Fading Fast

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Love is Blind by William Boyd

Boyd is one of the modern novelists I really enjoy as he can write a gripping spy novel like Restless or a book about one woman's journey through the twentieth century like Sweet Caress with equal eloquence.

Love is Blind is of the latter style as the novel opens, in the 1880s, with us meeting Scotsman Brodie Moncur born to into the large brood of a corrupt and tyrannical minister just as he is about to break free of that oppressive home. Owing to the kindness of a once-wealthy neighbor, Moncur, after learning he has only modest talents as a pianist, embarks on a career as a piano tuner - an "in-demand" and well-compensated career in an age when many homes had a piano and top concert pianists were kinda, sorta the rock stars of their age.

After proving his value to a piano manufacturer in Scotland, he is sent to the company's Paris store to be the assistant manger to the owner's son setting Moncur on an odyssey that will take him around much of Europe, Russia and even to an island off the coast of Malaysia.

In Paris, despite successfully growing the business, he becomes aware that his boss is stealing from the company. But because, as noted, his boss is the owner's son, he is all but powerless to do anything about it. Also at this time, Moncur has his first outbreak of tuberculosis - a quite common-for-the-period and, often times, lethal disease that will stay with him the rest of his life. At this point, he is offered the opportunity to work full time for the renown concert pianist John Kilbarron and his brother/manager Malachi.

Again, things go well at first for Moncur - his talents at tuning a piano reduces the pain John experiences playing - but he also meets and starts an affair with John's lover the - tall, almost gangly, wan and captivating Russian singer, Lika Blum. From here, it's off to Russia where John is commissioned to write a concert and open a theater. More drama follows: Moncur continues his affair with Lika behind John's back; Malachi catches wind of it leading to duels, break-ups and cross continental hunts as John and Lika try to build a life away from the Kilbarrons, but the past keeps coming back.

This is not Boyd's best effort as the whole is less satisfying than the parts. Yes, you care about Moncur and Lika, yes you learn a lot about the elite world of concert pianists (and, even more interesting, the incredible mechanical sophistication of their pianos), and yes you learn the late-19th-century scientific view and medical treatments for TB (a lung disease made a bit more poignant in our coronavirus age), but somewhere along the way, you realize you're reading a well-written soap opera that holds your interest but doesn't do a lot more.

Sure you can draw timeless parallels to this or that - a young man with a unique talent suffering from a debilitating disease or his and Lika's star-crossed love affair or, even, the mendacity of so many people Moncur encounters - but those parallels don't somehow do that on their own. And, yes, Moncur has a philosophy on life that ranges from spirituality without religion to a Forrest-Gump-like "just keep moving forward no matter what is thrown at you" approach, but its feels haphazard and superficial.

And, very definitely, yes, the writing is Boyd brilliant in spots, but also - in what is a modern-book tic / meme / norm as, I'm guessing, "market surveys show" the public wants/ it sells books - foul language and awkwardly explicit sexual details seem forced and break Boyd's more elegant prose. I did enjoy it, but recommend Restless or Sweet Caress if you are looking to give Boyd a try.
 

Fading Fast

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Eight Men Out by Elite Asinof, published in 1963

Note: My comments are based on this book, published in '63, which had been considered the "definitive" book on the White Sox scandal for years, but new information has come to light since that expands on the story and contradicts some of Asinof's points. See here https://jacobpomrenke.com/black-sox/the-black-sox-scandal-a-cold-case-not-a-closed-case/ for one example of the newer information.


First, a couple of lessons from the book and life: the world was just as corrupt and mendacious in 1919 as it is today. Whatever level of corruption and mendacity you assume, you are too low, then and now.

Surprisingly, the scheme to throw the World Series in return for money was thought up and put in motion by the players who, then, reached out to the gamblers who, even in their line of work, had to be a bit taken back by players, apparently, offering up a fixed World Series on a silver platter. "Anything interesting happen in your day, Dear?"

The eight White Sox players who collaborated on the fix all had their individual motivations - some seemed all about the money, others seemed a bit about the money and a bit about raising a (cloaked) middle finger to a sport and an owner they felt were cheating them.

And they weren't wrong. Think what you will about players today landing hundred-plus-million-dollar contracts, the alternative in 1919 was players treated like the owners' chattel who grudgingly paid them a small percentage of their true economic value (as can be seen by the small salaries the players received relative to the large dollar amounts the owners received when they traded a player).

The White Sox Eight felt particularly aggrieved as they believed owner Charles Comiskey was especially penurious versus other owners. Nothing angers a man more than seeing someone else get paid more for doing the same job. To be sure, the players were still paid, in general, three to six times what the average American was making in 1919, but again, nothing infuriates a man more than seeing someone else get paid a larger amount for the same work. (The article in the link at the top argues this relative-to-other-teams pay disparity noted in Asinof's book did not really exist; regardless, the owners absolutely did "own" the players and captured the majority of their economic value.)

To launch this scheme, the players reached out to the gamblers. The smarter ones (read Abe Rothstein, "The Big Bankroll") kept several arm's lengths between them and the fraud, leaving the day-to-day interaction to the lower-level gambler hacks who made a complete mess of it. Corrupt activities suffer from a lack of a legal construct to enforce contracts making translating them into action - executing on a plan requiring trust covering large sums of money to be paid over several weeks - incredibly difficult to manage.

And none of them - not one of these second-tier gamblers or amateur-crook players - handled this well. Instead of using game theory strategies to build incremental trust, everyone was greedy. The gamblers outright cheated the players which was stupid as the players then lost heart in the scheme.

