Recent Reading in Crime Fiction

May 13, 2022 at 8:46 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Of late, I’ve read much and written little. So here’s a corrective, of sorts.

This one was a bit of a hyperintellectual brain teaser, infused with mathematical theorizng ad literary speculation. The plot revolves, almost inevitably, around Lewis Carroll and the questions surrounding his affinity for young girls. Recommended, if you desire a brisk workout for your ‘leetle gray cells..’

And this is quite the opposite. Alexander McCall Smith is incredibly skilled at writing about the human side of his characters without waxing sentimental. Theft of painting, a terrible injury to Ulf’s dog Martin – the only dog in Sweden that can lip read, by the by – these stories and more are interwoven seamlessly in this novel. Ulf is a detective with a heart as big as the great Scandinavian outdoors, yet with it , a brain as sharp and knowing as any policeman could need or desire.

C.J. Box is on a roll, with his Joe Pickett series now being made for television. These novels combine fast moving plots with characters you care about. The writing about the West, with all its problems and promises, is outstanding. Shadows Reel is a worthy addition to this series. And if you’ve never been to Wyoming…well, drop everything and go. What a gorgeous place!

DI Vera Stanhope is driving home in a blizzard when she spots a car at the side of the road. It appears to be empty. The driver’s side door hangs open. She pulls over and stops for a closer look. Suddenly she hears a soft, mewling noise from the back of the vehicle. Like a kitten. But not a kitten. A baby.

Vera gathers the child in her arms and trudges to the nearest dwelling. And here, more surprises await…

Ann Cleeves is a wonderful writer, And the Vera Stanhope series has been brought vividly to life on television. I highly recommend it.

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Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

April 10, 2022 at 8:12 pm (Art, books)

To begin with, the word ‘Secret’ should have been plural: Lady Audley had several, any one of which, if revealed, could have torpedoed her status as ‘My Lady’ within the staid rigors of Victorian society.

I first encountered information on this novel in the pages of Kate Summerscale’s riveting book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. One of the things that made that book so fascinating was the telling of the various ways in which the contemporary culture reacted to news of the grotesque murder at the center of Summerscale’s narrative. During the heat of the high profile investigation, both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins caught ‘detective fever’ and found themselves speculating on possible solutions. Meanwhile, Mary Elizabeth Braddon‘s response to the hubbub was to write Lady Audley’s Secret.

From the viewpoint of plot, the two books have very little in common. But from the standpoint of character, they have one commonality: both feature a woman at the center of a maelstrom, a woman whose moral compass has malfunctioned, with predictably disastrous results. Braddon’s novel falls into the category of literature called ‘novels of sensation.’ Allow me to quote myself, from the post I linked to above:

‘According to Henry James, works of this type dealt with “‘those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries that are at our own doors…the terrors of the cheerful country house, or the busy London lodgings.’” Summerscale elaborates: “Their secrets were exotic, but their settings immediate – they took place in England, now, a land of telegrams, trains, policemen. The characters in these novels were at the mercy of their feelings, which pressed out, unmediated, onto their flesh: emotions compelled them to blanch, flush, darken, tremble, start, convulse, their eyes to burn and flash and dim.”‘

In other words, if your feelings are somewhat numb – try one!

This was actually my second reading of Lady Audley’s Secret. Why did I decide to reread this novel at the present moment? I was having trouble finding reading matter that adequately matched my mood. In particular, I was experiencing one disappointment after another with new so-called ‘literary fiction.’ I’m sure some of it is very good; it just did not seem to be written for me.

When I descend into doldrums of this sort, I tend to reach back to the classics for consolation – and inspiration. My first attempt was a novel I’ve always meant to read but have never gotten all the way through: Crime and Punishment. I’ve always found Dostoevsky tougher going than Tolstoy. I recently read, for the first time, the latter’s short story “Master and Man” and found it powerfully moving. So, how did I do with Dostoevsky this time around? Better…but not completely. These days, due to the magic of Kindle, I could tell precisely how much of the novel I got through: eighty-one percent. I was reading the Constance Garnett translation; possibly a more recent one would have worked better for me. At any rate, I may go back to it, at some future time….

In contrast, reading Lady Audley’s Secret was a breeze. I was engrossed from the outset and stayed that way until the end. In addition, at the time of this reading, I was taking a most pleasurable Lifelong Learning class on the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Just before the final session of this course, I happened upon a passage in which the author describes a portrait of Lady Audley:

Yes, the painter must have been a pre-Raphaelite. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait. 

It was so like, and yet so unlike. It was as if you had burned strange-colored fires before my lady’s face, and by their influence brought out new lines and new expressions never seen in it before. The perfection of feature, the brilliancy of coloring, were there; but I suppose the painter had copied quaint mediaeval monstrosities until his brain had grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend. 

Her crimson dress, exaggerated like all the rest in this strange picture, hung about her in folds that looked like flames, her fair head peeping out of the lurid mass of color as if out of a raging furnace. Indeed the crimson dress, the sunshine on the face, the red gold gleaming in the yellow hair, the ripe scarlet of the pouting lips, the glowing colors of each accessory of the minutely painted background, all combined to render the first effect of the painting by no means an agreeable one.’

