Sunday, January 29, 2017

European RC #1

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge

Lament for a Maker – Micheal Innes

Set in remote rural Scotland in the middle 1930s, this novel borders on the real and surreal, with fanciful plotting and bizarre characters. The first section is narrated by Ewan Bell, patriarch and village cobbler. He uses the unfamiliar vocabulary of Scottish English: quean for girl, chiel for man, unco for remarkable, fleer for grin, to name only a very few. The new words add to the local color, strange atmosphere and bizarre goings-on. It’s challenging but attentive reading allows us to grok the meaning.

The next section is narrated by Noel Gylby, who is clearly an English major with a sophisticated literary style. Innes was a university prof and must have read – and suffered - a lot in this witty self-conscious style. Gylby appears in Hamlet, Revenge! by Innes. Very impressive is his depiction of Gothic scene of the ruined castle, unheated and unlighted, with the mad miserly laird in his keep, his face lined and heart heavy with turmoil. 

The third section features the orotund style of Lawyer Wedderburn. His pompous prose calls to mind attorneys in Dickens. The fourth section is the narrative of Innes’ series hero, Yard inspector John Appleby. The next section, I can’t possible give away as a spoiler. Innes – that is, J.I.M. Stewart - was a scholar of modernist prose so he enjoys pulling tricks out of its bag: multiple points of view, unreliable narrators, sly social comment, starting in the middle of the story, etc.

Innes wrote mysteries assuming his audience comprised bookish people who are looking for an entertaining break between reading, say, That Mighty Sculptor, Time (Marguerite Yourcenar) and  Little Herr Friedmann (Thomas Mann). He has Lawyer Wedderburn define mysteries as “a species of popular fiction which bears much the same relation to the world of actual crime as does pastoral poetry to the realities of rural economy. “ So Innes thought it appropriate and fun to “bring a little fantasy and fun into the detective story,” as he said in his 1987 memoir.

Readers that like Nicholas Blake, Cyril Hare, Mary Fitt and Josephine Tey will like the intelligent and deftly written  mysteries of Michael Innes. Lament for a Maker has been recognized as a classic for years. Rex Stout, creator of Nero Wolfe, included it on a 1947 list of best detective stories. It was selected for the “Top 100 Crime Novels of the 20th Century” by The Times in 2000.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Classics #2

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

Roderick Random – Tobias Smollet

Whenever I think of the category “18th century novel,” I quake at the thought of undertaking a thousand-page epistolary novel like Pamela. But I’m enough of a reading snob to want to read what nobody else reads, length be d----d. Plus, an encomium dedicated to Tobias Smollett by George Orwell, whom I prefer more as a critic than a novelist, made a deep enough impression to be filed away in my sieve-like memory. So, Roderick Random, Smollett’s first novel, published in 1748, it was.

I suspicion that Smollett is infrequently read these days because Roderick Random has all the qualities of the picaresque novel, a form that, in our more easily-perturbed days, after hours of yoga and sensitivity training sessions, we don’t know how to take. For instance, our titular hero becomes a valet for a learned lady, whose brain, her maid reveals, is subject to nutty obsessions:

[S]ome months ago, she prophesied the general conflagration was at hand, and nothing would be able to quench it but her water, which therefore she kept so long, that her life was in danger, and she must needs have died of the retention, had they not found an expedient to make her evacuate, by kindling a bonfire under her chamber window and persuading her that the house was in flames: upon which, with great deliberation, she bade them bring all the tubs and vessels they could find to be filled for the preservation of the house, into one of which she immediately discharged the cause of her distemper.

Indeed, the knock-about humor is rough, calling to mind the gusto that Dickens put into describing how poor Oliver Twist was hit, battered, thumped and thrashed and kids in Bleak House getting their heads caught in wrought-iron fences. The mockery, horse-play, and violence make us taboo-leery post-moderns gasp in dismay. We can see where Dickens got his relish for plainly describing the grotesque and shifty:

This member of the faculty was aged fifty, about five feet high, and ten round the belly; his face was as capacious as a full moon, and much of the complexion of a mulberry: his nose, resembling a powder-horn, was swelled to an enormous size, and studded all over with carbuncles; and his little gray eyes reflected the rays in such an oblique manner that, while he looked a person full in the face, one would have imagined he was admiring the buckle of his shoe

The farce is very 18th-century in that at night roadside inns invariably involve guests getting into the wrong bedroom by accident or design and fornicators getting it on with or without the full informed consent of the fornicatee.