It turned into a version of Keystone-Cops chaos. The gamblers promised the players upfront money and, then, reneged (in part so that they had more money to actually bet on the game and in part because they held the players in contempt). The players, having decided to cheat and some having already taken some money, had no good response to not getting the said promised money as they had already corrupted themselves and the gamblers always held out the promise of more money "after the next game."

It was particularly fun seeing the players - angry as all heck at the cheating gamblers - lie to the gamblers about their intentions in game three resulting in most of the gamblers losing their shirts (not Rothstein, he saw the risk of betting on individual games and only bet on the full series). To be sure, it's a complex moral equation at play when you are rooting for the group of cheaters that got cheated by the other group of cheaters - sigh. A few smart leaders could have managed this scheme much better.

And nipping at everyone's heels all throughout was the media who heard the rumors and smelled the stink, but couldn't get well-sourced-and-confirmed information. Owing to liability concerns, the stories that were printed were vague and qualified. The somewhat-real story only broke because a few of the cheating (and cheated by the gamblers) players, well into the following season, decided to confess (in a moment driven by a mix of conscience and a desire to hurt others - players and gamblers - who seemed to get away with more money).

And those confessions - made in Chicago to the District Attorney's office - set off a firestorm of public fury and legal machinations. At least by today's standards, everything, including the confessions themselves, were executed in a slipshod, intentionally-disingenuous or outright-crooked manner to tip the outcome one way or another.

The confessing players were duped into signing liability waivers; payoffs (think Rothstein pulling strings from far away) made evidence disappear; other evidence or documents suddenly appeared out of nowhere; investigations were funded by rivals; high-priced attorneys - mysteriously paid - popped up to defend the players and no one would accuse the judge of impartiality.

Out of this poorly aimed circular firing squad came a legal exoneration for the players on, kind of, a technicality. But the public was less kind and Major League Baseball - after its own "investigation -" went into high-dudgeon mode against the players resulting in not one of the eight ever playing in the major leagues again (some did go on to play semi-pro and exhibitions games, etc.).

So what were or are the lessons? The public was cheated as its national pastime - never fully honest to start with - was corrupted in its marquee event by some of its marquee players. The expression "Say it ain't so, Joe," referencing famous Shoeless Joe Jackson's role, sadly came into the American lexicon.

The owners were greedy bullies who were handed a scandal owing, in part, to their greed and bullying.

The cheating players were cogs ground down by the owners, but again, most professional ballplayers didn't cheat and earning a multiple of what the average American earned minimizes one's sympathy for those who did cheat.

The newspapers somehow, for the most part, missed the biggest sports and cultural story of its day until it was handed to them.

The gamblers - well, few go into the gambling racket because they have a high regard for the law and, as in every "profession," there are the smart ones who rise to the top (Rothstein) and the hacks who were handed an easy victory but made one unforced error after another until they lost the game.

If there's less fixing of games today and less gambling by players, etc., it's not because human nature has improved, it's because the the vast sums of legal money that sluices to everyone involved in Major League Baseball today reduces the incentive to risk it all on cheating. But as we've learned, some still do and aways will.

Despite the new information since its publication, Eight Men Out is still an excellent place to start one's discovery of, perhaps, the sports world's most notorious scandal: a scandal that revealed as much about America in 1919 and human nature always as it did about the sport of baseball itself.
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II by Richard Goldstein published in 2010

More a pastiche of New York in WWII than a serious history, Goldstein's effort works because the vignettes he chooses poignantly connect every day lives to the big-picture struggle. Yes, the patriotic and pull-together efforts dominate in this telling, as even the mob gets a positive spin by helping the Feds protect the waterfront it controls from sabotage, but Goldstein does recount the racism that is also part of New York City in WWII and human history, well, always.

Goldstein points out that, at a high level, New York City's direct contribution to the war effort was really just two things: Brooklyn's Naval Yard and the City's transportation hub itself. The Pacific Theater had its West Coast equivalents, but New York served as a critical builder of ships and shipper of men to defeat the Nazis (some Brooklyn-built ships did head to the Pacific, too).

Through a series of stories, the Naval Yard comes alive as we see dignitaries like the first lady christening carriers and young women all but forcing their way into the Yard in traditional male jobs as men left to fight while demand for ships and shipyard workers increased.

Perhaps no story captured more of the regular New Yorker's experience in war than that of two Naval Yard welders - one, a pioneering woman, the other, a young man who left to fight - who had worked side by side welding in the Yard, married and, then, exchanged letters when he was overseas until she received a telegram informing her that he was killed in action. He had entrusted a letter for her, in case of his death, with a commanding officer, which she received a few weeks after the telegram. In it he wrote, in part, "Having died I at least tasted the full measure of happiness" and "I had no remorse for having died for a worthy cause."

Away from the Naval Yard in Brooklyn, Manhattan, with its two behemoth train stations and deep ports, saw men from all over the country - often, fresh out of basic training - alight and spend a few days or weeks until they were shipped out. Also, many on leave or still convalescing but mobile had stayovers in the City throughout the war years.

Here, Goldstein shows us the bars, nightclubs (famous ones the world over like The Stork Club or 21), movie houses, theaters, restaurants and other attractions all but overwhelmed with young men with money and, often, an exaggerated "I just want to have fun" attitude.

The famous Stage Door Canteen - set up mainly by volunteer actors and stagehands to entertain servicemen gratis - makes an appearance where stars and famous local dignitaries apparently really did, not only cook and put on shows, but also took out the trash and held the hands of many young boys facing war for the first time.

