Thursday, September 29, 2016

Turn on the Heat

Turn on the Heat – Erle Stanley Gardner, writing as A.A. Fair

Published in 1940, Turn on the Heat is the second Bertha Cool & Donald Lam PI mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair. An untrustworthy client hires them to find a woman who disappeared around 20 years before. Another investigator who was poking around the case then gets murdered. Cool and Lam must find the missing woman, but throw sand into the eyes of the police to keep them from getting close to their client. The title, therefore, refers to law-school grad Lam creating confusion and distraction.

The plus is that the story gets tangled plenty fast as Cool and Lam scramble to avoid jail and charges as accomplices after the fact. Lam tries to protect Cool by keeping her out of the loop, but as usual she blunders into the thick of things anyway. Another positive is that in the Cool and Lam novels, more than the Perry Mason novels, Gardner examines the rough side of local politics: seedy cops, crooked politicians, co-opted news reporters, mean gangsters, and cowed citizens. As in the Mason novels, the killing takes second to the complex criminal scheme that goes bad and leads up to the killing.

The negative is that being elaborate, plot and incident may be hard to follow and at least some of the time make extreme demands on intelligence and memory. Another qualm I had – this time it wasn’t enough telling myself to make allowances for outdated attitudes* – was related to the tone when Gardner described female characters. The running joke in the series is that the females fall for Lam due to his gentlemanly ways and willingness to listen without handing out advice. But in this one the young woman swoons for Lam, unbelievably. Bertha Cool’s dependence on Lam to see them through to the end wasn’t consistent with her confidence, assertiveness, and toughness. The chuckling references to her pounds didn’t do much for me.

Still, I think the Cool and Lam novels are funnier, grittier, and sexier than the Perry Mason novels. Well-worth reading. I found 10 Cool and Lam mysteries in a used book store this past summer. It was the find of the year so far.

* Which apparently have not gone away considering these nasty comments routinely made about women.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Classics I Didn't Expect to Like

I started these novels out of a sense of duty and was surprised they turned out to be compelling reads.

1. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. You yell at her and want to shake her, don't marry him. And she does. Talk about letting characters do what they think best....

2. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. Quiet coming of age, loss of innocence novel. Great atmosphere.

3. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. I was expecting a stuffy novel of manners but got sharp satire and a fine expatriate, international marriage story.

4. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Another story about a guy who is a chronological adult but needs to do a lot of growing up.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Mount TBR #52

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 End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945 - Ian Kershaw

This history explains the reasons why Nazi Germany continued to fight even when it was clear to the government and military that the war was lost. The book also tells grim stories about the consequences of Hitler’s decision never to capitulate. Thousands died. Concentration camp inmates died in thousands on death marches from camp to camp. German civilians died in their thousands under Allied bombing and rampaging Red Army soldiers. Three million German soldiers in the east went into captivity in the USSR and million did not return to Germany. What’s really grim about the whole story is the lack of moral courage on just about everybody’s part, military, civilian, bureaucrat, or thug. The take-away lessons do not say much for people in hard situations, in uniform or not, though the one-third that do step up are to be admired and, heaven willing, emulated.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mount TBR #51

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 Foreign Correspondent – Alan Furst

Alan Furst writes best-selling historical spy fiction. The novels are set before and during World War II. His protagonists are similar to Eric Ambler and Alfred Hitchcock’s ordinary people pulled into murky intrigues in which they have no control over anything except their own will, their own sense that they must strike back against Fascist tyranny.

Authority is mindless in that some people, especially in groups,  will force their wills on individuals if given a sliver of a chance. Conformity is mindless too because doing what one is told is a lot easier than thinking. But Furst’s protagonists resist mindlessly too. They don’t have deep philosophies about liberty and freedom. They just don’t like getting pushed around and feel they must fight or be overwhelmed by bigots, xenophobes, haters of all stripes. Want rights? Got to fight for them, against adversaries both foreign and domestic.

In this novel is set 1938, right on the eve of war. Carlo Weisz, along with scores of other Italian brain workers, has had to move to Paris. He belongs to a small group that publishes an underground newspaper that is printed in Italy, then distributed samizdat-style by sneaky teenagers in bus stations and other public places.

Carlo finds himself dealing with agents of various intelligence services and plug-uglies sent by Mussolini. He's able to visit Germany on reporting jobs and meets the woman that he loves, unfortunately married to anti-fascists and thus watched by the Gestapo.

The Foreign Correspondent is long on atmosphere and short on action.

Other Novels by Alan Furst Reviewed on this Blog

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Mount TBR #50

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.

