Friday, July 21, 2017

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

I thought it would be appropriate if you listened to some music from the Thirties while reading my post. Enjoy!

And for your weekend reading pleasure:

Red HarvestRed Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If all of Hammett's characters in every novel has a sameness to them, then it is in the context of Theme and Variations.

The tough dame is the same but her name is different as are her words and the dark adventure she participates in. Her name in Red Harvest is Dinah Brand. She is an able seductress who knows how to get money out of just about everyone. The men know it and love her irresistibly anyway. She may be alluring, but she's also big and tough and not above slapping men around.

The hard boiled detective is also the same and maybe that's why Hammett doesn't bother giving him a name. We know he's a Continental Op from San Francisco and as usual it's from his first person narrative that we learn the story.

Everyone else, including the cops, are crooks. They're mean as snakes, hard as nails, and value no one's life, including their own. Few of them survive the story.

In a nutshell, the Continental Op has been called to Personville (called "Poisonville" by everyone) by a Donald Willsson who is murdered before the Op gets to meet him. He then begins to investigate Willsson's murder and in the meantime discovers that Willsson's father, Elihu, owns Personville, but the thugs he brought in to help him control strikers have themselves taken over and gotten out of hand. Poisonville is a cess pool of competing gangs shooting each other up.

To see how the un-named Op cleans up you'll have to read the book.

For myself, I wonder what the fascination with the crime world was back in the first half of the century. Was everyone's life so sheltered that it provided a salacious thrill to read or watch on the big screen a bunch of crooks chasing each other around in cars while emptying machine guns all over the place?

It was a bit of a roller coaster ride, even for me. The Op gets around quickly and avoids getting himself killed very narrowly through out the story. There's no down time anywhere from beginning to conclusion.

Dashiell Hammett wrote his fiction based on his own experiences as an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, from which he based his fictitious Continental Op Agency.

Red Harvest was inspired by the Anaconda Road massacre where company guards opened fire on striking minors in Butte Montana, killing sixteen of them.

Time magazine listed Red Harvest as one of the 100-best English language novels from 1923-2005 and Andre Gide called the book "the last word in atrocity, cynicism, and horror". (From Wikipedia)

If you're a Crime Noir fan, you'll enjoy this novel because crime doesn't get any more noir than Red Harvest.

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Short History of Russia by R.D. Charques

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I am being a little unconventional in my music this post.  I am listening to a musician that my son would listen to before he had his license and I had to drive him everywhere.  It was a good time and our best conversations took place while traveling around town.  This song, a remix of Roberta Flack's Do You Know Where You're Going To by TobyMac brings back some fine memories.  Love you Derek.

A Short History of RussiaA Short History of Russia by R.D. Charques

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a concise and informative book that gives an excellent overview of Russian history.

It starts with Russia's Eurasian background and the Slavs, explains the Mongol influence and how it formed the Serf culture that became a prominent part of Russian culture, all the way through to the rise of Communism, where Serfdom was simply renamed as "Comrade". It's not unequal distribution if you don't call it that and it is equal distribution if you do.

Chapters are devoted to each Tzar and also Catherine the Great, the one Tzarina. When reading the barbarities of every single one of the Tzars (and Tzarina), one wonders if any of them were sane and one does not wonder if the outcome of Soviet Revolution was inevitable. And while many of the Tzars or the wives were German, they still managed to keep Russian isolated from the rest of Europe.

Even so, the aristocracy looked to Europe for its fashion and style but maintained 12th century Asian primitivism when governing its people. This would pave the way for the Communists in the 19th century who embraced Marxism, finally culminating in the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.

Charques' book goes into greater detail as to the different groups who rebelled against the Tzar and aristocracy, when they fought in unity and when they fought against each other, one group finally destroying the other.

Lenin's methods were no less brutal or sadistic than any of the Tsars, the difference is that he annihilated the aristocratic class and created another aristocratic class, which was developed to a higher level with each succeeding leader.

Again, it's not an aristocracy if we don't call it that (wink). We call it "Comradeship". Of course Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev etc. and their fellow party members managed to live in aristocratic luxury as the rest of the nation suffered an existence of grinding poverty, but reality is determined by rhetoric or so Soviet propaganda asserted. This is still true today and not only of Russia. Orwell was right.

Under Stalin millions starved as he tried to stamp out the peasant rebellion. Peasants preferred to destroy their farms and livestock rather than submit the earnings of their labor to others. It helps to read the history of Russia to better understand Ayn Rand. One sees why she calls people who demand the wages of others and call it "equal distribution" as "looters". The sharing was clearly one sided, as was the receiving.

