Friday, September 21, 2007

A day without murder; reviews of Chekhov and David Lodge's Author, Author

To quote from my own writing on crimespace,

Crime fiction is such a pleasure, the psychology of this sometimes troubles me (but I know I can quit whenever I want to).

So today I prove that I really can quit whenever I want to. Today is a day for other types of fiction.

First, a quick hit: I began reading Chekhov's collected short stories* the other night and was immediately hooked by Chameleon. Chekhov only needed three pages to create and define an entire world, using a dog bite as the device. Utterly brilliant, highly recommended. (My kids, age 12 and 14, didn't get it when I read it to them- let's blame it on the presentation).

*Anton Chekhov's Short Stories, the critical edition, W. W. Norton, 1979, NY.

Two significant books from favorite authors of mine are Author, Author by David Lodge and To The Hermitage (TTH) by Malcolm Bradbury. They both treat their subjects in detail, though TTH is a bit heavier going at times. TTH seems to dwarf Author, Author, though it is only 117 pages longer, with a count of 498 (and somewhat denser type). These reviews are more than my usual impressionistic overviews (or less, let me know!) in that I have referred to the texts to check facts. Note: TTH will be reserved for a later post given the length of the text below.

Author, Author is the fictionalized story of Henry James, who looks back from his deathbed (d. January 2, 1916) on the last 30 years of his life as a prolific writer. David Lodge takes little liberty with history and we learn a great deal about the relationships between James and his friends. Seem like a sleeper? Not on your life. There are many thoroughly captivating aspects to the book, not the least of which is the story of how James struggled to be a success and never quite made it. While geniuses who were never appreciated during their lifetime are nothing new, it was a shock to me that James was considered almost a failure by his own family, who looked to Henry's brother, William, for their shining star.

We learn from Author, Author about the financial struggles that James endured, about his playwriting (which was unknown to me- I must have gone to the wrong schools), and about his friendships. The financial difficulties should not be downplayed- one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language sold few volumes of most books and was forced constantly to think up new, attempted, money-making ventures. James was very aware of how his reputation had not ascended relative to others', in discord with the quality of his work. This should be a lesson to us all (fill in your own portentous thought here).

In an episode that made him proud of his best friend yet caused him secret pain, Henry James was even overshadowed by that friend, Gerald Du Maurier, a cartoonist for Punch and rather an accidental novelist of significantly and admittedly lesser talent, who happened to write the immensely popular novel for which the term "bestseller" was coined. Du Maurier's book, Trilby, was so successful on both sides of the Atlantic that it became a stage show and introduced new words to common usage in addition to "bestseller", namely "Svengali" (the character created by Du Maurier) and "trilby" itself (a type of hat that really came from the stage show, where it was worn by central character Trilby O'Farrell, the tone-deaf model who became a wonderful singer under the spell of the hypnotist, Svengali). Trilby may no longer be in common use, but I certainly knew it was a hat, and, at least up to my generation, Svengali was a well-known character and character type, even if his origins were obscure to many. Du Maurier was somewhat sheepish about his success, at least with his friend James. Unfortunately, we see good evidence that the celebrity accompanying Trilby ruined Du Maurier's health and led to his premature demise.

The stereotypically-prejudiced description of the Jewish hypnotist, Svengali, as an evil opportunist should not go unmentioned.

There is much to learn in Author, Author about the other friendships of Henry James, and about his persona, which was restrained and constrained by the behavior of gentlemen, at least as James perceived it should be. He was of course American, but this may have been hard to believe given his adoption of upper-class English habits.

Part of the additional fascination that Author, Author held for me came from the links to the familiar and all the way up to my own lifetime: namely George's granddaughter, novelist Daphne Du Maurier (see Rebecca, The Birds, Don't Look Now, and more, both the books and films: Daphne Du Maurier), and also to the tragic story of George's four doomed grandsons who were adopted by J. M. Barrie and who inspired his play, Peter Pan (see: J. M. Barrie).
© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Writing and photos of Robert P. Baird; translating Books, incl. Spanish to English; Site Updates; Memoirs of my first small plane flight

I recommend that you explore digitalemunction, a site for the original writing, thoughts and photographs of Robert P. Baird of Chicago. A piece on the econometrics of hate crime particularly struck me as insightful, but I have barely scratched the surface.