The morality-free satire bites and stings, pierces and hacks as it takes on nepotism, arbitrary authority, conscience-free malice, deceit, not to mention the old standbys hypocrisy, greed, lust, and stupidity. Life isn’t fair, not anywhere, especially not school, for our hero, for anybody:

I was often inhumanly scourged for crimes I did not commit, because having the character of a vagabond in the village, every piece of mischief whose author lay unknown, was charged upon me.—I have been found guilty of robbing orchards I never entered, of killing cats I never hurted, of stealing gingerbread I never touched, and of abusing old women I never saw.—Nay, a stammering carpenter had eloquence enough to persuade my master, that I fired a pistol loaded with small shot, into his window; though my landlady and the whole family bore witness, that I was a-bed fast asleep at the time when this outrage was committed.—I was flogged for having narrowly escaped drowning, by the sinking of a ferry-boat in which I was passenger.—Another time for having recovered of a bruise occasioned by a horse and cart running over me.—A third time, for being bit by a baker’s dog.—In short, whether I was guilty or unfortunate, the vengeance and sympathy of this arbitrary pedagogue were the same.

Our hero is a typical main character for a picaresque. Roderick Random is a young Scotchman of humble origins and a spotty medical education who must get by on his wits, connections, and petty criminality.  Rory has a faithful retainer like Sancho Panza, Hugh Strap, a barber, as his name implies.  The characters are mainly types and caricatures, with names that sum them up like Mr. Vandal and Lord Strutwell. The caricatures cover everybody from cheating innkeepers to quack pharmacists.  The characters are clear-cut in the naval chapters. The sailors Morgan (the Welsh surgeon), Uncle Bowling, Cpt. Oakum, Dr. Mackshane, Jack Rattlin, all live and breathe while the gay (in our sense) Capt. Whiffle and his favorite Mr. Simper  faint in horror at the smell of tobacco.

Smollett sets the characters in in a variety of realistic-feeling settings. Smollett was trained in medicine and like all doctors, got hardened to bad smells and gory sights. Rory is press-ganged and ends up in the cockpit of the warship Thunder.

We descended by divers ladders to a space as dark as a dungeon, which, I understood, was immersed several feet under water, being immediately above the hold. I had no sooner approached this dismal gulph, than my nose was saluted with an intolerable stench of putrified cheese and rancid butter, that issued from an apartment at the foot of the ladder, resembling a chandler’s shop, where, by the faint glimmering of a candle, I could perceive a man with a pale, meagre countenance, sitting behind a kind of desk, having spectacles on his nose, and a pen in his hand.

Written in the first person, plot there is not there, more like narrative strands worked into a mesh, weaving  up one writer’s tapestry of the rowdy ripping 18th century with all its corruption, racketeering, privateering, slave running, poverty, prostitution, brutal wills, the Marshalsea debtor's prison, impressment, political and arts patronage, and the dark origins of modern medicine and pharmacy. Now we know why the Victorians were so uptight  –  they were fleeing in horror and disgust from the loud licentious 18th century. And its medieval squalor and dirt:

[W}hen I followed him with the medicines into the sick berth, or hospital, and observed the situation of the patients, I was much less surprised that people should die on board, than that a sick person should recover. Here I saw about fifty miserable distempered wretches, suspended in rows, so huddled one upon another, that not more than fourteen inches space was allotted for each with his bed and bedding; and deprived of the light of the day, as well as of fresh air; breathing nothing but a noisome atmosphere of the morbid steams exhaling from their own excrements and diseased bodies, devoured with vermin hatched in the filth that surrounded them, and destitute of every convenience necessary for people in that helpless condition.

