Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Michael Innes' Operation Pax

Stayed up a little too late to finish this, which is always a good sign in a book...

Operation Pax (1951) is definitely more adventure than murder mystery. This a suspense thriller that definitely does involve car chases. Without too much violence to the concept it could have served as a James Bond plot. Though there are some amusing bits of  Oxford parody.

It starts with Albert Routh, a small-time con man, funking on his current con and then stumbling into something that's much bigger than anything he's seen before. It both frightens him and gives him dreams of grandeur. The really bad guys are now out to kill him, but by bluffing and with a bit of luck, he escapes, and with a crucial piece of paper. But the baddies are close behind. Routh gets to Oxford before they catch up with him.

Sir John Appleby is in Oxford, investigating the disappearance of his sister's fiancé. He comes across the terrified Routh and has him for twelve hours before losing him again. But Appleby has learned something and suspects that the two cases are connected.

And, well, of course they are.

So Appleby is now on the hunt for Routh and the really bad guys. But so are a whole bunch of other people, including his sister Jane Appleby, Lord (?) Roger Remnant, an Oxford dropout and taxi driver, and the Tigers, a children's club. (The children's club would have been dropped for the James Bond version.)

Anywho, it kept me turning the pages. The plot depends a little too much on coinkydinks, and don't think for more than thirty seconds--you're not really invited to--about the science. The reveal of who the biggest bad guy at the end was a surprise, but not an especially convincing one. Doesn't matter. It was fun.
     "When this possibility came to me I made inquiries about Milton Manor. It is not for children but for adults--a large, private Kurort or Klinikum. I do not know the word--"
     "We used to say nursing-home or sanatorium. But we have started saying clinic too."

Vintage Mystery Challenge. Gold.  Where. Set in a hospital/nursing home.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Quote + Link + New Book To Read!

"My experience of my twenties was, in one word, confusion. It was a state of not quite knowing what I wanted, but wanting it very badly."
I laughed with recognition when I read that in an interview at Five Books with Hermione Hoby. Though she thought more highly of De Lillo's Underworld than I did, I do now want to read her debut novel Neon In Daylight. I put it on my library hold list.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Mount TBR 2018 Checkpoint #2 (Mt. Ararat)

As of today, I've read 26 of my 48 books toward the top of Mt. Ararat, my stated goal in the 2018 Mount TBR Reading Challenge. That's slightly over half my mountain and probably slightly under where I should be at the moment. I could figure it out but it's Sunday afternoon, I'm doing laundry, and I'm just not feeling that mathematical...

And I should be aiming for Mt. Everest (100) or Mt. Olympus on Mars (150) to get the problem here under control. Oh, well.

The most interestingly new-to-me book I read was Matt Cohen's The Bookseller which I read for a read locally challenge as well as for this. He's a new author to me, and while I've read a few other Toronto books, I haven't read anything quite so local as this. The narrator lives in a place clearly identifiable as about six blocks from my house, and I pass by there quite regularly in my usual round of gym and grocery store. I could someday read Katherine Govier's Fables of Brunswick Avenue which would be even closer; Brunswick Avenue is about two blocks from my house. She's a pretty well-known Canadian writer and I've heard good things about it. But even that might not feel as local, because Brunswick Avenue is a residential street and I don't go down it as often. Quite curious to read something so identifiably local.

There were five books on that TBR list that I've owned since before I started recording when I bought a book: The Group, El Cid, Tragic Sense Of Life, The Leopard, and Morte D'Urban. I don't know which I've had the longest, but I suspect it was The Group. Any one of them I could have quite happily read long ago, and were worth toting around all these years. Morte D'Urban and The Leopard I thought were the best.

Thanks again to Bev at My Reader's Block for hosting!

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Spurious Spinster

The Case Of The Spurious Spinster (1961) finds Perry Mason in good form. It's Sue Fisher, the well-dressed brunette of the cover, who goes to Perry Mason. She's an executive secretary, working on a Saturday and the son of her manager and the boy's governess come to the office. The son hands her a shoebox of hundred-dollar bills, supposedly from his father. She puts the money in the safe, goes to the airport to pick up the company's owner, and then goes straight to Perry Mason. Which turns out to be very astute of her. I would have thought, odd as it was, with the money in the safe everything would be fine. Well, of course, it wasn't.

