Sunday Ramble: Travels, Art and Jane Austen Challenge

C.J. and I visited Los Angeles this past week to see the James Kerry Marshall retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the same show we saw last summer in Chicago.  We’ve become big fans of Mr. Marshall’s work.

It was a mad-cap three-day trip–drive down, day in L.A. and drive home–but we managed to visit three bookstores while we were there.  We stayed in West Hollywood, just a few blocks from the Sunset Strip area which is all very nice now, very high-end and very young. We walked down to Melrose Place for breakfast coffee at Alfred’s, which serves beautiful people beautiful lattes.  Lots of window shopping at high end antique stores afterwards on the way back to our very cheap motel.

Up on Sunset, near Book Soup, we found our new favorite bookstore, Mystery Pier Books Inc. which sells only first editions.  It’s a small store in a small building behind the main buildings.  You have to walk down a very narrow alley, the kind typically used as a service entrance, to get to the store which means very few customers find it.  There were just four of us in the store Wednesday afternoon.  The clerks are friendly and helpful, the selection is wide and fascinating, and the prices are high.  I can’t say if they are too high since I have no idea what a mint condition first edition of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show is worth.  It was more than I could afford in any case.

My latte at Alfred’s Coffee on Melrose Place in Los Angeles.

We made it out of Book Soup without going over 100 dollars which is nearly a miracle.  My standard for quality bookstores is based on how many titles they carry that I’ve never seen before but have to have. There were many at Book Soup.  C.J. found several, too.  I’ve already started The Familiar by Mark Z. Danielewski which, turns out, has been on the market for nearly two years now though this is the first I’ve heard of it.  25 dollars and the first of four volumes, all four were on the shelf at Book Soup. I resisted and resisted, but gave in in the end.  I loved The House of Leaves which I highly, highly recommend.

 

The next night we went to The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. since the museum is just a ten minute walk away and C.J. had never been there.  The space is wonderful, inside an old bank.  The galleries and studios on the mezzanine are lots of fun, but if I stick to my standards, I have to admit that it’s not that great of a bookstore.  And I feel their prices are always one or two dollars too high. We left glad to have visited but empty-handed.

Mr. Marshall’s artwork, which we drove down to see, shall speak for itself.

In Chicago we spent our time trying to figure out what all of the images in each painting meant, what their history was, what they had to say socially and politically.   This time we were able to appreciated them as beautiful paintings. If you get a chance to see the show, see it.

Finally, on what is a rainy Easter morning in the Bay Area, I’ve been thinking about hosting a reading challenge.  I’ve been collecting Jane Austen novels, I’ve only Mansfield Park to go before I have all six of them, for a couple of months now.  I’m not hunting for them, just checking for them when I’m at a used book sale, looking for very cheap copies of each or for the Vintage Classics edition because I like the cover art. My plan is to read them all in order once I have them, one book a month.

Is that something people would like to join in.

Maybe call it The Jane Austen Read All-along?

It would start in July with Sense and Sensibility and end in December with Persuasion.  

I think it would be fun to do the same thing with Elizabeth Gaskell in 2018, though it will be harder to find cheap copies of hers here in America.  She’s much more popular in U.K

I may set something up later this month if people are interested.

Meanwhile, I’m reading away though I’m not finishing much lately.  I did read one of from the Brilliant but Short list, Jenny Offil’s Department of Speculation which was excellent though it has started to blend with the main plot of Danielewski’s The Familiar in my memory.  I’ll have to get a review up soon.  Besides that I’m still working through the first volume of Kevin Starr’s history of California.  Add to that the Danielewski book which is too large and heavy to read anywhere but on the dining room table and the essays in the James Kerry Marshall catalogue which I bought at great expense–art books come at a premium.  Also I’m reading Chan H0-kei’s The Borrowed in chunks since it’s made up of five separate stories featuring the same characters.

And it’s back to work tomorrow now that spring break has come to a close.

38 school days left, but who’s counting.

 

Sunday Ramble and Two Books I Didn’t Like. Sorry.

