Monday, June 15, 2020

More book reveiws

More light reads.

I found an Australian crime writer that has a series of books - 11 books - written about the character of Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy Sydney artist. Sulari Gentill is the writer. Each book is centred in a different background. The one I read: ALL THE TEARS IN CHINA, is set in Shanghai in 1935.

Sinclair's brother, Wilfred, runs the family business - a wool business and is unable to attend an important international negotiation meeting in Shanghai and seconds his younger brother, Rowland, to stand in for him despite his relative ignorance of how the machinations of business in the period context all works.Quickly instructed in the facts of the business and ordered not to agree to any offer from any of the participants - to stall every offer of negotiation - he travels to Shanghai with his three Sydney companions: Clyde, an artist; Middleton, a poet; Edna, a sculptress - it seems they are inseparable, a bit like the Secret Seven or the Famous Five or the Talley Ho gang, quaint, but nostalgic, inventions of dear Enid Blyton.

In the exotic realm of China's international port filled with refugees from the revolution in Russia, the shady movers and shakers in the underground gangster 'industries' of this glamorous city with its taipans and tycoons and suspect police force, with the subtle but lethal pressure of the presence of Japanese invaders and their pursuit of economic and political power in China, in an unstable world of German, Italian and Spanish agitation for war, our Australian companions indulge in the sexual and drug hedonism of this exciting Eastern environment. On their first night Rowland and his friends brush up against the taxi girls in their luxurious hotel's ballroom only to be plunged into a murder investigation which Rowland Sinclair becomes the principal suspect. 

To unravel the crime to find the actual culprit, Gentill takes us through many landscapes of the city - rich, poor, desperate, celebratory - meeting a complex set of international characters that enliven the storytelling with well researched detail. Some 374 pages, it is a lively read although I found the principal characters superficial and cumulatively rather boring, maybe even objectionable asses of entitled wealth and preposterous derring-do. The catalyst character  provoking the big 'turning point' moment - a love besotted newspaper 'madman' - was for my taste too obvious a novelistic ploy - and was a very shallow psychological projection - to shift the storytelling into its final action. Hugely disappointing, and fairly banal.

But, then, there are 11 books and so the characters are a source of pleasure for many other readers. The Age is quoted as saying: "A sparkling crime series ...Evelyn Waugh meets Agatha Christie ..." . This is what, ultimately, persuaded me to pick it up, buy it. 

Waugh and Christie - if only!!!!!

A TESTAMENT OF CHARACTER is the latest in the series. Perhaps I need to read another to confirm or reverse my reaction.

At the same time I picked up a new novel from the creator of DOWNTON ABBEY. I thought it would be an untaxing diversion to fill the Coronavirus vacuum of time. The book is BELGRAVIA, published in 2016. It is fruity in its world which is early Victorian - 1830's - and is stuffed with the clambering rivalry between the dwindling power of the gentry and the new upwardly mobile trade successes of the period, with all of their different prejudices and well worn strivings. 

Class, as usual, is under the scrutiny of this writer. But it is not the Upstairs Downstairs politics in a family house this time but a rubbing of the Ancestral shoulders of the old collapsing money peoples with the rising of the new money of the industrial tradies. If you want standing: marry into the gentry, if you want money to survive, accept and marry the rising status of the power of well earned money, even if it is blatantly of dirty 'trade' origin.

For me, there are too many caricatures written to spin the wheels of the plot into 'violent' activity. Too many of them are, in the writing, just thumb nail sketches of recognisable melodramatic types. 

It begins in  Brussels on the evening of Duchess of Richmond's ball - which 25 years later has become a legendary occasion - is interrupted by the news that Napoleon was gathering his forces on the fields of Waterloo. The young soldiers leave their dancing to prepare for battle. Some of them will never return. One of them, the young son of the Duchess, is one of those who never returns. But he has left behind a young woman who was fooled to give her virginity without marriage to him. The resultant child of this 'fallen' woman becomes the centre of the story. He is a secret that draws the Duchess and the Trade family, the Trenchards, into necessary interaction.

In the writing the characterisations are rather cloak and dagger caricatures serving the turn of the wheel of an obvious plot that sits in the shadow of say, Thackery's VANITY FAIR, without any of its wit, sophisticated machinations, or relish of satire or irony. 

