Monday, August 31, 2015

Daily Dose

From Collected Poems, by Thom Gunn


Two dumpy women with buns were drinking coffee
In a narrow kitchen—at least I think a kitchen
And I think it was whitewashed, in spite of all the shade.
They were flat brown, they were as brown as coffee.
Wearing brown muslin? I really could not tell.
How I loved this painting, they had grown so old
That everything had got less complicated,
Brown clothes and shade in a sunken whitewashed kitchen.

But it’s not like that for me: age is not simpler
Or less enjoyable, not dark, not whitewashed.
The people sitting on the marble steps
Of the national gallery, people in the sunlight,
A party of handsome children eating lunch
And drinking chocolate milk, and a young woman
Whose t-shirt bears the defiant word WHATEVER,
And wrinkled folk with visored hats and cameras
Are vivid, they are not browned, not in the least,
But if they do not look like coffee they look
As pungent and startling as good strong coffee tastes,
Possibly mixed with chicory. And no cream

Sunday, August 30, 2015

What I Dread on My Summer Vacation

Packing for a visit "back to home" in Pennsylvania is always an exercise in both optimism and prudence.  The obvious questions; will I need socks in July? long pants? present no special difficulties.  By most standards, I travel light.  Less obvious to anyone who might not know me or the place I come from is the more important question of how many books should I take?  There are no bookstores back there.  None.  What I'll read while I'm there has to come with me.  It's a scary thought for someone who reads as I do, someone used to seeing new books every day and with old books on nearly every flat surface in my house.

I grew up without bookstores.  My earliest reading came from school libraries, drugstores and yard-sales.  I can still remember the authentic wonder when I was a boy of walking into the then quite new Walden Books at the Shenango Valley Mall, I think it was, in Hermitage, PA.  Books!  Books everywhere and of nearly every description (or so I thought at the time.)  Even that little chain-store has gone the way of things, as did the remainder-shop at the outlet mall, as have all the little used shops that came and went down the years.  Not the most bookish place, "back to home."

When I go back, my elderly parents, bless them, will always try to scout out a flea market or thrift shop that might meet my peculiar need for printed paper, but that's proven to be a rather hit and miss effort.  The days when anything much worth reading was to be had at a Goodwill are gone, and few sights are more depressing to the bibliophile than two tin shelves of Readers' Digest compendiums, Time/Life history and dusty Romance, punctuated here and there by a warped biography of Mamie Eisenhower or Ruth "Mrs. Billy" Graham.  (Such sad corners always conjure for me the shade of Barbara Cartland, floating over the bin of cover-less mass market paperbacks and murmuring, "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!")

And so, my suitcase and the contents thereof.  Airports are nowadays but modern Hells of stifling crowds, intentionally uncomfortable furniture, time, short and long, and unrelenting noise.  I will say nothing of "economy class" and the airplanes themselves.  My strategy for surviving the day-long ordeal of a trip across the continental United States involves bottled water, energy-bars, earplugs, a pillow, and the New York Review of Books.  Add to this, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, and an Agatha Christie.

The magazines and the mystery seldom last longer than the first connection.  This trip, the Christie was Towards Zero (1944), sans Poirot, but no worse for that, and no better.  The puzzle ticked along with Dame Agatha's usual professionalism and resolved itself with the not unusual unreality, alas, of a mad confession.  This was followed on the last page by a happy ending of such unforeseen silliness as to elicit from the constant reader an actual "tut."

In recent years I've discovered the rather mixed pleasure of Christie when she was free of Poirot and Marple and might do just as she liked.  I'm very fond of both of the Dame's great detectives, and even have a small, warm place in my heart for Tommy and Tuppence.  Reading my way through Christie's other efforts however feels fresher now for not being so familiar as The Murder of Peter Ackroyd or Murder at the Vicarage.  (That said, I've never remembered a resolution or even a plot except for Murder on the Orient Express and Ten Little Indians, so every Christie, in a way is new to me at least with each reading.)  The problem, if it can be called so much as that, with reading her other efforts is that there may not be much to the business in the absence of the only characters she ever much bothered describing.

The Adventures of Father Brown proved much the more reliable pleasure.  Chesterton's stories are reputed to have declined in quality after the first batch, The Innocence of Father Brown, but in my reading I would only say the author used his detective in increasingly traditional mysteries; Father Brown does not much change so much as find himself in less theologically interesting problems. 

(And just an aside here to say how much I loath the current television incarnation of Father Brown.  The lead, Mark Williams, is a very good comic actor, if not a patch on Kenneth Moore, but that's the problem, or one of them anyway with the new series.  Not only have the writers hopelessly rewritten Chesteron's classic stories much to their detriment, the producers have also decided to remake the whole enterprise into low comedy; tart-tongued housekeeper, village types, and much too much comedy "business."  Awful, unfunny and dumb.)

