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Cold in July by Joe R. Lansdale

“I needed, as they say in California, some space. Or as we say in Texas, I wanted to be left the hell alone.”

Cold in July is a novel from American crime author Joe R. Lansdale’s backlist. Its release is in conjunction with the film version which features Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson. After reading the novel, I don’t need to read the cast list to see who plays which role; it’s easy to guess.

The book’s premise is simple: Richard Dane lives with his wife and small son on the outskirts of the small East Texas town of Laborde. One night Richard’s wife, Ann wakes up after hearing the sounds of someone breaking into their home. Dane grabs his .38 and in an act of self-defense, kills the armed burglar. This should be the end of the matter, and local police Lt. Price reassures a troubled Dane that he had no choice but to shoot. The man is identified as Freddy Russel, a small time crook with a history of incarceration. Dane’s house is cleaned, and the remnants of the crime are washed away, but Dane is troubled, in spite of the fact he knows he had no choice but to kill the burglar.

Trouble begins when Freddy’s violent father, Ben, just released from Hunstville comes looking for revenge….

cold in julyLansdale’s crime novels frequently place the individual on a lonely path, seeking justice, vigilante style, without the aid of legal channels. The individual, outside of the boundaries of the law for various reasons then rounds up loyal friends, people he can trust, and then with a team in place, the action begins. It’s a throw-back to the Western idea of the posse, and Lansdale novels seem to tap into monumental archetypes. That scenario emerges here as Dane learns that he cannot trust the police, and seeking the truth, he forms an uneasy alliance with Ben Russel, an ex-con whose explosive temper is fueled by guilt.  They join with unorthodox PI Jim Bob Luke and a speedy investigation takes them right to the Dixie Mafia.

On the down side, there’s the sentimentality of saving the home and hearth which some readers may not mind, but the main issue is that there are just too many implausibilities which occur simply to move the plot along (the phone book? really?…) . I can’t give the examples I’d like to give as that would reveal too much of the plot, but I can add that one of the first implausible points that annoyed me was Dane as the owner of a marginal frame shop with two full-time employees in a town of 40,000. This just hit me the wrong way. He lives too well, doesn’t worry much about money (orders new locks, windows, a paint job & a couch without blinking), and then leaves the work to two employees as he takes off to pursue his investigation with a PI he hires for $300 a day.

But that brings me to the best part of the book–the character of the PI, Jim Bob Luke, a man who drives a blood-red Cadillac named the Red Bitch:

About two-thirty an ancient blood-red Cadillac about the size of a submarine pulled up directly in front of the door to Russel’s room. There were baby shoes hanging off the mirror along with a big-yellow, foam-rubber dice, and on the windshield was a homemade sticker that had six stick-figure humans and three dogs drawn on it and there was an X through each of them. The car had curb feelers and they were still wobbling violently when the driver got out and slammed the door and stretched.  

The entrance of the seeming laid-back Jim-Bob to the book added a lot of zest. He’s a well-developed character, always fully into his role, and that includes some racist comments.  He looks like a “washed-up country and Western singer,” complete with a “worn straw hat with a couple of anemic feathers on it.”  Here’s some dialogue to give a sense of the book’s style:

Jim Bob ordered steak and baked potato and all the trimmings, and when he took his first bite of steak he waved the waitress over and told her, “Honey, take this cow on back and finish killing it. Set the little buddy on fire for about three more minutes and then bring it back to me.”

While Jim Bob waited on the steak, he and Russel talked about old times, and laughed. Ann and I felt a little limp, as if we had gone to the wrong party.

When Jim Bob’s steak came back he thanked the waitress and ordered a Lone Star Light. “Got to watch my girlish figure,” and he went at his food with gusto, saying “Brain food.”

“Then you better eat plenty of it,” Ann said.

I looked at her. Russel looked at her. Jim Bob looked at her and laughed. “Ain’t that the damned truth,” he said. “Pass that salad dressing. The one that looks like someone threw up in the bottle.”

I’m a long-time fan of Lansdale, but this is not his best book. IMO the Leonard & Hap series is the best of Lansdale. That and Bubba Ho Tep, of course.

Review copy/own a copy.

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White Mischief by James Fox

“I hope I have never looked like a murderer. I think all my friends know it is not exactly my line of country. However, in a strange country, god knows what will happen.” (Sir Jock Delves Broughton)

There are some crimes that could only have occurred in a unique set of circumstances, and this is certainly true for the murder of Lord Erroll. Erroll, Josslyn Hay, the 22nd Earl of Erroll was shot in his car in the early morning hours of January 24th, 1941. Although a trial was conducted, no one was ever convicted for the crime, and the murder remains, officially, unsolved. Forty years after the murder (the book was originally published in the 80s), in White Mischief, author James Fox painstakingly pieced together transcripts from the trial and testimony of witnesses in an attempt to both explain and solve the crime.

white mischiefErroll was murdered in Kenya, and a large portion of the beginning of the book concentrates on establishing the atmosphere in Kenya in the late 30s. It was a wild place–well at least it was a wild place for the British expatriates who were whooping it up in the area known as Happy Valley,notorious since the 1920s as a playground for aristocratic fugitives of all kinds.” According to the author, “Happy Valley originated with Erroll himself and with Lady Idina Gordon” when they “set up house there in 1924.” She was a married woman and left her second husband and moved to Kenya with Erroll as it “seemed the obvious, indeed the only place to go.” Once established there Erroll and Idina became the centre of local society as she organized riotous parties and  partner-swapping evenings, but not everyone became entangled in these activities; the wife of the Governor put Idina “on the blacklist.”

Over time, the reputation of Happy Valley grew and became a Mecca for a certain type, including a number of British fascists.  European nobility gathered in this area of Kenya–this “permanent feast of dissipation and sensuous pleasure,” building splendid palaces, throwing endless parties, and engaging in appallingly bad behaviour. Most of the British expatriates were there for a reason–often scandal, bankruptcy and divorce drove them from the shores of England and to the less inhibited social whorl of Kenya. Sometimes British upper-class families despaired of a son’s relentless gambling habit, and so he was banished off to Kenya. Whatever the reasons, and there were many, a certain ‘type’ gravitated towards Happy Valley. And there, various degenerates led unleashed, uninhibited lives and recruiting newcomers into their ranks.

In the colonial imagination, Africa was a dangerous country which inspired extremes, liberated repressed desires, insinuated violence. At the furthest end of the scale was the subconscious fear that someone might even break ranks, betray his country and his class by ‘going native,’ though just what for this might take could never be out into words.

