Friday, December 30, 2016

Mount TBR #67

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Second Confession – Rex Stout

A millionaire father doesn’t trust his daughter’s boyfriend, a lawyer with iffy clients. He calls in PI Nero Wolfe and his sidekick Archie Goodwin to prove that the BF is a member of the CPUSA (Communist Party of the USA), a very bad thing to be in 1949. Nero Wolfe doesn’t like the smell of the case. He half-sympathizes with the daughter, who naturally resents her father’s interference, but suspects that the BF has a shadowy connection with Arnold Zeck, who is to Wolfe as Prof. Moriarty was to Sherlock Holmes.

Stout was a progressive, always interested in new ideas and gadgets, but he trusted the tried and true as well. Consequently, action occurs at the millionaire’s sprawling country estate where posh is the byword. After lots of curious goings-on, the BF’s corpse is found near the estate’s driveway.

Much to his consternation, Wolfe finds himself hired by his nemesis Arnold Zeck to find the BF’s killer. Zeck regrets the killing of a most promising protégé. Wolfe uncharacteristically motivates himself to overcome his agoraphobia and go outside to solve the mystery.

The plotting is brilliant. The length of 200 pages is about perfect. The reveal is neatly done, though I had qualms. At the end, Wolfe has a crackpot radio yakker yanked from the air, which hardly seems in keeping with Stout’s usually generous and fair-minded impulses. I guess the specter of Communism was truly frightening then, when nobody suspected that it would morph the way it did in our time.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Mount TBR #66

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Silent Speaker – Rex Stout

In this 1946 Nero Wolfe mystery, the head of the federal Bureau of Price Regulation has been beaten to death with a monkey wrench in the green room just before he is to give a speech to his adversaries, the National Industrial Association. Since the manufacturers disliked having their prices regulated, due to wartime contingencies, there are scores of suspects in the murder.

…the public, the people, had immediately brought the case to trial as usual, without even waiting for an arrest, and instead of the customary prolonged disagreement and dissension regarding various suspects, they reached an immediate verdict. Almost unanimously they convicted – this was the peculiar fact – not an individual, but an organization. The verdict was that the National Industrial Association had murdered Cheney Boone.

With public opinion inflamed against the captains of industry, the PR-conscious association hires PI Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, his sidekick, to find the killer. In an unusual twist, Wolfe does at the beginning of the case what he usually does at the end: he gathers all the suspects to his office in his famous brownstone which he rarely leaves. Wolfe’s mildly anti-business, pro-individualism stance makes him objective. Archie suspects business, but Wolfe also considers the victim’s co-workers as potential culprits. The first third of the book feels a little long. The gears were grinding, perhaps because this was the first full-length Wolfe mystery written in six years, as Stout had been doing war work.

There is a second killing, not to mention the vanishing of the bureaucrat’s last Dictaphone roll. In the last third or so, too much time is given to the search for the disappeared roll. However, for Stout and his fans like us, the puzzle is not really the thing, but characters and setting are. The interplay between Wolfe and Archie, as narrated by Archie, is as delightful as ever. They trust each other, but they are very different people.

What Wolfe tells me, and what he doesn’t tell me, never depends, as far as I can make out, on the relevant circumstances. It depends on what he had to eat at the last meal, what he is going to have to eat at the next meal, the kind of shirt and tie I am wearing, how well my shoes are shined, and so forth. He does not like purple.

The writing and plotting may make for what at times feels like a slow read, but this is still a satisfying addition to the series and would be enjoyed by any confirmed fan. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Mount TBR #65

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Dancers in Mourning – Margery Allingham

Full disclosure, so you can stop reading soon if I’m too unpleasant. Here is my rating of the mistresses of whodunnits in order of worst to first: Dame Agatha, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Moyes, and for my bestie, Margery Allingham. Reasons why: Dame Agatha doesn’t do anything for me as to characterization or setting, both of which I need even a modicum; Lord Peter is a nitwit and Harriet unbearable; Marsh is wickedly funny, with believable atmospheres; Moyes is cozy in a good way, with realistic settings; and Marsh is the best writer in terms of characterization, incident, and theme. 

Hello? Anybody left? Wasn’t “insufferable Professor Vane” in the Xmas spirit?

Dancers in Mourning, from 1937, is the 8th mystery to feature her series hero, Albert Campion. Born in 1900, he served in only the last six months of the Great War. The experience may have aged him beyond his years, because though only in his thirties, he slips out of his bland inoffensive manner to reveal the inborn authority and poise of the natural aristocrat that impresses even the police.  Allingham is ever aware of the double-edged use of snobbery, so she sometimes coyly hints at his title while Campion doesn’t much think about it at all.

Like the later novel The Fashion in Shrouds, Dancers in Mourning takes us into a seemingly romantic, stylish world, that of the boards of musical comedy. Star of the fantastic toe, Jimmy Sutane, has made a massive hit out of the unintentionally silly memoir by Campion’s old buddy, “Uncle” William Faraday whom we met in Police at the Funeral (1931).

Uncle William calls Campion for a consultation because somebody is playing nasty practical jokes on Jimmy Sutane. The sheer number of the jibes and their creepy malice have rattled the dancers, who, like many loosely-educated creative types, are as superstitious as medieval peasants. Back at Sutane’s country house, Sutane’s wife Linda is also agitated because strangers have been gamboling in their garden in the middle of the night.

Allingham, for a little snob appeal, takes us out to the country house, of course. But, she assures us who don’t have the snob gene, it’s hardly an idyllic place. It’s a treadmill where the master rehearses new acts, cajoles money guys, oversees auditions, and soothes temperaments. Jimmy Sutane feels pressure to succeed because so many people depend on his coming up with another hit show. Consequently, his life is nothing but work and a parade of ambitious stressed people. Allingham makes a serious point about the hazards of allowing work and the demands of other people to consume all of one’s life.

Dancer and singer Chloe, slightly past her prime, squeezes an invitation out of Linda. But Chloe’s sudden death makes a chaotic household more or less unbearable. Was it suicide or a natural death? During the investigation, Campion finds himself falling in love with Linda. Campion exasperates himself by doing so, making him a very likable guy. Allingham handles this romance plausibly, and it fits right into the story.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas!

Update May 24, 2017: Wrap Up Post with Links to Review 

I will read these books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

1.  A 19th Century Classic - Pride and Prejudice- Jane Austen (1813)
Finally, at my age, I get around to it. Better late…

2.  A 20th Century Classic – The Crying of Lot 49 – by Thomas Pynchon (1965).
An oxymoron: a short Pynchon novel. Length probably explains why it’s assigned in college English classrooms.

3.  A classic by a woman author – Domestic Manners of the Americans – Frances Trollope (1832)
I’m always up for European visitors like Charles Dickens persecuting pre-Civil War Americans, who deserved all the scolding they got from visitors because they, in the main, tolerated race-based chattel slavery. At the time of first publication of Trollope’s book, my fellow Americans, insulted and aggrieved, went into such a snit that they took great pleasure in word plays with her last name, a synonym for a vulgar or disreputable woman especially one who has sex for money or – heaven forfend! – fun.

4.  A classic in translation – The Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu (tr. Seidensticker) (about 1021)
I read most of this in early 1980, but never finished it, an omission that has haunted me like an incubus ever since.

5.  A classic published before 1800 - The Adventures of Roderick Random - Tobias Smollett (1748)
I read someplace a theme of this early novel is life in the British Navy of the time. Since I used to read the Aubrey-Maturin books, this should be good. Orwell says positive things about Smollett also.

