LONERS (Monthly Book Report: 4/16)

The Green Ripper (John D. MacDonald,1979)

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After a couple of mildly disappointing entries bracketing a four-year break, this was at least a partial return to form for the Travis McGee series. The love of McGee’s life, hanging on at the end of the previous book, is swiftly dispatched here and, of course, it turns out to be by nefarious means, though, in a somewhat unusual twist, it isn’t because she’s hanging around with McGee.

The book then turns into a somewhat standard revenge plot, with McGee going hard and mean after the perpetrators. It all takes a while to get going, but, once it does, MacDonald’s real strengths are back on full display.

To wit, McGee in self-analysis mode:

“If you are in a line of work where a bad guess can get you a pair of broken elbows, you tend to become a quick study.”

McGee on the sclerosis of modernity:

“They were not going to try to sell me anything. They did not have the twinkle, the up-front affability. They were not here to enforce one of the idiot rules of the bureaucracy that grows like high-speed cancer. They did not have that look of fatuous satisfaction and autocratic, patronizing indifference of fellows who come to tell you that you forgot to file Form Z-2324, as amended. Or to tell you that you can’t cut down your pine tree without enlisting the services of an approved, accredited, licensed tree surgeon. They looked important. As if they had come to buy the marina and put up a research institute.”

McGee to the gravedigger who responds to his reading Emily Dickinson over his dead girl’s ashes by asking if it’s ‘one of those religiions?’:

“Sort of.”

On being taken alive and held captive by the cult that was ultimately responsible for his girl’s murder:

“There was a cook in the camp. Even a slight taste of wine in the stew. Boiled onions, carrots, celery, tomatoes. And a lot of it. After my dinner I read a religious comic book. All about Samson yanking down that temple. Samson looked like Burt Reynolds. Delilah looked like Liz Taylor. The temple looked like the Chase Bank.”

On becoming an accepted member of the cult and being taken to task for his unacceptably bourgeoisie outlook by an intense young woman who insists “You have no right of approval or disapproval over anything I do or think or am” which most explicitly includes her commitment to murdering hundreds of people whenever and wherever the cult is ready to give the order:

“I’m just trying to understand is all.”

And the answer:

 “Don’t try. Just accept.”

On the other female cult member, the one who is sent to sleep with him:

“Poor little assassin. She had gone out into the world with an empty head, and somebody had crammed a single frightful idea into it, dressed up with a lot of important-sounding rhetoric. She couldn’t know the frightfulness of the idea because she had nothing by which to measure it.”

On the bleak aftermath of killing twelve people–none of whom actually carried out his girl’s murder and only one of whom had anything to do with it at all–and the emptiness of knowing the monsters who were really responsible are forever out of reach unless the information he’s been able to subsequently supply to the bureaucracy he despises ultimately allows it to impose a justice he will never hear about one way or the other:

“There was no great moment of my saying, ‘Aha!’ or ‘Eureka!’ It just slowly came clear, like the mist rising on a mountain morning. There was a black, deep, dreadful ravine separating me from all my previous days.”

In other words he had 1979 as the year of no turning back all pegged to hell. There’s value in remembering that in these days when we have government-funded studies of indeterminate length and cost to tell us all the very same things.

John Ford: Interviews (Gerald Peary, Ed. 2001)

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Ford was a notoriously cranky and unreliable interview subject. The cantankerousness and obfuscation are on full display here, in a collection of interviews (often spiced with impressionistic addenda from the journalists conducting them) that range from 1920 to 1973.

What else is on display? Just what you might expect: Nuggets of sharp insight into the business and art of film-making and the vicissitudes of human history and human nature that gleam from nearly every page, the most significant of which is probably this, from 1936:

“After all,” Ford said, sitting back, “you’ve got to tell your story through the people who portray it. You can have a weak, utterly bad script–and a good cast will turn it into a good picture. I’ve thwarted more than one handicap of that kind with the aid of two or three really fine actors.

“With the exception of the stars who are signed for parts by the studios in advance, I insist on choosing names for myself. And I spend more time on that task than any other.”

I haven’t kept up the category as I should, but there’s a reason, after much consideration, that I created a category here called “John Ford’s People.” Alone in Hollywood, and nearly alone in the world, Ford, the hard-bitten, isolate “picture maker,” placed his entire emphasis on human beings and, most specifically, human limits. He comes back to this, again and again and from every conceivable angle, throughout this volume covering fifty years of foolish, repetitive questions, for which it turns out he had far more time and patience than the false narrative he was forever mocking has allowed.

