Saturday, May 28, 2016

Mount TBR #17

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.

Ashes to Ashes - Emma Lathen

Emma Lathen was the pseudonym for the writing team of Mary J. Latsis and Martha Henissart. From the early Sixties to the Nineties, their series hero was Wall Street banker and amateur sleuth John Putnam Thatcher. The magazine Newsweek described Lathen as “a master plotter, an elegant stylist, a comic genius and a purist who never sacrifices logic for surprise effect.”

In this mystery Ungar Realty, a large developer, is planning to acquire St. Bernadette’s School, a beloved Catholic school in a Queens-like neighborhood of the Big Apple. The deal between the company and archdiocese looks done until the newly formed Parents League protests the closing of the school and files a lawsuit. Then the leader of the activists is found murdered in the group’s headquarters. John Putnam Thatcher, whose bank is financing the deal, is drawn into a complex web of parish intrigue and protest as he tries to identify the perp.

The murder, of course, generates much publicity. The publicity attracts the types that Lathen, both of whom were probably New York Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller, likes to skewer. For instance, horning in on the Parents League protests are liberal Catholics who alienate the working class locals by advocating for the Pill to be distributed to teenaged girls. Also showing up are the Bhagavad Catholics who mix in Hare Krishna with Christianity. There are two action-filled scenes, one a genuine riot and another a more peaceful protest at the UN, which brings together Jewish, Arabic, and Catholic in mutual support against absentee landlords.

With the Sixties-type activism and the mixed reaction to Vatican II, this 1971 book feels nostalgic for those of us readers born in the Forties and Fifties. But then again it also feels very here and now in light of headlines in my newspaper that said in 2014 “Ten Catholic elementary schools in ----- Diocese are closing, displacing 1,154 students (K-8) and 195 faculty and staff.” Human nature and its response to change, as better than average mysteries will underscore, don’t change.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Classic #11

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

Jesting Pilate – Aldous Huxley

In 1925, writer and public intellectual Aldous Huxley did what virtually every other English writer did between the wars: go on a trip and write a book about it. Huxley went to India, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Japan, and the US. He deals with heavy issues such as British imperialism in Asia to the search from truth and values. But his tone is always witty, his manner always light.

The personality of a travel writer determines if the travel narrative will be worth-while. Huxley had a fiercely independent intelligence. He was inquisitive about both the natural and social sciences. He was impatient with tired dogmas. His analyses blend sophistication and hard common sense. This is a travel book for a reader who like big observations of life along with gritty observations of why Asia smells so frickin’ bad. I mean, Huxley can get big lessons about life out of watching potatoes being unloaded or analyzing a mortician’s advertisement in Chicago.

He wrote this as a diary and then lightly edited it. Therefore, various statements were shot from the hip and one trusts that later he regretted the casual racist asides. The book expresses ideas about Henry Ford and the concept of “pneumatic” (full of nothing, vacuous, empty of quality) that he would use later in Brave New World in 1932.

Huxley is one of my intellectual heroes. Also, I like travel writing from between the wars. So this book was a natural for me. I’d recommend this “lesser Huxley” to readers who want get to know Huxley better.

My Reviews of Books by AH

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Mount TBR #16

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 Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

Both critics and fans call this well-known novel the first mystery. The central crime is a theft, with a murder only near the end, but the novel introduced hallmarks that the mystery genre later became famous for: the careful sowing of clues; the eccentric detective; the amateur sleuths making a hash of the investigation; a suspenseful working up to the unexpected climax.

Like The Woman in White, this novel was immensely popular in its own day, the late 1860s.  It lives in the present day, with over 50,000 ratings and almost 3,000 reviews at Goodreads. The Moonstone has survived among thinking readers like us, who read for the sheer pleasure of it, not caring about critical or scholarly opinion.  

One attraction of the novel is that it begins in the genial voice of an old house-steward. He is the kind of the reader who reads over and over one book, Robinson Crusoe, like Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel has The Last Days of Pompeii and my chum Kathryn had Ivanhoe. Then the second part is a completely different voice, that of religious hypocrite spinster. The rest of the novel is also told in eight other first-person voices, showing Collins’ willingness to challenge himself in his craft.

Another plus: Collins has sympathy for women (as did Erle Stanley Gardner). Dorothy Sayers said he was "one of the very few male writers who can write realistically about women without prejudice and about sex without exaggeration."

The downsides are three and do not outweigh the pleasure of reading. The plot hinges on an improbable event. It is rather slow at the two-thirds point. It lacks a really strong female character and a rip-roaring villain. So no Marian Halcombe or Count Fosco as in The Woman in White. No Magdalen Vanstone, no Captain Horatio Wragge as in No Name.