6.  An romance classic – Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë (1847)
I must confess I’ve never read it, another omission like never having read Sense & Sensibility.

7.  A Gothic or horror classic - One Thousand and One Ghosts - Alexandre Dumas (1848)

8.  A classic with a number in the title – The Case of the Seven of Calvary – Anthony Boucher (1937)
The cover of this 1961 paperback says “a great mystery classic back in print.”  Boucher (as in “voucher” I think) is the author of The Case of the Solid Key, which really is a classic. The Anthony Awards are given at each annual Bouchercon World Mystery Convention.

9.  A classic which includes the name of an animal in the title -  Bugles and a Tiger: My Life in the Gurkhas - John Masters (1956, as old as me)
A military memoir, thus a guy’s book. Hey, there’s got be one among the hundreds of books read for this challenge.

10. A classic set in a place you'd like to visit – Small Town D.A. – Robert Traver. (1958)
But yet another guy’s book, to balance P & P and Jane Eyre and Lady Murasaki. So there. Traver, the author of Anatomy of a Murder, was a prosecutor in the mining, farming, lumbering district of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. This memoir, kind of true crime I suppose, features short accounts of cases he handled over ten years in what some people call God’s Country.

11. An award-winning classic - John Newberry Medal Winner – Audubon – Constance Rourke (1937)
During the Great Depression, many American intellectuals like Rourke were concerned that because of economic desperation and ugly examples of fascism abroad. America would take the extreme roads of authoritarianism or totalitarianism. So they wrote books and articles for the purpose of reminding Americans who we are and what values are supposed to mean something to us.

12. A Russian Classic – The Complete Short Novels – Anton Chekhov (tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky)
I think the best course for is to read one every other month. Savor, don’t gobble. Think it over. Write the review as I go along. Post the review in October.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Mount TBR #64

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China during the years 1844-5-6 - Évariste Régis Huc, C.M. a.k.a. Abbé Huc

Father Évariste Régis Huc was a French missionary Catholic priest. After 18 months of language immersion courses in Macau, he served the Church in the south of China, but moved north to Peking. From there he determined to minister to scattered Christian communities in Mongolia and beyond that he wanted to visit Lhasa, Tibet, where only one European had visited  before.

Father Huc is quite a storyteller. Like most travel writers, he’s probably rearranged incidents for effect, but I don’t mind such liberties. He’s very down home, writing about things we can relate to. Their dog Arsalan (Lion) was a Chinese dog, explained their local guide,  and so got sick and tired of the nomadic Tatar life. Arsalan ran off in favor of town lights and glitz. Sad Fr. Huc thinks it through:

At first, the loss of Arsalan grieved us somewhat.  We were accustomed to see him running to and fro in the prairie, rolling in the long grass, chasing the grey squirrels, and scaring the eagles from their seat on the plain.  His incessant evolutions served to break the monotony of the country through which we were passing, and to abridge, in some degree, the tedious length of the way.  His office of porter gave him especial title to our regret.  Yet, after the first impulses of sorrow, reflection told us that the loss was not altogether so serious as it had at first appeared.  Each day’s experience of the nomadic life had served more and more to dispel our original apprehension of robbers.  Moreover, Arsalan, under any circumstances, would have been a very ineffective guard; for his incessant galloping about during the day sent him at night into a sleep which nothing could disturb.  This was so much the case, that every morning, make what noise we might in taking down our tent, loading the camels, and so on, there would Arsalan remain, stretched on the grass, sleeping a leaden sleep; and when the caravan was about to start, we had always to arouse him with a sound kick or two.  Upon one occasion, a strange dog made his way into our tent, without the smallest opposition on the part of Arsalan, and had full time to devour our mess of oatmeal and a candle, the wick of which he left contumeliously on the outside of the tent.  A consideration of economy completed our restoration to tranquility of mind: each day we had had to provide Arsalan with a ration of meal, at least quite equal in quantity to that which each of us consumed; and we were not rich enough to have constantly seated at our table a guest with such excellent appetite, and whose services were wholly inadequate to compensate for the expense he occasioned.

Fr. Huc was a priest, after all, so totally expectable are his dismissive and patronizing views of reincarnation. It was his job to confront the Lamas with the dogmatical and moral truths  of the One True Church:

We commenced [discussion] with Christianity.  The Regent, always amiable and polished in his conversation with us, said that, as we were his guests, our belief ought to have the honour of priority.  We successively reviewed the dogmatical and moral truths.  To our great astonishment, the Regent did not seem surprised at anything we said.  “Your religion,” he incessantly repeated, “is conformable with ours; the truths are the same: we only differ in the explanations.  Of what you have seen and heard in Tartary and Thibet, there is, doubtless, much to blame; but you must not forget that the numerous errors and superstitions you may have observed, were introduced by ignorant Lamas, and that they are rejected by well-informed Buddhists.”  He only admitted, between him and us, two points of difference—the origin of the world, and the transmigration of souls.  The belief of the Regent, though it here and there seemed to approximate to the Catholic doctrine, nevertheless resulted in a vast pantheism; but he affirmed that we also arrived at the same result, and he did his best to convince us of this.

I have to admire the sheer courage of anybody attempting such discussions  through the medium of an imperfectly mastered second language.

Full disclosure: The two volumes total about 600 pages, a major commitment even for gluttonous readers like us. All I can say is that readers that like old travel books will like this narrative. It’s in an unclassifiable class by itself like West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon or Synge’s The Aran Islands

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Mount TBR #63

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Brando for Breakfast - Anna Kashfi and E.P. Stein

Anna Kashfi (1934 - 2015), was an Indian-born American movie actress who was stormily married to Marlon Brando for 11 months before they separated in 1958. She and Brando then fought a 14-year custody battle for their son Christian. During one of the many hearings Brando said he married her only because she was with child, and that he intended from the get-go to divorce her within a year.

Kashfi understandably has grievances, being married to a genius actor who was an unconventional selfish human being. And so early on in this hatchet job fur flies:

Marlon’s sexual tutti-frutti comprise several shadier flavors…I had heard tales of his consorting with ducks, attending exhibitionist orgies, joining the Club Necrophilia (wherein bodies of deceased celebrities are rented out) and consulting a ‘proctolist’ (a ‘rectum-reader’ whose soothsaying derives from anal creases).

Duck f*cking and celeb corpses aside, sometimes it is constructive to get confirmation that people will believe anything, like telling the future from wrinkles of the rectum. But the compassion we readers feel for Bud and Anna is only the automatic sympathy any decent person would feel upon hearing the story of two adults that apparently couldn’t help themselves figuring, why not bring a child into our madhouse of a household? The compassion we feel does not come from the writing. The tone is too mean, the mood too livid, the incidents too sordid, the conceit too pathetic for us readers to feel much for the unhappy couple.

Which is not to say it is totally humorless. Somehow the subject’s really odd vocabulary choices got by the ghost writer. I can’t imagine any professional writer letting word choices like this escape deletion:  "He balanced a steatopygous form on squat, sturdy legs." Steato – whuh? And it is not just trouble with hard words. I’ve heard of lies both “barefaced” and “baldfaced” but I’ve never heard of a “barefoot lie.”

A more intentional upside is that she tells interesting production stories about Streetcar, One Eyed Jacks, and Mutiny on the Bounty. Chunks of the last third of this book, however, are marred by tales of lawyers, courtrooms, hearings, writs, injunctions, allegations of lying, about all of which is as interesting as hearing about somebody’s gall bladder procedure.

