Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Mount TBR #26

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 Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era
– David Donald

This is a collection of essays by a Mississippi-born historian. Donald did undergraduate work in history, political science, and sociology. In graduate school, he focused on Lincoln, under the mentorship of famed scholar James G. Randall. Donald taught at Columbia University, Johns Hopkins and, from 1973, Harvard.  He passed away in 2009.

The interesting topics include Lincoln and the abolitionists, whom he interestingly describes a social movement; Lincoln as demi-god in folklore; the myths launched by Herndon in the first so-called psychological biography; Lincoln as a canny politician; Peace Democrats; a sympathetic treatment (for once) of Radical Republicans like Stevens and Sumner; the factors that contributed to the Lincoln cult-feeling; and a balanced view of Reconstruction.

This book was published in 1956, collecting articles published here and there. As we would expect from a book of this time, African Americans are at the margins. Back in the day, this book was often assigned in college and high schools so it is definitely accessible to the general reader. It’s not a searching analysis such as David Blight’s Race and Reunion (which I’m reading now), but I think enjoying this book would be students like us who have concluded (probably with age) that the causes of the Civil War and its effects on our country are more interesting than battles and all that.                 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Mount TBR #25

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.

Red Harvest – Dashiell Hammett

Personville, a city of forty-thousand in Montana, grew because a company developed mines. The mine owner had called in thugs to push back workers and their troublesome union organizing. The workers were duly crushed but the thugs didn’t leave since the pickings from vice rackets were so sweet. The town government was corrupted by the owner and the thugs. The mine owner gave his son a local newspaper to woo him back from Europe. Trouble was stirred when the son started a reform campaign and called in an operative from the Continental Detective Agency to provide facts to fuel the reform. The Continental Op, who has no name, arrives and the son is shot dead in the street.

With his client dead, the Continental Op makes a deal with the mine owner to find the killer and by doing so shake up the bad guys that run the town. The Op does find the killer but the owner backs off reform. The Op does not let him off the hook. The Op employs deceit, brutality, and bad guys killing bad guys, among other low tactics, to clean the town up.

The Nobel Prize-winning author André Gide called the book "a remarkable achievement, the last word in atrocity, cynicism, and horror.” For sure, It is not for faint-hearted readers. After all, Hammett coined the phrase “blood simple” which inspired the Coen brothers call their first movies, an experiment in noir, Blood Simple. Nor is it for easily confused readers due to the convoluted plot and large cast whose names have to be remembered.

Strangely, the book is not grim – its high spirits are irresistible.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mount TBR #24

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.

Orley Farm – Anthony Trollope

In this early novel, Trollope tells the story of a disputed inheritance. Lady Mason, beautiful and hard-pressed, and her repulsive son-in-law, Sir Joseph Mason, clash again concerning the legality of her late husband's will, which bequeathed her his estate. They had litigation 20 years before the opening of the story but Samuel Dockwrath, a greedy unscrupulous lawyer, stirs up litigation a second time purely out of revenge against Lady Mason. The first volume finds Lady Mason seeks advice first from local friends and then entrusts the case and her fate to the barrister Furnival, who calls in our old friend Mr. Chaffanbrass who first appeared in The Three Clerks. The second volume is the run up to the courtroom duel among the barristers.

I keep details to a minimum because I hate spoilers. All I have to say is, this novel will please fans who know they like Trollope. He uses comedy and grotesque characters as if he were writing in the Dickensy manner, only for us grown-ups. At a little over 800 pages, the book has some dead-ends. For instance, Trollope makes much of Lucius Mason's experiments in guano for agricultural use and Mrs. Joseph Mason’s pain-in-the-neck daughters. But he does not pursue these comic lines. Adding to length are six marriage proposals. Six, for the luvva Mike.

I liked this novel for the sheer number and variety of characters, especially Sir Peregrine Orme, and Trollope’s narrative skill at constructing what some critics call his best plot. Trollope was in his late forties when he wrote this so I found heartening the sober reflections of middle-aged Victorian moralist. Finally, although the theme was not always comic, I found realistic that characters were constantly acting on judgments that they thought were correct but in fact were dead wrong.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Mount TBR #23

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.