Visited the local Friends of the Library book sale yesterday, in the rain, where C.J. and I managed to spend much more than we intended.  He got several art books and a couple of books full of house plans while I nearly completed my Jane Austen collection. Can you name the book I still have to find.

I’ve decided it’s a good time to re-read all of Jane Austen’s six novels in order.  So, I’m looking for good second-hand copies of each.  I’d like to have all in the newish Vintage Classics paperback editions.  The top middle book is a Vintage Classics edition. I like them for the cover art.

Apparently, true Janeites re-read all six novels every year or so I read somewhere.  I’m not that big a fan, but I am a big fan.  Once I find Mansfield Park I’ll be ready to begin.

I had two near DNF’s this week, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Repetition  and Ray  by Barry Hannah.  While I am a fan of French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, Repetition did not hit the spot for me.  All of his work, the two other novels I’ve read so far at least, is experimental in ways I find interesting once I figure out just what is going on.  Repetition concerns an agent sent on a mission to Germany during the Cold War, I think.  The book opens with him on the train trying to get through to the other side when he enters a compartment to find himself already sitting there. The man, who looks just like him except he is not wearing a fake mustache, appears to be a better version of himself.  Also an agent on a mission, this doppelgänger is one step ahead of the novel’s hero so much so that at times they appear to switch places in the narrative. I’m not sure. I was confused.

I was confused with the other two Robbe-Grillet novels I read, but I enjoyed trying to figure things out. Confusion is a part of reading as far as I am concerned.  But this time,  because I couldn’t quite make out what was going on, I began to lose patience with the whole thing. Additionally, while the other Robbe-Grillet novels I read struck me as inventive and original, this one seemed like a re-tread of ideas Paul Auster has already done in his New York trilogy.

The other book I didn’t really like was Ray by Barry Hannah. Ray was on one of the Brilliant Novels You Can Read in a Day lists that I found a few weeks ago.  I’ve got a little TBR list of them on one of the tabs at the top of this blog.  The other one’s I’ve read so far have been knock outs so I had high hopes.

Ray  is a long rant about the title character’s life, his loves and the people he knows.  A former pilot who flew fighter planes in Vietnam, Ray is a southerner, through and through.  Which, I’ll be honest, was part of the problem for me. I know there are people, not just in the south, who use racist language freely.  I know depicting this is an honest way to depict them. I understand the argument that “realistic” language gives fiction authenticity.  I know, I know, I know.

But I just don’t have patience for it anymore.  If I never read another book with racist, homophobic or sexist language in it as long as I live, I’m okay with that.

So parts of Ray were very tough going.

It’s supposed to be funny, the way Flannery O’Connor is funny.  I like Flannery O’Connor a lot. While I do find her funny, she’s not laugh-out-loud funny for me the way Eudora Welty is.  All the little blurbs on the back mention how funny Barry Hannah is, how he’s the best southern writer since Flannery O’Connor, etc., etc. None of them mention Eudora Welty whom I think is better than Flannery O’Connor.

But I just didn’t see it.

I’m going to keep both books, though, just in case.  Maybe a future re-reading will reveal things I missed the first time around.  While I didn’t really like either one, I do recognize both are well-written books.

Maybe next time….

Meanwhile, I’m still making my way through Kevin Starr’s Eight volume history of California. I’m nearing the end of the first book Americans and the California Dream which covers 1850 to 1915.  I’ve mentioned before how C.J. and I plan on retiring to the Gold Country where we’ll give  walking tours for the local historical society of whatever town we end up in.  So we’re both reading up on California history.  We’re big fans of the stuff.

And I’m reading an import from China called The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei.  The cover promised a modern noir tale covering 50 years of Hong Kong history, but so far it’s a very old-fashioned story. The opening section, set in modern-day Hong Kong, featured what is usually the final scene in an Agatha Christie novel.  All of the suspects were gathered in a single room while the chief detective reviewed the case hoping one of the suspects would crack and reveal too much.  I completely enjoyed it.  It was a fresh take on this old trope to avoid all the business about gathering clues for three-fourths of the book. Why not just skip to final chapters where all the good stuff is.  That a surprise murderer was revealed came as no surprise really. That he turned out not to be the real killer did.  That he turned out to be someone else’s killer did, too.

