Thursday, June 23, 2022

Personalized Nuclear Weapons

The Doomsters - Ross Macdonald

I’ve been reading and re-reading Ross Macdonald’s mysteries since I was a teenager in the middle 1970s. I think that Macdonald could do things in the mystery genre which Raymond Chandler couldn’t. In contrast to Chandler’s too convoluted plots, Macdonald constructed stories with no extra screws lying around at the end. For Macdonald, plot unfolds as characters struggle toward their goals, dogged by their shortcomings and bad decisions. The Doomsters covers three kinds of psychological pathologies; various sins like lechery, gluttony, despair; and the usual weaknesses such as envy and social climbing.

Most importantly, Macdonald’s PI Lew Archer has a heart and soul compared to lots of hard-boiled Pi’s that came after. In the climax of The Doomsters Archer says to the perp “I don’t hate you,” and thinks “I was an ex-cop and the words came hard. I had to say them, though, if I didn’t want to be stuck for the rest of my life with the old black-and-white picture, the idea that there were just good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones or wiped them out with small personalized nuclear weapons.” For Macdonald, the source of pain and pathology lies not exclusively in lousy neighborhoods or bad friends, but in twisted family history.

The Doomsters is a turning point in the Archer novels. After this novel, Macdonald was to return again and again to large themes of justice, choice, and alienation. Released in 1958, but the theme that families and their troubles are never what they seem is timeless. Unhappy in their own fashion, indeed.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Dance Dance Dance

The Dance of Life – Havelock Ellis

This book was a best-seller in 1923. It is a collection of essays on the arts of dancing, thinking, writing, religion, and morals. The point of view is not quite philosophy, but instead an orientation, a general outlook, or approach to thinking about these big issues. The intended audience is intelligent people, shocked and demoralized by the capacity of so-called civilized peoples to slaughter its young men in the carnage of World War I. In the introduction, Ellis says, optimistically, he writes for people who are already on his side, i.e. people who realize all of us together somehow create the spirit of the age in which we live.

… Vaihinger's philosophy* is not only of interest because it presents so clearly and vigorously a prevailing tendency in modern thought. Rightly understood, it supplies a fortifying influence to those who may have seen their cherished spiritual edifice, whatever it may be, fall around them and are tempted to a mood of disillusionment.  We make our own world; when we have made it awry, we can remake it, approximately truer, though it cannot be absolutely true, to the facts. It will never be finally made; we are always stretching forth to larger and better fictions which answer more truly to our growing knowledge and experience.

British physician and paragon of Edwardian progressive thought, Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) became famous - notorious, in many quarters - for his seven volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897-1928). He was a boy genius that read everything from a young age, having vast amounts of time when he lived in the Australian bush. He was thus deeply read in the visual and performing arts, literature, the natural sciences and medicine, world history, and travel narratives that doubled as early anthropology. Faced with reviewing yet another of Ellis’ 41 books, H.L. Mencken, American magazine editor and critic, said, “The extent of his knowledge is appalling.”

The problem with the book is the problem with many scholars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is rather an armchair culture maven, depending on secondary sources and the conclusions of those who were more observers than experts (e.g. Livingston as ethnologist). Also, Ellis uses terms loosely, even for me, not too rigorous a reader much less a demanding pedant. For example, I get the feeling that like a lot liberal social reformers in the Teens and Twenties, he doesn’t think through eugenics and see what the right and other vicious elements in our society would happily do to vulnerable people they thought “unfit.”

But for all the looseness of terms and not knowing what we know now, Ellis’ simple and sincere style is persuasive for those readers who read to affirm forward movement (progress, improvement, little sadness and fretting, a little serenity) in their own lives. Like I said, this book is not about dogma or philosophy or mysticism but a general orientation toward life.

* We willingly accept falsehoods or fictions in order to live peacefully in an irrational world.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Ides of Perry Mason 37

On the 15th of every month, we publish something about Our Fave Lawyer.

Tribute to Jeanne Bal & Kathie Browne

Watch enough Perry Mason on MeTV and FETV and start seeing familiar faces from the original Star Trek. The greatest TV courtroom drama of all time employed players who later performed on the 1960s version of the greatest science-fiction[1] TV show of all time.

