Monday, November 28, 2016

Mount TBR #59

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.

In The Private Wound by Nicholas Blake, from page one we get Anglo-Irish poet and classicist meets The Postman Always Rings Twice:

When I remember that marvelous summer of 1939, in the West of Ireland almost thirty years ago, one picture always slips to the front of my mind. I am lying on a bed drenched with our sweat. She is standing by the open window to cool herself in the moonlight. I see again the hour-glass figure, the sloping shoulders, the rather short legs, that disturbing groove of the spine halfway hidden by her dark red hair which the moonlight has turned black. The fuchsia below the window will have turned to gouts of black blood. The river beyond is talking in its sleep. She is naked.

I’m always game for a mystery melodrama if it is as well-written as this. And the writing ought to be fluent and engaging since Nicholas Blake was the pen-name of Cecil Day-Lewis, who wrote this, his last novel, while he was Poet-Laureate of the UK in 1968. 

Last novels are often products of exhausted creative energies, but this is worth reading and savoring. A young writer wants to save his pennies and pounds so he rents a house in rural Eire. He knows the war is inevitable and he wants to get one more book out.

He meets his neighbor’s wife, an attractive, sexually insatiable and deceitful woman. I’m saying as little about the story as possible. But know that the local scenery, the national character of the Irish at the time, and the theme of being a foreigner (aka the object of intense curiosity) all contribute effectively to the mystery story.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Mount TBR #58

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 Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 - Jeanine Basinger

In mid-November Turner Classic Movies showed the woman’s movie Invitation (1953), giving us veteran movie buffs a chance to run down the melodrama checklist.

·         Deception, check: For the very best of reasons, a father and fiancé tell terrible lies to a wistful vulnerable woman. 
·         Setting, check: Upper middle class or lower upper class family, unspecified Northeastern town.
·         Check and double-check: No mother, but a doting father.
·         Love & marriage as central issue, check: Reconciled to being a spinster, Plain Jane blonde – indeed, we should all be as homely as Dorothy McGuire.
·         The bad brunette rival, check: Ruth Roman, of course.
·         Point of rivalry, the genial though fickle male, check: boyish Van Johnson, of course.
·         Lots of flashbacks, check:  to the point of maddening and pointless, in fact.

Anyway, poor Dorothy McGuire learns the secret why her husband married her. And selflessly accepts the reality of the situation. Melodramatic, but convincing. Our hard-pressed heroine comes to an admirable stoic conclusion, “It is not enough just to survive – at the end of our lives we have to be able to say that we lived.” She echoes Seneca in On the Shortness of Life: ‘Show me that the good in life does not depend upon life’s length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little’.

Not Stella Dallas or Imitation of Life or Now, Voyager, but a worthwhile movie, I don’t demand the 90 minutes back again.

All in all, a worthy example of the “woman’s film,” a movie that was made to appeal to a female audience. Film historian Basinger argues it became a critically disrespected genre because many of the early 1930s movies for women really were trash. She also argues that modern film historians don’t like the genre because they think Hollywood movies supported anti-progressive views about women’s place at home, at work, in the world. Basinger makes the convincing argument that Hollywood made movies to make money so it tried to appeal to everybody and offend nobody. But, in fact, Hollywood writers and directors did manage to convey messages that all was not right with courting, marriage, the world of work, and motherhood.

In about 550 pages, Basinger provides plenty of plot explications to support her basic arguments. Because this book is for the general reader, not students at universities, it is written clearly, with humor and light-heartedness. I highly recommend this book to fans of classic Hollywood and others who tear up when, in Dark Victory, Bette Davis looks up at the bright noontime sky and says, “Ann, there's a storm coming...It's getting darker by the minute.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly - Jennifer Fleischner (faculty profile)

ISBN 0767902599

In the eyes of some historians and ACW buffs, Mary Lincoln has the image of a shopaholic so unstable that her son Robert had to commit her to an insane asylum.  Her modiste and confidant Elizabeth Keckly is known dimly as the author of the controversial memoir Behind the Scenes, which gives us a fascinating look into the Lincoln White House.

Jennifer Fleischner (Department of English, Adelphi University) writes a sympathetic if unsparing portrait of Mary Lincoln.  Mary did have an excitable and immoderate temperament. Plus, she was loosely educated, like many Southern women of the day, to play the piano and ride in carriages. Her compulsive shopping – she bought hundreds of pairs of gloves in one shopping trip - had roots in her sorrow and feelings of emptiness.

Her southern family cut off ties with her after the ACW began. She had two of her beloved children die. Lincoln did not love her and when he wasn’t aloof and distant, he acted with bemused and weary tolerance at her vagaries. Her husband was shot in the head with her right next to him. She later lost a third son when he was just a teenager. Her own health was fragile: she suffered migraines and anxiety and she may have been suffering from untreated diabetes (she died of a stroke). This lonely and anguished woman had plenty of trials that would dog anybody, even those better educated and more philosophically equipped than she was.

