Thursday, March 31, 2016

Classic #9

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

On the surface, this dystopic world doesn’t look all that bad. Daily working hours are short enough to allow leisure time for golf, movies, and other fun distractions. Social mores are such that promiscuity is encouraged to the point that monogamy is in bad taste. Society also encourages the frequent use of a tranquilizer called soma so people can lead a stress-free life. The world is also free of economic and social instability or hardship. Not much work, lots of sex and fun, and getting high – crikey, where do I sign up?

The downside, Huxley hints, is that everybody expects to die at about 60 of galloping senility, probably brought on by use of soma. Another disadvantage is that the world is run by dictatorship of World Controllers that are aided by technocratic minions. They maintain a five-tiered caste system through physiological manipulation of test-tube babies and psychological conditioning – aka brainwashing – throughout childhood.

The Orwellian despotism of 1984 was based on the cynical manipulation of fear of enemies both within and without society. The dictatorship in BNW reduces people to juvenile social and emotional lives. People are obsessed with sex, sports, and entertainment. People crave to be endlessly distracted by looking at screens and self-medication. Life is so pleasant that nobody reads, everybody pursues pleasure impulsively. Sure, the smarter people feel like misfits, but there are plenty of places to send them to when they make trouble, like Iceland and the Falkland Islands.

I highly recommend this novel of ideas.  True, the education of the Savage seems unlikely and the last part is rather talky. This is easily balanced by Huxley’s insight into how human beings tick, no matter the technology and social mores they are raised in. Huxley is also funny, especially when the comic relief Bernard Marx is in the scene. Huxley’s humor is sharp and acerbic but it’s never cruel. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Classic #8

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

London Labour and the London Poor - Henry Mayhew

Mayhew was a pioneering investigative reporter. His articles narrated the lives of homeless vagrants, street sellers and laborers who did the dirty, dangerous, disgusting jobs in 19th century London. Mayhew interviewed his subjects about their lives and thus was one of the first to conduct ethnography. He has been respected as an early sociologist (he loved statistics), anthropologist and oral historian a la Studs Terkel.

Mayhew’s lively exposition has a vital, energetic tone that is quite engaging. He doesn’t allow his own opinions to intrude except parenthetically but sometimes he tells us that even he, a guy who has seen everything, can be surprised. He interviews a maker of false eyes:
He then took the lids off a couple of boxes that stood on the table; they each contained 190 different eyes, and so like nature that the effect produced upon a person unaccustomed to the sight was most peculiar and far from pleasant. They all seemed to be staring directly at the spectator, and occasioned a feeling somewhat similar to the bewilderment one experiences on suddenly becoming an object of general notice. The eyes of the whole world literally appeared to be fixed upon you, and it was almost impossible for the spectator at first to look at them without instinctively averting his head. The hundred eyes of Argus were positively insignificant in comparison with the 380 belonging to the human eye maker.
More typically, he steps aside and gives us the interviewees’ words, in this case those of an 18-year-old woman who sold fruits and vegetables on the street:
Only last night father was talking about religion. We often talks about religion. Father has told me that God made the world, and I've heerd him talk about the first man and woman as was made and lived -- it must be more than a hundred years ago -- but I don't like to speak on what I don't know. Father, too, has told me about our Saviour what was nailed on a cross to suffer for such poor people as we is. Father has told us, too, about his giving a great many poor people a penny loaf and a bit of fish each, which proves him to have been a very kind gentleman. The Ten Commandments was made by him, I've heerd say, and he performed them too among other miracles. Yes! this is part of what our Saviour tells us. We are to forgive everybody, and do nobody no injury. I don't think I could forgive an enemy if she injured me very much; I'm sure I don't know why I couldn't, unless it is that I'm poor, and never learnt to do it. If a gal stole my shawl and didn't return it back or give me the value on it, I couldn't forgive her; but if she told me she lost it off her back, I shouldn't be so hard on her. We poor gals ain't very religious, but we are better than the men.
As a collection of sketches topically arranged, it is not a book that one reads through. Any serious reader who wants background information to enjoy more deeply The  Big Three - Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray – should at least dip into this book, which is available on the web here and there.