Each part that follows is set back in time about ten years or so, with the same set of detectives, just in their younger days.

It looks promising.

 

Black Wave by Michelle Tea

When I was in college, I was friends with a group of women who shared a flat on Divisidero Street in San Francisco, decades before it became a trendy neighborhood.  In the 1980’s, four college students living on four or five hundred dollars a month  each could come up with enough money to rent a flat.  As longs as no one spends all the rent money on cocaine.

One month, that happened.  The leaseholder, who collected all the cash, spend the rent money on cocaine.  When the land-lord came to call, they almost all ended up on the street.  One of them managed to convince the landlord to give them an extra month to come up with the money and to move the lease over to a different room-mate.

The former leaseholder, the one with the fondness for cocaine, was evicted by consensus.

So, yes, I do understand that addiction is a disease, but the rent is the rent.

Which is why I have less patience for stories of addiction than I might have.

Which is why I had a tough time with Michelle Tea’s novel, Black Tea.  I should have liked it more.  The first half of the story is set in San Francisco, much later, some 30 years or so, than my college days, but familiar territory that I am fond of. The main character is a lesbian woman who shares the flat with a series of roommates and girlfriends.  She even works in a book store.  But, boy does she use a lot of drugs. I kept thinking as I read her story that her roommate should throw her out.

So I found it all very tough reading in the same way I found Charles Bukowski’s Ham and Eggs tough reading.  I just don’t have much interest in stories of how far addicts go to serve their addiction be it alcohol or hard drugs.

Still, since Black Wave is in the Tournament of Books this year, I kept reading.  I think I’m glad I did.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!

Just short of halfway through the novel, the story shifts to Los Angeles.  The main character then turns to the reader to admit that not all of what she has told us so far is true.  The girl she introduced briefly as a sort of one-night-stand was really a long-term girlfriend.  She just didn’t want to be included in this “memoir.” Other details had been changed as well. So what’s really going on.

In Los Angeles we discover that the world is about to end.  Things are decaying around the main character who manages to get a job in a bookstore like the one she had in San Francisco.  Things get worse, gradually then dramatically.  It’s an unclear end of the world scenario that features the main character in a bookstore strewn with unshelved books, reminding me of Paul Auster’s wonderful novel In the Country of Last Things.  But Mr. Auster and Ms. Tea are up to very different things.  Ms. Tea is doing something much more in line with Samuel R. Delany’s Dahlgren in which a city, probably New York, decays in chaos while the hippie-like main characters build a temporary utopia amid the soon to be ruins of civilization.  I loved Dhalgren and came to enjoy the second part of Black Wave.

But what really surprised me about Black Wave is how moved I was at the ending. Even though I was enjoying the book by the end, I did not expect to care about the main character, this drug addled hipster with an attitude she is in no position to hold.  But I was.  The final scene, her last moments of life, struck me, profoundly struck me.

I did not expect that, not at all.

So I think I’m recommending Black Wave. 100 pages into the book I was ready to lay it aside for good, but by the final words on the last page I was thinking I might read more by Michelle Tea.  I think that’s a recommendation.

Drive by James Sallis

Drive is the best movie I have seen in a long, long time. I loved it so much I watched it twice in a row.

And then went out and got the book.

The book is very good, but the movie is better.

The story concerns a young man who works by day as a stunt driver for movie productions in Los Angeles and by night as a driver for various criminal gangs.  There is no better driver around.  All he does is drive.  He does not carry a weapon, he does not participate.  He’ll drive you to an agreed upon destination, wait exactly five minutes, and then drive you safely away.  If you take longer than five minutes, or if anything goes wrong, he’ll leave.

He is neither hero, nor anti-hero really. He just drives.