Two actresses in particular – Jeanne Bal and Kathie Browne - must have been favorites in the Perryverse Casting Department since they each appear in no fewer than four episodes.

Jeanne Bal played salt-loving Nancy Crater in 1966 The Mantrap. Anticipating the setting of the final frontier, Bal played in two Masons that capitalized on the hot issue of the space race The Case of the Misguided Missile (1961) and The Case of the Angry Astronaut (1962). In the former she plays two-timing schemer Helen Rand who, as a serious security risk relative to blackmail, never should have been allowed on base. In the latter she’s dedicated psychiatrist Dr. Linda Carey who gives her patient placebo to overcome anxiety. In both parts, whether siren sexpot or thoughtful professional, Bal gave the impression of depths that asked for sympathetic understanding before judgement.

In The Case of the Telltale Tap (1965), as executive assistant Vera Wynne, Bal lights up the monochrome screen with a ripping performance. Her character is proficient and ruthless in the business world, but in her personal life she makes unfortunate miscalculations as to how much a younger man feels for her. Again, Bal brings to the character the suggestion that the outside Vera seems to have it all together, but on the inside lurks and glowers unstable craziness from which those seeking a quiet life should flee. That she becomes a fury not to be denied amazes all unwary enough to come into contact with her.

In The Case of the Wrathful Wraith (1965) Bal calmly plays the seemingly faithful friend Rosemary Welch to Louise Sellf played by fragile ice queen Marian McCargo. Still, to keep the viewer guessing about suspects, the part calls for Rosemary to keep her own counsel, perhaps nursing her own hidden agenda or secret sorrow. In this melodramatic episode, Selff has been successfully defended by Perry from a charge of murder but she gradually cracks up under the strain of publicity, a cynical reporter, an earthy spiritualist, a creepy PI,  and the idea that her missing presumed dead husband is haunting her. Geraldine Wall plays a memorable scene on the stand as middle-aged landlady witness who intones “Louise, Louise.” I find this one highly entertaining though I’d understand if so-called regular people thought it was really corny.

Kathie Browne played speeded-up Queen Deela in the 1968 episode Wink of an Eye. Clad in a garment that made the viewer wonder hopefully if a wardrobe malfunction was in store, she played an alluring but pitiless alien. Browne’s first appearance in the Perryverse was in The Case of the Provocative Protege (1960). Though Browne was 30 when played Donna Loring Ross, her taut blondeness and the prim manner of a classical pianist persuade us that Donna really is a naïve 20-year-old, shocked to learn that an insecure middle-aged man would have feelings for her. Like most innocents on the show, she ends up accused of murder.  Always reliable are Virginia Field as the hard-pressed wife and Harry Jackson, who made a half dozen appearances on Perry as the blackmailing louse.

In The Case of the Mystified Miner (1962) Browne plays another naïve young’un, Susan Fisher, secretary to a boss that expects her to punch in on Saturday while he spends the day on the links. She’s dedicated to doing a good job, but the situation spirals out of control after the boss’ little boy brings to the office a shoebox full of benjamins. Smart but young enough to be gullible too, she ends up accused of murder, looking in court like she belongs in a pew in church.

In The Case of the Festive Felon (1963), her part as secretary Carla Eden is relatively small but she makes the most of it. There is a funny but cringe-inducing scene in which Paul Drake impersonates a talent scout; he scams her with the ‘you ought to be pictures’ line and grabs her face. Generally speaking, men commit a lot of battery against women in the show. It’s something, like the constant smoking, that makes us shudder in our more enlightened era.

Finally, Browne plays the central character of Lona Upton in The Case of the Thermal Thief (1965). She’s good but the episode is weakly written. It is one of the half dozen or so episodes without Raymond Burr who was undergoing jaw surgery. Instead, we get ponderous Barry Sullivan whose appeal always escaped me.

Jeanne Bal retired from acting in 1970, at the age of 42. She passed away of breast cancer in 1996, at the age of 66. Kathie Browne became tired being stuck in ingénue roles and retired in the late 1970s. She married TV actor Darren McGavin, best-known for an early version of the X-Files called Kolchak: The Night Stalker. They were married more than thirty years, until Browne’s death at 72 in 2003.