If you like books, words, language and culture, you will enjoy looking at the site Life in Translation, which deals with translating Spanish into English and refers to many related sites, including one that details mistranslation in movies (films).

Both of these sites are now on my blogroll.

Speaking of mistranslation, I've occasionally been responding in languages other than English, including Spanish, German, and French, both here and on other sites (including detectives beyond borders and crimespace). These efforts have pretty weak outside of Spanish and the occasional word, say, of Swedish or some form of the Norwegian language that I have picked up "along the avenue" (I never asked for an explanation of the different forms of Norwegian while I was there, though I did hear some discussion of Bokmål and Nynorsk/New Norsk one dark, cold winter night in about 1980 while warming by the fire after an exhausting day of cross country skiing). Thanks for your patience with my foreign language efforts.

I have been cleaning up my site to try to make up for my lack of knowledge when I started the blog. Expert status remains elusive, but here we go: some previously invisible links are now visible (like links to two of Gary Disher's books that I really enjoyed). In addition to these technical issues, some comments have been clarified or amplified. These include the mention of Tourette Syndrome, as part of my very brief remarks on the unusual nature of Jonathan Lethem's terrific novel Motherless Brooklyn. These edits, including the continual cleanup of typographical errors, are more obvious on the RSS feed than on the native blog itself. I guess many of you know why.

I think should disclose Cara Black is now a friend due to a very kind and generous email exchange. This will not slow down my commentary on her wonderful detective stories set in Paris, or on any other of Soho Press/Soho Crime's many first-rate volumes.

The list of Labels on the right hand side of the page may be annoyingly long, but it will help you find anything on the site. As a possible aid to the blogosphere, technorati tags are being inserted throughout, rather exhaustively. I'm not how smart the technorati search engine is. If you have any thought on these matters, I'd be happy to hear them.

I have finished Jonathan Lethem's book You Don't Love Me Yet, but I'm not yet sure what to say about it. I won't rush it. So here instead is something I wrote the other day in response to Annalee Blysse asking about people's experiences with small planes (the date is accurate +/- one year):

"I took my first flight in a small plane in 1975. The pilot was a friend from high school and we were college freshmen at the time. I never really thought about it for a second, until right after take-off. Then I became distinctly aware of the fact that I was in a tin can, and not a heavy duty one, bouncing all over the place. So, I had a quick decision to make: do I panic because my buddy is taking me to my death in a flimsy piece of junk that has just launched into the sky, or do I sit back and enjoy the ride? Luckily, I was able to accomplish the latter. Panic didn't seem like a helpful or practical solution to anything. Later, we flew into Mexico for a couple of trips and slept under the wings- just imagine customs & immigration checks on a couple of kids with a plane! Just imagine not being able to raise the tower (in Spanish or English) at Guaymas, and then having a 727 pull in right behind us and almost blow us away (literally). Ah, those were the days."

Annalee recommends (Flork: Meet new people Webwide) for book promotion. Comments are most appreciated, as always.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

LINK Nightmares; Friend of the Devil

Sorry to those of you who are not finding as many good links on my site as you might like. The Amazon context links have been coming and going; I don't get it, but I haven't done my homework either, so I'm not pointing fingers elsewhere. Powell's Bookstore has a system that is reliable, but take me a while to generate everything (one link at a time).