Until he meets the young woman who has moved in next door with her young son.  He soon becomes involved in their lives on a level he has never experienced before.  Maybe it’s love, maybe not.  Before he has a chance to find out, the woman’s husband is released from prison and moved back in with his wife and son.  The driver helps him with one last job, robbing a pawn shop, that goes horribly wrong.

Both the book and the movie have this same basic plot structure and the same set of characters.  The movie also has a sense of visual style that I’ve found missing from most films I’ve seen lately.  The use of color, the warm tones, the way the costumes, settings and color palate resonate with 1980’s style serve to create a noir shadow world.  The script contains very few words.  The driver and the girl next door hardly speak at all.  Instead images and music tell the story.  The music reminded me of the 1980’s French noir film Diva, not because the music was like the music in Diva, it wasn’t, but because of the way the director took unusual music that really shouldn’t be there, but managed to make it all work very well.

The book is different enough from the movie, and good enough to earn my recommendation and to win Mr. Sallis one more fan.  In the original story the driver is a much more fleshed out character.  We get his complete back story along with glimpses into aspects of his daily life and thought processes that the movie leaves out.  There is less of a romance in the book, more of a man on his own just trying to survive.  We also get a different take on the bad guys, one that sheds more explicit light on what the movie only suggests.

There is a sequel to the novel that I just may check out someday.  I’d like to know what Mr. Sallis has in store for his hero. But it’s my sincere hope that it’s never made into a movie. The film version of Drive stands alone and should always stand alone.  There’s no way Diva II would have done anything but cheapen  the first movie.  Here’s hoping Hollywood either knows enough to let Drive be or never notices it enough to bother.

See it.  Read it.

Drive.

 

Looking back today at several clips of the movie on YouTube it’s possible that I may be gushing over the film a little bit more than it deserved.  Back when I first ran this review in early 2012 I was thoroughly in the thrall of Drive. I kind of want to go and watch it again today to be honest.  But, I’ll admit, I may have over-stated its greatness  a little bit, but just a little bit.  

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In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

In 1947, an excellent thriller needed only four characters: two women, one a respectable policeman’s wife the other a woman of questionable character, and two men, one a police detective the other a serial killer.  With these four characters and a small supporting cast, Dorothy Hughes created an excellent noir thriller In A Lonely Place that can more than hold its own against any of her male contemporaries.  I’d argue it can hold its own against anyone writing crime novels today, as well, and it may end up one of my top ten favorite reads this year.

The Los Angeles of In a Lonely Place is in the grip of a serial killer, a strangler who has murdered one woman every 30 days for the past six months, when Dickson  “Dix” Steele decides to contact his old war buddy Brub Nicolai.  The two have lost contact since the war ended and they each returned from England.  Brub is married now–his wife Sylvia is nervous about the strangler and worried for her police detective husband who has been working the case for months.  Dix tolerates Sylvia while milking Brub for details about the strangler case claiming they will help him with the detective novel he is writing, secretly excited by the thrill of being so close to the police officers who are hunting him.

Dix stays in the apartment of another war buddy, Mel Terris, who has left Los Angeles for a job in Rio.  His neighbor is Laurel Grey, twice divorced wanna-be movie star.  The two quickly fall into bed and then into love, but Laurel knows that Dix is broke, living on the charity of a rich uncle, and the terms of her divorce are such that she loses all alimony if she remarries.  Their affair is doomed long before she begins to suspect Dix has not told her the truth about where Mel Terris has gone.

Although In a Lonely Place is about as bare bones as a detective thriller can get,  Dorothy Hughes creates a tension filled, page turning noir story without depicting a single death.   The reader learns that Dix is the killer by the end of chapter one.  The rest of the novel follows him as he grows closer to Brub and becomes more involved in the investigation of his own crimes.  Knowing that he is the killer gives each scene in the book an undercurrent of dramatic tension that builds nicely as the pages turn.  All the narrator has to do is tell us Dix is alone in the room with Syliva, and the reader becomes concerned for her.

It makes for a fun book?

