Monday, September 28, 2020

Thinking about the #1956Club

Starting in under a week is 1956 Club, this fall's edition of the club in which we all read books from the given year, hosted by Kaggsy & Simon. Naturally the first thing to do is to heap up a pile o' books...

These are the ones I might be likely to read and which I haven't read...

Nelson Algren/A Walk On The Wild Side 

Ed McBain/Cop Hater

James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room

Allen Ginsburg/Howl and Other Poems

-it's possible I've read all the poems from Howl, but I'm not sure. But after all, I've been so tormented by seeing the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked...I forget about the book.

These books are all pretty short, so there's even a chance I'll read them all. (Well, the 1956 part of the bottom two books is short.) I've also got an unread copy of Henry Miller's The Devil In Paradise around here, which is also short, but I'm less likely to read that.

1956 was a good year for fluffy books which I own and have already read:


Ian Fleming's Diamonds Are Forever

Ross Macdonald's The Barbarous Coast

Ellery Queen's Inspector Queen's Own Case

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Gilded Lily

There's also Patricia Wentworth's The Fingerprint, but she was shy and couldn't be found for the photo op. I haven't read the Poirot of 1956, Dead Man's Folly, but I don't own it and would have to go find a copy. The Barbarous Coast is probably the best of those--Ross Macdonald is so good one hates to quite call him fluffy--but if I reread one, it's likely to be the Ellery Queen, which I read so long ago I don't remember it at all. Rereading a mystery you don't remember, why it's like a fresh new mystery all over again!

I've now been blogging long enough--or 1956 was so good a year--that there are actually two books in my back catalog that I've blogged about before. The better book of these is Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, a very good book indeed, I thought.

The better post, though, is for Robert Heinlein's Time for the Stars, one of his juveniles, which could have been up there on the fluffy shelf. But pretty entertaining. Jet-powered helicopters plus dinosaurs. And still our hero fights with a stick...

If I decide to reread and post about books I've read before, the top of that list would be Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond, which is so good. I've been poring over other people's posts of preparation--I just changed 'reading' to 'poring over' to compound that alliteration--and I haven't seen anybody mention Kenneth Stampp's book on slavery, The Peculiar Institution, which I remember as fascinating. The first volume of Anthony Burgess' Malaysia trilogy, Time for a Tiger, is from 1956, and I liked the trilogy, but then I'd probably feel I should reread the whole trilogy, and what I really want to reread of his is Earthly Powers. The first volume of Naguib Mahfouz' wonderful Cairo Trilogy, Palace Walk, is from 1956. Long Day's Journey Into Night. There's two Rex Stouts (Three Witnesses, Might As Well Be Dead) from that year, which could have been in the picture above. Etc., etc. The more I look the more I think I've had very good reading out of 1956.

And I'm looking for that to continue! Thanks to Kaggsy and Simon for hosting!

Sunday, September 27, 2020

John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra


Somebody's due for a great fall, and Humpty is just glad it isn't him...

In the epigraph to his debut novel Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara quotes Somerset Maugham's version of an old story involving Death. Death runs into a servant in the morning market at Baghdad; the servant recognizes Death, and begs assistance of his master to flee as far he can, and his master gives him money and a horse. When Death is asked that afternoon, Why did you frighten the servant if you didn't mean to take him? Death answers, I didn't intend to frighten him. I was just surprised to see him in Baghdad, since he and I have an appointment in Samarra tonight. (127 km according to Google Maps.)

An appointment in Samarra. So you suspect from the start it's not going to end well for somebody, and it doesn't. 

Based on the epigraph, this is not very, but a bit, spoilerish...

That somebody is Julian English. 

The story takes place in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a stand-in for John O'Hara's hometown of Pottsville. (Anthracite coal country northwest of Philadelphia.) Julian is the son of the local society doctor, and ought to be well enough off, but his car dealership's sales are a little soft. It's Christmas, Hoover's the president, and the Great Depression has started. He's married to Caroline, whom he's known since they were children, and it seems a good marriage; certainly she's in love with him, though she can see his flaws.

What are those flaws? The root of them is the excess consumption of alcohol. 

Too much alcohol--or is it something more fundamental?--leads Julian to do three bad things during the course of the novel. He throws a drink in Harry Reilly's face; he has a sexual rendezvous with Helene Holman; he gets into a fistfight with Froggy Ogden. He owes Reilly money and is worried Reilly may sleeping with his wife; Holman, a local torch singer, is the mistress of the town's gangster/bootlegger; Ogden is a vet who lost one arm in the Great War and can hardly fight back. In the end? Julian has that appointment in Samarra.

The novel was famous for its scandalousness when it came out. Husbands and wives have sex, and sometimes enjoy it, even the wives. Well, that may have been news in fiction in 1934, but less so now.

