Sunday, December 31, 2017

Back to the Classics 2018

I will read these books for the Backto the Classics 2018 reading challenge.

1. A 19th century classic: Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen (1811)

2. A 20th century classic: All the King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren (1946)

3. A classic by a woman author: American Humor – Constance Rourke

4. A classic in translation:  The Case of Comrade Tulayev – Victor Serge (1942) tr. W.R. Trask

5. A children's classic: Peter Pan – James Barrie (1911)

6. A classic crime story: Rear Window and Other Stories – Cornell Woolrich (c. 1940s)

7. A classic travel narrative: Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo - William
Makepeace Thackeray (1845)

8. A classic with a single-word title: Wanderer - Sterling Hayden (1959)

9. A classic with a color in the title: Red Threads – Rex Stout (1929)

10. A classic by an author that's new to you: Shakespeare - Mark Van Doren (1939)

11. A classic that scares you: Middlemarch – George Eliot (1872)

12. Re-read a favorite classic: The Genius and the Goddess - Aldous Huxley (1955)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

2018 European Reading Challenge

I will read these books for the 2018 European Reading Challenge.

1/ The Irish Sketchbook of 1842 - Wm. Makepeace Thackeray (Ireland)

2/ Call It Treason: A Novel - George Howe (Germany)

4/ The Spies of Warsaw – Alan Furst (Poland)

5/ Eminent Georgians - John Halperin (UK)

Monday, December 25, 2017

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, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. – William Makepeace Thackeray

It’s strange that I finish the reading year as I began: with a picaresque novel. Barry Lyndon was first published in 1844. It was a dusty forgotten novelette until Stanley Kubrick made a gorgeous movie out of it in the middle 1970s.

Set in the late 18th century, our young anti-hero, Redmond, must flee his native Ireland after a scandal in which his affection for a cousin nearly derails her brothers’ efforts to marry her off to a detestable but rich Englishman. After misadventures, he enlists as a British squaddie fighting on the Continent. He deserts but is impressed in a mercenary army of the Prussians. Worse, he is forced to become a household sneak and spy, where at least he meets his long-lost uncle who has been unable to return to Ireland because of political troubles. The uncle helps him escape the clammy Prussian grip. The two sharpers make a precarious living at play (gambling) in the shabby minor courts of Europe. Redmond goes to England in order to relentlessly pursue a wealthy widow, Countess Lyndon. He marries her, but his utter irresponsibility with money denies him happiness and respectability.

Compared to exuberant Dickens and genial Trollope, Thackeray’s humor is bitterly satirical but at least unprejudiced. Thackeray aims smacks at everybody. He punctures apologists of English doings in Ireland and the hypocrisy of English society at every level, especially concerning ambitions for gentility. He ridicules Irish poverty and pretentions to royal lineages that reach back into the misty reaches of time. Thackeray even mocks the stock character of the loyal-unto-death Irish Mama. The dragon Bell Brady spoils Redmond rotten and forgives him for his worst misbehaviors and eggs on his low conceits and brutal mistreatment of his wife. Thackeray also derides military valor, prowesss, and honor as words words words.

Besides the untrustworthy unlikable narrator, jumps in time and anti-authoritarian stance, this novel feels modernist for its use of real historical characters and scandals of bygone days:

… it was through Mr. Reynolds that I was introduced to a score of [men of letters], and their great chief, Mr. Johnson. I always thought their great chief a great bear. He drank tea twice or thrice at my house, misbehaving himself most grossly; treating my opinions with no more respect than those of a schoolboy, and telling me to mind my horses and tailors, and not trouble myself about letters. His Scotch bear-leader, Mr. Boswell, was a butt of the first quality. I never saw such a figure as the fellow cut in what he called a Corsican habit, at one of Mrs. Cornely’s balls, at Carlisle House, Soho. But that the stories connected with that same establishment are not the most profitable tales in the world, I could tell tales of scores of queer doings there. All the high and low demireps of the town gathered there, from his Grace of Ancaster down to my countryman, poor Mr. Oliver Goldsmith the poet, and from the Duchess of Kingston down to the Bird of Paradise, or Kitty Fisher. Here I have met very queer characters, who came to queer ends too: poor Hackman, that afterwards was hanged for killing Miss Ray, and (on the sly) his Reverence Doctor Simony, whom my friend Sam Foote, of the ‘Little Theatre,’ bade to live even after forgery and the rope cut short the unlucky parson’s career.

Basically, our narrator is selfish, egotistical, careless, lying, xenophobic, racist and misogynist. He sees the world as a vicious brutal arena where only the nasty and cruel win. Barry believes that everyone owes him respect though he is too lazy to do anything to earn respect.  All the bad things that happen to him occur because people defame him or want revenge for his nonexistent misdeeds. Everything that goes wrong is the fault of others.

Funny that Barry Lyndon reminds me so much of – oh, never mind. It’s Christmas, after all.

Friday, December 22, 2017

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, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Sound of Murder – Rex Stout

This book was first published in 1941 as Alphabet Hicks, named after the PI hero that Stout invented for the sake of a break from writing his popular Nero Wolfe mysteries. Internal evidence indicates that, like Donald Lam, Hicks is an ex-lawyer. Being disbarred because he chose to take a courageous ethical stand has given him a jaundiced view of the criminal justice establishment and the taxpayers who let said authorities get away with unjust shenanigans.

Hicks becomes a PI and cab driver to put bread on the table of the apartment he rents over a small and undiscovered Italian restaurant. One night a society matron recognizes him and asks for his help with her husband who has accused her of forking over his company secrets to a rival plastics manufacturer. Hicks needs a new suit so he takes her $200 ($3,300 in 2017) and embarks on fast-paced case with a couple murders, a country estate, two lovebirds, and high tech dictating machines that make vinyl records.

The characterization has the variety of types that we find in the better whodunnits of yesteryear. Most eccentric of all is Hicks who has become famous for his business cards. People ask him for one just to get a souvenir. His cards include only his name and a string of letters. People invariable ask him what M.S.O.T.P.B.O.M. means. So he has to reply, Melancholy Spectator of the Psychic Bellyache of Mankind. Quite a knee-slapper for certain kind of sesquipedalian reader that finds herself reading obscure mysteries by well-known writers.

A caution to those looking for a Nero Wolfe-like romp: The Sound of Murder has a brisk pace and lightness of tone that are winning but it is only as pleasant to read as a so-so Nero-Archie novel. In the mediocre Nero-Archies, Wolfe is not much of character. Ditto with Alphabet Hicks:  beyond a few quirks and mannerisms, there is not much there. And despite the risible business cards, The Sound of Murder features little witty banter of the kind we get between Wolfe and Archie.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Tour de Force

Tour de Force – Christianna Brand

Like Cyril Hare, who wrote 10 mysteries before he died young, Christianna Brand wrote only eight whodunnits in the 1940s and early 1950s before raising a family became a bigger priority. Prior to this one, I’d read only Green for Danger regarded as a classic novel and movie.

As in Green for DangerTour De Force (1955) features a small group, any member of which had more or less the same motive and opportunity to do in the vic. Brand’s cat and mouse game involves giving the reader fair clues all the way down the line, so it’s excellent for readers who enjoy puzzlers.

Her series character is Detective Inspector Cockrill, nicknamed Cockie, which is as well since we never find out his first name. Bird-like but tough, ironic, mercifully quirk-free but middle-aged enough to be tender-hearted, his base is Kent, but in Tour De Force, he is  vacationing solo to San Juan el Pirata (John the Pirate). He is tired of his fellow tourists on the package tour even before he disembarks, and about a third into the novel is he tired of abroad as well.

Indeed, the tourists run the gamut. Cecil Prout is a fashion designer who doesn’t seem to mind who knows he’s gay. Miss Trapp is a lonely woman who is getting the glad eye from Fernando, a Spanish-British tour guide from Gibraltar. Leo Rodd used to be a concert pianist before he lost an arm and his wife Helen helps him so much that she gets on his nerves. A young woman with red hair and lots of flash, Louvaine Barker is in fact a noted novelist. Vanda Lane is a reclusive young woman who is man-hunting. All the characters are well-developed and convincing.

A member of the group turns out to be a blackmailer and ends up with a knife in the chest. Strangely, the suspects were on the beach in plain view of Inspector Cockrill. The local police, smugglers one and all, need a patsy to appease touristic opinion so anybody will do, evidence be damned. Cockie, then, must act fact to protect his fellow nationals from the horror of injustice at the hands of feudal  and sinister foreigners. Underling the farcical aspects of the incidents in the story, Cockie must don the “hapless overseas” mask in a funny scene hinging on the language barrier.