[1] Science fiction explores the human condition in situations not of our current world (original Star Trek), while sci-fi is about square-jawed heroes battling aliens and killer robots and driving star cruisers and shit blowing up in non-stop action that makes you feel sick and tired by the time you escape the theater (rebooted Star Trek).

Monday, June 13, 2022

Back to the Classics #11

I read this book for the reading challenge Back to the Classics 2022.

Classic Set in a Place You'd Like to Visit. This novel starts in Florence, Italy and moves to the Surrey hills in southern England. In the first part we find the sunny, fascinating south, full of life and poetry and violets and poppies; in the second, the typical English countryside with its woods, ponds and weather ever influential on mood and incident. The second setting recalls the novels of Jane Austen, of which Forster was a great admirer.

A Room with a View – E.M. Forster

This 1908 novel combines a rom-com with coming of age story. Delicate, ironic, witty, romantic, comedic, it's well done. The reader can tell that Forster took time and pains to get the sentences right.  Not a sentence too many, no missteps with tone or mood or pace.

Like any earnest young Englishwoman of the early twentieth century, Lucy Honeychurch goes to Florence with the goal of cultural uplift uppermost in mind. Per Edwardian custom, she must travel accompanied by a chaperone (in this case, her poor cousin Charlotte) and must never get separated from her Baedeker, the go-to guide for all serious tourists.

But one afternoon, waiting by herself in a public place, Lucy goes through feeling tired, bored, dusty, and vulnerable. She reaches her own imagination, her own dreams, her mystery that’s only hers: “Then the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.”

But life doesn’t change just like that, defaults are hard to re-set. Educated according to traditional values ​​of the end of the Victorian era, Lucy uneasily meets the Emersons, father and son, who border on indelicacy by offering to exchange their rooms with the two cousins ​​so that they can benefit from a view of the Arno. In Lucy's unstable world, possibly incurring an obligation is not done. Especially since both the father and the son are rumored to be Socialists, not at all the kind of people to owe an obligation.

This is the starting point of Lucy's inner journey. These two cultures will interact again in England and Lucy will have to examine her feelings and what she expects from life and from her fiasco of a fiancé Cecil Vyse, a symbol of empty preening erudition but also of the late Victorian relationship between men and women, synonymous with psychological confinement. 

I read this novel with my goal of reading more 20th century writers. But I’m sure Forster isn't a perfect modernist. He occasionally addresses his readership directly with a typically English humor, expresses his opinion in the style of Trollope and asks for the reader's opinion, sometimes urging them not to be too severe with the characters because “Though life is very glorious, it is difficult.”

On the other hand, the lightness of the novel and its cheerful tone do not prevent Forster from expressing modern messages. He urges the readers to re-evaluate emotion, sexuality and the human body in general, in the frank reflection of Pa Emerson:

I only wish poets would say this, too: love is of the body; not the body, but of the body. Ah! the misery that would be saved if we confessed that! Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul! Your soul, dear Lucy!

Foster also speaks of equality between the sexes as a goal. Only through the joint struggle of men and women can it be achieved. He also insists on the importance of weighing logic and emotion to reach truth, understood not only as a value in itself but above all as honesty towards oneself and fidelity to what one is. We have a duty to know ourselves, identify our own values, lest we never find out and failing in ignorance, also failing to resolve muddle (a word mentioned 20 times in this novel) in its usual forms, and failing to find intimacy with somebody else.

Truly an enchanting, funny and intelligent novel. Not as ambitious and engrossing as the major novel in his early period, Howards End, but a very enjoyable read.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

HIgh Finance Murder

Double, Double, Oil and Trouble - Emma Lathen

This is Book 17 of the long-running series starring investment banker John Putnam Thatcher. It is set in 1978. He taken far from his Manhattan haunts to Istanbul, Zurich, and London in adventures that involve kidnapping and murder.

In the first half of the book, the familiar series characters are pushed into the background in order to visit the different locations and place the various characters in their different organizations. The action unfolds in a complicated fashion and we are thankful Putnam gives a lengthy reveal. The wheeling and dealing of large oil companies to land drilling contracts is only mildly interesting.