There's a self-destructive streak in Julian that's not explained. Is Julian's alcoholism cause or result of that self-destructive streak? I'm not certain, and not certain that we're meant to know. But while Julian is the main focus, the novel doesn't limit itself to him; it's a short novel (225 pages in my edition) and yet it presents a substantial cross-section of Gibbsville society. Which is both impressive and also good: I found Julian's company a bit of a cross to bear.

So I'm not entirely sure what I thought. Self-destructive alcoholics are hard to take, in fiction as in life. Comparing this to Malcolm Lowry's Under The Volcano, I'd say Geoffrey Firmin is the more convincing drunk. Firmin is further along the road to dissolution than Julian; Firmin's state of confused mind is presented in more convincing detail; everything Julian does seems contingent, it seems like he could as easily have done something else, so why did he have to die? We see occasional hints of engagement with the world in Geoffrey Firmin, of the man he once was, but his thoughts in the present mostly revolve around how to find that next drink. Firmin's story had the inevitability of tragedy; Julian's was more like an accident.

The other curious comparison is to Updike. The edition I got from the library has an introduction by Charles McGrath, who is at pains to tell us that Updike valued O'Hara very highly. In an introduction this is supposed to make you more enthused to read the coming book than you were before, but I'm afraid the fact that Updike (the 'penis with a thesaurus'*) liked it had the opposite effect on me. I still liked the O'Hara, though, despite that... 😉  and not just because the prose was un-Updikean. But it's clear that Updike had read this novel: at one point Julian thinks about escaping his situation, hops in a car and drives off only to return to town. Was that Julian English or Rabbit Angstrom? Rabbit, too, is a unsuccessful salesman, living in a smallish Pennsylvania town, who decides he can't take it any more and drives off only to return. Rabbit drives further than Julian, but otherwise... 

The novel is on that hundred-best list of Modern Library 20th century novels, problematic as that list was. I'm glad to have read it, even if I'm not entirely convinced by Julian English at the center of it. DolceBelezza and WutheringExpectations were or are also currently reading it. 

*David Foster Wallace is responsible for labeling Updike the 'penis with a thesaurus.' It comes from his review of one of Updike's lesser novels Towards the End of Time, and he attributes the comment to an unnamed female reader of literary fiction under the age of 40. If she exists, she's become very famous, anonymously. Perhaps it's not entirely deserved, but I know I'm not the only one who can't now think of Updike without thinking of that characterization.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Two by Patricia Moyes (#20BooksOfSummer)


Finishing off my books of summer, though these actually got read a while ago...

Both feature Inspector Henry Tibbett of Scotland Yard, Moyes' regular detective. He's famous because he has a nose for solutions.

Falling Star

The first one I read was the earlier (1964). Bob Meakin is an aging star with some enemies and a tendency to womanize. You know from the moment he appears he's going to be the first victim: he falls in front of a subway train in the course of a movie shoot, possibly accidentally, though of course not.

The fun thing about this one, at least for a while, was the narrator, Anthony Croombe-Peters or 'Pudge.' Moyes' novels are usually told in the third person, but in this one Pudge tells the story. He's the son of a rich lord with some money of his own and he's dragooned into financing a movie by an old school friend with a script. Except Pudge takes his job seriously: he's fastidious about cash flow and is a bit prissy about the bohemian carryings-on around him. He's pretty funny.


"...if there's one thing I hate, it's the sort of book in which characters don't go to the police when they've no earthly reason for not doing so."

(Which is Cadogan in Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop, and of course it's prelude to Cadogan and Fen not going to the police themselves.) It's true here, too, and Pudge doesn't go to the police when he ought to. He was so determined about not going to the police, I began to wonder if we were going to have the Roger Ackroyd solution. Which the novel does flirt with, and after one particularly Bozo-ish move by Pudge I was even rooting for, but no. Anyway, while some of the suspense was generated by Pudge being more stupid than he ought to have been, it was still fun.

Also, while one ought not complain about the reasonableness of murder methods in cozies, the two in this were particularly silly.

Murder Fantastical

Even better, though, was Murder Fantastical (1967). George Manciple, the eldest male of the Manciple family, owns a decaying country estate in the town of Cregwall. Raymond Mason is a London bookmaker, now attempting to climb the social ladder, and he desperately wants to buy Cregwall Grange. He's already engaged in some shenanigans to drive Manciple and his wife out, but then he's shot dead on the Manciples' driveway in a way that looks impossible. A country house murder.

It was the wacky Manciples that made this one for me. There's George and his wife, but various others as well. Each one of them has their own eccentricity--as well as a reason not to lose the house, or to keep George from losing the house. Raymond Mason's son is in the picture, spouting Marxist nonsense, and amusingly at odds with his late capitalist and social-climbing father. Potential murderers abound.

Is there the possibility of a romance? There is.

It all gets resolved at a comical church jumble. 

If Falling Star played with being The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, then this one nodded to "The Problem of Thor Bridge," but wasn't quite it either. The solution here was both surprising and amusing.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Jules Verne's 20000 Leagues Under The Sea


OK. You know the basic story. But a few details first.