But as noted, Goldstein also shows the ugly, like the race riots in Harlem, sparked by a black women and GI's fight with a white police officer (the story, as always, has its confusion), but building over decades of indignities, slights, economic hardship and, sometimes, brutality. Antisemitism, too, rears its ugly head with attacks by Irish mobs on Jewish synagogues and young Jewish girls. Perhaps racism's sins were included owing to modern political proclivities, as most of New York's other WWII-era sins - political corruption, prostitution, black markets and organized crime - get passed over or, as noted, given a soft touch

Also making appearances are the German spies who were caught on a New York City beach after being dropped off by a U-Boat, the spectacular fire of the Normandie (seemingly sparked by an innocent workman's error, but the rumor mill of intrigue ignored that), New York's inconsistent and restrained approach to blackouts and Mayor LaGuardia both doing good and, sometimes, letting his ego get the best of him - like New York City itself.

There's so much here that it sometimes feels as if you're drinking from a firehose: the B-25 bomber whose pilot, on a foggy Sunday morning, lost his bearing and crashed into the Empire State Building, the beginning of the named-for-its-place-of-origin Manhattan Project, the plays that led to the movies "On The Town" or "Winged Victory" and much, much more.

But that's fine because Helluva Town is supposed to be gatling gun of vignettes that adds up to a fun popular read about New York City in WWII. It carries enough real, smart and detailed information and stories to make it more than a guilty pleasure, but it doesn't pretend to be what it is not - a serous history of New York during the war years.
 

eagle2250

Connoisseur/Curmudgeon Emeritus - Moderator
During the past months of social self-isolation, I've read more than a few books, not all of which are worthy of mention, but others were pretty good reads. The first was Beneath A Scarlet Sky, a historical novel written by Mark Sullivan documenting the Nazi occupation of Italy during WWII and showcasing the heroic struggles of a young partisan, Pino Lella and his family to protect others and his country from the scourge of a maniacal Adolf Hitler, through the hands of the Nazi military assigned to that theater of the war. Pino and his brother use their noteworthy mountain climbing skills to lead persecuted Jews to safety in Switzerland an Pino wangles his way into becoming a driver for the Nazi commanding general and proceeds to report the generals activities to the Allies for the duration of the war, but in the end is not able to bring the cretin to face the appropriate final justice. By the end of the war Pino has lost many friends and family members to the depravity of the Nazis and in the end, as the occupation was at long last collapsing, to the mob response of the embittered masses of Italian citizens. Mobs seldom chose their victims wisely. It's a very well written book...read it! ;)
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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Good Evening Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes, a collection of short stories

Written for The New Yorker magazine between September of 1939 and June of 1944 by England native and resident Panter-Downes, an author with an acute eye for small personal details, these stories are the flip to all the "big" history books about England during WWII. Those books, like the recently released The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson (comments here: #776 ), show you Churchill's and England's top-down, macro strategy for surviving the blitz and, ultimately, defeating the Nazis.

In those tomes of history, "the people" are often referenced as "enduring" the blitz's hardships with pluck, backing Churchill, taking in city refugees, supporting the fighting men, but all in a sort gray "background" way. "The people" show up almost as props in a play to highlight the achievements and struggles of their leaders. But here, Panter-Downes takes us into their homes, heads and hearts and shows a deeper and more-nuanced picture of "the people."

We meet older women whose lives had been flower shows and gardening finding new purpose and enthusiasm in making and distributing bandages for troops and clothes for refugees. Conversely, we meet a woman whose former, sorta boyfriend found a wife while on overseas assignment coming home to show her off as she, the ex-girlfriend, smiles pleasantly but dies a bit inside.

Older, retired men become air-raid wardens and find they actually can contribute, while a woman plots and strategizes to get a refugee family that's driving her nuts out of her house despite having enthusiastically taken them in during the blitz. In other words, Panter-Downes shows us real life; shows us the good and the bad, people doing small acts of charity and committing small acts cravenness.

Poignantly, we see a young married couple who had already slipped into a mundane day to day reenergized by his going off to war; nothing sharpens the mind like the threat of losing the good you had passively taken for granted.

Panter-Downes also sheds light on the rigid but changing-because-of-the-war class system in England as a dowager and her equally old housekeeper take in soldiers. The dowager is happy to adapt and give up the old standards, but the housekeeper, whose entire life has been "in service," doesn't want that way of life to change. A story consistent with others (see Remains of the Day) where the servants were, often times, more committed to the class structure and its rules than those at the top.

In a particularly sad story, a middle-aged and, what today we'd call, socially awkward woman, finds a communal experience when her heretofore anonymous neighbors share the apartment building's corridors as shelter through long evenings of the blitz. But later in the war, with the air raids waning, she is alone again in her apartment in the evenings as the neighbors return to their nod-and-move-on manners. Against her nature, she squirrels up her courage and knocks on the door of one neighbor under the pretense of taking him up on his blitz offer to "come by and borrow a book anytime." When she does so, she immediately realizes that the visit "isn't working" and quickly takes the book and retreats to another long night of loneliness.

On it goes through the war as another story shows a maid with an out-of-wedlock baby (when that mattered) coming to work for a lonely soldier's wife. The three of them, in a very modern way, form their own "odd" family as, in particular, the soldier's wife realizes the character of her "simple" maid and the unimportance of society's opinions.

And that's it as these short stories are simply a window into how "the people" experienced the war. These are the regular Brits whom the giants of history - the Churchills, the FDRs, etc. - are always saving, sacrificing, worrying about or fighting for. They are "the people" who appear as almost shadowy figures in those august leader's lives.