Even reading gluttons – like me, who can read anything – probably ought to read it for 40 or 50 minutes and then go do something else. Like contemplate a society in which there is no social safety net, where government counts on four ends for the poor: the grave, the prison and scaffold, the armed services, and emigration.

Friday, March 25, 2016

European RC #6

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

Another Fool in the Balkans: In the Footsteps of Rebecca West - Tony White

White collects essays he wrote between 1993 and 2005. Some touch on the politics and reconciliation between Serbs and Croats after a bitter war. White has obviously read many books besides Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, one of the great nonfiction works of the 20th century. With humility, White attempts to combine personal responses to history and art as West did in her masterpiece. He deftly avoids the pitfalls of travels writers such as geniality (Eric Newby, In Bolivia), sarcasm (Daniel Kalder, Lost Cosmonaut), or portentousness (William Langewiesche, Sahara Unveiled).

He talks to a couple of politicians, but he focuses on writers, and artists in the visual arts. He discusses the pressure artists face in a cultural sphere dominated by sharp-eyed nationalists ready to pounce on anybody they perceive as unpatriotic or otherwise not on the team. I enjoyed his meditations on the importance of art as he revisits works of sculpture.  The Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, for instance, resisted a dictator’s pressure to “serve the state” and emigrated to the US.

An indicator of a good travel book is how much the reader wants to see, for instance, Zagreb and Istria while reading the book. I wanted to pack and go, keeping in mind White’s advice to visit in spring or during the "Indian" summer - known in Croatia as babije ljeto, or "grandma's summer" - between September and November. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Mount TBR #11

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

Pick Up Sticks – Emma Lathen

Emma Lathen was the pen-name for two Boston businesswomen , Mary J. Latsis and  Martha Hennissart. Their entertaining mystery series blended Wall Street characters with either blue collar crimes or white collar schemes that lead up to a murder or two. Their novels were solid sellers from 1961 to 1997 (when Ms. Latsis passed away).

The series hero is John Thatcher Putnam, who is a VP at the Sloan Bank. In these Seventies and Eighties novels he is senior enough to remember the 1929 crash and not be surprised at anything the Street gets up to. He’s as sharp as a tack, though, a keen observer and rational thinker. Follow the money. Who benefits? He’s that rarity in any walk of life: somebody who combines knowledge of how money works with how human beings tick.

In this one, first published in 1970, the authors mildly satirize the real-estate business, specifically the hard-sell techniques relentlessly aimed at potential buyers thinking of a second home. Our hero is hiking the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire with his busy-body friend Henry Morland. They run into a young couple who have gotten lost because they have wandered away from a housing development grandiosely named Fiord Haven, although it is nowhere near the sea. After Henry and John realize the hapless couple can’t tell east from west, Henry goes to get help. Henry returns with two state policemen who are severely interested in four people that were around when a murder victim was discovered.

Henry is an enthusiast so he is bent on finding the killer. John Thatcher is less so. The contrast between the two as they interview persons of interest is pretty funny. Lathen examines the personality of the victim, concluding that such an obnoxious guy would exasperate a saint. His first wife observes that he always took the side of the exploited underdog but always let her do the dishes. Such were the thrusts and jabs readers of a certain age will remember from the women’s liberation movement circa 1970.

Explaining too much of the action would spoil the mystery.  So I will only recommend this one as highly as I have others by Emma Lathen. Certainly the business environment has changed. But the three doors to hell – anger, lust, and good old greed – have not changed though they do get repainted in colors that go in and out of fashion. And Lathen’s witty writing style still stands up, besides providing unwittingly nostalgic asides for us readers born in the Fifties.