In 1866 there are reports of a giant sea monster attacking ships, probably something like a narwhal. An expedition on the ship Abraham Lincoln is outfitted to find it, presumably kill it and mount it on a board for some museum. Pierre Aronnax, a French scientist with a taste for adventure joins the expedition. Aronnax brings along his servant Conseil. The other important person on this expedition is the Canadian harpoonist, Ned Land. (Because what sea-monster hunting expedition doesn't need a savage harpoonist?)

They find what they're looking for, and well, it's not a giant narwhal.

Captain Nemo's ship, Nautilus, is attacked by the Abraham Lincoln, and in fighting off the attack, Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned Land are thrown overboard only to be rescued by the Nautilus. Rescued, but not released, and our trio in the company of Captain Nemo go sailing around the world, having adventures.

The book is an early science-fiction story, and like a lot of later hard science fiction, it spends a good deal of its time speculating on the nature and possibility of future inventions, submarines and diving suits in particular. Here Verne did pretty well, it seems to me. The novel is also interested in actual contemporary science, especially lesser known instances in biology. This is Aronnax' field, and he is forever fascinated by sightings of species he knows about only by repute. He tells us about them:

A flight of sea-swallows rested on the Nautilus. It was a species of the Sterna Nilotica, peculiar to Egypt; its beak is black, head gray and pointed, the eye surrounded by white spots, the back, wings, and tail of a grayish color, the belly and throat white, and claws red.

Most people seem to find this sort of stuff dull, and, well...I'm most people, too. I suspect this went over better in the 19th century when it wouldn't have had to compete with National Geographic specials.

There are two sources of tension, interrelated. Our trio of rescuees are happy to have been rescued, and are mostly enjoying the adventures, but have occasional thoughts about getting back to civilization. Captain Nemo says he never will set them free. We know they must have gotten off the Nautilus eventually, because we're reading the book Aronnax has written. So how did it happen? 

The other great question is Captain Nemo himself. Who is he and why does he hate the world so much? Why will he not even have contact with the world to the extent of setting our trio down on a shore someplace out of the way? He doesn't seem to be a monster, just deeply injured. We get various clues, but no complete answer, at least until the sequel The Mysterious Island.  Which I haven't read. I do wonder a bit if any answer can be good enough. 

Anyway, pretty fun. It was weirdly a much timelier read for me than I would have guessed. Moby-Dick is alluded to on the third page and it seems to me Verne might actually know the book. I'd sort of long been under the impression nobody had read Moby-Dick until it was rediscovered in the 30s. That doesn't seem to be entirely true. Stevenson knew it and now it seems it Verne did, too.

The other even stranger connection was Pontoppidan. Turns out there's a Bishop Pontoppidan (1698-1764), ancestor of Henrik Pontoppidan, author of Lucky Per, who wrote a treatise on sea monsters, cited by Aronnax early on. It's not every day you see the name Pontoppidan.

My Heron Books edition doesn't say who the translator was, which is bad form, but I believe it to be the Miller revision of the original Mercier translation. The introduction tells me that '20000 Leagues Under The Seas' would be a better translation of the original French; it gives a better impression of what happens, too. They zoom around a lot, rather than going to the absolute bottom of the ocean and staying there.

I've finished all my books of summer, but haven't finished blogging about them. But I took the book back outside for its photo op, and read a good chunk of it while here.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Zadie Smith's Intimations


The Other Reader and I sometimes wonder if Zadie Smith is a better essayist or novelist; the real answer is, why choose? Her two previous volumes of essays (Changing My Mind and Feel Free) were both great; there's a great deal of incisive intelligence in them, not necessarily a thing one expects in a novelist. I found the first more of a revelation: I particularly loved her reminiscences of her father in the earlier volume. It may also be that I'd already read a good deal of the second (in the New York Review of Books) by the time I read the collection.

Intimations is a short volume (under a hundred pages) and a product of our current crazy times: she's donating her royalties to charities for racial justice and pandemic relief. It deals with perceptions of race, being in New York in the pandemic, too much quiet (especially when one has children). Something to do, when there's nothing to do.

But the longest and best essay is called Screengrabs, written, it seems and as the subtitle suggests, 'before the virus', and it's largely a series of character sketches: 'a character in a wheelchair', 'a woman with a little dog', 'an elder at the bus stop'. They feel very true.

So maybe she's a novelist after all.

I was in a new bookstore for the first time in a long time (Type Books here in Toronto) and it felt wonderful, even if I had to wear a mask, making my glasses fog up. So nice to once again see what's on the table at a good independent bookstore.

I also picked up the Vivian Gornick book on rereading, but the first book she discusses rereading is D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers.  I thought maybe I ought to read it first, for the first time.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Wordless Wednesday

 Killarney Provincial Park

Where I was while I was away from the Internet...