Friday, December 30, 2016

Mount TBR #67

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 Second Confession – Rex Stout

A millionaire father doesn’t trust his daughter’s boyfriend, a lawyer with iffy clients. He calls in PI Nero Wolfe and his sidekick Archie Goodwin to prove that the BF is a member of the CPUSA (Communist Party of the USA), a very bad thing to be in 1949. Nero Wolfe doesn’t like the smell of the case. He half-sympathizes with the daughter, who naturally resents her father’s interference, but suspects that the BF has a shadowy connection with Arnold Zeck, who is to Wolfe as Prof. Moriarty was to Sherlock Holmes.

Stout was a progressive, always interested in new ideas and gadgets, but he trusted the tried and true as well. Consequently, action occurs at the millionaire’s sprawling country estate where posh is the byword. After lots of curious goings-on, the BF’s corpse is found near the estate’s driveway.

Much to his consternation, Wolfe finds himself hired by his nemesis Arnold Zeck to find the BF’s killer. Zeck regrets the killing of a most promising protégé. Wolfe uncharacteristically motivates himself to overcome his agoraphobia and go outside to solve the mystery.

The plotting is brilliant. The length of 200 pages is about perfect. The reveal is neatly done, though I had qualms. At the end, Wolfe has a crackpot radio yakker yanked from the air, which hardly seems in keeping with Stout’s usually generous and fair-minded impulses. I guess the specter of Communism was truly frightening then, when nobody suspected that it would morph the way it did in our time.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Mount TBR #66

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 Silent Speaker – Rex Stout

In this 1946 Nero Wolfe mystery, the head of the federal Bureau of Price Regulation has been beaten to death with a monkey wrench in the green room just before he is to give a speech to his adversaries, the National Industrial Association. Since the manufacturers disliked having their prices regulated, due to wartime contingencies, there are scores of suspects in the murder.

…the public, the people, had immediately brought the case to trial as usual, without even waiting for an arrest, and instead of the customary prolonged disagreement and dissension regarding various suspects, they reached an immediate verdict. Almost unanimously they convicted – this was the peculiar fact – not an individual, but an organization. The verdict was that the National Industrial Association had murdered Cheney Boone.

With public opinion inflamed against the captains of industry, the PR-conscious association hires PI Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, his sidekick, to find the killer. In an unusual twist, Wolfe does at the beginning of the case what he usually does at the end: he gathers all the suspects to his office in his famous brownstone which he rarely leaves. Wolfe’s mildly anti-business, pro-individualism stance makes him objective. Archie suspects business, but Wolfe also considers the victim’s co-workers as potential culprits. The first third of the book feels a little long. The gears were grinding, perhaps because this was the first full-length Wolfe mystery written in six years, as Stout had been doing war work.

There is a second killing, not to mention the vanishing of the bureaucrat’s last Dictaphone roll. In the last third or so, too much time is given to the search for the disappeared roll. However, for Stout and his fans like us, the puzzle is not really the thing, but characters and setting are. The interplay between Wolfe and Archie, as narrated by Archie, is as delightful as ever. They trust each other, but they are very different people.

What Wolfe tells me, and what he doesn’t tell me, never depends, as far as I can make out, on the relevant circumstances. It depends on what he had to eat at the last meal, what he is going to have to eat at the next meal, the kind of shirt and tie I am wearing, how well my shoes are shined, and so forth. He does not like purple.

The writing and plotting may make for what at times feels like a slow read, but this is still a satisfying addition to the series and would be enjoyed by any confirmed fan. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Mount TBR #65

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.

Dancers in Mourning – Margery Allingham

Full disclosure, so you can stop reading soon if I’m too unpleasant. Here is my rating of the mistresses of whodunnits in order of worst to first: Dame Agatha, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Moyes, and for my bestie, Margery Allingham. Reasons why: Dame Agatha doesn’t do anything for me as to characterization or setting, both of which I need even a modicum; Lord Peter is a nitwit and Harriet unbearable; Marsh is wickedly funny, with believable atmospheres; Moyes is cozy in a good way, with realistic settings; and Marsh is the best writer in terms of characterization, incident, and theme. 