I immediately copied this text and sent it to our instructor. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848. Lady Audley’s Secret came out in 1862. The edition at the top of this post features a painting by Dante Gabriel Rosetti entitled Monna Vanna.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Monna Vanna, 1866.

Meanwhile, I had recently read of a new book by Christine Emba, one of my favorite Washington Post columnists. Here it is:

The cover image is by yet another Pre-Raphaelite painter, Frederick Sandys. It is called Love’s Shadow.

Love’s shadow *oil on panel *40.6 x 32.5 cm *1867

There really is something witchy about the way in which the Pre-Raphaelite painters depict certain women…

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Noir Fiction and Film: Sources

February 19, 2022 at 9:17 pm (books, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

I’m looking forward to the beginning of my Osher class on Noir Film and Fiction. Meanwhile, I’m assembling a short – really short, and very subjective – presentation on this topic for my friends in Usual Suspects.

Below are four books which for some time now have been my go-to sources for topics touching on noir:

Let’s start with Sleuths, Inc. The book is subtitled Studies in Problem Solvers. Eames includes five storied names in this volume: Conan Doyle, Simenon, Hammett, Ambler, Chandler, in that order.

In the section on Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade, there are a number of memorable quotes. Here’s my favorite. It’s from The American Commonwealth, a work by James Bryce, penned at a time – -1888 – when Lord Bryce was the British Ambassador to the U.S. It concerns California in general and San Francisco in particular:

‘A great population had gathered there before there was any regular government to keep it in order, much less any education or social culture to refine it. The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people, and left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interferences with, or suppression of, regular law, than are the people in most parts of the union.’

The Viscount concludes this wry bit of social/historical analysis thus:

‘That scum which the western moving wave of emigration carried on its crest is here stopped, because it can go no further. It accumulated in San Francisco and forms a dangerous constituent of the population.’

Hammett once commented to a reporter that in California, politics were the most corrupt in the world. Later there’s a quote attributed to James J. “Sonny” Rolph, mayor of San Francisco while Hammett was living there:

“You make a buck, I make a buck.”

The entire section on Hammett is well worth close attention. In fact, I ought to sit down and read the entire book by the somewhat mysterious Mr. Eames. It seems to be filled with startling insights I have not encountered elsewhere.
**************

Black Mask Boys is a collection of stories that first appeared in the justly famous magazine. Hammett and Chandler are present, and there’s one story each by Erle Stanley Gardner, Carroll John Daly, Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Horace McCoy, and Paul Cain. That’s the whole of it.

It’s a small volume. But William F. Nolan’s introduction is the main attraction:

Black Mask, and the fiction it printed, grew directly out of the era between the two wars, when machine guns flashed fire from low-slung black limousines, when the corner speakeasy served rotgut gin, when swift rum-runners made night drops in dark coastal waters, when police and politicians were as corrupt as the gangsters they protected, when cons and crooks prowled New York alleys and lurked in trackside hobo jungles, when Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd and Al Capone made daily headlines and terrorized a nation….

‘The elegant, deductive sleuth, the calm, calculating sifter of clues, gave way to a new breed–the wary, wisecracking knight of the .45, an often violent, always unpredictable urban vigilante fashioned in the rugged frontier tradition of the western gunfighter.’

‘In the pages of Black Mask, the private eye was born.’

**************

I’ve had Guilty Parties for a long time. Published in 1997, the book breezes through the history of the mystery genre starting with Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin tales and going right up to a lengthy chapter on “The State of the Art.” (I just chanced on a discussion of Colin Dexter’s Morse series, in which author Ian Ousby describes the tv version of the protagonist as “alternately dyspeptic and urbane.” To think that we have by now lost both the inimitable John Thaw as Morse and his creator, Colin Dexter.…)

In Guilty Parties, you will find pithy summations of novels and stories plus wonderful visuals, from the outrageous pulp covers to screen shots from tv series. One of the most enjoyable source books in my voluminous library.
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Finally, A Girl and a Gun by David N. Meyer. Published in 1998, the book is subtitled The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video. (Were it to be re-issued, I imagine those last two words would be dropped.) In the introductory section, Meyer describes what happened in the 1940s when the clipped, deadpan prose and cynical tone of writers like Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain and Mickey Spillane met up with the heavily ironic, refined sensibilities of refugee film directors like Robert Siodmak, Anatole Litvak, and Fritz Lang:

“The writers created heroes who dealt with spiritual crisis (caused by the emptiness of American middle-class life) by alternating between emotional withdrawal and attack. The refugee directors preferred a more sardonic, alienated approach.” Meyer then concludes: “The combining of these sensibilities helped create one of the great creative outpourings in American history.”

Meyer sums up the characteristics of noir in this way:

“No good deed goes unpunished.
A detached, ironic view is the only refuge.
Crime doesn’t pay, but normal life is an experiential/existential straitjacket.
Character determines fate.
Though love might seem to be the only redeeming aspect of human existence, it’s not.
Kicks count for something.
Alienation rules.”