Amelia Corning, the owner of Corning Mining, Smelting and Investment, lives in South America and is confined to a wheelchair; it's her who arrives at the airport. She then disappears that evening. Then a second, different Amelia Corning arrives the next day, and then she disappears, too. One of them was spurious, but which?

Ken Lowry, the manager of one of the Corning mines, is found murdered, by Perry, of course; shortly after that, Sue Fisher is arrested for the crime. It's clear that there's some sort of fraud going on, but who's behind it? The manager is the likeliest candidate, but it could be Sue Fisher, and she's arrested for the murder.

The formula requires a good-looking young woman who goes to Perry Mason for something else (check) and is promptly accused of murder (check). It has to be Perry who discovers the body (check). It also requires Perry finding some key bit of evidence, then obfuscating his trail in a way that brushes with legality. That part of the formula was very successfully done in this, and I thought the best part. No spoilers! Then Hamilton Burger has to blow his top, and that was very well done, too.

It will be no surprise that the murderer was not Sue Fisher, but the final resolution was cleverly tricky and was revealed in court (check).

All in all, a good, if not brilliant, Perry Mason story.

Vintage Mystery Challenge. Silver. TBR List.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Peter Robinson's The Hanging Valley

"A suspense thriller without the car chases and special effects that so often marred that type of film for Banks, it concentrated on the psychology of policeman and victim."
That's a film that Alan Banks, Peter Robinson's detective hero sees on his flight from Toronto back to England. But it's also a programmatic statement of the kind of novel this is and that Robinson writes. Certainly there are no car chases in this.

The Hanging Valley (1989) is the fourth of Robinson's Inspector Banks novels; there are so far 24 in the series, though Peter Robinson is still writing. It's the fifth I've read. The series is set in a fictional town in Yorkshire, where Banks starts as a policeman newly arrived from London.

In this one, a hiker finds a body while walking on the fells near the Lake District; the victim's been dead nearly a fortnight and beaten around the face. The first task is to identify the body.

But it's the same small village where Banks' superior Gristhorpe had worked on an unsolved murder and the disappearance of a woman five years earlier. Superintendant Gristhorpe suspects they're connected, and well, of course they are.

There are four main suspects in this: the two Collier brothers, descended from the landed gentry of the area, their father sold off the land and turned that money to more productive uses, so they remain rich. There's John Fletcher, who bought some of that land and is now a gentleman farmer; whatever his source of money is, unspecified, he doesn't need to make his farming pay. And there's Sam Greenock, who with his wife, scraped together enough money to buy a small inn in the village.

This one was fun for me because it takes a detour to Toronto, where Banks travels to find out a crucial clue. All he knows is he needs to visit English-style pubs, and somebody gives him a list of them in Toronto:
"The Madison, The Sticky Wicket, Paupers, the Hop and Grape, the Artful Dodger, The Jack Russell, The Spotted Dick, The Feathers, Quigley's, not to mention a whole dynasty of Dukes."
I suspect those are or at least were all real Toronto pubs. Certainly I've been to several, and Paupers is just down the street. Banks doesn't get to Paupers, though. The clue he needs is finally discovered at The Feathers, and I have the sneaking suspicion that is or was Peter Robinson's local, since I know he lives on the east side. It looks cute in the pictures, but it's one I've never been to.

It's hard to tell but that's a picture of Toronto on that calendar on the cover of the book.

Banks takes that clue back to Yorkshire, but in the meantime there's been another murder, though initially it looks like accident or suicide. The pressure's on, and there is definitely some thriller-ish suspense at the end, with another body yet to come, even if it doesn't involve car chases.

So it was enjoyable, though I have to admit that the psychology went on a little long for me. There are a number of chapters from Katie Greenock's point of view, the wife of Sam and half-owner of the inn. She's an important character in the events in the present, but I didn't find her especially convincing and her psychology seemed a bit heavy-handed. The best of the ones from the series that I've read definitely remains In A Dry Season.

Vintage Mystery Challenge. Silver. Where. Set In A Small Village.

Also the first for my new Canadian book challenge.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Classics Club Spin #18

My second Classics Club spin. I'm counting my first one very much as a success since it got me to read J. F. Powers' Morte d'Urban.

The idea is to pick twenty books off your Classics Club list and the random number generator picks one to read in the next month

I'm not sure about the suggested categories for this one--I haven't been doing this long enough yet to feel like I've been putting off any books in particular--so I'm making up my own...

Victorians ('cause who doesn't like a good Victorian?)