First Russia Then Tibet – Robert Byron

Robert Byron is famous for one of the best travel narratives from between the wars, The Road to Oxiana. In Russia, he plays his usual pugnacious self and gets in the face of Soviet cultural officials and toadies, standing up for the individual’s right not to connect all art as fuel and exhaust of the class struggle. The first half is marred by too much economics and because, I am not an art historian, too much about the history of Russian painting.

The Tibet half wonderfully describes the misery of travel in a harsh environment:

The morning, which came at last, was the crisis of the expedition. My own face, for which I had constructed a mask out of two handkerchiefs, had ceased to drip, and was now covered with yellow scabs, which adhered unpleasantly to the surface of the beard. But those of M. and G. had liquefied in the night, and they arrived in my room to breakfast, speechless with despondency. The cold was intense; the room was filled with the odour of yak-dung and lamp-smoke; my head was pounding; and I had whispered to myself, during the despair of dressing, that if – if either of the other to suggest an about-turn, I should not oppose him. To endure this pain for three more weeks would be merely the weak-mindedness of the strong.

A wonderful book, I highly recommend it to readers into classic travel writing.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mount TBR #49

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 Master Mariner: Running Proud – Nicholas Monsarrat

This historical novel has a unique premise. For an act of cowardice during a battle against the Spanish Armada, an English sailor is condemned to live forever. This gives the reader the opportunity to enjoy sea stories set in different eras. The times and settings are: exploring with Henry Hudson in 1610; piracy in 1670; clerk for Samuel Pepys in 1682; fishing on the Grand Banks in 1720; navigating the world with Capt James Cook in 1759 and fighting with Nelson in 1790. The mini-biographies of Hudson, Pepys, Cook and Nelson brilliantly convey the qualities and achievements that made them great. The set pieces contain rousing battle sequences and pirate horrors of torture and rape. Monsarrat’s theme is basically the hardships of men at sea – that men could endure struggles against officers and adversaries while undergoing privations of food, comfort, and ordinary companionship boggles the mind.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Mount TBR #48

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.

Sex Goddesses of the Silent Screen – Norman Zierold

This biography chronicles the lives of five daring Circes of the silver and silent screen. It is a prime example of the many books about old Hollywood published in the early 1970s during a boom of nostalgia brought about by Watergate and the Vietnam War. That is, this biography is rich in readable anecdotes that mix misfortune and absurdity.

Theda Bara used her striking eyes, bold manner and skimpy outfits to seduce audiences, dazzle press agents, and enrage local censorship committees. Barbara LaMarr had that air of nursing a secret sorrow that some men find enthralling; pining in jail cell, one of her husbands called out her name as he bashed his head against a wall and later died of a blood clot. None of these actresses was emotionally or philosophically equipped to deal with Tinsel Town fame and fortune (who is, really?), but Pola Negri drew on her passionate Polish soul to protect her integrity by out-diva-ing everybody.  Mae Murray was a dancing blonde whose lip-sticked cupid lips earned her the nickname The Girl with the Bee-stung Lips.” Her story is probably the second saddest in the book, after Clara Bow’s descent into nervous breakdowns, madness and death in a sanitarium. 

Zierold spends excessive time describing the opulent life styles and habits of conspicuous consumption of the stars. He balances this by judiciously quoting knowledgeable critics and culture mavens from the 1920s. It’s interesting how little things change. Audiences at that time really were impressionable, mistaking vamping appearances  for reality, just as many people nowadays, for example, assume that Jennifer Lawrence is just as down to earth as any 25-year-old from Pendleton, New York. Also, critics back then were just as snarky and sharp as they are on the web today, but criticism never seems to make movies any better.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Mount TBR #47

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 port des brumes
Englished: Linda Coverdale, 2015

The Misty Harbour – Georges Simenon

Nothing like an early Maigret mystery. This was written in 1931 and published in 1932. This translation, however, is one of the many re-translations that Penguin commissioned a couple of years ago. The goal, I think, was to better capture the spareness of Simenon’s prose.

The atmosphere is persuasive, with trains, fog, smoke from Maigret’s pipe, the stuffy rooms. The novel opens with Maigret escorting an amnesiac back to his native town. He’d been identified by his maid from a picture published in the papers. When they arrive at Ouistreham (in the Normandy region in northwestern France), Maigret tries to figure out the background as to why the amnesiac suffered a gunshot wound to his head, which, although patched up skillfully, robbed him of his memory and speech.

Once the victim is left at home he is killed with a dose of strychnine in his pitcher of water. The Inspector investigates. Simenon brilliantly describes closed community of seamen who work and drink around the lock, who live according to the tides, an exclusive order not loquacious with outsiders. They stick together in wary silence. The upper crust, too, face Maigret in silence. The victim and his maid Julie have only one advocate for the truth to come out, Maigret.