More would have starved if it were not for Europe and American intervention, supplying food as they were able. So the outside world had some understanding as to what was happening in Russia and I cannot help but wonder why the West was not more proactive in putting Stalin out of commission or at least not conceding him Eastern Europe. He could not have put up a fight if Churchill and Roosevelt had chosen to put Western Military installations there. His army, due to his own paranoid machinations, were mostly disabled, but I suppose the world had become war weary.

Too bad. It's interesting to speculate what history would have looked like had we fought a little longer.

This book was a textbook my mother used when she was studying Russian history at Syracuse University in the early 1970s. As a result the entire grisly story of Stalin's monstrosities were as yet unknown, and the book stops with Stalin. Perhaps for diplomatic reasons Khrushchev is not mentioned, since he was still alive.

An interesting point the author makes is that Lenin understood that to make his Soviet survive they would need public relations with the West. He achieved this through diplomatic actions by allowing Ballet and circus troupes to travel around the world. He knew this would not only lend legitimacy to the Soviet Regime but also allow agents to integrate into Western society, especially in the Fine Arts and Media, and thus planting seeds of revolutionary ideology.

This is a good book for anyone interested in increasing their understanding of how Russia arrived at its present cultural and political conditions.

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories by Robert Penn Warren

I was trying to take this photo when Hercaloo ran down my arm to pose for the camera.  She has turned into a little camera hog.

Since this review is about a Southern writer and his contribution to Southern literature I thought it appropriate to listen to some Hillbilly Blue Grass.  The song is Oh Death performed by Ralph Stanley.

The Circus in the Attic and Other StoriesThe Circus in the Attic and Other Stories by Robert Penn Warren

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories is a collection of stories by Robert Penn Warren. Warren is mostly known for his novel All The King's Men, which won him the Pullitzer Prize.

All of the stories in this book present a colorful picture of Southern Culture from the Post Civil War era to the Depression, both time periods that afflicted the South with profound poverty. Many of his stories focus on individual people inside that climate of poverty and reconstruction, which was occurring in the south. The stories are valuable for that attribute alone.

They are also stories that paint a portrait of a man's dreams and how they are shaped and impacted by his relationship with his family inside his community at specific epochs of time.

All the stories are from the viewpoint of a man who has aspirations that are usually defeated by a domineering mother or wife, often a faithless wife. Because this premise is built into the majority of the stories in this collection one gathers that perhaps they are based on the author's life.

The first story is Circus in the Attic. The protagonist expresses his dreams by secretly creating a tiny model circus in his attic while carrying on his mediocre life as a teacher, movie ticket taker, while writing his "great novel" that is never finished...and also caring for his sickly mother who takes decades to finally pass away.

When she does die, he marries a widow, and when her son goes off to war the man gains some notoriety in giving speeches supporting the war effort. In the end, the son is killed in the war, his wife is killed in a car with another man and our protagonist is left alone. He no longer even has his circus to comfort him because he sold the pieces off at auction for the war effort.

This story is the longest in the book, starting at the Civil War and ending with WWII. Through the years, we see, as the man ages, the Southern landscape changing dramatically as reconstruction and wars make their mark.

The other stories have similar themes, although some deal with poor white people living in the hills, others with towns folk, all from a Southern perspective, allowing the reader to gain insight into how the South survived the devastating effects of a lost war, years of poverty and grew out of the stump, so to speak.

The last story, Prime Leaf is the most frightening because of the evil it exposes in small town politics where not even family members are safe from lynch mobs or each other.

If you are interested in the history of the South, plus the good writing of a man expressing his own struggles and heartbreak against personal demons, then you will enjoy reading this book.

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For more information on Robert Penn Warren click on the following links.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Pretty, is it not?  This is Hercaloo's pruning job on my centerpiece.  Ah, well.  It kept her occupied long enough for me to write this review.

I am listening to The Introduction and Moonlight Music from Richard Strauss' Opera Capriccio.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (Ripley, #1)The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a ponder-provoking book. I won't give the plot away since I don't know if there's someone out there who hasn't seen the movie with Matt Damon; so I will give the premise and then my thoughts.

Thomas Ripley is a crook living in New York City. He scams people by fooling them into thinking they owe on their insurance. He has quite a few checks to cash from all the people he has tooled.

He meets a Mr. Greenleaf who sends him on a quest to Europe to persuade his son Richard, known as "Dicky", to return home and carry on the family business. Ripley agrees to this because he is paid handsomely and he sees future dividends.

