A practical nurse tells Perry that she suspects that a husband is going to do in his invalid wife. She asks Perry’s advice on how to prevent the murder. The sneaky husband, however, gets the drop on the LPN by having her arrested for theft. In an outstanding courtroom scene in Chapter Five, Perry defends his client by hilariously twisting a witness in knots. Chapter Five is one of the longest and best chapters Gardner ever wrote.

The invalid wife is indeed ushered out of this vale of tears before her time. Perry defends the victim’s sister, who is looking at the gas chamber like a rabbit looks at headlights.  As Perry gets ready for the trial, the despondent client is no help at all. Other client and police shenanigans must be endured by Perry, his secretary Della Street, and the PI Paul Drake.

Gardner’s strong point is his ability to tell a story briskly and concisely with a minimum of character development, stripped down exposition, and tons of dialogue. While his novels have flashes of humor, Gardner is not a funny guy. But in The Case of the Fiery Fingers he’s uncharacteristically droll. He describes Paul’s typical posture:  “Drake jackknifed himself into the overstuffed chair, swung his knees up over the arm, clasped his hand behind his head, and eyed Mason with a bored indifference that was completely deceptive.”

Perry speeds and turns recklessly so Paul drives. But in one scene Della drives as maniacally as Perry. “You’re hitting fifty and not giving a damn about anything” Paul yelps. Della coolly replies “Well, I get you there in less time, so you don’t suffer so long, Paul.”
Besides respecting women who drive as expertly as Danica Patrick, Gardner liked a healthy woman with a healthy appetite. Della orders “a nice thick steak done medium rare, a stuffed, baked Idaho potato with lots of butter, some toasted French bread, a bottle of Tipo Chianti . . .” Ah, 1951 – when only health food enthusiasts worried about carbs.

Also, along “good old days” lines, this novel has keen retro expressions like “the little minx,”  “as tough as taxes,” and  “set one’s cap on somebody.” The characters sport evocative names like Nathan, Imogene, Harvey, Virginia, Georgiana and Marta.

Readers toying with the idea of reading a Perry Mason novel won’t go wrong with The Case of the Fiery Fingers.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Mount TBR Checkpoint #3

I have read these books 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.

This is an unofficial checkpoint. Click the date posted to read the review.

21/ Historical Novel:  Nightrunners of Bengal – John Masters

22/ Pre-19th century: Bhagavad Gita

23/ Satchmo – Gary Giddens

24/ The Small House at Allington – Anthony Trollope

25/ A Guide to Personal Happiness – Albert Ellis, Irving Becker

26/ The Last Chronicle of Barset – Anthony Trollope

27/ The Twenties – Edmund Wilson

28/ Hollywood Hoopla – Richard S. Sennett

29/ Red Spectres – Various

30/ Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science – Martin Gardner

31/ Letters from India – Mrs. Eliza Fay

32/ Secret History – Procopius

33/Renoir, My Father – Jean Renoir

34/ The Dickens World – Humphry House

35/ The Dead Secret – Wilkie Collins

36/ Marilyn –Norman Mailer

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Tenant for Death

Tenant for Death - Cyril Hare

First published in 1937, Tenant for Death is the first novel by Cyril Hare, a Golden Age crime writer cast in the same mold as methodical Freeman Wills Crofts (Inspector French’s Greatest Case) and ratiocinating E.C. Bentley (Trent’s Last Case). This mystery introduces Hare’s series detective, Inspector Mallett.

A crooked financier’s scams have gone all ahoo. He is found strangled in a dreary rented house in middle-class South Kensington. The renter of the house has disappeared. Inspector Mallett of the Yard mentors his young assistant Frant as they flush out the culprit.

I’d been getting a little tired of the Golden Age settings of country manors, universities, and high class men’s clubs, so I was happy to read a mystery set out in the world and populated with various kinds of people. Mallett employs different techniques to coax information out of real estate agents, newspaper hawkers, and the financier’s oily secretary, mistress, and subordinates.  The many characters are convincing. The pace is steady, with typical mystery writer’s improbable coincidences and tricks to spin things out in the last quarter or so.  Of course, it’s dated, but I think it can be read with enjoyment in 2015.

Judge Gordon Clark (Hare’s real name) worked in the criminal justice system and took to writing fiction at the age of 36 in order to augment his income. His grammar is not elaborate, his vocabulary is educated but he doesn’t use out-of-the-way words. His plotting, style, and subtle wit make up for his mild upper-class snootiness about class differences. Hare kept up the high standard he set in this premier outing so his later mysteries are well worth reading too: Suicide Excepted (1939), When the Wind Blows (1949), An English Murder (1951), and Untimely Death (1958).

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Mount TBR #39

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.
Anger: How to Live With it and Without it – Albert Ellis
Ellis, a psychologist, argues that we had better fight anger rationally, since anger with one’s self is the source of anxiety, with others the source of rage, and with the world the source of depression. He goes over basic techniques that we can use to convince ourselves to respond rationally with regret or disappointment instead irrationally with anger.
Ellis says that anger and upset result from expectations that we learned from parents, teachers, clergy and others we’ve dealt with from childhood. He calls these assumptions about how the world works our Belief System. For instance, a teacher becomes irascible because he expects that the students should never be late.
Ellis warns that an underlying Belief System is always identifiable by words like “must,” “should,” and “ought.” He points out that many of our musts and shoulds are irrational or what he describes as “nutty, musty thinking.” We had better dispute our irrational beliefs in order to get over silly beliefs.
So getting back to our peeved teacher, there is no evidence to back the supposition that students ought never to be late since the world often has other ideas on slow traffic and few parking spaces that make people late for anything. The world also prevents homework from being done with host of reasons and diversions. Laying shoulds on other people will just get us worked up since people are fallible and always will be.
Ellis also advises “Never should on yourself.” Like Rogers, he says we had better accept ourselves unconditionally, since we are fallible too. He recommends that we make thinking paramount over feeling, if we want to decrease our anxiety. We had better learn the ability to dispute our irrational assumptions that lead to our distorted judgements
This is a pretty easy book to read, because he repeats the same three ideas in a variety of different ways. Ellis wrote very clearly. And self-help books repeat key concepts over and over – that just how they are, since readers of self-help books need repetition for the word to sink in.