Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mount TBR #29

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 Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal - Ben Macintyre

Kim Philby was recruited by Soviet intelligence when he was a student at Cambridge in the 1930s. The ideological appeal of communism was that it wasn’t fascism nor was it an economic system that caused the Great Depression. His decision was purely political, he says, and so politics always trumped his personal relationships. He says it pained him to deceive and manipulate his friends and family. But then he said a lot of things. It’s just as easy to believe that he just felt jeering contempt for people he perceived as stupid and gullible enough to believe him.

His betrayal of many intelligence operations cost agents their lives. Remember too that Communists punish the family and friends of “enemies of the people.” For example, the British secret service hatched operations in which Albanian and Ukrainian patriots were infiltrated into their countries to work against the communists but they were effortlessly rolled up and executed because of Philby's advance warnings to his Soviet masters. There is no telling exactly how many people lost their lives or freedom due to Philby’s spying, but the figure must be in the hundreds. And all for a creed deservedly dead, in the trash can of history.

This is a well-written story of not only Philby but also the two Western agents he utterly took in, James Angleton of the CIA and Nicholas Elliott of MI6. During WWII, Angleton forged close ties with Philby and welcomed Philby to the US when he was assigned to DC after the war. Philby did his most serious damage from 1949 to 1951 in this job. The Americans had started to have grave suspicions about Philby, thanks to CIA employee William King Harvey, a former FBI agent, who had done research to back his doubts regarding Philby. Angleton obsessively double-checked for moles after Philby was confirmed as a Soviet mole defected to the USSR.  This obsession nearly wrecked the CIA.

Philby and Nicholas Elliott had been the closest of friends. After the truth about Philby came out, Elliott felt the betrayal bitterly. Elliott claimed he could not have prevented Philby's flight to Moscow. However, author Macintyre theorizes that Philby was allowed to defect to avoid an embarrassing trial. Embarrassing to the British Establishment, that is. This tale of the old boy network looking out for their own is right sick-making to us cosmopolitan readers that detest tribes, cliques, clans, syndicates, and secret societies that operate mainly for the convenience of their members. MI6 treated him like a gentleman even after they knew he was bad.

In the end, though, Philby remains a cipher. His egomania made him think he would never get caught, though as he aged his duplicity must have graveled him because he drank like a fish. It’s grim that somebody could feel so bad about his own country as to betray it, especially for a rotten system that meant oppression to millions.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Emancipation Day, 2017

My Bondage and My Freedom – Frederick Douglass

Born a slave, Frederick Douglass (1818 - 1895) escaped in 1838 and became a key figure in the Abolitionist movement. My Bondage and My Freedom was his second memoir, written in 1855 as an expanded version of his best-selling autobiography of 1845. I have no reservation recommending this book to readers with an interest in antebellum America, race-based chattel slavery, the Abolitionist movement, social reform in the US, or memoirs of great Americans.

Douglass examines the baleful effects of slavery from many angles and in so doing demolishes pro-slavery arguments. For instance, in 2012, Arkansas state legislator Jon Hubbard, a Republican, argued that blacks received a better quality of life as slaves in the U.S. than they would have had they stayed in Africa.  Douglas reports that in fact slaves are poorly clothed, fed, and sheltered and that their lives are in constant peril of violence, torture, and sexual exploitation. To the argument that slaves are kindly taken care of in their old age, he tells the story of his own grandmother:

[H]er present owners finding she was of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die!

Douglass argues that slave-holders sold husbands and wives to different owners and tore babies from their mothers as deliberate policy. Breaking up families “is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with the brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution.”

Douglass paints a frightening picture of the total absence of law, of civil society, in slave states: “That plantation is a little nation of its own, having its own language, its own rules, regulations and customs. The laws and institutions of the state, apparently touch it nowhere.” Slavery also had a bad effect on slave owners and their families:

The poor slave, on his hard, pine plank, but scantily covered with his thin blanket, sleeps more soundly than the feverish voluptuary who reclines upon his feather bed and downy pillow. Food, to the indolent lounger, is poison, not sustenance. Lurking beneath all their dishes, are invisible spirits of evil, ready to feed the self-deluded gormandizers which aches, pains, fierce temper, uncontrolled passions, dyspepsia, rheumatism, lumbago and gout; and of these the Lloyds got their full share. To the pampered love of ease, there is no resting place. What is pleasant today, is repulsive tomorrow; what is soft now, is hard at another time; what is sweet in the morning, is bitter in the evening. Neither to the wicked, nor to the idler, is there any solid peace: "Troubled, like the restless sea."

Throughout the book, Douglass takes jabs at the work ethic that was undermined by slavery. Farms are shabby, workmanship shoddy. For all the talk of refinement and genteel manners, people are careless, stupid, ill-informed, angry, short-tempered, lacking in foresight, paranoid, and never seeing anybody outside a narrow world of uncouth stressed relatives and impatient vulgar cronies. Not to mention the whole system has to be propped up with an army of thugs such as overseers, slave breakers,  and hired kidnappers.

Ashley Wilkes, my red Indian ass. 

Race-based chattel slavery lowered and tainted everything it touched. It caused psychological, social, and economic damage. Douglass pulls no punches: “While slavery exists, and the union of these states endures, every American citizen must bear the chagrin of hearing his country branded before the world as a nation of liars and hypocrites; and behold his cherished flag pointed at with the utmost scorn and derision.”

Friday, June 16, 2017

Catfish and Mandala

This is an Asian-American's travel narrative and immigrant memoir, Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam by Andrew X. Pham. In this account his 1996 bicycle tour of Vietnam, he sometimes sounds like any new  American who has gone back to the old country and is treated so shabbily by merchants, beggars, and bribe-hungry cops that you can’t blame him for concluding the place is stuffed with people screaming Me me me. The drunken mobs of thugs and soldiers are frightening too. But he also tells of interesting conversations that reveal the uneasy relations between those who had to escape the country in fear for their freedom and lives and those who had to stay. The other third of the book tells about his family’s tough life in the US from Louisiana and to the Santa Clara Valley. I recommend this unique book for those into both travel narratives (the food descriptions are wonderful) and immigrant memoirs. This would be appropriate assigned reading in American Pluralism courses.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Flag Day & Army Birthday, 2017

A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army & American Character, 1775-1783 – Charles Royster

Royster focusses these long essays on why the Continental Army endured in spite of hardships and how Americans managed to sustain an eight-year war effort that all but did in their economic lives. One reason was idealism. People and soldiers sincerely felt that their principles and cause were just. Another reason was the development of a disciplined professional army.

Royster says that at first the rage militaire of 1775 was fueled by optimism. Many men enlisted in the army, though they distrusted standing armies as threats to republics. They did not expect to have to serve a long time because of their idealistic confidence in their own courage and Heaven’s aid would defeat the British army and navy in a speedy victory.