While Ripley sails for Italy he begins re-inventing himself. He acquires a certain persona while on the ship and then another as he meets Dickie and his friend Marge in Mongibello.

When he meets Dickie, after a little bit of posturing, he lays his cards on the table and tells him his dad sent him hoping to get him to return to the states. But Ripley decides that he doesn't want Dickie to return to the states because he doesn't want to return.

If, like me, you knew you were reading a Crime Noir book, you were not surprised to see Ripley reveal in increments his sociopathic personality. It was obvious from the start that he was a crook but the way he swindled Greenleaf into thinking he was a good friend of Dickie and the way he would giggle uncontrollably to himself when thinking over his ludicrous opportunities, the reader can gain he is mentally ill.

I've read other reviews that say that this was the popular homosexual cliche of the fifties, which was to portray unstable people as gay as a symptom of emotional instability. I doubt this because Patricia Highsmith was a lesbian and I see no motive for her to follow this trend, if it was a trend.

However, I do think Highsmith pours her persona into her anti-hero. Ripley has a horrible relationship with his Aunt who raised him and it is implied that her domineering personality ruined him. Highsmith had a similar relationship with her own mother who she claims told her that she tried to abort her by taking turpentine.

The story is an interesting study of a person with a schizoid personality disorder. Ripley has certain desires and he carefully plans how to achieve these desires.

He develops an unhealthy, obsessive relationship with Dickie, whom he barely knows and who has given him little encouragement. Nevertheless, Ripley is persuaded that Dickie does not love or care for Marge, an author and friend (or girlfriend; it's unclear) and Marge is nursing an unrealistic fantasy of marrying Dickie.

Somehow Ripley persuades Dickie to go on a brief vacation with him. I'm still not sure of the motives and perhaps Ripley wasn't either, but he decides that if he cannot have Dickie, no one will and he murders him.

The rest of the movie is a highly suspenseful battle of chess moves and counter moves as Ripley alternately impersonates Dickie and plays himself while traveling through Italy to avoid suspicion as Dickie's disappearance becomes known and is investigated.

Whether Ripley became a popular anti-hero, I don't know. Apparently there are many Ripley novels. I found him to be a sad person and the ending may or may not surprise or satisfy you. He is simply a man who is satisfied with carnal cravings and he has no moral compunction about feeding those cravings. If that's all there is to life, how empty for him.

It makes me wonder if Highsmith wasn't living her own fantasy through her creation. Did she feel alienated? Was this her way of lashing out?

As propelling as the story line was, the ending left me flat and I am not motivated to read anymore of the Talented Mr. Ripley. As far as I am concerned he can Rest in Peace.

On a positive note, the book can marginally serve as a colorful travelogue for those who like to vicariously enjoy traveling across Europe.

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Friday, July 7, 2017

The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

A time to grieve.
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Odie, a few hours before his passing. July 5, 2017

I got Odie and his sister Breeya for my son when he was eight years old.  He wanted to name them "Odie" and "Nermal"  after two pets in his favorite comic strip, "Garfield".  I wasn't thrilled with the name "Odie".  Couldn't my son have chosen something more "doggish" like "T-Bone" or "Sir Bow Wow the Third"?

No, "Odie" it was, but I drew the line at "Nermal".  I couldn't see myself calling Nermal in for din din or walkies or "Nermal! Let that poor bird go!"

So Derek named her after a girl he had a crush on in his third grade class.

They reached their fourteenth birthday this summer but Odie had been slowly sliding down that inevitable descent for the last several months until he finally reached the bottom. 

Death is horrible and it was hard watching Odie's life slowly ebb away,  but I believe that God restores all things.  

I am listening to Bruckner's Symphony No. 2, George Solti is the conductor.

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The Beautiful and DamnedThe Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Aside from the Great Gatsby this is the only other novel I've read by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Years ago when living on a small Caribbean island, with limited things to do, I read a large collection of books that I had had the foresight to bring with me (it got dark at 6pm every evening after which it wasn't safe to leave my apartment). One book was a collection of Fitzgerald's short stories and I enjoyed them immensely. This book I also enjoyed.

The Beautiful and the Damned starts like most of his short stories. Young man falls hopelessly in love with young, beautiful, charming, highly intelligent yet distant girl. Her beauty, her charm draw the young man in like a siren's call. Her smile, which is no more than a mask of aloofness, lets no one in and drives him mad, almost to despair.