A picaresque novel like Roderick Random seems terrible long, too, so readers might tremble like I do at the prospect of Pamela. Worry not. The multi-syllabic discourse is daunting at first, but the sheer fun and – let’s face it – dreadfulness of the adventures will grow on blasé readers like us. We’ve read Cormac McCarthy, we can handle Smollett.

A bigger problem is that nowadays few of us can picture a tie-wig and bobwig. Nor are we really strong on French and Latin tags.  My only advice on both issues is the miracle of search engines –sure, it’s an extra step but you will be the only kid on the block that can distinguish a pigtail wig and a periwig. Or upon seeing Putin’s President on TV you will impress everybody worth impressing by appropriately whipping off “Semper avarus eget” (greed is never satisfied).

Anyway, I’m glad I read it. It was a lot of fun. A sloop is sinking so sailors, expecting to die, go on a rampage in order to check out of this vale of tears as drunk as skunks. Naturally. A sailor breaks into the purser’s rum locker with an axe:

At that instant the purser coming down, and seeing his effects going to wreck, complained bitterly of the injustice done to him, and asked the fellow what occasion he had for liquor when, in all likelihood, he would be in eternity in a few minutes. “All’s one for that,” said plunderer, “let us live while we can.” “Miserable wretch that thou art!” cried the purser, “what must be thy lot in another world, if thou diest in the commission of robbery?” “Why, hell, I suppose,” replied the other, with great deliberation, while the purser fell on his knees, and begged of Heaven that we might not all perish for the sake of Jonas.

Being a brute, I like satire that is as savage as A Modest Proposal. If nothing else read it to get a bead on where Dickens, Melville and Thackeray were coming from. I confess, however, that  I’m unsure if I’m going to read other novels by Smollett.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Mount TBR #3

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 Haunted  House – Charles Dickens

Dickens ran a weekly magazine called All the Year Round. In the Victorian era, magazines catered to the wish of the public for reading aloud ghost stories at Christmas time. So for its Christmas number of 1859, Dickens got some fellow authors to collaborate on a connected tale. The authors we still read today are Elizabeth “North and South” Gaskell and Wilkie “The Woman in White” Collins while the forgotten ones are Hesba Stretton, George Augustus Sala, and Adelaide Anne Proctor.

Dickens himself opens the story by narrating a tale in which a skeptical guy decides to rent a haunted house.  The spooks run off his servants, which gives Dickens a change to strut his comic stuff. It’s very funny though we post-moderns think that Dickens' makes too much fun of female servants. Not giving up, the narrator recruits some friends to stay in the house to rustle up any wraiths or ghouls or spectres. They gather round the fire to recount stories of what happened in their respective rooms.

The stories, however, are not ghost stories of the M.R. James type. Rather, they are well-told tales of wrong-doing, trepidation, or pangs of guilt. Long on atmosphere, short on shades and phantoms. But it’s fun to read nevertheless. There is also the appeal that one is reading neglected, out of the way fiction that the squares don’t even know about. I read this in an edition published by Hesperus Press, which reprints little-known works by famous writers.


Friday, January 20, 2017

Inauguration Day

“Civilization, in fact, grows more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary. Wars are no longer waged by the will of superior men, capable of judging dispassionately and intelligently the causes behind them and the effects flowing out of them. The are now begun by first throwing a mob into a panic; they are ended only when it has spent its ferine fury.”

― H.L. Mencken, In Defense Of Women

maudlin - self-pityingly or tearfully sentimental

clamorous - expressing or characterized by vehement protests or demands.

ferine - wild, feral

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Classics #1

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

Audubon - Constance Rourke

This biography of the American bird artist was written for young adults. It won the Newbery Honor Award in 1937. It is not a formal biography because it gives the facts of his life in novelistic form. Written in plain language, it is extremely readable and will help the reader appreciate Audubon’s  contribution to American art. There are no distracting footnotes but the afterward persuades us that Rourke, a folklorist, was assiduous in doing the research with primary sources.