At page 271 of the 411 pages of this book I discovered that a new television series of 6 episodes had been made to bring this book to a wider audience - I think it is now available on one of the many streaming platforms. Checking through the casting and watching a Trailer or two on Google, I deducted that the acting by a very competent cast of actors would more than likely provide ALL the characters with a complex internal life as well as the external actions of the storytelling of these intrigues. That the embodying of these characters by very good actors would do the work that Mr Fellowes does not do in this book, which may have been, now I think of it, been written as a very long winded 'pitch' for the filmmakers of our era. (Certainly, that is what I observed while watching the previews.) So, I gave up reading any further and decided to wait for the series to be screened.

I cannot imagine it necessary to read the book. And the script and acting of the series may be a more satisfactory experience of BELGRAVIA. 

(I should report that I was right. The Series is much more palatable than the book.)

Crime novels, Katherine V. Forest's 'Kate Delafield Mystery' series

One of my favourite series of Crime novels are those by Canadian/American Katherine V. Forest, with her Kate Delafield Mystery series.

Kate Delafield is an ex-marine employed as a Detective in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

I came across this series of books last year and was fortunate to read them in chronological order, or at least six of them: AMBER CITY (1984), MURDER AT THE NIGHTWOOD BAR (1987), THE BEVERLY MALIBU (1989), MURDER BY TRADITION (1991), LIBERTY SQUARE (1996) and APPARTITION ALLEY (1997).

What is fascinating is that not only is each book deeply involved in the solving of a particular crime investigation written with a great sense of detail and intense research of period and geography (we get to know the LA roads and the 'personalities' of each suburb) incorporating a canny conviction of deep knowledge of police procedural practice, so gives the reader a comfort of truth. It is cool, particular and non-emotional. We get to know her superior officers and her partners. We watch Kate become one of the highly respected detectives in her division over the passing years, driven by a great sense of mission and honour, loyalty to her hard learnt values originating from her torrid experiences as a marine in the Vietnam War.

The books are involving because we become engaged with the personal life of this woman and we follow her emotional journey over the years and are privy to her relationships and her struggles with her homosexuality. Katherine Forrest writes with restrained but non-inhibited ease in the sexual interludes with Kate's casual sex partners and finally in her significant relationship with Annie. We develop a caring relationship with Kate Delafield. 

As a lesbian police officer in the LAPD we are brought to the dilemma and politics and the changing attitudes to the LGBT community in this notorious LA department, for this is the misogynistic department that was a part of the O.J. Simpson saga, the Rodney King riots - remember the police officers that were exposed during those very public trials. Being gay is a quality of life that needs to be 'buried' if one wishes to have a career. At least that is how the books begin. But as we follow the developing personal life of Kate Delafield we also become witness to her growing political conscience over the passing of the years and the slow changes occurring in the LA Police Department.

There is not only the Kate Delafield character that is in every book but also a rolling collection of men and women who appear in changed and growing circumstances from book to book. We can identify particular individuals and the burgeoning community, it is not not fiercely realistic - it has a ring of truth rather than a fanciful fictionalisation. Over the chronological reading of the novels we not only have a brilliantly researched set of crimes being centred in each novel but also a sense of the passing of historical events that are shaping the growth of the American attitude to the LGBT community through the tough prism of LAPD.

I recommend these novels without hesitation and believe them to be setting a contemporary standard in Crime Fiction. Search them out. You will not be disappointed whatever your sexuality. Raymond Chandler and his Philip Marlow detective, Dashiell Hamnett and Sam Spade, and James M. Cain with his crime figures are matched indeed by Katherine V. Forrest.

P.S. The next three books that await my appetite are SLEEPING BONES (1999), HANCOCK PARK (2004) and HIGH DESERT (2013).

Friday, June 12, 2020

Some Book Reviews

Hello. Besides the literary books of 'weight' - fiction and non-fiction - I have distracted myself with some relatively lightweight reads.

Recommended by a bookshop owner friend I embarked into the detective genre. Abir Mukherjee is the son of immigrants from India and grew up in West Scotland and now lives in London. His debut novel A RISING MAN appeared in 2016. We meet Sam Wyndham, a World War I veteran and Scotland Yard refugee, who takes on a job offer in Calcutta in 1919. A rising man belonging to the British Raj ruled by Viceroy Lord Chelmsford is found murdered in a disreputable part of Black Town with a message stuffed in his mouth warning of the coming independence movement that is taking a path to revolution.

Sam Wyndham is placed in charge of the investigation by his superior, Lord Taggart, and is partnered by an arrogant British officer Inspector Digby and a British educated but Indian born Sargent Banerjee. He reveals himself as an invaluable local for interpreting and understanding the 'methods' and values of this great city, to lucidly assist his officer superior in the solving of the crime. In the novel he is called 'Surrender-not' as his British superiors can not - will not - pronounce his name Surendranath. This is the first of the racist tensions, unconscious and systemic, that colour the world of this book where the British population of all classes regard that they belong to a superior civilisation and despise the local peoples.

