The city wasn’t pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters’ stacks.
The first policeman I saw needed a shave. The second had a couple of buttons off his shabby uniform. The third stood in the center of the city’s main intersection—Broadway and Union Street—directing traffic, with a cigar in one corner of his mouth. After that I stopped checking them up.
Forget Sam Spade. Forget Nick and Nora. Red Harvest, featuring Hammett’s unnamed Continental Operative, is Hammett’s noir masterpiece.
For one thing, it completely smashes the myth of pure capitalism so popular among Republican con artists and immature libertarians, and does so in the form of an exciting thriller. That alone is worth the price of the book. The story takes place in “Personville” (note the implied power and supremacy of the individual, until you notice the New Joisey accent people seem to affect when talking about it), a fiercely independent mining town in the Rockies, far from the interfering Federal Government. It begins when a captain of industry, a “job creator” named Willson, hires several “private security” agents to break up a rotten old socialist labor strike, and wins...with predictable natural capitalist consequences in a “small government” environment. Willson and the three biggest “security agents” go into competition with one another, and the bodies begin to pile up. The local police force is small enough to drown in the bathtub, and the chief has no more power than any of the others, and is no more bound by altruism or any other ethic than self-interest. No one kingpin can form a monopoly because of the competition and distrust from the other players. The Dame is a blue eyed Amazon who trades her favors with the one who gives her the most money. The only ethical way to organize a society, right? And yet...somehow it isn’t quite perfect.
But that’s just the philosophy behind it. The murder mysteries are among the best combinations I’ve seen in fiction. Many whodunnits have a second or third murder in the book, almost always committed by the same culprit in order to silence someone who knows she committed the first one. Red Harvest is the only book I’ve encountered in which the crimes are committed by several culprits with different motives, and each one stands as its own mystery, with its own clues that make each one solvable by the reader, and yet they all interlock into one plot, in which everyone is a suspect and everyone is at war with several different factions, has untrustworthy henchmen and alliances, and has plenty of not-so-innocent bystanders to frame for the crime. The craftsmanship is a thing of wonder to behold. The central murder is solved in chapter seven of a twenty-seven chapter book (pause at the end of chapter six, if you wish, to see if you can work it out. It can be done), but don’t worry if it fools you—there are sixteen more murders by Chapter twenty-one, as well as thefts, bank robbery, fixed fights, bribery and blackmail. Very highest recommendations.
The Snake Tattoo, by Linda Barnes
If this was a high school, what I went to in detroit was cruel and unusual punishment.
It wasn’t just the putting-green grass. Well-pruned bushes, stately firs, and classy red brick buildings contributed to the mini-Harvard effect. But instead of the surrounding bustle of Harvard Square, the Emerson was ringed by acres of landscaped countryside. The admissions committee probably interviewed the squirrels, and only took the ones that would eat out of your hand.
No bell rang, but the quadrangle suddenly flooded with students. The girls all seemed to be wearing skirts—not uniform kilts or anything—but skirts of differing colors and lengths. They giggled, a reassuringly teenage noise. The boys wore sports jackets with open-collared white shirts.
Must be a dress code, I said to myself. I couldn’t believe these kids had deliberately chosen to look like junior execs at IBM. A few signaled their individuality with semi-punk hairdos. Mild by Roz’s standards, undoubtedly revolutionary at the Emerson.
They carried books. We did that in Detroit. It gave me the basis for comparison. This probably was a school.
I should have reported directly to the office. That’s what the exquisitely lettered notice on the stone front gate said: VISITORS REPORT DIRECTLY TO OFFICE. I fully intended to until I saw that sign. Once inside a high school, hospital, jail—any place they keep you prisoner—I turn ornery. I do whatever they tell you not to do. I’m a truant at heart.
This is the second in Barnes’s series about Carlotta Carlyle, the six foot redhead PI who caught my attention in A Trouble of Fools (Bookpost, October 2011). This book is an improvement on the first, in that not absolutely every detail ties in with absolutely every other detail, although every minor detail is going to end up as a full blown subplot by the time the book ends—watch out for the antics of the plumbers upstairs.
Here, Carlyle is looking for two missing young women at the same time: a prostitute who may be able to provide eyewitness information to save Carlyle’s friend and mentor from a police internal affairs investigation, and a preppy school girl who won’t stop running away from home. Both were last seen in Boston’s Combat Zone. Like the best noir books, this one takes us from the mansions of the one percent to the slums of the down-and-out, and everywhere in between. Fortunately, Carlyle can handle herself physically and verbally.