I must confess that at more than 250 pages any mystery starts to weary me and this was no exception. But that’s just me. The reveal is truly a rocker. Justifying the gutsy choice of a title for this novel. I’m sure that readers who like puzzlers a la Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr would get a kick out of this story.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

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, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – William Irvine

So many people today seem to believe that meaningful and satisfying lives can be achieved only if they have bought the latest version or feel that they are not missing out on something. But they quickly get past the rush of purchase or being in the know and soon begin seeking the next best thing. So feeling satisfied much less serene or fulfilled is but a dream as they spend all their time working and buying the latest fashionable stuff.

To jump off the treadmill of getting, buying, having, wanting, we could read this book by a college professor in philosophy. It begins with simple arguments that advocate the need for a philosophy of life, or at least an orientation to work, love, friendship, civic duty, etc. Irvine argues that we can develop such a way of thinking with Stoicism, one of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophical schools.

The Stoics emphasized the development of the four virtues: bravery, prudence, wisdom and fairness. One goal of the Stoics was to live frugally since the more shit we have the more we have to take care of, thus distracting us form what is really important, like living with integrity. Another goal is to use our reason to maintain tranquility. The more involved we are in other people’s business - like working overtime so the company can simply make more money, like volunteering too much and spreading ourselves too thin - the more tumultuous our lives will be. They believed that using our reason was the key to freedom from fear, lust, anger, and greed. In our days of non-stop rage and upset fed by social media and bots from the devil knows where, this stoic advice about anger really strikes home.

Readers into Albert Ellis or cognitive behavioral therapy will be attracted by the encouragement to determine what is “up to us” – i.e. what we can control (our approaches and responses to inevitable trials and tribulations). Furthermore, we had better stop being anxious about with what we can’t control (our health, wealth, reputation, promotions, the Dotard, etc.), since obsessing and fretting become bad mental habits not to mention stealing joy. Irvine uses examples from his own experience which makes his ideas easy to connect with for readers with health challenges, aging parents, and demanding colleagues.

The lucid prose is easy and a pleasure to read. It presents various useful devices for the toolbox. Developing compassion and gratitude are in my toolbox for the coming new year.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Mount TBR #57

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Fun in a Chinese Laundry – Josef von Sternberg

This autobiography, named after an early Edison movie, is by the director of the 1930 German tragicomedy, The Blue Angel. Also hits but much less known today were six other movies, also starring Marlene Dietrich, such as Morocco and Dishonored and The Devil Is A Woman. Audiences liked these films too in spite of – or maybe because of – a beauty, irony, unease, exoticism and eroticism missing from most Classic Hollywood product,  hackneyed dreck brought about by the code of self-censorship, irony-free Tinsel Town executives, and the pressure to churn movies out like sausage.

This acerbic autobiography is well worth reading for fans into Hollywood during the Twenties and Thirties. He’s reticent about his early years, as many abused children from hard backgrounds and unstable families tend to be. In fact, the more Hollywood books one reads, the more one doubts the Good Old Days ever existed: the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries were not easy for people who had to scramble for money.

He must have been an autodidact since he never had time to attend school, but developed his artistic sense with a popular touch by attending amusement parks, magic show, flea circuses, cock fights, etc. His descriptions of travel prove him to be a curious and intrepid traveler eager to see all the low entertainments in various Asian cultures that he experienced on the eve of WWII.

He also reports, tellingly, that when his copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations wore out, he carried around Epictetus’ Handbook for in the moment reading.  His stoic acceptance must have influenced his worldly realism to take the world as it comes and control only what was up to him. This responsible attitude was to serve him well on the chaos of a movie set. Also stoic is his sense that life is a test of self-respect and faith – in his case, the faith that good work is possible even in the crass dream factory of Hollywood. His sense of duty to do his utmost despite the odds calls mind Marcus Aurelius’ admirable albeit boy-scoutish injunctions.

Even if Von Sternberg’s work ethic dates him, his honesty is searing – he tells it the way he sees it. He worked with Emil Jannings on The Last Command (1928). Sternberg found Jannings hard to manage” “To direct a child was one thing, but when the youngster weighs close to three hundred pounds it is not easy to laugh at all his pranks.” Sternberg claims this movie made William Powell a star despite the unsympathetic role he played, but humble-brags that Powell later inserted in his contracts the stipulation that he would never be assigned to a Sternberg set again.

Von Sternberg also writes that on the set of The Devil Is A Woman Joel McCrea “managed to survive meeting me, fled in terror after his first scene with me, and I had to replace him with another 6-footer.” He does not mention that he almost killed McCrea by requiring 35 takes of him ordering a glass of water. McCrea refused to continue, even after Dietrich enlightened him that there was nothing personal about being subjected to Von’s perfectionism. “He speaks to me in German and calls me an old cow,” Dietrich said. “Ignore him.”

Clearly, like Alfred Hitchcock, von Sternberg treated thespians like cattle, also referring to Marlene Dietrich, "No puppet in the history of the world has been submitted to as much manipulation as a leading lady of mine...." Despite his cold manipulative ways and biting sarcasm, he became known as a woman’s director. And like Woody Allen, he doesn't seem to care if his movies will be remembered or not, pleased by the chance to work.

Anyway, lots of good stories - especially about the emotional breakdown of Charles Laughton during the filming of I, Claudius - in sometimes forbidding prose from the last director, a la Cecil B. DeMille’s dressing up, who wore high boots, riding britches, a shooting jacket, and, at times, a silk turban.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Three Sisters Flew Home

Three Sisters Flew Home - Mary Fitt, 1936

I’ve read only two mysteries by Mary Fitt, the other being Death andPleasant Voices. Even with little evidence, I have to conclude that though she was writing at the same time as Christie and Sayers, her stories don’t have the familiar elements of the Golden Age mystery. It takes a long time to get a corpse. No clues. No red herrings. No detective so no detecting. Nothing cozy that I can see, except that the action occurs in country houses filled with the rich, good-looking, and glamorous.

In fact, this story ends with the death of the character that we readers knew all along would be the vic. A cruel female artist invites her admirers, hangers-on, and enemies to a New Year’s Eve party. The guests include the enigmatic three sisters of the title. Each of the guests has a motive to knock her off. They play The Murder Game in the dark. In short, it is inevitable that the cruel artist will get her fatal come-uppance.

Inevitability is what Mary Fitt explores, as well as the psychology of women and the interplay of characters who are educated beyond their intelligence.  Kathleen Freeman (1879-1959) was educated at the University College of South Wales (Cardiff). She lectured there in the Greek classics from 1919 to 1946. English crime fiction writer H.R.F. Keating said, “As might be expected from a lecturer in Classical Greek, the novels of Mary Fitt are patently the product of a cultivated mind. A character in them is likely to comment on a situation with the words ‘as in Turgeniev’, and the reader is expected to pick up the allusion.”

Clearly, the novels of Mary Fitt are not for every reader. She’d be appreciated by readers who like academic mysteries by writers such as Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake, or Josephine Tey.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, 2017

The War Complex: WWII in Our Time – Marianna Torgovnick

For about twenty years, historians have examining how members of Anglo- American cultures collectively remember war and its consequences. Examples are Sarah Purcell’s Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory inRevolutionary America and David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The CivilWar in American Memory. English professors have also taken on collective memory, such as Paul Fussell’s incredible  The Great War and Modern Memory.

English professor at Duke Marianna Torgovnick studies WWII as a cultural touchstone, especially in light of the Bush administration invoking it as a rallying exhortation in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In a series of essays she covers topics such as D-Day, Adolf Eichmann, the Shoah, WWII films such as Saving Private Ryan, and the fiction of W. S. Sebald. Mercifully, she keeps the jargon of Theory out, so the general reader can follow her line of thinking. For instance:
The war complex . . . is the difficulty of confronting the fact of mass, sometimes simultaneous, death caused by human volition under state or other political auspices, in shorter and shorter periods of time, and affecting not only the military but also, and even more, civilians . . . The war complex shows up as gaps or ellipses in public discourses around histories of quick, technological mass death.
As an example of mass death she cites the “Taipei Rebellion,” which I think an editor should have caught and corrected to the “Taiping Rebellion,” a little-known civil war that killed about 20 million men, women, and children between 1850 and 1864 in China. I’ve often wondered how (and why) English professors have cottoned to the philosophy of Sigmund Freud so it was interesting to see her examination of Freud’s idea about the altered state of consciousness produced by large-scale war and its lasting effects beyond the end of hostilities.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Big Clock

The Big Clock – Kenneth Fearing

This inverted mystery was made into two movies, The Big Clock in 1946 and No Way Out in 1987. It was a best-seller when it was released in 1946 and has morphed into a cult classic since the late Forties, so the New York Review of Books published it in 2006 as one of its well-regarded re-issues.