Hello? Anybody left? Wasn’t “insufferable Professor Vane” in the Xmas spirit?

Dancers in Mourning, from 1937, is the 8th mystery to feature her series hero, Albert Campion. Born in 1900, he served in only the last six months of the Great War. The experience may have aged him beyond his years, because though only in his thirties, he slips out of his bland inoffensive manner to reveal the inborn authority and poise of the natural aristocrat that impresses even the police.  Allingham is ever aware of the double-edged use of snobbery, so she sometimes coyly hints at his title while Campion doesn’t much think about it at all.

Like the later novel The Fashion in Shrouds, Dancers in Mourning takes us into a seemingly romantic, stylish world, that of the boards of musical comedy. Star of the fantastic toe, Jimmy Sutane, has made a massive hit out of the unintentionally silly memoir by Campion’s old buddy, “Uncle” William Faraday whom we met in Police at the Funeral (1931).

Uncle William calls Campion for a consultation because somebody is playing nasty practical jokes on Jimmy Sutane. The sheer number of the jibes and their creepy malice have rattled the dancers, who, like many loosely-educated creative types, are as superstitious as medieval peasants. Back at Sutane’s country house, Sutane’s wife Linda is also agitated because strangers have been gamboling in their garden in the middle of the night.

Allingham, for a little snob appeal, takes us out to the country house, of course. But, she assures us who don’t have the snob gene, it’s hardly an idyllic place. It’s a treadmill where the master rehearses new acts, cajoles money guys, oversees auditions, and soothes temperaments. Jimmy Sutane feels pressure to succeed because so many people depend on his coming up with another hit show. Consequently, his life is nothing but work and a parade of ambitious stressed people. Allingham makes a serious point about the hazards of allowing work and the demands of other people to consume all of one’s life.

Dancer and singer Chloe, slightly past her prime, squeezes an invitation out of Linda. But Chloe’s sudden death makes a chaotic household more or less unbearable. Was it suicide or a natural death? During the investigation, Campion finds himself falling in love with Linda. Campion exasperates himself by doing so, making him a very likable guy. Allingham handles this romance plausibly, and it fits right into the story.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas!

Update May 24, 2017: Wrap Up Post with Links to Review 

I will read these books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

1.  A 19th Century Classic - Pride and Prejudice- Jane Austen (1813)
Finally, at my age, I get around to it. Better late…

2.  A 20th Century Classic – The Crying of Lot 49 – by Thomas Pynchon (1965).
An oxymoron: a short Pynchon novel. Length probably explains why it’s assigned in college English classrooms.

3.  A classic by a woman author – Domestic Manners of the Americans – Frances Trollope (1832)
I’m always up for European visitors like Charles Dickens persecuting pre-Civil War Americans, who deserved all the scolding they got from visitors because they, in the main, tolerated race-based chattel slavery. At the time of first publication of Trollope’s book, my fellow Americans, insulted and aggrieved, went into such a snit that they took great pleasure in word plays with her last name, a synonym for a vulgar or disreputable woman especially one who has sex for money or – heaven forfend! – fun.

4.  A classic in translation – The Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu (tr. Seidensticker) (about 1021)
I read most of this in early 1980, but never finished it, an omission that has haunted me like an incubus ever since.

5.  A classic published before 1800 - The Adventures of Roderick Random - Tobias Smollett (1748)
I read someplace a theme of this early novel is life in the British Navy of the time. Since I used to read the Aubrey-Maturin books, this should be good. Orwell says positive things about Smollett also.

6.  An romance classic – Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë (1847)
I must confess I’ve never read it, another omission like never having read Sense & Sensibility.