The Moonstone was written when he was at his peak, the late 1860s, after The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866) and before Man and Wife (1870). After 1870, his health suffered and he became opioid-dependent. Though he never wrote a bad novel, his work suffered. The novels contracted in length and are probably read nowadays only by hardcore Collins’ fans.

Other Reviews of Wilkie Collins’ Works

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Burial of M. Bouvet

French title: L'Enterrement de Monsieur Bouvet
Published: 1952
Englished:  1958, Eugene MacCown

The Burial of M. Bouvet – Georges Simenon

On a quiet morning in a torrid summer, a bourgeois gentleman, M. Bouvet, dies suddenly while idly going over the paperbacks of a used bookstore on the edge of the Seine, not far from his apartment in the Quai de la Tournelle.

The old man died silently, without complaint, without struggle, looking at pictures, listening to the voices in the market, the chirping of sparrows, the honking of scattered taxis.
I can think of plenty of worse ways to go. « Une belle mort », indeed.

The police, with so few personnel due to the summer holidays, intend to complete a death certificate of an ordinary old man who lived alone, quietly, in an apartment house watched over by a loyal concierge.

However, by chance M. Bouvet was photographed, post-mortem at the scene, by a foreign student from the US, and the portrait is published by the newspapers. The wide dissemination of the portrait of M. Bouvet will attract a series of characters who bring to light the unsettled past of the old man.

A middle-aged woman comes forward, saying the dead man is her husband, Samuel Marsh, an American citizen, who deserted her twenty years before, ostensibly to leave to run a gold mine in the Congo. Marsh’s former business partner in the Congo brings forward evidence that Marsh's identity was false.

Mildly intrigued, the authorities assign Inspector Beaupère to figure out who M. Bouvet was. He digs up the fact that Gaston Lamblot, scion of the rich Roubaix family, disappeared mysteriously after a promising university career. After being involved in a fraud case, Lamblot lived with a prostitute and moved in anarchist circles before World War II.

But there are still deeper wells the Inspector must plumb. His investigation reveals sequential identities of the seemingly typical M. Bouvet. The Inspector and we readers can examine the warp and woof of various woven lives. M. Bouvet has left a whole life behind numerous times. Only after he’s dead are the strands put together again in some kind of order.

Bouvet wanted to be totally free, evading all of life’s entanglements and hassles. This theme of the man who is willing to give up everything and carve out a niche where he can live on his own terms appears in many of Simenon's novels. Ridiculous or terrible or weird mysteries wrap and hide lives in the most ordinary appearances.

In his understated style, Simenon gives descriptions of inconsequential events and the psychology of ordinary people. He evokes a Paris overwhelmed by the summer heat. He brings to life the concierge attached to the lonely old man due to her alcoholic husband; the conscientious investigator who attempts to hide his humility and intimidation when dealing with member of higher social classes.

Starts slow, but comes to a relentless finish.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Mount TBR #15

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.

Port Hazard – Loren D. Estleman

Published in 2004, this is the seventh, and to date the next to the latest, novel featuring deputy US marshal Page Murdock. With three dozen or so westerns, mysteries, and stand-alones to his credit by the time he wrote this one, Estleman challenges himself and his readers by writing in the extravagant style of dime novels and sensational novels of the later Victorian era. Of a theater in Port Hazard:

Cabbage roses exploded on burgundy runners in the aisles. Laurels of gold leaf encircled a coffered ceiling with a Greek Bacchanal enshrined in stained glass in the center, lighted from above so that the chubby nymphs’ nipples and the blubbery lips of the bloated male gods and demigods glittered like rubies.

The dialogue however brings to mind the pithy skepticism about the conventions that we enjoy in noir novels.  There is also much crook argot, which makes sense if you don’t overthink it. A glossary is provided for readers with a low tolerance for ambiguity.

The story opens in Montana, which is more or less the homeless Murdock’s base. His boss, federal judge Harlan Blackthorne, sends his the Barbary Coast on a dangerous assignment. Murdock is to determine if indeed an organization called the Sons of the Confederacy is headed by the Honorable D.W. Wheelock, city alderman and captain in the San Francisco fire brigade. On the way to San Francisco, he persuades Edward Anderson Beecher—a railroad porter (who were all African-American) to watch his back. Murdock trusts the ex-cavalryman to be a fighter.

Rendered well are the gamblers, drunks, vigilantes, prostitutes, thugs, bent politicians and Chinese gangsters. Secondary characters include a gambler who is an undercover Pinkerton gumshoe and a dwarf whose forearm and hand lost in a maritime accident has been replaced with a curious assistive device: an iron ball on a chain attached to the stump. The action is violent, some of the jokes are definitely of the guy variety.

Recommended for those readers who find no problem dipping into the Western genre. No snobs allowed.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Mount TBR #14

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.

