Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Mount TBR #44

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 Branch and the Scaffold: A Novel of Judge Parker – Loren D. Estlemann

This historical western examines Hanging Judge Isaac Parker. Serving on the federal bench for the western district of Arkansas and Indian territory from 1875 to 1896, Parker sentenced 160 people to the scaffold, 79 of whom were executed. Parker was the judge in the movie versions of the Charles Portis’ novel True Grit, a western to read even if a reader thinks she doesn’t like westerns.

Estleman uses the techniques of a novelist. He manufactures dialogue. He blends two real people into one fictional character. He adds business to make scenes more literary and compelling. He punctuates the exposition with action scenes that a guy would expect in a western. But all the characters are real historical characters; a reader can tell Estleman has read memoirs, transcripts, and newspaper accounts relevant to his subjects. He makes indirect critiques of journalists who portrayed depraved thieves and mean harlots into figures of romance for over-civilized readers in Eastern cities. In an afterward, Estelman clearly states the literary techniques he used to make history come alive.

I recommend this book to readers who as kids liked stories about figures I daresay kids don’t hear much anymore, such as the James Brothers, the Dalton Gang, Belle Starr, Cherokee Bill, Bill Doolin, and Heck Thomas. Any novel that features kind of sympathetic chapters to badass Cherokee Ned Christie gets three stars in my universe.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Mount TBR #43

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 Hand in the Glove aka Crime on Her Hands- Rex Stout

In the late Thirties, Stout’s publishers were worried that his prolific output featuring his PI hero Nero Wolfe would overexpose the rotund detective and inundate the market. They urged him to try another project. With female readership in mind, he created Theodolinda “Dol” Bonner. She was all ready to live the life of the carefree socialite when the Depression wiped out her father and drove him to suicide. Her cad of a fiancé, seeing that she had no great expectations after all, dumped her. Like Lily Dale, Dol swore never to love another and started a detective business with her friend, the heiress Sylvia Raffray.

Basically, this has the elements of a cozy mystery from the classic era of whodunnits between the wars. The characters are affluent, cultured, charming. The setting is a house in the New England country. There is a fistful of suspects. Aside from the female PI, what makes this mystery something different is the totally believable character of George Leo Ranth. He is a guru of a belief system that seeks to separate society matrons from their money and chattels. Stout gives him a line of mystical patter about Ranth’s “League of the Occidental Sakti,” patter than is simultaneously plausible, demented, and laughable. Stout had a unique sense of language and its various styles to balance out his over-fondness for and frequent use of unusual words such as “quidnunc.”

Anyway, Stout fans may want to check this out if it comes their way. Stout never returned to starring Dol in another novel, but she does up with other Wolfe helpers like Saul and Orrie in Too Many Detectives, If Death Ever Slept and Plot It Yourself.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Mount TBR #42

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 Sound of the City - Charlie Gillett

This informative survey is a history of rock ‘n’ roll and other kinds of popular music from the late Forties to the early Seventies. The author has written many books and lists related to the topic. His opinions are sound and intelligent, never outlandish. The best way to read the book is to read and then to listen to the songs online. It is a way to discover amazing “new” artists such as Esquerita, Ella Mae Morse, The Delmore Brothers, and countless more. The usual problem with survey like this is if one reads too much the parade of names, group monikers, song titles and styles and influences rather numbs the mind. But this is a reason to keep the book to return to it and conclude that the only reason I found a copy at a used book sale is that its owner died and his widow donated it. But while we are still around we’re never too old to change our opinion of the Del Vikings upon listening to the them for the first time in 30 years.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Mount TBR #41

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.

French title: Le Cheval Blanc
Year Englished: 1980

The White Horse Inn – Georges Simenon

This 1938 novella opens with Maurice Arbelet, a petite bourgeoisie in Nevers (central France), out on a weekend walk with wife Germaine and two sons, Emile and Christian. At first, Simenon uses Emile to explore the subtleties of memory – when they are old, what will kids remember of their parents and why? – but Simenon’s focus changes  once the young family stops in Pouilly, near Neuilly, at the Hotel du Cheval Blanc of the title.