The mysteries are pretty straightforward, and I figured out what was happening with both missing women long before Carlyle did, but the climax left me crying regardless. It’s not as well-crafted as Hammett, but it’s at least as emotional. Highly recommended.
Republic, Laws, and Offices, by Cicero
Our starting point is that all species of living creatures are endowed by nature with the capacity to protect their lives and their persons, to avoid things likely to harm them, and to seek out and procure all of life’s necessities such as food, hidden lairs, and the like. Again, all living creatures share the instinct to copulate for the procreation of offspring, and once these are begotten, they show a degree of concern to look after them. But between man and beast there is this crucial difference: the beast under sense-impulses applies itself only to what lies immediately before it, with quite minimal awareness of past and future, whereas man is endowed with reason, which enables him to visualize consequences, and to detect the causes of things. He is not unaware of what precedes things, what we may call their antecedents. He compares parallel cases, and future events he attaches to and links with those of the present. Without effort he visualizes the course of his whole life, and prepares the necessities to live it out.
I characterized the Tusculan Disputations (last month’s Bookpost) as one of the first “self help” books; these three short treatises, the first two badly fragmented, are more like the first non-controversial “vision” books written by a politician. Every big officeholder and op-ed writer comes out with one of these, usually calculated to be noncontroversial and boring to all but the geeks of the genre.
The Republic purports to be about designing the good state; it really does little more than give the history of the Roman Republic up to Cicero’s time (which was pretty much right up until it ended); the Laws briefly talks about the laws that a good government should have; and the Offices is about advancing one’s public career by being honorable. It is Machiavelli without the ruthlessness.
The works are primarily of historic value, more the mortar holding Greek and Modern social philosophies together than bricks in their own right. Cicero intended to bring expurgated versions of Plato and Aristotle to the Roman world and, though he left out a good deal, he didn’t bring anything new. Once again we are told about Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy and the quest of the ruling class to find a good hybrid between them without giving those pesky peasants too many rights. It wasn’t new then and it isn’t new now.
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
”So in the library there are also books containing falsehoods...?”
“Monsters exist because they are part of the divine plan, and in the horrible features of those same monsters the power of the creator is revealed. And by divine plan, too, there exist also books by wizards, the cabalas of the Jews, the fables of the pagan poets, the lies of the infidels. It was the firm and holy conviction of those who founded the abbey and sustained it over the centuries that even in books of falsehood, to the eyes of the sage reader, a pale reflection of the divine wisdom can shine. And therefore the library is a vessel of these, too. But for this very reason, you understand, it cannot be visited by just anyone. And furthermore,” the abbot added, as if to apologize for the weakness of this last argument, “a book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements, clumsy hands. If for a hundred and a hundred years everyone had been able freely to handle our codices, the majority of them would no longer exist. So the librarian protects them not only against mankind but against nature, and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion, the enemy of truth.”
“And so no one, except for two people, enters the top floor of the aedificium...”
The abbot smiled. No one should. No one can. No one, even if he wished, would succeed. The library defends itself, immeasurable as the truth it houses, deceitful as the falsehood it preserves. A spiritual labyrinth, it is also a terrestrial labyrinth. You might enter, and you might not emerge. And having said this, I would like you to conform to the rules of the abbey.
You don’t need a review for this book. You need a hint manual. I’m surprised the makers of Myst and similar puzzle-based adventure games haven’t adapted Eco’s novel into a game with panoramic views, rooms to explore, and intricate puzzles to solve. The storyline would be perfect for it.
The setting is an abbey in12th Century Italy, at a time when popes, antipopes and emperors couch their struggle for dominance in theological rot gilded with lies. The abbey, chosen for its remoteness, is to be the site of a peace talk between sects; however, over the course of seven days, seven monks die under mysterious circumstances. Enter Brother William of Baskerville, who bears a medieval resemblance to Sherlock Holmes. William and his apprentice explore the church, the chapter house, the Aedificium, the stables, the cloisters, the infirmary, and the crypt, looking for clues not only to the deaths but to a deeper secret held within the unbreachable library. Do the books hold secrets man was not meant to know, or are the upright, uptight clergy simply making excuses to assert dominance?
Like Red Harvest, this is a book that can be read on more than one level. In addition to a good mystery, this is also a work of semiotics, in which symbols and their right or wrong interpretation are everywhere. It is also a work of theology, in which spiritual matters, in particular, the healing or damning effect of laughter on the mortal soul takes an important role. Several times in the story, the characters, embroiled in church schism, have heated debates about religious gobbledegook that means almost nothing to me, but which apparently fascinates other people, and which I had to read on the chance that there was a clue to the murders in there somewhere. As with the texts mentioned in the story, there’s a lot of dead matter but some jewels as well, if you’re patient enough to sift for them. Well recommended.
Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer
It is with everlasting devotion that we, Joseph and Sarah L., reunite in the indestructible union of matrimony, promising love until death, with the understanding that the stars are silver nails in the sky, regardless of the existence of a bottom of the Brod, the temperature of this bottom (should it exist), and the possible existence of starfish on the possibly existing riverbed, overlooking what may or may not have been accidental grape juice spills, agreeing to forget that Joseph played sticks and balls with his friends when he promised he would help Sarah thread the needle for the quilt she was sewing, and that Sarah was supposed to give the quilt to Joseph, not his buddy, deeming irrelevant certain details about the story of Trachim’s wagon, such as whether it was Chana or Hannah who first saw the curious flotsam, ignoring the simple fact that Joseph snores like a pig, and that Sarah is no great treat to sleep with either, letting slide certain tendencies of both parties to look too long at members of the opposite sex, not making a fuss over why Joseph is such a slob, leaving his clothes wherever he feels like taking them off, expecting Sarah to pick them up, clean them, and put them in their proper place as he should have, or why Sarah has to be such a fucking pain in the ass about the smallest things, such as which way the toilet paper unrolls, or when dinner is five minutes later than she was planning, because let’s face it, it’s Joseph who’s putting that paper on the roll and dinner on the table, disregarding whether the beet is a better vegetable than the cabbage, putting aside the problems of being fat-headed and chronically unreasonable, trying to erase the memory of a long since expired rose bush that a certain someone was supposed to remember to water when his wife was visiting family in Rovno, accepting the compromise of the way we have been, the way we are, and the way we will likely be...may we live together in unwavering love and good health, amen.
This is a crazy book that goes from allegedly comic to tragic and back in a heartbeat to the point where it bugged me in a big way. It goes back and forth in time, telling the dynastic history that begins when a strange girl is, possibly miraculously, born in a river in the Ukraine in the 1790s, and continues to modern times when the protagonist, Jonathan Safran Foer (whose name, we are told, is a coincidence, not to be confused with the actual author), travels there from America in search of his roots. Parts of the book are Meta-Foer’s writings about his family; other parts are letters written by Alex, the Russian peasant hired as an interpreter for Foer, whose malaprop-ridden English (Yes, I am frightened. Frightened enough, in fact, that I could make bricks from shit, that is how you say, yes?) is the main source of comic relief.
The story turned me off in a big way with a “funny” incident described soon after Alex and Foer meet. Foer has a phobia of dogs, and so of course the Jolly peasant Alex and his grandfather, who is given to “funny” anti-semitic bigotry to Foer’s face, show up to pick up Foer in a very small, poorly ventilated car that Foer must share with an enormous, amorous, flatulent dog. The dog is the grandfather’s seeing-eye dog. Grandfather is driving the car. Grandfather gets lost. Foer is in there with the dog trying to lick his (Foer’s) balls for a very long time. Alex, who lives under hardship conditions most traveling Americans never experience, laughs and laughs in an effort to cheer Foer up. Foer is not some blustering ugly American tourist; he is an inoffensive, powerless little Jewish man. They go to a restaurant. Foer is vegetarian. There are no meatless items on the menu. They make fun of his vegetarianism. He is forced to pay for a meat dish to get a side of potatoes, which he agrees to do because he is starving. Then the dog eats the potatoes. The laugh track goes wild.
I was ready to toss the book back to the library half-read at that point, but I kept slogging, and there was in fact more to it than that. The magic realism of the 18th century scenes, and the way things that happen there tend to have consequences in the modern section; the pathos of Alex’s longing to go to America...these are very well written and evocative. I just wish Alex had taken Foer’s advice and left the dog out of it.
The Victim, by Saul Bellow
In a general way, anyone could see that there was great unfairness in one man’s having all the comforts of life while another had nothing. But between man and man, how was this to be dealt with? Any derelict panhandler or bum might buttonhole you on the street and say, “The world wasn’t made for you any more than it was for me, was it?” The error in this was to forget that neither man had made the arrangements, and so it was perfectly right to say, “Why pick on me? I didn’t set you up any more than you did.” Admittedly there was a wrong, a general wrong. Allbee, on the other hand, came along and said, “YOU!” and that was what was so meaningless. For you might feel that something was owing to the panhandler, but to be directly blamed was entirely different.