Fitzgerald invented the prototype of the Manic Pixie Girl that is so popular in Romantic movies of today. You know the type, she's sweet, sexy, devil-may carish. She dances in the rain, sings along in movie theaters and other behavior that would be considered irresponsible and weird in real life but comes across as funny and sexy in the movies.

The man is mesmerized and the fact that she's just out of reach emotionally keeps him reaching for her. Today's aggressively eager woman might learn a thing or two from these girls. Don't chase the boy, run away and have him chase you.

Ah, but I'm hopelessly old-fashioned. I'm also happily married, but that's topic for another time.

Most of Fitzgerald's short stories end with the boy finally catching the girl. I don't say they all end happily, they're more complicated than that, but they don't continue into married life.

The Beautiful and the Damned does. The boy in this story, Anthony Patch, does finally catch the girl he passionately pursues but that is half the story. The rest of their story is about their married life. It is not a pretty tale, it is a tragic, but fascinating one.

The interest does not lie in the storyline per se. I suppose lots of authors have written about drunk people racing toward destruction, but Fitzgerald's writing simply bubbles and flows like an icy, clear water brook down a mountain side. His insight into the human soul, his ability to lucidly display its depraved nature, its desperate longing for greater things and its inability to save itself both repels while it simultaneously draws the reader in.

Anthony and Gloria get married. They soon discover that what, on Anthony's part at least, manically attracted them to the other person was not enough to sustain a marriage.

Gloria is still lovely to look at, but her impulsive behavior,self-absorption and strong will have lost some of their allure.

We are not entirely sure why Gloria married Anthony. He perhaps bored her less than the other men who sought her attention. She doesn't seem to have much of a conscience or reason to do anything except have a good time.

And what is a good time to Anthony and Gloria? Getting pleasantly inebriated with friends. This naturally costs money and neither of them have much. Anthony is counting on an inheritance he will receive at his grandfather's death.

Anthony is both contemptuous of his grandfather and also fears him because a wrong move could cost him millions of dollars. His grandfather points out Anthony's lack of ambition and also employment. He offers to provide Anthony employment. Anthony is a writer. His grandfather can get him a job as a war correspondent. (WWI has just started).

Anthony immediately protests. He could never desert Gloria! At the same time he imagines himself in uniform and the glamour this kind of work would give him.

Gloria would also like to work. A friend who produces Hollywood movies would like to give her a screen test. But Anthony absolutely refuses to permit it. His wife will never degrade herself like that.

So what do they do? Live on what little stipend and savings they have, but mostly they spend it on alcohol and parties with friends. They also make very foolish decisions such as renting both a country house and apartment in New York City.

They see that they are acting foolish but cannot seem to stop themselves. They know they must stop holding and attending parties, but when the evening rolls around, the empty life they see around them impels them to the social amusements. Life isn't worth living until after the fifth or sixth drink.

This cannot last and it doesn't. The grandfather dies, but unfortunately he dies shortly after walking in on a typical gathering of Gloria and Anthony's and everyone there is quite sloshed. The grandfather, a strong prohibitionist, goes home, cuts Anthony from his will and dies.

Anthony retains an expensive (and I mean very expensive) lawyer to contest the will. The court case drags on for years in Bleak House-ian style. In the meantime, Anthony is drafted, travels south for training but luckily avoids actual service since the war ends before he finishes boot camp.

He returns to Gloria and they carry on.

The two slide steadily toward the abyss. A few unexpected things happen toward the end and I won't deprive you of a good read by spoiling it.

Anyone familiar with Fitzgerad's real life can see obvious autobiographical connections. I was constantly reminded of Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast" where Hemingway describes Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda in a way not very different from Anthony and Gloria.

Because they were close friends who spent a lot of time together in Paris, I found myself comparing Hemingway's writing to Fitzgerald's. I can only describe Hemingway's writing as a large, heavy, aggressive predator and Fitzgerald's as a lightweight boxer who rapidly and gracefully dances around his opponent getting jabs in that are only painful to himself. Hemingway enjoyed slaughtering his perceived enemies.

Hemingway's stories may pack a punch, but Fitzgerald's go down as smoothly as one of the alcoholic beverages his characters are forever imbibing.

Here is a very interesting article from the New Yorker about F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It was written in 1926.
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Breeya, Derek and me saying "goodbye."
"Behold, I make all things new." Revelation 21:5

Monday, July 3, 2017

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

The Shostakovich Cello Concerto is playing, performed by the incomparable YoYo Ma.  I hope you will enjoy listening to it as well.