Maurice  (I pronounce this how the British do, Morris) is immediately attracted by the atmosphere of the hotel, struck at how very pleasant it seems. Indeed the first chapter is a little masterpiece, a fine example of Simenon’s ability to portray a milieu and its people.

And what people! Old Nine plumps her overweight body on a stool and preps vegetables for the restaurant all day without stirring. One maid, Theresa, is separated from her drunken husband and raising her young son Henri, who is a budding psychotic. The other maid, Rose, is only 16, happily living away from her drunken father though she must endure the wandering hands and more from her boss. The proprietor Jean Fernande fondles and beds Rose (in France the age of consent is 15) as Madame Fernande shuts her eyes to the situation. Protecting a young female does not even enter Madame Fernande’s mind, as she figures the affair does not mean anything and while banging a young girl may make her drunken father angry and violent, it may also ward off Jean’s periodic spells of rage at conventions and baffled despair that his life is never going to change. Basically, all the people at The White Horse Inn live the life of the inn’s dog, chained day and night to circumstances none of them can change.

Maurice and Jermaine pull up short when they recognize her Uncle Félix Drouin, the porter, handyman, and night watchman. When he lived in the colonies, he was traumatized. Memories of the trauma have given him PTSD. Plus, he is subject to recurrences of malaria. Their  petite bourgeoisie concern for appearances pinched, Maurice and Germaine fear that somebody else will recognize him so they want him to go farther away from Nevers than Pouilly.

Indeed, a pleasant spot, seemingly placid, is filled with desperate people just as unable to communicate with each other as the rest of humanity. They are the kind of people who figure not talking is better so as not to reveal disagreeable things that are a lot harder to live with than silence.

A little time passes. One afternoon Maurice returns alone to the inn. He’s hoping to flirt with Rose and persuade Uncle Felix to enter a kind of nursing home run by monks. Felix ‘s reaction to the proposal is an illustration of alienated, apathetic rage. Provoked by the conversation, Felix gets a revolver, bent on fulfilling the promise to himself to kill somebody. Maurice is injured in a fight to which he was only an innocent bystander.

So, given plenty of incident told in Simenon’s terse laconic style, yet without plot, a discerning reader may find the novel somewhat diffuse, without coherence, even if some sections are remarkable, especially those that delineate the daily grind of The White Horse Inn.

Other Non-Maiget Psychological-Existential Thrillers

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Mount TBR #40

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 Three Christs of Ypsilanti – Dr. Milton Rokeach

This report tells of three paranoid schizophrenics who believed they were God or Jesus or The Holy Ghost or all three. In the late 1950s, the author put the three together to see if their delusion would be shaken by their fundamental belief that it was impossible for two or three people to have the same identity. 

Working with each other and their various caregivers in the Ypsilanti (Michigan) State Hospital, the three subjects just assumed the other two were crazy and denied that they were deluded about being a supernatural being. In fact, the three stopped arguing and fighting over identity and came to get along peacefully. More or less, considering that they were still paranoid schizophrenics, i.e. people that don’t even treat themselves nicely. 

The sensitive reader will have qualms about ethics. The three subjects were not informed that they were involved in research. The researcher used iffy interventions such as placebos and letters purporting to come from a wife and the superintendent of the facility. One has to grant the possibility that the argument could be correct that participation in the research probably would not make them worse off, since their prognosis was so poor anyway. After about two years, however, the researcher’s ethical qualms were such that he brought the experiment to a close. 

This is a valuable book for readers interested in research in the pre-Institutional Review Board world not to mention a glimpse into institutions where our society housed the mentally ill before we stored them in prisons or on city streets, like we do now. It also raises provocative  questions about why we believe in our identity and why we believe what we believe.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Mount TBR #39

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.