The colonials often shared that strange sensation common to exile Englishmen living in groups of being ‘out of bounds.’ Many of them had money. Many were remittance men who had been paid off by their families and sent away in disgrace. Once their spirits and sense of status was restored in the feudal paradise, the temptation to behave badly was irresistible

These uninhibited lifestyles resulted in morphine addictions and an endless array of extra-marital affairs for the upper-crust loungers who bestirred themselves once in a while to go off and shoot a lion or two. For those who couldn’t conform to British society, Happy Valley was a sort of paradise–and one was limited only by one’s personal resources.

Beneath the surface lay another rich seam: the extraordinary story of the British aristocracy in Kenya, subjected to a tropical climate and high altitude, suspended between English traditions and African customs, answerable, more or less, only to themselves.

Many people thrived in this Happy Valley bohemia, but many did not. The Earl of Erroll was one of those who thrived–women adored him, and men enjoyed his company, yet someone hated him enough to kill him. The contrasting views of Erroll show versions of a complicated man who usually got what he wanted. He was a known philanderer who delighted in deceiving husbands and had a string of married lovers long before he met and began an ill-fated affair with newlywed (and new arrival) Diana Broughton. In late 1940, 57 year-old Sir Jock Delves Broughton, fresh from a divorce, took his 22 year-old bride straight to Kenya where he owned a coffee plantation. It was hardly  a love match–at least not for Diana who had an unusual pre-nup agreement with Broughton. One meeting with Erroll, and Diana’s affair began…

In these pages, we see the bizarre culture of these wealthy exiles who built magnificent palaces surrounded by exquisitely manicured lawns and flower beds in their attempts to “preserve the way of life of the English county families.” These are the twilight years of the British colonies with multiple servants (sometimes unpaid and abused), with the spoiled rich amusing themselves with safaris, extravagant stunts and multiple love affairs.

Author James Fox follows the genesis of the book which began as an investigation for a story in the Sunday Times Magazine in the late 60s, the murder case and the subsequent trial, as well as his meeting with Lady Diana Delamere–known as Diana Broughton in White Mischief. Recreated here are the circumstances that drove a particular murder, but we also get an absolute sense of the society in the Happy Valley with the Muthaiga Club at its centre–a club in which jews were not allowed. The club hosted “nightly balls … and women were required to wear a different dress each night.” Often the parties, which ended at 6 in the morning, turned into hooliganism. Morphine and cocaine were frequent hors d’oeuvres to the all-night entertainment.

The story behind the crime is excellently and meticulously researched. The background story of Happy Valley’s society is fascinating, riveting stuff, and the build up to the murder is rather tense with every piece of background information slotted into place. Most of the characters are a dissolute, bored, destructive lot–certainly no one ‘deserved’ to be murdered (although one may feel a certain astonishment that there was only one victim). The degree of wonder remains in the fact that a nobleman was bumped off. Would this have happened in England? I doubt it. Kenya, for the decadent British expatriates who took up residence, was a peculiar paradise, and this was a unique time. While the author does a simply marvelous job of recreating the atmosphere of the times, there is no great revelation here as the criminal trial unfolds. Everything is an inevitable foregone conclusion, and the book’s strength is found in its successful re-creation of a peculiar time and place.

This was a re-read for me. I first watched the film years ago, and reading the book for the second time rekindled all my original feelings about the society in Happy Valley. For the second reading, already knowing about the decadent lifestyle of many of the Happy Valley residents, this time I was struck by how while bad behaviour was accepted amongst one’s own set, bad behaviour in front of the natives was “inexcusable.” How peculiar that the British ex-pats went to such lengths to recreate the trappings of a pseudo British society complete with its snobbery, magnificent gardens and polo fields, but then led the sort of wild lives that would find them ostracized back in England. The sheer rapidity of the fatal events that led to Erroll’s murder were just as surprising for this second read, although this time I marveled at the way society members stood up for Erroll’s murderer during the trial and yet he was a pariah following the verdict.

A few years ago, author Christine Nicholls revealed additional information that she had about the case, and while the information all slots into place, the murder of Lord Erroll is still, officially, unsolved.

The book contains a Cast of Characters and an image gallery.

Review copy/personal copy.

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Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

I distrust patriotism; the reasonable man can find little in these days that is worth dying for. But dying against–there’s enough iniquity in Europe to carry the most urbane or decadent into battle.”

Geoffrey Household novel’s Rogue Male had been recommended to me several times, but I delayed reading it; part of the delay came from the mistaken idea that it was some sort of spy novel. It wasn’t.

The novel, told by a first person narrator, begins with a simple sentence: “I cannot blame them.” And this sentence is the epitome of the narrator’s attitude to most of the people he meets and most of the brutality directed towards him. In essence, he accepts that we are what we are, that most of us are caught in roles not necessarily of our own making, and in those roles, we are driven towards certain actions. Amazingly generous and Zen really when you consider what happens to him.

Rogue MaleOur nameless narrator, a wealthy Englishman, has been caught just as he was about to assassinate a European dictator. He had the man in the sights of his rifle but hesitated, and that hesitation led to his capture (the word ‘arrest’ would dignify what happens) and torture. According to our narrator he thinks his captors are “beginning to understand that a bored and wealthy Englishman who had hunted all commoner game might well find a perverse pleasure in hunting the biggest game on earth.” There are people, difficult as it is for this reader to understand, who actually enjoy hunting rare and endangered species.

They must have wondered whether I had been employed on, as it were, an official mission, but I think they turned that suspicion down. No government–least of all ours–encourages assassination. Or was I a free-lance? That must have seemed very unlikely; anyone can see that I am not the type of avenging angel. Was I, then, innocent of any criminal intent, and exactly what I claimed to be –a sportsman who couldn’t resist the temptation to stalk the impossible?

The narrator is horribly tortured, and since he does not give his captors any valuable information to implicate any one else or reveal that he’s part of some sort of conspiracy, they are left to conclude that he is probably just what he claims to be–a hunter who wants to bag the ultimate big game. But no matter the reason behind his assassination attempt, his captors, and the narrator, know that there is little choice but to kill him. Under the circumstances–flayed skin, a badly damage eye, and fingernails ripped out, he can hardly be set free to return to England. Instead he is left to die. Badly wounded, our narrator is a survivor, or perhaps even a survivalist. Resourceful and intelligent, he flees for his life….

Rogue Male is superb–the best action-adventure novel I’ve ever read. We know every little about our narrator–except that he’s a member of the British upper class with plenty of leisure time (there’s a wonderful rift about Class X ,) who has wandered into a volatile Europe, crossing over from Poland into the unnamed country on the brink of WWII. We can, of course, guess just who is the object of the ‘big game’ hunt; the question is why.