No-one in this novel, except, perhaps, Banerjee are without flaws. Our leading man Sam Wyndham is 'lost' in a PTSD depression, having survived the trenches of World War I and the loss of his young wife and has a naked cynicism to the values of the world. He balances his sanity with an addiction to opium (as does Sherlock Holmes) and has little trust for his British commanders and is dogged in the pursuit of unravelling the murder. We meet a very interesting range of characters, especially, an attractive anglo-indian secretary, Annie Grant, that provides a tantalizing possibility of a romantic interlude. The climax of the investigation comes with the background issue of the troubles/massacre of Amritsar. stirring with menace of things to come in the country's political future 

We find out truths but you must not expect justice. The novel is permeated with a cynicism that is very 'modern' and gives the work a contemporary resonance although it is set in a period of history a century ago. The writing rattles along at a galloping speed and leaves one breathless and keen to turn the page - it was an absorbing day long read. It was mostly fascinating, although, there are some too obvious clues to the suspicions of whodunnit that undercuts a fully committed surrender to the chase. However, A RISING MAN won the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition, and a CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger and the Eastern Eye ACTA Award for literature, and was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger.

I followed up a few weeks later with his second book in the Sam Wyndham/'Surrender-not' Banerjee series, A NECESSARY EVIL, published in 2017, and is set in 1920. The book is a continuation of Wyndham's career set in Calcutta as part of the Bengal Imperial Police and we meet characters we already know from the first book and observe the deepening relationships as well as a whole intriguing set of new principals in the solving of the assassination of the Maharaja of Sambalpore's eldest son - the heir apparent, Adir.

In the royal family, there are three wives and forty odd concubines with hundreds of children, living in the zenana. The Maharaja, Rajan Kumar Sai, the wives: the first elderly Maharani Shubhadrra, the third Maharini Devita,(the second Maharini has died); the heir apparent Adir, his younger brother Punit, and the very young Prince Alok, the third in-line for the kingdom. The novel of 370 pages begins on Friday 18 June and is over by Thursday 24 June - a mere six days. The story rockets along and is full of political twists and turns intriguingly bound in religious entanglements and beliefs. The suspects are numerous.

The guiding deity is Lord Jagganath (the origin of the English word juggernaut) and is the centre of the Maharini Subhadra's worship, supported by the mystic priest Dewan. The English representatives are Mr and Mrs Carmichael - professional diplomats bored to mundanity soaking in alcohol; Golding the practical, realist, efficient bookkeeper/accountant of the affairs of the Kingdom; Fitzmaurice, the corporate leader of the Anglo-Indian Diamond Company attempting to claim the kingdom's new money resources: coal, as the diamond mines dwindle as the money maker; Colonel Aroa, in charge of the Maharaja's police, he seems to have a foot in the present and the future - which side is he on?; a powerful eunuch of the harem, Sayed Ali; Miss Pemberley, a white British woman sought by the playboy Prince Punit; and the outspoken radical critic of the political structures, schoolteacher Shreya Bidika. All have motive. Even the British Government who wish to enforce the Kingdom of Sambalpore to become a member of the Chamber of Princes - an instrument that will maintain - ensure - British control: Viceroy Lord Chelmsford and police controller, Lord Taggart have much at stake with their career on government view, for whom Wyndham/Banerjee are the accidental tools of enforcement.

The corruption of the Kingdom is surrounded by the corruption of The British Raj and Mukherjee in his handling of the description of the places of the book, signalling the degradation of the British Empire, saturated in centuries of ambitious deceits. The genre is crime fiction but it is also a political critic of the affairs of history. Fortunately it is delivered without overbearing didacticism and seeps insidiously into the spine of the tale. for those of us who are 'awake'. 

There are now two new books in the series: SMOKE AND ASHES and DEATH IN THE EAST, and I am curious to see the developments of character. Of Wyndham's addiction - the dangers that its revelation will put his career in peril; of the growing relationship with his Indian partner, "Surrender-not' Banerjee, who one hopes becomes even more central to the unravelling history of Bengal, Pakistan and India.

A NECESSARY EVIL was a one day read. It was a page turner much like its predecessor. Recommended

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Actress, by Anne Enright (book review)

Theatre and Cinema closed. reading is able to be done. So here is a response to one of the recent reads.