Meyer names seventeen films that he believes comprise ‘Noir 101-The Canon.’ I won’t list them all here, but several are among my favorites, and possibly yours too: Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, Night and the City, Vertigo. He then proceeds to traverse a much larger group belonging to the noir genre. The stars and directors of the respective works are named, and brief but illuminating descriptions of each are included.

Ron and I have used A Girl and a Gun as a guide for our own home film noir festivals. Writing this post has reminded me that we need to do this again. These films are more available now than they ever were – through streaming, off course, but also via DVD from your local library.

Speaking of which…

None of the four titles I’ve just written about are owned by our local library. Three out of four, however, are available through interlibrary loan. Which one isn’t? A Girl and a Gun. This is unfortunate, because it is a book well worth obtaining – well worth owning, in fact. You can try for a non-network referral through the library, or you can purchase it used on Amazon for as little as $2.23.

Two other titles that are available locally and worth mentioning in this context:

The first of these I haven’t had a chance to look at. I read the Chandler biography when it came out in 2016 and enjoyed it very much. The title, by the way, comes from a passage that appears toward the end of The Big Sleep:

Outside the bright gardens had a haunted look, as though small wild eyes were watching me from behind the bushes, as though the sunshine itself had a mysterious something in its light. I got into my car and drove off down the hill.

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The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep

February 2, 2022 at 10:48 pm (Book review, books, Film and television, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

It was with some trepidation that I returned to “those thrilling days of yesteryear” – namely, to the novel that some say started the whole noir thing:

I am doing this because I have signed up for a Lifelong Learning course called ‘Trouble Is My Business: Hardboiled Fiction & Film Noir.’ It begins in late February. Fact is, I signed up for it and promptly forgot about it. Then I received an email informing of the reading list.

Reading list? Oh my…

The Maltese Falcon
The Big Sleep
The Postman Always Rings Twice

A couple of years ago, Usual Suspects discussed The Maltese Falcon. I wrote a blog post on the occasion. I began the post with a quotation from The American Commonwealth by James Bryce, aka Viscount Bryce:

‘A great population had gathered there before there was any regular government to keep it in order, much less any education or social culture to refine it. The wilderness of the time passed into the soul of the people, and left them more tolerant of violent deeds, more prone to interferences with, or suppression of, regular law, than are the people in most parts of the union.’

The Viscount concludes this wry bit of social/historical analysis thus:

‘That scum which the western moving wave of emigration carried on its crest is here stopped, because it can go no further. It accumulated in San Francisco and forms a dangerous constituent of the population.’

Well, we derive plenty of knowledge concerning that ‘dangerous constituent’ in Hammett’s novel.

So, on finishing this rereading, what’s my overall take? First off, from the get go, I found the writing to be, for the most part, rather pedestrian, with a few flashes of hardboiled brilliance, as in this pitiless description of Casper Gutman:

‘The fat man was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all of his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. His eyes, made small by fat puffs around them, were dark and sleek. Dark ringlets thinly covered his broad scalp. He wore a black cutaway coat, black vest, black satin Ascot tie holding a pinkish pearl, striped gray worsted trousers, and patent-leather shoes.’

At least he’s decently dressed.

As for the plot, it quickly becomes so complicated that by the back stretch of this slender volume, I was pretty well lost. Into the bargain, I was having trouble caring about any of the dramatis personae in the whole tangled mess. And as for the desired object itself, it’s an egregious example of what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin – and not a very intriguing one at that.

There is one thing in The Maltese Falcon that I find fascinating. It has nothing to do with the plot; it’s a story that Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy while they’re waiting for something, or someone. It’s actually more of a parable than a simple tale. It’s about a man called Flitcraft:

Richard Layman, a Hammett biographer, delivered a lengthy and very interesting speech at The Library of Congress in 2005 on the history of The Maltese Falcon. Click here to read it.

I just watched a video on Hammett from 1999. It’s called Dashiell Hammett. Detective. Writer. I found it very interesting. His daughter is interviewed; several other people who knew him also appear:

So, on I go to The Big Sleep. Right off the bat, I’m startled by the difference in the quality of the prose. Chandler’s irreverent wit and colorful figures of speech – perhaps too colorful, at times? – come at you. The carefully crafted sentences – too carefully crafted? – are striking in their precision. You almost want to say, okay, Big Guy, you’re laying it on a little too thick, but it’s such fun, so keep going!

I love the opening paragraph:

‘It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue socks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.’

The eponymous four million dollars refers to the lavish Sternwood estate, where trouble is brewing, courtesy of two out-of-control daughters. What’s needed is a P.I. to make that trouble go away swiftly and silently, without involving the police.

Philip Marlowe has been summoned to take on the job, if he’s willing and/or able. He’s led by the butler – the Sternwood establishment possesses a surfeit of servants – into a ragingly hot greenhouse, where the aged paterfamilias, known simply as the General, spends his remaining days.

Here’s the greenhouse:

‘The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom….The light had an unreal greenish color like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.’