By 1777, battlefield reverses had dampened that optimism. Defeats in battle seemed to call the Americans' virtue and courage into doubt. Soldiers lacked discipline and decorum, especially since they were not careful with supplies. They sold provisions for cash and simply jettisoned stuff as they retreated from the field. Other problems were theft and plundering and desertion.  Terms of enlistment were a problem. Enlistees left after a year and went back to their own lives. General Washington had to implore them to stay in the army.

What held the army together? Why didn’t it simply disband? Royster argues that American soldiers were fighting for political liberties and ultimately for independence, which would have felt like a more inspiring personal cause to many people. A cause, a conviction with which people had a personal connection gave Americans, both military and civilian, endurance during the war.

I realize making an argument for idealistic convictions presents problems to readers who want hard proof for attitudes and beliefs. Royster, however, backs up his assertions with much evidence from newspapers, pamphlets, sermons, public records, journals, correspondence, and memoirs. As with Rosyter’s incredible Civil War book, The Destructive War, it seems as if he has read everything.

Another reason for victory, Royster claims, was the development of professionalism in the army. Officers developed knowledge, skill, and abilities (though at time felt like rubes when dealing with Europeans like von Steuben, Pulaski, and Lafayette). As importantly, they developed a sense of serving society and a sense of a corporate identity. However, Royster asserts, this growing professionalism accompanied anti-civilian sentiment of the soldiers (who were hungry and thread-bare and perceived well-fed civilians making money from the war). Negative feelings were reciprocated with fears among civilians that a “standing army” had developed. Some civilians also felt guilty that they had lost revolutionary virtue by doing well economically out of the war.

Like his book about the Civil War, Royster’s in-depth analysis of evidence and intricate arguments are unquestionably not for the casual reader. Royster himself warns that his book "does not lend itself to short, abstract summaries of its argument." But committed high-intermediate and advanced students of the War for Independence would get much out of this book.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

European RC #7

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge

A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 - Frederic Morton

This popular history tells the sad story of Crown Prince Rudolf and Mary Vetsera, but also describes the ups and downs of Viennese luminaries such as Theodor Herzl, Emperor Franz Joseph, Gustav Klimt, Johann Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo Wolf, Sigmund Freud, Johannes Brahms and Anton Bruckner not to mention the horrible Kaiser Wilhelm and Rudolf Schonerer. Especially interesting is the author’s overview of cultural malaise of fin de siècle Vienna. The author is first a novelist, so the literary touches may trouble lovers of footnotes and skeptics who ask “How do you know what he was thinking.” But the pleasant style and lively anecdotes are easy to read on a summer day, if that is one’s mood. This was rated as one of 10 best books about the Austro-Hungarian Empire in that cool Top 10 series by the Guardian. Any reader looking to broaden her cultural knowledge will be pleased by this book.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Mount TBR #28

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

Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties – Christopher Isherwood

In the introduction, Isherwood frankly warns the reader that she had better read this school memoir as a novel. Isherwood, then, writes a non-fiction novel or fictionalized autobiography to describe his checkered career at Cambridge and then his hanging out with other bohemians in London in the early Thirties. He wrote this, in fact, in the late Thirties, only a little more than a decade after the events described. So the memories are fresh and he has the right bittersweet sympathy of a 28-year-old for an 18-year-old. Readers will also be alert for fictionalized portraits of the rebels Auden and Steven Spender. It’s mainly lighthearted, even carefree, considering the time and place. This memoir ends with his decision to go live in Berlin, an experience which produced fine stories like Mr. Norris Changes Trains and the Sally Bowles stories.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Mount TBR #27

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.

Khrushchev: The Years in Power - Roy and Zhores Medvedev

This short overview covers the period the subject was the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR. That is to say, he was a dictator of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964. The authors were writing for a general audience so they go into interesting details about why Soviet agriculture was such a mess.  Khrushchev realized this solving the problems that dogged every step from farm to fork was the key to economic development and maintaining his own power. In clear and serious prose, the authors make fascinating Khrushchev’s fight with Kaganovich over spring or autumn wheat in the Ukraine. Also well described is the surprising collaboration between the charlatan Lysenko and Khrushchev.

However, the authors also cover de-Stalinization and the economic, administrative, and political blunders of the subject. They also point out simple bad luck – in the guise of droughts and winds – undermined reforms in his agricultural endeavours. Indeed, later leaders such as Brezhnev and Andropov were not much more successful in reforming agriculture.

On the down side, in such a short book, there is little on the Sino-soviet split from 1960 nor is there anything about the U-2 incident. A curious thing they do relate is that Khrushchev preferred being read to than reading when it came to literature. His aides persuaded him to publish Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich after they choose evenings when he was in a good mood to read it to him. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Mount TBR #26

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.

Roman Warfare – Adrian Goldsworthy

This brief overview tells about the development of the army that created the Empire by conquering its near neighbors, defeating its rival Carthage and overwhelming Greek territories. As its republican institutions gave way to Imperial rule by Augustus and his heirs, politicians hungry for power and glory extended empire extended from the French Atlantic coast to Syria. Later conquests – gain because military success conferred glory on unmilitary figures (such as Claudius) - included Britain and much of modern Romania. It would be a good book for readers even just mildly interested in the topic.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day, 2017

Two passages from Eugene B. Sledge's With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, the one WWII memoir to read if a reader is going to read only one war memoir in a lifetime.

Excerpt One
As I struggled upward [onto the boat] with my load of equipment, I felt like a weary insect climbing a vine. But at last I was crawling up out of the abyss of Peleliu!… I stowed my gear on my rack and went topside. The salt air was delicious to breathe. What a luxury to inhale long deep breaths of fresh clean air, air that wasn't heavy with the fetid stench of death… But something in me died at Peleliu. Perhaps it was a childish innocence that accepted as faith the claim that man is basically good. Possibly I lost faith that politicians in high places who do not have to endure war's savagery will ever stop blundering and sending others to endure it.

Excerpt Two
We thought the Japanese would never surrender. Many refused to believe it. Sitting in stunned silence, we remembered our dead. So many dead. So many maimed. So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past. So many dreams lost in the madness that had engulfed us. Except for a few widely scattered shouts of joy, the survivors of the abyss sat hollow-eyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Wrap-up Post: Back to the Classics

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

Click the posted date to go to the review.

1/ An award-winning classic – John Newberry Medal Winner – Audubon – Constance Rourke (1937)

2/ A classic published before 1800 – The Adventures of Roderick Random - Tobias Smollett (1748)

3/ A classic by a woman author – Domestic Manners of the Americans – Frances Trollope (1832)

4/ A 19th Century Classic – Pride and Prejudice- Jane Austen (1813)

5/ A Russian Classic – The Complete Short Novels – Anton Chekhov

6/ A classic set in a place you'd like to visit – Small Town D.A. – Robert Traver (1958)

7/ A romance classic – The Claverings – Anthony Trollope

8 / A Gothic or horror classic – One Thousand and One Ghosts - Alexandre Dumas (1848)

9 / A classic with a number in the title – The Case of the Seven of Calvary – Anthony Boucher (1937)

10 / A 20th Century Classic – The Crying of Lot 49 – by Thomas Pynchon (1965).