1.) George Eliot/Adam Bede
2.) George Eliot/Romola
3.) George Eliot/Scenes Of A Clerical Life
4.) Henry James/The American
5.) Robert Louis Stevenson/The Black Arrow

The Oppressed (why is the category occurring to me now, you might ask...)

6.) Margaret Atwood/The Handmaid's Tale
7.) Toni Morrison/Song of Solomon
8.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
9.) Frederick Douglass/Narrative of the Life
10.) Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley/Vindication of the Rights of Women

Europe (these will do double duty with my Europe challenge. Ireland, anyone?)

11.) George Bernard Shaw/Pygmalion
12.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
13.) Richard Brinsley Sheridan/The School For Scandal
14.) Daphne du Maurier/Rebecca
15.) Hermann Broch/The Death of Virgil

Non-Fiction (because I couldn't think of another category?)

16.) Virginia Woolf/A Room of One's Own
17.) James Baldwin/Notes Of A Native Son
18.) Mark Twain/A Tramp Abroad
19.) Edmund Wilson/Axel's Castle
20.) Bertrand Russell/A History of Western Philosophy

Romola or A History of Western Philosophy are the fat ones on that list...

And the winner is....#9! Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Elizabeth Taylor's A Game Of Hide And Seek

"And don't we love forever the one we didn't marry?"
A Game Of Hide And Seek (1951) is the story of Harriet and Vesey. They fall in love one summer in the 1920s when they're eighteen. Harriet is living in the country with her widowed mother, and the neglected Vesey comes to stay with his aunt, who is Harriet's mother's best friend. But they're both eighteen, too young, and both socially maladroit in different ways--Harriet shy and stammering, and Vesey irritable and proud of his emotional pain--and when it's time for Vesey to return to London and his parents, nothing really has happened between them, and not very much has even been said.

And that's the first half of the novel.

The second half is mostly set twenty years later, with some flashes back and forwards as well. Harriet is married to Charles, a dozen years older than her, and has a daughter Betsy; Vesey has gone on the stage, not very successfully, and has been disinherited by his well-to-do father for that rebellion. But he scrapes by. Playing Laertes in a touring company doing Hamlet in the provinces, he pitches up where Harriet is living. Charles, jealous, though trying not to show it, suggests Harriet and Betsy go see the play. Harriet and Vesey begin to see each other socially, while the theater company is still in the neighborhood.

It's still not clear that very much happens between them.

Harriet's friend Kitty suspects something and wonders to Harriet the question I began with, and it is the question of the novel in a way; though one can also ask would Harriet or Vesey have been trying to capture the supposed magic of that past summer if they were happier in the present? And, in fact, is that even what they're doing? They're not sure themselves. It ends surprisingly, but satisfactorily.

Taylor's novel very subtly portrays the relationship with its ramifications. I thought it was very convincing. The prose is a bit odd, though. Here's an example:
She could see herself in the filmed mirror; anxious; tense; her hands clasping her elbows tightly; her shoulders hunched up."
Now I'm not of the anti-semi-colon party, as will be clear enough from my blog, but that might be bit much even for me. And it wouldn't be difficult to find other examples. Sure, the sentence is clear enough, but perhaps just a wee bit extreme? Well, be that as it may, the novel works.

It's the second novel of Elizabeth Taylor's I've read, out of the dozen or so she wrote starting at the end of WW2, and I liked it better than the first I read, A View Of The Harbour. But then I also quite liked A View Of The Harbour. New York Review Books seems to be reissuing them. I will be reading more.


Monday, July 23, 2018


"...mine are essays, who am but newly bound prentice to the inquisition of knowledge, and use these pages as a painter's boy a board, who is trying to bring his hand and his fancy well acquainted. It is a manner of writing well befitting undigested motions, or a head not knowing his strength like a circumspect runner trying for a start, or providence that tastes before she buys."

Sounds like a blogger, if they had blogs in 1600. It is, in fact, Sir William Cornwallis, though I got it from Brian Dillon's Essayism, which melds a pleasingly unsystematic investigation into the essay with a bit of autobiography. I'm very much liking it.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Mary McCarthy's The Group

There was a side of Sloan, she had decided, that she mistrusted, a side that could be summed up by saying he was a Republican.
I admit to laughing out loud when I read that, though I'm quite sure that what you (and I) are thinking of right now is not what Mary McCarthy was thinking of in the 1950s or early 1960s when she was writing it nor what the character was thinking of in the 1930s. Although, now that I think about it, maybe that was what McCarthy was thinking...that is, thinking about her namesake, Tail-gunner Joe...