The upshot is, even if only half of what she says is true, working with a creative person who is chaotic in daily habits and childishly selfish in expectations from other people must be hard but living with such a creature of nature must be impossible. In a weird incident, he came home under the impression that she was had drowned in the pool. When he saw she was in fact still alive, he got a disappointed look on his face. ‘Tis a rare marriage that could survive that.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
1946 / B & W / 116 minutes
Tagline: Fate drew them together... and only murder could part them!

On  December 13, TCM screened, yet again, an interesting example of big budget film noir. It blends the right amounts of guess work, women’s movie romance and nice clothes, and hard-boiled notions about the wicked ways of life in seemingly ideal communities.

Much of the suspense hangs on characters who act on mistaken assumptions and oblivious characters who don’t know they lack crucial information. I won’t discuss plot and incident because an account would dilute the suspense that every movie watcher has the right to savor on her own.  Because the movie takes a little too long for characters to tumble to facts, I will reveal to a world dying to know that my butt started to go numb at about the 95-minute mark of this two-hour movie.

Barbara Stanwyck plays the femme fatale as she did in Double Indemnity. She is hard and ruthless, but vulnerable and liable to a pitiful but frightening instability. She’s acted on impulse that caused others pain, cost two unfortunates their lives, and blighted her own life in the process. Violence and the prospect of cruelty excite her.

The other female lead, Lizabeth Scott, brings to mind Lauren Bacall, with her husky sultry voice and unique but not pretty face. But in only her second screen appearance, Scott gives the character a convincing broken manner. Like a hunted animal, she’s always looking over her shoulder, wincing in expectation from the next blow from a drunken parent, a violent sib, or a sadistic prison guard with a billy club. Born to be victimized, she isn’t close to clever and knows it. She needs somebody to take care of her.

The male leads are cast against type. To me, Van Heflin always seemed genial, harmless and Pillsbury Doughboy-soft. Here he plays a supposedly tough veteran of Anzio and a canny product of circus life and rambling gambler. In his screen debut, Kirk Douglas plays a drunken milktoast who is also a conniving, ethics-free DA who coerces small time crooks into bad funny business and sends innocent men to the gallows. This is noir, remember, so human failings cause trouble and suffering. Douglas pulls off playing a dynamic weakling, persuading us that his character has complexity – gutless, devious, dangerous, untrustworthy, volatile, but a husband totally in love with his wife.

Film noir tends to be cynical about appearances. Near the beginning of a movie is a wonderfully awful example of creepy decoration. A rich woman’s mansion has furnishings that look Late 19th Century Western Frontier Genteel though the scene is set the late 1920s. Naturally, the fancy decorations hide the inner rot of the semi-monsters that have to inhabit the house. Later in the movie the mansion is inhabited by Babs the Adultress who rubs her extramarital affairs with personal trainers in her alcoholic husband’s face. Hubby the DA takes his anger out on the petty crooks at work. He fixes problems for his friends and hires plug-uglies to usher drifters out of town.

The mid-sized factory town looks safe and prosperous enough. But it is run by a cabal of the spoiled rich and their corrupt lickspittles. The ordinary citizens are cranky toadies who accept their subordination as part of the natural order. In short, the town is the sweltering hell that Republicans think of when they think of the Good Old Days.  The arrival of the stranger Van Heflin uncovers the rot inside civic life.  The good citizens sure don’t like him being so rebellious.

Because of the big budget and requirements of The Code, the ending is not nearly as fatalistic and dark as film noir endings usually are. Despite the happy ending, enjoy.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Mount TBR #62

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Antagonists – William Haggard

At only 127 pages, this cold war spy thriller is short but packs in a lot of action and intrigue. Haggard excels at getting the reader on the edge of her seat, expecting any twist or turn. He builds tension as skillfully as Ruth Rendall or M.R. James.

But what’s realistic is that the hotshot scientist at the center of events is a real caution. He is a communist epicurean. He has an eye for the ladies. His fork is ever-ready for the West’s best viands. His palate will condescend to sample wines. He’s a brilliant eccentric that brings to mind Richard Feynman.

Also, Haggard features his series hero Col. Charles Russell, star of The Unquiet Sleep, The Arena, and The High Wire. As Perry Mason is our ideal lawyer and John Putnam Thatcher our ideal banker, Russell is our ideal spy master. Though he detests communists as a gang of tyrants and murderers, he doesn’t allow his personal feelings to cloud his reason.

One downside is that Haggard is a conservative of the old school. So the stereotypes about women and minorities may strike the reader as tedious and second-rate. The implicit woe over empire lost calls to mind an early Sixties feeling. On the other hand, that old-timey radicalism is good because his theme is that authority must keep the spears sharpened against malevolence and wrong-doing. Another theme is that decent people had better not let anger overcome their reason. As a teacher, how can I not applaud these themes?

The book ends with our series hero urging his political appointee boss, “We mustn’t cheat,” to which the boss replies, “We mustn’t be caught cheating.” Knowing the levels down to which government is willing to stoop, we readers are reminded we have to watch the bad guys but we had better watch the watchers too.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Mount TBR #61

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Stamping Ground – Loren D. Estleman

This is the second of the Page Murdock series, published way back in 1980. Estleman , a professional writer down to his fingertips, has written for the western, crime, and mystery markets his whole career. This story offers the action adventure we like in westerns combined with noir elements of his own Amos Walker PI stories.

In the late 1870s, Union veteran of the Civil War and ex-cowboy, Murdock finds himself as a lawman since long days and nights on the trail were taking their toll on his middle-aged body. His supervisor sends him to Dakota to bring in a rebel Cheyenne for hanging. Murdock goes on the mission with another middle-aged lawman and a meti guide. All the characters are sketched out briskly and clearly. The action never lets up. Estleman brilliantly describes landscape. He is vivid with sensory details involving hearing, texture, and smell. Like Cormac McCarthy, he has no illusions  about ethnic cleansing, but unlike with CM, we readers don’t need a week to recover from Estleman’s depictions of violence. The Cheyenne and tribe members are depicted as defiant, brutal, war-loving fighters, an image that I, being a brute, much prefer to the caring and sharing natural aristocrats living in harmony with nature stuff of which stereotypes are made.

I used to read a lot of westerns by notable writers in the genre, but gradually grew tired of them because the characters started to feel all the same: stoic, tight-lipped, amazingly quick-thinking, and never apologizing because it shows weakness - that hyper-masculine bullshit that never realizes if you don't say "I'm sorry" over screw-ups friends and relatives won't trust you. Also I grew weary of that constant theme, both latent and manifest, of the “inevitability” of the “vanishing” of the Red Man.

But in the last year or so I have made the exception for Loren D. Estleman. I’ve found his historical novel westerns to be well-written and clear eyed about the social and political context the time. Readers looking to stretch a little and get out of the comfort zone, I think, may want to consider these historical westerns by Estleman:  The Branch and the Scaffold and Port Hazard

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Those People Were Always Ugly

William F. Buckley wrote on Sept. 8, 1964 about the Beatles: “They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as the crowned heads of anti-music.”

I seem to recall WFB calling Lennon a "vulgar Liverpudlian" on TV when Lennon was killed on this day in 1980. I couldn't confirm the quotation though. But from the National Review in 2005 this:


Dear Mr. Buckley: Request for a judgment call: It's about the use in the press of the verb "assassinate." 