In the end, while this is worth reading for true fans, I don’t think it is the best introduction to the Lathen mysteries. See Something in the Air or Murder to Go

Lathen was the pen-name for two Boston business executives, Mary J. Latsis and  Martha Hennissart. Their entertaining series blended series characters from Wall Street and characters in a specific industry. Their novels were solid sellers from 1961 to 1997 (when Ms. Latsis passed away).

Click the title to go to the review:

Banking on Death (1961)

A Place for Murder (1963)

Accounting for Murder (1964); Silver Dagger Award

Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round (1966)

Death Shall Overcome (1966)

Murder Against the Grain (1967); Gold Dagger Award

A Stitch in Time (1968)

Come to Dust (1968)

When in Greece (1969); shortlisted for Edgar Award

Murder to Go (1969)

Pick Up Sticks (1970)

Ashes to Ashes (1971)

The Longer the Thread (1971)

Murder Without Icing (1972)

Sweet and Low (1974)

By Hook or by Crook (1975)

Double, Double, Oil and Trouble (1978)

Going for the Gold (1981)

Green Grow the Dollars (1982)

Something in the Air (1988)

East is East (1991)

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Dancing on the Edge of Occam's Razor

The Razor’s Edge – Somerset Maugham (1944)

The protagonist of this novel, Larry Darrell, has been traumatized by his experience as a combat pilot in the ordeal of WWI and the death of his closest friend who was killed in action while saving Larry’s life. Like many of his contemporaries, Larry is examining the certainties and pieties that have taken a beating due to the attempted suicide of Western civilization.

A razor’s edge is a dangerous position or a position in which two different things are carefully balanced. As the novel starts in 1919, Larry finds himself in a dangerous position. Other people are starting to write him off as a loser since they believe he’s taking too long to make serious life choices.  Mr. Maturin and his son Grey want him to work for their Chicago brokerage and spin millions. Mrs. Bradley and her daughter Isabel want him to land a lucrative job and marry Isabel, all vivacity and strapping embonpoint. Isabel’s uncle Elliott Templeton wants him to do the family credit by cutting an alluring figure in fashionable society.

Larry however wants to balance what the world tells him he should want, what his mind finds logical and reasonable, and what his heart and soul need. In other words, he’s on a quest to identify whether a flourishing life in fact depends on wealth, property, reputation, power, influence, praise, a stable marriage, happy family life, and healthy gainfully-employed issue. Or he says:

I want to make up my mind whether God is or God is not. I want to find out why evil exists. I want to know whether I have an immortal soul or whether when I die it’s the end.

His quest to identify the hankerings of his spirit takes him to Chicago, William James, Paris and yogi Sri Ganesha in an ashram in the Himalayas.

Maugham[1] is not counted among the modernists like James, Conrad, Woolf and Joyce because his writing was never experimental. The novel opens with the alarming statement, "If I call this a novel it is only because I don't know what else to call it.” Well, pops, what are we readers to make of it, if you don’t what it is? It’s an odd statement from a successful author. Maugham, who in 1908 had four hit plays running at the same time, had shown multiple times by 1944 that he had a feeling for what kind of story would appeal to lots of readers and sell like hot cakes.

But the reader leery of experimental fiction is quickly reassured upon realizing Maugham once again uses his comprehensible prose style and doesn’t ask more of readers than drawing inferences any thinking adult would be up to. Maugham prided himself on his artless clarity, sniffing at subtle Jamesian ambiguities. He said:

The author wraps his meaning in mystery so that the vulgar shall not participate in it. His soul is a secret garden into which the elect may penetrate only after overcoming a number of perilous obstacles.

In an autobiographical notes written in 1940, George Orwell said “The modern writer who has influenced me most is Somerset Maugham, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.” The ability to write lucid prose is a power not to be despised, but critics – even ones that enjoy Maugham – warn us readers not to read too much Maugham in one sitting, lest the plain style start to taste insipid and flat.