11 / A classic which includes the name of an animal in the title -  Bugles and a Tiger: My Life in the Gurkhas - John Masters (1956)

12/ A classic in translation – The Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu (about 1021)

Other classics: Click the title/author to go to the review

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Classics #12

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

The Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu (tr. Edward Seidensticker)

Lady Murasaki Shikibu composed this long novel in 11th century Japan. The novel chronicles the story of Genji, an aristocrat connoisseur and government minister, whose good looks, refinement, aesthetic taste, and accomplishments in all the arts and crafts attract the admiration of everyone he meets, except of course mediocrities who envy his talents and feel jealousy with his success with the ladies.

The novel’s 1100 or so pages can be divided into three large sections. Chapters 1-33 cover Genji’s youth through middle age. Genji suffers the ordeal of exile to faraway Satsuma because he is caught with the daughter of a high minister of state. However, after that unhappy sojourn, his court success and eventful personal life are described in witty, readable incidents.

Chapters 34-41 feels as if the author were ready to move on to other characters in the next generation. There is also a discernible shift in tone. Genji begins to feel what our ancestors in the 1950s called “that old mortality,” the melancholy we feel as we contemplate being subject to death. The Japanese have called this feeling mono no aware (物の哀れ), “the sadness of things.” Everything is subject to flux in both the short and the long term. We need to savor the sad beauty that people, places, and things express because of their transient nature.

Finally, Chapters 42-54 cover Genji’s grandson Niou and supposed son Kaoru. There’s no point to applying morals or ethics as we understand them to many characters in this book. In fact, their callousness to each other, destructive jealousy, breaking up of families, harsh treatment of women, casual treatment of illegitimate offspring and lack of anything we’d call privacy rather prevent us from being sympathetic toward many of the characters. The men are weak when faced with temptation and strong when justifying their own selfishness.And women can't relax for a minute because a mistake in a unguarded moment will bring down gossip, derision, and economic insecurity.

I suppose some readers will condemn this book for the same reasons the Victorians turned their noses up at it. That is, the lack of sexual restraint stands out. People in the court of Heian Japan acted promiscuously, however, according to a strict code of conduct not only social but aesthetic. For example, it was obligatory that lovers could compose and appreciate poetry in its various forms and be able to write poems that drew on famous poems and stories. Such poetical allusions had to be made in exquisite calligraphy. People judged each other on the basis of their penmanship.

This novel is truly for people who love to read novels packed with episodes and people with curious characters. In other words, if you like Trollope, you might want to try this one. It’s the same kind of comfy reading experience as, say, Doctor Thorne or The Last Chronicle of Barset in that once it gets going - and for pete’s sake it takes a while to get going - it’s un-put-down-able.

Finally a caution and advice. This is not like Anna Karenina, which can pick up and enjoy without knowing too much about Russian society and culture in the 19th century. But, in the interest of full disclosure so people know that they are getting into, I think a reader that knows little or nothing of Heian Japan will probably become lost and disgruntled without first reading Ivan Morris' The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. No sheepish apology here for advising background reading and prep to the unknowing. This is a masterpiece of world literature about people who are different from us post-moderns. So it had better be approached with knowledge and respect.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Classics #11

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

Bugles and a Tiger: My Life in the Gurkhas - John Masters

John Masters was a soldier before he became the popular novelist of the best-selling Nightrunners of Bengal, the WWI novel The Ravi Lancers, and the light entertainment The Venus of Kompara. In 1933, at the age of eighteen, he attended Sandhurst, where all officers in the British Army are trained. He was commissioned into the 4th Gurkha Rifles in time to take part in some of the last campaigns on the turbulent north-west frontier of India before WWII.

Granted not all readers will be sympathetic with the subjects of Sandhurst vigilantes enforcing The Code savagely and of violent young men fighting massive brawls with each other. His hypothetical realist replies to charges of hooliganism among cadets:

War is a dirty business, and we are training these young men for war; we are not running a kindergarten; we do not intend to snoop around seeing whether the cadets treat one another like Little  Lord Fauntleroys; we have learned that a wild young man  can learn wisdom as he grows older — if he survives — but a  spiritless young man cannot learn the dash that wins battles.  And, finally, we believe that a man’s contemporaries are his fairest judges.

Nor will all readers relish the blunt stories that illustrate why the Gurkhas have the legendary reputation that they do:

During World War II a Gurkha patrol went out in the vicinity of Cassino to locate German positions. After slipping by two enemy sentries in the dark of the night, they found  the other four Germans of the post asleep in a row in a barn.  They beheaded the two men on the inside, but left the two  on the outside to sleep — to wake up, to try to rouse their  comrades ... It was a brilliant improvisation, which went  straight to the unlovely heart of psychological warfare.

Though we have all had superiors we were loyal to despite their silence, moodiness, micromanaging, and procrastination, it’s still a challenge to meet a mind with a different sense of responsibility, of loyalty, of discipline:

Burbury said, ‘Loyalty means backing up a man even when he’s in the wrong. Even if he’s stupid and inefficient. That’s why it’s so hard to be loyal. ….

Still better to be wary, I think, of bosses that are especially sensitive to disloyalty – to them, the best obedience is exacted when the subordinate is submitting against her better judgement.

And Masters was certainly a man of his generation. Imagine what grad students in World Civilizations would do to this aside on mid-19th century English attitudes in Inja:

There was also an increasingly strong colour bar, though I get the impression from reading old books and memoirs that the Englishman’s initial aversion was from Indian customs and habits, especially those connected with Hinduism, and that he gradually transferred this feeling to the colour of the  Indians’ skin because, whereas the former could be explained, the latter could not, and was thus indefensible.

Indeed, customs such as animal sacrifice do take up more pages than we post-modern readers like to read. Suffice to say, even the British in Indian quite blanched.

