Thursday, April 28, 2016

Mount TBR Unofficial Checkpoint

I missed the deadline to post the checkpoint, but here it is anyway. Click the date posted to go to the review.

1/ The Case of the Silent Partner – Erle Stanley Gardner

2/ The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini – Ruth Brandon

3/ Nightless City - J.E. de Becker

4/ The Pew Group – Anthony Oliver

5/ Johnny Underground – Patricia Moyes

6/ From the Sahara to Samarkand: Selected Travel Writings of Rosita Forbes 1919-1937

7/ Silent Thunder – Loren Estlemann

8/ Hedy Lamarr – Ruth Barton

9/ The Case of the Dangerous Dowager – Erle Stanley Gardner

10/ For the Thrill of It – Simon Baatz

11/ Pick Up Sticks – Emma Lathen

12/ The Hider – Loren D. Estleman

Monday, April 25, 2016

Mount TBR #12

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 Hider – Loren D. Estleman

This 1978 western combines elements of the genres historical novel, action chase, coming of age, and the passing of the old west. You’d think keeping these balls in the air would tax any writer that was writing his first western. But not when that writer is Estleman, who has been writing popular westerns and mysteries ever since.

The novel opens with 18-year-old Jeff Curry, winding up a skimpy estate after the death of this dipsomaniac father. He meets Jack Butterworth, an old hider who is on the trail of the last buffalo in the US. But Jack is unlike the psychotic Ahab in his quest after the white whale. Jack possesses stoic virtues. He accepts events as they turn out, without fretting and fuming that reality isn’t working out the way it is supposed to. He rolls with adversity and misfortune, flexible enough to identify what he can control and what is out of his hands.

The young ‘un and old hider meet Sleeping Bow, a Nez Perce who is fleeing the corrupted bosses of the reserve. The bosses have sent a killing machine of a lawman after him. So the duo chasing the buffalo turns into a trio being hunted by crazy lawman, who is turn is pursued—but that would be giving away the show.

Well-worth reading for even for readers who think that Westerns may not be their cup of tea. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

European RC #8

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

Published: 1931
French title: Au Rendez-Vous des Terre-Neuvas
Englished: 2014, David Coward

The Grand Banks Café - Georges Simenon

After three months at sea, a trawler returns to its home port of Fécamp in northern France. Shortly after the return, the captain, Octave Fallut, is found dead by strangulation in one of the harbor basins. The wireless operator of the trawler, Pierre Le Clinche, barely twenty years old, is the person of interest since he was seen prowling around the boat on the day of the killing.

An old friend of Chief Inspector Maigret, Jorissen, a teacher at Quimper, writes an appeal to Maigret to establish the innocence of the young telegrapher. Once in Fécamp, Maigret settles in at the Grand Banks Café, a hangout of sailors. Once again, we have Maigret trying to crack open a closed society in order to figure out events and feelings that lead up to a murder. Slowly Maigret uncovers unreasoning lust and vengeful anger that caused the murder.

Like many of the early, Depression-era, Maigret novels, this one has a heavy atmosphere. Somber but not as depressing as Maigret and the Yellow Dog (also written in 1931). There are various women characters, with Madame Maigret and the widow Bernard providing stability and domesticity, Le Clinche’s fiancé Marie Léonnec providing loyalty and forgiveness, and Adèle Noirhomme for idiot lust and chaos.  Maigret is true to himself. He listens to conversations, taking in the atmosphere of the harbor and its denizen. He is part anthropologist and part psychologist as he bores into the complexity of relationships and interior struggles.

Maigret also delves into the heart of France during the period between the wars. His focus is on his own people, people with little, who toil to get by. This is the France of small shops, cafés on every street corner, and artisans (such as rope makers) whose day you’d have thought passed long before 1930.

Simenon loved the sea so his stories set near locks, on barges and in small fishing ports are worth reading. He’s great with atmosphere, which is also a tribute to the translator. David Coward has also translated Alexandre Dumas, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and the Marquis de Sade. It was a good idea for Penguin to commission new translations of these classic mysteries.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Classic #10

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

The Englishwoman in America – Isabella Bird

The most famous Victorian woman traveler and I go way back together. I’ve enjoyed her narratives A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879), Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880), and Among the Tibetans (1894). I’ve even read an “in her footsteps” book about Hokkaiko, Adventures in Japan.

I had thought this book was written on the same trip as and slightly before Lady’s Life in the late 1870s. But in fact this book is her first book. It was written in the middle 1850s when Bird was in her early 20s and recovering from surgery on her spine (yikes, imagine the risk, back then).

I imagine that the fact she was in some degree of pain during this trip explains her sometimes acerbic censoriousness about the good-hearted denizens of The Land of the Free. But she saves most of her ammunition for travel by steamboat and rough coaches of various kinds driven by half-drunken drivers.