The antagonist is a stock character in literature and in life: a born loser who blames everybody but himself for his problems and who mooches off other people until they either stop giving or are all used up. He’s always just going to strike it rich. He has a sure thing going, if you’ll just lend him a few thousand in seed money, and he’s just going to stop drinking, and he has bad luck and no breaks and everyone’s out to get him but if you’ll just give him what he needs when the last 20 people said no, then he’ll do fine, and if you say no and he fails then you’re responsible for his failure for the rest of both your lives.
In Bellow’s book, this particular loser was on his very last chance at his job, when the protagonist asked him for an interview with the boss several years ago, ended up having an argument with the boss, and the loser ended up fired in the kerfluffle. And so the loser, who happens to be the descendant of 19th century WASP big shots and thinks he’s naturally better than everyone else, starts following the protagonist, who happens to be a slightly paranoid New York Jew in the 1950s with his own professional and financial problems, invites himself into the guy’s home, keeps hinting at how the guy owes him something, how he arranged to get him fired on purpose, as revenge for his antisemitism, and takes advantage of him again and again, the way this type of jerk always does.
And the Jewish guy lets him do it. Because, hey, what can you do? Maybe it really was all his fault after all. And maybe he’ll go away once he gets what he wants.
It’s supposed to gradually dawn on the reader that the loser, who bawls all the time about what a victim he is, might not really be the victim. To me, it was obvious immediately. I had the same problem with this book that I had with Before the Fact (Bookpost, February 2012): it goes too far. The protagonist/real victim willingly participates in his own destruction to such an extent that it becomes difficult to sympathize with him. Eventually, he’s suffering from his own choices.
This is Bellow’s second novel; in his later years, he considered it a training exercise. And yet, on the cover blurb, VS Pritchett lauds it as the greatest thing to come along in a whole generation, which was a pretty silly thing to say in the age of Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, and the rest of America’s Golden Age authors. Even so, I found it more emotionally compelling than Bellow’s much better known works Herzog and The Adventures of Augie March (Bookpost, November 2010). It’s short enough to be worthwhile.
Marius the Epicurean, by Walter Pater
He was certainly fortunate in the time of his coming to Rome. That old pagan world, of which Rome was the flower, had reached its perfection in the things of poetry and art—a perfection which indicated only too surely the eve of decline. As in some vast intellectual museum, all its manifold products were intact and in their places, and with custodians also still extant duly qualified to appreciate and explain them. And at no period of history had the material Rome itself been better worth seeing—lying there not less consummate than that world of pagan intellect which it represented in every phase of its darkness and light.
I impulse-borrowed this one at the library, studying the Roman Republic and thinking this was a novel about Marius the Consul. It isn’t. It takes place in the Rome of Marcus Aurelius, which I’ll be getting to later in the year, and it pretty much tells the story of an Everyman peasant’s lifelong train of spiritual thought, which moves with deadly earnestness from Paganism to Epicureanism, to Stoicism, to Christianity. This is presented as progress. I, who would have just about depicted enlightenment going the exact opposite direction, was disappointed, especially as the main reasons given for the deficiencies of Paganism were that it had grown dusty and old, practiced without feeling by people because their ancestors had done it, and used blatantly as a tool for the political leaders of the day to manipulate the masses into obedience. Which is how I would characterize...yes, exactly. If the hair shirt fits...
Fortunately, Marius never does make it all the way to deciding that Christianity is the best philosophy, as the thought of him subjecting it to intellectual scrutiny is painful to contemplate.
This is a book to be read primarily for wonderful use of the English language. Parts of it ought to be read out loud for that reason. The plot is threadbare and the characters, including Marius, pretty forgettable. But the sentences are expertly crafted.
Daily Life in Ancient Rome, by Jerome Carcopino
As among Arabs still, belching was considered a politeness, justified by philosophers who thought the highest wisdom was to follow the dictates of nature. Pushing this doctrine even farther, Claudius had considered an edict authorising other emissions of wind from which even Arabs refrain, and the doctors of Martial’s day recommended that people take advantage of the liberties championed by a well-meaning but ridiculous emperor. Music of this kind was not wanting at Trimalchio’s table. After explaining his own state of health—“I have such rumblings inside me as you would think there was a bull there”—he adjured his guests not to risk injury to their health by self-restraint: “As far as I am concerned anyone may relieve himself in the dining room.” Even Trimalchio had the good taste to quit his couch and leave the triclinum when pressed by more urgent need. But not all Roman parvenus were so scrupulous. Martial tells of more than one who simply clicked his fingers for a slave to bring him “a necessary vase” in which he “remeasured with accuracy the wine he had drunk from it” while the slave “guides his boozy master’s drunken person.” Finally, it was not infrequent during the cena to see priceless marble mosaics of the floor defiled with spitting. The best way, in fact, to be sure of being able to eat throughout the incredible carousal was to make use of the small room next door. “Vomunt ut edant, edunt ut vomant.”