The morning wore steadily on and the smell of blood grew thicker in the dust and glare. One of the British wives turned green and went away, escorted by her husband, who was almost audibly saying, ‘I told you so.’ The row of heads, each crowned with a live coal, lengthened. The smell of burned hair grew stronger, and I was glad of those brandies. At last the sacrifices came to an end. We hardly had time for a cigarette before we were on our feet as the pipes began to wail and the drums to thud

But there are incredible stories of bee attacks and other natural disasters endured:

That night we established camp at Ghariom, half-way to the Faqir’s cave, and waited for more troops to arrive. The wait was marked by a storm of appalling violence. In the afternoon the sky began to darken over, and dust devils hurried down the valley. A drizzle of rain set in, and after a few minutes changed to light hail. The hail quickly strengthened and was soon coming down like a barrage from a million machine-guns, I measured a hailstone 1.6 inches in diameter. The hail cracked tent poles, tore canvas, and flattened every tent. It stunned five sepoys caught in the open, though they were wearing turbans, and maddened all our thousand animals so that they jerked up heel ropes and halters and crashed in snorting, frantic panic through the shattered camp, leaped the low walls, burst in tethered droves through the gates and scattered over the countryside. The hail changed to sleet, back to rain, and for an hour fell like Niagara. It became dark. Thunder volleyed across the low sky, and below our feet, under the earth, the mountains shook and grumbled. Lightning flashes sent searing shafts of ruin through the black rain. In one towering burst I saw four  linked horses galloping abreast over fallen tents and broken  boxes, their eyes rolling white, teeth bared, coats shining wet,  a soldier in front of them. The riderless four of the Apocalypse vanished through the sudden wall of darkness

Readers into coming of age stories, the British in India, and unique military memoirs will like this memoir. This volume goes up to WWII. He chronicled his command of one of the Chindit columns behind enemy lines in Burma in The Road Past Mandalay, a classic WWII memoir available in many editions.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mount TBR #25

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.

Silence Observed – Michael Innes

In this 1961 mystery, Appleby says he is 53, which means he was born in 1907 or 1908. Yard detective John Appleby first appeared in 1936 in Seven Suspects, an academic murder mystery set in an Oxford-type institution. He retired from the Yard after WWII and went to work in the upper reaches of the Metropolitan Police. He was active post-retirement in 1986 when Appleby and the Ospreys appeared. I know of no other author who kept a character going for 33 novels and numerous short stories for 50 years.

I suppose some critics argue that the Appleby novels of the 1970s and 1980s lack the literary touches that characterize Hamlet, Revenge!  (1937) and Lament for a Maker (1938). Silence Observed is mainly for entertainment, with few literary flourishes and only a little suspense. I think it’s worth reading for the creative use of learned language and examination of the acquisitive mentality of collectors and misers. Appleby observes, “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. Just a little mad, for a start. Inclined, say, to unreasonable jokes in the course of business. But later – well, very mad indeed.”

Just by chance, Appleby’s attention is arrested by two instances of forgeries in the art world. One collector has acquired a forgery of a notorious forger; another has been offered, of all things, a lost Rembrandt. An unlucky young man has been discovered with both bodies in highly suspicious circumstances. Appleby feels something is amiss and gets him off the hook, since in whodunit land, as we hardcore mystery readers know, it is never the obvious suspect.

The pool of suspects is small enough to make the reveal fairly predictable. But the familiar characters, the erudite vocabulary, and London setting – though there is another remote insane manse as in Lament for a Maker and Hare Sitting Up, among others – make this an agreeable, soothing read.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Classics #10

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon

Oedipa Maas is a housewife in her late twenties in Southern California in the mid-Sixties. SoCal experiences rapid changes in population, economic activity, and infrastructure. Like many sensitive people, Oedipa feels unmoored by the speed of change in everyday life. She is seeking order:

[S]he thought of the time she'd opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity ... [T]here were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate.... [Now,] a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding ... [She] seemed parked at the center of an odd religious instant. As if, on some other frequency, or out of the eye of some whirlwind rotating too slow for heated skin even to feel the centrifugal coolness of, words were being spoken.

She is tapped to be the co-executor of the will of a former lover who became super-rich through investments in hi-tech and land speculation – i.e., he was an agent of chaos. In her quest to fulfill her duties she meets many strange people, mainly men that let her down in both mundane and spectacular ways. For instance, her husband develops an affinity for becoming one with the universe via LSD and her psychiatrist takes her hostage in an active shooting.

During her travels, Oedipa stumbles over Tristero, an underground postal system used by marginalized people such as artists, musicians, and dabblers in fringe science. Or, she fears, it is merely a huge practical joke set up by the rich and powerful lover that died. Oedipa comes to theorize an either/or question:

[T]here either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.

Pynchon suggests that Americans in the last fifty years or so subject and distract themselves with an unceasing stream of impressions, from sports to Self-Empowering Slogans to LOL Cats to You Name It You Can Have It. People then assent to whatever meaning these impressions convey, half sure, half not sure if they are capturing a piece of reality or using their own irrational beliefs to impose a silly explanation of the world. Am I being hoaxed or am I deluding myself?

Oedipa concludes that she might need "the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia" to unconfuse herself about where she stands. This novel makes the reader think about her own sense of the importance of being “relevant to it” and living with the idea that constant flux is the default setting, not just for SoCal, but everywhere, all the time, within our own aging bodies to start (and isn’t that decay and dissolution enough to deal with?). And that she’d better keep moving because stagnating will only hasten decline.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Classics #9

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

The Case of the Seven of Calvary – Anthony Boucher

This is the second academic mystery that I’ve read in about two months, the first one being Michael Innes' From London Far. This 1937 mystery fits the criteria for genre: set at a university department, professor as detective, an international cast, erudite dialogue, recondite digressions, and mild gibes at scholar’s manners and ways.

Though this was the author’s first mystery, he takes pleasure is satirizing the conventions of the Golden Age mystery. For instance, the professor-detective, like Nero Wolfe, never stirs out of his rooms to investigate the crime. In fact, he has a graduate student be his Archie Goodwin, getting out and talking to persons of interest. The grad student narrates the story in an arch and faux-sophisticated tone, very much like Michael Innes in the Thirties. In an outrageous post-modern technique, the grad student and Boucher meet over chow to confirm with each other that fair-play has been the byword, that clues needed to solve the mystery have indeed be given to the reader.

The story moves steadily through plenty of action. Boucher misdirects too but the long-time mystery reader, while alert to being fooled, will not be cheated out of a good surprise either. It’s very impressive that Boucher developed such a crackerjack story his first time out. This book well deserves its classic status. Although he did not return to a campus setting, he wrote many more mysteries and short stories, even producing science fiction. For many years he was the mystery reviewer for the New York Times. He has a convention of mystery fandom named after him, Bouchercon.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Classics #8

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

The Thousand and One Ghosts – Alexandre Dumas (1849)

This collection of short scary stories uses the seen-before device of guests at a dinner party in a country manse relating eerie stories. In this case, the guests have been thrown together by a murder in the village of Fontenay-aux-Roses. The killer confesses that after beheading his wife with a sword – for a reason he refuses to divulge - he went to grab the head and she bit him on the hand and wouldn’t let go. When the head finally let go she said, “You wretch! I was innocent!”

The gruesome happening, understandably enough, puts the village worthies in an odd unsettled mood, motivating them to tell stories that they’ve never told anybody before.