And here is General Sternwood:

‘Here, in a space of hexagonal flags, an old red Turkish rug was laid down and on the rug was a wheel chair an old and obviously dying man watched us come with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago, but which still had the coal-black directness of the eyes in the portrait that hung above the mantel in the hall. The rest of his face was a leaden mask, with the bloodless lips and the sharp nose and the sunken temples and the outward-turning earlobes of approaching dissolution….His thin clawlike hands were folded loosely on the rug, purple-nailed. A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.’

Well…yikes. This passage puts me in mind of Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming:’

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun…That seems to describe Marlowe, as he takes in the sight of this bare wreckage of a man.

Eventually – sigh – the novel settles down to the kind of plot -driven mania that I found so challenging in the Hammett novel. I’m now on page 104 of 231, and I’m darned if I can tell you who’s doing what to whom. Still, it’s fun – good, harrowing, knuckle-biting fun. And the dialog is,, of course, very entertaining. Actually, my favorite snippet of dialog by Raymond Chandler occurs in the film version of Double Indemnity. James M. Cain wrote the novel and Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder wrote the screenplay. I believe that the famous “How fast was I going, Officer?” exchange was Chandler’s invention:

I think it’s fair to say that as the years have passed, both The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep have been overshadowed by the films they inspired.

Click here to read a review I wrote of a biography of Raymond Chandler that came out several years ago. And finally, I can’t resist showing once again Raymond Chandler’s Hitchcock-like cameo in Double Indemnity. His presence in the film was detected separately by two film scholars in 2009. He’s sitting outside the office of Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson:

Michael Grost’s site A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection has long been a great help in guiding my forays into older works in the field. He’s not a great fan of Raymond Chandler’s work; nevertheless, he admits that Chandler can at times rise to great heights. This is never more striking than the concluding passage of The Big Sleep. Of the writing there, Grost allows: “This apostrophe to death is magnificently written, and recalls such Elizabethan essays on the same subject as the finale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1610).”

Here it is:

‘What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.’

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Better To Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville, by Akash Kapur

January 16, 2022 at 8:51 pm (Book review, books)

This book tells an intriguing story. It is by turns hopeful and tragic. But mostly it is strange. It is a story in which adults make decisions that are sometimes hard to understand. These decision have long range consequences for their children, and it is two of those children who set out to uncover the facts that underlie their fateful legacy.

Auroville is what is termed an intentional community. It is located in Southeastern India. The nearest established city is Pondicherry.

The following video conveys  a sense of what Auroville means to those who have chosen to live there:

Auroville was established in 1968, in accordance with the vision of Sri Aurobindo.   Mirra Alfassa, who became known simply as The Mother, was his spiritual collaborator, and it was she who was the guiding spirit of Auroville from its inception to her death in 1973, at age 95.

Sir Aurobindo

 

Mirra Alfassa, aka The Mother

 

The death of The Mother precipitated a crisis for Auroville. Akash Kapur tells us:

The residents of Auroville are confronting a quandary that has faced intentional communities throughout the ages. What happens when the founder  dies? What structure, what kind of governance, can replace the charismatic authority that has initiated and  held these places together?

Upon the demise of The Mother, Auroville entered a period of darkness and confusion. Eventually it emerged into the light: order and purpose were restored once again.

One of The Mother’s chief mandates for Auroville was the bringing into being of a structure called the Matrimandir. She pronounced it to be “the soul of the city.”

It’s difficult to describe exactly what the purpose is of this strange edifice, so I’ll quote from Wikipedia:

In the middle of the town is the Matrimandir, which was conceived by Alfassa as “a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection”. Silence is maintained inside the Matrimandir to ensure the tranquility of the space, and the entire area surrounding the Matrimandir is called the Peace area. Inside the Matrimandir, a spiraling ramp leads upwards to an air-conditioned chamber of polished white marble referred to as “a place to find one’s consciousness”.

Matrimandir is equipped with a solar power plant and is surrounded by manicured gardens. When there is no sun or after the sunset, the sunray on the globe is replaced by a beam from a solar-powered light.

Radiating from this center are four “zones” of the City Area: the “Residential Zone”, “Industrial Zone”, “Cultural (& Educational) Zone” and “International Zone”. Around the city or the urban area, lies a Green Belt which is an environmental research and resource area and includes farms and forestries, a botanical garden, seed bank, medicinal and herbal plants, water catchment bunds, and some communities.

Kapur’s chief purpose in penning this volume is to relate the story of two denizens of Auroville: Diane Maes and John Walker. Diane was originally from Belgium; John was American, the scion of a wealthy and distinguished family. Akash Kapur and his wife Auralice both grew up in Auroville. Diane was Auralice’s mother; John was, in effect, the stepfather who was devoted to her. In 1986, when Auralice was  fourteen years old, Diane and John both died. Auralice was sent to live with relatives in America. Akash Kapur had gone there as well. The two eventually married. Auralice was haunted by the tragic and premature deaths of her parents; neither she nor Akash knew exactly what had caused them. Better To Have Gone was born of the search for answers to these questions.