Dark Voyage – Alan Furst

In his eighth historical espionage thriller, Furst departs from his usual place and time of Europe between the wars. Nor does he focus on typical spies. In this one, the time is during WWII, April to June 1941 to be exact. The setting is at sea on a spy ship, the Dutch tramp freighter Noordendam. The hero is a stoical captain, Erik DeHaan.

DeHaan has been recruited into naval intelligence by three co-nationals, the owner of the Noordendam, a businessman, and a female artist. The Noordendam is re-painted, put under the control of the British intelligence service (which office is unclear to DeHaan), and sent out on missions both in convoy and on its own, both as the Noordendam and the Santa Rosa. It lands commandos in Tunisia and explosives in Crete. It skirts German defenses in the Baltic in order to transport radio equipment to listen in on traffic to and from German submarines.

DeHaan is a classic Furstian protagonist. That is, sensitive and professionally capable, he brings his emotional and professional intelligence to fight, because that is what an ordinary person would do, fight when fight we must.

The other characters are regular folks too, doing what they can to fight in the hope that their small contribution will add to the huge effort to eliminate the Fascist threat, whether on the left or the right. Fleeing right extremism are Greek deserters, Spanish Republicans, and a veteran Ukrainian Jewish spy. A female Soviet maritime reporter is fleeing the Russian spies that want to recruit her for dirty work.

One flaw. The second half of the novel is set on the Baltic Sea near Malmö , Sweden, in the first 20 days of June, heading up to the Summer Solstice. Recalling how far north this setting is and the time of the year, there is not quite 24 hours of daylight. When I lived in Riga, Latvia (1994-97), the sun didn't set until close to 11:30 p.m. It didn't get dark until 1:00 a.m. when it didn’t get “darkest before the dawn” kind of dark either. Then at about 1.05 a.m, it started to lighten up again. Furst does not mention one word about this phenomenon.

The flaw is balanced by the simple fact that Furst sets the climax in the Latvian port of Liepāja. Furst gets points in my book for mentioning Latvia at all, much less a little-known place such as Liepāja. The Russians and Germans wanted to occupy Latvia for the possession of Riga (a.k.a, "the Paris of Soviet Hell") and the ice-free port of Liepāja, which the Russians wanted so secret they didn’t even put it on maps.

Furst’s writing style tends to the run-on sentence, which gives an efffective herky-jerkiness to the exposition. We readers never know what going to happen next.

Other reviews of Alan Furst’s novels

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Mount TBR #22

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.

Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn - David Hajdu

Billy Strayhorn is known for being a jazz composer and arranger for Duke Ellington. His most famous composition is Ellington’s signature song, Take the A-Train, which one jazzman says was the “holy grail,” telling of the whole life and culture of Harlem in the Thirties “in 32 bars.” Strayhorn is also known for Lush Life, which has been covered by artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Lady Gaga. Unjustly neglected nowadays is a 1956 gem called Blue Rose by Rosemary Clooney and Ellington’s band, an effort that only Strayhorn made possible.

Sheer luck got young Strayhorn an introduction to Ellington in 1939, who was impressed with his arranging skills from the start. Strayhorn wrote the orchestra’s Satin Doll, Chelsea Bridge, Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin’, Daydream, Koko, Passion Flower, and A Flower is a Lovesome Thing, to name just handful. Strayhorn was so self-effacing and mild-mannered that he was nicknamed with the derisive “Swee’ Pea” by band members that didn’t know what to make of him, so silent and openly gay. But Ellington defended him from overt and covert homophobia and jealousy. The protection came with emotional and financial prices. Lena Horne says, ''[T]heir relationship was very sexual. Don't misunderstand -- it wasn't physical at all. . . . Duke treated Billy exactly like he treated women, with all that old-fashioned chauvinism. Very loving and very protective, but controlling.''

When Strayhorn joined Ellington’s organization in 1939, Duke’s career flourished professionally and musically. After WWII, when the big bands vanished or had to downsize, their partnership withered. When Strayhorn returned to the Ellington organization in 1956, Duke’s career staged a comeback.

Hajdu interviewed about 200 people for this biography. Hajdu is not a musicologist, though he was a music critic for serious magazines such as The Nation. Therefore, perhaps as a relief to non-expert readers like me, he does not give any technical insights into, for example, what distinguishes Strayhorn from Ellington in the music called Ellingtonia. He quotes musicians who ought to know. “'There's so much more sensitivity and complexity in Strayhorn's compositions than Ellington's,” says Dr. Aaron Bell, bassist for Duke Ellington from 1960 to 1962 and later an arranger. ''We could always tell Strayhorn's.''