Mrs. Keckly, on the other hand, Fleischner portrays as a strong figure. Born in slavery, she was raped for four years by a white man. She was impregnated by him and bore his son.  She lost this son, who passed as white to join the US Army, when he was killed in his first battle of the ACW. Determined and talented with her needle, she worked as a seamstress (custom dressmaking was required before mass production of clothes). She was able to buy her and her son’s freedom.  She built her professional reputation to the point where extremely influential women, such as Varina Davis wife of Jefferson, recommended her to others. That was how Mary Lincoln came to hire her and dominate virtually all her time.

Theirs was a complicated relationship that Fleischner describes clearly and plausibly. Mary Lincoln grew up assuming people would do things for her and make things right when the going got rough. Keckly took on that role, out of true liking, pity, and gratitude because Mary’s husband was the Moses of her people. When Lincoln was assassinated, Mary sent for Mrs. Keckly, though that terrible night Mrs. Keckly was unable to get past the jumpy guards.

Mrs. Keckly was a remarkable woman. She learned to read, write and figure. She owned her own dressmaking business and employed seamstresses.  She founded the Contraband Relief Association in August 1862. Mrs. Keckly said that the CRA was formed “for the purpose, not only of relieving he wants of those destitute people, but also to sympathize with, and advise them.”  After the ACW, she maintained her relationship with Mary Lincoln and tried to help her with her money problems.  Mrs. Keckly wrote Behind the Scenes to defend Mary Lincoln, but due to criticism rooted in racism, sexism, and classism, the book was controversial and disappeared soon after it was published. The book is well worth reading before this one.

Fleischner, mercifully, writes for the general lay reader and avoids the grating jargon of Theory. Her writing style is pleasant to read. I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Warren G. Harding

The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times - Francis Russell
ISBN 0070543380

Almost 700 pages on one of the worst Presidents in history. Pull my other leg, says the wary reader, ever mindful of time and effort.  

In fact, readers who enjoy popular biographies would enjoy this clearly written book. It is strongest on Harding and of his closest personal relationships and clear about how a genial non-entity with the gift of gab survived and prospered in the snake pit of state and national politics.

Russell has a sure touch with the most suitable anecdote and his digressions are many and varied. For instance, he runs off on fascinating tangents such as the ceremonies related to burial of the Unknown Soldier, Harding's suspected Negro ancestry, his inauguration, and his funeral.

He handles at length deeper subjects such as the labyrinth of Ohio politics, the Dark Convention of 1920, and the Teapot Dome Scandal, in which he cuts Fall and Sinclair more slack than one would expect. Even Harry Daugherty comes off better than his unsavory reputation would lead us to believe.

I’m not an expert but even I know that Washington Arms Conference was more important than Russell evaluates it, so I daresay genuine historians have other and more serious problems with this pop bio. But readers who like popular histories would enjoy it, while more jaded readers will wearily observe that empty suits and unqualified buffoons as Presidents are nothing new.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Simenon & Camilleri

Maigret Afraid – Georges Simenon (1953)
ISBN 015655142X

August Heat – Andrea Camilleri (2006)
ISBN 0143114050

Although written 50 years apart, Simenon and Camilleri deal with themes concerning weather, aging, and flawed heroism of their series characters Maigret and Montalbano.

In Maigret Afraid, our favorite Inspector Jules Maigret finds himself in Fontenay-le-Comte, in Vendée (west-central France). The climate there is usually mild, but given the importance of the weather for Simenon in creating mood,  the miserable rain adds to the fear of the people of the town where a serial killer is pounding harmless people to death with a pipe. In August Heat, our second favorite Inspector Salvo Montalbano has to summer in Vigàta, Sicily, when his subordinate Mimi is allowed to extend his summer vacation.  In August, Sicily is sweltering, with a palpable heat that soaks clothes in minutes, exhausts the spirit and mind, and shortens the already infamously short Sicilian temper. Salvo is driven to lock his office door and in his underwear figure out the case of a body found in a truck in an illegally constructed apartment.

Both books address the themes of the effect of aging on confidence. On his way back from a conference of police officials, Maigret thinks about his bored lack of interest at hearing about the latest forensic techniques. Confronted with the uneasiness of this less than professional reaction, he worries, “Was he perhaps suddenly feeling old?”  Similarly, in the tenth novel of the series, fifty-something  Montalbano’s concern about heart attacks and his brooding about his own mortality will connect with a middle-aged audience. Plus, with long-time GF Livia not speaking to him (for lousy reasons, this time), he frets about a weakening will unable to resist temptation to do the wrong thing with the stunning twin sister of the murder victim, who is young enough to be his daughter.  The undermining of Montalbano’s confidence due to his worries about growing old leads to unfortunate outcomes in this one.