Norah is an Irish writer of 5 novels and is 58 – the same age that her mother, Katherine O'Dell, an actress of international fame - both of the theatre and cinema, particularly Theatre - died. Died after a long depression, an accident with a gun and a descent into 'madness'. An academic is writing her Phd on the life of Katherine and is interviewing Norah to get some insight into her subject. Norah becomes disturbed as she observes the young academic has some pre-conceived projection of her mother that she will 'jemmy' onto her subject, and feels she has a duty to recollect her mother to set the facts straight.

She is encouraged by her devoted husband to attempt to remember her mother. She does so, writing a novel, using her personal quest that becomes the substance of the context of the book. It is a success. It is definitely a fiction, that uses her personal life to create art. It is a painful and difficult chore, although there are some tantalising references to real events, plays and people woven into the story density - it is the sixth novel that Norah has written.

ACTRESS, is by the way, the sixth novel written by Anne Enright (Published by Penguin Books, Australia). This detail, is indicative of the sly and deliberate humour of Ms Enright. Although this book, which is typically, for me, an uniquely Irish concoction: dripping, and permeated with melancholy and sadness. It is set mostly in Dublin during the 60's and 70's during the time of the 'Troubles' - though there is no overt referencing of that setting. It is riddled as well with comedy and much laughter, too. Norah, for instance, says that she feels she has a mother that had overnight turned like a milk bottle left out of the fridge: Drinkable to soured, from sanity to madness.

The Writer/artist investigates the Actress/artist.

The book subtly underlines the selfish demands that any art form, if you are to be great, insists upon. The sheer difficulty of creating, the amount of focused energy that is expended to produce 'performance', either as an actor or a writer (a participator in the plastic arts; a musician) is a tyrannical master and exhausts the striver so that they really have no time or any spared energy for the real world. It demands all your powers.

Concurrent to this book, I have been struggling through a biography by Arthur and Barbara Gelb on the life of Eugene O'Neill: BY WOMEN POSSESSED (2016). This biography details the tragic demands that his "ART" required, to serve his literary genius - its ruthlessness, selfishness and cruel intensity that only truly thrived in the writing studio/room - real life responsibilities were necessarily kept at bay - O'Neill's Black Irish inheritance and imaginative instincts along with its lubricant, alcohol, dominated and terrorised all of those about him in his real life: Wives, women (except as servants), children, especially his own, and all but the drinking sponges and soaks of the prohibition underground bars. In ACTRESS, as with O'Neill, Katherine and Norah's personal life is the servant, the sacrifice, that feeds their 'greatness'. It is this slow reveal that is the substance of ACTRESS.

Recently, I re-read THEATRE, by Somerset Maugham - one of my favourite writers - a novel written in 1937, that has a successful actress, Julia Lambert, at its centre. It is a jolly good story beautifully written with all the human foibles cannily, and amusingly, observed but is in form basically a melodrama - an entertainment. The events, theatricals, of the book are heightened emotional 'traumas', as are the vivid characterisations - excesses. ACTRESS, on the other hand, is a contemporary work that is life-like in its exposition. All the events of the story are under dramatised and are casually given, so that it is only in hindsight that you gather the enormity of the events that has been the webbing of the narrative and characters - which includes vicious psychological as well as physical rape, that had no dramatic impact when told, but, definitely, as we read on, has a cumulative poisoning that perverts the characters' spirits to a withering self-persecution - as, when one is older (I am an elder), say 58 (I am more elderly - mmm!), one can calmly sit back and reflect upon the past with more dispassion- a kind of surrender to one's fate and not get too biased or upset. (Oops, Anne Enright is 58 this year! The year of this book's publication. What is fiction and what is fact in this novel? A Hitchcock MacGuffin, perhaps?)

Norah's foggy knowledge of her mother is the disturbing element of her quest/search. Katherine as a young woman at the age of 19 with no training at all is cast in a mediocre play that unexpectedly becomes a sensation in the West End Theatre of London, and subsequently, in New York. Katherine is instantly a STAR. Really not an actor but a STAR. Her Irish heritage is buried, her name changed and some minor cosmetic changes are predicated to facilitate her advancement in that superficial world. She becomes an invention. Her career, however, reflects that Katherine was special and not easily commodified, an extraordinary presence that with 'innocent' instincts was able to create a mystique of sexual power on stage that bedazzled her audiences into imagining that they were watching greatness. (I think of Marilyn Monroe. I remember Arthur Miller's tragic observation that Marilyn was a victim of the power of her presence, of which she had no real inkling, that was pinched and plucked at by any man (woman) that met her, to try to transubstantiate to empower their own flesh and psyche). Katherine creates a magic spell that tantalises everybody and of which she has no real knowledge or control - she has no technique, just that god-given curse: animal instinctual power. This first play, that she acts in, is the artistic highlight of her career - and although she works in the theatre regularly - even late in her career absolutely naked for the entire performance - avant garde experiment - never achieves the same kind of adulation. At the age 26 she is a has been. She becomes a curiosity, a Norma Desmond of the Irish theatre.