Anywho, Mary McCarthy's The Group is the story of eight Vassar graduates from the class of 1933. Which was also the year that Mary McCarthy graduated from Vassar. The novel was shocking when it came out in 1963 with its frank discussion of female orgasm, birth control, and Lesbianism, and it got banned in a bunch of places. It was also an enormous bestseller that went on to be made into a popular movie.

It is often a funny book, but it's not a Funny Book; McCarthy was famously, savagely witty, but things can be dark for her characters, and not just because one's husband is Republican. It ends, in 1941, with a final reunion of the group in tragic circumstances, and with war looming.

With its shock value long gone, the most innovative thing now about the book is its narrative style. McCarthy often speaks in the voice of the group, even about a single member of the group. Here's an example of what I mean:
Yet Helena was intelligent, the group discovered, and in some ways very mature for her age. She had read a tremendous lot, particularly in modern literature, and listened to modern music, which went over most of the group's heads; she collected limited editions of verse and rare phonograph records of pre-polyphonic church music. The group considered her quite an asset, almost a little mascot, in her neat Shetland sweater and skirt, riding across campus on her bicycle or chasing butterflies with a net in the Shakespeare Garden.
But Helena is a member of the group! And other members get this same treatment. I find it quite a successful approach: it gives the reader an outside view of the character while at the same time conveying (amusingly) the basic prejudices of a bunch of recent Vassar graduates. It's a knife that cuts both ways.

I wrote a paragraph comparing Lessing's The Golden Notebook and The Group, but I couldn't quite convince myself, so I've deleted it. Still I think there's something there, about the way both novels were read as titillating tracts, but had more literary substance than that. Lessing's is, however, the greater novel; The Group more peters out than ends despite McCarthy's attempt to supply a bang-up finish.

Lots of fun information about the book here.

It's counting as my monthly motif summer read. What is a summer read for a retired person? My Saturdays are much like my Tuesdays, and the seasons, too. But we do have a cabin in the north where there is no Internet and I take long TBR books so I can read them without distraction. At about 400 pages, The Group isn't all that long, and I still have some monsters I hope to read at the cabin later this summer. But it will do, and did do, very nicely, for a summer read. When I could take my eyes away from the view:

Friday, July 20, 2018

Book Beginning: David Mamet's Chicago

Parlow and Mike sat quiet in the duck blind. A camouflage screen of marsh grass and twigs had been set before them; the blind itself was five feet deep, dug into the soft earth, and lined with discarded lumber. The day was dry, and the blind was dry.
...is the beginning of David Mamet's Chicago.

I was in the library the other day and they had this on the new releases shelf. My vague sense is that Mamet has become crotchety and conservative as he's aged, but I've liked his plays and his movies in the past. I'm a Chicago native, and his American Buffalo takes place in my old hood. So a gangster novel set in Chicago in the 20s sounds like it could be fun. Mike (Hodge) is a reporter in love with Annie Walsh who's loosely entwined with the Mob. Trouble ensues.

I'm about 30 pages in and I don't quite understand why a novel with that cover and that theme starts in a duck blind, but oh, well. We do learn Mike Hodge isn't a very good shot. (Though Parlow is.) I get the impression that will be important.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like. Or I'll play you a little tune on my violin, see...

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Herta Müller's The Land of Green Plums

Everyone had a friend in every wisp of cloud
that's how it is with friends where the world is full of fear
even my mother said, that's how it is
friends are out of the question
think of more serious things.
--Gellu Naum

This poem, or part of a poem,--I'm uncertain--serves as the epigraph to Müller's novel, but it is also quoted by the narrator and her friends at several points in the novel. Müller's novel is a story of friends in a world of fear.

Herta Müller was born in Nicolae Ceaușescu's Romania in 1953, which was certainly a world of fear. To compound problems, she was part of the German-speaking minority. She got herself in trouble with Romania's secret police, the Securitate, was mostly unable to publish, and was turfed out of her job as a technical translator. She got out to Germany in 1987. This novel appeared there in 1993, and was translated by Michael Hofmann into English in 1996.

My edition includes the speech she gave for her 2009 win of the Nobel Prize in Literature; the novel follows, it seems, pretty closely the events of her life. The narrator, too, gets out, but her friends are not necessarily so lucky. I thought it was a fairly effective presentation of a quite dark, but important story.