The protagonists of the two novels are both honest and moral. Both Maigret and Montalbano  have reached middle-age, old enough to know their own frailties and thus be patient with people whose weaknesses have gotten them into deep trouble. Maigret feels sympathy toward crooks who have been unable to withstand internal and external pressures that drive them to crime. Montalbano feels melancholy compassion toward a wide range of people who have been damaged by criminals, from the grieving survivors of murder victims to immigrant workers exploited to death, literally, in Berlusconi’s corrupt Italy. Both inspectors must deal with the difficulties ethical officials face when confronted with the machinations of politicians and crooks in cahoots. Both Simenon and Camilleri take as a given that men in power will do terrible things with impunity because they assume other people exist to be used, though Simenon is resigned to it and Camilleri is scathing about it.

Fans of mysteries set in Europe – especially middle-aged ones – will enjoy these stories. Younger readers might find it tedious to ruminate on aging, but, well, it’s better to deal with getting old than obsess about the alternative.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Bodies in a Bookshop

Bodies in a Bookshop - R. T. Campbell
ISBN 0486247201

This narrator of the 1949 mystery gets into a reader’s good graces by observing, “The trouble with bookshops is that they are as bad as pubs. You start with one and then you drift to another, and before you know where you are you are on a gigantic book-binge.”

But in a "curious little shop in a side-street off the Tottenham Court Road," botanist Max Boyle finds not only recondite tomes but also two bodies in a back office filled with gas fumes. He also notices that their heads have been bashed in and that the room is bolted from the outside. Not for the first time, internal evidence says, Boyle calls the long-suffering Yard Chief Inspector Reginald F. Bishop a.k.a. The Bishop. However, Boyle’s flat mate and research mentor Professor John Stubbs horns into the investigation, which reveals a dismal world of blackmail, pornography, and theft of rare books. The suspects are sharply differentiated, the plot speeds up, and in a change of tone and pace, the reveal is outstanding.

The Bishop is skeptical of Stubbs’ use of the scientific method. He claims that forming and testing hypotheses, finding them implausible, and starting the process over and over again until the solution that fits the facts is found simply amounts to guessing and throwing explanations out until time, more evidence, and the law of averages ensure that one explanation is probably the right one. Stubbs, a loud beer-quaffing Scot, takes exception to this wording of the scientific method. But in traditional academic style, truth is found through different approaches and more or less good-natured bickering.

Author R. T. Campbell (real name Ruthven Todd) was a Scottish-born literary man who wrote a handful of mysteries. His witty writing style makes up for his jocose repetitions when describing the foibles of Stubbs and The Bishop. Also enjoyable are the superbly drawn characters and vigorous dialogue. Every setting is appropriately claustrophobic.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Mount TBR #57

Happy Veteran’s Day

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 Volunteer's Adventures: A Union Captain's Record of the Civil War - John William De Forest

John William De Forest earned fame as a novelist after the civil war and nowadays he is considered the first American realist. I have not read his most famous work Miss Ravenel's Conversion, but may because this memoir of his war experience was quite interesting and smoothly written. It consists of letters to his wife and magazine articles that we wrote both during and after the war.

Clearly De Forest was a highly educated man. He even knew French so he was able to communicate with Cajuns while he was posted to dangerous campaigning and tedious garrison duty in Louisiana. The siege of Port Hudson, for instance, is narrated very clearly.

After that, he fought under Sheridan in the valleys of Virginia and all his experience was grist to his literary mill. Some of the chapters are letters, some magazine pieces, and others recasts of official corps history that he was ordered to write as is federal plundering for food. I was surprised that between paychecks, union officers often nearly starved on meagre rations.

The editor provided instructive introductions to the chapters. I would recommend this account to serious students of the civil war.

Friday, November 4, 2016

W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes

W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes - Robert Lewis Taylor

ISBN 0312034504 

This 1949 biography of great comedian remains a wonderful and informative read. Taylor takes Whitey Dukinfield from an abused runaway to national fame as W.C. Fields, showman of the stage, screen, and radio. Fields’ early adversity made him into a wary, suspicious skinflint as if being a comic genius isn’t trial enough to any human being (see Bert Lahr, Lenny Bruce, John Belushi, Jackie Gleason, etc.). This was written before the “tell all” biographies of the 1970s but Taylor does not flinch from stories that make his subject look disagreeable. Any reader who is interested in comedy, vaudeville, and classic Hollywood should do herself a favor and read this very funny -- and sad – book.