The story that got under my skin involves heads severed by the guillotine that stay alive to move by themselves and express unhappiness. In another, a Carpathian vampire tries to have his way with a virgin from Poland, whose unhappy encounter leaves her pale and enervated (but somehow ravishing, of course). In yet another, an executed crook comes back to hang the hangman that executed him for the state. The content of the stories may not strike us as especially weird and uncanny after all the horrifying things we witnessed in the year 2016. However, even after scores of terrifying times seeing the presidential pie-hole contorted to look like a Cheerio, we quail and quiver at Dumas'  plain homely details.

Like: disinterred French kings dragging a worthy citizen into quicklime.

Like: during the Revolution they were slicing off heads to the extent that an eight-year-old slips, falls and drowns in a trough of blood at the execution ground.  

I know – yuck.

But isn’t that why we search out horror? Even though we wonder how a severed bean could talk considering the damage to the vocal cords would make that impossible. But to hell with logic, with skepticism, with reasonable. We wanna be scared witless, beyond rationalism.

Readers into Gothic tales may find this fun. Another point for their stories is their pathos – they’re all sad, about lost love, dashed hopes, dreams betrayed. Severed heads are mercifully out of the usual run of daily life. Sad is always relatable.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Mount TBR #24

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.

Optimal Aging: Get Over Getting Older – Albert Ellis & Emmett Velten

Albert Ellis (d. 2007) founded Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) in the 1950s, the pioneering form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Ellis wrote dozens of self-help books that pitched the same basic techniques of REBT to special audiences such as alcoholics, procrastinators, patients with fatal illnesses, and folks with anxiety. Dr. Velten (d. 2011) worked as a psychotherapist in private practice who taught at UCSF.

The authors readily agree with Bette Davis’ famous maxim, “Old age is not for sissies.” To deal with grief, regret over dashed aspirations, health scares, money worries, and the desert of retirement, they recommend we take time and care to examine our thoughts. Our own opinions make or break our lives. We are responsible for the things we believe and tell ourselves. Events not terrible in themselves occur, but we choose to feel disturbed or we blame ourselves, other people or the world for perceived misfortunes. As Hamlet said, “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Change the thoughts, change the feeling and mood. The authors advise that we can recognize our own harmful thoughts by asking ourselves three questions. Does this response help me or hurt me? Does this response square with the facts? Does this response seem logical and reasonable? The next time something gets up the nose - try it.

The authors suggest another technique: negative visualization. I close my eyes. I imagine the worst thing that can happen in a situation. A 30-something snot humors me. She leaves me after 35 years, telling me that she wishes she could be around to see my life fall apart. Lily’s cancer has spread to her seven-year-old bones, needing 350mg per hour of fentanyl as well as 15mg of dilaudid every two hours to get her pain down to “8: utterly horrible.”  Feel it and realize that I can feel healthy feelings of sorrow, regret, and sadness, not unhealthy depression or useless rage at a universe where these things happen daily. Imagine the worst and make myself healthfully sorry. I can do it. And I can feel better, healthfully regretful.

The authors make a very strong argument against the stereotypes of ageism. People hold such prejudices so deeply that it takes a lot of forceful, vehement disputing of these prejudices to dislodge them from inside our own heads. The authors don’t deny changing our attitudes takes a lot of work, practice, persistence, and plain old thinking but they believe that people can choose to happy, that they can fight off habits of mind that make themselves unhappy. They present many anecdotes about ordinary people who applied the three questions above systematically and cultivated attitudes that fought low frustration tolerance and contributed to unconditional acceptance of one’s self and even others, flexibility, and self-respect.

I found motivating the stories of people who persevered when confronting disabilities. We all must get older and many of us have no choice but to face injury, pain, suffering, disfigurement, debility and disability. The authors argue that we ourselves must take responsibility for the attitudes we accept in response to these trials. The people with a disability in this book accepted their disability and felt determination to lead a fulfilling life.

Anyway, I recommend this book to people 30 and over that want to avoid becoming an aging cliché.


Other reviews of Albert Ellis’ books: I read or re-read an Ellis book about once a season. Reviewing his main messages prevents backsliding.
·         A Guide to Personal Happiness


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Mount TBR #23

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 World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan – Ivan Morris

The book describes Heian Japan's court life in cultural, political, socio-economic, and sexual terms. In the tradition of other brilliant explainers of Japan such as Sir George Sansom, Morris has read everything important concerning his topic to satisfy other scholars and writes in a graceful style to please us thinking lay readers.

This is a book for readers who want some background before they tackle Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, the first psychological novel in world history. You should know, however, there are some spoilers but they don't, in my opinion, outweigh the benefits of background knowledge before reading. The risk to reading it without background knowledge is that feeling of being lost and disgruntled about 70 pages into it. And then quitting. This would be a shame.

Morris’ thesis is that the novel's hero, Prince Genji, behaves as the paragon of Heian cultural values. Genji has grace and charm, besides being a stylish dresser and expert scent and incense crafter. He has a refined sensibility and keen aesthetic understanding. He writes beautiful poems and draws and paints. No wonder he is such a hit with everybody that comes into contact with him. Members of patrician Heian culture in 10th century Japan put social and aesthetic values over intellectual and psychological considerations. Morris points out the contradictions of the culture: steeped in Chinese learning but ridden with superstitions; a polygamous social scene but rife with jealousy, loneliness, and hurt; relishing with gusto the pleasures of the flesh but always feeling Buddhistic mujokan (無常観), the melancholy sense of the transience of life.

The Japanese and their culture have been blessed to be explained by sympathetic writers and scholars such as Morris, Sansom, Arthur Waley, and let's even include Lafcadio Hearn for sentimental reasons. In this book, Morris deftly blends fact and literary criticism to persuade us what a remarkable achievement The Tale of Genji truly represents.

Murasaki Shikibu had no models of what anybody would call “novels” to follow when she was writing this masterpiece. Yet, with keen psychological insight she developed a believable central character and a large cast of clearly delineated characters; a vibrant sequence of events happening over a period of four generations; and well-developed themes such as the costs of hierarchy and the pity of things. She also used digressions, parallel plots, stories within stories, foreshadowing and changes in point of view. It seems a miracle that the first instance of the psychological novel should be one of the high points of the genre.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mount TBR #22

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.

French title: L'Affaire Saint-Fiacre
First published: 1931
Translation: Robert Baldick, 1967

Maigret Goes Home – Georges Simenon

In Quai des Orfèvres our favorite Chief Inspector accidentally comes across an anonymous note, "A crime will be committed at the church of Saint-Fiacre during the first Mass of the Day of the Dead.” The message was received by the police of Moulins, who shrugged – no doubt in a Gallic way – and passed it on to the Police Judiciaire de Paris.

Since Maiget spent his childhood at Saint-Fiacre, in the Allier, his curiosity spurs him to visit the chateau, where his father had served as the loyal steward. Maigret attends the Mass in which the note forecasts the crime. Sure enough, the Countess of Saint-Fiacre dies of apparent heart failure.