“Do you never laugh?” one of the questioners asks, in 1966.

“Yes, I laugh all the time. But inside.”

This little volume is the sound of John Ford laughing inside. Highly recommended for those who “get it.” Even more highly recommended for those who don’t.

SHORT AND SWEET (Monthly Book Report: March, 2016)

The Empty Copper Sea (John D. MacDonald,1978)

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Here, MacDonald returned to his hero, Travis McGee, after a four year break. Sometimes authors take a break from a series because they’ve run out of ideas. Sometimes they return with a fresh perspective and renewed energy.

That didn’t exactly happen here.

I said in last month’s review of 1974’s The Dreadful Lemon Sky that I preferred McGee in action to McGee contemplating his navel. There the balance was a bit off. Here, there’s barely any action at all. There’s a client, a problem and a love story. The client barely registers. The problem is a good one, but it’s treated with too much side-eye, too little direct involvement (for either McGee or the reader), to ever grab hold. The love story therefore takes center stage, but it takes too long in arriving and isn’t quite convincing enough or marvelous enough or sensual enough to be compelling all on its own.

That doesn’t mean the book is a complete waste to time. MacDonald had, if anything, become an even more acute social observer as the years went by and one can learn a lot about the suffocating power of modern bureaucracy by spending time with even the least interesting entries in this series.

And when the action–and the horror–finally do arrive, they are chilling enough.

Still, a thriller shouldn’t wait for the final twenty pages to become thrilling. The series has four books to run. I hope this is an anomaly.

MARKING TIME (Monthly Book Report: 2/16)

The Affair (Lee Child, 2011)

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I kind of liked the Tom Cruise movie based on Child’s Jack Reacher character and I saw a couple of the books cheap in a thrift store so I decided to give the series a go. This is the sixteenth entry (the series began in 1997), but, serendipitously, it’s told in flashback, so the action takes place a few months before the action of the series’ first novel. In other words, I wasn’t as far out of the loop as I might have been.

Good pulp always has it’s finger on the pulse of the future and Child has apparently decided that the only way ahead is to trust in our superheroes, who, along with the usual manly virtues, must combine the qualities of Superman, Super-Sleuth and Sociopath in about equal measure.

In other words, we’re doomed.

Skillfully done (laying aside the usual caveats about a book set in the south by a writer who doesn’t have much feel for the region), but I can’t help wondering if Child actually knows how creepy his hero is.

Maybe if I read further….

(NOTE: Child is a professed admirer of John MacDonald’s Travis McGee series and comparing the two can make you appreciate just how hard it is to bring a touch of something more than craft to such endeavors.)

Personal (Lee Child, 2014)

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Verdict’s in:

We’re still doomed.

Child still doesn’t know how creepy his hero is.

Those matters being respectively obvious and unresolved, all that’s left is the plot, which is meh. Up a notch for no sex therapy.

The Dreadful Lemon Sky (John D. MacDonald, 1974)

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After Child, a return to the McGee was refreshing, though this is just above middling.

The jabs at the march of profit-driven history flow sharp and terse: “I found a shopping center and found that they had left some giant oaks in the parking lot. This runs counter to the sworn oath of all shopping center developers. One must never deprive thy project of even one parking slot.”

There’s more than that of usual, but I confess I still admire McGee in action to McGee contemplating his navel. Unfortunately the balance favors the latter here, at least until the very end, when death is all around and leaves a genuine pall.

And the character sketches are among the sharpest in the entire series, including an eerily perfect template for Bill Clinton, if Bill Clinton had never made it out of Arkansas…or Florida.

SLIM PICKINGS (Monthly Book Report: 1/16)

Slow month on the reading front. I’m finishing up LOA’s second volume of Women Crime Writers for BWW. The only other book I finished was  a so-so thriller. Still, the show must go on:

The Afghan (Frederick Forsyth, 2006)

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The fourth of Forsyth’s thrillers I’ve read, the third in recent months, and it’s pretty clear that, while his books are reliably entertaining, The Day of the Jackal was his one-off masterpiece. So many years later, the formula remains basically the same and the coiled spring plotting is intact, along with the ability to deliver reams of inside information about the security state (and the state of the security state) in a compact, almost breezy, form.

But the cost of being trusted with all that information–with not revealing it too soon–comes at a price to the imagination and, ultimately, to the soul. One the one hand, his steely lack of sentimentality is admirable. Only it seems to have come at the usual cost: an inability to go below any human surface. I was moved by the fate of his hero. But it would have been nice to know him as more than a set of superficial details and a reliable cipher of the security state in which Forsyth so clearly and devoutly believes.

