SOUP TO NUTS TO NAZIS (Monthly Book Report: February 2019)

In January, as a New Year’s Resolution, I committed myself to read at least five books a month. In February, I decided to increase the goal to ten. Met it! Top of the world, Ma, and all that. With all the other irons I have in the fire, I doubt I can keep the pace, but, for now…

Barrack-Room Ballads (1892)
Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s famous collection of poems dedicated to the British Tommy at their Empire’s high tide (you know, the one we’ve tried to slavishly imitate). He knew that Empire’s sun-never-sets-blood-never-dries underbelly first hand. He also knew what and who maintained it, and that hey did so shorn of any glory except what a simpatico spirit such as himself could shed on them.

And, oh, by the way, nearly every line still sings. He wasn’t just a great popular poet, but a distinctly musical one, at least the equal of Stephen Foster for rhythm, power, and ingenuity. I imagine he taught the Beatles a thing or two, if only subconsciously.

He was far more political of course than either Foster or John Lennon. He had seen what was under the underbelly as well and, cold-eyed as he often was about what was glimmering up top (where the merchant and officer classes rubbed shoulders with celebrity, royalty and each other–sound familiar?), was still more wary of collapse than of decadence. At least until the Great War came along, he was the poet laureate of the Devil he knew and this is where he found his purest form of expression. Recommended as an antidote to Gilbert and Sullivan, and vice versa.

The Story of Motown (1979)
Peter Benjaminson

A publishing industry quickie (they proliferated in the late seventies) that serves as a sketch biography of Berry Gordy, Jr., one of the most important men in the history of 20th century America.

It’s earned a reprint because it catches Motown at the moment of its imminent decline, which, not coincidentally, was closely related to Gordy’s increased detachment from his creation. That is was Gordy’s creation, and a near-perfect reflection of his titanic strengths and not inconsiderable weaknesses for as long as he remained at its core, Benjaminson leaves no doubt. There’s no way he can do full justice to either in the space allotted and nobody in a position to provide that space was looking for a door-stopper tome on Berry Gordy or Motown in 1979. You have to put up with the usual narrative shortcuts (many of which I spend my blog-life refuting), but this is a good, swift introduction to a subject which, like the American Revolution, we can never know enough about.

Camino Island (2017)
John Grisham

Though I’ve seen several of the movies based on his work, and they’ve all been pretty good, this is the first Grisham novel I’ve read. I’m assured by those in the know that it’s atypical and would have guessed as much without those assurances. Even here, I can attest he’s the good popular novelist I always heard he was. It’s an easy read. The only thing missing is the necessary ingredient in any pulp that seeks to provide something more than a temporary diversion: a sense of danger.

It’s not that I didn’t want anybody to die. I didn’t. Or that I wouldn’t have felt sad if they did. I would have.

It’s that I never thought they would. I’ll read more in the future for sure, but I might choose more carefully.

The Dud Avocado  (1958)
Elaine Dundy

Dundy is known to Elvis fans for writing Elvis and Gladys, the best book about E’s relationship with his mother, and one of the best books about him from any angle.

This is her only famous novel and it has devoted fans across the board.

Now that I’ve finally read it, I’ll call myself a semi-devoted fan. It’s an American-in-Paris tale with a twist, the twist being not so much that Dundy’s protagonist is a woman, but that she’s a generation late (check the publication date) and knows it without quite being willing to admit it, even to herself. The comedy, quite sharp and satisfying, comes from the narrator’s understanding of how self-conscious and temporary it all is, not just for her, but for everyone. Add that to a sharp, satirical eye for physical and psychological detail and the act of reading it can be judged very much like seeing Paris once upon a time. It’s something everyone should do at least once.

Whether the necessity of reading The Dud Avocado in order to feel you’ve experienced one of life’s great pleasures will fade along with the idea of Paris itself is something we will discover when that idea is gone. For now, if you can’t quite feel the vitality of the idea itself, you can at least feel the echo as you read along, chuckling where you once might have laughed out loud.

The Heat of the Day (1948)
Elizabeth Bowen

I spend a lot of reading time in the company of good writers–the older I get the less patience I have for anyone who is less than good.