The plotting is rather uneven, but reader rather regrets leaving this atmosphere. These Depression-era Maigret novels are strong novels, marked by sober, precise writing. And don’t forget the existentialism before existentialism became cool in the Fifites. I’m not a totally objective observer because I like novels set in the Thirties but I think these novels do not age, thanks to the spare style of Simenon. Still, there are period artifacts: pitch pine, coal tar, alarm clocks, a peasant's cart, the bistouille (black coffee with moonshine) in glasses, pale firefly gaslights, fuggy taverns, and people smoking anyplace and drinking anytime they like.

I’m pretty sure back in the day, I read an earlier translation by Stuart Gilbert, one called Death of a Harbormaster. But this was worth re-reading.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Mount TBR #46

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.

How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable about Anything - Yes, Anything – Albert Ellis

I re-read books by psychologist Albert Ellis (1913 - 2007) when I want to brush up on the basic advice of cognitive behavioral therapy. With the school year coming up, I thought it would do no harm to read this classic of self-help.

Ellis gives the ABC model. It helps me to calm down by understanding how my thoughts, feelings and behavior interact. Let’s say I attend a meet and greet, which here is the A, the activating event. I approach somebody I don’t know and introduce myself. They smile, say nothing, and look over my shoulder, seeming to look intently at something or for somebody.

Next, I form B, my beliefs about what just happened in this activating event. I think I’m being disregarded. High-hatted. Ignored. I don’t have any evidence that this is true, but in fact my response here happens so fast, I’m not even aware how I’ve gotten to such and such a belief.

Then, I get my C, the consequence, the result of my belief about what just happened. This can include what I feel about what just happened and what I do then. I feel hurt, snubbed. I might even leave the meet and greet in a huff. This consequence might have ripple effects too: people might notice my leaving mad, I put myself down for being touchy.

Ellis argues that it my belief that I’ve been disrespected that leads to my upset feelings. I make myself upset, not other people, not the world as it is. Ellis would advise that I use D, disputing my irrational thoughts, by asking myself, ‘Just what is the evidence that this stranger snubbed me. I don’t know what was going through his mind.” Or, “Even if he did snub me, where is the law of the universe that says everybody I meet has to be friendly, talkative, and all round overjoyed to talk to scintillating me?” Ideally, I use reason to develop and support disputing ideas. And I focus on what I can control: my own responses, my own will, the one thing that I have power over, the one thing that cannot be taken from me.

Finally, E are the cognitive and emotional effects of my revised beliefs. By being rational, by thinking things through, I feel better. “Maybe that guy was having a distracted day, had something on his mind, somebody to talk to so he was not so interested in talking to anybody else. Nothing personal.” So, Ellis used to call his therapy “rational emotive therapy.”

Ellis’ advice is that I had better replace irrational self-talk with more realistic and evidence-based self-talk. A statement like "I fear I will clutch at the meet and greet" can be acknowledged as true enough, but I can follow this up with, "But I will nevertheless attend, talk to some new people, who are just as antsy about being there as I am and I will probably do OK." This leads to a calmer, more rational assessment of the situation and a healthier response to what happens.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Mount TBR #45

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 Lucky Legs – Erle Stanley Gardner

This is the third of 75 mysteries starring ace lawyer Perry Mason. Published in 1936, its settings appeal to a reader nostalgic for times when her parents and grandparents were young: cigar stores, resident hotels, soda fountains, speakeasies, and full-serve gasoline stations. The period language teaches us how to speak noir: “look common” and “know your onions.”

This is an early Mason story so various elements jar us readers used to the stride Gardner hit, say, after WWII. Della Street has not found her usual role as confidante and enabler of illegal entry and funny business with evidence. In this one, poor Della is not even taking notes while Mason grills a prospective client. Perry and PI Paul Drake’s relationship is convincingly stiff as neither knows the other well enough to establish trust. Mason as housebreaker has a set of skeleton keys he uses without thinking twice. Mason as tough guy threatens to punch difficult people. Generally speaking the prose is mechanical, even plodding at the three-quarters mark, making me wonder, “Cripes, another interrogation! Again.”

And the smoking shocked even me, a guy that doesn't see himself a post-modern puritan in this regard. Two scenes emphasize the power of watching smoke rise to assist deep thinking, which ex-smokers - like me - will remember with a combination of disgust and pleasure. David Sedaris mentions in When You are Engulfed in Flames that publishers have asked him if they could cut out references to smoking in a story they wanted to reprint. If publishers plan on doing that to Perry Mason stories, huge blacked out sections will appear in these texts.

On the upside the characterization, such as it is, strikes me as more skillful than usual because all four principles plus the two tough cops are plausible, with one villain being a wily antagonist to Mason. Also, on the upside, as far as I, having read dozens of Mason novels, am concerned, includes no courtroom scene.