This is a complex and disturbing story, but it is also deeply compelling. I haven’t wanted to give away too much in this review. But I must make one point. The Matrimandir – “the soul of the city” – was the site of a terrible accident that befell Diane Maes. I for one could never have warm, reverent feelings about the place.

Akash Kapur readily concedes that this story of the search for a utopia on Earth has “some dark corners.” But it also has bursts of bright light. Read it, and you will perceive both. Some books have the power to haunt the reader long after they’ve been read. About Better To Have Gone, I feel this sensation myself, especially when I gaze upon the book’s cover and the beautiful Diane Maes gazes, enigmatically, back at me.

Akash and Auralice Kapur

 

 

 

 

 

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Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe

January 2, 2022 at 8:25 pm (Book review, books)

  I figured this would be one heck of a story. I was right. – it is.

In Part One, we are introduced to Jan Aertson van der Bilt. (He was born in the village of Bilt, in the Netherlands near the Belgian border.) From the beginning, from his home base on Staten Island, Jan was a dynamo. He entered the ferry business, became a success, and from there there was no stopping him. It was the classic American immigrant story, in which the newcomer starts with almost nothing and gradually, by way of relentless drive, achieves the summit of success:

The last of the protected Dutch-era monopolies were washed away in the unfettered competitive churn of steamboats plying between New York and New Jersey. That seawater churn would froth higher and higher, heaping up great clouds of profit around the descendants of Jan Aertson van der Bilt, to a level that a seventeenth-century indentured servant or an eighteenth century farmer who owed one horse to his militia could never have possibly imagined.

Born on Staten Island in 1794, Cornelius Vanderbilt began his business enterprise by working in his father’s ferry business. He then started his own ferry business. From there, he went on to acquire great wealth in the railroad and shipping industries. His sobriquet “Commodore” came about because of his unstoppable acquisition of wealth and status, and the iron hand with which he ruled – or attempted to rule – his large family (thirteen children).

Cornelius Vanderbilt, ‘The Commodore’ 1794-1877

Anderson Cooper and his co-author Katherine Howe cover the Vanderbilt story by highlighting its most memorable moments. We learn of the ferocious rivalry between Alva Vanderbilt and Caroline Astor for the (unofficial) position of Queen of New York Society. One of Alva’s trump cards was marrying off  her daughter Consuelo to the Duke of Marlborough. It was a union between  two people who not only did not love each other but could barely stand to be in the same room together. Consuelo was in love with someone else, but her mother’s relentless pressure won out. Consuelo and the Duke married in 1895 and separated in 1906. They divorced in 1921; the marriage was ultimately annulled at the Duke’s request in 1926. (They had two sons.)

The Duke of Marlborough, Consuelo, and their sons

The story of the sinking of the British luxury liner Lusitania in May of is recounted in fascinating detail; Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt perished in this catastrophe, after committing numerous acts of heroism, as recounted by survivors.

The 1934 battle between Gloria Vanderbilt’s mother and her aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney for custody of ‘Little Gloria’  was one of the sensations of its day. (At the time, ten-year-old Gloria was referred to as ‘Little Gloria,’ because her mother had the same first name.)  There was a TV miniseries in 1982 that told the story; it was entitled Little Gloria…Happy at Last, based on the book by the same name by Barbara Goldsmith. (I read the book, but didn’t see the miniseries.)

The one section in this  book that I found rather tedious was the description of the America’s Cup yacht race that took place in 1934 (an eventful year for the Vanderbilt clan, for sure). Harold Stirling Vanderbilt won the trophy in that contest. I think that Anderson Cooper and his co-author Katherine Howe were trying to portray this as a suspenseful event. No doubt it was, for the participants and those cheering them on from the sidelines. But for this reader, there was simply too much minutiae about yacht racing. It just did not translate well onto the page.

One chapter that definitely did shine was entitled “Gloria at La Côte Basque.” This was a famously upscale restaurant in mid-twentieth century Manhattan. A group of wealthy and glamorous women used to dine there regularly, frequently accompanied by Truman Capote, who called them his ‘Swans.” Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Lee Radziwill, Gloria Vanderbilt – all were part of  this charmed circle.

The women confided in Capote rather recklessly. (Their husbands did not begrudge them the time they spent with him, as he was gay and thus presented no threat.) Eventually, he made use of their confidences in a notorious essay entitled “La Cote Basque 1965” It was published in Esquire Magazine in 1975. Their deepest secrets betrayed and exposed to the world, the Swans turned their backs on their erstwhile confidante.

This story is told in meticulous and – I just have to say it – delicious detail in the recently published Capote’s Women by Laurence Leamer.   Here you will encounter not only a festival of gossip, but also a portrait of a time and a way of life that is truly gone with the wind. (As I eagerly devoured the pages of this, I  kept thinking, what planet are these women from? Exactly what are we to make of a world in which, by tying her scarf around the strap of her handbag, a woman starts a style revolution?)

I’d like to recommend a documentary called Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper.  This film was made in 2016 and contains some fascinating footage; it also provides a glimpse into a vanished world. But most of all, it recounts moments of reckoning and reconciliation between a mother and her son. Those moments culminated in an affirmed bond of affection.  I found this depiction intensely moving.