Reviews of other mysteries by Emma Lathen
Death Shall Overcome
Murder Against the Grain
Death Makes the Wheels Go Round
Murder To Go
Come to Dust
Accounting for Murder

Saturday, March 19, 2016

European RC #5

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army - Vasily Grossman, Antony Beevor (Editor), Luba Vinogradova (Translator)

During World War II, Grossman was a war correspondent for a Soviet Army newspaper. He was embedded with various units of the Russian army as it fought the Germans from Stalingrad and Kursk, through the Ukraine and Poland, and finally to Berlin. His reporting on the war made him famous with both the troops and civilians. This book is a collection of gleanings from his notebooks. 

This collection is made up of hundreds of stories, some mere sentences long, some a page or two. For instance, near the end of the book a Russian soldier, abroad for the first time in his life, was struck by Germany’s tidy towns, well-cultivated fields, well-maintained roads, and its overall appearance of an ancient and rational culture. He wondered “Why would the attack us? Why did they come to us? What could they want that they had not already?”

Grossman's editors routinely changed his words as censors spiked his stories. But by writing on the unconquerable spirit of the Red Army (as required by Stalin and his minions), he also described regular soldiers and their experience of battle. He wrote about the sufferings of the Russians, Ukrainians, Poles and Jewish people under Nazi occupation. In Poland and Germany he was the first to collect the first-hand testimonies of the local population with regard to the Red Army’s looting, gang rapes, and other disgusting crimes that were censored by the propaganda machine that wanted the Russian soldier painted as a bearer of peace and progress.

I must confess I could only skim the chapter on the liberation of the death camp Treblinka. It was heavily censored because the Stalinist line did not allow the disclosure of the crimes perpetrated on a specific group. It allowed journalists only to refer to crimes against the Soviet people. This line anticipated persecution of Jewish people in the USSR and its satellites after the war.

Grossman has the ability to convey in a few words the raw barbarity and humanity in a theater of war. Readers interested in the Eastern Front and Holocaust will get much out of this book.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Classics #7

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

French title: Oncle Charles s'est enferme
Year Published: 1942
Translation: Howard Curtis, 1987

Uncle Charles has Locked Himself in – Georges Simenon

Uncle Charles is a typical Simenonian hero. An unassuming bookkeeper who works for his brother, he has no intimate relationships since he rarely speaks and feels happiest at his solitary hobbies of photography and fixing small devices.  His easy-going wife and three working-girl daughters take him utterly for granted, just as the family of ingrates did to the hero in M. Vonde Vanishes.

One day on returning home, Uncle Charles locks himself in the attic and in a note tells his family to leave him in peace. He has laid in a stock of provisions so he feels he won’t be disturbed.

Surprised, but not excessively so, the rest of the family then implements Strategy One and Two of families facing a crisis: Do nothing. Hope it blows over.

Family life observes its usual course, with the lazy and lax housewife and the three daughters, concerned above all with their own lives. They too have locked themselves in, concerned only with selfish, transitory, mediocre goals in day to day life. One doesn’t blame Uncle Charles for wanting a bit of vacation from their self-centeredness. A Simenonian hero always reaches points where he’s got to escape humdrum existence and stoke what’s left of his self-control and persistence.

After several days, during which each daughter half-heartedly attempts to get him out of his seclusion, his well-off brother, owner of a cannery, comes to reason him out of his reclusiveness. In fact, Henri suspects that Charles has something on him (Henri) and needs to talk him (chuck) around in order to minimize damage to his (Henri’s) life.

In the reveal, Simenon shows us that life goes on even in a crisis and that when families are examined closely strange things are revealed. Well worth reading, with both the realism of The Glass Cage and the unflinching view of the horror of ordinary people as in The Family Lie. People are only human, Simenon seems to say, so it’s not reasonable to expect them to get out of their rut of acting on ‘What’s in it for me’ for more than two minutes at a time. People can rise to the occasion on occasion, but to expect most to be smarter, braver, wiser than they can be is just dreaming the impossible dream.