Rourke narrates her subject's journey from his native France to America in 1803, across Pennsylvania and down the Ohio to Kentucky, where he lived for a time after 1808. She gives beautiful descriptions of his trips up and down the Mississippi; to Louisiana, where he lived a few years; various trips to the North and to England, Scotland, and France; to Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, and to New York where he died in northern Manhattan.  I read this book in the original 1936 edition (I got it from a library) which has a dozen colored plates from original Audubon prints and numerous woodcuts.

Rourke depicts Audubon as a man ready to adapt himself to any challenge of frontier travel in a day when travel involved much travail. His companions were backwoodsmen, loggers, and other roughnecks, but he got along with them just fine because he talked to everybody, wanting to know their story. And people are usually gratified that somebody is interested in their story. Though reserved at first due to his lack of formal education, he learned to get along with the intellectuals and royal types he met in Edinburgh and London. Like Franklin, he was not above using the folksy image for marketing purposes.

The author makes clear that her subject was at his happiest in primeval forests birding  and botanizing and before his easel painting. Also interesting are stories of Audubon’s money problems, the vicious criticism of scurrilous newspaper writers, and his struggles to get subscribers to his first massive work Birds of America. He was also inspired by his family, consisting of two sons and his strong patient wife Lucy, whose pay from a teaching job assisted the family through hard financial times.

Rourke’s tone throughout is quiet and calm, but her style is readable and pleasant. It’s a relaxing book to read, perhaps because of the plain language for the YA target audience. It’s an old-timey biography in the sense that the faults of the subject are only hinted at. Rourke was a folklorist and historian of the American frontier so her information on the social life and culture of Audubon’s time is credible and interesting.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Mount TBR #2

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 Satchmo to Miles – Leonard Feather

The author was the most respected jazz critic and chronicler after WWII. This book collects magazine profiles of jazz musicians that appeared in monthlies (between the pictorials) such as Playboy and Nugget in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Covered are the greats:

Louis Armstrong
Duke Ellington
Billie Holiday
Ella Fitzgerald
Count Basie
Lester Young
Charlie Parker
Norman Granz (impresario)
Oscar Peterson
Ray Charles
Don Ellis
Miles Davis

As they are articles written at different times, probably under various circumstances, the material is rather uneven. On one hand, before it was a cool stance to take, he rehabilitated Louis Armstrong’s output in the Forties and Fifties, making the fair point that it is rare when a performing artist profoundly influences more than two generations of succeeding artists. He also provides insights on the jazz genius of Holiday, Young, and Parker. But the stories about Ellington and Fitzgerald feel like puff pieces written for an in-flight magazine.

“These are portraits of human beings first, analyses of musicians or musical history only peripherally if at all,” says Feather in the foreword. He admits that he does not have the musical knowledge to pick up on the really daring things a jazz musicians would be experimenting with, but he balances this by telling interesting stories.

I’d give this a qualified recommendation for a reader who was interested in a general history of post-WWII jazz music.It's written for a general audience, not experts or musicians.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Mount TBR #1

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

He Knew He Was Right  – Anthony Trollope

Louis Trevelyan and his wife Emily are a young married couple with a toddler son.  Despite hearing that women from the colonies are head-strong, Louis loves Emily, the daughter of Lady Rowley and Sir Marmaduke, a governor in what sounds like either the Bahamas or the Antipodes (Tony wrote fast so details slipped). Colonel Osbourne, her father’s contemporary and friend, likes to drop in for a bit of gossip. Plus, he gets an ego boost from the idea that even at his age his frequent visits can cause friction between husband and wife.

The friction, however, reaches the danger point because Emily asserts that Louis slanders her reputation by confronting her about the colonel and banning visits and letters between them. Essentially a suspicious weakling, Louis in his jealousy feels he must put his foot down and demand obedience as his wife’s duty. She claims that because there is nothing a reasonable person would find objectionable in her friendship with the colonel, he has no call to make such demands or dictate her duties. The confrontation drives them into irreconcilable positions and finally drives a miserable Louis off his dot.