It's been my understanding all my life that private citizens are "murdered." To be "assassinated" you have to be either a head of state or at least a political figure, and by the way doesn't your murder also have to be politically motivated, or at least appear to be? Gandhi, JFK, and Lord Mountbatten were assassinated. Bob Crane, Bonny Lee Bakley, and the Notorious BIG were murdered. Right or, wrong? 

I bring this up because, for 25 years now, I've been hearing from the news media that John Lennon was "assassinated." With the 25th anniversary of Lennon's murder approaching, I expect to hear it again. In my view, to claim "assassinated" status for John Lennon is to imply that he was an important political figure, which I'm sure is the intent of certain balding, pony-tailed journalists, nostalgic for the '60s, as they hum Give Peace a Chance, puff pot, and swill Metamucil. 

I say Lennon was murdered, not assassinated. What say you? 

Sincerely, K---

Dear Mr. K---: I agree. But perhaps the assassin--murderer-was putting on airs? 

Cordially, WFB


Isn't this just like those people? The letter writer sounds literate and reasonable, if a bit preening with vocabulary and tone, then takes off the mask and wallows in nasty stereotypes about the old hippies swilling Metamucil. And then there's Bill being puckishly mean, implying the killer was pretending to be more powerful than he was by killing somebody who mistakenly thought he was more influential than he was. Taking the occasion to sneer and jeer instead of simply noting a story of one troubled soul senselessly killing another troubled soul. 


But then those people express ugly, cruel opinions not because they hold those opinions. They are saying mean things for an effect, to disconcert and bewilder people like us, people they don't like. We had better not give them the satisfaction of getting a rise out of us. "You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength," said Marcus Aurelius.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Mount TBR #60

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Lost One: The Life of Peter Lorre – Stephan D. Youngkin

This book is a long, deeply-researched, credible, and even-handed biography of the classic Hollywood star. For me, the major revelations were two. Lorre was addicted to painkillers virtually his entire adult life whereas I had thought his addiction was the result of the stress of overwork and exhaustion in Hollywood. The addiction to tobacco and drugs took such a toll on his health that he died when he was only 59, leaving his survivors in hard financial straits.

Nor did I know of his kindness and humor both on the set and in personal life. Those of us with Hungarian, Jewish, or Hungarian-Jewish  grandparents will recognize Lorre’s mordant sense of humor and capacity for love and good feelings. He often helped young actors to hone their craft. He was very open-handed with money, much to his own financial detriment.

Youngkin builds a strong case for Lorre’s vast talents as an actor; thus, we can add Loree to the lengthy list of European actors Hollywood hired out of the yen for a little class in the stable, but had little idea of what kind of parts they should play.

The author’s plodding style at least keeps his subject front and center. The few judgments he puts up seem fair-minded. I admire that he interviewed just anybody living who knew or worked with Lorre – such as Frankie Avalon and Roger Corman. The book slows down when he describes projects that never got produced. This is balanced by some excellent production stories, especially of Beat the Devil, with quirky John Huston, star of Lillian Ross’ classic long journalism Picture.

Given length of this bio, I can recommend it to only hardcore buffs of classic movies. It appears to be one of the very few biographies of Lorre out there. I can’t imagine those books to be more heavily researched than this one.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Top of the Heap

Top of the Heap – Erle Stanley Gardner, writing as A.A. Fair

Published in 1952, this is the thirteenth of 29 novels starring the PI partnership of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam that were written by Erle Stanley Gardner under the pen name of A.A. Fair. After reading about half-dozen of this series (a misnomer since they needn’t be read in any order), I think that Fair’s Cool and Lam novels are smarter, sexier, wittier and just more entertaining than Gardner’s Perry Mason novels.

Top of the Heap is worth reading because it is both characteristic and uncharacteristic of Gardner’s approach to mystery writing. As usual, the murder is a relatively small part of an intricate scheme, plot, or scam. As the running joke, Bertha Cool plays the comic miser like Uncle Scrooge and Mr. Krabs. Her hard-charging ways comically contrast with ex-lawyer Donald Lam’s subtle questioning of persons of interest and cunningly holding off the cops that want to put him in the hoosegow. Another constant is that because gentlemanly Lam is such a considerate listener, all the female characters fall like dominoes for him in spite of his short stature and poverty due to Bertha paying him so little.

Unusual, however, are the social science observations, especially involving female characters. Gardner puts on his sociologist’s hat to have a young working woman describe Sex in the City / Sex and the Single Girl in LA circa the early 1950s:

You’re not independent. You’re a cog in the economic and social machine. You can get just so high and no higher. If you want to play you can get acquainted with a lot of playboys. If you want anything you’re stymied.

Through an ex-strip tease artist, we get the anthropological view from a participant-observer. The self-possessed stripper describes her sense of her power over the audience and her teasing of it as the core spectacle of old-time burlesque shows:

I had the most supreme contempt for the individuals in the audience, but the group of the contemptible individuals became an entity, an audience. I loved to hear the roars of applause….

A publisher called Hard Case Crime got this novel back into print in 2004, its first publication in 30 years. It was an excellent choice.

Monday, November 28, 2016

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, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

In The Private Wound by Nicholas Blake, from page one we get Anglo-Irish poet and classicist meets The Postman Always Rings Twice:

When I remember that marvelous summer of 1939, in the West of Ireland almost thirty years ago, one picture always slips to the front of my mind. I am lying on a bed drenched with our sweat. She is standing by the open window to cool herself in the moonlight. I see again the hour-glass figure, the sloping shoulders, the rather short legs, that disturbing groove of the spine halfway hidden by her dark red hair which the moonlight has turned black. The fuchsia below the window will have turned to gouts of black blood. The river beyond is talking in its sleep. She is naked.

I’m always game for a mystery melodrama if it is as well-written as this. And the writing ought to be fluent and engaging since Nicholas Blake was the pen-name of Cecil Day-Lewis, who wrote this, his last novel, while he was Poet-Laureate of the UK in 1968. 

Last novels are often products of exhausted creative energies, but this is worth reading and savoring. A young writer wants to save his pennies and pounds so he rents a house in rural Eire. He knows the war is inevitable and he wants to get one more book out.

He meets his neighbor’s wife, an attractive, sexually insatiable and deceitful woman. I’m saying as little about the story as possible. But know that the local scenery, the national character of the Irish at the time, and the theme of being a foreigner (aka the object of intense curiosity) all contribute effectively to the mystery story.

Friday, November 25, 2016

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, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 - Jeanine Basinger

In mid-November Turner Classic Movies showed the woman’s movie Invitation (1953), giving us veteran movie buffs a chance to run down the melodrama checklist.

·         Deception, check: For the very best of reasons, a father and fiancé tell terrible lies to a wistful vulnerable woman. 
·         Setting, check: Upper middle class or lower upper class family, unspecified Northeastern town.
·         Check and double-check: No mother, but a doting father.
·         Love & marriage as central issue, check: Reconciled to being a spinster, Plain Jane blonde – indeed, we should all be as homely as Dorothy McGuire.
·         The bad brunette rival, check: Ruth Roman, of course.
·         Point of rivalry, the genial though fickle male, check: boyish Van Johnson, of course.
·         Lots of flashbacks, check:  to the point of maddening and pointless, in fact.

Anyway, poor Dorothy McGuire learns the secret why her husband married her. And selflessly accepts the reality of the situation. Melodramatic, but convincing. Our hard-pressed heroine comes to an admirable stoic conclusion, “It is not enough just to survive – at the end of our lives we have to be able to say that we lived.” She echoes Seneca in On the Shortness of Life: ‘Show me that the good in life does not depend upon life’s length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little’.

