Bleak House: Charles Dickens

Bleak House, my favourite Dickens novel (of the ones I’ve read), was a re-read. I’m not exactly sure what drew me back to it, but possibly, my return was generated as a result of all the Trollope I’ve read lately. In some ways, Bleak House was better than I remembered, but more of that later. While the book’s main plot concerns a long-running lawsuit, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, involving conflicting wills, the tale includes illegitimacy, murder, death by opium, blackmail, domestic violence, child abuse, skullduggery and even …. spontaneous combustion. The legendary lawsuit is known as Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, and it has lasted for decades.

The heroine of the novel is gentle, kind Esther Summerson, a girl who is raised by the inflexible Miss Barbary, who makes reference to Esther’s mother’s ‘disgrace,’ which is, in the eyes of Miss Barbary, an inherited condition. After Miss Barbary’s death, Esther is sent to boarding school by her guardian, Mr. John Jarndyce of Bleak House. One day he sends for Esther and she learns that she is be the companion of another ward, Ada Clare. Mr. Jarndyce also is the guardian of Richard Carstone, and both Ada and Richard, as well as Mr. Jarndyce are all beneficiaries to the Jarndyce will–but that depends on which version will eventually be validated. Esther narrates part of the story and the rest is delivered by omniscient narrator.

The novel follows Esther’s life with Ada. Ada falls in love with her cousin Richard and Mr. Jarndyce encourages Richard to get a career so that he can support a wife. The novel has many mysteries: who is Esther’s mother? Who was her father? Several murders take place in the novel and those crimes of course generate their own mysteries: who is the killer (or killers?). What are the motives for these crimes?

The marvellous character, Lady Honoria Dedlock, appears early in the novel. Lord Dedlock is considerably older than Lady Dedlock, and this may explain her perpetual, languid boredom from which she is rarely aroused. Lord Dedlock married for love, and the marriage, though childless, is a success.

My Lady Dedlock, having conquered her world, fell not into the melting, but rather into the freezing, mood. An exhausted composure, a worn-out placidity an equanimity of fatigue not to be ruffled by interest or satisfaction, are the trophies of her victories. If she could be translated to heaven tomorrow, she might be expected to ascend without any rapture.

The impeccable Lady Dedlock is also a possible beneficiary in the Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce case, but she isn’t exactly waiting on the edge of her seat for an outcome. For one thing, she’s incredibly rich. The Deadlocks’ cunning lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn notes Lady Deadlock’s emotional reaction to some handwriting she sees on an affidavit from the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce case. Tulkinghorn decides to get to the bottom of this mystery and this decision opens up a world of unsavoury characters.

That’s about as much of the plot as I intend to uncover. For this reading, the idea of responsibility leapt out at me. Many characters can be divided into those who take responsibility for their actions and decisions and those who do not.

So on one side, there are the hyper-responsible: Mr John Jarndyce, for example, takes on responsibilities that are NOT his: Esther is one example, but then there’s also Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. Later, Jarndyce steps in when some children are orphaned. Jarndyce performs direct acts of charity. Some of these direct acts are admirable and produce good results, but one of the recipients of Jarndyce’s charity is most unworthy.

That takes me to the other end of the responsibility chain: Harold Skimpole is an amoral bloodsucker who sponges off everyone who will give him the time of day. Perhaps Jarndyce can afford to throw a few pounds Skimpole’s way, but Skimpole, who excuses himself as a “child” when it comes to money, is a parasite even on those who cannot afford it. Skimpole simply doesn’t care who he takes money from. He doesn’t work and has no income;

He was very fond of reading the papers, very fond of making fancy sketches a pencil, very fond of nature, very fond of art. All he asked of society was to let him live. That wasn’t much. His wants were few. Give him the papers, conversation, music, mutton, coffee, landscape, fruit in the season, a few sheets of Bristol-baord, and a little claret, and he asked no more.

Esther is naive and can’t quite grasp how weasley Skimpole is. She’s never met his sort before:

He was quite enchanting. If I felt at all confused at that early time in endeavouring to reconcile anything he said with anything I had thought about duties and accountabilities of life (which I am far from sure of), I was confused by not exactly understanding why he was free of them.

Skimpole refuses to be grateful, stating: “I don’t feel any vulgar gratitude to you. I almost feel as if you ought to be grateful to ME for giving you the opportunity of enjoying the luxury of generosity.” That’s an interesting observation as it burrows into the foundations of charity.