Naivete is never charming in a man who really should know better.

That said, it was a good read for airports. I’ll certainly keep that in mind if I start flying more than once a decade.

HIT MAN LIT (Monthly Book Report: December, 2015)

Travel and some modest health issues definitely cut into the reading time in December. But at least when you only finish one book it isn’t hard to stick with a theme!

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter (Malcolm Mackay, 2013)

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This is the first volume in what is called “The Glasgow Trilogy.” Glasgow is evidently a very hip setting for modern crime fiction and this is certainly a long step up from Denise Mina’s dismal Garnethill, which I reviewed here.

That doesn’t make it any great shakes, nor, absent a sense of humor, is it as entertaining as Lawrence Block’s Hit Me, which I reviewed here.

Still, I found it an easy enough ride. Mackay has a nice, crisp style and, if he does strive for the usual bit of unwarranted empathy for his sociopaths, at least he doesn’t want us to bleed all over them.

I’ll definitely give the rest of the trilogy a try, albeit with appropriately lowered expectations.

EURO PO-MO: MORE FUN THAN ANY ONE MAN SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO HAVE (Monthly Book Report: November, 2015)

Most of my reading for this month was for my next BWW review, which should be up in a day or two. I did squeeze in one novella.

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (Peter Handke, 1970)

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Purely representative paragraph:

“He read the movie ad posted on the milk stand; the other posters under it were tattered. Bloch walked on and saw a boy who had hiccups standing in a farmyard. He saw wasps flying around in an orchard. At a wayside crucifix there were rotting flowers in tin cans. In the grass next to the street lay empty cigarette boxes. Next to the closed windows he saw hooks dangling from the shutters. As he walked by an open window, he smelled something decayed. At the tavern the landlady told him that somebody in the house had died yesterday.”

Morally neutral, hyper-descriptive writing, then, devoted to the wanderings of a sociopath and sufficiently plotless as to make the order in which the pages are read irrelevant.

This isn’t really my sort of thing. If it’s yours, then ninety pages probably won’t feel like nine hundred.

To each his own. Just please don’t get the idea that the text is anywhere near as exciting as that cover.

(This was included in a three volume set Three by Peter Handke, which I purchased because several reasonably reliable sources recommended its second entry,  Short Letter, Long Farewell, which has something to do with John Ford. Let’s just say I’m not looking forward to that one as much as I was before I started reading this one.)

JUST THE McGEE (Monthly Book Report: October, 2015)

…and, for last month, nothing but the McGee:

A Tan and Sandy Silence (John D. MacDonald, 1971)

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By now, the various working parts of the series were well-oiled bits of machinery: McGee the social critic; McGee the adventurer; McGee the Lothario-with-a-conscience. Commerce aside (as it never quite can be in popular pulp) the series is best when the second element is preeminent, there’s a healthy dose of the first, and the third is kept in check. Throughout the late sixties, MacDonald had real trouble holding the right balance, as if he couldn’t quite let go of wanting the series to be something more than high-end entertainment. (Oddly enough, he found what he was looking for when he got back to basics-with-a-twist–see the last entry below.)

Beginning with the previous book and continuing here, he found himself mostly back on stride. There’s still a little flab. But it picks up speed as it goes along and, by the time everything is coming to a head, McGee can toss off maxims like, “Tourists are invisible, except to the man trying to sell them something,” without slowing down, even while a girl is buried up to her neck on a hidden beach and the tide is rolling in.

A fourth element–McGee being gnawed by new doubts as he ages (doubts that both lead into and emanate from a scene where he is watching that tide while trussed and bound)–also makes its presence felt more strongly than before, though not so it distracts too much. All in all a strong entry, nearly on a par with the early years.

The Scarlet Ruse (John D. MacDonald, 1973)

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Better still and continuing the momentum. Here the basic adventure and the usual elements are underpinned by the threat of McGee and his little houseboat community losing their slips at Bahia Mar due to a local ordinance. It all works out in the end, but the subplot adds an extra layer of melancholy to a story that is bound to have some extra resonance for those of us who grew up in the Florida MacDonald knew so well.

The plot is strong–a stamp collection pilfered from the bank vault of a mobster who doesn’t yet know it’s missing, unless by chance he stole it himself–and McGee finds himself pitted against not one but two formidable villains who are also pitted against each other. There’s real danger and, in the end, and real damage to the hero both physically and psychically.