I’m not going to say a great deal more about this extraordinary novel as to dissect it too much would give away the pleasure that awaits for the next reader. Suffice to say that our man makes it back to England, and while I thought that he would feel safe in his native land, the action only  intensifies, and the figurative broad net created to capture the narrator becomes much smaller, much more defined as the escape and arena for safety becomes increasingly more claustrophobic.

Leaving plot aside–something that is, after all, relatively easy to discover for oneself, I’ll say that at first I thought the narrator was an assassin, perhaps the classic unreliable narrator, but rather his motives remain opaque even when aiming his rifle. It’s only much later that the narrator finally comes to understand his own motivations.

The narrator begins the novel in a very bad spot, and it goes downhill from there as he tumbles down even his own society, reverting to the status of a homeless man, a drifter, and finally an animal. Household cleverly reverses the roles of the hunter and the hunted, and sometimes those roles reverse in a mere second, and there’s even a comment made about unnecessary death, the slaughter of a helpless animal that is a statement on the value of life.  The narrator does, of course, make a mistake or two, but the book is written so that we suspect immediately that a mistake has been made. This all builds incredible, almost unbearable suspense.

For this reader, some of the greatest fun of the novel came from two distinct sources: the characters the narrator meets who help him along the way–unsung heroes who, at great risk to themselves, show a little kindness. But the greatest source of delight came from Geoffrey Household’s incredible main character who honestly puts the James Bond types with all their techno toys to shame. Not only is our narrator extremely resourceful, but he’s physically tough and highly intelligent. He also applies the skills of a hunter to his escape and his slippery ability to evade the men who seek his death. Of course, though, it’s inevitable that he meets someone whose craft and stealth may match his own.

One significant theme of the novel is individualism. Here we have an individual outside of any government or official channels, who acts on his own, thinks on his own, and takes his actions to their ultimate conclusion. His individualism is apparent immediately from the simple fact that he’s the object of massive man-hunt, but as the novel continues and the action intensifies, the narrator, abandoning the resources of society, has no one to rely on except himself and his own considerable skills.

I can admire such an individualist as you. What I respect in you is that you have no need of any law but your own. You’re prepared to rule, or to be suppressed, but you won’t obey. You are able to deal with your own conscience.

Rogue Male was published in 1939, and here in the 21st century, it seems remarkably ahead of its time. If you read the NYRB edition (as I did) I’d recommend leaving the introduction until after you’ve finished the book. It contains spoilers galore.

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Spring Torrents: Turgenev

Turgenev (1818-1883), one of the giants of 19th century Russian literature, is the master at creating fictional male characters who engage in relationships with women only to experience the destructive nature of passion. Perhaps a Turgenev character will lose love from a failure to commit or perhaps he will discover that the woman has another game even as he’s drawn in deeper and deeper. Bitter regret and love go hand in hand in Turgenev’s fiction.  Spring Torrents, published in 1872,  is short–only 176 pages in my Penguin Classics edition, and it’s superb quintessential Turgenev.

spring torrentsThis is a frame story, and the novel opens with a middle-aged man, Dimitry Pavlovich Sanin, now in his 50s, who, after an evening’s entertainment, feels a vague disgust and discontentment with his life. He reminisces about his past and his loves, and this brings us to Sanin at age 23, thirty years before. It’s 1840.

Sanin has inherited a little money, and he decided to use it travelling before returning to Russia and “putting on the harness of employment in a government department.” He has just left Italy, and is now in Frankfurt with just enough money to return to Russia. He has reserved a seat in a coach, the last coach leaving that night at 10 o’clock. So his life is arranged, or appears to be. Then fate sends him into an Italian patisserie for a glass of lemonade, but just as he arrives, a young boy, the son of the owner has collapsed. Urged by a beautiful young Italian girl to save her brother, Sanin steps in and revives the boy.

This dramatic event is the beginning of Sanin’s relationship with the Roselli family. Signora Leonora Roselli, the owner of the patisserie, is a widow with two children, Emilio, a young boy who does not appear to have the best health, and his gorgeous sister, Gemma. Sanin misses his coach, but no matter, he can’t take his eyes off of the beautiful Gemma. Sanin is treated as one of the family, and very quickly becomes involved with the Rosellis. He even serves in the shop a few times, and finds that playing shopkeeper is rather enjoyable. But as much as he’s charmed by the Rosellis, it’s really Gemma who draws his attention. Too bad she’s already engaged to Herr Karl Klueber, a man Sanin dislikes:

It may well be supposed that, at that time, in all the shops in all Frankfurt there was not to be found another such courteous, well-mannered, grave, and polite chief assistant as Herr Klueber. His immaculate dress was of the same high level as the dignity of his demeanour and the elegance of his manners–a little prim and stiff, it is true, in the English fashion (he had spent two years in England)-but beguiling elegance for all that. It was evident at a glance that this good-looking, somewhat stern, exceedingly well brought-up and superlatively well-washed young man was in the habit of obeying his superiors and of issuing orders to his inferiors. The sight of such a man behind his counter was indeed bound to inspire respect even in the customers. There could not be the slightest doubt that his honesty surpassed all natural limits–why, one only had to look at the points of his stiffly starched collar.

Spring Torrents examines the issue of sexuality, attraction, infatuation, obsessive passion and love. These are elements easily confused, and we see Sanin attracted to Gemma and then he’s falling in love. This all happens very quickly, and Senora Roselli expects Sanin to marry Gemma and stay in Frankfurt. He impetuously agrees to sell his Russian estates and invest his money in the patisserie, and there are hints that Sanin is naïve. At one point as Sanin works in the shop, he feels “ready to stand behind the counter for all time dealing in sweets and orgeade” as long as he has Gemma by his side, and then there’s the haste with which he finds himself engaged. After all, “he had had no thought of marriage in his mind” and had just “surrendered himself to the driving force of passion.” Now he’s planning on returning to Russia to wind up his affairs, move permanently to Frankfurt and become a shopkeeper when fate intervenes in Sanin’s life again, and he is drawn into a dark, destructive passion.

The women in the novels of Turgenev are always memorable, strong & vibrant characters–possibly a reflection of Turgenev’s incredibly tough mother, Varvara Petrovna.  In Spring Torrents, we see two very different women, and through them, two different types of passion. As readers, we ask ourselves what does Sanin really want or is he just swept along by “the driving force of passion” once again? How many times are we confronted by situations in which the image of the person we’d like to be is challenged by the reality of who we really are?