I don’t want to risk spoiling this unique noir mystery with a plot description. Suffice to say, this “whodunit in reverse” provides plenty of surprising plot twists. What really sets this novel apart is the intelligent satire of corporate conformity. In the late Forties and early Fifties many social critics, malcontents, and beatniks were expressing their distaste for the Organization Man. Fearing gets in his whacks, as a characters describes the ideal writer for Futureways, a take-off on a Time-Life type of weekly magazine:

First place, you’ve got to believe you’re shaping something. Destiny, for example. And then you’d better not do anything to attract attention to yourself. It’s fatal to come up with a new idea, for instance, and it’s fatal not to have any at all, see what I mean? And above all, it’s dangerous to turn in a piece of finished copy. Everything has to be serious, and pending. Understand?

Another interesting theme is existentialism, another intellectual fad after WWII. The narrator of most of the chapters is George Stroud. Like a character in a Simenon novel set in New England in the Fifties (see here), he leads a routine tepid existence, not stunted but not contented either. Rejecting the illusion that life gives a “big prize,” he thinks, “The big clock ran everywhere, overlooked no one, omitted no one, forgot nothing, remembered nothing, knew nothing. Was nothing. “ Wanting to beat the big clock, he takes the usual Simenon way out by having an affair. When his adventuress-mistress is murdered, George finds himself facing that darn old hostile universe.

This is an excellent novel that I’d recommend to any reader into vintage mysteries.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Case of the One-Eyed Witness

The Case of the One-Eyed Witness – Erle Stanley Gardner

What distinguishes The Case of the One-Eyed Witness from the other 81 Perry Mason novels churned out by, in the author's own words, the Gardner Fiction Factory? This question must be answered, not for us Perry fans who will read any of them -- or heaven help us re-read them -- but for novices careful with their time and attention.

The Millennial generation, social observers assert, feels nostalgic for the Nineties. This is consistent with the tendency for us post-moderns to be nostalgic about the era just before and just after we were born. So for me, born in the Fifties, that would be what Gore Vidal called America’s Golden Age, 1939 to 1954, from WWII to the Cold War.

The Case of the One-Eyed Witness opens with so much antique Americana that we readers wonder if this is some post-modern author overdoing the period detail: movie theaters full on week-nights, drugstore soda fountains, nickels for a pay-phone, and an LA night club with a live orchestra, a floor show, a hat-check girl, a photograph girl, and a cigarette girl. People sport retro names like Medford, Myrtle, Clark, Arthman, and Carlton. They use vintage Americanisms “in a blue funk,” “thimblerig,” “look all over hell’s half acre,” and “You’ve got a lot of crust to….” As in Mad Men everybody smokes; in fact, Mason smokes Raleighs.

It’s not all cheesy nostalgia. In The Case of the One-Eyed Witness Perry and Paul’s investigation uncovers a racket engaged in human trafficking, a problem that has hardly gone away. They also expose a con that depends on the mark’s racism and fear of discrimination, two sides of prejudice still among us. The criminal justice issues Gardner raises plague us yet, particularly over-reaching on the part of the cops and prosecutors. Other issues that still burn include improper police procedures, mis-identifications by witnesses and incorrect understanding of circumstantial evidence. Recall, it is a system that is staffed by human beings, entities that have not reached perfection since I last checked.

Gardner was more interested in the puzzle than characterization and atmosphere. But in this one, he takes a stab at describing weather and a dispiriting room. Better – thank heaven – is that he tells a joke or two.  In Chapter 6 Perry and his PI Paul Drake are in a Turkish bath steam room, hiding from their nemesis Lt. Tragg, when the fully clothed policeman joins them. Tragg, sweaty and surly, insists that they come out to be questioned but they complain that they’ll catch their death if they go out into the cold.

Just as an aside, during her confirmation hearing to become a Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor said that the TV series starring Raymond Burr as Perry Mason awakened her to the vital role of the law in our society. Many lawyers of a certain age will cite Perry Mason and Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) as their inspirations to become attorneys.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Whispering Land

For most readers their gateway book to an unbreakable Gerald Durrell (NYT obit) habit is My Family and Other Animals, his memoir of growing up in Corfu between the wars with his eccentric family and native wildlife.

He also wrote accounts of animal collecting in South America, A Zoo in My Luggage and its sequel The Whispering Land. Durrell's prose is fluent and humorous. He relates his rough journey through austere Patagonia (Argentina) but we also get a sense of his respect at the diversity of wildlife: observing colonies of penguins and elephant seals, hanging out with guanaco in the wild, saving an abused ocelot, using himself as bait for vampire bats (before recalling the risk of rabies), and saving a baby peccary named Juanita.

It's not totally about animals though because unforgettable is the stout Rosa Lillipampila, his seatmate on a small plane heading for Jujuy.

I highly recommend this marvelous book.

Friday, November 24, 2017

American Indian Heritage Day, 2017

The War that Made America - Fred Anderson

The French and Indian War (1754 - 1763) is the American name for the war that the British call The Seven Years’ War. Winston Churchill called it the first world-wide war because hostilities broke out from Canada to the Caribbean, from India to the Philippines. American historians have tended to see the conflict as a mere prelude to the American Revolution and emphasized it was the war in which George Washington gained his knowledge, skills, and abilities in things military.

However, through Anderson’s chronicle, we see that in many ways the French and Indian War was the most important war of the eighteenth century.

Anderson opens this readable history by underlining the importance of Indians and French in the conflict. The two empires – the Protestant British and the Catholic French – had difficulties over Indians on the frontier. He provides much information about how British commanders failed to understand how to win colonial (and Indian) loyalty and, indeed, how they drew entirely the wrong lessons from their extended acquaintance with colonials. Anderson is especially provocative on the effect of wartime experience on alienating American colonists, especially New Englanders, from their colonial masters. About 13 years after the British victory, the British Americans would demand and, in the end win, independence. 

He writes vividly and fluidly, making this book of interest not only to grad students need who quick information as background but also to general readers, which is the target audience.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Mount TBR #56

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code – Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons

Before the sound era ushered them out, silent movies became more daring in themes and risqué in content. A couple of Hollywood scandals and high-profile OD deaths fired up the bluenoses and government at the federal, state and municipal levels started making ominous growls about censorship. To police themselves, Hollywood moguls hired General Will Hays to enforce his Motion Picture Production Code, a set of guidelines as to what content was acceptable and unacceptable in movies. The Code ruled from 1930 to about 1968, when it was replaced by the ratings system we are familiar with today.

This book is a fairly readable account of the rise and fall of the Code, with a special emphasis on the Breen era. The authors are sympathetic to Joseph Breen. He was caught between the movie makers, who naturally wanted to push the boundaries of content and theme, and the censorship boards, who naturally wanted to protect citizens from salacious content and choke off material that might provoke independent thought and subsequent social change. I think Breen sympathy is appropriate and I came away from the book with a more tolerant view of the rough row Breen and his successors had to hoe. 

The prose is wordy in places, so much so that even a hard-core reader wonders if the point is coming any time soon. This is off-putting to the general reader and probably maddening to film / media studies students. With the student market in mind, what is probably more frustrating to youth is that the authors make the expert’s error because they seem to assume the reader knows more than she really does. Fatty who scandal?!.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Mount TBR #55

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights - Tay Garnett

Garnett (1894-1977) was a director during the golden age of Hollywood and he worked in television as movie theaters pretty much went the way of the videostore, bookstore, and department store have gone in our own day. He is especially famous for his adaptation in 1944 of The Postman Always Rings Twice with Lana Turner and John Garfield. He made his film debut in 1920 as screenwriter and gagman at Mack Sennett and Hal Roach (the producer Laurel and Hardy, among others). His seemingly versatile filmography includes, among other things, an astonishing denunciation of corruption (Okay America!, 1932), a legendary melodrama (One Way Passage, 1932), an exotic adventure film starring Marlène Dietrich (Seven Sinners, 1940), and a harsh war movie (Bataan, 1943). Having always wanted to keep a maximum of control over his films, Garnett would often clash with producers.