7.  A Gothic or horror classic - One Thousand and One Ghosts - Alexandre Dumas (1848)

8.  A classic with a number in the title – The Case of the Seven of Calvary – Anthony Boucher (1937)
The cover of this 1961 paperback says “a great mystery classic back in print.”  Boucher (as in “voucher” I think) is the author of The Case of the Solid Key, which really is a classic. The Anthony Awards are given at each annual Bouchercon World Mystery Convention.

9.  A classic which includes the name of an animal in the title -  Bugles and a Tiger: My Life in the Gurkhas - John Masters (1956, as old as me)
A military memoir, thus a guy’s book. Hey, there’s got be one among the hundreds of books read for this challenge.

10. A classic set in a place you'd like to visit – Small Town D.A. – Robert Traver. (1958)
But yet another guy’s book, to balance P & P and Jane Eyre and Lady Murasaki. So there. Traver, the author of Anatomy of a Murder, was a prosecutor in the mining, farming, lumbering district of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. This memoir, kind of true crime I suppose, features short accounts of cases he handled over ten years in what some people call God’s Country.

11. An award-winning classic - John Newberry Medal Winner – Audubon – Constance Rourke (1937)
During the Great Depression, many American intellectuals like Rourke were concerned that because of economic desperation and ugly examples of fascism abroad. America would take the extreme roads of authoritarianism or totalitarianism. So they wrote books and articles for the purpose of reminding Americans who we are and what values are supposed to mean something to us.

12. A Russian Classic – The Complete Short Novels – Anton Chekhov (tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky)
I think the best course for is to read one every other month. Savor, don’t gobble. Think it over. Write the review as I go along. Post the review in October.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Mount TBR #64

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.

Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China during the years 1844-5-6 - Évariste Régis Huc, C.M. a.k.a. Abbé Huc

Father Évariste Régis Huc was a French missionary Catholic priest. After 18 months of language immersion courses in Macau, he served the Church in the south of China, but moved north to Peking. From there he determined to minister to scattered Christian communities in Mongolia and beyond that he wanted to visit Lhasa, Tibet, where only one European had visited  before.

Father Huc is quite a storyteller. Like most travel writers, he’s probably rearranged incidents for effect, but I don’t mind such liberties. He’s very down home, writing about things we can relate to. Their dog Arsalan (Lion) was a Chinese dog, explained their local guide,  and so got sick and tired of the nomadic Tatar life. Arsalan ran off in favor of town lights and glitz. Sad Fr. Huc thinks it through:

At first, the loss of Arsalan grieved us somewhat.  We were accustomed to see him running to and fro in the prairie, rolling in the long grass, chasing the grey squirrels, and scaring the eagles from their seat on the plain.  His incessant evolutions served to break the monotony of the country through which we were passing, and to abridge, in some degree, the tedious length of the way.  His office of porter gave him especial title to our regret.  Yet, after the first impulses of sorrow, reflection told us that the loss was not altogether so serious as it had at first appeared.  Each day’s experience of the nomadic life had served more and more to dispel our original apprehension of robbers.  Moreover, Arsalan, under any circumstances, would have been a very ineffective guard; for his incessant galloping about during the day sent him at night into a sleep which nothing could disturb.  This was so much the case, that every morning, make what noise we might in taking down our tent, loading the camels, and so on, there would Arsalan remain, stretched on the grass, sleeping a leaden sleep; and when the caravan was about to start, we had always to arouse him with a sound kick or two.  Upon one occasion, a strange dog made his way into our tent, without the smallest opposition on the part of Arsalan, and had full time to devour our mess of oatmeal and a candle, the wick of which he left contumeliously on the outside of the tent.  A consideration of economy completed our restoration to tranquility of mind: each day we had had to provide Arsalan with a ration of meal, at least quite equal in quantity to that which each of us consumed; and we were not rich enough to have constantly seated at our table a guest with such excellent appetite, and whose services were wholly inadequate to compensate for the expense he occasioned.