Spring Torrents delves into the stages of sexual passion, and while sex is not mentioned, several scenes vibrate with sexual possibility:

Sanin seized those listless hands as they lay, palms upwards, and pressed them to his eyes, to his lips … This was the moment when the curtain, which he had kept seeing the day before, swept up. Here it is, happiness with its radiant countenance!

He raised his head and looked at Gemma boldly, straight in the eyes. She was looking at him too–with a slightly downward glance. There was scarcely any lustre in her half-closed eyes: they were flooded with shining tears of joy. But her face was not smiling…No! It was laughing, with soundless laughter that was also the laughter of bliss.

He wanted to draw her to his breast, but she resisted him, and still laughing silently, shook her head. ‘Wait,’ her happy eyes seemed to be saying.

By the time the end of the novel arrives, it’s impossible to read about Sanin without drawing parallels to Turgenev’s life. Turgenev fell in love with the married opera singer, Pauline Viardot and followed her around Europe–not that Turgenev suffered the humiliations heaped upon Sanin, but nonetheless, Turgenev was completely absorbed by the Viardot family in a situation that alarmed his friends. Turgenev is highly recommended by this reader and he’s certainly the 19th century Russian author to read for any readers out there who feel slightly intimidated by this period.  While I preferred Nest of the Gentry, Spring Torrents is marvelous.

Translated by Leonard Schapiro

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Love, Pain, and the Whole Damn Thing by Doris Dörrie

German literature monthDoris Dörrie is one of my favorite German filmmakers (Cherry BlossomsNobody Loves MeAm I Beautiful?), so I was delighted when I discovered a few years ago that she was also a published author, and, what’s more, that some of her work is available in English. This makes her a perfect read for German Literature month. Back in 2011, I read her wonderful novel Where Do We Go From Here? , a very funny look at how a middle-aged couple seek Enlightenment in various ways. In Dörrie’s short story collection: Love, Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, the theme is the toxicity of domestic life and in these 4 stories, we see people altered by suburbia and routine go off the rails in spectacular ways.

love pain and the whole damn thingIn the first story, Straight to the Heart, a young impoverished, seemingly unconventional music student named Anna, who has blue hair and plays saxophone in the park, accepts an offer from a middle-aged dentist named Armin to become his mistress. To Armin she seems both exotic and approachable:

“I sense an excitement that unfortunately has been missing in my life for the most part until now.”

She understood at once. “What sort of excitement is that?” She smiled because her blood suddenly began to course faster.

“The excitement of just for once becoming a different person than you already are–because of a second person.” Now he was grinning. “An illusion. But so much more intriguing than reality.”

He installs her at his country farmhouse with a year’s contract and pay of 2,000 marks a month. The relationship is awkward at first, but Armin is an attentive and considerate lover. The couple make a trip to America together, and Anna gets a brand new red fiat for her 21st birthday. But all that is unconventional about Anna dries up with the routine of domesticity, and the story’s focus is what happens when Anna realizes that the contract will not be renewed.

The second story is Men, and if you’re familiar at all with Doris Dörrie’s fabulous films then you will recognize the title. In this story, middle-aged Julius Armbrust, who “designed packing concepts,”  is told by his wife, Paula, that she is having an affair with the very scruffy, penniless Stefan. Julius has had many affairs of his own, but after hearing the details, Julius feels threatened:

Was the same age, he was, she said. Name? Unimportant. Occupation? She didn’t know exactly, something in the artistic line, she hadn’t asked him, the most important thing after all was that … That he was good in bed? After that, she had nothing to say to him.

While Julius heads to the office every day, Paula spends time with her lover, a man who drives an old Beetle, and Julius begins spying on the couple. Julius disappears from Paula’s life, using a fabricated affair as an excuse, and he reemerges and reinvents himself as Stefan’s new roommate. Men argues that we lose our identity in the day-to-day grind of making money, paying bills, and holding down tedious 9-5 jobs. Over the years, our relationships stale and we lose sight of who we used to be.

Marriage is also examined in Paradise, my least favorite story in the collection. In this story, the relationship between a long-married husband and wife shifts when an acquaintance from the past re-enters their lives.

My favourite story is Money. This is the tale of a married couple, Carmen and Werner Müller, in debt, hounded by consumer-driven teenagers, and facing losing their home, who turn to a life of crime. This is really a very funny story with some twists and turns. The emphasis is on humour and proletariat reclamation:

Carmen Müller, thirty-five years old, married to Werner Müller for fourteen years, two half-grown children, Karin and Rainier, with a house, a car, television and VCR, a deep freeze, but no vacation for five years now and debts galore, Carmen Müller, cleaning lady with fourteen years experience, she thought to herself as she wiped up the flooded bathroom where a hose on the washing machine had burst during the night, while Karin aloofly scrambled over her, heading for the mirror and ardent application of her make up.

I am my children’s employee.

Karin and Rainier are critical of their parents, and Karin tells her mother that they “could do a little better job keeping yourselves up.” That criticism comes easily and doesn’t stop the teenagers from seeing their parents as living, breathing never-empty wallets. Carmen and Werner are now “fat and flabby,” and Werner hibernates in the bedroom with a terminal case of depression. He works in a toy factory which produces war toys, but, according to Werner’s boss the business is crashing:

“Our specialty is war toys, after all, and orders have been… this whole peace movement thing has played havoc with us. We’ve got to rethink things, here, look at this” –he pointed to small plastic men meant to look like policemen, while down the belt next to them little barbarians rolled. “Those are the demonstrators, and these are the police. The game’ll be called Battle at the Reactor, and if that doesn’t sell, we can close up shop…”

While in Men, one of the characters reinvents himself, in Money, Carmen and Werner undergo a transformation with hilarious results. Leaving suburbia (Carmen doesn’t know what to pack for “the underground,“), and their ungrateful children behind, they embark on a life of crime. Through these stories we see stale relationships worn out by time and familiarity, and husbands and wives who lose sight of who they really are through the day-to-day drudgery of working lives. Doris Dörrie’s mischievous, spirited take on domestic life shows us how people hang on to the familiar and the comfortable, and yet once they’re set loose, things may never be the same….

 Translated by John E. Woods.

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I was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

German literature monthAnother entry in German Literature month 2013, and this time it’s I was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897-1976), an Austrian writer.  The flap of my gorgeous Pushkin press edition states that the author’s “uneasy relationship with the National Socialist Party resulted in his fall from prominence in 1944.” Apparently Lernet-Holenia’s 1941 novel, The Blue Hour was banned by the Nazis, but as a screenwriter he was connected to an agency which produced propaganda films.  He published numerous novels, and I Was Jack Mortimer (1933) is particularly loved by the translator, Ignat Avsey, who calls the book “the most magnificent thriller ever written.” I wouldn’t go that far, but I did enjoy the book, and am, once more, grateful to Pushkin Press for putting another obscure title into print.