My reviews of Other Non-Maigret Novels by Simenon
The Old Man Dies

Sunday, March 13, 2016

European RC #4

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

French title: Malempin
First published: 1940
Translation: Isabel Quigley, 1978

The Family Lie - Georges Simenon

In this short non-Maigret novel, Dr. Malempin must come to terms with his parent’s sins, big and small, while his young son battles diphtheria. The child’s illness has derailed family plans for a vacation in the South.

While keeping vigil over his son, the doctor is struck by the child’s unfathomable expression and wonders what memories of the infection the child will retain. This thought causes Dr. Malempin to reflect on his own past, how his own memories were formed, the parts his parents played in making those memories. Could the same process be unfolding in his son?

This train of thought, in turn, causes him to reflect deeply and turn to journaling as a way to think about his past. He goes over in memory the story of young Edouard, in the countryside, as a very young child. He feels vaguely his mother and her family’s discontent when Great Uncle Tesson marries a much younger woman, Elise. He recalls wondering why his parents, when visiting the rich moneylender Uncle Tesson and Elise every Sunday, seem unlike themselves, falsely sincere. His father is a small-scale farmer, his mother the daughter of a ruined notary, who feels the humiliation of having but little money and having to cozy up to a rich relative.

One day after visiting the Malempins, Great Uncle Tesson just disappears. The adult doctor cannot recall the exact circumstances of the vanishing of the unfriendly usurer.  Questioned by the police, his mother tells bald-faced lies, right in the front of young Edouard who know lies when he hears them. Frightened that the child has something on them and will talk unwisely to the police, his parents ship to Edouard to his Aunt Elise. Though his stay was to be limited to the time the investigators were on the case, he continued to live with his aunt, to whom he was attracted in various ways. Yeah, those ways too, Simenon never flinched from disturbing realities (see the abuse in The Little Saint).

So, this novel examines family secrets and a man’s gradual understanding of adult behavior that seemed so odd to a child. He considers the past’s influences on his own behavior. The doctor’s examination of his own childhood enables him to better understand his loveless marriage and his children. Simenon emphasizes the sharp-eyed but limited point of view of a child and the tenuous trickiness of memory for adults. We readers recall how acutely concentrated our powers of observation were when we were kids, but we realize we didn’t understand because we lacked experience of the adult world, with its mysterious  reactions and unspoken assumptions. Childhood experience shapes us without our knowledge, to affect our entire lives as adults.

In Simenon’s ‘hard novels’ – aka non-Maigret psychological thrillers – motivated by one of life’s usual crises (illness, accident, crime or family members forgetting one’s birthday), an often alienated protagonist must evaluate his daily life. Sometimes he choose another way of living but most often it’s only realization that something important happened. Sometimes he chooses a healthier way, sometimes neurosis keeps him in his rut.

My only gripe was that going unexplained were references to French high and low culture of the early 1940s. Too bad publishers were too cheap to add at the end a couple pages of notes that explained allusions that nobody in the non-French world could be expected to understand. Not translated for almost 40 years since publishers and translators were unsure of its sales, this sad novel is not for everyone but for the rare reader who, like Simenon, accepts inevitability, accepts what will naturally occur in this delightful and maddening world – and does not live "crushed by the present or fearful of the future."

My Review of Other Non-Maigret Novels by Simenon
The Old Man Dies

Saturday, March 12, 2016

European RC #3

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

Budapest Noir - Vilmos Kondor

When “noir” is in title, I can’t help but have expectations. Dark story, surprising twists, thugs, smoking, adult beverages, a tough-talking detective. This mystery includes these attractions, but the investigative reporter protagonist is excessively self-controlled, mordant, a stereotypically Hungarian Gloomy Gus.  I felt this story was so-so -- a good-enough representative of the “Europe between the wars” genre that has been so popularized by Alan Furst. But remember the dark plot clearly in a couple of months? I doubt it.