But having grown up across the Indian River from the Kennedy Space Center at the Space Age’s highest tide, my own favorite passage, which distills why these books are always going to be worth reading, was this one:

So I told her about the radio tape years ago, made in Lauderdale, and broadcast only once before NASA came galloping in, all sweaty, and confiscated it. The interviewer had asked one of those good and tough-minded and free-thinking men of the early days of space orbiting how he felt as the rocket was taking off. Maybe it was because he had heard the question too many times. He answered it with a question. “How would you feel, taking off, sitting up there on top of fifty thousand parts, knowing that every one of them had been let to the lowest bidder?”

“Grissom?” she asked. I nodded.

(For those who weren’t there or don’t recall, Gus Grissom was one of those who burned to death on top of a pile of those lowest-bidder parts. Future historians, pondering American decline, could do worse than focus on that moment as a tipping point. Those presently inclined to blame it all on the hippies could do worse than to focus on it in the here and now, when it might just possibly still not be too late to change course.)

The Turquoise Lament (John D. MacDonald, 1973)

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And coming off three straight strong entries, MacDonald raises his game to its highest pitch, with the best book in the series to date and a novel that could stand on its own even if you entered knowing nothing whatsoever of Travis McGee, his friend Meyer, the Busted Flush, or the State of America, circa 1973, though all of those elements are turned to good advantage here.

The basic story floats free of the series in some respects, but also culminates MacDonald/McGee’s trending pessimism and creeping self-doubt. McGee, already at full-blown mid-life crisis, answers a call from a much younger woman who once had a serious school-girl crush on him. She’s either going crazy or her husband wants to kill her. She wants him to find out which.

Not normally in the McGee’s line of business, but her late father once saved his life so he takes it on as repayment of the debt.

And, perhaps because he’s started out too close to the situation, he proceeds to get exactly everything wrong, with consequences that lead step-by-stop to both a crisis of faith and a deftly intertwined, hair-raising climax that pits McGee against one of his most terrifying and amoral villains.

The elements that sometimes make the books drag a bit are kept to a minimum and the sex-therapy is replaced by a genuine love story punctuated with the kind of sour-sex, hardcore, nail-anything-that-moves release you would expect from a McGee type in the real world, absent the need to set sexually liberated hearts aflutter (and I don’t just mean the women).

He survives it all in the end. Even the love story. And I look forward to the final decade of the series knowing this basically means he can survive anything–even being the protagonist of a novel the Bellow/Updike types would have killed to have their names on , if they’d only had the contacts.

And I can’t close this without quoting my favorite zinger of the series so far:

The medical industry is never ready for inquiry. They never used to like to answer questions. Now they have the excuse they could be sued. They overwork the excuse.

Doctors and lawyers, lined up perfectly to fit my life experience.

I’ll be real surprised if it gets any better than that.

RAMBLING AROUND (Monthly Book Report: September, 2015)

No sooner do I start thinking I’m gonna read so many books I need categories every month than I get life-whammied back down to the usual number. Oh well…One thing I am doing, beginning this month, is writing off books that I know I’m not going to live long enough to finish. Hence, my lifelong habit of finishing any book I start, no matter how boring/bad/mind-numbing it may be, is going by the wayside. Details at the end.

As for what I did finish…

The Odessa File (Frederick Forsyth, 1972)

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Forsyth’s followup to The Day of the Jackal, which I liked so much last month. This, too, is efficient and fast-moving. But the little shocks to the system that accompanied the journey of the Jackal are not repeated so, while it’s highly diverting, and a solid entry in the valuable Nazis-sure-are-evil-and-we-should-never-forget sub-genre, it’s no more than that.

The Long Lavender Look (John D. MacDonald, 1970)

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Latest in the Travis McGee series I’ve been reading in order and, after a late-sixties’ slump, this is a big rebound. The first hundred plus pages move at locomotive speed, so that the inevitable slow-down for the sex therapy session (which the McGee herein actually gives a name–right there on p. 133, he calls it “bedroom therapy” leaving each of us to decide for ourselves whether such self-awareness duly compensates for routinely trying our patience), actually comes as something of a relief.

MacDonald had a wise formula for getting his man off the schneid and it amounted to this: Find some way to get him back in the swamps with the Florida crackers.

Here, among the people the author seemed to know best and trust least, the tension always ratchets. So, although 1) there’s a bit of a letdown at the very end, when McGee’s creator basically pulls some punches so his man can avoid a true, final confrontation with the book’s most terrifying villain (a good-looking swamp girl with less than no morals, cat-like cunning and man-like strength); 2) a continuation of the trend that has McGee’s “therapied” women ending up dead or mutilated or both in scenes that have begun to play more and more like mercy killings; 3)  the hero’s vaunted “humanity” is really beginning to wear paper thin, rather like Natty Bumppo’s sermons, and 4) the once piquant social commentary has been replaced by long-winded griping about what’s on television, this is still a fine entry in the series.