Not Stella Dallas or Imitation of Life or Now, Voyager, but a worthwhile movie, I don’t demand the 90 minutes back again.

All in all, a worthy example of the “woman’s film,” a movie that was made to appeal to a female audience. Film historian Basinger argues it became a critically disrespected genre because many of the early 1930s movies for women really were trash. She also argues that modern film historians don’t like the genre because they think Hollywood movies supported anti-progressive views about women’s place at home, at work, in the world. Basinger makes the convincing argument that Hollywood made movies to make money so it tried to appeal to everybody and offend nobody. But, in fact, Hollywood writers and directors did manage to convey messages that all was not right with courting, marriage, the world of work, and motherhood.

In about 550 pages, Basinger provides plenty of plot explications to support her basic arguments. Because this book is for the general reader, not students at universities, it is written clearly, with humor and light-heartedness. I highly recommend this book to fans of classic Hollywood and others who tear up when, in Dark Victory, Bette Davis looks up at the bright noontime sky and says, “Goodness, getting darker, must be a storm coming….”

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly - Jennifer Fleischner (faculty profile)

ISBN 0767902599

In the eyes of some historians and ACW buffs, Mary Lincoln has the image of a shopaholic so unstable that her son Robert had to commit her to an insane asylum.  Her modiste and confidant Elizabeth Keckly is known dimly as the author of the controversial memoir Behind the Scenes, which gives us a fascinating look into the Lincoln White House.

Jennifer Fleischner (Department of English, Adelphi University) writes a sympathetic if unsparing portrait of Mary Lincoln.  Mary did have an excitable and immoderate temperament. Plus, she was loosely educated, like many Southern women of the day, to play the piano and ride in carriages. Her compulsive shopping – she bought hundreds of pairs of gloves in one shopping trip - had roots in her sorrow and feelings of emptiness.

Her southern family cut off ties with her after the ACW began. She had two of her beloved children die. Lincoln did not love her and when he wasn’t aloof and distant, he acted with bemused and weary tolerance at her vagaries. Her husband was shot in the head with her right next to him. She later lost a third son when he was just a teenager. Her own health was fragile: she suffered migraines and anxiety and she may have been suffering from untreated diabetes (she died of a stroke). This lonely and anguished woman had plenty of trials that would dog anybody, even those better educated and more philosophically equipped than she was.

Mrs. Keckly, on the other hand, Fleischner portrays as a strong figure. Born in slavery, she was raped for four years by a white man. She was impregnated by him and bore his son.  She lost this son, who passed as white to join the US Army, when he was killed in his first battle of the ACW. Determined and talented with her needle, she worked as a seamstress (custom dressmaking was required before mass production of clothes). She was able to buy her and her son’s freedom.  She built her professional reputation to the point where extremely influential women, such as Varina Davis wife of Jefferson, recommended her to others. That was how Mary Lincoln came to hire her and dominate virtually all her time.

Theirs was a complicated relationship that Fleischner describes clearly and plausibly. Mary Lincoln grew up assuming people would do things for her and make things right when the going got rough. Keckly took on that role, out of true liking, pity, and gratitude because Mary’s husband was the Moses of her people. When Lincoln was assassinated, Mary sent for Mrs. Keckly, though that terrible night Mrs. Keckly was unable to get past the jumpy guards.

Mrs. Keckly was a remarkable woman. She learned to read, write and figure. She owned her own dressmaking business and employed seamstresses.  She founded the Contraband Relief Association in August 1862. Mrs. Keckly said that the CRA was formed “for the purpose, not only of relieving he wants of those destitute people, but also to sympathize with, and advise them.”  After the ACW, she maintained her relationship with Mary Lincoln and tried to help her with her money problems.  Mrs. Keckly wrote Behind the Scenes to defend Mary Lincoln, but due to criticism rooted in racism, sexism, and classism, the book was controversial and disappeared soon after it was published. The book is well worth reading before this one.

Fleischner, mercifully, writes for the general lay reader and avoids the grating jargon of Theory. Her writing style is pleasant to read. I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Warren G. Harding

The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times - Francis Russell
ISBN 0070543380

Almost 700 pages on one of the worst Presidents in history. Pull my other leg, says the wary reader, ever mindful of time and effort.  


In fact, readers who enjoy popular biographies would enjoy this clearly written book. It is strongest on Harding and of his closest personal relationships and clear about how a genial non-entity with the gift of gab survived and prospered in the snake pit of state and national politics.

Russell has a sure touch with the most suitable anecdote and his digressions are many and varied. For instance, he runs off on fascinating tangents such as the ceremonies related to burial of the Unknown Soldier, Harding's suspected Negro ancestry, his inauguration, and his funeral.

He handles at length deeper subjects such as the labyrinth of Ohio politics, the Dark Convention of 1920, and the Teapot Dome Scandal, in which he cuts Fall and Sinclair more slack than one would expect. Even Harry Daugherty comes off better than his unsavory reputation would lead us to believe.

I’m not an expert but even I know that Washington Arms Conference was more important than Russell evaluates it, so I daresay genuine historians have other and more serious problems with this pop bio. But readers who like popular histories would enjoy it, while more jaded readers will wearily observe that empty suits and unqualified buffoons as Presidents are nothing new.


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Simenon & Camilleri

Maigret Afraid – Georges Simenon (1953)
ISBN 015655142X

August Heat – Andrea Camilleri (2006)
ISBN 0143114050

Although written 50 years apart, Simenon and Camilleri deal with themes concerning weather, aging, and flawed heroism of their series characters Maigret and Montalbano.

In Maigret Afraid, our favorite Inspector Jules Maigret finds himself in Fontenay-le-Comte, in Vendée (west-central France). The climate there is usually mild, but given the importance of the weather for Simenon in creating mood,  the miserable rain adds to the fear of the people of the town where a serial killer is pounding harmless people to death with a pipe. In August Heat, our second favorite Inspector Salvo Montalbano has to summer in Vigàta, Sicily, when his subordinate Mimi is allowed to extend his summer vacation.  In August, Sicily is sweltering, with a palpable heat that soaks clothes in minutes, exhausts the spirit and mind, and shortens the already infamously short Sicilian temper. Salvo is driven to lock his office door and in his underwear figure out the case of a body found in a truck in an illegally constructed apartment.

Both books address the themes of the effect of aging on confidence. On his way back from a conference of police officials, Maigret thinks about his bored lack of interest at hearing about the latest forensic techniques. Confronted with the uneasiness of this less than professional reaction, he worries, “Was he perhaps suddenly feeling old?”  Similarly, in the tenth novel of the series, fifty-something  Montalbano’s concern about heart attacks and his brooding about his own mortality will connect with a middle-aged audience. Plus, with long-time GF Livia not speaking to him (for lousy reasons, this time), he frets about a weakening will unable to resist temptation to do the wrong thing with the stunning twin sister of the murder victim, who is young enough to be his daughter.  The undermining of Montalbano’s confidence due to his worries about growing old leads to unfortunate outcomes in this one.

The protagonists of the two novels are both honest and moral. Both Maigret and Montalbano  have reached middle-age, old enough to know their own frailties and thus be patient with people whose weaknesses have gotten them into deep trouble. Maigret feels sympathy toward crooks who have been unable to withstand internal and external pressures that drive them to crime. Montalbano feels melancholy compassion toward a wide range of people who have been damaged by criminals, from the grieving survivors of murder victims to immigrant workers exploited to death, literally, in Berlusconi’s corrupt Italy. Both inspectors must deal with the difficulties ethical officials face when confronted with the machinations of politicians and crooks in cahoots. Both Simenon and Camilleri take as a given that men in power will do terrible things with impunity because they assume other people exist to be used, though Simenon is resigned to it and Camilleri is scathing about it.