The Howard County Library owns this DVD.

 

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The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap That Shaped America, by Matthew Pearl

December 25, 2021 at 3:31 pm (Book review, books, History)

  The title pretty much sums it up. It was summer, 1776. The kidnap victim was thirteen-year-old Jemima Boone. She was taken, along with two other girls, by a Cherokee-Shawnee raiding party. The girls had gone off for a canoe trip on the Kentucky River. Understandably given their age, they were tired of being hemmed in by the walls of Boonesboro, the settlement in which they lived. As often happens in these instances, they got more than they bargained for.

Boonesboro was founded by Jemima’s father Daniel. He was determined to create a settlement in Kentucky, despite advice to the contrary from just about everyone. In particular, the Native American tribes of the region depended on Kentucky to furnish them with game, crops, and other necessities. It was fertile, bountiful, and beautiful country.

Daniel Boone and other men of the settlement rescued Jemima and her fellow captives in fairly short order. But that was just the  beginning….

Concerning this book, the descriptor that keeps recurring to me is rip-roaring. Yes – nonstop, rip-roaring adventure! Colonials versus Natives, Colonials battling each other, Natives doing much the same. Never a dull moment. And no one has a monopoly on goodness – at least, not when slavery is involved. And in this mass of confused and shifting loyalties and almost relentless fighting – it is, after all, the year 1776 – slavery is most definitely involved.

The manner in which Boonesboro settlers pushed against external controls reflected the new nation’s larger search for freedom. Independence was a complex political process, but freedom was visceral, a state of mind. Moral costs included consistent reliance on slave labor and trampling the tribes’ longstanding access to Kentucky’s natural resources.

Still, the repeated displays of raw courage on all sides are astonishing. In this remote corner of the land, a nation was struggling to be born. It is an exciting and illuminating, if, at times, depressing story.

And Matthew Pearl is the right one to tell it. The narrative is propulsive and the writing is meticulous. I would expect no less from this gifted young man. He is the nephew of one of my oldest and dearest friends. I’ve known his mother since childhood.

Matthew Pearl

Congratulations on a job well done!

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A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, by George Saunders

December 23, 2021 at 4:16 pm (Book review, books, Russophilia, Uncategorized)

  So, this book was a real challenge. But I felt that it was time to give the “leetle gray cells” a tune-up. So I signed on…

The four Russian writers cited in the book’s subtitle  are Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol. Tolstoy contributed two of the six tales included in this volume; Chekhov, three.

Ivan Turgenev 1818-1883. (I know from reading The Europeans by Orlando Figes that Turgenev did not actually spend much of his creative life in Russia.)

Anton Chekhov 1860-1904

Niklolai Gogol 1809-1852

Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy 1828-1910

Chekhov and Tolstoy

The stories are:

“In the Cart,” “The Darling,” and “Gooseberries” by Chekhov
“The Singers” by Turgenev
“Master and Man” and “Alyosha the Pot” by Tolstoy
“The Nose” by Gogol

Saunders presents the first story, “In the Cart,” in discreet sections, with comments on each portion of the tale. The other stories are presented in their entirety, with no interruptions and commentary following.

The commentary on the stories is enlightening, although at times I became impatient with it. ( I remember this happening to me frequently in college, where I majored in English literature.) Saunders’ observations are beautifully expressed aand insightful, almost in a way that is startling.

On Marya Vasilyevna, the chief protagonist of “In the Cart:”

She’s been rejuvenated, remade into that carefree, happy, hopeful young girl she used to be. She’s like a superhero whose powers have suddenly returned.

And this, in a story with almost no action, no plot. But as soon  as I read the  above assertion, I recognized its rightness.
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“The Singers” is about a singing competition that takes place in a tavern in a small town. Here’s how Turgenev describes the vocalizing of one contestant, known as Yashka the Turk:

Yashka was evidently overcome by ecstasy: he was no longer diffident; he gave himself up entirely to his feeling of happiness; his voice no longer trembled–it quivered, but with the barely perceptible inner quivering of passion which pierces like an arrow into the hearer’s soul, and it grew continually in strength, firmness, and breadth.

The listeners are deeply moved, in some cases, to tears. It’s a quintessentially Russian scene, but Saunders teases out of the story a universal truism about art:

We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs–or doesn’t– in that instant. What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we “know” something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple.
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“The Darling” is a story I’d read before and was happy to encounter again. In his commentary, Saunders makes this intriguing assertion:

What transforms an anecdote into a story is escalation.

This made me think of countless times I’ve been pinioned by someone telling a story that seemed to have no arc, no buildup, no climax, and no satisfactory conclusion. It never fails to amaze me that such people have no idea that there’s a reason the listener’s eyes have glazed over! (Do they even notice that it’s happening?)
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Concerning “The Nose,” Saunders informs us that this particular tale is “a particular Russian form of unreliable first-person narration called skaz. It’s mainly a satire that tells its most outrageous elements with a straight face. I have to say right off the bat that this was my least favorite story in the book. I had to force myself to get through it.