The main character is crime reporter Zsigmond Gordon. The authorities are trying to sweep a prostitute's killing under the carpet, but Gordon becomes interested in the woman’s past, the events that lead up to her murder. The reason is that he saw nude photo of the woman in a drawer in a police official’s desk.

Five hundred pengős was a big and thoroughly considered investment. Anyone who spent that much for girl served important clients. And no doubt he didn’t send the gals to bed down customers in some shady servant’s room in some shady neighborhood like Terézváros. Gordon  would have been lying to himself had he denied that there was anything unusual about this particular girl. But one thing was certain: no matter what he might find out about her, in he found out anything at all, it would not be pleasant. And in all probability, he couldn’t write about it. Even if he were to find the other girls who served this high-class clientele, not a single paper would be willing to publish the article.

In tracing the culprit in the backstreets of Budapest, the incautious Gordon soon finds himself to be the witch of interest in a witch hunt.

Set in October 1936, just after the sudden real-life death of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös, the exposition hints at the coming menace. Jewish people are feeling increased pressure, not that for them being in Hungary in the first place was a stroke of good luck. The communist and fascist powers are asserting power. Still, the focus is always on the woman’s death and the investigation and interviews. Budapest's streets, squares and landmarks are mentioned by name, which will thrill people who have lived and visited that city. Having a Hungarian grandmother, I like the stereotypes: Hungarian men are handsome, Hungarian women are beautiful, and when they urge you to try wonderful Hungarian cuisine, they stuff you with viands full of fat.


The development of the main character Gordon takes precedence over the plot, even though he is a little more than a monochrome photograph. I liked the fact that the investigator had a job other than a PI or a homicide detective. Gordon is a real macho man who maddeningly stubborn and pessimistic, but he's smart and resourceful. And sly. Not to mention the kind of boyfriend that says things like, “Please don’t be more angry than necessary.” Mercifully, there are some normal people, such as Krisztina, the graphic designer GF of Gordon, and the comic relief grandfather, Opa, a former doctor who spends his days making experimental jams and preserves. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Classic #6

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

Over My Dead Body – Rex Stout

Published in 1939 after being serialized in The American Magazine, this is the seventh mystery that starred rotund PI Nero Wolfe and his more active assistant and sidekick Archie Goodwin. Wolfe has enough eccentricities for three people: indolent, orchid-fancying, woman-hater in the old-fashioned way, agoraphobic, and most shocking of all, a voracious reader. But he is as brilliant as Sherlock Holmes. Archie is the archetypal American: athletic, brash, wise-cracking, and a hit with the fair sex.

Nero Wolfe confronts consequences of his own decisions made in the last days of the troubled Hapsburg empire and its seething possessions in Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. That is, he adopted a baby girl, left her with people he trusted, but lost touch with her when they were killed for their revolutionary sympathies by the secret police.

The situation gives Archie a chance to tease Wolfe:

"I'm resigning as of this moment."

"Resigning from what?"

"You. My job."


"No, boss, really. You told the G-man you have never married. Yet you have a daughter. Well," I shrugged. "I'm not a prude, but there are limits —"

The daughter does not necessarily want contact with the famous PI in Manhattan, but a spot of trouble brings her to Wolfe’s brownstone seeking help. Later two murders occur. They revolve around a fencing school where the daughter, her friend Carla, and the dodgy Miss Vorka work.

This mystery has the right amount of plot and character. Stout includes a number of scenes full of high-jinks. The reveal is logical and plausible. Unlike the other novels, Manhattan itself does not play a major role, but this is a quibble. Storm clouds of war hang over the novel, reminding us that writers are canaries in the coal mine.

My reviews of other classic Wolfe mysteries:
·         The Golden Spiders
·         The Rubber Band
·         Too Many Cooks
·         And Be a Villain
·         Some Buried Caesar
·         Champagne for One
·         Black Orchids

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Mount TBR #10

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.