So, thanks to Panter-Downes, the next time we're reading how a crowd cheered on Churchill, we'll see that crowd as a little more complex than just "the people." We'll see them as regular men and women with kinds hearts and petty jealousies, with thoughtfulness and, sometimes, meanness, with fear and joy, with hope and sorrow - in total, we'll now see them as more than just "the people."
 

eagle2250

Connoisseur/Curmudgeon Emeritus - Moderator
During the soon to be past month of May 2020, I got on a Clive Cussler jag, reading three of his novels; two in the Sam and Remi Fargo series and one from his (Cussler's) Oregon Files series. The Fargo adventures, written by Clive Cussler and Robin Burcell, included The Romanov Ranson and The Oracle and The Oregon Files offering was Typhoon Fury, written by Cussler and Boyd Morrison. All three writings followed Cusslers ever successful literary format; Good vs Evil, fast moving w/lots of action, lives and at times the future of Nations hanging in the balance, ever heroic and auguably super, hero's/heroine's. The good guys win, the bad guys lose, Nations and lives are saved. Now tell me, does life get any better than that? Cusslers books are an entertaining read, at times seemingly mesmerizing. They are just downright fun to read...do it! ;)
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
During the soon to be past month of May 2020, I got on a Clive Cussler jag, reading three of his novels; two in the Sam and Remi Fargo series and one from his (Cussler's) Oregon Files series. The Fargo adventures, written by Clive Cussler and Robin Burcell, included The Romanov Ranson and The Oracle and The Oregon Files offering was Typhoon Fury, written by Cussler and Boyd Morrison. All three writings followed Cusslers ever successful literary format; Good vs Evil, fast moving w/lots of action, lives and at times the future of Nations hanging in the balance, ever heroic and auguably super, hero's/heroine's. The good guys win, the bad guys lose, Nations and lives are saved. Now tell me, does life get any better than that? Cusslers books are an entertaining read, at times seemingly mesmerizing. They are just downright fun to read...do it! ;)
Last Christmas, when we flew to MI to see my girlfriend's parents, I had a CC novel in my hand in the airport's bookstore, but since I had taken two books with me, I passed. It's been many years since I've read a CC book, but your description is spot on to my memory - a fun romp through a world of international intrigue and super-cool technology where all ends well. I'll need to pick one up again soon.
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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The Big Bankroll: The Life and Times of Arnold Rothstein by Leo Katcher published in 1959

Born in 1882, Arnold Rothstein plowed his own path through life as, first, a successful gambler, then a successful owner of gambling establishments, and finally, as the incredibly successful owner, financier and / or middleman to many legal and illegal businesses in the Roaring Twenties.

Starting his "career" as a gambler, Rothstein had a choice: you can be a gambler or you can be the house - Rothstein chose to, mainly, be the house. You can act with strict integrity in a dishonorable system (and lose) or you can cut corners and, sometimes, outright cheat (as most others did) - Rothstein chose to cut and cheat.

The latter might sound terrible, but that was the way the game was played in his time (and, often, today as well). Basically, people who want to live lives of traditional honor and values need not apply to any position in the early twentieth century's gambling industry.

But within that world, there are rules around "acceptable" cheating - as crazy as that sounds - and Rothstein scrupulously abided by those rules, which, combined with his incredible success, placed him in a position of authority and respect in this border town to the legal economy.

And despite outsized success as a gambler, bookmaker, operator of gambling establishments and owner of racehorses - how he legally manipulated the odds and outcome of two horse races to win, in today's dollars, about $20 million, are edge-of-your-seat-exciting reading - all that was just a springboard to other more lucrative legal and illegal ventures.

While born into a respectable, religious and upper-middle class Jewish family, growing up, Rothstein never embraced his family's values and all but broke completely from his parents in his teens to carve out his early career in gambling. From there, after his aforementioned outsized success as a gambler and owner of gambling enterprises, he evolved into a sort of éminence grise of New York City and, to an extent, the northeast's organized corruption in an era when gangsters, police and politicians were, sadly, much more integrated than they are today (at least we hope).

Rothstein earned his nickname "The Big Bankroll" by, on his way up, carrying a huge sum of cash to show his seriousness to the top gamblers. Later, when his career branched out from gambling, his large capital made him the go-to guy to provide funding for everything from bail bonds, fencing, money laundering, real estate, fixing the World Series (which he didn't really do) to backing buckets shops (shady brokerage firms in the pre-regulated days which acted, basically, as gambling establishments using stocks instead of horses as the game), narcotics and, when it was the thing, bootlegging.

It was his bankroll/capital, plus his extensive and high-level network of underworld and political connections - he was tight with Tammany Hall when it ruled New York City - his intelligence, his preternaturally calm personality (even in a storm) and his integrity (his word and his money were known as money good - crucial in a world that operates without contracts) that resulted in Rothstein sitting at the center of, but somehow legally insulated from, everything corrupt in New York City in the Roaring Twenties.

He had managed to be the one cog that gangsters, politicians and union bosses all needed to help coordinate, finance and, oftentimes, run their corrupt efforts; yet, he wasn't a gangster (or part of a mob), a politician or a labor leader.

Instead, Rothstein had become a sui generis figure sitting in the middle of many above-board and not-above-board businesses and schemes, but in a way that left him reasonably legally immune. If you dumped your morals overboard and lived your life to make money - and you had the particular type of brains, personality and emotional control that Rothstein did - his would be a smart path to choose, until it wasn't.

At his career peak in the Twenties, it's simply hard to keep track of all his businesses which range from gambling and bookmaking, to real estate, restaurants, bootlegging and narcotics. As bootlegging became more violent, he seemed to lean away from it (although he still financed bootleggers), but via his huge bail-bond business (which seemed, overall, legitimate), he became the lynchpin in much of the growing union corruption that labor leaders and politicians used to line their pockets. Sadly, as presented here, New York City's construction unions were all but birthed in corruption with politicians and labor bosses lining their pockets at the expense of their members.