Your patience and continued feedback is appreciated. I have edited and updated a few old posts tonight and am working on a new story, but it isn't ready. The process begins to remind me of the Grateful Dead song Friend of the Devil: "If I get (done) before daylight, I just might get some sleep ... tonight". However, I'm too old, so it will have to wait. Jim

Well, I wrote it after all, but the "new" post shows up below.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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Spies South of the (US) Border and Across the Pond: The Hydra Head & Bernard Samson

A lot of the discussion of crime and espionage fiction here, and elsewhere, in recent weeks, has dealt with the USA and Europe. Let's broaden the scope, at least for a moment:

The Hydra Head (THH) was written by Carlos Fuentes, the celebrated author of The Death of Artemio Cruz and many other books. The Hydra Head manages to combine a dreamlike, fantasy quality with the urgency of a life and death spy thriller. Set in Mexico, it treats Mexican oil as the axis for spymasters and puppets to dance around. The dance can be deadly, the story is gripping. Originally published in 1978, you might have missed this one the first time around, and I strongly recommend that you read it now: many of its scenes pop readily into my mind about 20 years after reading it. There were real surprises for me (who is a spy, who is not?) and the writing, like a hand held up to block the sun, allows flashes of light or periods of darkness, depending on exactly where and how hard you look. It can be unusual for a "straight fiction writer" to delve into the world of espionage, crime or a similar genre. We can be glad that Fuentes, a writer of the highest quality, did.

I have another book about Mexico to discuss, but, unusually for this blog, I can't work from memory and need to find it first! A little fact checking is in order (title, author, etc.).

We find in THH quite a counterpoint to Mexico Set, the early and often funny book that follows Berlin Game and falls near the beginning of the series by Len Deighton consisting of three full trilogies plus a bookend. Mexico Set seems largely about the "angry man", spy Bernard Samson, and his incompetent boss. However, Bernard is no Harry Palmer of The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin, even if the sarcasm immortalized on film by Michael Caine seems familiar. Bernard, however, is considerably less crass than Harry, though they have some demons in common (an annoying level of competence being one of them).

Bernard's boss (is it Dickie? I'm sure it's Dickie) certainly seems the classic fool, a man of a certain (in)breeding.

Meanwhile, Mexico herself is only a backdrop for failure in the story, like the namesake of the great movie Chinatown.

The titles of the Deighton mega-series follow a kind of patter: Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match; Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker; and finally Faith, Hope and Charity.

Just like the patter of that familiar children's rhyme, "Ring Around the Rosie", Deighton's series starts out innocuously enough, in the Game/Set era, but ends with a plague upon all our houses. Wait until the purpose of a particular dental construction becomes clear- that is a horrific moment.

Winter offers backstory and "more-story" that link up obliquely with the Bernard Samson/Len Deighton 3X3, or nonet, and go all the way back to before WWII.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

The Interview that Must be Read: Karim Ali with Robert Littell

Karim Ali wrote an interview with Robert Littell for and you can find it by clicking o on the highlighted word "it". I knew nothing about Littell except that I loved his writing. Ali's interview provides extremely rare and quite detailed insight into the author, helped by their shared love of chess. The interview is almost a brief biography of the world for the past 60 years- they cover a lot of ground without needing a lot of words. Highly recommended. Ali is also a novelist and a chemist! My thanks to the interviewer for his kind correspondence.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Mystery, International Intrigue, Espionage- 2 quick hits

The author Ross Thomas was apparently very popular in the 70's and 80's, winning Edgar and other prizes, but his 25 books, except for one, went out of print from 1995 (when he passed away) to 2002. St. Martin's Minotaur press recently republished them, with Stuart Kaminsky writing the Introduction to the first book Thomas published, The Cold War Swap. This is a wonderful Cold War thriller, with excitement, humor and satire balanced perfectly; the characters are not familiar retreads but new and unique. I enjoyed it a great deal (courtesy of my brother). On The Rim, another Ross Thomas book, applies a similar approach to international crime, fraud and con men in the volatile and dangerous Philippines, after Marcos. Donald E. Westlake contributed the introduction. This book has plenty of suspense and intrigue, and the tone is never inappropriate when things become hilarious.

Anybody else out there reading Thomas these days?

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