In this novel Maugham unthreateningly uses techniques associated with the modernists. The story is not told in a linear way: he jumps around in time and reveals information when it is “convenient.” He’s ironic in the sardonic modernist manner when he points out that each of the characters has found happiness in the form they wanted. Maugham also dons the gay apparel of the unreliable narrator. He places Grey, Isabel, Elliott and their set on the hedonic treadmill, but makes it clear he enjoys hanging out with such materialistic flibbertigibbets and finds Larry’s quest puzzling.

The first person narration is conducted by Maugham himself, a character in the novel. How metafictional!  He refers to his own novel The Moon and Sixpence (1919) as a previous example of the story of a guy who turns his back on the expectations of the world to find his own artistic or spiritual path. He admits depending on imagination to recount conversations in which he did not participate. The reported conversations are usually persuasive but when they are not, they seem forced and heavy.

The prose is generally quite readable, making the novel feel loose in the sense of relaxed, like an extended conversation on a summer evening. In a way, his clumsy chatty prose disarms us readers. For instance, he disclaims any expertise in rendering American English and goes on to prove it by having Larry say, “I was reading Descartes the other day. The ease, the grace, the lucidity. Gosh!” When Isabel rebukes him for sitting on the sidelines of life, Larry smiles and says, “You're very severe, honey,” like no man said to no woman ever[2].

Maugham also puts us homebody readers at ease by taking us to the most sophisticated circles of the rich and shiftless and the scuzziest dives of whores and jolly jack-tars, flattering us that we can be as cosmopolitan and open to experience as Maugham though we’ve never been farther from Holt, Michigan than Lansing. He invites us to laugh at the snobbishness of the “old cissie” Elliott Templeton and his whoring after trashy aristocrats on their uppers. He invites us unhip readers to feel worldly-wise, as we assess the claim that popularity and prestige are false promises, being at the mercy of fickle public opinion and the relentless passing of time.

Born in 1874, Maugham was 70 when this novel was released. Readers over 50 themselves will admire Maugham for still having the cognitive kung-fu to focus, write and revise in the long, frustrating, nightmarish process of producing a novel. His discipline and professionalism inspire awe. Plus, Maugham’s heart goes out to characters 40 years younger than him, a compassion that neither young nor old readers would expect in a codger-author notorious for his icy detachment. Remember the irreverent send-up of Hardy in Cakes and Ale (1930)?

The last attraction is pitched to that high-minded segment of lifelong learners in the American market, readers that feel wary of “just stories” unless they can be instructed in something new. Chapter Six slows the flow toward the conclusion, so Maugham plays fair by cautioning us that readers “can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of such story as I have to tell.” Maugham then has Larry give a TED-Talk on sainthood, Vedanta, and reincarnation.

So, for its readability, flattery of the reader, empathy for youth, and teaching points, it’s no wonder that this entertainment was a best-seller during WWII. It has never gone out of print. It’s on Anthony Burgess’ list of 99 great novels since the late 1930s. It’s been made into a movie twice. It’s still frequently read for reading challenges and book groups. It’s a classic quest novel.

[1] Said mawm; rhymes with brougham, brawm

[2] I tried this line on My Bride the other day. I couldn’t keep a straight face.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Back to the Classics #10

I read this book for the reading challenge Back to the Classics 2022.

20th Century Classic: Though with age the lure of “relatable characters” has become less pertinent to me, this novel starring a guy like me – racially ambiguous – may have had something to do with my inability to put this story down.  I won’t provide substantial framing or a content advisory relative to this novel. Suffice to say, its setting is Mississippi in the late Twenties – a racist society - so that rotten racist epithet is all over this novel. Not reading a great novel, a triumph of American literature, because of a rotten racist epithet is, I think, like pretending racism and white supremacy don't exist.

Light in August – William Faulkner

This excellent novel from 1932 is a Great Southern Novel, right up there with All the King’s Men or Margaret Walker's Jubilee. On one hand, the plot and incidents unfold in a readily comprehensible fashion. While there are flashbacks and shifts in narrative voice, they are not as baffling as in The Sound and the Fury (TS&TF) or As I Lay Dying.  This is nearly a stand-alone novel, with few references to other novels in his Yoknapatawpha cycle. As for theme, it’s Faulkner’s enduring theme, as one character sums up:

‘It is because so much happens. Too much happens. That’s it. Man performs, engenders, so much more than he can or should have to bear. That’s how he finds that he can bear anything. That’s it. That’s what is so terrible. That he can bear anything, anything.’