With his place secured (for the moment), as the Twenties roared along, so did Rothstein - getting richer and more involved in everything. Oddly, despite his personality being a key ingredient to his success - he seemed to be good at surface friendships, at knowing whom to befriend and what relationships to cultivate - he appeared unable to form deep bonds with anyone, even his very decent wife Carolyn.

And while long-suffering Carolyn was his only confidant, it still had to be on his terms where he shared and confided when and only what he wanted. Proving as adept at choosing his wife as almost everything else, Carolyn accepted her role and, even when she finally asked for a divorce (no intimacy, him cheating and having everything on his terms wore even her down), she demanded nothing (he offered to provide comfortably for her anyway) and even remained a confidant after the split. Divorce lawyers would go out of business if most breakups were like this.

And right when his marriage was unwinding, Rothstein made a critical mistake that proved how tenuous his position had been all along. Usually a winner at poker - and always, until now, a disciplined player - he played sloppily in a high-stakes game and left many six-figure IOUs that, by gambling convention, he should have honored within two or three days.

But just at this time, Rothstein was cash poor and asset rich. He was financing so many investments - land development, bail bonds, bootlegging, restaurants and on and on - that he didn't have the liquidity to settle his IOUs and he didn't want to sell any of his businesses or investments. Basically, he was in a classic liquidity crisis - solvent (positive net worth owing to his illiquid assets), but unable to meet his bills with available cash.

In the legal world, this is settled, usually, by the individual, effectively, being forced to sell some assets to meet his debts (worst case - that happens in bankruptcy court); but in Rothstein's world, his attempt to bully time out of his creditors resulted in one trying to collect, in gangster style, by threatening Rothstein with a gun. Things went badly and down went Arnold for good.

After avoiding the violent side of his "business" his entire professional life, Rothstein died a very typical underworld death. But what the heck, he had a great run - unique and spanning a few decades - in a field not known for its longevity. And that's what makes The Big Bank Roll such a good read; it has that rare thing, a unique personality at its core. Author Katcher didn't need to exaggerate as the reality of Rothstein's life reads better than most fiction.
 

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The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner published in 2020

I'm a Jane Austen fan and I enjoy a good breezy beach read as this book has been advertised, so I took a shot on the latest output from the seemingly never-ending Jane Austen merchandising machine.

But, unfortunately, this one's on the disappointing side. Set in the '30s and '40s, the premise is that several lonely or broken-hearted locals, from the village where Jane Austen lived a hundred and fifty years prior, decide to start a historical society to preserve Austen's home (a cottage on an estate about to be sold to a big developer) and other Austen memorabilia.

It's disappointing because the writing and story are simply average. Additionally, many of the characters are anachronistically modern while others are just black-and-white heroes or villains. And all these efforts seem to exist in order to advance the author's political biases.

The plot itself is straightforward - will the society be able to raise the funds to buy the Austen "cottage" before the (of course) evil land developer buys the estate and demolishes everything to (of course) build a golf course? Being an Austen cognate, the story is also full of unrequited love, relationship misunderstandings and "marriage for advantage versus marriage for love" challenges.

Unfortunately, you can see the story's seams, see every gun hung and feel every "critical" moment when it's coming. And while we know it is very important to modern female writers to have strong female characters, in a period novel, a strong female character should be written to reflect what a strong female - there were plenty of them - would have thought and acted like in the 1940s, not like one that was transported back from 2020.

I often wonder if these authors (and there are many modern ones who make the same mistake) even bother to read newspaper articles and fictional stories from the period they write about to learn how to accurately portray a strong 1940s female. Authors like Ursula Parrot and Rex Beach (and others) were writing popular novels about smart, independent women in the '20s - '40s. You could also pick up any old newspaper to read about these fictional women's real-world equivalents.

In these books and newspapers from those times, authors would learn that there were powerful, independent, forward-thinking women, but they still thought and acted in a period-consistent way. They worked on the edges of the social constructs of their times and held the progressive views of their day, which often don't align with today's progressive views.

That, I'm guessing, is what modern authors don't like about period-accurate characters. So, instead of drawing them accurately, modern authors limn these women as if they were time-traveling heroines visiting some past era to show the people how backward and wrong their thoughts and actions are. I think authors like Ms. Jenner really want to write science fiction novels, but they don't know it.

The other thing that hurts this one is when Ms. Jenner's characters quote passages from Austen novels: few modern authors' writing looks good in a side-by-side comparison to Austen.

It's June and it's hot and I'd be very happy for a mindless beach read, but unfortunately, this one offers too little fun while irritating with its period-inconsistent characters' moral posturing.
 

IT_cyclist

Active Member with Corp. Privileges
Breasts and Eggs. Halfway through. Not exactly what I expected. But really engaging. Makes me want to read it in the original Japanese. (which would take an AGE after over 2 decades since my last residency in that country.)
 

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Kipps by H.G. Wells published in 1905

In the early 20th-century world of England's rigid class and social order, what would happen if a young man from a lower-middle-class family who works as a sales clerk in a drapery and fabric store inherited (in today's terms about) $5,000,000?

That's the premise in this fun story from Wells about the challenges inheriting money can create especially in a not-particularly-sure-of-himself young man with, surprisingly, little interest in material possessions.

Kipps, the young man in question, before his windfall, follows the path laid out for him by the uncle who raised him: he becomes an apprentice in a drapery shop. Initially, after the windfall, all he does is buy a few modest things and helps out a few friends. However, it is his passion to court a woman in society whom he knew before he was rich (and who was out of his league back then), which leads him to find a mentor to teach him how to be a "gentleman."