Unlike the reflective autobiography by King Vidor, this book is a boisterous string of anecdotes. Many of them hinge on wacky behavior brought on by large quantities of alcohol. To quote Lana Turner, during the filming of Postman, the author was a "roaring, mean, furniture-smashing drunk." A few stories are somber. Garnett was in in Berlin, for instance, when Hitler was named chancellor in early 1933. He asked a German aristocrat why so many people seemed glum. The reply was Americans would feel the same way if populist Huey Long had been elected President.

As a collection of lively stories, this had better be read in small chunks to avoid tedium and prudish sighing that intelligent creative adults with copious amounts money can’t do any better than yachts, travel, gambling, guzzling and gorging. He studiously avoids discussing at length any topic that would smack of auteurism.  He never tells the reader what year it is. But any fan of classic Hollywood will surely enjoy these memoirs of a man who obviously enjoyed his job and all the travel and discretionary time for partying that one could wish for.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Widow’s Web

Widow’s Web – Ursula Curtsis

Ursula Curtiss, like her sister Mary McMullen, wrote stand-alone mysteries and suspense stories. They often featured a dash of romance and the setting of a New England town. In Widow’s Web, the main character is a male reporter who suspects that his partner in journalistic exploits was done in by a wicked woman.

Curtiss grabs us in the first 30 pages, with a gothic atmosphere of suspicion, disbelief, and tension. She’s especially good with the noisy crashes and bangs of everyday life that scare the ever-lovin’ bejesus out of the reader. Like Victor Canning in The Rainbird Pattern, Curtiss contrasts decent people who want to earn what they get with psychopathic predators that unobtrusively exploit, steal, and kill.

She won the Red Badge Mystery Award in 1948 for Voice Out of Darkness. The Forbidden Garden was filmed as What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? by Palomar Pictures in 1969. Other books by Curtiss are creepily titled The Stairway, Out of the Dark, The Deadly Climate and The Noonday Devil.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Mount TBR #54

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Silent Stars – Jeanine Basinger

Even people who consider themselves buffs of Hollywood from Edison to the death of the studio system – that would be readers like yours truly – carry around lots of conventional wisdom that they never question. Rudolf “The Sheik” Valentino – kind of dumb, exploiter of the fantasies of silly females. Mary Pickford and her sick-making Goody Twoshoes image. Marion Davies, the real-life model for bitter lush Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. Lon Chaney as one trick pony with the monster makeup and all. Pola Negri as the Mad Hungarian, Clara Bow as the giddy party girl. Gloria Swanson the real life model for her own Norma Desmond in the immortal Sunset Boulevard. William S. Hart, the first in a line of tedious stone-faces a la Robert Stack. John Gilbert of the squeaky silly voice that sound movies made ridiculous.

Film scholar Jeanine Basinger explodes all these cliché misrepresentations. This is a highly readable book that blends biography, film criticism, and personal observations. She also provides deeply sympathetic portraits of Mabel Normand and the Keystone Kops; the archetypal he-man Douglas Fairbanks, and the unexpectedly interesting Rin-Tin-Tin (I had no idea that canine heroes were so popular in the silent era).

In about 500 pages, which never feel too long, Basinger provides plenty of non-academic-sounding arguments to support her basic arguments. She’s forthright about being unable to really comprehend how audience felt about such and such a star or movie because the past really is another country. Because this book is for the general reader, not her colleagues at other universities, it is written clearly, with humor and light-heartedness. I highly recommend this book to fans of classic Hollywood, the same readers who liked her other fine book A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Veteran's Day, 2017

Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America  - Sarah J. Purcell

John Adams, writing in 1815, said that he thought the Revolution began “in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.” So Adams concludes that the war, “was no part of the Revolution.” In contrast to this example of Adamsian hyperbole, by examining the military memory of the war for independence in the early republic, Sarah J. Purcell shows how selective memory of the war contributed to the emergence of our national identity.

The book opens with evidence showing that from the very start of the war, opinion leaders such as journalists, public speakers, politicians, and pastors extolled the patriotism of fallen heroes such as Joseph Warren and Robert Montgomery. Recall that because of many battlefield defeats, the emphasis on heroes bolstered people’s morale and fired up patriotism. Sacrifice made the cause legitimate and glorious.

After the war, the leaders emphasized that patriotism ought to be rooted in gratitude toward those who made the ultimate sacrifice. The concept of gratitude is a guiding theme of this book. It is made clear that public memory discouraged alternative, skeptical views of the war for independence and generally made one’s attitude toward the war an acid test for one’s patriotism.

This book is also about how Americans remembered the war for independence with celebrations, commemorations and other ceremonies. Purcell details how different groups in society – women, African Americans, the poor, war veterans – gradually demanded to be included in commemorations, to the discomfort of elites who wanted to shove back into the bottle the democratic genies  that had been released by the war. For instance, during the war, the franchise in Pennsylvania had been extended beyond property-owning males. After the war, the property owners tried to pass legislation restricting it again. Protesters used commemorations of the war to publicize their point of view.

Citing sermons, almanacs, paintings, plays, memoirs, and biographies, Purcell employs many interesting examples of the uses of public memory for partisan purposes. She discusses  Shay’s Rebellion and efforts to establish the independent state of Franklin as example of efforts to use the history of the war as justifications for their claims.

Purcell also looks at the resounding silences. Postwar writers avoided the topics of guerilla war in the New York, New Jersey, and South Carolina. She points out that loyalists maintained such a low profile after the war (probably afraid of harassment and intimidation from neighbors) that they wrote no books or pamphlets and thus created no alternative public memory of their own.  As Charles Royster has pointed out, “[O]vert loyalism vanished after the Revolution, surviving in politics only as an accusation and an insult.”

A historian at Yale, Joanne Freeman, asserts in her course that isn't only the ideas and events leading up to the Revolution or the war for independence or the Constitutional debates that mattered, but in fact how we remember them also matters, to us and to our posterity. The reason is that the way that we remember history constructs its meanings and its impacts. History – what happened and how we understand what happened - can thus have a profound effect on our country that we live in now.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Mount TBR #53

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

A Tree is a Tree: An Autobiography – King Vidor

To my regret, I’ve never seen this director’s most notable works: "Show People," "Hallelujah," and "The Big Parade," "The Champ," "Our Daily Bread," "The Citadel," "Duel in the Sun," ". I’ve never see his version of Ayn Rand’s "The Fountainhead," mainly because I can’t stand Gary Cooper. Nor I have seen Bette Davis say her immortal line “What a dump” in "Beyond the Forest."

However, when I lived in Saudi Arabia, a TV station used to play “Stella Dallas” over and over. I’ve seen the birthday party scene a half-dozen times. I remain impressed. And everybody has seen multiple times the Kansas scenes that open “the Wizard of Oz” in which Judy Garland sings her signature song. Vidor took over for Victor Fleming for “Oz" when Fleming was tapped to do "Gone With the Wind." "Every time I see 'Over the Rainbow,' I get a thrill,” said Vidor, “because I directed that.” Vidor, from Texas, had great feeling for the natural world.

Anyway, this 1952 autobiography is worth reading for fans of classic Hollywood. Vidor witnessed the very beginning of the silent era. A true artist, he was always looking for something new and original to do and say. An early adaptor, he always took up new technology and techniques before they were forced upon him. 

He’s a man of his generation and therefore reticent about the personal side. This does not mean that he doesn’t tell moving stories. The story about Mabel Normand’s funeral – where he saw the clowns of the silent era all beside themselves crying – is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read.

Friday, November 3, 2017

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, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Hide My Eyes a.k.a Tether’s End – Margery Allingham

Allingham started the series starring eccentric PI Albert Campion in the early 1930s and kept developing as a writer of genre fiction until her early death of breast cancer at 62 in 1966. By the time she wrote The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) and this one in 1958, she was exploring suspense and character studies a la Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell (Barbara Vine).

Hide My Eyes is an inverted mystery. Allingham examines the personality of the culprit: methodical, logical, cautious, manipulative, emotionless but charming and ever so ruthless to anybody who stands in his way. Campion’s cop buddy Sergeant Luke has a hunch as to the location of the killer’s stomping grounds. Campion plays barely more than a cameo role in this novel. Luke is less exuberant and Campion less silly, both of which are mercies.