The prose is curiously flat. Here's an example, chosen more or less at random:
Between winter and spring I heard about five corpses that got snagged on reeds in the river outside the city. Everybody talked about them, as if they were talking about the dictator's illnesses. They shook their heads and shuddered. Kurt, too.
Michael Hofmann is a major translator, and I assume this represents the German accurately. I didn't go check, not that my German is good enough to do so. But it does feel right: something stylistically more elaborate might very well not be suitable for the subject. The narrator and the other characters are from small-town Romania; they're bright and want to get an education and move to the city, dangerous as that may be, but they are not initially sophisticated. They come across some contraband German books from Germany:
The books in the summerhouse had been smuggled into the country. They were written in German, our mother tongue, the one in which the wind lay down. Not the official language of the country. But not quite the children's bedtime language of the village either. The books were in our mother tongue, but the silence of the villages, which forbids thought, wasn't in them. We imagined the land where the books came from as a land of thinkers.
Her book brings back into German the silence of the villages.

It's the only Herta Müller I've read, so I can't compare, but I would read another. It may be a while, though. I'm not sure I can bear to read about life under maniacal fascist dictators very much just at the moment.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Yevgeny Zamyatin's We

"...true literature can exist only where it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics..."
With an attitude like that, it's no wonder that Zamyatin was unable to publish his novel We in the Soviet Union. The quote dates from an essay of Zamyatin's in 1921, around the time he was writing We, and is given in the introduction to my edition. (tr. by Mirra Ginsburg.)

The novel is set in a futuristic world; the characters have only a letter and a number for their name; it's told in a series of diary entries by D-503, a mathematician and the first 'Builder' working on a spaceship, which will carry their society to the stars. That society is horrific, though D-503 doesn't see it: totalitarian, with a great Benefactor who murders opposition; lives, even to the extent of emotions, love and will, subject to the One State; a secret police and a culture of self-impeachment. D-503 comes into contact with the resistance in the person of the beautiful I-330. He falls in love with her, without understanding why she's interested in him, though at least initially it's for his usefulness as the first 'Builder' on the great state project.

I thought the novel was very good.

The conflict is between that totalitarian state and the resistance; there is actual physical conflict; that conflict is reflected in the understanding of D-503. How it's resolved you'll have to read to find out. (And I recommend you do!)

A couple of things: If I were looking for an example novel with an unreliable narrator, right now this is what I'd pick. It's brilliantly well-done. It's not that D-503 is a liar; it's that he doesn't see. But at the same time, he's a smart man and is capable of observation. We might say now he was on the autistic spectrum. We see so much more than he does, and yet without him we couldn't.

And then there's Zamyatin's vision of totalitarianism. It's astonishingly prescient. He's writing this in 1920 and 1921 according to the introduction. Lenin isn't dead; Stalin is not yet in control; the Russian Civil War isn't even over. There's not that much state control; there's barely even a state when he's writing. He builds it up out of Dostoevsky,  (Notes From The Underground, mostly, I'd say), ideas about the Spanish Inquisition, Taylor and Bentham, and early hints of what was to come in the totalitarian future. It's hard to see how it wasn't written from experience in 1937, but it wasn't.

And if I had one of those features "If you liked..." this would definitely trigger Orwell's 1984. I
looked him up in my collected Orwell non-fiction. Zamyatin appears in the index several times. Orwell wrote a review of a French translation of We in January of 1946; he said he was unable to find the English translation. He compared it to Huxley's Brave New World, not being entirely favorable to either novel. (Well, Orwell wasn't the sort of guy to rave about anything, perhaps especially things he liked.) Later he was involved in getting it issued in the UK in an English translation. But most interesting was a quote from a letter to the Russian scholar Gleb Struve in February of 1944: [Struve's book Twenty-Five Years of Soviet Russian Literature] '...has aroused my interest in Zamyatin's We, which I had not heard of before. I am interested in that kind of book, and even keep making notes for one myself that may get written sooner or later." Well, that book did get written, and We definitely influenced it.

Read for all sorts of good reasons, one of them being my Classics Club challenge. But not for that cover. Seriously? Ick.