However, Dmitri Shostakovich was sufficiently inspired by it to write an opera. Click here for a summary of the action in this work. And below is a rather amusing dance sequence that appeared in a production staged by the Royal Opera:

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It’s been a while since I read this book. As with “The Nose,” “Gooseberries” did not really stick with me, but unlike the Gogol story, I liked “Gooseberries” very much. In my experience, Chekhov never disappoints!

A man makes known his desire to forsake the rat race in the city and move to a small allotment he possesses in the country, in order to farm it. His brother disapproves. First, he states the wry truism that a man only needs six feet of earth. But he has more to say on the subject:

To retire from the city, from struggle, from the hubbub, to go off and hide on one’s own farm–that’s not life, it’s selfishness, sloth, it is a kind of monasticism but monasticism without works. Man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe, all of Nature, where unhindered he can display all the capacities and peculiarities of his free spirit.

You don’t know necessarily have to agree with the sentiment expressed here, but it’s expressed  beautifully, and it’s thought-provoking.
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I’ve deliberately saved the Tolstoy stories until the end. “Alyosha the Pot” is the tale of a simple young man who, in many ways, seems too good for this world. He’s like  the Holy Fool one encounters, from time to time, in the literature of Russia, and of other countries as well, an individual of intense religious faith coupled with a resigned feeling about the course his life will take. This story has the feeling of times long past. Yet Tolstoy wrote it in 1905, five years before his death at the  age of 82.

Alyosha enters a period of servitude, in which he is frequently taken advantage of. Such is the fate of people like him. He has a brief chance to find happiness, but it is snatched from him almost at once. He does not protest, but simply accepts his fate.

Saunders poses a profound, and likely unanswerable, question about this tale:

So, is it possible that Tolstoy intended us to read the story as a simple praise of Alyosha, who,…over the course of his whole life, enacted radical Christian humility– a sad story, on the human level, but ultimately a story of the triumph of simplicity and faith?

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Finally, there is “Master and Man.”

I thought that I would have a great deal to say about this story, but I find I’m having trouble finding the words.

“Master and Man” is the story of Vasili Andreevich, a wealthy young landowner, and his manservant (or man) Nikita. Vasili Andreevich is eager to inspect a property that he might be  able to acquire, if he does not delay. He selects Nikita to accompany  him, chiefly because he is the only one of his workers who, on that particular day, is not inebriated. (Really, reading Russian fiction of this period is enough to convince you that the vast majority of the country’s people are drunk most of the time!)

And so they set off. But they are taking a terrible chance. The notorious Russian winter is closing in on them. A ferocious blizzard is approaching. The warning signs are plainly visible. But Vasili Andreevich insists on going, despite ominous conditions. This is the story of what happens to  them on this fateful journey.

I will say no more about the plot. But I have to say this: In the course of their travels, something happens to Vasili Andreevich that is so profound, so unexpected, that it took my breath away. It is something that happens mainly within the man, to his mind and to his heart. It causes him to undertake an action…Well, I’ll stop here. When I finished “Master and Man,” I closed this book and sat still for a certain period of time. There were tears in my eyes. I felt as though I had just had a glimpse – not quite hidden behind a wall of snow – of God, working His inexorable will upon one human being.

George Saunders quotes Vladimir Nabokov:

“Most Russian writers have been tremendously interested in Truth’s exact whereabouts and essential properties…Tolstoy marched straight at it, head bent and fists clenched.”

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I’m deeply grateful to have been led back to the Russian masters. I thank George Saunders wholeheartedly for this opportunity. I studied Russian language and literature in college, but I’ve had scant occasion to revisit this treasure trove of beauty and meaning and depth. It has  recently come to my attention that there is a new book out about Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It’s called The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece; the author is Kevin Birmingham. I’d like to read it, but I never actually got through Crime and Punishment, and what portion of it I did read is part of my remote past.

So yes, Dear Reader, I’m taking another crack at it. I’ve selected the Constance Garnett translation, but I may switch to another, more recent one in due time. Nonetheless, I am finding the novel deeply absorbing.

The title of this famous work is one that I’ve known in Russian ever since my undergraduate encounter with this strange and enchanting language. Here it is:

преступление и наказание

It is pronounced ‘prestupleniye i nakazaniye.’

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‘Nobody ever told Morse or Rebus to mind their own business.’ – A Line To Kill by Anthony Horowitz

December 22, 2021 at 6:06 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  But someone does say it about Daniel Hawthorne. Like those two famous fictional sleuths, Daniel Hawthorne, once on the trail, is indefatigable – utterly committed. He’ll see it through, no matter what.

In A Line To Kill, “it” consists of a suspicion of foul play, at work in a seemingly benign venue: a literary festival on Alderney, one of the Channel Islands. Now an island is a fine setting for a mystery, as Dame Agatha would tell you. A limited pool of suspects keeps the tension high and climbing higher. Of course, there is a murder, shortly followed by another. Officers from nearby Guernsey are present at the scene, but it is Hawthorne, acting in concert with the police, who keeps things moving towards their inevitable conclusion.