Another character who shirks responsibility is Mrs. Jellyby, a London based woman who, with “telescopic philanthropy” ignores her own family with her obsessive charitable interest in Africa. The Jellyby children are dirty, neglected and subject to the physical hazards of being completely unsupervised. Mrs Jellyby has the “curious habit of seeming to look a long way off, as if ” she could “see nothing nearer than Africa.” Another irresponsible character is Mr Turveydrop–a man who works his nearest and dearest to the bone “to maintain him in those expenses which were indispensable to his position.” And what is his ‘position; you many well ask? Well apparently, his position is to be “a model of deportment.” So in other words, he stands there, snuff box, rings, eye glass and lace, and looks pretty. Sadly… even Lady Dedlock has shifted responsibility onto another–no spoilers here but you know what I’m talking about if you’ve read the book. We see repeatedly how those who shirk responsibility must rely on the hyper responsible to pick up the slack–economically and socially. Some of the shirkers are completely amoral (Turveydrop, Skimpole) but Lady Dedlock is a dreadfully unhappy woman who feels the deep wounds of her past decisions.

The Jarndyce vs, Jarndyce lawsuit encourages Richard Carstone to avoid his adult responsibilities. Through this character (and a couple of others) we see how the promise of a legacy ruins lives. These characters are always waiting for the big win and not planning a life in the eventuality of not winning. Dickens shows that kindness, even seemingly small acts of kindness, go a long way. Mr. Jarndyce and Esther are both hyper responsible and very kind people. Open the pages of this marvellous book, and you step into an incredible world of unforgettable characters: some malicious and conniving, others prey to circumstance. For this reading, I admired how Dickens juxtaposed the tragic with the light. I laughed out loud when Mrs Guppy, the mother of Esther’s self-interested, would-be suitor, tries to throw Mr. Jarndyce out of his own house.

Finally, at the end of the novel, I asked myself if I would rather be in a Dickens or a Trollope novel? The winner, hands-down: Trollope. It’s not an entirely fair question. Bleak House contains some evil characters (and banal opportunists), and while these types do occasionally pop up in Trollope, Trollope defangs the bad. Dickens was concerned with social ills/evils, and he shows, brilliantly, how easy is it to fall from the narrow plank of subsistence living, and, then how once off that plank, various human piranha move in for the kill.

13 Comments

Filed under Dickens Charles, Fiction, posts

The Village of Eight Graves: Seishi Yokomizo

“I had a terrible feeling about this.”

The Japanese crime novel, The Village of Eight Graves, from Seishi Yokomizo is number 35 in the Detective Kindaichi series. The title, and the subsequent legend about how this remote village got its name, pulled me into the story right away. The village, we are told, is located “amid the desolate mountains on the border of Tottori and Okayama prefectures.” It sounds like a miserable place. If you are going to live in the middle of nowhere, it should at least be picturesque, but this area renders poor farming. With its “inhospitable climate” the villagers can barely grow enough food, and the “main industries” are charcoal making and cattle. In the 16th century, 8 rebel samurai fled, and arrived at the village with a considerable amount of gold. All is well at first, but a reward is posted for the rebel samurai. The villagers decide to murder the samurai and keep the gold. The villagers got the bounty for the dead samurai but never found the gold. …

After this incident, terrible things began to happen in the village. It was as though the villagers were cursed with bad luck, and then one day a member of the powerful Tajimi family went berserk, killed seven members of his own family and punctuated the slaughter by the ultimate party trick, self-decapitation. Interesting to note, the Tajimi family had been major players in the murders of the 8 samurai. ..

Since this incident, “hereditary madness had been passed down through the generations of the [Tajimi] family.” Fast forward to the 1920s. …. Yoko Tajimi, a married man, “developed an infatuation” for a teenage girl named Tsuroko. Yozo carries her off, locks her in his storehouse, and repeatedly rapes her. Yozo refused to let her go and her terrified family persuaded Tsuroko to become Yozo’s mistress. She agrees and is released from imprisonment but still mauled by Yozo. It’s a horrible situation with Yozo’s “crazed ferocity” that “no ordinary woman” could tolerate. Tsuroko keeps running away but this only provokes Yozo’s “crazed fury.” And the villagers keep begging Tsuroko to return, so there’s an atmosphere of terrified collusion. Eventually Tsuroko becomes pregnant and has a baby boy named Tatsuya. Rumours swirl through the village that the child may be the son of the local teacher, Kamei, the man Tsuroko loves, and honestly, the villagers should keep their friggin’ mouths shut! Tsuroko runs off after Yozo brands the baby with burning hot tongs. Subsequently Yozo goes on a killing frenzy and slaughters 32 villagers. Yozo disappears.