I came across this title thanks to Tom from A Common Reader , and it sounded like a perfect read for German Literature month. Primarily this is a story of identity for our main character steps into the shoes of another man. It’s the sort of scenario tackled so well in Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat. Sometimes our lives can be difficult and we daydream about running away and becoming an entirely new person, but what happens if the life we step in to is more problematic than the one we already have? Personally, I think it would be a crap shoot to assume someone’s identity; you’d be walking  into a minefield–one false step and everything blows up in your face.

I Was Jack MortimerViennese taxi driver Ferdinand Sponer picks up a fare and becomes instantly fascinated with the glamorous expensive young woman in the back seat. Her name is Marisabelle von Raschitz–obviously a young woman from the highest echelons of Viennese society, and the kind of woman who wouldn’t give Sponer the time of day.  In spite of the fact that Sponer has Marie, a wonderful, kind, loving and generous girlfriend, he becomes obsessed with the unattainable Marisabelle and hangs around outside of her apartment building, hoping to catch  a glimpse of this elegant young woman.

It’s interesting that Sponer makes such a pest of himself with Marisabelle as it reveals a lot about his character. He is confident enough to know that Marisabelle is attracted by his looks, and he hopes that means she’ll overlook his lowly status. Meanwhile, in spite of Marie’s devotion, or perhaps even because of it, his relationship with his long-standing girlfriend is stale:

They were planning to get married, but kept putting it off for various reasons: if the truth be known, only because they’d already known each other for too long. In the meantime she’d lost her job as a shop assistant, had then been unemployed for months at a stretch, and was now helping out here and there at a friend’s, taking in washing and doing mending and stitching jobs.

There’s a poignant scene between Sponer and Marie, as they sense “how unhappy they were,” and she seems to know and accept that the romance has gone. However, fate intervenes in Sponer’s life when he picks up a fare, a man about his own age, who wishes to be taken to the Hotel Bristol. Not long into the journey, Sponer discovers that his passenger is dead–shot through the throat. With an escalating sense of panic, Sponer makes a series of mistakes. He steps into his passenger, Jack Mortimer’s life, and finds himself in a mess….

The plot shows that even though Sponer’s life isn’t what he wants, at least it’s a life of his own making. When you step into the shoes of another, you find yourself dropped into unpredictable situations and unfathomable relationships that have nothing to do with you. Someone, after all, murdered Jack Mortimer, and that fact alone indicates that Sponer is stepping into a situation fraught with danger. But Sponer also discovers that a certain glamour opens previously closed doors, and wearing Mortimer’s clothes proves to be disorienting. A nightmarish sense of unreality sets in, and this is marvelously expressed even as Sponer begins to lose his sense of identity.

He paid with his own money what Jack Mortimer hadn’t. Or was it Jack Mortimer’s money he paid with? He didn’t know, the silver had got mixed up in his pocket

I Was Jack Mortimer,  with its street scenes of a slightly faded Vienna, is a good read. I particularly liked the way Sponer, as a lowly taxi driver, had a certain anonymity. He negotiates the street of Vienna with ease. This situation is transformed, however, when he assumes the dead man’s identity–suddenly he is recognized even as he wades through the unchartered waters of another man’s messy life. There’s a plot-driven anticlimactic feel to the resolution of the story, and while that is deliberate (you’ll know what I mean if you read it), nonetheless I felt a little deflated by the conclusion. While there’s a thriller aspect to the story, the underlying issue is arguably, identity. Sponer is a lowly character when we first see him, and in spite of the fact he’s handsome, the Viennese socialite doesn’t think he’s worth her time. Sponer discovers the hard way that sometimes it’s better to be an anonymous peon, for when you’re shabbily dressed and a taxi driver, people tend to ignore you. And that’s sometimes not a bad thing….

As a sort of addendum to the book, I found myself chewing over a statement I disagreed with:

She disarmed him by not making any secret of the fact that she no longer loved him. Jealousy can only exist when one hopes one has made a mistake.

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Filed under Fiction, Lernet-Holenia Alexander

Montalbano’s First Case by Andrea Camilleri

“The Japanese tourists were competing in an all-out war, using the weapons of lethal politeness to compete for window space to take pictures. At the second stop, the driver has to get up to help an old couple of about a hundred onto the bus.”

For light relief, I turn to the Inspector Montalbano crime novel series written by Andrea Camilleri. Salvo Montalbano is one of my favourite detectives–he is not an alcoholic, and neither is he burned out and world-weary. In fact, Montalbano, who adores good food and loves life, is a refreshing change. The Montalbano novels are light on violence, gore is absent, and instead the novels fly on Montalbano’s humour, his sense of justice, and a supporting cast of quirky characters. It doesn’t hurt that these novels are set in Vigata, a fictional coastal town in Sicily and that Montalbano lives in a house (we’d all love to live in) that commands a fantastic ocean view. Reading a Montalbano novel is pure pleasure and a return to a life we wouldn’t mind sharing. Montalbano has a unique approach to crime solving, and while political corruption should be his largest stumbling block, Montalbano doesn’t bother fighting the corruption, but instead he subverts it until the corrupt system moves in the direction he wants it to go.

Montalbano's first caseMontalbano’s First Case, is the prequel to the series,  it’s 1985, and 35 year-old Salvo Montalbano is at an important crossroads in his career. Montalbano is under apprenticeship as “deputy of Mascalippa,” a small town in the Erean Mountains. While many people would love to work in this picturesque area, Montalbano hates it and considers the mountain air positively unhealthy.  He knows that he’ll be transferred soon, and he longs to move to the coast. Of course, for those familiar with the series you know that Montalbano gets what he wants, and he’s transferred to Vigata. He arrives there fresh from the tutelage of Chief Inspector Libero Sanfillipo, a man who knew “how to keep his inner balance in the face of serious and upsetting events.” Sanfillipo advises Montalbano:

If you let yourself be overrun by your emotions, by dismay, horror, indignation, and empathy, you’re completely fucked.

For those who’ve already read some of the Inspector Montalbano series, then you’ll recognize that Montalbano followed his mentor’s advice–not always so successfully, because Montalbano has a temper and a short fuse when it comes to dealing with frustration and incompetence.