But it’s always a little shocking to find myself back in the company of a great one. The only previous novel of Bowen’s I’d read was Eva Trout. That was a long time ago and made enough of an impression that I knew I could never renew the acquaintance casually.

This one involves a strange menage-a-trois, the more interesting half of which is never consummated either physically or emotionally (hand a merely good writer that scenario and see if they can pull it off). It takes place in war-time Britain and portrays in luminous, hard-hearted detail a handsome widow’s relationship with the two men who seek the replace her husband, one a suspected spy, the other the government agent pursuing him. The plot is the plot, and a good one, but there are only three or four ways it can go, and it goes one of them. Any special notice the novel receives or deserves (and it has received and deserved quite a bit), is due to Bowen’s exquisite command of language, which is on a level with Mrs. Wharton and Henry James. If that’s your sort of thing, this is for you. If it’s not, you’ll have to be satisfied with never knowing what you’re missing.

Don’t be surprised if that includes Elizabeth Bowen having your number.

Don’t worry, though. You are hardly alone.

The One From the Other (2006)
Philip Kerr

Fifteen years after his Berlin Noir trilogy was a bit of a sensation in the world of hard-boiled crime fiction, Philip Kerr resurrected his Berlin-born detective, Bernie Gunther, in a post-war setting.

As often happens with successful pulp novelists, Kerr’s books got longer over time as his ambition grew.

As does not often happen, this one pays off. The length entails growth for a change. His post-Chandlerisms still don’t work. (Have they ever worked for anyone but Chandler?) But this one has an emotional resonance that goes beyond the milieu and the plot and touches the detective himself.

Post-War Germany as depicted here is a place where there is literally no safe harbor and Bernie Gunther’s attempt to find one ends in real tragedy. I look forward to finding out if Kerr resolved the danger Ross Macdonald–one of the few pulp writers who managed to go this far and further–identified as using up your character. MacDonald’s solution was to give his detective no dimension at all, to have him operate as a ghost in the machinery of his surroundings. Kerr has cut himself off from that possibility. Bernie Gunther now has dimension.

It will be fun finding out where Kerr took it from here.

The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (1996)
Eugene Davidson

This is the second part of Davidson’s magisterial study in political character. The title is odd on the surface since the vast bulk of this lengthy book details (some might say ad nauseam) deals with what most would consider Hitler at high tide as, step-by-step he conquered or cowed all of continental Europe from the Enligsh Channel to the suburbs of Moscow.

But Davidson’s point–which he’s not alone in making, though few have gone to such lengths or addressed the issue with this much scholarship and erudition–is that Hitler’s weakness came from the same source as his strength. That the megalomaniac is always bound to overreach because every success can only tempt him to go further.

That’s a comforting thought I suppose for those who survived him. But, of course, tyrants just as evil, rapacious and ambitious (Hitler and Mao come to mind) have died in bed with all their dreams intact (as Mao’s still is).  By focusing only on Hitler’s words and deeds as they related to his accrual of first political, then military, then imperial, power, and avoiding speculation about the inner man, Davidson has certainly rendered an important service. It should make anyone who has the stomach for it want to look deeper…

Large tomes on Hitler, Stalin and Mao that promise to do just that have rested on my shelves for years.

I feel them beckoning.

The Plot Against America (2004)
Philip Roth

Philip Roth. Hmmmm…

Good writer. I might have guessed that from the only book of his I’ve read previously which was the slight-if-engagiing Goodbye Columbus.

Then again, my attempts to read a few others of his, plus my encounters with his generation’s other ponderous heavyweights (Mailer, Updike, Bellow), had put me off this for years, so any surprises I discovered regarding this late-period novel’s crisp delivery were pleasant ones.

The main problem is that he has set the novel in an alternate universe and he’s not the man for the job, even if he assigned it to a prepubescent version of himself (named Philip Roth no less). Philip K. Dick would have known that the story here was inside Charles A. Lindbergh, the man Roth has winning the presidency in 1940 and leading America down the path of isolationism, effectively siding with Hitler in his fight against the Brits and Soviets.