Fr. Huc was a priest, after all, so totally expectable are his dismissive and patronizing views of reincarnation. It was his job to confront the Lamas with the dogmatical and moral truths  of the One True Church:

We commenced [discussion] with Christianity.  The Regent, always amiable and polished in his conversation with us, said that, as we were his guests, our belief ought to have the honour of priority.  We successively reviewed the dogmatical and moral truths.  To our great astonishment, the Regent did not seem surprised at anything we said.  “Your religion,” he incessantly repeated, “is conformable with ours; the truths are the same: we only differ in the explanations.  Of what you have seen and heard in Tartary and Thibet, there is, doubtless, much to blame; but you must not forget that the numerous errors and superstitions you may have observed, were introduced by ignorant Lamas, and that they are rejected by well-informed Buddhists.”  He only admitted, between him and us, two points of difference—the origin of the world, and the transmigration of souls.  The belief of the Regent, though it here and there seemed to approximate to the Catholic doctrine, nevertheless resulted in a vast pantheism; but he affirmed that we also arrived at the same result, and he did his best to convince us of this.

I have to admire the sheer courage of anybody attempting such discussions  through the medium of an imperfectly mastered second language.

Full disclosure: The two volumes total about 600 pages, a major commitment even for gluttonous readers like us. All I can say is that readers that like old travel books will like this narrative. It’s in an unclassifiable class by itself like West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon or Synge’s The Aran Islands

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Mount TBR #63

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.

Brando for Breakfast - Anna Kashfi and E.P. Stein

Anna Kashfi (1934 - 2015), was an Indian-born American movie actress who was stormily married to Marlon Brando for 11 months before they separated in 1958. She and Brando then fought a 14-year custody battle for their son Christian. During one of the many hearings Brando said he married her only because she was with child, and that he intended from the get-go to divorce her within a year.

Kashfi understandably has grievances, being married to a genius actor who was an unconventional selfish human being. And so early on in this hatchet job fur flies:

Marlon’s sexual tutti-frutti comprise several shadier flavors…I had heard tales of his consorting with ducks, attending exhibitionist orgies, joining the Club Necrophilia (wherein bodies of deceased celebrities are rented out) and consulting a ‘proctolist’ (a ‘rectum-reader’ whose soothsaying derives from anal creases).

Duck f*cking and celeb corpses aside, sometimes it is constructive to get confirmation that people will believe anything, like telling the future from wrinkles of the rectum. But the compassion we readers feel for Bud and Anna is only the automatic sympathy any decent person would feel upon hearing the story of two adults that apparently couldn’t help themselves figuring, why not bring a child into our madhouse of a household? The compassion we feel does not come from the writing. The tone is too mean, the mood too livid, the incidents too sordid, the conceit too pathetic for us readers to feel much for the unhappy couple.

Which is not to say it is totally humorless. Somehow the subject’s really odd vocabulary choices got by the ghost writer. I can’t imagine any professional writer letting word choices like this escape deletion:  "He balanced a steatopygous form on squat, sturdy legs." Steato – whuh? And it is not just trouble with hard words. I’ve heard of lies both “barefaced” and “baldfaced” but I’ve never heard of a “barefoot lie.”

A more intentional upside is that she tells interesting production stories about Streetcar, One Eyed Jacks, and Mutiny on the Bounty. Chunks of the last third of this book, however, are marred by tales of lawyers, courtrooms, hearings, writs, injunctions, allegations of lying, about all of which is as interesting as hearing about somebody’s gall bladder procedure.

The upshot is, even if only half of what she says is true, working with a creative person who is chaotic in daily habits and childishly selfish in expectations from other people must be hard but living with such a creature of nature must be impossible. In a weird incident, he came home under the impression that she was had drowned in the pool. When he saw she was in fact still alive, he got a disappointed look on his face. ‘Tis a rare marriage that could survive that.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
1946 / B & W / 116 minutes
Tagline: Fate drew them together... and only murder could part them!

On  December 13, TCM screened, yet again, an interesting example of big budget film noir. It blends the right amounts of guess work, women’s movie romance and nice clothes, and hard-boiled notions about the wicked ways of life in seemingly ideal communities.