For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz Age Chicago – Simon Baatz

When I was around seven or eight years old (1963/64), the principal of my elementary school called an assembly to screen a documentary about child molesters. I will never forget that the movie ended with autopsy photos of a little girl who had been beaten to death. She was literally beaten to a pulp. Shown the reality and consequences of depravity, I was a basket case for two or three days. Quiet. Still. Thousand yard stare. My parents and relatives were livid that little kids had been shown such a thing. I have since learned that the early Sixties was a time of great fear of child molesters and that documentary was shown all over the country to warn little kids about strangers.

I was warned. I still don’t like people I don’t know.

Anyway, any sensible person would have thought that this distressing experience would have put me off crime stories. But the May, 1924 murder of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks caught my attention in about 1970 when I was about fourteen years old myself. I suppose I was still working on the problem of “How could a human being do such an unspeakable thing to another human being,“ and other unanswerable questions. At that time the movie Compulsion caught my eye for Orson Welles’ performance as the lawyer who defends two teenage thrill killers.

As the author of For the Thrill of It says, it was strange that there were few popular histories written about the thrill killing committed by Leopold and Loeb, two students at the University of Chicago. Leopold was of average intelligence. Under the influence of the pop fiction genre of “the master criminal,” he fantasized about committing the perfect crime. Loeb had an above average intelligence, but he fantasized about being a gifted slave upon whom a king relied to do dirty work. Leopold was amazed that he found a confederate who would help him commit crimes in exchange occasional oral and intercrual sex. They moved from petty theft and vandalism to murder.

Their plan to kidnap and kill a child was coldly premeditated and unfeelingly carried out.  The Chicago police, at first, suspected the teachers at the elite school the victim had attended. Author Baatz reports the police beat numerous teachers to get confessions.  Reading about the actions taken by the criminal justice grinder of the time is almost as shocking as the original crime and the remorselessness of the two psychopaths.  The perps had a sneering sense of their own superiority to the rest of society, one that was echoed by the killers in the Columbine high school massacre many years later. One understands the determination of the police to catch them, while still feeling uneasy a bout the methods the police utilized.

LIke, to the cops - rights? Rights for these vicious killers? Though the perps were minors, the police questioned them with no lawyers present until the pair confessed and took the cops through all the steps they took to commit the murder. They were put on trial and defended by Clarence Darrow. He had read Altgeld’s tome Our Penal Machinery which argued that “criminal behavior... was less a consequence of free will and deliberation and more a matter of education, upbringing, and environment. The majority of criminals—the overwhelming majority, Altgeld stressed—had grown up in circumstances of dire poverty, in families where one or both parents were absent, and without the benefits of education, schooling, or discipline.” Darrow brought in experts to testify as to the psychiatric roots of the boys’ mental illness, basically that their intellectual development far outstripped their emotional development. During his closing arguments, Darrow spoke out against the barbarity of capital punishment.

But the expert testimony went for nothing. Leopold and Loevb were convicted. Because the judge took their youth into consideration, the sentence was life for the murder and 99 years for the kidnapping. Loeb was stabbed to death in prison in 1936; his killer got off after he claimed he was defending himself against rape. 

Baatz also gives a surprising account of the government-sponsored pentaquine trials during WWII. Leopold was one of 445 convicts who received preferred parole consideration because they “volunteered” to be infected with malaria and try out the drug pentaquine. Whether they were told the risks (death, heart attack, high fevers) we don’t know. We do know they signed a “consent form” that said “I assume all the risks of this experiment.” Strangely,  Leopold acted as research assistant for the study and volunteering to get malaria damaged his health in the short-term at least. Just as an aside: in our country, experimentation with prisoners, who were not really in a position to provide legally effective consent, went on for 30 years up to 1972.