One thing must be said about Daniel Hawthorne: He pursues leads with inexorable force. If his blunt questioning causes pain, well, so be it. At one point, one of the individuals whom he’s been pressuring relentlessly rounds on him and delivers this diatribe:

“I know you’re only doing your job, Mr. Hawthorne, and you don’t really care how you get your results. I was there when you were giving your talk and it struck me then that you have absolutely no heart at all. You don’t believe in the law. You don’t want to help people or society. You don’t seem to have any understanding of morality at all. You’re a detective. That’s all that matters to you.”

Hawthorne makes  no response to this ringing condemnation. The narrator, Anthony Horowitz, thinks to himself, ‘As a parting shot, it was a good one.’

In fact, to me. the most interesting thing about this series is the relationship between Anthony and Daniel. At times, they seem like two halves of  the same person, but much of the time, they are seriously at odds. Anthony’s task is to shadow Daniel in order to write about his methods, much as Dr. Watson narrates the exploits of Sherlock Holmes. But there was much less static in that relationship than there is in the relationship between Anthony and Hawthorne. Anthony often feels like second best alongside Hawthorne, whose brilliant insights run circles around his own comparatively sluggish thought processes.

In the final chapters of A Line To Kill, the author has a great deal of summing up and explaining to do. I’ve encountered this tendency in any number of mysteries, and I find it off-putting – a sign that the narrative has become too convoluted, or the characters too numerous, or both. This is where the mystery short story has an advantage over a full length novel, I think. It’s limited duration keeps things relatively simple and straightforward.

Anyway, don’t let these final observations put you off reading the book. It was fun and a fast read. I recommend it.

 

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“…to take on the work of fate is to incur full responsibility for its consequences.” – Second Place, by Rachel Cusk

December 16, 2021 at 1:47 am (Book review, books)

  Don’t know about you, but I’m somewhat relieved to encounter a happy marriage in a novel – or in a work of nonfiction, for that matter – or in real life, also. This is no doubt partly due to the fact that I’m in one myself, and terrible grateful for it, and wishing its particular gift of happiness and contentment to grace the lives of others as well.

The main character in Second Place is similarly wed. Her husband’s name is Tony; she is identified only as M. They live out in the country, in a place characterized by a wide. marshy region. (Not sure; might be somewhere in France). They are in an isolated location, but they enjoy entertaining company. This motivates them to build another, smaller cottage on their considerable property, so that their guests can stay in comfort and have privacy. This, then, is the eponymous Second Place.

Sometimes, when things are going well, people can get restless. They want to inject a new element into the fabric, shake things up a little. This seems to be at least partially the reason why M. decides to invite an artist to take up residency in the Second Place. The artist, known to us only as L, accepts the offer. It proves to be a fateful decision. No surprises there.

Second Place is narrated in the first person by M. It is cast in the form of a lengthy missive, or perhaps a journal entry, addressed to someone called Jeffers. Man or woman? Friend or relation? Some sort of confessor? If this was ever clarified, I missed it. Right from the beginning, the tone of the narrative is urgent, becoming ever more so as time advances and L finally arrives on the scene, a young female friend unexpectedly in tow.

This is how the novel opens:

I once told you, Jeffers, about the time I met the devil on a train leaving Paris, and about how after that meeting the evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things rose up and disgorged itself over every part of life. It was like a contamination, Jeffers: it got into everything and turned it bad.

Well.

First off, I Was reminded of the story by J. Sheridan Le Fanu called “Green Tea,” first published in the U.S. in 1945:

“There was very little light in the ‘bus. It was nearly dark. I leaned forward to aid my endeavour to discover what these little circles really were. They shifted position a little as I did so. I began now to perceive an outline of something black, and I soon saw, with tolerable distinctness, the outline of a small black monkey, pushing its face forward in mimicry to meet mine; those were its eyes, and I now dimly saw its teeth grinning at me.

“I drew back, not knowing whether it might not meditate a spring. I fancied that one of the passengers had forgot this ugly pet, and wishing to ascertain something of its temper, though not caring to trust my fingers to it, I poked my umbrella softly towards it. It remained immovable—up to it—through it. For through it, and back and forward it passed, without the slightest resistance.”

Secondly, I thought to myself, I’m not going to be able to read this.

I was wrong.

Second Place is a short novel and a curiously compelling one. Cusk has deep insight into the vagaries of human conduct, especially as regards relationships. “Green Tea” is a masterpiece of horror writing, but Second Place has little to do with that genre of literature. It is instead  firmly grounded in the reality of the here and now – almost painfully so.

At the back of the book, Rachel Cusk informs us that “Second Place owes a debt to Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time D.H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico.” Having recently read and very much enjoyed Burning Man, a new biography of Lawrence, in which Mabel Dodge Luhan necessarily plays a major part, I was pleased by this confluence and could immediately see how Luhan’s relation of her turbulent experience hosting Lawrence in the spellbinding but isolating desert of New Mexico lent some key elements to Cusk’s narrative.

Second Place is an intriguing, evocative, and beautifully written novel. I highly recommend it.

Rachel Cusk

 

 

 

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