Much of the suspense hangs on characters who act on mistaken assumptions and oblivious characters who don’t know they lack crucial information. I won’t discuss plot and incident because an account would dilute the suspense that every movie watcher has the right to savor on her own.  Because the movie takes a little too long for characters to tumble to facts, I will reveal to a world dying to know that my butt started to go numb at about the 95-minute mark of this two-hour movie.

Barbara Stanwyck plays the femme fatale as she did in Double Indemnity. She is hard and ruthless, but vulnerable and liable to a pitiful but frightening instability. She’s acted on impulse that caused others pain, cost two unfortunates their lives, and blighted her own life in the process. Violence and the prospect of cruelty excite her.

The other female lead, Lizabeth Scott, brings to mind Lauren Bacall, with her husky sultry voice and unique but not pretty face. But in only her second screen appearance, Scott gives the character a convincing broken manner. Like a hunted animal, she’s always looking over her shoulder, wincing in expectation from the next blow from a drunken parent, a violent sib, or a sadistic prison guard with a billy club. Born to be victimized, she isn’t close to clever and knows it. She needs somebody to take care of her.

The male leads are cast against type. To me, Van Heflin always seemed genial, harmless and Pillsbury Doughboy-soft. Here he plays a supposedly tough veteran of Anzio and a canny product of circus life and rambling gambler. In his screen debut, Kirk Douglas plays a drunken milktoast who is also a conniving, ethics-free DA who coerces small time crooks into bad funny business and sends innocent men to the gallows. This is noir, remember, so human failings cause trouble and suffering. Douglas pulls off playing a dynamic weakling, persuading us that his character has complexity – gutless, devious, dangerous, untrustworthy, volatile, but a husband totally in love with his wife.

Film noir tends to be cynical about appearances. Near the beginning of a movie is a wonderfully awful example of creepy decoration. A rich woman’s mansion has furnishings that look Late 19th Century Western Frontier Genteel though the scene is set the late 1920s. Naturally, the fancy decorations hide the inner rot of the semi-monsters that have to inhabit the house. Later in the movie the mansion is inhabited by Babs the Adultress who rubs her extramarital affairs with personal trainers in her alcoholic husband’s face. Hubby the DA takes his anger out on the petty crooks at work. He fixes problems for his friends and hires plug-uglies to usher drifters out of town.

The mid-sized factory town looks safe and prosperous enough. But it is run by a cabal of the spoiled rich and their corrupt lickspittles. The ordinary citizens are cranky toadies who accept their subordination as part of the natural order. In short, the town is the sweltering hell that Republicans think of when they think of the Good Old Days.  The arrival of the stranger Van Heflin uncovers the rot inside civic life.  The good citizens sure don’t like him being so rebellious.

Because of the big budget and requirements of The Code, the ending is not nearly as fatalistic and dark as film noir endings usually are. Despite the happy ending, enjoy.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Mount TBR #62

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 Antagonists – William Haggard

At only 127 pages, this cold war spy thriller is short but packs in a lot of action and intrigue. Haggard excels at getting the reader on the edge of her seat, expecting any twist or turn. He builds tension as skillfully as Ruth Rendall or M.R. James.

But what’s realistic is that the hotshot scientist at the center of events is a real caution. He is a communist epicurean. He has an eye for the ladies. His fork is ever-ready for the West’s best viands. His palate will condescend to sample wines. He’s a brilliant eccentric that brings to mind Richard Feynman.

Also, Haggard features his series hero Col. Charles Russell, star of The Unquiet Sleep, The Arena, and The High Wire. As Perry Mason is our ideal lawyer and John Putnam Thatcher our ideal banker, Russell is our ideal spy master. Though he detests communists as a gang of tyrants and murderers, he doesn’t allow his personal feelings to cloud his reason.