She’s quite young to be so priggish too. In the later books, she’s more mellow and less apt to coat opinions with religion. She is also impressionistic and obscure as to her route – it is impossible to figure out how she made her way from one place to another. She knew a lot about botany and some of geology but little of geography.

I liked her snippy but perceptive comments about my fellow Americans because 19th century Americans were, in my opinion, conceited about being the most enlightened lovers of liberty. Considering they lived in one of the last countries that had legal chattel slavery, I think they had a nerve thinking they were so exceptionally free. She is not as heatedly critical of the “peculiar institution” as Charles Dickens in American Notes but she makes her points and moves on to descriptions of places and people. Maybe she was wary of all the hell Americans gave Dickens and Mrs. Trollope (Tony's ma) after their cutting books. Bird is especially good with hotels  - American hotels at that time had no counterpart in the world.

And she’s wary about too much democracy. She spent time in New York City at a time when Know-Nothings and Catholics were fighting. She writes:

For three days a dropping fire of musketry was continually to be heard in New York and Williamsburgh, and reports of great loss of life on both sides were circulated. It was stated that the hospital received 170 wounded men, and that many more were carried off by their friends. The military were called out, and, as it was five days before quiet was restored, it is to be supposed that many lives were lost. I saw two dead bodies myself; and in one street or alley by the Five Points, both the sidewalks and the roadway were slippery with blood. Yet very little sensation was excited in the upper part of the town; people went out and came in as usual; business was not interrupted; and to questions upon the subject the reply was frequently made, "Oh, it's only an election riot," showing how painfully common such disturbances had become.

Those nonchalant New Yorkers.

I should say that in addition to eastern and Great Lakes states, she spends time in Canada. She uses terms that are unfamiliar to us today. For instance, Upper Canada is our present-day Ontario. Quebec was Lower Canada. She says very nice things about Canada, though she’s narrow-minded about Indians and French speakers.

This book is long, slightly more than 300 pages, so it may be more than a reader is looking for. I liked it  because I liked the author’s fearlessness, astute observations, and readable style.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Jet Lag

This may sound crazy because it goes against the advice to sleep before your trans-oceanic flight. It may also be impractical for your situation or for people over 40

But the night before you travel, stay up all night and then crash like a ton of bricks on the flight. This works better for night owls that morning doves.

No alcohol or coffee in the 24 hours before the flight or on the flight.

This depends on what direction you're travelling in but when you arrive and it's still daylight, try to take a 20 or 30 minute walk during twilight. Dusk may trick your brain into thinking about getting to sleep soon. Light exercise such as walking or stretching or some sun salutations will help in any direction.

When I used to travel a lot, I found that the older I became, the longer it took me to get over jet lag. After 40, I was taking about 10 days to get right after a trans-oceanic flight. At least I got a lot of reading done around 3 a.m.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Fave True Crime

I recently finished For the Thrill of It, a story about Leopold-Loeb thrill killing. It reminded me of the very few true crime books I've read in the past.

Beyond Belief: A Chronicle of Murder and its Detection – Emlyn Williams. This classic covers the Moors Murders, a series of child killings in the Manchester, England area in the middle 1960s. The perps were Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Like Perry and Dick in In Cold Blood, they probably wouldn’t have hurt anybody if they’d never met each other, but together they were very bad. Gruesome book and dubious assertions abound, but impossible to set down.

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote. The creepy thing about this book is that it is about people that are invisible. Perry and Dick were like the two killers in Fargo - aimless, drifting, dumb, dangerous, the kind of people one is grateful one never meets in real life.

The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion – Ed Sanders. This is a narrative of the events leading up to the Sharon Tate and Leo LaBianca mass murders. Sanders obtained access to the Charles Manson family by posing as a Satanic guru-maniac and dope-crazed psychopath. It's another story of Morlocks who reach out and ruin the lives of more or less ordinary people.

Murder, Inc.: The Story of the Syndicate by Burton B. Turkus and Sid Feder. First published in 1951, this will appeal to anybody who likes noir, hard-boiled detective fiction. But what is scary is that this is true, all about off-kilter, sadistic mobsters, hired killers, and their victims who were silly-confident enough that they could deal with beasts and remain unclawed and unbloodied. Talk about mental problems, these gangsters were sick souls, that they could do unspeakble things to human beings. Anybody who entertains romantic ideas about The Godfather movies will have their notions disabused by this book.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Ivanhoe, Kathryn's book

I was thinking the other day of a bank examiner my wife and I knew when we lived in Latvia (1994-97). From Louisiana, she was a caution, the life of the party.