In summary, I don’t usually read true crime books, but I would recommend this one to readers  who are interested in this infamous case. Baatz does a good job at describing the police, the newspapers, and general reaction of society at the time. Many people were concerned at the materialism and licentiousness of the Ballyhoo Era. Organization ranging from churches to the KKK used the case to deplore homosexuality, Jewish people, intellectuals, atheists, Catholics, and immigrants. The hobgoblins change, but haters always gonna hate, using the same basic terms.

Friday, March 4, 2016

European RC #2

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

The Devils of Loudon – Aldous Huxley

We remember Huxley nowadays for the dystopia Brave New World. But he wrote many other fiction and non-fiction books, one of which was this history of religious and sexual obsession in 17th century France. Huxley’s theme is that that the evils we ascribe to religious intolerance are instead a product of human nature. That political bosses in any society manipulate ideas - fear, superstition, self-interest, patriotism, etc. -  and their dissemination in order to maintain their power and access to the other goodies like prestige, offices, awards, travel, prostitutes, and luxury food.

… Few people now believe in the Devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number. In order to justify their behavior, they turn their theories into dogmas, their bylaws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils. This idolatrous transformation of the relative into the Absolute and the all too human into the Divine, makes it possible for them to indulge their ugliest passions with a clear conscience and in the certainty that they are working for the Highest Good. And when the current beliefs come, in their turn, to look silly, a new set will be invented, so that the immemorial madness may continue to wear its customary mask of legality, idealism and true religion.

So the Communists are consigned to the trashcan of history but other hobgoblins - liberals, inflationists, the Federal Reserve, Blacks, Muslims, terrorists – are invented and utilized to scare the rubes.

Huxley gets across what a weird century the 17th was, with regard to its mix of devout religion and unbridled sexuality. In 1632 an entire Ursuline convent in the village of Loudun was apparently possessed by the devil. That is, hysteria was contagious and the fame and wealth that came from all the attention was congenial. The girls and women accused a priest, Urban Grandier, of being in league with the devil. A village cabal hated Grandier. They trumped up the charges to get him tried and burned at the stake. I had to skip the dozen of so pages that detailed his torture before he was consigned to the flames for witchcraft.

While proving that his message of the danger of the powerful oppressing the vulnerable is still relevant in an election year of 2016, Huxley inserts essays about many other topics of interest, such as Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (“an absurd and charming book”); bovarism, the glamorized estimate of oneself; and the shift of  the way of thinking of the medieval world to our more recognizable modern world.

When I read Huxley, I feel I am with a knowledgeable and witty but down to earth thinker. I don’t mind running to the dictionary about every other page. His ideas about Vendanta and Zen went rather over my head, as I don’t think I have the kind of mind to be an adequate mystic. For me, Huxley is rather too broad-minded about ESP and PK, too.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Mount TBR #9

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 Case of the Dangerous Dowager – Erle Stanley Gardner

Self-styled “hard bitten old hellion,” Matilda Benson hires lawyer Perry Mason to obtain IOU's from the operator of a gambling ship, Sam Grieb. The IOU’s were signed by her impetuous granddaughter Sylvia. Her brute of a husband, Frank Oxman, wants the IOU’s to prove that thrill-seeking Sylvia can’t manage money or her plunging (reckless betting) so she can’t possibly raise their daughter. Matilda wants to scare Sylvia into growing up.

When Mason gets to the floating casino, he finds Matilda Benson on board. He also finds Sylvia in the waiting room of an office where Sam Gieb is slumped behind his desk, dead from a gunshot to his head. There are two witness that have seen a woman throw a handgun thrown over board. Is Sylvia or her dowager granny a murderess?

This is worth reading because it is a locked room mystery, one of the few in all 70 or so of the Mason mysteries. Though the number of suspects is small, the reveal is a genuine surprise. This novel was published in the 1930s so Perry Mason plays very fast and loose as an officer of the court. There is no courtroom climax. Instead, all but one of the suspects are gathered into a room. Gardner gets in some good atmospherics: the fog, the garish lights, the speed boats plying between shore and gambling ship.