It’s not one of history’s more likely what-ifs. Despite being a leading spokesman for the original America First movement, and a well-known laissez-faire attitude about the Nazis when he wasn’t praising them, Lindbergh never expressed the least interest in running for office. There were many he could have had for the asking, though the presidency wasn’t one of them. He’d have had to fight for that, so to make his parallel universe persona credible we would need to be inside him.

Without that perspective, which Dick would have known was essential and Roth doesn’t even attempt, this impeccably-written novel would go nowhere even if the author had the stomach to bring his tragedies front and center instead of assigning them to the margins. They’re still felt, but more as an exercise in mental gymnastics than a gut-punch.

Not just what if, then, but merely what if.

Wasted opportunity then. All that good writing, too. Shame that.

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over  World War II, 1939-1941(2013)
Lynne Olson

All of which is why I’m glad I read The Plot Against America in tandem with this history of the wrangling between the interventionists and the isolationists in the years leading up to America’s entry into WWII.

Without resorting to the usual minutiae, Olson is able to get at the essential characters of the story’s two protagonists in a way that gives them just enough dimension to see them in the human terms such history usually deny such outsized characters. Somewhat alike in their icy aloofness and relative indifference to any damage they might be doing to the people closest to them, they differed in one key aspect: Roosevelt was a thoroughly political man who accepted socialization as part of the process while Lindbergh was a thoroughly apolitical man who found himself dragged into political situations because of his enormous fame and the area of his expertise (flying) which happened to coincide with military interests that couldn’t exactly be ignored with the world on fire and America bound to play some role.

What that role would be was a question that consumed both men. Lindbergh ended up having his personal and historical reputation shattered by his belief (shared by tens of millions of Americans even after the fall of France and right up to Dec. 7, 1941) that no European war was worth what an American intervention would cost. Once the evils of National Socialism were fully exposed by its defeat, no one who had been blind to the known depredations of the thirties could expect to fully recover.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, by far the more devious of the two on matters of principle, was vaulted to near-sainthood by having his half-hearted commitment tuned into full-bore interventionism by events. (Before Dec. 7 he was all for things like conscription and Lend-Lease, but little more committed to the idea of American boys sacrificing their lives for the good of humanity than the strict isolationists Lindbergh represented, and often accused of dragging his feet by those who are always ready to commit someone else’s life to their latest cause. In other words, the political man was a political realist and the foot he kept in each camp might have ensured his reputation irrespective of Amerian’s involvement or noninvolvement, so long as neither prospect involved actually losing.)

Olson does a fine job of telling the basic story, and that job entails leaving a crucial aspect of Lindbergh’s character, his pursuit of a double-life, until the very end, where it damns him more thoroughly than even his most dubious public pronouncements (of which there was no shortage).

Whether Roosevelt himself is redeemed only by forces beyond his control or deserves full credit for such foresight as he possessed, given that it was just enough to preserve Western Civilization for a few decades past its sell-by date, is left to the eye of the beholder.

The Last Battle (1966)
Cornelius Ryan

The last leg (though second published) of Ryan’s epic trilogy of the Allied invasion of Europe from Normandy onwards. As the title indicates, this one is dedicated to the fall of Berlin.

The books are all classics of  the New Journalism Ryan helped invent, of history and of popular literature. Though unlike the others (The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far) this one did not contribute a common phrase to the English language, it is just as thorough, just as fast-paced and just as vital. If anyone has bested his accounts of the events to which he chose to dedicate himself, I’m not aware of it and in any case, it’s unlikely any serious scholarship going forward can fail to take him into account. He might end up being the Edward Gibbon of the Reich’s defeat.

I waited far too long to read them all. Ryan’s are among the rare books I can finish at my age and feel like I’m finally a little bit closer to being educated.

…And now I must go start working on next month!

UTOPIAS, DYSTOPIAS, MYOPIAS AND A BRIEF ROUNDUP OF THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Monthly Book Report: 8/15)

Since I’ve disconnected my television satellite and I’m not currently working on any side projects, I’m starting to have more time to read. I don’t know if the trend will last, but for now, I’m making two changes to the book report.