Dorothy Gilman's Mrs. Polifax is an absurdity; an elderly New Jersey widow as masterful CIA operative.  That's both the pleasure and the problem with Gilman's books, and light, comic thrillers in general.  (A sub-genre that may or may not be still much in production?  Spy novels in general would seem to have largely gone the way of the Berlin Wall. As for that matter has much of the audience for light-hearted fiction not immediately to do with Romance.) Even when airport or travel reading, I admit to getting a bit peevish when expected to accept that our elderly heroine should organize a prison-break behind the Iron Curtain, even when said operation involves a flock of rather unfunny geese.  Let's just say the tone goes a bit flat when torture and tightrope-walking are both called into play.  Still, the lady's December romance with an old hero of the underground was deftly handled and the Mrs. Polifax herself yet again proved a noble sort.

Some sharp-eyes reader will have noticed by now that I have yet to mention the Balzac so hopefully displayed in the first photo.  It's true, I took it with me and made a braze start, but the type and the text proved a bit dense for travelling, so back it came with me.  Another day.  

Meanwhile, I read a Francis King.  Act of Darkness (1983) was far from my first such.  I've been reading the late Francis Henry King CBE (4 March 1923 – 3 July 2011) since some of his earlier, more overtly gay novels were reprinted in the mid to late eighties, I'm thinking.  Then, with all the energy of youth, I read any and everything I could find.  Now and again, I find one I'd missed.  This one was a story of the Raj, and a murder mystery, both perfect catnip to me.

Though King often incorporated popular elements of genre and plot in his serious fiction, his style is closer to Forster than to Christie.  Of his contemporaries, I am most reminded of Angus Wilson; there is something of the same waspishness about and genuine sympathy with the victims of the Empire and of class, though King is never so outrageous as Wilson.  Act of Darkness could, I suppose, be read with pleasure as a straight thriller, though it might be a bit long and a bit slow for that.  For me, what made the book a respite from my "summer reading" were all the telling -- read as damning -- details of British India.  For example, the English family joking amongst themselves about, and within earshot of, a servant with a bad cough that sounds tubercular.  King writes the brief scene in such a way that he need hardly add that it occurs to no one to send the sick, Indian child to a doctor.

The last book to mention, though not the last I read this trip, was a contemporary thriller given to me as a gift.  Knowing of my interest in William Cowper and my habit of collecting mysteries to read when I fly, my friend gave me a copy of A Fountain Filled with Blood, by Julia Spencer Fleming.  The titles in the series seem all to have been taken from Cowper's hymns, and the central character proved to be a female Episcopalian priest and former military helicopter pilot. (!) That last, unsurprisingly proved to figure in the third act, rather like a pistol left conspicuously on the end-table in every mid-century murder mystery on television.

Of the plot proper, I will say no more.

I will say that at least the cliches of genre in the earlier generation of Chesterton, Christie and Gilman, etc. had all to do with a kind of ruthlessness of purpose, a mechanical precision of detail and timing.  If character and psychology often got short-shrift in the Golden Age, and plots proved as improbable as they were ingenious, at least the trains, as it were, always ran on time.  The contemporary thriller, while every bit as packed with the implausible, is by comparison a lazy thing with romance and scenery and, yes, happy dog stories.  I've heard the claim before that the primary audience for mysteries and thrillers is female.  As a bookseller, I have no sense of the reality of this.  Men and women seem to shop the section in nearly equal numbers.  Nonetheless, I can see where in something like Spencer Fleming's book, concessions are clearly being made to a warmer, more emotional involvement in her detective's personal life than was likely in most Agatha Christie.  Ngaio Marsh and Dorthy L. Sayers both gave their detectives fairly convincing romantic partners, but there was never much in the way of gush about any of it then.

My annual submersion in genre has reminded me yet again that even at something near to being its best, what defines the mystery/thriller, then and now, is really the conventionality of the moral point of view -- which needn't be a bad thing, you understand -- and the less appealing conventions of character, setting and plot.  A week of the stuff's about right.  Any more and I begin to long for an entirely different order of moral complexity, not to say ambiguity, and beauty beyond the craftsman's art.

I should remember to pack some poetry next time.  Can't think why I didn't.  Lord knows, the only poetry I'm likely to find when I get there will be outside in the open air, and that's never enough for me, not for a full week.  Pack more books.

Daily Dose

From Collected Poems, by Thom Gunn


Though night is always close, complete negation
Ready to drop on wisdom and emotion,
Night from the air or the carnivorous breath,
Still it is right to know the force of death,
And, as you do, persistent, tough in will,
Raise from the excellent the better still.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Deceiving No Eye But His Own

Daily Dose

From Collected Poems, by Thom Gunn


It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who'd showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.

Friday, August 28, 2015

A Caricature of a Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Spectator, Volume One, by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele


"It would methinks be no ill maxim of life, if, according to that ancestor of SIR ROGER home I lately mentioned, every man would point to himself what sum he would resolve not to exceed.  He might by this means cheat himself into tranquility on this side of that expectation, or convert what he should get above it to nobler uses than his own pleasures or necessities. This temper of mind would exempt a man from an ignorant envy of restless men above him, and a more inexcusable contempt of happy men below him."

From No. 114, Wednesday, July 11, 1711 (Steele)