26 more years pass, and now it’s post WWII Japan….Tsuroko and Yozo’s child is now a man of 29. He fought in WWII and returned home to Kobe. His mother is long dead and his stepfather has been killed during the bombing. Tatsuya, who has no idea about the violence in his past, is contacted by a lawyer who asks to see identity papers and then asks to see Tatsuya’s scars from the decades-old branding. The lawyer explains that he has been hired by a wealthy man, a relative of Tatsuya’s to locate him. Tatsuya finally learns of his bloody past and then receives an anonymous letter telling him never to return to the Village of Eight Graves. The letter warns that if he dares to return, “there will be blood!” But the killings start right away–even before Tatsuya gets to the Village of Eight Graves. Tatsuya’s life is spinning out of control–long-lost relatives, buried treasure, death threats, murder, ancient curses, a beautiful woman, hereditary madness all of these await Tatsuya at the Village of Eight Graves.

It takes a while to get into the story, and it has its slow moments, but it’s gripping once all the characters slot into place. The story’s establishes that the villagers have constructed an unhealthy society of murder and cooperation with violence. Tatsuya’s narrative is particularly interesting as it’s easy to imagine his feelings when he discovers his bloody, violent past and confronts the possibility of hereditary madness:

Maybe I did have some dark later ego lurking inside me, and this other me was committing all manner of horrors without my knowing it.

Review copy

Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

11 Comments

Filed under posts, Yokomizo Seishi

Find a Victim: Ross Macdonald (1954)

“It was a long fall straight down through the darkness of my head. I was a middle aging space cadet lost between galaxies and out of gas.”

Ross Macdonald’s Find a Victim is the 5th Lew Archer novel in this PI series. This excellent novel is a little different from its predecessors, and although Archer is hired to investigate in this murky case, he’s also fired. By that time, however, Archer is committed to the case because he’s in it up to his neck and is considered, at times, a murder suspect. The novel is darker than the earlier novels in the series, and incest, hinted at in an earlier novel, is loud and clear here.

Some people are Trouble Magnets, and we see this in Find a Victim. Archer is minding his own business, driving North to Sacramento when he sees a badly wounded man on the side of the road. He pulls over and takes the man, a shooting victim, to the nearest place he can find. That turns out to be Kerrigan’s Court: Deluxe Motor Hotel which is owned by the unhappily married couple, the Kerrigans. Kerrigan isn’t happy to see the bleeding man who is dying of a gunshot wound, and he seems annoyed that Archer brought this man, a man he identifies as a truck driver known as Tony, to his doorstep. By the time the local sheriff arrives, Tony is barely alive. All the parties involved up to this point are hostile to Archer and the idea is floated that Archer may be the murderer. Naturally, feeling involved, Archer sticks around to delve into the case. He discovers that Tony was driving a truck full of whiskey. The truck has disappeared along with its valuable contents. Turns out the motel receptionist, Ann, has also disappeared.

This is a tight little town in which everyone seems related or connected to each other in some way. Ann, who also happens to be the sheriff’s sister-in-law, AND the daughter of the owner of the trucking company, was also Kerrigan’s mistress until fairly recently. Now, however, Kerrigan is knocking around with nightclub singer, Jo, a girl with “a mouth as sullen as sin.” The nightclub used to belong to Kerrigan, but Kerrigan, up to his eyeballs in debt, just sold it. Here’s Jo:

She looked “more like an actress who hadn’t quite made the grade down south or a very successful amateur tart in the verge of turning pro. Whatever her business was, there had to be sex in it. She was as full of sex as a grape is full of juice and so young that it hadn’t begun to sour.

Hired by irritable, unstable trucking company owner Mike to find the whiskey, the truck, Tony’s killer AND Mike’s missing daughter, Ann, Archer manages to piss off almost everyone in town. There are too many connections between the major players to be just coincidence and Archer unravels the mess and mystery surrounding Tony’s murder. Of all the Archer novels I’ve read so far, this is my favourite. As with the other novels, Archer steps into a twisted, violent world in which he is the outsider trying to discover the truth. Once again, he gets little thanks but lots of beatings. Ross Macdonald seems to hit his stride with Find a Victim, and his use of language complements the story’s tempo and its pitch perfect darkness

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Macdonald Ross, posts

The Bachelors: Muriel Spark

“Never have to do with a woman … they draw the virtue out of you.”