One downside is that Haggard is a conservative of the old school. So the stereotypes about women and minorities may strike the reader as tedious and second-rate. The implicit woe over empire lost calls to mind an early Sixties feeling. On the other hand, that old-timey radicalism is good because his theme is that authority must keep the spears sharpened against malevolence and wrong-doing. Another theme is that decent people had better not let anger overcome their reason. As a teacher, how can I not applaud these themes?

The book ends with our series hero urging his political appointee boss, “We mustn’t cheat,” to which the boss replies, “We mustn’t be caught cheating.” Knowing the levels down to which government is willing to stoop, we readers are reminded we have to watch the bad guys but we had better watch the watchers too.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Mount TBR #61

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.

Stamping Ground – Loren D. Estleman

This is the second of the Page Murdock series, published way back in 1980. Estleman , a professional writer down to his fingertips, has written for the western, crime, and mystery markets his whole career. This story offers the action adventure we like in westerns combined with noir elements of his own Amos Walker PI stories.

In the late 1870s, Union veteran of the Civil War and ex-cowboy, Murdock finds himself as a lawman since long days and nights on the trail were taking their toll on his middle-aged body. His supervisor sends him to Dakota to bring in a rebel Cheyenne for hanging. Murdock goes on the mission with another middle-aged lawman and a meti guide. All the characters are sketched out briskly and clearly. The action never lets up. Estleman brilliantly describes landscape. He is vivid with sensory details involving hearing, texture, and smell. Like Cormac McCarthy, he has no illusions  about ethnic cleansing, but unlike with CM, we readers don’t need a week to recover from Estleman’s depictions of violence. The Cheyenne and tribe members are depicted as defiant, brutal, war-loving fighters, an image that I, being a brute, much prefer to the caring and sharing natural aristocrats living in harmony with nature stuff of which stereotypes are made.

I used to read a lot of westerns by notable writers in the genre, but gradually grew tired of them because the characters started to feel all the same: stoic, tight-lipped, amazingly quick-thinking, and never apologizing because it shows weakness - that hyper-masculine bullshit that never realizes if you don't say "I'm sorry" over screw-ups friends and relatives won't trust you. Also I grew weary of that constant theme, both latent and manifest, of the “inevitability” of the “vanishing” of the Red Man.

But in the last year or so I have made the exception for Loren D. Estleman. I’ve found his historical novel westerns to be well-written and clear eyed about the social and political context the time. Readers looking to stretch a little and get out of the comfort zone, I think, may want to consider these historical westerns by Estleman:  The Branch and the Scaffold and Port Hazard

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Those People Were Always Ugly

William F. Buckley wrote on Sept. 8, 1964 about the Beatles: “They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as the crowned heads of anti-music.”

I seem to recall WFB calling Lennon a "vulgar Liverpudlian" on TV when Lennon was killed on this day in 1980. I couldn't confirm the quotation though. But from the National Review in 2005 this:

Dear Mr. Buckley: Request for a judgment call: It's about the use in the press of the verb "assassinate." 

It's been my understanding all my life that private citizens are "murdered." To be "assassinated" you have to be either a head of state or at least a political figure, and by the way doesn't your murder also have to be politically motivated, or at least appear to be? Gandhi, JFK, and Lord Mountbatten were assassinated. Bob Crane, Bonny Lee Bakley, and the Notorious BIG were murdered. Right or, wrong? 

I bring this up because, for 25 years now, I've been hearing from the news media that John Lennon was "assassinated." With the 25th anniversary of Lennon's murder approaching, I expect to hear it again. In my view, to claim "assassinated" status for John Lennon is to imply that he was an important political figure, which I'm sure is the intent of certain balding, pony-tailed journalists, nostalgic for the '60s, as they hum Give Peace a Chance, puff pot, and swill Metamucil. 

I say Lennon was murdered, not assassinated. What say you? 

Sincerely, K---

Dear Mr. K---: I agree. But perhaps the assassin--murderer-was putting on airs? 