But why is it a feminist book?  (My edition is part of The Feminist Press at the City University of New York’s Femmes Fatales series of pulp fiction re-releases.)  For one thing, while she is not well know today, it’s clear that Dorothy Hughes can write a detective story as well as any of her male peers.  Take this description of Laurel from her first meeting with Dix Steele:

She was like all women, curious about your  private life.  He laughed at her; she’d find out only as much as he wished.  “An old friend,” he laughed.  “Pre-war.  Princeton.”  Princeton meant money and social position to her, calculation came quickly under her skin.  She was  greedy and callous and a bitch, but she was fire and a man needed fire.  “I’m from New York,” he threw in carelessly.  It sounded better than New Jersey.

She was fire and a man needed fire.”  Okay, that’s a bit cheesy, but it’s true enough and certainly a driving force in noir fiction of the pulp era.  There’s an undercurrent of sexuality in noir pulp that exploits as much as it illustrates the moment in American history that produced it.   But how does In a Lonely Place advance a feminist critical stance?

In her afterward to the novel, which is well worth reading, Lisa Maria Hogeland makes the case that Ms. Huges is critiquing Dix’s misogyny as she depicts it.  Take the quotation above and the way it links the hatred of women with lust for them.  The novel stays focused on Dix throughout, though it is not a first person narrative and no attempt is made to offer a psychological explanation for Dix’s psychopathology.  Ms. Hogeland believes this is itself a feminist writing at a time when bad mothers and early experiences with women were often  blamed for misogyny.  Think of how sorry we are meant to feel for Pyscho‘s Norman Bates once we learn how terrible his mother was.  Additionally, Ms. Hughes never places blame on Dix’s victims.  They are never “that sort of girl” like the victims in 1970’s  and 80’s slasher films so often were.  Even Dix himself never puts the blame on his victims, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  That crimes against women are solely the responsibility of the men who commit them was a strictly feminist notion in 1947, it may still be today.

Ms. Hughes never depicts Dix’s crimes on the page which Ms. Hogeland reads as a feminist stance in that this makes it impossible for anyone to enjoy their depiction.   Watching the murder of a woman is not  part of the fun in In a Lonely Place the way it is so many detective thrillers.

Ms. Hogeland argues that Dorothy Hughes present three possible motivations for Dix’s crimes.  Early in the novel he is presented as a veteran having some difficulty readjusting to civilian life.  A former pilot, he is nostalgic for the life he lived during the war.  Even at that time the psychotic war veteran was a familiar trope in pulp fiction.  Before he knows who the killer is, Brub argues that the strangler is a killer because he kills, refusing to look further than that for a motive.  By the end we discover that Dix’s murders began when he killed the first girl he ever loved out of jealousy.  Whatever the reason for his crimes, Ms. Hogeland believes that what matters in the end is how normal Dix appears to be.  The fact that he is not visibly different from the men around him is meant to bring the masculinity of the late 1940’s itself into question.  It’s not a comforting idea.

Dorothy Hughes published 14 crime novels during a ten year period, ending her work to take care of her ailing mother. She continued to publish criticism and biographies of the mystery genre and its authors until her death in 1993.  Today only two of her books remain in print.

Maybe a publisher could  re-issue them with fancy covers and new titles, say “The Girl in a Lonely Place.”  I’d love to read more of Dorothy Hughes.

 

Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are,  C.B. back in late 2011, thrillers with the word ‘girl’ in the title continue to sell very well.  What does that say about modern readers?  Why are so many still captivated by “the girl”? Will we ever grow up enough to be as equally interested in “the woman?” 

That bit of snark aside, I admit I had totally forgotten this book until I read the first paragraph above.  Then it all came back to me.  It’s a terrific book.  I highly recommend it. And I highly recommend taking some time to re-read your old blog posts.  You’ll be surprised by how much you have forgotten and by how much your remember. 

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

Man, what a ride!

Back when the giant “Hollywood” sign still ended in”Land,” Walter Huff, long time agent for a small time Los Angeles insurance company stops at the Nirdlinger home to get Mr. Nirdlinger’s signature on a routine renewal form.  Nirdlinger’s wife Phyllis informs Huff that she’s alone.  The two quickly begin an affair that ends with a plot to kill Mr. Nirdlinger and claim his 50,000 dollar accident policy for themselves.