Ivanhoe was her book,the book for whatever reason a reader will return to again and again. She re-read it through once a year. At other times, she would read a chapter here and there.

Always easy to influence when it comes to reading suggestions, I was curious as to what would be the attractions of Ivanhoe, I read it, though I knew Scott was one wordy guy and was writing for people who liked long drawn out novels.

I did feel it was too long, but some scenes have incredible power.

Burned, so to speak, in my memory is that scene where poor Isaac is being threatened with torture by that thug Front-de-Boeuf. "Art thou in thy senses, Israelite?" said the Norman, sternly—"has thy flesh and blood a charm against heated iron and scalding oil?"

One time she called us when we were all back Statesside. I called my wife to the phone, yelling, "And if you think yer goin' out honky tonkin' with that Kathryn, you've got another think comin.'"

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

European RC #7

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

Little is the Light: Nostalgic Travels in the Mini-states of Europe – Vitali Vitaliev

Travel writing can appeal simply on the basis of topic. For instance, In the Land of the Blue Poppies fascinates because it’s a rare treat to read about botanizing in Burma and Tibet in the Twenties and Thirties. It does not matter so much that the author, Frank Kingdon-Ward, can come up with only flat, grey prose and his resolution to keep his own personality out of it is unwavering.

But topical appeal is usually not enough. Readers of travel narratives usually prefer the author to be charming, witty, and fun to be with. Vitali Vitaliev possesses all of these qualities as he travels in small European countries: Liechtenstein, San Marino, Mount Athos, Isle of Man, Luxembourg, the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Andorra, Malta, Monaco and Seborga. The last one rather dates the 1995 book because in 2009 the main agitator for the independence of Seborga passed away. Nowadays Seborgans pay Italian taxes (or evade, like the rest of Italy), participate in the Italian administrative life, and vote in local and national – Italian - elections.

Vitaliev is a Ukraine-born Russian. Born in 1954, he was graduated from Kharkov University in French and English. He worked as an interpreter and translator before turning journalist in 1981. He worked for satirical magazine, a sure way to get into political trouble. He was either expelled or defected in 1990 and had to live by his pen and TV appearances in the UK, Australia, and Ireland.

In this book, he also tells many stories of life in the Soviet Union. The main appeal of these stories is that they give the reader a sense of how bad things were before the USSR finally just keeled over of a coronary. People could not find normal products in stores. And the less said about medical and dental care, the better. This book is worth reading just for these harrowing tales.

But he’s very good just bopping around these small countries. He has his own unique reasons for liking or disliking a place. He travels to Gibraltar, Andorra, Malta, Monaco and Seborga with his 13 year-old son Dmitri. We can feel the big-hearted affection between the two before the boy has to fly back to Oz to be with his mother.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Man on the Bench in the Barn

French title: La Main
Year Published: 1968
Englished:  Moura Budberg, 1970

The Man on the Bench in the Barn – Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon wrote 13 novels with American settings and characters, nine with the point of view of Americans and four from that of foreigners or new immigrants. Often they are bleak tales, about and for middle-aged readers whose illusions are getting smaller in the rear view mirror.

This novel starts with a bash in the burbs. The Sanders spend the weekend with their friends the Dodds. The two couples attend a party organized by the Ashbridges. Enough alcohol flows to cloud everybody’s judgement. Donald Dodd is boozily troubled at spying old college chum Ray Sanders in the arms of the hostess.

The two couples face hazard in a blizzard while driving home. Ray gets lost in the snowstorm. Donald goes out to look for him. Brought down low by fatigue and alcohol, he prefers to take refuge on a bench in a barn. One never knows when a liminal space will pop up in Simenon novel, but while sitting and smoking, Donald’s train of thought becomes confused…or clarified.

It comes to him that his friendly relationship with Ray is in fact only a disguised envy for another man who is financially successful and sits on the receiving end of life’s bounty. Meanwhile he, Donald, with a modest income, feels bound to his wife and to his job merely by habit, by necessity, driven to pay for crap he doesn’t even want. In a boozy haze, he feels hatred and envy for his neighbor Ray and persuades himself that it is okay to let Ray die by not going to his rescue.

A couple days later Ray’s body found. The police speculate that the fell from the top of a rock. Donald does not feel less responsible for his death. He constantly thinks about what he should have done to save his old buddy. His guilt, however, doesn’t stop him from making Ray’s widow into his mistress.

His wife is a model of consolation. But Donald’s fantasies haunt him. His guilt festers as he becomes obsessed with the notion that his wife knows his culpability and is looking at him askance. His worried mind deteriorates. His health begins to falter.

Simenon explores emptiness that must be filled with obsessions and a scary detachment from reality that must moored by going through the motions of daily life.

Other Non-Maigret Novels by Simenon