Montalbano can’t believe his luck when he hears that he’s being posted to Vigata. The brand new Chief Inspector already has a history with the region, and so he’s delighted to return to an area he knows and loves. Of course the transfer means that he’ll be farther from his long-term girlfriend, but the relationship seems to thrive on personal space and distance. He’s forewarned that the area is managed by two mafia families: the Cuffaros and the Sinagras–“each family had its own saint in paradise,”  and in this case that translates to mean that each family has a powerful political representative in their pockets.

Montalbano’s very first scouting trip to Vigata sees him involved in a crime in which the power of the mafia dwarfs the rights of an elderly resident. A seemingly simple traffic accident that morphs into an assault charge forces Montalbano to testify in a fixed case, so Montalbano is instantly educated in the reality of the justice system through a laughable trial that is pure “theater.” But even more than that, Montalbano becomes involved with a strange case involving Rosanna, a local girl, a girl who’s been thrown out of her home by her family for her so-called promiscuous behaviour. The girl who lives, literally, in a pig pen, is an assassin, and yet she appears to have the mental abilities of a 5 year-old. While Montalbano unravels this mystery, somehow or another he has the feeling he’s being played, and since he is never one to settle for the easy solution, he keeps digging….

Montalbano’s First Case is certain to delight fans of this wonderful series. This novella (97 pages according to Amazon) fills in some blanks while showing Montalbano in embryo. All of his key characteristics are there, so we see him keeping his girlfriend at arm’s length, indulging in various  extraordinary gastronomic adventures, and feeling less than content with various aspects of the investigation. Some favourite characters are also here–Fazio and journalist, Zito. We also see how far Montalbano will go to solve a case. He doesn’t care too much about rules and regulations, but there’s a strong sense of justice tempered with compassion, and in this, Montalbano’s First Case, we see just how Montalbano manipulates a corrupt system to get what he wants.

Not surprisingly, Montalbano has transferred well to film, so there’s an entire series of Inspector Montalbano films–including The Young Montalbano which includes this story.

Translated by Gianluca Rizzo and Dominic Siracusa

Review copy.

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The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

I have a soft spot for novels set in boarding houses. Perhaps it’s the interesting possibilities of a houseful of people connected only by the fact they pay rent to the owner of the home. The residents have no shared ground of tastes or interests, apart from a desire for consideration, quiet and cleanliness as so wonderfully conveyed in Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary. This sort of social and economic arrangement is in decline, while ‘group homes’ seem to be in proliferation. Here in America, I see once beautiful Victorian mansions, in the shabbier areas of town, broken down into rooms for rent in “rooming houses.” Zoning rules effectively limit rooming houses, and these days rooming houses have an unsavoury reputation. For the purposes of Brian Moore’s novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, boarding houses are still a decent, respectable way of life for single people who live in modest circumstances, and who desire a safe, clean, quiet place to live.

The Lonely passion of Judith HearneThis particular shabby Belfast boarding house is owned and run by Mrs. Henry Rice, a middle-aged widow. She’s on the nosy side when it comes to her lodgers, and she’s also cheap when it comes to the provided breakfast which consists of tea and toast–with the exception of Sundays, when there’s a fried kipper for each lodger. The morning breakfast ceremony ensures some sort of communication, gives the aura of genteel respectability to the arrangement, reinforces Mrs. Rice’s authority while allowing her to keep an eye on her tenants and lends pretense to the idea that these are guests and not simply unconnected strangers in a boarding house. Breakfast times reveal the drab, parsimonious lives of the boarders, and in one wonderful scene, Mrs. Rice’s lay-about, would-be-poet son, Bernard, is fed bacon, eggs and fried bread while the lodgers sit there, disgruntled, with their toast and tea.

When the novel opens, a new tenant is moving in. It’s Miss Judith Hearne, a spinster in her 40s, who teaches piano for a living. There’s the impression that this latest move is one in a series in a life that’s in descent:

The first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodging was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt. The place for her aunt, ever since the sad day of the funeral, was on the mantel piece of whatever bed-sitting-room Miss Hearne happened to be living in. And as she put her up now, the photograph eyes were stern and questioning, sharing Miss Hearne’s own misgivings about the condition of the bed-springs, the shabbiness of the furniture and the run-down part of Belfast in which the room was situated.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is an exploration of loneliness, hypocrisy, the human capacity for self-destruction, and the role of religion as compensation in a life that’s less than satisfactory. Judith Hearne has been able to ply the holes in her life with religion, but this is becoming more difficult. She spent her life devoted to nursing controlling, battle-axe Aunt D’Arcy, now dead. Judith is educated, raised to expect a genteel lifestyle, and could have pursued a career if her aunt had allowed it. Now in her 40s, she survives on a small annuity and considers herself ‘left on the shelf,’ while other women, namely Moira O’Neill, somehow or another snared a man into marriage. Judith looks jealously at married women and envies them, yet are her days for romance and love past?

Judith’s big event of the week is to visit the O’Neill family. Moira O’Neill, who according to Judith is “like some contented hen,” pities Judith while all of the other members of the family poke fun at her and find excuses to avoid her company. The O’Neills are not related to Judith, but she likes to pretend that she’s a maiden aunt. Underneath all of Judith’s coping and genteel behaviour, however, there’s anger and desperation.

You might as well forget about eligible men. Because you’re too late, you’ve missed your market. Then you’re up for any offers. Marked down goods. You’re up for auction , a country auction, where the auctioneer stands up and says what am I bid?  And he starts at a high price, saying what he’d like best. No offers. Then second best. No offers. Third? No offers. What am I bid, Moira? and somebody comes along, laughable, and you take him. If you can take him. Because it’s either that or back on the shelf for you. Back to your furnished rooms and your prayers. And your hopes.

 Judith’s life is already unraveling when she meets James Madden, the landlady’s brother. He’s recently returned from thirty years in America and, to Judith, he carries the aura of exoticism. James Madden, an opportunist with a 10,000 dollar insurance settlement in his pocket, is as lost as Judith. He sees that she’s educated and ladylike, and he also notes the few pieces of valuable jewelry she still owns. James and Judith are drawn to each other–partly because they become allies of sorts in the boarding house, but also Judith is the only person who believes Madden’s stories about his life in America. He says he wants to “marry again and settle down,” and as far as Judith’s concerned, there’s only one way to interpret that statement.

Much of the information about Judith’s descent is given only in hints. We gradually learn that there’s been a series of boarding houses, and then what are all those ‘stories’ spread about Judith and her old friend from convent, Edie? And what’s the real story about Edie, another unattractive single woman permanently locked up–possibly for her own good.