Fans of mysteries set in Europe – especially middle-aged ones – will enjoy these stories. Younger readers might find it tedious to ruminate on aging, but, well, it’s better to deal with getting old than obsess about the alternative.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Bodies in a Bookshop

Bodies in a Bookshop - R. T. Campbell
ISBN 0486247201

This narrator of the 1949 mystery gets into a reader’s good graces by observing, “The trouble with bookshops is that they are as bad as pubs. You start with one and then you drift to another, and before you know where you are you are on a gigantic book-binge.”

But in a "curious little shop in a side-street off the Tottenham Court Road," botanist Max Boyle finds not only recondite tomes but also two bodies in a back office filled with gas fumes. He also notices that their heads have been bashed in and that the room is bolted from the outside. Not for the first time, internal evidence says, Boyle calls the long-suffering Yard Chief Inspector Reginald F. Bishop a.k.a. The Bishop. However, Boyle’s flat mate and research mentor Professor John Stubbs horns into the investigation, which reveals a dismal world of blackmail, pornography, and theft of rare books. The suspects are sharply differentiated, the plot speeds up, and in a change of tone and pace, the reveal is outstanding.

The Bishop is skeptical of Stubbs’ use of the scientific method. He claims that forming and testing hypotheses, finding them implausible, and starting the process over and over again until the solution that fits the facts is found simply amounts to guessing and throwing explanations out until time, more evidence, and the law of averages ensure that one explanation is probably the right one. Stubbs, a loud beer-quaffing Scot, takes exception to this wording of the scientific method. But in traditional academic style, truth is found through different approaches and more or less good-natured bickering.

Author R. T. Campbell (real name Ruthven Todd) was a Scottish-born literary man who wrote a handful of mysteries. His witty writing style makes up for his jocose repetitions when describing the foibles of Stubbs and The Bishop. Also enjoyable are the superbly drawn characters and vigorous dialogue. Every setting is appropriately claustrophobic.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Mount TBR #57

Happy Veteran’s Day

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

A Volunteer's Adventures: A Union Captain's Record of the Civil War - John William De Forest

John William De Forest earned fame as a novelist after the civil war and nowadays he is considered the first American realist. I have not read his most famous work Miss Ravenel's Conversion, but may because this memoir of his war experience was quite interesting and smoothly written. It consists of letters to his wife and magazine articles that we wrote both during and after the war.

Clearly De Forest was a highly educated man. He even knew French so he was able to communicate with Cajuns while he was posted to dangerous campaigning and tedious garrison duty in Louisiana. The siege of Port Hudson, for instance, is narrated very clearly.

After that, he fought under Sheridan in the valleys of Virginia and all his experience was grist to his literary mill. Some of the chapters are letters, some magazine pieces, and others recasts of official corps history that he was ordered to write as is federal plundering for food. I was surprised that between paychecks, union officers often nearly starved on meagre rations.

The editor provided instructive introductions to the chapters. I would recommend this account to serious students of the civil war.

Friday, November 4, 2016

W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes

W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes - Robert Lewis Taylor

ISBN 0312034504 

This 1949 biography of great comedian remains a wonderful and informative read. Taylor takes Whitey Dukinfield from an abused runaway to national fame as W.C. Fields, showman of the stage, screen, and radio. Fields’ early adversity made him into a wary, suspicious skinflint as if being a comic genius isn’t trial enough to any human being (see Bert Lahr, Lenny Bruce, John Belushi, Jackie Gleason, etc.). This was written before the “tell all” biographies of the 1970s but Taylor does not flinch from stories that make his subject look disagreeable. Any reader who is interested in comedy, vaudeville, and classic Hollywood should do herself a favor and read this very funny -- and sad – book.


Monday, October 31, 2016

Happy Halloween!

In 1957, American popular music was still different and eclectic in that recording artists drew on multiple influences to make their own unique blends of blues, country, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, ragtime, barbershop, rockabilly and rock and roll. The influences came not only from not only other musicians and trends, but from tall tales and folktales and the oral traditions of the South.

These lyrics are to Little Demon by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who is nowadays primarily known for the still odd I Put a Spell on You. Note the rural setting, supernatural characters, exaggerated details, lively fun, and colloquial language that we expect in folktales.

Rather obscure is the line “He had death on his mind 'cause my demon let him go” but the demon and spirit world is not on our earthly plane so its supernatural agenda is bound to be inscrutable to us human beings. Think of the haunted hotel in The Shining; who can say what those wraiths were up to, with bloody elevators and I don’t know what all?

Just like the repeated <>, human language struggles to understand non-human vocalizations. Says something for the control Hawkins had over his voice that he could say <>  in the same way every time. Try saying a string of nonsense syllables the same way multiple times – it’s not easy.

The line “He gonna run through the world 'til we understand his pain” connects with the demon’s amazing tinkering with time itself. The demon is hurting and he is going to hassle the mundane world till all mortals know it. And till somebody steps forward to relieve his uncanny hurt

Little Demon
Down in the valley on a foggy hill rock
Stood a pretty little demon blowing his top
Fire in his eyes and smoke from his head
You gotta be real cool to hear the words he said

He said <>
That cat was mad!

He had steam in his soul for the one he loved so
He had death on his mind 'cause my demon let him go
He gonna run through the world 'til we understand his pain
Somebody help him get this demon home again

He said <>
That cat- that cat was mad!

He made the sky turn green, he made the grass turn red,
He even put pretty hair on Grandma's bald head
He made the moon back up, he even pushed back time
>He took the frutti out of tutti, he had the devil drinkin' wine

He said <>
That cat was mad!

This demon felt good cuz he finally got across,
To the crazy little demon that a woman’s still the boss
Down in the valley on the foggy hill rock
You can still hear the demon blowing his top

He said <>
That cat- that cat was mad!

He pushed back, brought in afternoon,
He even made Leap Year jump over the moon,
He took the Fourth of July and put it in May
He took this morning for a drive yesterday

He said <>
That cat- that cat was mad!


Saturday, October 29, 2016

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, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Longer the Thread – Emma Lathen

The 13th mystery starring series hero John Putnam Thatcher was published in 1971 by two business women who wrote under a pen name. Thatcher, a middle-aged financier on Wall Street, must visit his bank’s Puerto Rico branch, which is concerned about problems at an investment, a large garment maker. The backdrop of Puerto Rico provides social and political conflict between those who want Puerto Rico to be independent versus those who want the special status with the US to continue as usual.

The garment maker’s factory has seen sabotage of finished goods and machines. A foreman – an obnoxious bad actor who was enjoying the trouble (we all know such people at work) – is shot to death. The main suspects are the gringo managers of the plant, which sparks talks of strikes. The factory owner calls in a union organizer, a tough woman negotiator, a character for which the book is worth reading for the authoresses’ early feminist views (that anybody can make success from clear thinking and having a clear-cut goals). Thatcher investigates the murder and sabotage, but arrives at the conclusion mainly by thinking. There is local color and plausible action in Lathen stories, like fires, riots, and intense confrontations, but ultimately reason takes center stage.