Allingham’s ability to set a scene is on display. Masterful are the descriptions of the eccentric museum in west London and the scrapyard in the East End. She’s excellent with the natural world (London rain) and artifacts (leather gloves and a lizard-skin letter case). We can also learn antique similes like “as close as a rock” for “taciturn.”

All in all, well worth reading for mystery fans who like hard-boiled novels, suspense novels, or urban crime novels but without any violence or bad words.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween, 2017

The Haunted House at Latchford - Charlotte Riddell

Charlotte Riddell (1832 - 1906, rhymes with "riddle") wrote her entire adult life, first to support her widowed mother and then to bail out her husband who struggled with financial reverses. Riddell was one of the first Victorians to write about people who had real jobs, instead of the idle upper middle-class so often found in novels of the time (I'm looking at you, Tony T.). But she also wrote mysteries with supernatural elements, such as Fairy Water, also known as The Haunted House at Latchford.

The narrator of this novel is a barrister who speculates. He alternately charms and annoys us with a confirmed bachelor’s view of the good life, which consists of dining out and eating strawberries. The first chapter is written in a glib tone that borders on the obnoxious. So much so that I knew I couldn’t handle even a novella if this cocksure prattling tone kept on.

The next chapters, however, reassured me with an introduction to the setting, "where beyond the fated house and ruined garden lay the belt of pine trees and the lake of the dismal swamp, which had furnished Crow Hall with no less than two tragedies." The first tragedy is a December-May marriage that becomes an ordeal to both partners. With the insanely jealous husband’s death, we get, per Victorian custom, his vicious will. The second tragedy is a ghost story that is perfectly integrated into the story lines of hopeless love and cruel last will and testament. We fascinated readers wonder why the ghost returns to the scene of her mortal troubles and why she approaches the living to reveal her sorrows.

An Irishwoman, Riddell has the keen senses we like in Irish writers: humor, exuberance, melancholy, uncanniness, and realism about the dark sides of marriage, child-raising, and materialism. Her sketch of a woman’s life wasted in an unhappy marriage begs for a dissertation by a student in gender studies. Convincing is her view on the harsh necessity of money. Delightful is her send-up of the impudent aristocrat Lady Mary Carey. While she deals in the themes of suffering femininity that the audience expected, her tone is not that of the stereotypical Victorian lady novelists, neither complacently know-all nor syrupy fluttery. This is well worth reading. I’d read more of Riddell’s fiction if I could find it. It’s one thing to be a minor writer but she ought not to be forgotten.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

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, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Assassins - Robert J. Donovan

This is a well-written study of the mainly delusional reasons behind the attacks on the lives of eight presidents.

Four were successful: John Wilkes Booth on Abraham Lincoln, Charles J. Guiteau on James A. Garfield, Leon Czolgosz on William McKinley, and Lee Harvey Oswald on John F. Kennedy.

Four were not successful: Richard Lawrence on Andrew Jackson, John Schrank on Theodore Roosevelt, Giuseppe Zangara on Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola on Harry S. Truman

Donovan researched materials on the 19th century incidents and unearthed findings on psychology of the assassins, where available, on the more modern ones. His conclusion is one that we can take cold comfort from: the assassins were usually mentally unbalanced by delusions rather than political beliefs. Granted in the cases of Booth, LHO, and the Puerto Ricans, it’s hard to draw the line clearly between fanaticism and the insanity of narcissism and grandiosity. But the other assassins were plagued with cognitive and psychological problems that rendered them incapable of ordinary work and adult relationships.

Donovan observed that politics in our country has always been roiled by hysterical vitriol. Jackson, Lincoln, Garfield, FDR and Truman all had sustained inflammatory attacks directed their way. Donovan says given our sad history of assassination (not the mention the disgraceful response of the criminal justice system by putting insane people to death),”in an age apparently endless tensions” we should criticize with “a little more maturity, logic, and forbearance.”

Though the Depression stopped Donovan from going to college, he was a well-respected journalist covering the White House for the New York Herald Tribune. He had a reporter’s instinct for the telling detail and odd fact. He also includes curious artifacts such as the ballads that came out of the assassinations like Charles Guiteau.

His best-known book during this lifetime was the 1961 best seller PT-109, which recounted John F. Kennedy’s WWII Navy career. About half the content of this book was first published in the New Yorker in a series of articles in the early 1950s and collected in a book in 1955. The old paperback I read was apparently a version updated in 1964 after Oswald, an oddball loner misfit along the same lines as the killers in this book, murdered JFK.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

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, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Death and Taxes – Thomas B. Dewey

This Detective “Mac” mystery was published in 1967. Mac’s first and last names were never revealed in these PI novels, which went from the early 1950s to about 1970. Mac never aged either, staying in early middle age for the entire run.

Mac is hired to deliver a million dollars in cash to the daughter of his client, a notorious gangster Marco Paul, upon the thug’s death. However, Marco Paul is gunned down in an old-style gangland  hit before he has a chance to tell Mac when he stashed the stacks and stacks of hot cash. Gangsters being awful gossips, plug-uglies sniff the existence of the million and assume that Marco told Mac of the location of the cache.  This make Mac’s life difficult, as he becomes the subject of strong-arm tactics to get him to tell. This is a hard-boiled mystery but the violent scenes aren’t disgusting. So Mac needs to catch the killer and find the cash fast.

There are two attractive female characters in the mix, but Mac, as always, is chaste. Mac, in fact, is rather a worrier, who wears his emotions and concerns on this sleeve. After reading lots of Dashiell Hammett lately, I feel that Mac rather pales beside the rugged but human Op. Mac is based in Chicago, but besides street names there is little local color. Finally, Mac doesn’t wrestle with The Ambiguities like Phil Marlow or LewArcher. Nor does Mac seem to have any kind of life outside of detecting (his lives in an apartment attached to his office).

I still recommend these hard-boiled mysteries, with a tight stories, a minimum of violence, and no foul language, for readers to this old-school genre.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

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, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Herman Melville: A Critical Biography– Newton Arvin

This biography of the author of the famous American novel about a whale won the National Book Award in 1950. In this pleasantly written book, Arvin nearly balances biographical information with critical views of the novels. Melville grew up in a family that was affluent until business reverses suddenly bankrupted his father in 1830. His father went into a slough of despair. After two weeks of bed-ridden agonies, he died. Arvin, without ostentation, wonders about the effect those two weeks would have had on a young boy.

Born under a wandering star, Melville took to sea in his early twenties, sailing first to England, then to Polynesia, where he found himself pursued by cannibals, becoming a mutineer, and getting it on with comely island maids. His first works were wild hits; an experimental novel failed; back to popular stuff twice;  then the novel about the whale. Post-Moby, the novels, experimental in daring and generally sad in tone, were only partly successful as art, misunderstood even by sympathetic contemporary readers, and commercial duds. Melville lived with his family in tight circumstances, working as a customs agent in New York City when federal employees were paid just about nothing.

I like these old-timey biographies, nicely written for general thinking readers unlike today’s jargon ridden biographies. Arvin places Melville in a context I needed to know, i.e., his place among writers such as Dana, Hawthorne, James, Cooper, and Henry Adams. Arvin is pretty daring when it comes to speculating on the unknowable. That is, he draws on the novels Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn and White-Jacket for biographical purposes as well as critical observations. I guess since what went on in Melville’s head in his twenties is impossible to know, one may as well proceed as if information in a novel can give insight in that unknowable terrain.

The survey of "The Whale" is the center-piece of the book. The part about Melville as poet was interesting.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Yorktown Day, 2017

Ceremonies, a parade, fifes and drums performances, and special programs commemorate the 236th anniversary of America’s momentous Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown.

Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different - Gordon S. Wood

Historian Gordon S. Wood (Professor Emeritus of History, Brown University) neither emphasizes race, class and gender nor does he debunk the Founders with anecdotes that dwell on their personal faults and political shortsightedness. This probably appeals to readers who hero-worship the founders, who view history from the top down, and who could care less about the historical role of the less powerful and articulate. The preferences of certain kinds of readers, however, do not mean that Wood isn’t worth reading.

This book collects his fascinating essays that were originally published as chapters in books edited by other prominent historians. The essays examine six founders (Jefferson, Washington, John Adams, Hamilton, Franklin, and Madison) and the reasons why two figures are not regarded as founders (Paine and Burr).

“The past is a foreign country and it speaks another language,” said Joseph J. Ellis on Booknotes, “[A]nd, therefore, if you try and impose its values on the present, it's like a bad translation and you'll end up distorting more than you clarify.” Wood, like a good teacher must, reminds us to avoid applying post-modern meanings to words that the founders were using.