The last quarter of the biography is hard to read due to Strayhorn’s descent into sadness and resignation. Strayhorn drank and smoked too much. After a hard fight, he died of esophageal cancer in 1967, at the age of 51. Still, I would highly recommend this book to readers who are interested in jazz and the challenges to an artist who happened to be black, gay, and influenced as much by Ravel and Debussy as the blues.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Perry Mason, Stoic

The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe – Erle Stanley Gardner

Two curiosities feature in this 1938 outing, one minor, one major. Usually Perry Mason is in every scene of a Mason mystery. However, chapter 15 is an informative primer on how district attorneys prime witnesses. That is, the deputy DA coaches a witness on what to say in court. The witness says "I guess" which the DA stomps on. “You don’t want a fancy lawyer to make you look like a dummy, do you?”

The other curiosity is more interesting. Gardner experiments with characterization to the extent that we get a rare glimpse of Perry Mason’s philosophical approach. He seems to be somewhat of a stoic .

Near the beginning of the mystery, at a nice lunch in a department store, Della Street asks the famous lawyer if seeing people are their worst has made him cynical. Quite the contrary, he replies.

People have their strong points and their weak points. The true philosopher sees them as they are, and is never disappointed, because he doesn’t expect too much. The cynic is one who starts out with a false pattern and becomes disappointed because people don’t conform to that pattern. Most of the little chiseling practices come from trying to cope with our economic conventions. When it comes right down to fundamentals, people are fairly dependable. The neighbor who would cheat you out of a pound of sugar, would risk her life to save you from drowning.

Perry Mason, like a stoic philosopher, uses reason and logic to identify and deal with other people’s strengths and weaknesses. Nobody is completely bad, nobody is completely good. Keep expectations realilstic, and never be disappointed. Mason expects people to make mistakes and commit crimes out of greed, lust, hatred, and love. If people make a mistake that attracts the attention of the authorities, they deserve a good defense. Recall also that in a dozen other novels, Perry is never too put out with clients who’ve lead him up the garden path. 

Mason says that cynics start as idealists who have lofty ideas that people should be wise, brave, fair, and restrained. But idealists became cynics when they bitterly conclude that most people can’t drive the speed limit or control their appetites much less apply prudence and self-restraint consistently in daily life. Cynics don’t let go of the unreasonable expectation that they themselves, other people and the whole frickin' world must do this or shouldn’t do that. And they end up constantly disappointed that people are not acting better. Constantly condemning leads to – well, just look at social media.

Mason seems to argue that because of economic and social pressures on people, a philosopher can’t reasonably expect folks to follow the cardinal virtues. For her own tranquility, a philosopher had better expect that people will act in ways that would try the patience of a saint. Expecting this, a philosopher can be prepared for whatever antics a spouse, kid, coworker, customer, or boss will get up to next. The sage had better forbear and remember trouble brings out the best and worst in human nature.

Sarah Breel, Mason’s client, also has an old-school stoicism. This novel is set in 1938 so assuming she is 60, she was born in 1878, probably in a rural area and definitely during the Depression of 1873-79. Also, life expectancy in the US in the late Thirties was such (61.9 for men, 65.3 for women) that people at 60 years old had seen many deaths. Thus, her response to her brother’s murder:

I’m sorry George had to die, but as far as he’s concerned, he’s dead. As far as I’m concerned, I miss him; but when I grieve about missing him, it isn’t being sorry for him, it’s being sorry for me. It’s hard to explain, Mr. Mason. It may seem cold-blooded to you. It really isn’t. I have a great deal of love and a great deal of affection for George. He’s dead. We all have to go sometime.

For Sarah Breel, the fact George was murdered is trumped by the necessary fact of death.