 At times, there’s a giddiness to Judith Hearne regarding the male sex that echoes in Stephen Benatar’s marvelous novel,  Wish Her Safe at Home.  Both Benatar’s middle aged female protagonist, Rachel Waring and Brian Moore’s Judith Hearne are given to flights of fancy when men are in the vicinity. Just as we wince when Rachel makes her social blunders with the male sex, we wince when Judith lathers herself up with rouge. The single female protagonists of Wish Her Safe at Home and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne have a great deal in common, but, for this reader, Rachel, in her cocoon of insanity, has a degree of protection from the real world which Judith lacks. This makes Wish Her Safe at Home a very witty novel whereas The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, although it contains some funny scenes, is terribly sad.  We can laugh at Rachel Waring’s infatuation with various men as we know that reality will never penetrate her self-vision, but when Judith Hearne creates romantic fantasies, we know that painful reality is just around the corner. 

She watched the glass, a plain woman changing all to the delightful illusion of beauty. There was still time; for her ugliness was destined to bloom late, hidden first by the unformed gawkiness of youth, budding to plainness in young womanhood and now flowering to slow maturity in her early forties, it still awaited the subtle garishness which only decay to bring to fruition; a garishness which, when arrived at, would preclude all efforts at the mirror game.

So she played. Woman, she saw her womanish glass image. Pulled her hair sideways, framing her imagined face with tresses. Gipsy, she thought fondly, like a gipsy girl on a chocolate box.

There’s a film version of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne which I’ve yet to see.

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Malavita by Tonino Benacquista

How much is one man worth? What price a human life? To know what one is worth is like knowing the date of one’s death. I’m worth twenty million dollars. It’s a lot. But much less than I thought. I must be one of the most expensive men in the world. To be so valuable and to live a life as shitty as mine–that’s the worst misery. If I had that twenty million dollars, I know what I’d do with it. I’d give the whole thing away in exchange for going back to my previous life, before I was worth that much. The man who blows my head off, what will he do with the money? He’ll put it in property and go off to hang out in Barbados for the rest of his life. They all do that. 

These are the thoughts running through the head of former top mafia figure, hitman turned informer for the government, Giovanni Manzoni, now Frederick Blake living with his wife Maggie (Livia) and two children 17-year-old Belle and 14-year-old Warren. Under the watchful eyes of the Witness Protection Programme, they’ve been living in France for 5 years. They’ve had several moves and now they’ve washed up in Normandy, along with their dog Malavita, in the small town of Cholong-sur Avre. The family must integrate and not draw too much attention to themselves–after all Giovanni was a top government witness in a case that busted the Mafia wide open and generated long prison sentences for some very pissed off men. The FBI team members who babysit the family know that the Mafia back in New Jersey have not forgotten Giovanni, and if he’s ever found, he’s a dead man.

malavitaThe attempts to blend in with the locals by the four family members are really very funny, and the best part of the book. There’s Frederick, who’s become depressed since the trial, and who spends his days unshaven and “trailing around in his slippers all day,”  feeling useless. After finding an old typewriter, “obsessed with the idea of telling his version of the truth,”  he decides to write his memoirs–something of course the FBI isn’t too happy about, and his new profession as a writer, gives him the perfect excuse to lounge around on the balcony all day and reminisce about the good old days. Meanwhile Maggie/Livia also think of the good old days when she was a top Mafia wife, “dizzy” with power and feeling like “the First lady of the whole area,”  a woman who could get whatever she wanted with a snap of her fingers. Now she’s decided to do penance by throwing herself into charity and volunteer work.

As for the children, well they speak excellent French. Belle has grown into a beautiful young girl who’s not as vulnerable and naïve as some of her schoolmates think, and Warren’s ambition is to become the godfather of his school–a lofty goal he achieves within days of arriving. An admirer and student of Capone and Lucky Luciano, Warren’s motto is “Give them what they need the most.”

It was just a question of time and organization. In order to achieve synergy and increase complementarity, all he needed to do was to know how to listen, discover each person’s limits, spot the gaps in their lives, and decide how much to charge for filling them. The more solid the base he could build up, the quicker he would rise to power. The pyramid would build itself and raise him to the stars.

Some of the book’s humour comes from the culture clash generated from Americans living in France, but of course, these are not ordinary Americans–this is a crass, violent and dangerous Mafia family who don’t take ill-treatment and insults well. One incident occurs when Maggie asks for peanut butter in the local shop and then overhears the shop owner bitching about Americans to some locals:

I’ve got nothing against them, but they certainly make themselves at home wherever they are.”

“Of course, there were the landings. But we’ve been invaded ever since!”

“In our day, and for our generation, it was nylon stockings and chewing gum, but what about our children?”

“Mine dresses like them. Enjoys the same things, listens to the same music.”

“The worst thing is the food they eat. I cook something they like, and all they can think of is to leave the table as quick as they can and rush off to McDonalds.”

Maggie is “hurt” by the exchange, but what happens next illustrates how the family won’t take insults lightly. We see each family member attempting to integrate with mixed results: an opportunistic plumber finds that his usual sales pitch doesn’t work, and a BBQ (in which the typical American menu of steak, steak or steak is discussed) for some of the locals almost ends in violence. The emphasis is on humour–with the locals oblivious about exactly what they’re dealing with, and Giovanni/Frederick using all his willpower not to exact vengeance against those who insult his BBQ skills. These scenes are all very funny, but some of the other humour, when stone-cold killer Fred, who’s slotted into the life of a harmless writer, imagines his past crimes grates uncomfortably with the humour.

I’d been meaning to read Malavita (aka Badfellas) for some time, and the knowledge that the book’s been made into the Luc Besson  film The Family made picking up the book mandatory. After reading the book, however, I’m not sure that the film will ‘work’ quite as well as the book, but I’ll try it anyway. The book’s alternate title: Badfellas refers to the film Goodfellas, and there’s one wonderful scene in the book when Frederick attends a film night and provides commentary on Goodfellas.

Fred knew the film almost by heart, and he hated it for a thousand reasons. In it gangsters were reduced to what they really were: scum, whose only aim in life was to park in forbidden places, give the biggest fur coat to their wife and, above all, never have to live the lives of those millions of idiots who get up each morning to earn a miserable crust, instead of sleeping in a gold-plated bed. That was all a Mafioso was, and Goodfellas told it like it was. Without the myth, all that was left was stupidity and cruelty.

Review copy

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Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

Suppose,” I said, “some sort of turtle freak decided to steal the turtles and put them back in the ocean. What would he need for the job?’