For instance, for the founders, “politeness” was sociability, cultivation, the source of civility, or civilization. An Enlightenment idea was that societies move through stages of development, from rude simplicity to commercial civilization, by the efforts of human beings whose leaders were “gentleman.” We post-moderns use “gentleman” as a sham-genteel synonym for “man” (or as on “Cops” shorthand for “white working class middle-aged half-naked overweight male arrested as drunken wife beater”).

However, for the founders a gentleman was reasonable, tolerant, virtuous, cosmopolitan, free of prejudice and religious zealotry– in other words, what a modern liberal arts education is supposed to deliver. Wood also points out that a leader was supposed to be a gentleman that was “disinterested” as in “impartial” or “fair” instead of our meaning of “indifferent” or “uninterested.”  Wood is obviously a reader – points in my book -- and cites Pride and Prejudice with Elizabeth Bennett’s search for a real gentleman with learning, grace, and character.

Wood also points out that for us “character” means “personality” but for the founders “character” was a persona, what people seemed to be. Instead of keeping it real by disclosing their authentic selves, the founders were self-consciously playing the role of the disinterested gentlemen rendering service to their country. They were first-generation gentlemen, the first in their families to receive a college education, and really become somebody. In the essay on Aaron Burr, Wood says that Burr’s inherited claim to leadership set him apart from other leaders of that generation. Born fully into nobility of 18th century America, Burr behaved very differently in promoting his own selfish interests over the interests of his country.

Finally, the founders were not “democrats” in our sense of the term. They were the elite and they knew it and they expected to lead and be respected because they were impartial and dedicated leaders working for the common good. Ironically, the founders succeeded only too well in establishing democratic and egalitarian ideals. In the early 19th century the voices of ordinary people began to be heard, and it overwhelmed the high-minded revolutionary ideals advocated by the founders. Think Jackson. Think No-Nothings. The elitists succeeded in preventing any duplication of themselves. Politicians started to claim humble origins so they could connect with “guys like us” and get their votes. Who would you rather have a beer with, the Old Racist Crackpot or the Know-All Hermione?

Basically this is an interesting book whether or not the reader believes in The People, i.e., the wisdom of crowds. It makes us understand that the founders created a world in which their elite and politically creative kind was no longer possible.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

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, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

A Most Contagious Game – Catherine Aird

In this 1967 whodunnit, our main character, Charles Hardin, is a London business man who has had to retire in his early fifties because of a dicky heart. While in hospital, he’s given his wife a blank check to buy whatever manor house she can find that she finds suitable.

Once discharged and in the house in the village of Easterbrooke, Charles is discouraged to find the house is not much of a fixer-upper. His attitude changes quickly when he discovers a priest’s hole, a hiding place for a priest built into many of the foremost Catholic houses of England during the period when Catholics were persecuted by the Tudors. The chamber, in fact, contains a skeleton about 150 years old. To parallel this old murder mystery is the contemporary murder of an errant wife, whose husband, having vanished, is the suspect.

As Charles does his research on the old murder, readers will be reminded of Josephine Tey’s classic A Daughter of Time, in which a bedridden copper rehabs the rep of Richard III. This village cozy has a brisk pace and well-drawn characters. The prose is witty and intelligent but not too much so. This is a stand-alone mystery, her only outing that did not feature the team of Sloan and Crosby. Though I have kiddish memories of an uncle who read mysteries having Catherine Aird books, this was the first one of hers that I’ve ever read. I can say that I’d like to read more, though I’m usually snooty about cozies. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Master of the Day of Judgment

The Master of the Day of Judgment – Leo Perutz

This 1930 classic fantastic mystery by Leo Perutz is set in Vienna in the early 20th century. The themes and devices will be familiar to us post-modern readers.

A romantic triangle in the era of the late Hapsburgs as in Sándor Márai’s Embers. Guilt over sexual transgressions as in Arthur Schnitzler’s stories from decadent Vienna.  The secret revealed in a manuscript as in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The phantasmagoric atmosphere as in William Kotzwinkle’s Fata Morgana. The unreliability of an unsympathetic narrator – well, name your favorite modernist writer from the early 20th century.

Our narrator, the often ruthless and brutal Baron Yosch, narrates the events surrounding the suicide of actor Eugene Bischoff, the latest in a mysterious series of suicides. His chronicle is plagued by semi-confessed guilt over adultery. We readers receive tantalizing hints as to who is behind the eponymous "The Master of the Day of Judgment." As the amateur detectives Solgrub and Gorsky reconstruct the dead man's final hours, we realize we have to read this slowly so as not to be more confused than the author intends us to be.

Creepy, with a surprise ending. Readers looking for Kafka-lite won’t go wrong.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Indigenous Peoples' Day 2017

Indigenous Peoples' Day is a holiday that celebrates the indigenous peoples of North America. It is celebrated in various localities in the United States on various dates.

The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics among the New England Indians - Patrick Malone

After fighting the Indians in the 17th century, the English colonists in New England had to alter the way in which they fought wars. Instead of firing their muskets into tightly massed formations of enemy soldiers, they had to adjust by actually aiming at an individual adversary, taking cover behind trees and rocks, and attacking in ambushes. In short, they came to rely on the same skulking tactics of the Indians, which at first the colonists disliked because they thought such tactics cowardly and unsoldierly.

These skulking tactics became their doctrine of woodland warfare. Such were used against British troops during the American Revolutionary War. So, the patriots had learned forest tactics from their colonist ancestors, who had learned from bitter experience fighting the Indians.

The Indians based their use of firearms on their traditional way of fighting in the forest with bows and arrows. For one, their ability to aim was practiced since childhood. They preferred the flintlock to the musket because they thought it more natural to aim at a target. They obtained firearms despite colonial efforts to restrict sales of arms, ammo, and parts. When the English forces took an Indian fort during King Philip's War, they killed "'an Indian blacksmith' who repaired Narragansett firearms" and also "demolished his forge and took away his tools. Obtaining gunpowder, however, was a constant problem.

Malone also asserts that the Indians learned the way of total warfare from Europeans. Because of the harsh religious wars in Europe such as the Thirty Years' War, it was usual for armies to make war against civilians by firing villages and destroying crops. The Indians were at first shocked by the new increased intensity of war and the larger numbers of fatalities, which were unexampled in their previous experience.

This is a coffee-table book, lavishly illustrated in black and white, though some of the graphics are of the time and show Indians acting like white people’s ideas of Indians. I’m not especially interested in weapons technology and infantry tactics, but the book held my interest when it focused on these topics.  The author Malone was a Marine who saw combat in Vietnam. In the introduction he drily says he does not recommend the participant observation method to budding military historians. But the reader would have to grant unique experience should give the author a certain authority to add to his technical knowledge and expertise, and historical research.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Rich Presidents Too

From After Many a Summer by Aldous Huxley, a cool novel about LA in the 1930s.

Dr. Mulge was a college president chronically in quest of endowments; he knew all about the rich. Knew, for example that they were like gorillas, creatures not easily domesticated, deeply suspicious, alternately bored and bad tempered. You had to approach them with caution, to handle them gently and with a boundless cunning. And even then they might suddenly turn savage on you and show their teeth. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Bride Wore Black

The Bride Wore Black – Cornell Woolrich

Innocently, I had picked up The Red House Mystery, a 1922 mystery by A. A. Milne. Yes, Winnie the Pooh, that A. A. Milne - Eyore should have tipped me off. After about four pages, the coziness started to smother me. To get my wind back, I did fifteen pushups, three chin-ups, ran in place five minutes and then chucked The Red House Mystery as far as I could.

Like a shot put.

And then – panting – I turned to the 1940 classic of the suspense mystery genre The Bride Wore Black. Yee-haw! A raving beauty shoves a guy off a high-rise ledge, blasts another guy to death, and suffocates yet another guy inside a closet. Coolest of all, dressed as Diana the Hunting Goddess, she zings an arrow into a guy’s chest.  To summarize the plot would do a disservice to both Woolrich the writer and prospective readers. Suffice to say, Woolrich weaves noir magic in unemotional prose as he builds suspense to heart-stopping points, while still developing character and plot. The ending is a rocker.

Just read this exciting and well-crafted story! Don’t mind that the grotesque coincidences  because it’s not like real life is free of them. Ditto for the relentless prose. After all, it comes out of the venerable pulp tradition. And Woolrich is considered a founder of noir, up there with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The High Window

On this day in 1923 my father was born. He died in 2012. It was my father that turned me on to authors like Ross MacDonald, Hammett and Chandler. This post is dedicated to him.