Since Mr. Huff knows his business well enough to fool any insurance investigator, the police won’t be a problem.  The two take their time, plan the murder to the smallest detail, wait for the right moment, and almost get away with it.

And that’s all I’ll tell you. Except to say that the book is different enough plot wise and ending wise to surprise fans of the 1944 Billy Wilder movie starring Fred McMurry and Barbara Stanwyck.  It’s just as sexy, too, even if Mr. Cain does go places we might not rather he did.

Walter Huff narrates the novel in classic noir fashion with an attitude jaded from years in the insurance business, but it’s Phyllis Nirdlinger we want to follow.  While Mr. Cain portrays Phyllis as softer in nature than Barbara Stanwcyk does in the Wilder movie, she’s still manipulative, cut-throat, willing to do whatever she needs to gain control of Nirdlinger’s oil money.  She manages to conceal the complete extent of her criminal nature from everyone but Nirdlinger’s teenage daughter and Mr. Keyes, head of the claims department at the insurance company.  To hear Keyes talk, no one ever died of natural causes or actual mishap.  No one with life insurance anyway.

Because Double Idemnity‘s plot will rule the book in the end, Mr. Cain sketches in the setting and the characters with just a few key details.  He manages to provide all we need to know about his Los Angeles setting with a few remarks: Nirdlinger’s Spanish style house with a red tile roof like all the others;  blood-red draperies hanging from an iron rod; a Spanish looking tapestry of a castle, made in Oakland, over the fireplace; Spanish furniture “the kind that looks pretty and sits stiff.”  When Huff first meets Phyllis he sees “a sweet face, light blue eyes, and dusty blonde hair.  She was small, and had on a suit of blue house pajamas.  She had a washed out look.”   She has a washed out look, and the book has a washed out feel.  The reader can fill in the rest of the details as needed; Mr. Cain moves quickly on to the action.

And action there is plenty.

James M. Cain was a failure in Hollywood before he was a success.   Early in his career he worked as a screenwriter, but his name appears in the credits of only three films.  However, three of his novels–Double Idemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce–became cornerstones in the film noir genre earning multiple Oscar nominations and placement on most top 100 films of the 20th century lists.  Below is a clip from the first scene Fred McMurry and Barbara Stanwyck share in Double Idemnity.  The dialogue is mostly by Billy Wilder’s co-writer, Raymond Chandler.  The two felt that Mr. Cain’s dialogue worked only on paper.

This review first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B.  back in late 2011.  I’m currently reading a book about noir author’s in Hollywood called Heartbreak and Vine, just about to start the chapter on James M. Cain.  So, no, I have not lost my love of noir thrillers.

Of Flesh and Fur by Duncan Barlow

file_001-1It’s not easy to find these books.  Small, very small, independent press books each of them clearly a labor of love at every step of the way.

I found The Cupboard Press at a writer’s and writing conference in Los Angeles last year, two young people sitting at a table in the vast exhibition hall.  I liked their little books, each small enough to fit into the palm of my hand, just about, the length of a novella whether it really is a novella or a small collection of stories or a slightly experimental long form poem.

My subscription gets me four books a year, one per quarter.  Duncan Barlow’s novella Of Flesh and Fur is the third one I’ve received.

I liked it quite a bit.

What happens after a pack of coyotes has been spotted near a Southern California suburb? A man, recently divorced decides he wants to have a child.  There are women who want his sperm, but none who want him to be involved with the resulting baby.  He turns to cloning. Soon he has a baby boy.

Though he loves his son, clones frequently do not turn out the way their “parents” had hoped for.  This child is fine for a while, kind of wonderful really, until the coyotes appear. Then the boy begins incessantly crying. Day and night, non-stop. Finally his “father” is forced to take drastic action.

I thought it was terrific.  An entertaining story that had me thinking.

I look forward to the arrival of the next edition.

You can order a copy of Of Flesh and Fur or subscribe here.