While this entails having to buy a lot of accoutrements, the real hurdle for Kipps is the social customs and manners he has to learn to become a real "gentleman." Besides his mentor, Kipps studies a manners guide only to learn the challenges of trying to follow a rigid set of rules set down in a book versus the fluidity of real-world social situations.

In a insightful twist on the old adage to be careful of what you wish for, after becoming engaged to his society avatar, Kipps accidentally meets an old childhood, kinda, sweetheart - now "in service" as a maid - who reminds him of the joy of sincere love not complicated by social status or motives about money. Additionally, he simply likes his old friend; whereas, his fiance has become unpleasantly didactic to him about the ways of society.

You're now about two-thirds in and all heck is about to break out. (Spoiler alerts) Kipps breaks his engagement, ditches society, marries his childhood friend, losses his money (which he gave to his society fiance's brother to manage - he embezzled it), and, Candide like, he and his wife have to restart their lives poorer but wiser (a cliche, but true in this case). There's one more twist to come - it's a fun one - but you want to discover it in the book.

Toss in some innocent ruminating about socialism - not having had the ensuing hundred years of socialism's history to edify, Welles' pondering feels naive not misguided - and that pretty much covers the book. In the end, Kipps is basically an enjoyable homily about being true to yourself, the value of sincere love, the dangers of money, the pretentiousness of status and the rewards of work and purpose.
 

eagle2250

Connoisseur/Curmudgeon Emeritus - Moderator
Just a couple of weeks back I read the novel American Dirt, #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, written by Jeanine Cummins. An interesting and socially worthwhile read. The story is of a 30 something year old mother and her eight year old son whose family is assassinated by order of the Jeffe of a local drug cartel because of the factual articles her husband a reporter, has been putting in the news paper, in spite of repeated threats/warnings of the local drug cartel. Mama and her son are quite literally running for their lives, from their home in Acapulco Mexico to "El Norte," to survive the continuing efforts to eliminate these last two surviving members of the Perez family and in search of a better, safer and more predictable. The script quite graphically depicts the hazards experienced by the migrant caravans and provides a surprisingly accurate perspective on the impact of the competing drug cartels and on the corruptive effect those cartels have on the societies within the South American countries.

American Dirt is not only a good read, it is also a very worthwhile read! It leaves you with a better sense of the realities of immigration issues and with you continuing to reflect on the book, long after you have finished reading it! ;)
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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Lilies of the Field by William Edmun Barrett published in 1962

Always read the book first. Great advice, but sometimes not possible as, occasionally, you find your way to a book via the movie, as I did with Lilies of the Field.

The movie (see comments here: #373 ) is fantastic; it's a little gem of a film. The book, to, is a little gem, but surprisingly, the movie might be slightly better.

The story is the same: a young black Baptist man, Homer Smith, driving cross country and living out of his beat-up station wagon stops at a poor Midwest, desert outpost of five nuns, escapees from East Germany, trying to scrape out an existence and build a chapel for the surrounding and poor community of, mainly, Mexican Catholics.

The nuns, led by the indomitable Mother Maria Marthe, the "Mother," engage Homer to do some work for them for a day in exchange for food and some not-discussed wage. Immediately, Homer and the Mother lock horns as she, in her broken English, decides his name is "Schmidtt" and refuses all entreaties by him to correct her mistake. She also decides that God has answered her prayers by sending him to her to build the chapel; a thought he laughs at as he plans to leave at the end of the day.

But intrigued by the imperious Mother and her quirky and pleasant band of nuns - trying to learn English from lessons on a record, the nuns incorporate the record's scratches and skips into their English - Homer stays on "for one more day" to do "a little more work."

Despite continually butting heads with the Mother - you don't reason with her as her English seems only to work when she's telling "Schmidtt" what to do - he stays on a bit longer and, then, longer still, but, finally leaves in frustration (there's little food and no pay), only to come back as he can't get the nuns, the Mother or their chapel out of his head.

Once back, it's full steam ahead on the chapel-building effort with Homer working for a construction crew twice a week to help pay for building supplies and food for the nuns and himself (he's all in even if he doesn't admit it to himself). But even with his wages, there's still not enough money to buy all the supplies, which worries Homer, but not the obdurately faithful Mother who believes her prayers will produce the necessary materials. Homer and she do not see eye to eye on this point.

(Spoiler alerts, next two paragraphs) Just in time, the poor Mexicans begin randomly bringing supplies to Homer as the story of the chapel building by a black man working without pay for the East German nuns inspires the town to rally around the effort. From here, it's non-stop work for Homer, now aided by the Mexicans (who know much better than he how to work with adobe bricks), evenings teaching English to or singing with the nuns and more butting of heads with the Mother.

As the chapel is being completed and the first service is planned for the following Sunday, the Mother tells, yes tells, "Schmidtt" that he'll be sitting in the front pew with her. He knows this is her way of thanking and honoring him, so despite being a Baptist with no desire to pray in a Catholic church, this man who went round after round with the Mother, can't say no.

It's a story of faith and good will bridging cultural, racial and ethnic gaps. It's presented as a fable or legend and, to be sure, it is fable-like as it is all too easy. But that's what good and hopeful stories do: they inspire us to be better people and to make a better world than we have today.

While, as noted, the movie might nudge out the book, I'd start with the book because, one, it is an excellent, short and inspiring read and, two, you want to form your own images of the people and places in your head before seeing the movie.
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys originally published in 1934

New York has always been a tough city as it was when I first came to it in the 1980s. Many hopeful young men and women try to make a go of it, but sadly, many don't.

I knew several young women (the book is about a young woman) back then who got to the first wrung of a career - a small part in a play, a junior trading seat on Wall Street, an assistant-buyer position at Macy's - only to stall there, or worse, be let go.