I was told Carcopino’s reconstruction of life at the height of the Roman Empire, reportedly an inspiration for the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum would be a delightful romp. I found it repulsive, in a comic sort of way. Carcopino is every bit as condemnatory of Rome as Gibbon was, with the distinction that Gibbon was writing about a Rome infested by Christians and barbarians, where the army decided who would be Emperor, and sanitation was a thing of the past, like America’s space program today. Carcopino’s world was lauded by Gibbon as a pinnacle mind-boggling to fall from; it was as good as Rome ever got. From Daily Life in Ancient Rome, you’d never know it.
If you know me, you know I like satire, from Juvenal (who Carcopino draws on for evidence repeatedly) to Twain and Shaw, who would have written this book much better and more entertainingly. Carcopino’s problem is that he is heavy handed and apocolyptic in his condemnation; he is not content to point out, say, that the buildings were too tall and narrow to be safe, but has to throw in long paragraphs about how the building practices weakened the moral as well as the structural foundations of the Empire, and how the popularity of public readings ruined the art of writing and contributed to mass illiteracy. I shudder to imagine what he would think of television.
Carcopino’s condemnation knows no political boundaries. In one chapter, he hates on the educational system, blaming the decline in literacy on underpaid, disrespected teachers, the emphasis on practical skills over critical thinking, and the falsification of taught history and science due to meddling in the curriculum by commercial, religious and political influence (cue all the liberals pointing and saying this is happening here and now). In another chapter, he claims that feminism destroyed the structure of the family, weakened paternal authority and demoralised the city (cue all the conservatives pointing and saying this is happening here and now). By the time he gets to the unambiguous evils of the brutal sports of the gladiators and the human sacrifices on the altars, it’s hard to trust him. He’s like the cranky old man who just yells at everything.
Still, his descriptions are vivid and he’s not shy about making his feelings known. Reading Daily Life in Ancient Rome transports you (between the long diatribes) to a fascinating time and place that will make you better appreciate and be grateful that you live here and not there.
City of Thieves, by David Benioff
At night the wind blew so loud and long it startled you when it stopped. The shutter hinges of the burned out cafe on the corner would quit creaking for a few ominous seconds, as if a predator neared and the smaller animals hushed in terror. The shutters themselves had been torn down for firewood in November. There was no more scrap wood in Leningrad. Every wood sign, the slats of the park benches, the floorboards of the shattered buildings—all gone and burning in someone’s stove. The pigeons were missing, too, caught and stewed in melting ice from the Neva. No one minded slaughtering pigeons. It was the dogs and cats that caused trouble. You would hear a rumor in October that someone had roasted the family mutt and split it four ways for supper; we’d laugh and shake our heads, not believing it, and also wondering if dog tasted good with enough salt—there was still plenty of salt, even when everything else ran out we had salt. By January the rumors had become plain fact. No one but the best connected could still feed a pet, so the pets fed us.
City of Thieves makes two books I’ve read this month that have to do with Russia during the German bombings. I found it far better than Everything is Illuminated, in large part because the humor was more my kind of humor. Your mileage may vary. Also, the story is simpler.
Like Foer’s book, this novel inserts the “author” into the story, this time ostensibly having Benioff learn it as a true story from his grandfather Lev, who narrates. A boy in Leningrad under siege, Lev is caught scrounging the corpse of a just-dropped German paratrooper and arrested. Instead of being summarily shot (no wonder a third of the entire roster of the dead of WWII were Russians; they apparently killed their own soldiers and civilians with as much relish as the Nazis did), he is paired with Kolya, a deserting soldier and ordered to return with a dozen eggs for a high officer’s daughter’s wedding cake. Eggs have become impossible to find anywhere.
Kolya turns out to be a lean, Russian variation on the Falstaff archetype: cynical, witty, full of mischief, and eager to initiate Lev into the art and mystery of rogue street survival, alcohol, and wenching, while trying not to get shot. Their chemistry as they search from the nasty parts of the city to behind the German lines becomes wonderful, and the love interest, though she arrives late in the book, is the kind of woman you’d want to have on your side in a fight. High recommendations.