The local doctor finds that the death of the countess was brought on by violent emotion. Maigret finds in the Countess' missal a clipping from the Journal de Moulins announcing the death of Maurice de Saint-Fiacre, her son and heir. The latter had just arrived from Paris to the village, where he intended to sponge money off his mother to pay his debts. If the check bounces, it’s the clink.

The inquiry, conducted at the castle, at the village and at Moulins, takes place in a somber heart-rending atmosphere from the get-go. Maigret has returned to the village of his childhood, with a sense of nostalgia. But it soon dawns on him that things have changed for the worse in the past thirty -five years.

The estate is no more than a shadow of what it was at the time when the Maigret's father was serving it. The countess has sold off three of the four farms. Since the death of the Comte de Saint-Fiacre. She has had to cover the profligate investments and expenses of her son Maurice. The countess has allowed herself to be exploited by many "secretaries" who have been so many successive lovers. The last of these, Jean Métayer, feeling suspected and vulnerable, appeals to a provincial lawyer whose manner and way of speaking get up Maigret’s nose.

Upsetting somebody to death with a fake clipping is not a crime for the courts. But all agree that is was a disgusting moral offense. Maigret talks to people to get a bead on the milieu, as usual, but does not arrive at any conclusion. Maurice de Saint-Fiacre, however, the day after the death, gathers all the suspects in a room. The ending, like many of the Depression Era Maigret stories, is muted and grim.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mount TBR #21

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.

Spill the Jackpot – Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair

Gardner wrote 29 Bertha Cool-Donald Lam mysteries. This 1941 entry, the fourth, is one of the better ones. It opens with Bertha checking out of a sanitarium where she was recovering from a combined form of flu and pneumonia for six months. In a well-plotted story, Lam investigates a disappearance and a murder.

When Gardner wrote as Fair, he allowed himself more digressions from the plot than in Perry Mason novels. He describes the desert country of Nevada and Arizona with affection and awe. He gives the reader the feeling that she’s learning something with a tangent on the inner workings of slot machines. For athletes he gives retro advice on the road work and training that goes into becoming a pugilist. He explores Lam’s moral ambiguity with his relationship with a bad girl on the run - who is using whom?

He also touches on the variety of complex relationships between men. A punch-drunk boxer takes an unaccountable shine to Lam and offers to teach him how to box. A hyper-masculine father sees his son as too sensitive and makes bad choices in protecting the kid.

I highly recommend this vintage mystery.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

European RC #6

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

Conquered City – Victor Serge

This novel is set in Petrograd in 1919, the first year of the Russian Civil War. Serge, whose real name was Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, was a professional revolutionary with a specialties in the skill of journalism and the craft of printing. He returned to Russia in 1919 in order to work in the Comintern as a journalist, editor and translator. He wrote this book in the early 1930s in the shadow of Stalin’s early purges because Serge was a member of the Left Opposition to Stalin’s policies.  So this book has the feeling of novelized memoir, with a text written in different times in various places.

Serge organizes the novel in 20 episodes spread out over course of about one year. Like more traditional Russian novels I don’t need to name, Serge creates scores of characters, whose hard names need to be remembered, which is a challenge. Transitions between episodes seem jerky, which also requires attention. He wrote this book under the threat of imminent arrest by the secret police and sent the novel to France in fragments so one can understand the lack of smoothness. However, on the other hand, this bumpiness gives a feeling of beleaguered and muddled life in Petrograd at this time.

There are too many ideas in this novel to deal with in a short review. The one that burned brightest for me was Serge’s ambivalence about the use of the organs of repression. On one hand, as a democratic socialist, he saw the Russian Revolution as a great hope. Fearing counterrevolution, he was for using Czarist-type repression against spies, speculators, wreckers and traitors. He felt, then, there was a place for secret police, truncheons, jails, torture, internal exile, and treachery. On the other hand, he felt for workers and peasants that stole in order to eat, for soldiers who deserted because they’d been fighting one battle or another since 1914. Serge’s disenchantment is palpable – the typical disappointment of socialists in the wake of communist terror.

For me, the two topics of the American Civil War and Russia between the wars hold endless fascination. But I can’t say it’s for everybody.  Basically, this is an unrelenting novelized memoir that I can recommend only to the most unwavering student of topics such as state terror, St. Petersburg, and failed revolutions.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Mount TBR #20

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 Sawdust Trail: The Story of American Evangelism – Gordon Langley Hall

This pop history tells how evangelism started in the US with John Wesley and George Whitefield. In chronological order he examines Father Dyer, Dwight Moody, Rodney Smith, Billy Sunday, Evangeline Booth, Daddy Grace, Father Devine, Aimee Mcpherson, Reba Crawford, and Billy Graham. Hall researched newspapers and unearths some curious stories and facts. The writer was a journalist so the prose is readable and pleasant with nary a controversial word. Thus, readers looking for more substantial fare or critical takes on the origins of American evangelism or where Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry was coming from will have to go other books.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Mount TBR #19

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.

In the Best Families – Rex Stout

Arch criminal Arnold Zeck was Nero Wolfe’s Professor Moriarty. This is the last novel in what Wolfe fandom called “the Zeck trilogy,” the first two And Be a Villain and The Second Confession. Zeck was just a voice on the telephone in the first two but he actually appears in this one. Wolfe’s assistant Archie Goodwin observes: “[His] eyes were the result of an error on the assembly line. They had been intended for a shark and someone got careless.  

Our story begins with the wealthy Mrs. Rackham consulting Wolfe. Her younger husband used to ask her for money but now he never asks but still seems to throw green stuff around like a lottery millionaire. She wants Wolfe to find out his source of moolah. Since it smells like a divorce case, Wolfe tells her that he is not interested in taking it up. But after she lays a check for $10,000 (about $150K nowadays) he changes his mind.

The next morning, a package of sausage that gourmet Wolfe has been anxious about is delivered, only to turn out to be a bomb of tear gas. The blackmailer Arnold Zeck tells Wolfe to back off the case, or else. To identify a connection between Zeck and the young husband, Wolfe sends Archie under a pretext to Mrs. Rackham’s Westchester estate to have a look-see at the hubby.

But that night Mrs. Rackham and her pet dobie are knifed to death in the woods of her estate. Archie returns to the brownstone, only to find that Wolfe has decamped. Skedaddled. A distraught Fritz asked, “What is he going to eat?” In a note Wolfe directs Archie not to look for him.

Archie then strikes out on his own, even getting his own office. Nobody believes he doesn’t know where Wolfe is. But the Rackham case won’t go away.

Any more info would spoil one of the best Wolfe-Archie novels in the canon. It took me a long time to get into this series, only taking them up in the summer of 2012. But since then they've turned in my go-to for comfort reading.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Mount TBR #18

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.