On the other hand, just like reading TS&TF, even the most hardcore readers have to approach a Faulkner novel as if it were music, letting the need-to-comprehend-everything pedant-self be carried away by the rhythm and flow without trying to understand every note perfectly. In Faulkner’s prose there are notes that seem off and notes that seem only kind of clear or not clear at all. Just go with it.

Combinations of words are encountered in this novel as if they are heard in dreams or sedated coming out of surgery. Some phrases are like synesthesia, alluding to smells that are touched, light that is smelled, sounds that are savored like umami. I read, shaking my head, just gaping in disbelief at what Faulkner is putting down,

Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.

The stories that make up the novel are not, I think, as important as simply understanding the characters and their trials. The protagonist, Joe Christmas, is a hero on a quest in search of an identity that he never finds. He has to start with a parentage that is unknown but people make decisions about him and for him as if his origins clear were clear enough to pigeonhole him. Joe Christmas cannot free himself of the insomnia, anorexia, anger, loneliness, and social and emotional withdrawal caused by his abusive upbringing at the hands of a ruthless Christian. He is a rambler with a future doomed by the violence with which he is constantly treated and which he metes out to other people.

Joe Christmas also brings to mind the character Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger. Both are treated unjustly by cruel police and the stupid criminal justice system.  Both are atheists: Meursault curses and mocks the prison chaplain; Christmas utters blasphemies from the pulpit of a black church. Neither believe in prayer, Meursault scoffs at the preacher who urges him to and Christmas does likewise when Joanna Burden wants to pray with him. More existentially, staring into the face death, both resign themselves to the human condition (constantly fighting one's own and others' stupidity, injustice, fear, craving). They both are resigned to their inescapable cruel fate at end, seeing freedom in their ability to choose how they are going to respond to death. Life is difficult, and when you have to die you’ll die, but life’s a gas anyway.

Other well-drawn characters include lonely defrocked preacher Gail Hightower, his friend lonely Byron Bunch and lonely fanatic Joanna Burden. Not so lonely is single but pregnant teenager Lena Grove, the comic relief that calls to mind luckless Anse Bundren whose bewitched neighbors feel compelled to help. Using her youth and vulnerability, Lena is such a deft operator that she gets older married women to provide assistance even though they instinctively don’t like her for being so dumb as to couple with a smooth-talking drifter. But blessings rain down on faux-naïve Lena, while others like Joe Christmas can’t turn around without running into trouble. Ain’t nobody in a Faulkner novel gonna say life is fair and dealing with injustice is part of the endurance that we need to get out of life uncrushed, unbowed, unafraid. 

There is also the setting of the Southern small town of Jefferson (Mississippi) with the time being the late 1920s. For Faulkner, time is both fleeting and eternal. A person’s lifetime is transitory. But the historical memory of a people – e.g. Southerners, Americans - is haunted by undying ghosts, as implied in the quotation about memory above. Race-based chattel slavery. Deprivation, lawlessness and violence. White supremacy. People hold tight to their values about anti-smarts, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order, sexual anxiety, Sodom and Gomorrah, beliefs rooted in a peasant past and bitter memories of defeat in the war. The angry spirit of racism seems especially irremediable and undying, because it is part of people’s religious and social identity.

Their culture-bound values drag themselves and other people into abysses. As if there were a compulsion in certain kinds of people to impose their principles on others even when they are moved by masochism, white nationalism, militarism, fascist power worship, fanaticism, and misery. Ordinary men and women just want to be left alone to mind their own business. Is it so much to ask, just a little peace, ask a couple of characters in this novel.

The pathos of Faulkner's writing and the cruelty of the incidents make the reader turn away from looking into the abysses even while there are plenty of those magical reading minutes in which the reader is so involved in the story that it is almost impossible to put the book down. The flashbacks are inserted with genius, especially that technique when the reader is told the upshot and then Faulkner backs up and recounts events that lead up to it.

After finishing this book, I am convinced of the greatness of William Faulkner.