The High Window – Raymond Chandler

In the third novel featuring LA PI Philip Marlowe, our series hero is hired by a mean old rich lady to recover a rare coin that was allegedly stolen by her daughter-in-law. Later a killing baffles everybody, since the person of interest didn’t even know the victim. A second killing makes no sense either. 

Readers like me will be relieved that the plot is not as convoluted as The Big Sleep or Farewell My Lovely. Rousing action is on the skimpy side. Nor does the private eye do much detecting. Chandler, always experimenting with language and going beyond the conventions of the mystery genre, focuses on setting, character and theme.

Marlowe’s investigations take him to locations ranging from ritzy to sleazy. On the first page, we get a sense of the tasteless consumption of exotic Pasadenans in the boom years during WWII. The client’s mansion is decorated with “a stained glass window about the size of the tennis court.” We are then introduced to the mean old rich lady, with her “pewter-colored hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones.” No fault of Chandler’s that many writers imitated these dazzling expressions, too often not with as much the delicate sense of "so enough already."

The poor and middle-class characters don’t act better than they should either. Of a dubious dealer in old coins: an “elderly party in a dark grey suit with high lapels and too many buttons down the front… Fuzz grew out of his ears, far enough to catch a moth … a Hoover collar which no decent laundry would have allowed on the premises nudged his adam’s apple  and a black string tie poked a small hard knot out of the bottom of the collar, like a mouse getting ready to come out of a mousehole.”

Our hero Phil Marlowe is the only likable character, although we readers are happy when in the scene we find Merle, a young secretary who has lost faith in herself. Her broken appeal is believable and moves the plot. Tough and resourceful, Marlowe can deal with all types of crook, such as the drunken stick-up artist Hench and the smooth villain Vannier. But Marlowe has a profound side too. He relaxes by doing chess problems. When he delivers Merle back to her parents back in Kansas he thinks, “I had a funny feeling … as though I had written a poem and it was very good and I had lost it and would never remember it again.”

Chandler brought serious themes to mysteries. In this one he examines the effect of power and coercion of human relations. For instance, his mean old client runs roughshod over her son and secretary and thus blights their lives for no discernible end. Chandler looks at the corrosive effects of infidelity on marriage. Marlowe’s sensitive relationship with the police is subtly and intelligently handled here than in most mysteries.

Other Reviews of books by Chandler
Trouble is My Business
The Long Goodbye

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Bury Me Deep

Bury Me Deep – Harold Q. Masur

Woo-hoo, this 1947 mystery has a humdinger of an opening scene. Returning from a business trip in Florida, lawyer Scott Jordan enters his New York City apartment. On his couch he finds a bodacious and scantily-clad blonde, listening to his radio and sipping his brandy from his snifter. But Scott smells a rat and bundles the boozy beauty into a taxi. The honey turns up dead, embroiling Scott with iffy lawyers, snarky cops, dense bully boys, a rich girl that wants to be a Broadway star and her sleazy singing coach, a drunken bon vivant and his angry wife, a smooth villain, and a snow bunny. Scott also finds the love of his life. As if the cast of scores was not enough to grab and hold our interest, the episodic action includes poisoning, a fatal car accident, shootings, and assorted fisticuffs.

A contemporary critic summed up this novel with this telegram of a review, “Fast and tough by rote but played so effectively that it slips past the eyes.” This is true. Like a noir movie from the same period, this mystery is simultaneously realistic and implausible. The hard-boiled characters strike the same old poses and their capers are pretty zany. The reader gets the feeling that in this first novel, the writer is jamming in every character and plot twist he can think of, in the most shiny prose possible. It’s appealing as a glittering, fast-moving story. I won’t remember it after a month.

I felt Raymond Chandler’s influence on Masur. For example, Masur describes in dazzling expressions  - “Broadway had pulsed into neon-glaring night life. Swollen throngs milled restlessly with a rapacious appetite for pleasure. Box-office windows spawned long queues, and the traffic din was a steady roar in your ears.”

Released in the same year as the notorious I, The Jury, this best-selling novel is regarded as “a cut above many of the American detective novels churned out at the end of the Second World War.”  Masur later wrote nine mysteries starring lawyer Scott Jordan. Masur once described Jordan: “The series character, Scott Jordan, a New York attorney, was first conceived to fall somewhere between Perry Mason and Archie Goodwin . . . with the dash and insouciance of Rex Stout’s Archie.” Therefore, readers that like the novels of Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner would like Masur’s work.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

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, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Big Knockover and Other Stories – Dashiell Hammett

Hammet was a master of PI fiction in the 1920s. These long stories star The Continental Operative, the nameless detective employed by the Continental Detective Agency. The writing is lucid, the tone hard-boiled and the settings realistic.

The Gutting of Couffignal (1925). The Op is employed by a rich dude to guard the presents at the wedding reception of the rich dude’s daughter.  An audacious attack by a gang of robbers nets millions in booty. His attempt to recruit the locals on the exclusive island fails since "You can't fight machine guns and hand grenades with peaceful villagers and retired capitalists."

Fly Paper (1929). A debutante hangs out with the wrong people and finds that living on the edge with violence-prone knuckle-walkers is to her taste. The Op lands right in the middle of four marriages that are all rotten in unique ways. This story also shows Hammett’s penchant and supreme ability to set a large number of characters to bounce off each other.

The Scorched Face (1925). The Op is assigned to find two missing daughters. He uncovers evidence that connects a many socialite suicides and disappearances. The subtext of unbridled sex and its unfortunate consequences for vulnerable people – especially women - reflect an unease many people felt in the 1920s as Victorian mores were discarded.

This King Business (1928). The Op is sent to a Balkan country to extricate the wayward son of a rich guy. The son has found himself bankrolling a revolution for a crew of wily Slavs. The treatment of freebooting – i.e., funding coups out of sheer ignorance and misguided adventure and idealism – holds powerful interest in this story.

The Gatewood Caper (1923). Another wayward daughter case. It’s good, but feels half-done, as if its writing were rushed, that the writer should’ve revised a couple more times.. The setting of the Pacific Northwest – lumbering land – is persuasive.

Dead Yellow Women (1925). Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the Op and a Master Chinese Tong Boss match wits. In places it feels like a satire of a Yellow Peril story. The description of the maze-like interior of the criminal mastermind’s mansion is a tour de force.

Corkscrew (1925). The Op is a fish out of water when he assigned to clean up remote Corkscrew, Arizona. This ought to remind the astute reader of the masterwork Red Harvest. A gunslinger remarks, “A hombre might guess that you was playing the Circle H. A. R. against Bardell’s crew, encouraging each side to eat up the other, and save you the trouble.” The Op replies, “You could be either right or wrong. Do you think that’d be a dumb play?”

Tulip (1952) is a fragment of an autobiographical novel Hammett attempted near the end of life. Not consistently convincing as fiction, it at least presents Hammett’s ideas about literary form and content.

The Big Knockover (1927). Another audacious crime – the robbery of two banks at the same time. Unlikely that such an operation could be planned as carefully as the story would have it, but it has a lot of action and witty dialogue.

106,000 Blood Money (1927). This presents the sequelae The Big Knockover. Like many aftermath stories, it is less satisfying than the original, because the characters are made of cardboard. With hinges.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

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, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology – Donald Keene (editor)

In 1956, Grove Books published this collection, which gives an excellent overview of Japanese literature from the Meiji era to just after WWII. Donald Keene was the editor and translators include luminaries such Ivan Morris, Edward Seidensticker, Howard Hibbett, and Keene himself.

Kanagaki Robun’s “The Beefeater” exemplifies the wariness of Meiji era intellectuals about Westerners and Western ways. Traditional Japanese people were influenced by Buddhism which prohibited eating beef so Kanagaki Robun mocked the beefeaters in this story as reprehensible and corrupt.

Hattori Busho’s The Western Peep Show gives an incongruous feeling because it treats a gaudy Western product in ponderous Chinesey prose. It must have been a bear to translate, but I think it comes off believably.
Kawatake Mokuami’s The Thieves is the last act of a Kabuki play. Despite the tried and true theme of “virtue praised and vice castigated” this is interesting for its rarity value. How often do we read Kabuki plays?
Keene includes translations of belles lettres such as waka, haiku, modern poetry in Chinese, and critic Tsubouchi Shoyo’s essay The Essence of the Novel.