From London Far a.k.a. The Unsuspected Chasm – Michael Innes

Richard Meredith is a middle-aged classics professor who specializes in Martial and Juvenal. As an absentminded intellectual (is that redundant?), he finds himself in his tobacconist’s shop and mutters a phrase from Dr. Johnson’s London, a Poem. He is surprised when the clerk opens a trap-door and ushers him down into the depths of London. He comes upon scores of art masterpieces. Against the smugglers of looted art, he finds an ally in Jean Halliwell, a young scholar in archeology with a specialty in Minoan weapons. In an exciting if far-fetched scene, they and two bloodhounds escape being put in a sack and dropped into the Channel by fleeing across the rooftops of London.

They proceed to have adventures that are so zany as to lead us readers to think that John Buchan’s rousers like Greenmantle are being parodied. As usual, the villains are bizarre. For example, one is an eccentric rich guy – with the typically American name of Otis K. Neff – that will call to mind the unhinged oil millionaire Jo Stoyte in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley. 

Also as usual, there are plenty of erudite laughs:

Mrs Cameron was given to religious enthusiasm and so, in Jean’s view, was on the thither side of sanity also.

The man was … simultaneously enjoying the remains of a cigar and a thoughtful study of the girl’s knees. Habit apart, there seemed to be no reason why he should not study the superincumbent parts of her anatomy as well, for the girl was stripped for bathing to a degree which Meredith could not at all approve.

At 300 pages, some snipping in the middle and near the end would have been in order. But members of the thinking audience – i.e., us avid readers -- will be able to pat themselves on the back for understanding allusions to The Perfumed Garden and knowing already what pygmalionism is.

It’s not, however, merely learned yuks. Innes describes rural Scotland and its remote fastnesses so vividly we wish we could visit Caledonia someday. He makes wise observations of religion in Scotland, art appreciation, and the mentality of collecting. Published in 1946, it also touches on the heavy subject of Europe pulling itself together after the most destructive war in history.

I think that Innes had a middle-aged, middle-class, educated and bookish target audience in mind. However, he always portrays his female characters with lots of smarts and capacity for action. Against stereotype, Jean Halliwell combines dedication to fighting evil-doers with a zest for adventure. There’s a wonderful parody of academic disputation near the end when Jean incisively supports her position in an argument where she and Meredith are trying to account for the art collecting mania of Otis K. Neff.

Michael Innes was the pen name of J.I.M Stewart (1906 – 1994), an English prof in the UK, Ireland, and Australia until his retirement in 1973, after which he wrote mysteries full-time until about 1985. Most of his mysteries starred Sir John Appleby, a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector. But many of his books are independent novels like this one and Lament for a Maker.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Mount TBR #17

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.

Gable & Lombard – Warren Harris

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were able to overcome the pressures on a marriage between Hollywood stars.

Their acting talents were different. While Gable did win an Oscar for his part in the comedy It Happened One Night, he was usually cast as the rugged, handsome hero as in GWTW or in guy movies like Mutiny on the Bounty and Run Silent Run Deep. He was justifiably modest about his acting abilities. Gable and Lombard worked together on No Man of Her Own (in 1932, before they were an item) and generally got on each other’s nerves. At the cast party, Gable gave Lombard a pair of oversized ballet shoes, to go with her prima donna ways. She gave him a present that she said stood for his acting abilities: a large ham with his picture on it.

With her sexy voice and athletic grace, she was a striking presence that lent a little credibility to melodramas like Man of the World and Vigil in the Night. With amazing timing, Lombard was a comic that could do both madcap (My Man Godfrey) and satire (Nothing Sacred).  As with many funny people, sources of her humor were sadness, anxiety, and more than her fair share of adversity: tight finances as a kid in a single-mom household, a disfiguring car accident, sudden deaths of friends, nervous breakdowns, and an unhappy marriage with William Powell.

Besides feeling no professional jealousy toward each other, as this biography shows, they loved each other deeply. Their personalities were such that one balanced the other. Gable was reticent, Lombard was boisterous and blunt. Gable was easy-going, Lombard was tightly-strung and competitive. He could live without going out to party and schmooze, and she loved him enough that staying home most nights was fine with her. When they did go out, he would be reserved, while she was animated and lively.

She loved jokes, and he liked laughing. Their laughter fed compatibility where it counts a great deal for a couple who are crazy about each other. On his first day on the set of GWTW, she had draped his dressing room mirror with stuffed doves to represent peace for her man, who was going through the last stages of a nasty divorce. On the dresser, he also found a hand-knitted willy-warmer and a note, “Don’t let it get cold. Bring it home hot for me.”

As a laid-back guy wary of this scheming world and its gabby extroverts myself, I can totally understand why a quiet guy was nuts about such a feisty, independent, indomitable woman. We hardcore readers will be happy to know that they were both great readers, unexpected in people who left schools without diplomas. She read widely, mainly with an eye to adapting novels into movies she could star in. She also read about topics such as numerology and eastern mysticism, not uncommon interests back then. Gable, like Spencer Tracy, liked to read mysteries.

Gable and Lombard both liked outdoor pursuits like hunting and fishing. They enjoyed their dogs and skeet shooting. They like roughing it in rustic lodgings that were typical of travel in the 1930s. Their ranch was decorated simply. They kept a hobby farm with chickens, cows and horses. Their dream was to have a child, but one of her many misfortunes was an infertility issue. We know it wasn’t on Gable since he made a baby with Loretta Young, who sent the child to an orphanage and then “adopted” her, never receiving a dime of support.

Lombard was a deeply patriotic FDR Democrat, like Rex Stout. Her comments about taxes are refreshing for us readers who've had an adulthood of hearing the no-new-taxes crowd bellyaching about their goddamn taxes:
I get 13 cents on the dollar and I know it. So I don’t figure that I’ve earned a dollar, I figure that I’ve earned 13 cents. And that is all right with me, too. We still don’t starve in the picture business after we’ve divided with the government. Taxes go to build schools, to maintain the public utilities we all use, so why not?
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, in January 1942, she wasted no time to volunteer her star power to raising money for the war effort. In Indiana, her home state, she raised over $2 million in War Bonds, when the expectation was only a quarter of that amount. Weary from putting in long hours at events, she didn’t feel up to a three-day train journey back to California.

So she decided to take a plane. Due to pilot error, it crashed into Table Rock Mountain in Nevada killing all 22 aboard, including 15 Army service men and Lombard’s own mother Bess. Joan Crawford took over Lombard’s part in They All Kissed the Bride and proved that, as talented an actress as she was, comedy was not her strong suit. But this was the least of the fallout.

Gable never got over Lombard’s death. Though 41 at the time, he joined in the Army Air Corps to honor his wife’s oft-stated wishes that he enlist. After training in OCS, Gable lead a motion picture unit attached to a B-17 bomb group in England to film aerial gunners in combat, flying five combat missions and narrowly missing being KIA once. He married twice after WWII to women who tried but failed to replace Lombard. Gable drank too much. After he died in 1960, he was buried next to Lombard in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in LA.