Incidentally, the card in the picture below was painted by my mother before her Macular Degeneration became too advanced.

My Family and Other Animals (Corfu Trilogy, #1)My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All in all, a cute story. Gerald Durrell, about twenty years after the fact, hearkens back to a segment of his childhood that was spent on the island of Corfu. The year is 1935 and WWII is gathering like storm clouds on the horizon but you won't get any hint of that in this story.

When he is ten years old, Gerald's family, which includes his widowed mother, brothers Larry and Leslie, sister Margo and a dog named Roger pack up and move to the island of Corfu.

You must erase from your mind the overcrowded tourist-stricken Corfu of today and imagine a virgin island with old world charm.

Uh, and also old world primitivism. After finally finding a villa with indoor plumbing or at least a bathroom that doesn't require a trip to the beach, the Durrells settle in.

We soon are acquainted with peasants and villagers, all who are friendly and hospitable. As an example, Gerald, one afternoon finds himself far from home and ravenous so he simply wakes up a friendly neighbor (by sending his dog barking like a maniac to the man's porch) who immediately shares his own repast of cheese, grapes and wine with him.

Gerald enjoys the people, enjoys his eccentric family (because he is equally eccentric), the peculiar people his mother assigns to tutor him (Theodore a diffident scientist in love with puns and corny jokes, Katelvsky, owner of many birds and even larger owner of romantic fantasies of which he plays the hero saving a lovely lady, and Peter, alas, Peter did not last long due to his "inappropriate interest in sister Margo- and her equally inappropriate interest in Peter) and most of all the animal life.

Gerald's story flows back and forth like a warm Mediterranean tide between his adventures in capturing animals (magpies, a ferocious seagull, a lumbering turtle, a large assortment of insects) and his family and friends.

His stories are told with charm and with the innocence of childhood, which is no small accomplishment since Durrell was no longer a child when he wrote the story.

For people interested in a time long past as well as natural history this is an enjoyable little read.

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Friday, June 30, 2017

Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Aida D. Donald

I thought the forceful drive of Richard Strauss' Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite Op. 60 was an appropriate accompaniment to today's review about a man whose forceful and driving personality changed the face and global reputation of the United States.

Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore RooseveltLion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Aida D. Donald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt focusing primarily on his years prior to becoming president, all he accomplished as president and finally how he spent his time in the few years remaining to him after leading his country and shaping into a world power.

Anyone born with a silver spoon in his mouth as Roosevelt did, would most likely enjoy life to the fullest, travel, hunt, marry well and pretty much make a jolly good time of his life.

That is in fact what Teddy did, but his sense of bon vivre was accompanied with a strong sense of noblesse oblige; that he must change the wrongs being committed against the impoverished and discriminated and in order to do that, he must arise into a position that empowered him to do so.

His first gubernatorial experience was in New York and leader of the Republican party, where he almost singlehandedly kicked out the corrupt crime bosses who were running much of the business, both private and public. As a member of the New York City Commission he radically restructured the New York police force.

This did not endear him to many and it woke up a cranky House and Senate who were well content to sit idly by and not rock a political boat that was already firmly entrenched, but Teddy was his father's child and he accomplished what his father so passionately believed in, but died too early to effect.

Later, he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President McKinley. Others in office found Roosevelt troublesome and in an effort to neuter him they elected him to become McKinley's Vice President where they believed he could do no harm.

Roosevelt understood just exactly how much a Vice Presidency was worth so after campaigning for McKinley, he went out west to enjoy himself living the Cowboy fantasy.

But then McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt found himself President.

There are a number of long reaching feats that Roosevelt accomplished. To name a few:

He developed a powerful navy that allowed the U.S. to acquisition the Philippians and picked up the mantle the French left in Panama and finished the Canal there. America became a world power under Roosevelt.

Roosevelt preserved great swaths of land from private ownership and established National Parks.

He culled racially discriminatory hiring practices. He scandalized the south by having Booker T Washington to the White House.

It's interesting that many of the causes and beliefs Roosevelt held have been made a part of the contemporary Democratic platform, at least rhetorically, but Roosevelt was a Republican.

When Woodrow Wilson became president and WWI loomed ahead, Teddy roared at Wilson's inaction. But Wilson had become president based on his pacifist platform, he wasn't about to jeopardize that. This drove Roosevelt almost insane and he considered running for president. He did not win and his health soon swallowed up any future in politics.

I wonder what turn history would have taken if Teddy Roosevelt had become president instead of Wilson during WWI.

We'll never know.

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