By the time he wrote this novel in 1869, Trollope was a seasoned writer with a growing interest in psychological changes in his characters. Over 900 pages, he introduces interesting characters, juggles multiple love stories, and moves the story at a steady pace. I don’t want to describe the plot because I don’t want to give anything away. So this is an overview of the characters.

Nora Rowley, the second daughter of Sir Marmaduke, rejects – in two of the four (count ‘em!) proposal scenes - the suit of Charles Glascock, wealthy son and heir of Lord Peterborough. She is in love with Hugh Stanbury, a poor reporter working for the penny newspaper The Daily Record and a friend of Louis Trevelyan.  Miss Jemima Stanbury, a spinster who lives in the cathedral town of Exeter, is a former benefactor of Hugh Stanbury, her nephew. She’s put him out of her house for using her money to go to college only to end up working at a dingy newspaper for a low and precarious income. Aunt Stanbury, a wonderful comic tory and tyrant, has Dorothy Stanbury, sister of Hugh Stanbury, come live with her. Doing go, pretty Dorothy attracts the attention of both Thomas Gibson, a minor canon, and Brooke Burgess, Aunt Stanbury’s heir and a mid-level government clerk in London. Another great character is the stoical, ill-conditioned, prickly Priscilla Stanbury, sister of Hugh and Dorothy. We hardcore readers can tell Priscilla reads as much as us:

To her eyes all days seemed to be days of wrath, and all times, times of tribulation. And it was all mere vanity and vexation of spirit. To go on and bear it till one was dead,—helping others to bear it, if such help might be of avail,—that was her theory of life. To make it pleasant by eating, and drinking, and dancing, or even by falling in love, was, to her mind, a vain crunching of ashes between the teeth. Not to have ill things said of her and of hers, not to be disgraced, not to be rendered incapable of some human effort, not to have actually to starve,—such was the extent of her ambition in this world.

Trollope gives even the minor characters much life and points of view. Martha, Jemima Stanbury's maid, resolutely carries out her employer’s wishes, while making her own points in circuitous ways. Mr. Samuel Bozzle is a compunction-free ex-policeman and PI employed by Louis Trevelyan to keep an eye on Emily while she lives with the put-upon vicar Mr. Oliphant Outhouse, an uncle of Emily and Nora.  Sisters Camilla and Arabella, with the assistance of their mother Mrs French enter into conspiracy to trap Mr. Gibson in marriage. Caroline Spalding, a young American woman, battle Miss Wallachia Petrie, an American feminist, who objects to Carry’s relationship with the feudal lord Charles Glascock. Beating even naming Oliphant Outhouse, Trollope assigned somebody only mentioned a typically loopy name: an eminent mad doctor is named Dr. Trite Turbury.

I highly recommend this novel to readers looking for a long winter-time read filled with interesting and familiar characters in plausible settings, in adult situations, with many excellent moments and scenes. It’s not only the title “He” who stubbornly knows he right. Almost all of the characters are self-willed, obstinately clinging to their choices, both rational and irrational. As prickly Priscilla observes, probably as a stand-in for Trollope:

All that is twopenny-halfpenny pride, which should be thrown to the winds. The more right you have been hitherto the better you can afford to go on being right. What is it that we all live upon but self-esteem? When we want praise it is only because praise enables us to think well of ourselves. Every one to himself is the centre and pivot of all the world.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Mary Pickford: America's Sweetheart

Mary Pickford: America's Sweetheart - Scott Eyman

ISBN 1556111479

This readable biography is an informative and appreciative examination of the silent film actress who was the first multi-media star. Although she is nearly forgotten today, Pickford was first mega-celebrity. Eyman gives us a good sense of how her fame grew and what she did to maintain it. This can also be read as the story of a woman who was not going to depend on others to keep her family together or her career going. The toughest Hollywood moguls grudgingly admired Pickfor for her  business sense and negotiating style. This well worth reading for people into the history of film, the sociology of celebrity and women's issues.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

European Challenge 2017

I will read these books for the European Challenge 2017.