Included is a wonderful excerpt from Futabatei Shimei’s unfinished novel The Drifting Cloud. Described as Japan’s first modern novel, it follows the adventures of four characters. Bunzo is an immature 23-year-old who is canned from his cushy government job because he doesn’t kowtow to his bosses. His landlady Omasa castigates him for his job woes because she wanted her daughter Osei to marry him. Like a hapless neurotic in a Natsume Soseki novel, Bunzo wants Osei but does not do anything to attract her because he just wants her to fall into this lap. But he hates it when she seems to favor the dynamic Noboru, a hearty colleague of Bunzo.             

Combining slice of life proletarian themed and coming of age story is Higuchi Ichiyo’s Growing Up. A long story set in the late 1890s in Asakusa and the Yoshiwara, the main characters are teens growing up, gradually losing their liberty to the grind of the adult working class world.

Kunikida Doppo’s Old Gen is the saddest story I’ve read in a year that has included Chekhov. 'Old Gen, set in the countryside abutting on the sea, portrays the tragedy of a ferryman doomed to lose his family, both natural and adopted.
The excerpt from Natsume Soseki’s novel Botchan has our unlikely hero, the titular character who’s the narrator, taking his leave from his too-loyal maid and worshipper. He is hilariously clueless about other people, a narcissist for whom other people are just weird shadows. This classic novel ought to be read by anybody into Japan. So beloved was Soseki that he was pictured on the thousand-yen note for years and years.
Shimazaki Toson wrote the 1906 novel The Broken Commandment about a young teacher whose outcast father made him promise to keep his burakumin origins secret.The excerpt, a moving one, covers the teacher’s attendance at his father’s funeral back in the old hometown. Written in the naturalist style, it is both persuasive in tone (sadness) and vivid in setting. This makes the reader want to hunt up the entire novel.

Tayama Katai’s One Soldier is another example valuable for not only for its literary merit but its scarcity. Where else can read war stories, written from a different point of view, about a war faraway in time (the late 19th century), place (Manchuria), and origins (The Russo-Japanese war)? It sums up the experience of the infantry soldier, “It hurts! It hurts! It hurts.”

Nagai Kafu’s The River Sumida is a novella that captures his characteristic elegiac tone. At first the usual sad sack protagonist put me off, thus reminding us the reader should be the right state of mind (e.g., openness, tolerance for ambiguity) for Nagai Kafu and Natsume Soseki. But I was eventually quite taken with the mood and theme. In very few pages considering the writer’s large ambition, Nagai Kafu shows changes in a teenager and in society itself. 
Ishikawa Takuboku, in The Romaji Diary, explores a writer’s introspection concerning his failure to create as an artist and his failure to fulfill the responsibilities of a wife, husband, and son. An interesting personal document, but I wonder if it’s really literature, given all the “poor poor pitiful me” stuff.
The Wild Goose is an excerpt from the novel of the same name by the very serious Mori Ogai. Bored with his sour wife and moneylending business, Suezo takes Otama as a mistress. Otama feels responsible for her aging widower father so her need for money to do so forces her into being a kept woman. This excerpt covers her painful realization that the neighborhood knows the situation and is scandalized.

Izumi Kyoka’s A Tale of Three Who Were Blind is a supernatural story written in a romantic and florid style. Again, for pure novelty, it’s worth reading as an example of a kind of tale popular in the Edo period, with elements of Chinese ghost stories and native Japanese puritanism. Very gothic, well worth reading for people wondering about the roots of Japanese horror stories.
Naka Kansuke’s Sanctuary is an excerpt from his well-regarded memoir of growing up in Meiji era Japan, The Silver Spoon. This author was known for his depictions of childhood.
Shiga Naoya’s 1913 story Han’s Crime calls to mind to mind the theme of ambiguity and the futility of ever knowing what really happened in a complex incident, similar to the theme of Rashomon by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. A psychologically acute story.
Shiga Naoya’s At Kinosaki is another probe into the psychological state of a man who stays in the country to recover from a traffic accident. He comes to the patient realization that death is just a natural part of life, not something to be feared but prepared for.

In Kikuchi Kan’s The Madman on the Roof, from 1916, all kinds of Japanese tensions make an appearance: ambivalent attitudes toward the cognitively disabled and ancient versus modern attitudes toward supernatural explanations. I grant a lot is packed into a short short story, but to me, Kan is overwrought.
Kume Masao’s The Tiger, I gather, is an example of the touching heart-warming story that made him popular in his time. I really liked the Asakusa setting, but the tone is blubbery.

The two stories in this collection by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. Kesa and Morito, and Hell Screen, are fine examples of this great writer’s work. Both are grim and gloomy and macabre as all get-out. His writing is so intense and odd that a reader has to wonder if he really did inherit his mother’s mental disturbances and if writing relieved or released his personal devils.

Kobayashi Takiji’s The Cannery Boat is a grim story of proletarians exploited out of greed and sadism. As literature, it doesn’t work, but as document of how modernization and capitalist socio-economics has worked common people over not only Japan but just about everywhere, it works. In 1933, for his union activities, Kobayashi was yanked out of rally to unionize fishery workers, taken to Tsukiji Police Station, and tortured to death by the secret police.

Yokomitsu Riichi: Time. Powerfully written quest story filled with misery and suffused with Buddhist sense of life as suffering. Awful things happen to a group of stranded players as they escape paying a lodging bill, such that when you figure nothing could be worse, it gets worse.      

Hino Ashihei’s Earth and Soldiers an encouragement of the gratitude the reader should feel at the sacrifices of soldiers implementing Japan’s plan to convert China into a vast slave labor camp. As I’ve said above, where else are we going to read something so unusual? It also confirms us in our dark suspicion that some writers feel they have to put literature to dubious purposes, like persuading people aggressive war against a weak neighbor is a commendable thing.

Kawabata Yasunari’s The Mole refers neither to a spy nor to a burrowing animal but to, as readers familiar with Kawabata’s thing about skin will readily guess, the blemish or birthmark kind of mole. Sigh. Since 1980, I’ve read most of his novels and more short stories than I can count, and next to his themes of modernity vs. traditional, desire and regret, there’s always something about female skin. Always.

The Firefly Hunt is a pretty excerpt from Tanizaki Junichiro’s beautiful novel Sasameyuki a.k.a The Makioka Sisters. People seriously into Japan must find a comfy position with good light and enter the world of The Makioka Sisters.

Tanizaki Junichiro’s The Mother of Captain Shigemoto reminds us that Tanizaki had a macabre and decadent streak as wide as Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s. It takes place in Genji-era Kyoto, but its graveyards and corpses are a far cry from Murasaki’s pretty rooms and Niou’s ritzy palaces. It reminds us of the Zen/Stoic thing that such extremes naturally occur in the word. I sternly warn squeamish readers off, like Mr. Halloran warning Danny not to enter Room 237. But this is heady stuff:

Those who have not seen the truth are stirred to the deepest covetousness by that which seems of good quality, and their resentment is not small at the rag that seems the opposite; the fine and the base may change, but that from which arises the cycle of birth and rebirth is eternal. … How pitiful, how profitless are worldly illusions. One can but think that only the trivia of a dream cause men to look with dread on resting in the eternal.

Dazai Osamu: Villon’s Wife. Another exploration of artist as brute, along the lines of Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, Nabokhov’s Humbert Humbert, and lots of Japanese modernists.         

Hayashi Fumiko’s Tokyo . Again with Shitamachi and Asakusa as the setting, a WW2 widow struggles to not actually have to starve. A moving story.  She died too young at 47, in 1951.

Omi is an excerpt from Mishima Yukio’s gay novel Confessions of a Mask. Kochan narrates an incident in which his love object, the rugged Omi, senses that something is odd about the schoolboy adoration of the weakling Kochan. That Mishima could write like a barn afire in only his early twenties boggles the mind.

In conclusion, I urge readers to read short stories and give them their due. That is, read one and then do something that will space you out and give you room to think about it. Read one, do dishes, think about the story. Read one, get on the elliptical, think about the story. Read one, sit and do nothing but think about the story. Read one, watch grass grow, water evaporate, laundry spin, and think about the story. Note that worthwhile spacing out activities disengage you from screens. To paraphrase Manoush Zomorodi, you have to go through pain and discomfort and boredom to get to get to your imagination, your dreams, your mystery that’s only yours, that “whatever it is” which will help you fathom the story beyond what happened, beyond empathy, to what the story means to you.