First, when there are more than the usual three or four books, I’m going to try to put them in categories, rather than simply reviewing by strict chronology according to the date I completed them.

Second, my policy with book covers up to now has been to post a copy of the edition I read, if I can find it. Seems like the more I read, the more of a chore and/or impossibility that becomes, so, starting now, I’m just going to use the cover of the edition I like best. Based on this month’s experiment, that will probably mean lurid for the pulp, stately for the classics, and functional for everything else.

So, sticking to the announced categories…

Utopias

Well, a pastoral anyway…

The Prairie (James Fenimore Cooper, 1827)

PRARIE

And so, at long last, I fulfill a teenage promise to myself and finish the Leatherstocking Tales. This was the third written of the five, but the last chronologically for the character of Natty Bumppo. I’ve written at length elsewhere about the modern world’s odd and foolish neglect of Cooper, but I have to admit this was my least favorite of the series.

Cooper’s usual strengths, namely his unsurpassed descriptions of a wilderness Fitzgerald could evoke so swiftly and efficiently on the final page of The Great Gatsby in part because Cooper had done the heavy lifting for a century’s worth of readers in a pre-visual age, his action sequences, and his ability to wring real tragedy from melodramatic plots and a more than occasionally turgid literary style, are all present here, but severely muted.

Moving the setting from the upstate New York he knew like the back of his hand to midwestern plains he knew chiefly from the witness of others robs his descriptive passages of their authority.

Dealing with a landscape and tribal cultures he knew less than well meant he had to basically transport his stock characters into unfamiliar and sometimes ill-fitting skins.

With Chingachgook killed off and Natty aged out of both his heroic skill set and his appeal as a leading man (who broke a heart in The Deerslayer and had his broken in turn in The Pathfinder), the romances fail to spark.

And with the conflict between the woods and the town (or the fort) replaced by a roving fight between rootless and unsavory settlers, more unsavory Sioux, and noble Pawnees (standing in for the noble Delawares of Natty’s younger years), the great theme of civilization encroaching on the wilderness and vice versa never comes to life until the very end.

Even so, the book is hardly without worth. There’s some good comic relief from a naturalist who is Natty’s equal for stubbornness and pluck, though not for intelligence. (If classic Hollywood had taken on the story, Donald Meek could have played him perfectly).  And there’s a genuinely horrific scene, after the not-for-the-faint-of-heart fashion Cooper had mastered if not invented, in which the rude settlers are forced to punish one of their own for killing one of their own.

Plus, Natty’s long day’s journey into night is handled with grace and aplomb, a fitting end for the character, even if the series carried on until the 1840s and found its pinnacle in The Deerslayer, set first and written last, by which time Cooper knew a lot more than the thing or two that had already made him America’s first major novelist, and an undismissible guide to our national psyche, by the time this was written.

Myopias

Jake’s Thing (Kingsley Amis, 1978)

JAKESTHING

Yet another reminder that, if satirists have their uses, they also have their limits.

Based on his famous and, as the English say, spot-on preference for John MacDonald (“by any standards a better writer”) over Saul Bellow (“a human heart chap”), plus happy experiences with The Anti-Death League (a genuinely great spy novel from 1966) and Lucky Jim (his misanthropic career maker from 1954), I’ve cut Sir Kingsley a fair bit of slack over the years.

That slack has now stretched to cover The Green Man (1969), The Russian Girl (1992) and this. And unless somebody can convince me he had another Anti-Death League in him–or at least a novel which isn’t yet another variant on Lucky Jim–I’m done.

I’m done even though this had a smile on nearly every page, a laugh on more than a few and a potentially intriguing premise: “Is male menopause any sort of crisis for a misanthrope?”

Amis was a Conservative Hedonist. He practiced a style of world-weary, seen-it-all, Englishness that probably reached its peak with Lucky Jim and had evidently worn thin by the time the Sexual Revolution got up a real head of steam. Conservative Hedonism was certainly preferable to it’s Liberal counterpart. Real Hate is more bracing than Fake Love in both Art and Life. But it’s lost its sting now that the age of cultural collapse it foreshadowed has arrived in force.