Ironically, her film work is limited and perhaps because of the ruthless lens of the camera she, in contrast to her theatre work, is only occasionally able to seduce her audience: the deep truths of the character are elusive in the large exaggeration of the cinema screen - the effort of the emotional recall required by the laborious demands of film making, she is unable to conjure, sustain. So what the editor has to use in the 'take' after 'take' to create Katherine's "art' is limited and flawed. For history's sake Katherine has one war film remnant, an ace melodrama, and, humorously, a TV commercial for Irish butter with a catch phrase that she pronounces: "Tis only Butter" as her most enduring film work. There is no close up, Mr de Mille, for Katherine O'Dell.

Katherine's only other creation is a daughter, who she neglects, in pursuit of her international career for the stage. Norah is brought up only partly with Katherine who is mostly absent because of her professional obligations. Her mother is possessed, completely absorbed in the world of make believe - hopelessly obsessed. Norah without bitterness remembers that her mother was probably always acting. The stage and the real world were not necessarily different. Norah felt that when she was with her mother "she was always sitting in character, you were just not sure which one". Norah has had no other mother and so what she has received from her Katherine is normal - she is comfortable and not judgemental of her mother's relationship with her.

The men in Katherine's life are predators that were (are) typical of the period that the #Metoo movement has now spotlighted, disturbed. Katherine was fairly diffident about the men and has never told Norah who her father was. One of the many threads of the novel is Norah's casual unravelling of that identity - perhaps it was Katherine's Catholic priest who was always attentive in his regular, private visits to the house - there were always furtive movements in the room on Norah's unprompted appearances. Maybe, dad was the egotistical Director, Boyd O'Neill, who is shot, in the foot, accidentally, by Katherine? (again, the Enright sense of humour).

ACTRESS is not a casual read. I had just read APEIROGON, by Colum McCann (which is highly recommended, by the way) and had to re-teach myself to read again. This novel is full of digressions and circumlocution circumstances, so that one not only must take care of the words and the order that they are placed in, but also a care, a strict attention to the syntax - to guide one through the mental drama and comedy of Ms Enright. This attention to this detail is required to gain the most out of the writing. Not since the last Patrick White novel that I had read have I needed to so discipline myself.

ACTRESS, is a demanding but rewarding novel. Anne Enright was mentored in her writing studies, particularly, by Angela Carter, a writer with a spectacularly unique approach to the childhood stories in her short story collections, for instance: THE BLOODY CHAMBER (1985) her last novel WISE CHILDREN - a story of two twin girls and their escapades in the theatre. Both, referenced books, wrestling with the relationship of daughters to mother and family in a language of Wildean flamboyance. Angela Carter's influence on Ms Enright is, for me, present. Her other mentor was Michael Bradbury, an academic and novelist who in his 1975 novel THE HISTORY MAN, writes, in the revealing of the dilemmas of his hero, Howard Kirk, of "life's jumbled truths". Norah in her quest of knowing and settling her qualms concerning her mother and present family connections, too, reveals the non-patterns of "life's jumbled truths".

ACTRESS makes me contemplate my knowledge of my mum and dad. I know nothing. Well, nothing much, and you know what? I think I shall let sleeping dogs lie. Opening Pandora's Box is an extremely daunting proposition. I am grateful that Anne Enright, in a cornucopia of courageous constructions has introduced me to the possibilities of that hazard and warned me off, with insight, humour and a nostalgic aura.

The darkness, the bleakness, the comic/tragic lens of the Irish soothsayers of olde: Yeats, Synge, O'Casey, Beckett, is the undercurrent of this work to be found echoed in the recent work by Anna Burns, MILKMAN (2018) - a hard but rewarding read (Booker Prize), and in John Boyne's THE HEART'S INVISIBLE FURIES (2017) - comic, full of co-incidence and downright passion.

In the recent French film LA VERITE (THE TRUTH) (2019), the Japanese director, Hirokazu Kore-eda (SHOPLIFTERS), guides Catherine Deneuve through the role of a possessed actor, Fabrienne, and exposes her relationship with her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche) and extended family. Her dedication to her art is unyielding. "I prefer to have been a bad mother, a bad friend, and a great actress," she says, "You may not forgive me, but my public does." Enright's Katherine O'Dell, another actress, has a mirrored friend.

Recommend reading.