The competition for every job, every position, every opportunity is intense as people from all over the country and the world come to New York City to make a start. Just holding a job is a challenge; getting ahead; an epic struggle. New York companies fire average-good workers all the time simply because they believe they can "upgrade" from New York's massive talent pool (this human-resource strategy is built into the business plans of many New York companies).

And when you stumble, without parents with funds behind you, there is no net - the rent, the food, the utilities, the medical bills are all meaningfully higher here and there are ten people who want your apartment if you can't pay your rent. Landlords (also facing insanely high expenses) don't carry too many, too far. The downward spiral is awful; the exit, oftentimes, swift.

Voyage in the Dark avers that 1930s London was no nicer than 1980s New York, specifically, to one young English woman just arrived in London from a colonial outpost in the West Indies where she was born. Anna Morgan starts out okay; she gets to that first wrung as a chorus girl in a traveling production that winds up its season in London.

Living in various cheap London boarding houses or in small flats with girlfriends, she gets by with, initially, a little help from an indifferent stepmother. Pretty in a wan, fragile way, she has an affair with a married man - at nineteen, she's naive enough to believe it's true love and he'll leave his wife for her. When he ends the affair, but surprisingly continues to provide her with some funds, she goes into a downward emotional spiral resulting in, what today we'd probably call, clinical depression.

She's always tired, always cold, sleeps most of the day and makes little effort to find another show in which to act. Her friends try to help, but struggling themselves, and with Anna making no effort and, frequently, sad to be around, she slowly pushes many of them away. A few other men show interest, but her heart's not in it and they too get pushed away by her ennui.

Written from Anna's perspective, we don't initially see how depressed she is or how she's wrecking her friendships and opportunities as she - as most people will do - make her actions seem justified and reasonable to herself and, initially, the reader. And that's part of the beauty of the writing here as it only slowly dawns on you that Anna, and not everyone else, is the reason why Anna is failing. Even knowing that, you still fall into the trap of seeing things from Anna's perspective and having to remind yourself that her view is not reliable.

As money and opportunity become scarcer, Anna slides into, not hard-core prostitution, but a pattern of passively finding wealthy men to have affairs with for support. And while this succeeds for a bit, her depression pushes even these men away. Now the spiral down is almost complete, hastened by a crisis that leaves Anna even more damaged.

The details are different, but Anna is several young women I knew when I first came to New York. It's awful to see the slide; you and other friends try to help - and can bridge a short set back - but in an expensive, heavily taxed and merciless city, you either right yourself and earn your way, or the city will shove you aside.

The blurb on the cover of my edition says "A dateless classic." Yes it is as Anna's 1930s experience aligns to the experiences of young women in New York in the 1980s and, I'd bet, pretty much, at any time in any expensive and hard-driving city.
 

eagle2250

Connoisseur/Curmudgeon Emeritus - Moderator
A week or so back I finished reading another Clive Cussler novel, titled Nighthawk and co written with Graham Brown. The X-37 Nighthawk is a reduced size progeny of Space Shuttle technology and designs, the most shphisticated air frame design the USA ever produced that has been on a 10 year Top Secret Secret Compartmented Information space mission. On it's scheduled return to Earth high tech interference on the part of those eternal bad guys, the Russians and the Red Chinese, with the encouragement of a nutcase Central/South American interloper calling himself the Falconer causes the Nighthawk to go off course and become lost. What follows is a frantic game of "Marco Polo," played by the big three, the USA, Russia and Red China as they attempt to find and recover the Nighthawk and claim it as their very own , before the others can manage to do so.

Unknown to two of the participants in the frantic search, the cargo collected from the dark side of our polar earth caps, is such that if it is mishandled or not kept within strict storage criteria for even but a moment the explosion that follows would literally destroy our planet and bring an earth wide end to life as we know it! But have no fear, youse proverbial good guys...Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala and the NUMA Crew are on our side and rumor has it that they always manage to win.

This Cussler yarn is an absorbing, fast and delightful read. You will literally cheer over the ending! Well, maybe not? LOL. ;)
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
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KItty Foyle by Christopher Morley originally published in 1939

You can ignore most modern historical fiction and most movies made after 1934 (under the code) if you want a clear window into the 1930s; instead, read the novels from the era. While not as sexually explicit and graphic as modern novels, they don't hold back about sex, or, pretty much, anything else.

Kitty Foyle, the character, is a woman in her late twenties in 1939 looking back on her life that, like most lives, had a heck of a lot of unpredictable twists. Born into working-class Philadelphia in 1911, Kitty quickly learned her place in a very class-conscious city. But after her mother dies and her father gets sick, she's shipped off to comfortably middle-class relatives in the Midwest for high school. This less-hidebound, less-hardscrabble culture opens her eyes up to life's opportunities, in general, while shrinking the importance, in her mind, of "Main Line" Philly.

Back in Philly after high school, she begins work as a secretary and, more life-altering, starts dating a Main-Line banker scion. He's nice, but his family doesn't embrace Kitty. To be fair - and against simple stereotypes - they do not snobbishly reject her as some of the family welcome her as a potential fresh addition, while others, not mean-spiritedly, just prefer someone from "their" class. Kitty, smarter than her boyfriend, realizes that he can't live without his family's support and that she doesn't want to be smothered by it.

From there, it's a breakup, Kitty moves to New York, she and Philly boy kinda date again, she gets pregnant (yup), doesn't tell him, has an abortion (yup, again), he gets engaged to a Main-Line girl and Kitty moves on as much as she can. After that, she builds a career in the cosmetics industry, meets a Jewish doctor and debates an inter-faith marriage versus staying single while still carrying a lightly glowing torch for her Main-Line Ex.