Laughter’s precious, alright, but it’s not worth the supercilious slog that Amis began extracting from his readers as the price of the ticket. And, God help him, somewhere along the way he started trying to invest in character development, almost always a deadly notion for a satirist.

One can ponder “Jake Richardson,” or Kingsley Amis, and get a glimpse into why and how civilizations fail alright. It’s when enough people who might have done better, don’t.

Not saying there’s no value in being reminded.

But one reason I never got into Seinfeld or Larry David or any other recent version of the lineage Amis the Elder (his son, God help us, writes too) had picked up from H.L. Mencken (a truly corrosive misanthrope who was evidently a frustrated Hedonist, always the kind who both start this sort of thing and are bound to be the best at it), is that, at some point, very soon after you take its measure, the corrosiveness is just plain tiresome.

Life’s too short.

Oh yeah. The “thing” is impotence…or lack of desire to perform even in the face of undiminished capacity….or the male member.

One of those. Or maybe all of them.

All nice subjects for satire. This would have made a great short story, so if I do try Amis again it will probably be through that route.

I’m old enough myself to have commitment issues whenever I get ten pages into a novel and realize it’s already going in circles around a very familiar track.

Dystopias

NOTE: I usually avoid dystopian novels written by anyone but Philip K. Dick, for the same reason I usually avoid novels about psychotics written by anyone except Patricia Highsmith. If a standard exists, met over and over by the standard setter, why bother with the rest? That said, the classics of certain genres do beckon when I’m in the mood to further my education, hence, the following:

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1931) and Brave New World Revisited (1958)

BRAVENEWWORLD2ND

BRAVENEWWORLDREVIS

Huxley’s great insight was his recognition that the old truth about Religion and Art being incompatible with the New Age’s rising Gods (one of which is, amusingly, always called Science or, even funnier, Reason, the other of which, given that it covers everything from political boot-licking to industrial criticism, must never, ever be called anything as mundane as Journalism and therefor can never, amusingly or otherwise, be called anything at all) was reaching a new, feverish pitch, even when he knocked his original dystopia into a novel of sorts.

The world more or less survived the first go-round with Perfection. Fascism came and went. Soviet style communism was still going strong when Huxley “revisited” his own vision in the late fifties, but has come a cropper since.

We’ve found new ways to terrorize and undermine ourselves here lately.

Still, his vision was on-track in the macro sense. We’ve been fairly resistant to Big Brother, but we do love our machines and our drugs and we are using them to reshape ourselves into something already recognizable as the very subversions of “brave” and “new” that Huxley glimpsed in outline in the early thirties.

Like most dystopian novels (Dick excepted), Brave New World is a bit of a chore once the premise is established, but I’m glad I finally read it–sense of accomplishment and all–and I agree with those who insist it was a more likely vision of the future than Orwell’s.

Still, it’s less likely than the vision at the back of all the other western visions, laid down by John the Revelator after a mad dream incurred on the Isle of Patmos. Like I said. Only Philip K. Dick has got past him.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1986)

HANDMAID'STALE

…And while I was in a dystopian mood, I thought I might as well tackle this one.

It’s a little more engaging than Orwell or Huxley. There’s an approximation of a human character at the center (she narrates) and a neat twist at the end. The vision itself isn’t very complicated or compelling. It’s made up out of bits and pieces of standard dystopian rubble and glued together by the even more standard Good Liberal horror of (and complete misunderstanding of) Evangelical Christianity. Anyone who has ever attended a Wednesday night business meeting at the local First Baptist, or understands even a little bit about how the chaotic anti-structure of Protestant sects actually works, will get a wry smile out of the notion that such folks will be running the New World Order, Star Chamber fashion, any day now. (The Handmaid’s Tale is set in what is supposed to be a disturbingly near future.)

On the positive side, the book is well written and there are a lot of sound general insights. Nothing that couldn’t have been gleaned from a good captivity narrative, mind you. (I know, because I just finished a captivity narrative myself and have been studying the sources.)

What really made this a grind, though, was that the specifics, despite being oh-so-carefully rendered, simply weren’t very convincing. It read like a philosophical treatise, not something the author felt in her bones.