1/ Lament for a Maker - Michael Innes (Scotland)

2/ An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo - Richard Davenport-Hines (England)

3/ The Premier - Georges Simenon (France)

4/ The Judge and His Hangman - Friedrich Dürrenmatt (Switzerland)

5/ Spies of Balkans – Alan Furst (Greece)

6/ Conquered City – Victor Serge (Russia)

Monday, January 2, 2017

Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017

I will read 60 books (Mt. Kilimanjaro) 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.

Last year I read almost 70 books for this challenge, giving me the chance to pass on books I've read. I give them to libraries for their UBS's. I also leave them on a campus cart whose people can leave books - though people leave old magazines and CDs and video tapes (as if anybody has a VCR anymore).

This challenge has enabled me to de-clutter, though part of me protests at regarding books as clutter.My goal is to own as few books as possible and depend on libraries.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year!

The Magician
French title: Antoine et Julie
First published: 1953
Translation: Helen Sebba, 1954

In Simenon’s existential thrillers, or non-Maigret noir downers if you prefer, his main characters are often lonely. Emotionally flat and socially inept, they seek connection to others in dysfunctional ways. In Justice, a delinquent seeks suspect companionship among low lives. In A New Lease on Life, alienation drives an accountant to seek the shabby carnality of prostitutes. In The Man on the Bench in the Barn, a middle-aged lawyer has an ill-advised fling with the widow of the man that he thinks he’s killed.

But in The Magician, when the main character drinks, he chases “that contact, that way of looking at humanity and of feeling at one with it.” He reaches the impaired conclusion that people don't commit suicide because there comes a moment, “if you know how to manage things, when it is no longer necessary.” Antoine's “managing things” – i.e., drinking himself stupid - gets out of control and he has one of those miserable experiences – such as an accident, an arrest – that finally persuade alcoholics that they have hit bottom and better stop drinking. The precise writing makes this one a forceful if sad novel, especially to those interested in a literary treatment of the greed of alcoholics, examples of craving and triggers to drink, and how alcoholism damages not only the drinker but at least three or four other people around him.

Married in their forties, Antoine and Julie live in an apartment on rue Daru in Paris. Their first years of marriage were less than idyllic since Julie's mother did not like her son-in-law, whose conjuring and prestidigitation she despised as professions unfit for an adult male. She claimed Antoine  married Julie for her money, since Julie was overweight, middle-aged, and prone to anxiety.

But death solves problems like this. With the mother-in-law in her grave, you’d think things could be hunky-dory. They don't roll in money but he makes enough for them to make their modest ends meet. The lack of money is not the problem. The problem that life presents is that like a lot of alcoholics, Antoine knows perfectly well that he is one of those people who had better not drink, because when they do bad things happen. For him, two are too many and six are not enough. But as he works at night usually, all the chances are too inviting to stop in a bar, whistle up a gin or a cognac, and repeat the drunk's logic, "Hell, if I feel this good right now with just a couple, I may as well make a night of it."

In his cups, Antoine makes bad decisions. He hangs out with Dagobert, who likes to assert, “We’re all bastards,” just the good news alcoholics need to hear. He lends the worthless Dagobert money that he will never see again. He gets home late and hassles the highly-strung Julie with the dicky ticker. He claims that he is unhappy and pains his wife with unjust reproaches, blaming everybody and everything but himself for his problems. Of course, like lots of drunks, he feels remorse the next day. But neither his monotonous drinking nor nervy Julie’s heart problem stop him from drinking again after only a short period of abstinence.

On Christmas Eve, Julie notices that she has no heart medicine left. She asks Antoine to go to the pharmacy and fetch her the medication. Stuff happens - as the old song goes, "there's a thousand swingin' doors gonna let you in" -  the upshot of which you can guess if you’ve read the other existential thrillers listed below. And Antoine ends up being the kind of man “who never drinks and never asks questions.”

Georges Simenon, thanks to his immense talent and subdued writing, looks at the ordinary and makes it important.  

Other Non-Maiget Psychological-Existential Thrillers

The White Horse Inn