Sunday, July 8, 2018


"Every age but ours has had its model, its ideal. All of these have been given up by our culture; the saint, the hero, the gentleman, the knight, the mystic. About all we have left is the well-adjusted man without problems, a very pale and doubtful substitute."
...is from Abraham Maslow's Toward A Psychology Of Being, 3rd Edition. (1968)

I like to collect quotes; well, I'm not alone in this. If they're here in the blog I can find them easier, and so can you...I'll probably mostly give quotes from what I'm currently reading, and in particular books for which I'm unlikely to attempt a full post. But some might come from my pre-existing collection.

Maybe I'll hunt up a graphic, but for now nothing but text.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Lawrence Durrell's Clea

"What is the writer's struggle except a struggle to use a medium as precisely as possible, but knowing fully its basic imprecision? A hopeless task but none the less rewarding for being hopeless."
So says one of the many writers in Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. A message for us all, bloggers included? Or just more writerly talk, undercut by the situational irony of the series? The speaker (John Keats, well not that John Keats) is unloved in the earlier volumes; Darley, the most obvious stand-in for Durrell, is trying desperately to get him to not write a tell-all biography about Pursewarden, another writer; and now, Keats tells us this, as he prepares to write his masterpiece, only to die with it entirely unwritten and even unstarted, fighting the Afrika Korps in the Egyptian desert.

Ah, well, whatever it is: a message of wisdom or the ironic imitation thereof. You can decide. I've been struggling to write this post, as precisely as possible, but it has seemed hopeless. I'm just going to have to deal with the imprecision of my thoughts and get it done.

A few things have occurred to me, though, in rereading the series, and at the same time reading MacNiven's biography of Lawrence Durrell:

1.) The important one. Durrell's name is to be pronounced as if it rhymes with squirrel. Who knew? Also he was Larry to everyone who knew him, and MacNiven's biography constantly refers to him as Larry. Larry Durl is definitely not the same person as Lawrence DurRELL. But now you know: he's a Larry.

2.) The series was often read as a roman à clef; it seems Larry resisted that. After the biography, I can both see why, and see why he resisted. Larry, who was--ahem!--a bit of a horndog, lost one wife in Alexandria when she left him, met a second one there whom he was losing as he started the quartet, and then acquired a third who saw him through the quartet. That third wife also had connections to Alexandria: her father was French, but her mother was from a wealthy Alexandrian banking family. In the novels, Darley starts with Melissa, a not very good cabaret dancer, moves on to Justine, an Alexandrian Jew with a complicated sexual history; and ends up with Clea, an artist in her own right. Eve Cohen, the second wife, was an Alexandrian Jew with a possibly complicated sexual history, and Claude-Marie Vincendon, the third wife, was a novelist in her own right. (Nancy Durrell, née Myers, the first wife, was, from the photograph in the MacNiven biography, an attractive, though perhaps prim, Englishwoman. She apparently had painterly aspirations. Her transmutation into a Greek exotic dancer seems the biggest stretch.)

3.) That explains a bit why it was thought of as a roman à clef; here's why it was not: Larry was in Alexandria only during World War II. He escaped to there when the Nazis took Greece; the main events of the quartet take place in the thirties, and only Clea, the last novel, takes place during the war. But the whole psychology of the novel is not wartime, nor is it really Alexandria. It exists in a world where people spend all of their time talking about art; it also exists in a world of sexual license. MacNiven the biographer suggests that the sexual license reflects the war years, when Larry was actually in Alexandria, rather than the 30s, when he sets the novels; rather I would suggest the novels suggest the 30s, when Larry and his wife, Nancy Durrell, were in Paris, hanging out with Henry Miller and Anais Nin and no doubt drinking heavily and talking about art and Freud and D. H. Lawrence. With that crowd, there was probably some sexual license, too. It's only the trappings that are Alexandrian.

4.) But that does a disservice to those trappings; they're half the charm of the quartet; Larry was also a very good travel writer, and the description of place is a good part of why we turn to the Alexandria Quartet. According to MacNiven, Larry thought about setting his quartet idea in Athens before deciding to set it in Alexandria. But it could only be in Alexandria, or a place like Alexandria, steeped in history, and with a meeting of cultures and religions. Larry was born in India, and lived there the first fifteen years of his life. His family, for Anglo-Indians, were apparently unusually comfortable in associating with Indians. I think there was something in India, its multi-ethnic, multi-religious society that stuck with Larry, that seemed to him to simply right. It's like that in his Alexandria: main characters are heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual; they're Christian, Protestant and Coptic, Muslim, Jewish (many with a persistent interest in Gnosticism); they're Arab, Greek, English, French, probably some others I'm not thinking about at the moment. Alexandria isn't like that anymore, even if it was, really, then. That doesn't matter. Larry needed a place like that, and wanted a place like that, created a place like that, and I at least think it's admirable he did.