So a lot like Brave New World–or 1984–after all.

The book was published in the eighties. If Atwood wanted to remain contemporary a generation hence she should have put jihadis in control of her world.

Of course, if she had, she would probably be dead or in hiding now.

I have no idea whether this was a failure of imagination on her part, or a failure of nerve.

And, despite her obvious skill, no desire to investigate further.

…the Usual Suspects

The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (John D. MacDonald, 1968)

theGIRLINTHEPLAINBROWN

Jesus. The first half of this is so touchy-feely I thought I’d picked up a Harlequin Romance by mistake. There are letters for God’s sake, and no sign of the usual gimlet eye, sizing up the late twentieth century, let alone any sort of adventure going on.

It picks up in the second half. But even then is seems more like a misguided attempt to imitate Ross MacDonald than anything I’d want or expect from the McGee.

Weakest of the series so far.

Dress Her In Indigo (John D. MacDonald, 1969)

DRESSHERININDIGO

I hate to say it, but the late sixties were not a good time for MacDonald/McGee. At least this time around he has the makings of a good story. even if it’s back to Mexico with not much to say that he hadn’t already said better.

There are too many twists and turns here and they don’t all make a lot of sense. When the bereaved father of a lost girl turns out to be not the out-of-shape midwestern businessman we’ve been led to believe but a stone cold torturer/murderer, the problem isn’t so much that it’s a stretch, or even that it’s a long stretch. It’s that the revelation comes as a total surprise to McGee, but not to the reader.

Believe me, I’m a pure sucker. You can have me agape with the least effort imaginable. But even I saw every twist coming, except for one very small, and genuinely unsettling one near the very end.

In short, too much sex therapy, as had become the norm (though at least this time around it’s the various fantasy women providing and McGee receiving). Too much intricate plotting (leave it to the other MacDonald, i.e. Ross, not to mention Agatha Christie, for they were good at it). Too much Meyer (I like Meyer, we all like Meyer, but McGee doesn’t need a true Watson). And yet again, no really memorable villain.

The McGee was clearly in a slump. The late sixties had thrown both him and his creator. I have fond memories of some of the books coming up so I’m looking forward to a rebound. This was a little better than the last one, but it’s also the first in the series that had me checking page numbers, which is the equivalent of checking your watch in a movie, wondering just how much longer until it’s over.

Eye of the Needle (Ken Follett, 1978)

THEEYEOFTHENEEDLE

Having finally caught up last month with The Day of the Jackal, which story I knew from the fine film version, I decided to give this one, which inspired an even better film, a try.

Turns out the movie was a solid improvement (whereas the film of Jackal just held its ground). In part, because more liberties were taken.

The book is fine, a definite page turner, but it isn’t quite as good as Jackal, which was even better than the movie it inspired.

I don’t know if Follett was attempting a spin on Forsyth or anyone else, but coincidentally or not, his central track, in a story with an otherwise rather similar structure, ran opposite.

In Jackal, the trick was to keep the lone man trying to outwit the powers of the police state (in that case a paid murderer, who must necessarily be an expert in the craft of espionage) from being revealed as a sociopath until the last possible instant.

In Eye of the Needle, the trick was to keep the lone man trying to outwit the powers of the police state (in this case, a German spy loose in the England of WWII, who must necessarily be an expert in the craft of unpaid murder) from being revealed as something other than a sociopath. This is where the movie was an improvement (even though most critics didn’t get it…do they ever?).

Here, the murderous spy is merely cold-blooded, a standard Nazi-oid type most of us have encountered so frequently in fiction and film we’re bound to find ourselves stifling an occasional yawn by now, now matter how skillfully he’s rendered.

The film changed a few key sequences to hint at a man who got into it for excitement and love of country but knows he has lost his soul along the way. Given that for a premise, his affair with a lonely woman makes strong dramatic and emotional sense. In the novel, it’s far more mechanical and efficient. Still compelling, mind you, but the compulsion is strictly intellectual.

The movie of Eye of the Needle leaves an echo. The novel, well done as it is, is over when it’s over.