Death happens randomly. Death can rear-end my car when I’m stopped at a light and it can come in the middle of night with a massive stroke. So I might as well live. Reminding myself that someday it’s going to my turn with no choice how and no choice when, I enjoy life. Putting death in perspective, I feel gratitude and awe, here and now, and worry less about what is going to happen.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Mount TBR #21

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 Shoplifter’s Shoe – Erle Stanley Gardner

This 1938 mystery opens with lawyer Perry Mason having lunch with his secretary Della Street in a nice downtown department store. Della comments on the motherly benign appearance of an elderly woman apparently dining out with her niece. Perry observes that the little old lady is a shoplifter. A scene ensues whose upshot is that Perry gets the little old shoplifter off the hook because in fact she did not take the stuff out of the store.

The niece, Virginia Trent, later comes to Perry’s office for two reasons. She wants advice on how to get psychiatric help for her aunt Sarah Breel’s sudden-onset kleptomania. Gardner satirizes the psychoanalytic jargon and concepts (fixation, unconscious, etc.) that were taking the culture by storm in the thirties. Both Gardner and his creation Perry Mason were skeptics about unparsimonius explanations of human nature (more about that right here).

Virginia Trent is also concerned with legal consequences. A handful of diamonds has disappeared from her uncle’s jewelry store, perhaps ripped off by her thieving Auntie. A bon-vivant named Austin Cullens promises to get the gems back.  But he ends up shot. And her aunt is hit by a car while running away from the crime scene. When wakes up, she claims she remembers nothing, but the cops charge her with murder-one anyway.

Later Virginia Trent and Perry find the body of her uncle. She becomes utterly unglued, what with the stress of her aunt’s shoplifting, missing diamonds, one dead guy, and then her uncle being snuffed and put in a packing case. Gardner is hinting that studying psychology at night school does not necessarily prepare one to meet the curveballs thrown by ace-pitcher life.

Gardner does not play fair in this one, but the plot twists are ingenious. Slow down when reading the trial sequence because there is a Trent Gun and a Breel Gun. If you are not careful, you will get as confused as Sgt. Holcomb and Goodreads reviewers who get mighty frustrated with Gardner’s hocus-pocus with two guns, two bullets, two corpses and two crime scenes.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Mount TBR #20

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.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John LeCarre

The British spy service is in shambles. It collects no product. Long-time bosses have been given their walking papers. The resulting reshuffle of duties has demoralized the remaining old timers. However, a minister and his minion bring a low-level agent to the attention of terminated spy master George Smiley. The agent’s story sends Smiley on hunt for a possible mole who is passing secrets to the Russians.

The novel seems like a mystery since it has multiple interviews with a variety of characters, five suspects, startling twists and an exciting reveal. But it treats themes such a disillusionment, the end of the British Empire, marital dissolution, and the workaday life in a large bureaucracy. LeCarre also uses devices - such as the weather, remote places, and the focus on hands – for more literary effect than we expect in a mystery or spy novel.

In a BBC Radio "Front Row" interview in 2009, John LeCarre said that John Bingham's crime novels such as My Name is Michael Sibley, published in the 1950s when the two men worked together in British intelligence, inspired LeCarre to write his first two books, Call for the Dead and a Murder of Quality. Some critics go so far as to call Bingham the inspiration for George Smiley, but Bingham disliked LeCarre’s portrayal of world-weary, cynical spies.

I highly recommend this book for its story, atmosphere, and characters.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Mount TBR #19

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 Black Orchids – Rex Stout

AKA Black Orchids and Death Wears an Orchid

The novella opens with Archie Goodwin complaining about being sent to the Grand Central Flower show four days running. His boss, eccentric PI Nero Wolfe, wants him to collect intelligence on three new black orchid plants, developed by Lewis Hewitt, an arch rival in bloom fancying that "churns his beer."

While at the show, Archie is smitten with the model in a unique exhibition. A beautiful blond picnics in a sylvan (now there’s 1940s word) scene with her boyfriend, near a stream with mossy walls nearby. Crowds gather when she bathes her slim ankles and beautiful tootsies in a nearby pool. Archie is unsettled in a good way, to the point where it does not bother him to view thousands of flowers day after day.

On the fourth day, the following scenario occurs. She of the comely dogs tries to awaken her BF who was feigning a nap with a newspaper over his face. But she encounters Archie, who has jumped over the rope in order to examine the supine figure. He noticed the male model’s legs at an awkward angle and thought it deserved investigation. He probes the top of the man’s head with a finger, which goes  "straight into the hole in the skull, on the way in, and it was like sticking your finger in a warm blueberry pie. "

Yuck. Not for nothing did blurb authors describe Stout as "horrific, bloody, but gay." "Gay," as in a 1940s “carefree" way, you understand.