This book was among the bumper crop of books about classic Hollywood released during the nostalgia boom of the early 1970s.  The author later made a specialty of couples books, including Lucy & Desi and Natalie & R.J. To his credit, Harris took on riskier project, a bio of forgotten Broadway star Marilyn Miller. His research for this book seems satisfactory, since he interviewed many people who knew the couple, though many of the quotations are discreetly not attributed. His writing style, mercifully, is not snarky. In those carefree days of the Seventies he felt free enough to tell ribald stories such as the cock-sock story above. A reader can tell, too, when a writer is a fellow movie nut: he seems to have been reading about movies and stars in newspapers and fan magazines since an early age.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Classics #7

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

The Claverings – Anthony Trollope

I recommend this stand-alone novel, first published in 1867, as Trollope approached the height of his powers with He Knew He Was Right in 1869.

Harry Clavering has a belief common among educated talented young men. He wants to be different, to do the uncommon thing in his personal and professional life. His life is going swimmingly enough when he is jilted by the noble-born and attractive Julia Barbazon – delectably-named, too, isn’t she? She accepts what she -- and the rest of our scheming world -- regards as the better offer. She marries Lord Ongar for the usual reasons: £7,000 per annum, a country house, parties with the best people, carriages always, cabs never.

But Lord Ongar’s feeble constitution buckles under his dissolute habits. After only about a year and half, his debauchery does in the worn-out body of Lord Ongar, in Florence, Italy, comforted by his dutiful Julia and two callous spongers, slick Edouard Pateroff and his atrocious sister Sophie Gordeloupe.

While Lord O. is dying in his protracted way, Harry Clavering makes his way in the world. He becomes a student of civil engineering in the firm of Beilby and Burton. He bugs himself by doing the common thing: becoming engaged to Florence, the last unmarried daughter of his employer, Mr. Burton. Florence also bugs him by insisting on the common stipulation of no marriage until the husband can provide for the wife with more than living on a potato and getting one new dress every year.

Julia, the widowed Lady Ongar, returns to Merrie Olde. Her brother-in-law, Sir Hugh Clavering, is Harry Clavering’s cousin. Sir Hugh refuses to meet her on her arrival because tittle-tattle that Julia has been bad, though unfounded, may cause him trouble. Horrified that her sister Julia’s reputation will be tainted even more due to this snub of her tyrannical husband, Sir Hugh’s wife Hermione urges Harry Clavering to make himself useful in helping Lady O. get settled in London.

Julia and Harry meet numerous times. Harry, as wobbly males do, comes to feel unsteady. Indeed, he acts very unbecomingly, not telling her he is engaged to poor Florence. Harry feels torn and tormented between his first love and his second love and can’t extricate himself from the situation. Harry thus joins the line-up of Trollopian  males like Charlie Tudor, Johnny Eames and Louis Trevelyan. In his autobiography, Tony grants the insipidity of Harry but rightly defends his sketch of a fickle character and convincing probe of Harry’s vacillations.

Julia, being a rich widow, is beset with two avaricious suitors. Count Paterhoff blends smooth manners with hints of blackmail to persuade her into wedded bliss. Archie Clavering, Sir Hugh’s brother, bribes Sophie Gordeloupe to put in a good word for him. Sophie is a distinctive character in that I can’t think of any parasitical, detestable woman like her in any of Trollope’s other novels. Trollope handles Paterhoff’s menace believably and Archie’s blundering comically. Archie, by the way, is also aided by the advice of Captain Boodle, a billiard parlor habitué called Doodles. I think this monologue is brilliant at capturing what kind of character these people have:

"Well, now, Clavvy, I'll tell you what my ideas are. When a man's trying a young filly, his hands can't be too light. A touch too much will bring her on her haunches, or throw her out of her step. She should hardly feel the iron in her mouth. That's the sort of work which requires a man to know well what he's about. But when I've got to do with a trained mare, I always choose that she shall know that I'm there! Do you understand me?"

"Yes; I understand you, Doodles."

"I always choose that she shall know that I'm there." And Captain Boodle, as he repeated these manly words with a firm voice, put out his hands as though he were handling the horse's rein. "Their mouths are never so fine then, and they generally want to be brought up to the bit, d'ye see?—up to the bit. When a mare has been trained to her work, and knows what she's at in her running, she's all the better for feeling a fellow's hands as she's going. She likes it rather. It gives her confidence, and makes her know where she is. And look here, Clavvy, when she comes to her fences, give her her head; but steady her first, and make her know that you're there. Damme; whatever you do, let her know that you're there. There's nothing like it. She'll think all the more of the fellow that's piloting her. And look here, Clavvy; ride her with spurs. Always ride a trained mare with spurs. Let her know that they're on; and if she tries to get her head, give 'em her. Yes, by George, give 'em her." And Captain Boodle in his energy twisted himself in his chair, and brought his heel round, so that it could be seen by Archie. Then he produced a sharp click with his tongue, and made the peculiar jerk with the muscle of his legs, whereby he was accustomed to evoke the agility of his horses. After that he looked triumphantly at his friend. "Give 'em her, Clavvy, and she'll like you the better for it. She'll know then that you mean it."

It’s amusing in one way but grotesque in another. Selfish and greedy of money, these kinds of men, Trollope says, and disdainful of the feelings of all those with whom they came in contact. On the other hand, Trollope describes a family with approbation:

The Burtons were an active, energetic people who sympathized with each other in labour and success,—and in endurance also; but who had little sympathy to express for the weaknesses of grief. When her children had stumbled in their play, bruising their little noses, and barking their little shins, Mrs. Burton, the elder, had been wont to bid them rise, asking them what their legs were for, if they could not stand. So they had dried their own little eyes with their own little fists, and had learned to understand that the rubs of the world were to be borne in silence. This rub that had come to Florence was of grave import, and had gone deeper than the outward skin; but still the old lesson had its effect.

I like Trollope’s faith in resilience and indomitability as I do the stoicism of the Victorians, toughness still evident in the UK today. Also Victorian about Trollope is his earnestness – he is sincere in his opinions on the serious issues of love, money, profession, work ethic, the elements of good and bad marriages, and individual integrity (e.g. Priscilla Stanbury in He Knew He Was Right).

I must confess that in Trollope I tend to tolerate the love story and run with relief to other characters like Archie, Sophie, and Count Paterhoff. Lady Ongar, after her terrible mistake in marrying for money, holds her dignity and charm well. Sir Hugh is a portrait of a truly terrible husband with Hermione as his beaten-down wife who still manages to love him. Capt. Boodle, in his coarse advice given above, shows the hazards in the wake of marrying for money – to be the subject for such speculations can’t be comforting.