I had some other quotes I'd copied out, but this post is probably long enough. There are things to dislike about the quartet: the prose, you either like it or you don't, and if you don't,  I can't really defend it; his attitude towards women and sexuality: Justine had been raped as a child, it's a major plot point, and at one point Pursewarden tells her to get over it, and she does. I wish I could say I thought Larry meant that ironically, but I doubt he did.

But mostly, I think, there are things to like about the quartet. This is my second time through it, and I liked it as much the second time as the first.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Haunted Husband

"There's nothing the matter with you that four good cocktails won't cure."
That's Della's advice to Paul Drake. It might be a bit much for me, though. I probably wouldn't get past the second.

Until the very end I thought Haunted Husband was one of the best Perry Mason outings. It's from 1941, in the middle of a good period for Gardner's Perry Mason novels, and was free of the sloppiness he's capable of. The blonde client ends up in Mason's office at first for vehicular manslaughter; she was supposedly drunk and behind the wheel in a four car pile up outside Bakersfield. But she's innocent of that, of course.

The blonde has an uncle and a fiancée of sorts--she's hitchhiking to get away from him--and they're both quite amusing; the fiancée a wimp and the uncle a busybody. There's an amusing satire of a Hollywood artiste as he writes the script for his next blockbuster. And it includes Perry's usual shenanigans in finding a body.

Up until the very end, though, as I said. I read the last twenty pages three times and I still can't tell you exactly what happened. Perry explains it to Lt. Tragg but that's because he wants Tragg to act in one way and when Della asks Perry if his explanation to Tragg was accurate, he says mostly, but then changes a few things. Who was married to whom and who wanted to be married to whom is still up in the air for me. It may be OK to wonder who it was that really shot the chauffeur if you're Raymond Chandler; I expect Gardner to be a little less impressionistic.

Oh, well. Still a strong entry.
"'But,' Tragg pointed out, 'he's done more to solve murders than any man on the force...but...well, damn him!'"
Vintage Mystery Challenge. Gold. What. Alliterative title.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

David Shields' Reality Hunger

"Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art."
That's the first sentence of the first numbered section of David Shields' Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010). It was making the rounds on the blogs I was reading at the time. I got it from the library and read it at the time and disagreed with it mostly, but enjoyed arguing with it. I'm not entirely now sure what made me want to read it again, but something did.

It's a defense of memoir, collage, and the blending of fiction and non-fiction. It was read as a manifesto for what was increasingly becoming called autofiction. It's a blend of quotation and argument in 618 numbered sections, grouped by twenty-six categories.

#347, e.g., with my interlinear comments:
I love literature, but not because I love stories per se--this is where we begin to differ--, and I find all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters' names--for me I remember characters' names much better than acquaintances, though I sometimes wish it weren't true--, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting--and to all of that I can only say, I'm sorry for you, David Shields--. I'm drawn to literature as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking.--I'm reminded of Peter Beagle's introduction to the edition of The Lord Of The Rings I grew up with: "escape stopped being comically obscene." But escape as a reason to read is clearly not on David Shields' list--I like work that's focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative which is the way to experience most stories and novels.--It is precisely those novels where the writer tells you line by line what's most on her (or more likely his) mind that are most likely to bore me. Wisdom is only dug out of the cracks.-- 
To Shields' credit, he'd probably appreciate being argued with interlinearly, and it's to the book's credit that I continue to want to do so.

Here's what I wrote about it in my books journal the first time I read it:

"Shields strikes me as fundamentally uninterested in what novels can do. 'A deeper journey into the self.' Ick. In any case what he's looking for is an enchiridion, a philosophy of how to live life. That's all well and good, I suppose, but not the sum total of the novel. The novel does not do a very good job of being Epicurus. It doesn't teach you how to live. It's very much more useless than that."

I was originally not going to count library books for my rereading challenge, but now I think why not? Though I do feel a need to give some renewed love to the many and various books already around the house. This is likely to be the only one in any case.

Happy Canada Day! It's hot here and a good day sit in an air-conditioned room and bang out one of the posts I've been needing to do...