Ed Park’s introduction to the wonderful novel, Turtle Diary, written by Russell Hoban (1925-2011), tells us that this is “one of the great novels of middle age,” for not only are the dual protagonists two middle-aged lonely people, but they each understand the sort of old age that awaits them just around the corner. Hoban, who was an American ex-pat, lived in Britain and a large part of his work was written for children. It can’t be coincidence, then, that one of the two narrators, Neaera is an author and illustrator (as Hoban was) of children’s books while the other narrator is William, a divorced man (as Hoban was at one point), estranged from his children, who lives in a small boarding house and works at a bookshop. Right away, of course, we know these are different times; the boarding house is very respectable and full of solitary characters with bizarre habits that evoke the shabby gentility of Muriel Spark

Turtle diaryThe alternating narrators are William G. and Neaera H, both in their 40s, both living in London, and both drawn to the plight of the sea turtles who swim endlessly in zoo tanks they have long since outgrown. These two lonely, solitary people approach the zoo and the turtles and each feels a connection to the trapped animals imprisoned in cells far too small and endlessly swimming to a destination they will never reach. After looking at the sea turtles, William is depressed:

Sea turtles. two or three hundred pounds the big ones must have weighed. Looping and swinging, flying in golden-green silty water in a grotty little tank no bigger than my room. Soaring, dipping and curving with flippers like wings in a glass box of second-hand ocean. Their eyes said nothing, the thousands of miles of ocean couldn’t be said.

And here’s Neaera’s reaction:

There they were in the golden-green murk of their little box of sea, their little bedsitter of ocean. One almost expected a meter in the corner of it where they had to put in 5p to keep the water circulating. Thousands of miles in their speechless eyes, submarine skies in their flipper wings. no beach of course, no hot sand for the gravid females to crawl up to, to lay their eggs.

William and Neaera exist in separate lives and yet their eerie connection is made through parallel thought processes & universal consciousness. In the earlier quotes, for example, William notes that the turtle tank is a space “no bigger than my room,” while Neaera, who at that point doesn’t even know William exists, notes their tank is a “little bedsitter of ocean.” These sorts of connected thoughts occur repeatedly throughout the novel, so that we understand why William and Neaera, two very different people, both come to the separate conclusion that the turtles must be liberated from captivity. It is as though some strong force drives them to the zoo and then compels them to act. 

Although William and Neaera are both distressed by the plight of the turtles, they are drawn back repeatedly. Inevitably, they notice one another, and then one day, Neaera walks into the bookshop where William works, and while both characters feel a desire to walk away from the plight of the turtles, they discover a deeply rooted moral obligation to release them back into the sea. Neaera understands William so well that he’s not entirely comfortable with her, but there again he can’t deny either the “eerie” connection they have, or the idea that “there’s another one of me locked up alone in a brain with the same thoughts.

Turtle Diary is a story of Animal Liberation published back in 1975 when the world had an entirely different attitude towards the term, but the book is primarily the story of two lonely people who feel driven to do something about a situation that disturbs their moral universe, and the big question is: will William and Neaera also be liberated by the experience? And from what do these characters need to liberated? Delightful alternating narratives reveal two lonely Londoners who deal with their own demons: William tormented and intimidated by the flagrant, daily selfishness of another lodger, and Neaera, the author of the successful Gillian Vole series who agonizes that she’s “caged” and exploited a water beetle who lives in a fish tank in her flat. She considers the beetle for story material. Possibly something along the lines of Victoria Beetle, Secret Agent:

It was past three in the morning and I was staring into the green murk of Madame Beetle’s tank. The plants are all shrouded in long green webs of algae, there are white and ghostly bits of old meat hanging around about blooming with mould, the sides of the tank are very dim. It’s like the setting for a tiny horror film but Madame Beetle doesn’t seem to mind. I can’t think now how it could have occurred to me that I might write a story about her. Who am I to use the mystery of her that way? Her swimming is better than my writing and she doesn’t expect to get paid for it. If someone were to buy me, have me shipped in a tin with air-holes, what would I be a specimen of ?

Turtle Diary is ostensibly the story of two people appalled at the living conditions of turtles,  but this is ultimately a story about middle age, loneliness and despair. While the sea turtles swim endlessly in a tank searching for a beach that will not appear, our characters live in a state of imprisonment fueled by self-doubt, loneliness, and an inability to connect. Yet who is there to connect with? Neaera’s oily neighbour,  “unemployed actor” Webster de Vere, a shark in the human ocean, appears to “live[s] off old ladies.” And there’s something decidedly predatory about his eyes which look “as if he’s pawned his real ones and is wearing paste.” William, in his boarding house, has to share a bathroom with the other tenants including the mysterious, Sandor who leaves the cooker greasy after preparing his foul-smelling breakfasts and trails pubic hair behind after using the bath. While William & Neaera’s lives aren’t terrible, they are terrifyingly ordinary, and Neaera mulls over the question of whether or not people would choose to lead the lives they find themselves locked into:

It occurred to me then to imagine lives packaged and labeled and ranged on shelves waiting to be bought. I couldn’t think of any likely brand names right off except Brief Candle. And what if the ingredients were listed on the box? Many lives would go unsold, they’d have to discontinue some of the range. Sorry we don’t stock that life any more, there was no demand for it really. Hard Slog for example or Dreary Muddle, how many would they sell a year? On the other hand Wealth and Fame would move briskly even with a Government health Warning on the packet.

Middle age can be a trying time for those who find themselves washed up on this shore, so lest I give the wrong impression about Turtle Diary, the book is full of playful humour. Some of the humour comes from Neaera’s marvelous observations of various zoo animals, but some of it comes from William’s slips:

The sea turtles are on my mind all the time. I can feel something building up in me, feel myself becoming strange and unsafe. Today one of those women who never know titles came into the shop. They are the source of Knightsbridge lady soup and they ask for a good book for a nephew or something new on roses for a gardening husband. This one wanted a novel, ‘something for a good read at the cottage.’ I offered her Procurer to the King by Fallopia Bothways. Going like a bomb with the menopausal set. She gasped, and I realized I’d actually spoken the thought aloud: ‘Going like a bomb with the menopausal set.’

She went quite red. ‘”What did you say?” she said.

“Going like a bomb, it’s the best she’s written yet,” I said, and looked very dim.  

Turtle Diary is a unique book. I’ll be exploring more Russell Hoban shortly as this book makes my best of the year list. There’s a sort of magic at work here–almost as if Neaera and William are animals in the zoo observed by us the readers who’ve paid the price of admission to study a not-so-rare-species. I can see the cage plaque now: Middle Aged Lonely Londoners in Their Natural Habitat.

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