Lincoln and The Civil War - John Hay

In his diary and letters about working closely with Abraham Lincoln, John Hay comes off as wise beyond his early twenties. His formal title was assistant to secretary John G. Nicolay. Hay spent much time with Lincoln, going with him to hospitals, battlefields, and ceremonies. It’s strange that he handles very lightly an event that looms large in our imaginations. This, on the trip to Gettysburg in November 1863 to dedicate the Soldier’s Cemetery:

Mr. Stocton [Thomas H. Stocton, chaplain of the U.S. Senate] made a prayer which thought it was an oration and Mr. Everett spoke as he always does perfectly and the President in a firm free way, with more grace than is his wont said his half dozen lines of consecration and the music wailed and we went home through crowded and cheering streets.

The Gettysburg Address as another day in a crowded schedule. It’s just odd, that’s all. And wonderfully human.

Hay was a partisan of Lincoln. He calls him “the Ancient,” “the Tycoon,” “the Chief,” and “the Premier.” In these pages he never second-guesses Lincoln’s decisions or policies. He never questions Lincoln’s tendency to be patiently long-suffering with the arrogance and dimness of others such Meade and McClellan. Hay, on October 18, 1863, wrote of Chase:

I gave him my impression of the unmanly conduct of Mr. C[hase] . . . . He [Lincoln] said 'it was very bad taste, but that he had determined to shut his eyes to all these performances: that Chase made a good Secretary and that he would keep him where he is: “if he becomes Presdt., all right. I hope we may never have a worse man. ... I am entirely indifferent as to his success or failure in these schemes, so long as he does his duty as the head of the Treasury Department.”

Lincoln played the long, long game, seeing moves ahead of both supporters and detractors. He was willing to give up pawns for larger fights ahead.

In later life, besides being a diplomat, he was a long-form journalist, novelist and poet. This inherent literary skill is obvious in the diary and letters. This from September 29, 1863:
Today came to the Executive Mansion an assembly of cold-water men & cold water women to make a temperance speech at the President & receive a response. They filed into the East Room looking blue & thin in the keen autumnal air; Cooper, my coachman, who was about half tight, gazing at them with an air of complacent contempt and mild wonder. Three blue-skinned damsels personated Love, Purity, & Fidelity in Red White & Blue gowns. A few Invalid soldiers stumped along in the dismal procession. They made a long speech at the President in which they called Intemperance the cause of our defeats. He could not see it, as the rebels drink more & worse whiskey than we do. The filed off drearily to a collation of cold water & green apples, & then home to mulligrubs.
I would recommend this collection to anybody who is deeply interested in Lincoln and tumultuous Civil War era.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Wings of the Sphinx

The Wings of the Sphinx -  Andrea Camilleri

In the eleventh book the gears are starting to grind. The plot manages to be both familiar and dreary with - again! - the theme of globalization as racket, with the vulnerable being exploited by the ruthless. Yeh, yeh, we know. Even the meals are not described with usual voluptuousness of previous outings. But then perhaps the love trouble with Livia has put Salvo off his hay. Or maybe it’s me - this novel was after all nominated for various awards.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

European RC #9

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

Der Führer: Hitler’s Rise to Power - Konrad Heiden

At almost 800 pages in length, this Hitler book is obviously only for the most committed student of the time, the place, and the politics. Heiden was a journalist that was forced to leave Nazi Germany because of his anti-Nazi views, but he is as objective as he is well-informed, with profound cultural, psychological and sociological insight. So much so that it also reminded me of the other wide-ranging masterpiece from between the wars, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West.

The main thesis is that Hitler was one of a modern type that is found at the margins of society, usually in cities. Whether rich or poor, such a type is lazy, sloppy, careless, and without inclination toward regular work or career. Such a type defies authority of any kind and is neither talented nor disciplined enough to be good at the creative arts. Heiden calls this type the “armed bohemians.” They found their calling in the violence of WWI and their and main chance in its aftermath, the chaotic period of the collapse of bourgeois standards of civilization such as honor, loyalty, chivalry, etc. Hitler found his moment, his intuitive connection to thousands of slovenly men like him, amidst Germany’s ruinous post-WWI misery.

Heiden also identifies another type: the armed intellectuals. These experts in warfare combined trust in the efficiency of their ruthless methods and their desire to rule over the state. Hitler used these two types of men, the thug and the technician. The thuggish S.A. terrorized ordinary Germans into submission while the technicians re-armed the country and ran the machinery of government. By promising military build-up, Hitler was able to get aristocratic officers to work with or at least tolerate the thugs and technocrats.