Where There’s a Will – Rex Stout

Internal evidence - references to the World’s Fair in New York City and the parlous state of Europe – suggests that this mystery was written in 1939. Slightly abridged, it was published in in the May, 1940 issue of The American Magazine (1906 – 1956). It was the eighth story starring eccentric private eye Nero Wolfe and his wise-cracking bodyguard, secretary, and legman Archie Goodwin.  

Since The American Magazine concentrated on female readership, Stout featured in the story three strong successful women. The mystery opens in Nero Wolfe’s office where the celeb Hawthorne sisters – April the stage actress, May the college president, and June the State Department spouse hostess – want advice on breaking the bizarre will of their multi-millionaire brother Noel . Clearly they are upset at being bequeathed, respectively, an apple, a pear, and a peach. But cops burst in with the unhappy news that the forensic evidence says their brother was murdered, not killed in a gun-related accident as originally thought.

In contrast to the earlier novels, this outing is shorter because less exposition makes for a more briskly-paced story. Depending on the reader’s tolerance for description or the extras we want to see in a Wolfe novel, this tightness may or may not be a good thing.

I missed the absent or slighted extras. Archie does not have his usual love interest Lily Rowan around. Wolfe has to leave the brownstone but Stout doesn’t exploit the fish out of water situation except for a mildly comic scene when Wolfe is served a lackluster lunch. Wolfe does little detecting and deducing nor is evidence clearly provided. The femme fatale does not have much banter in her, especially not with Archie. Homicide Detective Cramer is overbearing in an unfunny way.

Finally, the amazing Hawthorne sisters – the beautiful one, the smart one, and the practical one – must be based on actual celeb sisters of that bygone era. But it drives me crazy that I can’t identify the original versions since I regard myself as a Thirties buff.

Still and all, I recommend this one to Nero Wolfe fans. Newbies may want to start with The Rubber Band or Over My Dead Body or the great Some Buried Caesar

Friday, August 12, 2016

Mount TBR #38

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

A Cast of Killers – Sidney D. Kirkpatrick

This book centers on the unsolved 1922 murder of silent film director William Desmond Taylor. The author was researching for a biography of movie director King Vidor. In Vidor’s study he found hidden a cache of Vidor’s research notes concerning the murder. Vidor made a conclusion as to whom was the perp, but buried his findings for fear of opening of a can of worms. The author received the permission of Vidor’s estate to go ahead with a book about the murder. He wrote the book in a novelistic way, tracing Vidor’s research, interviewing, notes, and drafts as if telling a story. He therefore “makes up” conversations. This effort, I think, is based on a sincere seeking of the truth. It provides many stories of interest to any Hollywood buff. I would recommend this book in its 20th Anniversary edition to readers who are both interested in Hollywood lore and looking for a workout in critical thinking.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Mount TBR #37

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 Fashion in Shrouds – Margery Allingham

This 1938 whodunnit combines mystery, romance, and novel of ideas. It's set in a fashion house and peopled with glamorous and good-looking characters. The mystery: an irresponsible brute of an aristo is poisoned in his own plane and this convenient death may or may not be related to a suicide whose skeleton was found by the hero. The romance: three professional women must balance their successful careers with romance and marriage to suitable men. The novel of ideas: the obstacles to balancing career and love for women. Although in our post-modern days these issues are rather dated, the book is worth reading for the character of Georgia Wells, stage-actress and femme fatale who is the illustration of Rebecca West’s observation, “The main difference between men and women is that men are lunatics and women are idiots.” Idiotic in the original Greek sense that Georgia is vain, selfish, egocentric, and childishly cares only about her own goals and pleasure. Georgia is an incredible creation, right up there with Uriah Heep.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Mount TBR #36

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.

Going Crazy: An Inquiry into Madness in Our Time - Otto Friedrich

Fans of classic movies put Otto Friedrich’s survey City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s on their lists of best books about Tinsel Town. It’s one of the few books I regret giving away after I read it since I’d now like to have it around for the sake of dipping into its stories about actors and writers as well as the likes of – in order of least to most corrupt - movie producers, reporters, gangsters, and politicians. I also remember it was informative about emigres who escaped Nazified Europe, such Hedy Lamarr, Fritz Lang, Max Steiner, Billy Wilder, and Peter Lorre.