I highly recommend this one to Lathen fans and novices.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

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, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Not Quite Dead Enough – Rex Stout

This Nero Wolfe double mystery is a double. That is, it contains a pair of novellas that first came out in The American Magazine (1906 - 1956), "Not Quite Dead Enough"  in December, 1942 and "Booby Trap" in August, 1944. Stout makes them topical, given the nation is at war against fascism, so Wolfe’s sidekick, Archie Goodwin, serves in the Army. Like Conan Doyle did in the Holmes stories, Stout is adept at throwing out tantalizing hints as to what Archie is doing to serve. A counter-intelligence officer, perhaps?

The WWII backdrop is unique in the canon. Archie is driven to set himself for arrest in order to snap Wolfe out of a patriotic frenzy. The wartime fever has driven the agoraphobic and gastronomic Wolfe to actually go outside and do some brisk walking. Well, as brisk as the rotund Wolfe (and the poor cook Fritz) can manage.

The book has plenty of funny characters. Also, Stout writes more tightly than usual, perhaps because the tales were originally conceived as short novels. The reveal and the ending, too, depart from the norm in that it occurs not in the office, with only Archie in attendance, with Wolfe proposing and disposing. Hey, ethics smethics, whaddaya want, there’s a war on!

I highly recommend this one to both Wolfe fans and novices.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Five Roundabouts to Heaven

Five Roundabouts to Heaven - John Bingham

ISBN-10: 141654044X

John Bingham (1908 - 1988) worked in British counter-intelligence. He was also a writer of crime novels, spy novels and mysteries. Readers that like novels by John LeCarre, William Haggard, Patricia Highsmith, or Ruth Rendall’s Barbara Vine novels will like Bingham’s psychological realism and unflinching view of fallible human beings.

In this novel, also known as The Tender Poisoner, the characters feel driven to adultery. This leads to lying, scheming to steal the GF’s of other guys, and plotting murder for tender and compassionate reasons.

Definitely not escapist fiction, but a solid crime story. Not a mystery, but rather an exploration of the psychology that could prompt an average person to contemplate murder, and ultimately to be able to commit murder.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

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, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Raised on Radio – Gerald Nachman


Radio as popular medium in the US enjoyed its classic days from about the mid-Twenties to the end of World War II. This overview for the general reader is breezily written and enjoyable. It covers all genres, from soap operas to comedy to variety shows to cop and robbers. 

For readers seeking to improve their pop cultural knowledge, he gives the reasons why these figures were popular: Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Walter Winchell, and Jack Webb. His treatments of Amos n Andy, Bob n Ray, Burns n Allen, and Vic n Sade were very informative to me. His discussions of Fibber McGee n Molly and The Great Gildersleeve (“Leee-roooooy” “Ah, unc, for corn’s sake!”) are informed not only by his own warm memories of these shows but also by his understanding that we post-moderns may not grok these shows. 

Any reader into the history of popular entertainment or old time radio will get a great deal out of this book.

Monday, October 17, 2016

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque

The author was drafted at the age eighteen into the German Army. In this fictionalized memoir of the First World War, he describes the lives and endurance of a group of soldiers who were still only teenagers when they experienced the brutality of trench warfare. The battle scenes are gripping and almost intolerably vivid. I think the book is both an anti-war novel and a coming of age story. The youths have not experienced anything in life except school and war so they wonder what they are going to do when the war is over. A lost generation, they worry that they have no skills except soldiering and bear the mental torture of prolonged stress, what Ford Madox Ford called, “immense miles and miles of anguish in darkened minds.”

When this book was released during the Weimar Republic, Germans like Adolph Hitler, for whom the war was an adventure, detested it and sent Remarque hate mail and death threats. After Hitler rose to power, all of Remarque's books were banned in Germany by the Nazi government.  All Quiet on the Western Front was among the works destroyed in public book burnings in 1933.

Mass media tools and hacks accused Remarque of pacifism and defeatism, so he had to flee first to Hollywood with many other German expatriates forced out of their country, such as Peter Lorre, Thomas Mann, Bertoldt Brecht, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder. In 1958, he married actress Paulette Goddard and they stayed together, living in Switzerland, until he passed away in 1970.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Case of the Solid Key

The Case of the Solid Key - Anthony Boucher

Fans of vintage mysteries express regret that Anthony Boucher (same sound as “voucher”) wrote only three mysteries starring his private eye hero, Fergus O’Breen. Like Nero Wolfe, O’Breen is less a character than a collection of quirks. He drives a canary yellow roadster and his gaudy wardrobe makes people think the circus is in town. In order to think he needs to pace up and down, so when he twists his ankle in this one, he feels hemmed in and bummed out.  He has a super-human capacity for adult beverages.  A well-read scholar, he calls himself an “introspective extrovert with manic-depressive tendencies.” With his eccentricities, red hair and larger than life personality then, we may safely conclude he’s indeed a son of the Emerald Isle.

The second of Boucher’s trio of mysteries, The Case of the Solid Key, was released in 1941. The setting is Hollywood. Not the glamorous City of Dreams showcasing big stars and major studios, but the Tinsel Town of No Pity. The characters are mainly young actors and actresses scrambling to get noticed by agents and talent spotters. They toil at menial jobs to pay the rent and put on plays in a little theater which is mainly a racket run by a sharper. O’Breen’s sister Maureen (really – Maureen O’Breen) is the Head of Publicity for Metropolis Pictures so we get fascinating descriptions of a film studio as work environment during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Boucher must have been writing about milieu – young actors vs. big studios  -  that he knew intimately because setting and characters ring true.

The mystery unfolds gradually, with the murder occurring about half-way into the book. Usually this would be a problem for me, a guy that likes the corpse discovered by the end of chapter one. But, as I hinted, the authentic setting and skilled characterization more than make up for the lack of detecting.
Period touches and heavy themes add interest. Boucher tosses into the mix a spoiled rich actress grousing about the socialistic ways of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and lefty theater managers that connive to make the little theater into a worker-owned cooperative. But Boucher was by no means a heathenish New Dealer because at the end of the story the perp discusses sin in terms of reason, free will, personal responsibility, and the voluntariness of ignorance.  While the Catholic theology takes only a couple of pages of the book, it will surely perk up readers who re-read Chesterton’s Father Brown tales.

This vintage mystery is well-worth reading. I can see why discerning readers wish Boucher had written more mysteries and not turned his attention to science fiction and criticism.  He is remembered so fondly, in fact, that the Anthony Awards are given at each annual Bouchercon World Mystery Convention.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Man Could Stand Up

A Man Could Stand Up – Ford Madox Ford

This is the third novel in the Parade’s End tetralogy, which Anthony Burgess called “the finest novel about the First World War.” The title echoes a remark made by a squaddie (grunt) that once peace finally comes, a man could stand up on a hill without the risk of anybody taking shots at him.

The end of the war, however, finds our hero Christopher Tietjens in a bad way. He suffers from anxiety and obsessive guilt that he was responsible for a terrible wound sustained by his subaltern. This novel does not develop the plot laid out in the first two novels, except that Tietjens’ harpy of a wife Sylvia sells all his furniture and he returns from the war to an empty house.

But the writing is amazing for us readers who enjoy modernist prose. Ford uses challenging modernistic techniques such as time shifts and what he called “literary impressionism,” the reproduction of life as it is lived. For instance, the novel opens with protagonist and pacifist Valentine Wannop missing the Armistice signal because of a telephone call from her nemesis, the literary poser Edith Ethel:

She didn't even know whether what they had let off had been maroons or aircraft guns or sirens. It had happened — the noise, whatever it was — whilst she had been coming through the underground passage from the playground to the schoolroom to answer this wicked telephone. So she had not heard the sound. She had missed the sound for which the ears of a world had waited for years, for a generation. For an eternity. No sound. When she had left the playground there had been dead silence. All waiting: girls rubbing one ankle with the other rubber sole...