Heiden was a serious writer. Though he briefly covers rumors of undinism, he doesn’t spend much time speculating about Hitler’s stunted personality. Nor is he gabby about Hitler's relations with his niece-mistress Geli Raubal and her strange death or the nature of the partying that landed Goebbels and Goring into minor trouble in the court of public opinion. The examination of the sinister figure of Ernst Rohm terrifies, for the simple reason that he had no trouble recruiting comrade-loves to do dirty work.

Staring into the darkness, Heiden dryly observes,

Hitler was able to enslave his own people because he seemed to give them something that even the traditional religions could no longer provide; the belief in a meaning to existence beyond the narrowest self-interest. The real degradation began when people realized that they were in league with the Devil, but felt that even the Devil was preferable to the emptiness of an existence which lacked a larger significance.

Although the political history of Hitler vs. von Papen starts to feel long, the narrative becomes fascinating again once Hitler becomes chancellor. Shocking is the speed with which democratic procedures were exploited by the Nazis so that democracy could basically commit suicide. It’s also sobering to see how easily cold-blooded opportunists could exploit existing fears of economic instability, Jewish people, Marxists, the French and the “lying disgusting press” for electoral gain. Sobering also the indifference of ordinary people - they didn't care how they were governed, they didn't care what happened to other people, especially if "those people" belonged to a group they didn't like in the first place.

In conclusion, this book is often cited in modern histories. So I recommend it to serious readers also because it is highly regarded by writers such as Ian Kershaw. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Mount TBR #13

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 Curious Bride – Erle Stanley Gardner

A curious woman claiming not to be a bride consults lawyer Perry Mason about her "friend" whose husband, supposedly killed in a plane crash, turns up alive and well. Della Street, Mason’s assistant, is sure the would-be client is in fact a bride.

After a series of unlucky events, the curious, truth-bending client ends up facing charges of murder. All the evidence points to her guilt, of course, so Perry Mason requires cunning and mother-wit – not to mention a lot of PI legwork that he does himself - to save the client.

Published in 1934, the fifth Perry Mason mystery was a pretty good read. However, it has a hard edge to it, probably because the Depression casts a shadow over the characters and action. A millionaire businessman demonstrates the ethics and morality of an alley cat, reflecting public attitudes that were fed up with The Conscience-free Rich in the early Thirties. Plus, near the end, Mason coldly observes that the murder victim – a con man who swindled plain janes in marriage and then stole all their money – “needed killing.” Yikes, people often act like brutes but that doesn’t give folks leave to knock them off as if they were brutes through and through.

In the intricate plot, Mason is always a couple of moves ahead of the DA and cops. Planting fake evidence will do that, I suppose. I did not figure out who the culprit was before the end and I was blind-sided by the reveal.  To be fair, I must say that Gardner plays fair with reader. He has different characters repeat the basic facts of the case, so we readers can’t complain at the end that Gardner expects us to know things we were never told. I think Gardner used the repetition because the novel was serialized in Liberty Magazine (July 7 to September 15, 1934) and he had to get new readers up to speed.

I liked the antique atmosphere. Despite the hint of you-know in the title, there is no you-know in the novel, which is par for Mason novels. The trial sequence, as in many of the early Mason novels, is pretty short.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

A New Lease of Life

French title: Une Vive Comme neuve
Year Published:  1951
Englished: Joanna Richardson, 1963

A New Lease of Life  - Georges Simenon

The main character fits Simenon’s typical main character: male, early middle age, low level job, alienated from self and others, disliked. Maurice Dudon breaks up the tedium of his monotonous life every Friday night by indulging in sleazy predilections. He peculates the petty cash, visits a quiet brothel, and goes to confession. He feels bad about the sins of stealing and fornication so he enters the confessional with morose pleasure.

His feeling that something bad is going to happen does indeed happen. One Friday, after confession, Dudon is struck by a car, a punishment he figures as long overdue. In hospital – a liminal space where transitions, wanted and unwanted, are inevitable – he finds the new lease on life of the title.

He feels unaccountably mischievous and playful. He smiles in the realization that he is in the hands of the best doctors of a luxury clinic.  A rich vintner was the driver of the car that hit him, He fears his victim’s knowledge that the vintner was with his mistress. The vintner, really on the spot, will also offer our hero a position of responsibility, much better paid. As if this were not heaven enough, our Dudon catches the romantic interest of his nurse, Anne-Marie. She is a Simenonian Ideal Woman: easy-going, caring, sensual, and buxom.

Released from the hospital, with a new job and new honey-bunny, Dudon finds everything peachy. But, insensibly, due to the effects of his head injury, he suffers chronic headache, dizziness, fogginess. During a rest cure, he faces a crisis that forces him to choose either domestic bliss or prostitute-based guilt.

Gosh, I wonder which he'll pick.

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