This lesser-known book has not been returned to print like many of his other books and not even acknowledged on the website www.ottofriedrich.com. When the book was published in the mid-1970s, critics castigated the book for its lack of focus, lack of an overarching view,  lack of definitions or theoretical framework. Admitting in the introduction and conclusion that he doesn't have the high-level answers, journalist and editor Friedrich doesn’t want to be pinned down, thus he chose the broad word “crazy” for the title.

Like City of Nets, the survey Going Crazy is indeed an attic stuffed to bursting of a book. We read anecdotes of madness and alcohol, madness and love, and madness and stress. We read with fascination stories of famous breakdowns concerning King Lear, Joe Louis, Mark Vonnegut, Scott Fitzgerald and Richard Nixon.  Here and there are short essays on madness and creative endeavor with the focus on the son of Charles Mingus, Robert Schumann, Scott Joplin, Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and Marquis de Sade. There’s an interesting piece on the confluence of crime and madness with an accent on how the Soviets used mental hospitals to oppress dissidents like Zhores Medvedev. Friedrich expresses a healthy skepticism of R. D. Laing and psychiatry in general and reminds us that the theories of Sigmund Freud had much more influence than we can believe nowadays. He even focuses on narrow groups for their higher than average propensity for craziness, like chess players (Paul Morphy, Bobby Fischer), poets (Ezra Pound), and Harvard alumni. The stories of George III, Timothy Leary, and Eldridge Cleaver are terribly sad.

I have mentioned only a small number here; many more stories feature ordinary people (“a guy named Harry”) and their bouts with mental illness. In the conclusion he makes a point of saying, 30% of those of us who break down get better with meds, 30% with counseling, and 30% on our own, with time as the healing agent. This is somehow comforting, that getting better breaks down 30-30-30 like a lot of situations in life that will change sooner, change later, stay about the same.

Upon graduation from Harvard (bachelors in history) in the late 1940s, Friedrich became a journalist, eventually becoming the managing editor of The Saturday Evening Post in 1965. In the late Sixties, the Post had to put up the shutters during the great weekly magazine shut down that saw Look and Life close up shop. After that, he wrote a book about the painful process of the Post’s closing down in Decline and Fall, which awaits in my TBR stack because I like sad stories by media insiders. He spent the remainder of his career at Time magazine. As a journalist first and foremost, Friedrich’s goal in writing was to inform thinking readers about topics of interest in a stimulating way.

So, I think if a reader wants to expand her general cultural knowledge, this readable book is an exciting if serious place to explore. But it can’t be called a book that one can just read through, unless one is true hardcore reader – like me – and probably you too - if you have found yourself reading this blog,

Stay steady.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died on August 3, 2008. These I've read:

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962): Fictionalized prison memoir provides an examination of life in a Stalinist labor camp after WWII. Well worth reading for unexpected points like work satisfaction, class distinctions, and admiration of the Latvians for being stand-up guys (I lived in Riga 1994-97 so I twig on things Latvian).

The First Circle (1968): People with special technical skills were incarcerated in special labor camps in the USSR of the 1950s. This compelling novel is about people in impossible circumstances doing what they can to preserve their own souls and dignity. As one of the great novels of the 20th century it should be approached with respect but not trepidation. It’s a real page turner, the novel that convinced me how great a story-teller AS was.

The Cancer Ward (1968): Set in a cancer ward in Tashkent, it is about politics, of course, but it is also an illness memoir, from the anxiety of diagnosis to iatrogenic problems. Extremely readable, an amazing novel.

August 1914 (1971): Long stretches are rather tedious so I can recommend only to serious students of WWI. The novel centers on the disastrous loss in the Battle of Tannenberg at the time mentioned in the title.