The theme Ford examines is that after the First World War, nothing is going to be same. Men will return from the war in pain:

Hitherto, [Valentine] had thought of the War as physical suffering only: now she saw it only as mental torture. Immense miles and miles of anguish in darkened minds. That remained. Men might stand up on hill, but the mental torture could not be expelled.

But the traditional authority of Late Victorian and Edwardian sages was undermined too: "No more respect! Was that to be a lasting effect of the cataclysm that had involved the world?”

And why not – a couple of royals are snuffed in a provincial town in the Balkans and millions have to die – like Valentine thinks, “Middle Class Morality? A pretty gory carnival that had been for the last four years!

To my mind, the Parade’s End tetralogy is well-worth reading. And re-reading.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

No More Parades

No More Parades - Ford Madox Ford

ISBN-10: 1847770134

The first novel in the Parades’ End tetralogy, Some Do Not, was set in places where the Best People hang out (clubs in London, golf courses at Rye, and the Macmaster Fridays). But this second one is set at Rouen in a transit camp that was accommodating allied soldiers on their way to the Western Front. Ford examines the experience of officers during the First World War and the break-up of the marriage of Christopher and Sylvia Tietjens.

Although there is no mud and blood, Ford evokes the horror of combat with the death of the soldier ‘09 Morgan, who dies in Tietjens’ arms. When awfulness becomes the new normal and is prolonged, it is no wonder that officers lose their minds, as the mad subordinate McKechnie shows.

Also maddening is the ceaseless confusion. The illustration of the fog of war, the bureaucracy of armies, will bring to mind Waugh’s WWII trilogy and Burgess’ A Vision of Battlements. Tietjens can’t quarter, equip, or send on a couple thousand Canadian volunteers because orders from on high are repeatedly  rescinded. The incessant muddle causes strain in Tietjens, whose self-esteem depends on doing things right.

On the personal side, his wife is making life as difficult as possible. Sylvia, so conceited she doesn’t even acknowledge the war, is disgusted that Tietjens should be expected to serve the "ignoramuses" and “gaga old fools” who run the war. In order to embarrass her intensely private husband, Sylvia visits the transit camp in France, much to the consternation of Gen. Campion, who won’t have “skirts” on his bases. When Campion has it out with reticent Tietjens in a painful interview, he compares Tietjens with Dreyfus:

"Damn it; they say you're brilliant. But I thank heaven I haven't got you in my command.... Though I believe you're a good lad. But you're the sort of fellow to set a whole division by the ears.... A regular ... what's 'is name? A regular Dreyfus!"

"Did you think Dreyfus was guilty?" Tietjens asked.

"Hang it," the General said, "he was worse than guilty - the sort of fellow you couldn't believe in and yet couldn't prove anything against. The curse of the world .. ."

Too smart for his own good and too stoic to kowtow to power, Tietjens ends up in deep financial trouble due to his own Christ-like inability to say No to people who cadge money from him. The irony of Tietjens falling deeper into trouble due to his own selflessness reminds readers of the irony of The Great War, too, such as the loss of respect for individuality and the dignity of privacy obscured by prattling cant about honor and freedom.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

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, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Venus of Kompara – John Masters

Set in 1890 during the period of British rule of India, this adventure novel from 1961 blends archaeology, PG-rated eroticism, strained marital relations, superstition, and mysticism.

The British resident Kendrick sublimates his impotence with his wife Barbara into ruling his small district. His ambition is thwarted by his own misogyny and his uncertainty about the future ruler, Mohan, who has been educated in the UK but feels adrift back in his native culture. The archeologist and mystic Smith joins forces with the contractor Smith who uncovers curious artifacts while digging a dam.  A mysterious dancer, Rukmini, attracts the attention of Mohan, but her agenda is also filled with righting ancient wrongs done to her Dravidian people by Mohan’s Aryan ancestors. Mohan loves her but because of caste rules sees no path for her to become his queen. The locals have secrets to protect and go to great lengths to guard them.

There’s a lot of action in this novel. Masters is also good with the theme, the clash of civilizations in ancient times and our own. Of course, the sensibilities induce cringes in our enlightened age.

The defeated masses were small and squat, their faces somewhat exaggeratedly simian, sometimes beautiful, but always different, with their broad cheekbones and square shapes, from the tall, straight-nosed, lank-haired heroes who destroyed them and their works.

I can’t recommend it as highly as his brilliant novel of an Indian regiment fighting in the trenches of WWI, The Ravi Lancers, but it’s interesting and readable. 

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Five by Five

These are worth reading.

5 Modernist Japanese Novels
1. The Makioka Sisters - Junichiro Tanizaki
2. Sanshiro - Soseki Natsume
3. The Waiting Years - Fumiko Enchi
4. The Old Capital - Yasunari Kawabata
5. Rashomon - Ryunosuke Akutagawa

5 Novels Related to the Vietnam War
1. Dog Soldiers - Robert Stone
2. Fields of Fire - James Webb
3. Novel without a Name - Duong Thu Huong
4. Body Count - William Huggett
5. A Country Such As This - James Webb

5 Novels related to Seafaring
1. Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson
2. The Voyage of the Narwhal - Andrea Barrett
3. English Passengers - Matthew Kneale
4. Delilah: A Novel - Marcus Goodrich
5. HMS Surprise - Patrick O'Brian

5 novels related to expatriates
1. A Good Man in Africa - William Boyd
2. The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy - Anthony Burgess
3. American Fuji - Sara Backer
4. The Singapore Grip - J.G. Farrell
5. The Industry of Souls - Martin Booth

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Turn on the Heat

Turn on the Heat – Erle Stanley Gardner, writing as A.A. Fair

Published in 1940, Turn on the Heat is the second Bertha Cool & Donald Lam PI mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair. An untrustworthy client hires them to find a woman who disappeared around 20 years before. Another investigator who was poking around the case then gets murdered. Cool and Lam must find the missing woman, but throw sand into the eyes of the police to keep them from getting close to their client. The title, therefore, refers to law-school grad Lam creating confusion and distraction.

The plus is that the story gets tangled plenty fast as Cool and Lam scramble to avoid jail and charges as accomplices after the fact. Lam tries to protect Cool by keeping her out of the loop, but as usual she blunders into the thick of things anyway. Another positive is that in the Cool and Lam novels, more than the Perry Mason novels, Gardner examines the rough side of local politics: seedy cops, crooked politicians, co-opted news reporters, mean gangsters, and cowed citizens. As in the Mason novels, the killing takes second to the complex criminal scheme that goes bad and leads up to the killing.

The negative is that being elaborate, plot and incident may be hard to follow and at least some of the time make extreme demands on intelligence and memory. Another qualm I had – this time it wasn’t enough telling myself to make allowances for outdated attitudes* – was related to the tone when Gardner described female characters. The running joke in the series is that the females fall for Lam due to his gentlemanly ways and willingness to listen without handing out advice. But in this one the young woman swoons for Lam, unbelievably. Bertha Cool’s dependence on Lam to see them through to the end wasn’t consistent with her confidence, assertiveness, and toughness. The chuckling references to her pounds didn’t do much for me.

Still, I think the Cool and Lam novels are funnier, grittier, and sexier than the Perry Mason novels. Well-worth reading. I found 10 Cool and Lam mysteries in a used book store this past summer. It was the find of the year so far.


* Which apparently have not gone away considering these nasty comments routinely made about women.