The method of murder is diabolically clever, as we veteran mystery readers would expect in classic mysteries of this bygone era. So complicated, in fact, that I doubt it would work in the real world.

This is the first novella Stout wrote but it is quite a strong entry in Wolfe canon. Wise-guy Archie's tone has its usual brash, snappy, friendly ring. The dialog between Archie and Wolfe is both acerbic and warm. As a whodunit, it plays fair. Like any good book in a series, however, it brings up the touchstones we fans expect: irascible Lt. Cramer; the red leather chair; the brownstone and its routines; a city woman with moxie; glasses of milk; bottles of beer; and Wolfe barking, "Archie!"

It was published in the August 1941 issue of The American Magazine (1906 - 1956). In modern editions it is bundled with another novelette Cordially Invited to Meet Death in the 0553257196 edition.

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

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Mount TBR #18

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.

Call Me Lucky: Bing Crosby’s Own Story -  As told to Pete Martin

I was a smart-aleck college kid when Gary Crosby’s tell-all memoir of alleged abuse by his father Bing was released in 1983. Since by the early Eighties poor Bing was associated with all things square and phony, sneering and scolding Boomers snorted in derision at the contrast between Bing’s easy-going image and Gary’s portrayal of the stern personal trainer, penny-pincher and wielder of belts, straps, and canes. Perhaps because we tend to remember the last thing we heard of people, the only take on Bing Crosby for lots of us nowadays is that he was the hypocrite that smacked his sons around.

Which is a pity. Bing Crosby dominated American mass media in the 1930s and 1940s. He was the first multi-media superstar, bigger even than Mary Pickford, for the reason that he added success in television and records to stage, screen and radio.

His initial quick success was based on his mysterious, romantic voice. When he sang, Crosby's relaxed phrasing and rhythmic acuity made women melt. His sensitivity to the prosody of English – that is, conversation phrasing - made him very different from Rudy Valle and Al Jolson. Because improved microphones could capture his subtle phrasing, he could almost whisper and make his singing feel very intimate. This crooning made him very popular and naturally spawned many imitators. Very soon after Crosby’s death in 1977, a teacher wrote in Music Educators Journal, “From a music history point of view, Crosby set the direction for virtually every pop singer of the last fifty years.”

Crosby was an educated man in a time when not many people went to college. His three years at Gonzaga and instinctive love of and respect for words gave him a solid vocabulary and feeling for language. For instance, he said of Carole Lombard’s unique phraseology, “Her swearing wasn't obscene. It was good, clean, and lusty. They were gusty and eloquent. They resounded, they bounced. They had honest zing!” This is an observation that could come only from somebody who knew the tune was as important as the words.

Crosby himself was quick and witty, in the best senses. Although this is a “as told to” autobiography, Bing’s voice, the reader feels intuitively, comes through clearly. Martin, a well-respected feature writer at the time, had an ear for Bing’s voice and tone.

Although he does not talk about popular music and fickle public taste, he does say nice things about Louis Armstrong, and Jack Teagarden. His stories about violinist Joe Venuti are pretty funny. In an admirable burst of honesty, Crosby says that he talked guitarist Eddie Lang into seeking medical advice for a hoarse voice. Lang never woke up after a tonsillectomy in 1933. Bing felt guilty about urging Lang to get medical treatment.

I was more interested in the music part of his career, the motion pictures part much less so, because the comedy in the Road movies, for example, was just too – I’ll use Bing’s word - low for me. Bing addresses two hobbies, horse flesh and golfing, that he was famous for having. He also - bluntly, I think -  discusses the trouble he had with his four sons who were notorious and all of them came to sad ends.  The book ends in 1952, so to speak, with the death of 40-year-old Dixie Lee of ovarian cancer, which represented a turning point for Bing both personally and professionally.

This autobiography was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1953 at the peak of a career that spanned from the mid-Twenties to the late Seventies. Then the story was bundled and released in both hardcover and paperback, to be become massive bestsellers.

I recommend this book to people into entertainment history, pop culture, and Hollywood production stories. I also urge interested readers to watch the PBS documentary Bing Crosby Rediscovered.