Kitty also drinks regularly, gets seriously drunk now and then, smokes up a storm, is indifferent to religion - basically, she is a "modern" girl in the 1930s with, for the time, progressive views on society and life. And that's why, if you care about what people in the '30s really thought, you want to read these novels as Kitty's liberal views are aligned to their times and not, as modern historical fiction writers portray, aligned to today's liberal views.

Hence, Kitty has an abortion, but sees its downsides and suffers some reoccurring guilt afterward. Today, liberal orthodoxy requires even period characters to only have positive, nearly one-hundred-percent guilt-free views about abortions (that's fine if that's your view, but it isn't period accurate). The same goes for Kitty's views on equality of the sexes - she's a strong advocate for it, but as is not allowed today, she still sees inherent differences in the sexes and fully respects those women who choose to be housewives.

These period differences also apply to her views on race. Kitty sees positive traits in blacks that puts her in the vanguard of 1930s progressive thought, but her approach sounds like a needle scratching a record to our 2020 ears. From a modern lens, she'd be denounced as a racist by today's implacable liberal views. To wit, modern authors would never deign to write a character that has KItty's views on race; instead, they'd write characters that could be best described as time travelers in a science fiction novel sent back from 2020 with fully modern race views.

And even as Kitty considers marrying a Jewish man, she notes several of his characteristics, some positive and some negative, as being representative of Jewish people in general - an unacceptable framing to us today. Kitty, like most of us, can only see so far past the biases and boundaries of her day. Sadly, as we see antisemitism on the rise again in 2020, this is one where Kitty might be ahead of our "modern" times.

Again, this is not debating the merits of these views, just their period accuracy and the condescending passion of modern writers to put virtue signalling ahead of period verisimilitude.

Away from all the above, the beauty in Kitty Foyle - the book and the character - is Kitty's stream of conscious thoughts on so many things that ring true, at least to the period.

On work, Kitty is a self-described "white-collar girl," who notes that it will be hard for women like her to give up earning an income in exchange for taking care of a husband and home. But as she approaches her late twenties, she also sees that just being a business woman is not completely fulfilling for her and many of her friends.

On sex, while it's the 1930s, Kitty neither denounces pre-marital sex nor fist-pumps her advocacy for it. To her, it's just something a single woman in her twenties is going to do from time to time.

By the end of Kitty Foyle, you feel as if you've just sat down and had a long conversation with a young woman in 1939. And judging from its contemporaneous reviews, Kitty Foyle was viewed just that way in her time: she represented a young modern woman to 1939 America. Oh, and how 'bout this, Kitty Foyle was written by a man.
 

eagle2250

Connoisseur/Curmudgeon Emeritus - Moderator
Last months Book Club selection was The Little Old Lady Who Broke All The Rules, by Catharina Ingelman Sundberg. The story is about a group of 80+ year olds who are disgruntled by the deteriorating standards of their senior living community and whose reaction is turning to a life of crime (A la Robin Hood!), argumentatively to overcome the boredom and to raise the standard of living for pensioners in Norway. They proceed to defraud the Grand Hotel, steal paintings from the National Museum of art, valued at 20 to 30 million Kroner and ransomed back for 2 million Kroner, and rob a bank security van servicing ATM's of 10 to 20 million Kroner, after which they fly off to a life in Barbados. Societal perceptions of the pensioners as frail, disabled old people allowed them to succeed in and or not be held reasonably accountable for their lives of crime. I'm not sure whether the thrust of this story is an indictment on the treatment of pensioners in Norway or an explanation of the mindsets of those seemingly being left in societies dust. In either event, I do hope it is not predictive of the future(s) we have to look forward to....or do I? ;)
 

Fading Fast

Connoisseur
Last months Book Club selection was The Little Old Lady Who Broke All The Rules, by Catharina Ingelman Sundberg. The story is about a group of 80+ year olds who are disgruntled by the deteriorating standards of their senior living community and whose reaction is turning to a life of crime (A la Robin Hood!), argumentatively to overcome the boredom and to raise the standard of living for pensioners in Norway. They proceed to defraud the Grand Hotel, steal paintings from the National Museum of art, valued at 20 to 30 million Kroner and ransomed back for 2 million Kroner, and rob a bank security van servicing ATM's of 10 to 20 million Kroner, after which they fly off to a life in Barbados. Societal perceptions of the pensioners as frail, disabled old people allowed them to succeed in and or not be held reasonably accountable for their lives of crime. I'm not sure whether the thrust of this story is an indictment on the treatment of pensioners in Norway or an explanation of the mindsets of those seemingly being left in societies dust. In either event, I do hope it is not predictive of the future(s) we have to look forward to....or do I? ;)
Sounds like a neat premise. Over the years, there have been a few movies that riff on it.

My girlfriend and I spend hours - literally - hours every week (and, sometimes whole days) as advocates for our three elderly parents. While there are some incredibly kind and decent people within the system, the system itself (private and gov't healthcare - it makes no difference) is designed to defeat you.

It is designed to wear you down, beat you on technicalities, beat you with process and, even, beat you by ignoring you (promised return calls don't happen, emails don't get sent, docs don't get reviewed and on and on). A sick older person either needs to be incredibly capable of dealing with a brutal bureaucracy or they need a passionate advocate who can devote endless hours, all the time, fighting on their behalf.

The system has been reversed engineered by the gov't, the insurance cos and the hospitals to provide as few benefits as they can for as much money as they can get. But it's even worse as it is also pro-actively designed to deny you things you are entitled to by law (patients rights) or contract (insurance policies). The level of intentional design to deny you things you have paid for or are entitled to by law is breathlessly stunning and absolutely corrupt.
 
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