Beyond an early look at the speed culture which permeated rural America in the first blush of “liberation” and has long since turned into the even more frightening and nihilistic meth culture that haunts trailer parks and mountain hollows in our own time, there’s also an anecdote on cruelty in the Indian sub-continent which should provide you with something to think about the next time you want to complain about say, Christianity, or the Western world’s concept of the rule of law, there’s also a neat twist on Double Indemnity, as McGee and his soon-to-be-dead-or-mutilated lady friend find themselves having to dispose of a body they didn’t kill.

All that plus a race-along plot that emerges like an unfolding nightmare steaming from a cypress swamp.

And, to top it off, an occasional bit of ominous perfection suitable to an emerging dank climax…Let’s just say I think I’ve been to this place and was very glad to stay the hell away, swamp girl or no swamp girl:

Read the signs on the boxes. Stane, Murrity. Floyd. Garrison. Perris.

Perris was a one-story block house painted a pale, waterstained green, with a roof of white asbestos shingles. There was a gnarled and handsome oak in the front yard. There had been white board fencing, but it was rotting away. There had been river gravel in the drive, but most of it had rain-washed away. Some dead trucks and cars sat out to the side of the house, hip deep in the raw green grasses of spring. There were parts of other dead vehicles strewn around. There was a big frame building behind the house, with both overhead doors up, so that I could see into it as I turned into the drive, see a little of work-benches and hoists and tools. A dainty little baby blue Opel with a savage little snout was parked under the spreading shade of the live oak out in front, its slanting windshield splattered with the grease of the exploding bugs of high-speed travel.

So, in the rural America where harsh reality and pulp fantasy are forever merging, the message, as always, is clear: Unless you were born here, stay away.

Linda Ronstadt (Vivian Claire, 1978)

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(I found no picture of the actual cover worth printing when this was available instead)

A quickie paperback produced at the height of Ronstadt’s fame and sent to me by a loyal reader (who knows who he is, and to whom, upon recently perusing the price of this on Amazon whilst searching for a possible cover image, I now realize I may owe more than a salute…many thanks!).

I have no idea who Vivian Claire is. She evidently wrote three of these in about a year (the others were on David Bowie and Judy Collins), and then disappeared…a nom de plume perhaps?

But, whoever she was, this is a valuable book. The relationship drawn between Ronstadt’s life, personality and music isn’t particularly deep, of course, but the outline is convincing and affectionate. And, if there is hardly time to fully explore the mountain range worth of crap an exceptionally sensitive soul residing in the body of a gorgeous, massively insecure femme had to put up with in the Cocaine Cowboy L.A. of the sixties and seventies, there is certainly enough to give a flavor.

That, plus copious quotes the singer herself gave various interviewers in the early years, before exceptional fame made her even more guarded than nature had already done.

The most telling of those was this:

“The only way I got through high school was by keeping a record player going constantly in my mind.”

No thousand pages on the price inevitably exacted by industrial education systems, or why people keep shooting up schoolrooms, could ever say more.

As for those which have fallen prey to my new commitment to waste as little of my life as possible going forward:

The Grid (Philip Kerr, 1995)

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Generally engaging pulp writer attempts to imitate a novel written by a computer. Succeeds all too well.

Abandoned on page 80.

Saints Rest (Thomas Gifford, 1997)

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The word is that the “traditional” publishing industry is dying because of technology (never mind that technology had, in every single previous generation dating back several thousand years, been an incomparable boon to the same industry). Maybe we should take a closer look at the possibility that continually publishing books with no redeeming virtues whatsoever played a part?

I mean when a sentence that reads “How in the name of all that was holy had it come to this?” passes for a relief because at least it’s brief…and the author is well known…and the blurbs are copious…

Well, maybe that’s just an industry that wants to die.

The book, for what it’s worth, concerns political intrigue of the Saintly-Democrat-Defending-America-From-Evil-Republican-Fascists variety. For the opposite number you probably have to go to a religious press, but honestly I’ve never come across one of these that was any good, irrespective of viewpoint, so call this one my bad.

Abandoned on page 78.

…I also read a couple of books which I’ll be reviewing for BWW soon, so it wasn’t really all that slack a month, just a little less than I’d hoped for.

Til next time….