Cordially, WFB

Isn't this just like those people? The letter writer sounds literate and reasonable, if a bit preening with vocabulary and tone, then takes off the mask and wallows in nasty stereotypes about the old hippies swilling Metamucil. And then there's Bill being puckishly mean, implying the killer was pretending to be more powerful than he was by killing somebody who mistakenly thought he was more influential than he was. Taking the occasion to sneer and jeer instead of simply noting a story of one troubled soul senselessly killing another troubled soul. 

But then those people express ugly, cruel opinions not because they hold those opinions. They are saying mean things for an effect, to disconcert and bewilder people like us, people they don't like. We had better not give them the satisfaction of getting a rise out of us. "You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength," said Marcus Aurelius.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Mount TBR #60

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 Lost One: The Life of Peter Lorre – Stephan D. Youngkin

This book is a long, deeply-researched, credible, and even-handed biography of the classic Hollywood star. For me, the major revelations were two. Lorre was addicted to painkillers virtually his entire adult life whereas I had thought his addiction was the result of the stress of overwork and exhaustion in Hollywood. The addiction to tobacco and drugs took such a toll on his health that he died when he was only 59, leaving his survivors in hard financial straits.

Nor did I know of his kindness and humor both on the set and in personal life. Those of us with Hungarian, Jewish, or Hungarian-Jewish  grandparents will recognize Lorre’s mordant sense of humor and capacity for love and good feelings. He often helped young actors to hone their craft. He was very open-handed with money, much to his own financial detriment.

Youngkin builds a strong case for Lorre’s vast talents as an actor; thus, we can add Loree to the lengthy list of European actors Hollywood hired out of the yen for a little class in the stable, but had little idea of what kind of parts they should play.

The author’s plodding style at least keeps his subject front and center. The few judgments he puts up seem fair-minded. I admire that he interviewed just anybody living who knew or worked with Lorre – such as Frankie Avalon and Roger Corman. The book slows down when he describes projects that never got produced. This is balanced by some excellent production stories, especially of Beat the Devil, with quirky John Huston, star of Lillian Ross’ classic long journalism Picture.

Given length of this bio, I can recommend it to only hardcore buffs of classic movies. It appears to be one of the very few biographies of Lorre out there. I can’t imagine those books to be more heavily researched than this one.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Top of the Heap

Top of the Heap – Erle Stanley Gardner, writing as A.A. Fair

Published in 1952, this is the thirteenth of 29 novels starring the PI partnership of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam that were written by Erle Stanley Gardner under the pen name of A.A. Fair. After reading about half-dozen of this series (a misnomer since they needn’t be read in any order), I think that Fair’s Cool and Lam novels are smarter, sexier, wittier and just more entertaining than Gardner’s Perry Mason novels.

Top of the Heap is worth reading because it is both characteristic and uncharacteristic of Gardner’s approach to mystery writing. As usual, the murder is a relatively small part of an intricate scheme, plot, or scam. As the running joke, Bertha Cool plays the comic miser like Uncle Scrooge and Mr. Krabs. Her hard-charging ways comically contrast with ex-lawyer Donald Lam’s subtle questioning of persons of interest and cunningly holding off the cops that want to put him in the hoosegow. Another constant is that because gentlemanly Lam is such a considerate listener, all the female characters fall like dominoes for him in spite of his short stature and poverty due to Bertha paying him so little.

Unusual, however, are the social science observations, especially involving female characters. Gardner puts on his sociologist’s hat to have a young working woman describe Sex in the City / Sex and the Single Girl in LA circa the early 1950s:

You’re not independent. You’re a cog in the economic and social machine. You can get just so high and no higher. If you want to play you can get acquainted with a lot of playboys. If you want anything you’re stymied.

Through an ex-strip tease artist, we get the anthropological view from a participant-observer. The self-possessed stripper describes her sense of her power over the audience and her teasing of it as the core spectacle of old-time burlesque shows:

I had the most supreme contempt for the individuals in the audience, but the group of the contemptible individuals became an entity, an audience. I loved to hear the roars of applause….

A publisher called Hard Case Crime got this novel back into print in 2004, its first publication in 30 years. It was an excellent choice.