Muriel Spark’s The Bachelors, a tale of blackmail, fraud and skullduggery, focuses on a handful of thirty-something single men who live in London. London is, according to the novel, “the great city of bachelors,” and as expected, most of the novel’s characters are unmarried men who are connected, in various ways, to a criminal case of fraud against spiritualist/medium, Patrick Seton. Patrick Seton, a member of a spiritualist group, The Wider Infinity and its elitist, secret center, The Inner Spiral is charged for fraud and forgery. Seton is accused of forging a letter, purportedly from his former landlady, Mrs. Freda Flower, “a dumpy, much-powdered woman of middle-age.” The letter included a cheque for 2,000 pounds–the entirety of Mrs. Flower’s life savings. Barrister Martin Bowles is prosecuting Seton, and Martin’s acquaintance, Ronald Bridges, an epileptic who works as an assistant curator at a museum of Graphology, who is also a handwriting expert, is to be called as a witness in the upcoming trial. Other bachelors include art-critic, Walter Prett, Irish journalist Matthew Finch, grammar school master/spiritualist Ewart Thornton, and clairvoyant /male prostitute Mike Garland who is in the blackmail/pornography biz with Father Socket.

While the story centres of a group of bachelors, a few females enter the plot. There’s Ronald’s former ‘perfect’ girlfriend, Hildegarde, one of those awful know-it-alls. Diabetic Alice Dawes is Patrick’s pregnant, naive, girlfriend. She believes Patrick when he tells her that they will marry as soon as his divorce comes through, and she refuses, much to Patrick’s annoyance, to abort their baby. Elsie Forrest, Alice’s friend dislikes and distrusts Patrick, and she becomes embroiled in the forgery case. Elsie has a tendency to blackmail men into sex, and this habit has mixed success in the book. There’s also Marlene Cooper who heads the spiritualist group, and who runs it almost exclusively for her own purposes: after all she has both a husband and boyfriend on ‘the other side,’ and occasionally wonders “how Harry and Carl were making out together in the land of perpetual summer.”

The novel takes us into the world of Spiritualism where Patrick Seton is a much admired medium. While the date draws nearer to Patrick’s trial, immense pressure is exerted upon the impressionable Mrs. Flowers, and Patrick consoles himself with fantasies (as well as a concrete plan) to murder Alice. He doesn’t want to be tied down with a wife and baby, so Alice must go.

And I will release her from this gross body. He looks with justification at the syringe by her bedside, and is perfectly convinced about how things will go in Austria (all being well), since a man has to protect his bread and butter, and Alice has agreed to die, though not in so many words.

The Bachelors is the funniest Muriel Spark novel I’ve read to-date. Authentic vs fake is a theme: for example, while Patrick takes medication he doesn’t need to enhance the showman side of his contact with the other world, Ronald takes the very same medication to control his epilepsy. Most of the characters, spiritualist or otherwise are frauds in one way or another, and most are not what they seem. While deceit controls the action, sex is the currency, so the subject of sex weaves its way through the lives of the characters: the lack of sex, post-coital guilt, onion as a weapon of abstinence, homosexuality, and pornography all play a role here. Great fun. It’s rare for a book to cause me to laugh out loud.

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts, Spark, Muriel

The Wife: Meg Wolitzer

All over the world, husbands and wives routinely and somewhat pointlessly ask one another: Are you okay? It’s part of the contract; it’s the thing to do, because it implies that you care, that you’re paying attention, when in fact you might be deeply and relentlessly bored.”

Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Wife, is the history of the long, tired marriage of the Castlemans. As with any long marriage, it’s changed over the years, but this marriage also bears the scars of innumerable infidelities, and the total absorption of the wife’s identity into her husband’s career and public persona. Joe Castleman is an author on the tail end of his career, and he and his wife Joan fly to Helsinki to attend a prize ceremony which will give Joe a prestigious award along with a large sum of money. The novel opens with the couple on the plane and with Joan deciding that she’s fed up with Joe and her marriage.

“Will you have some cookies, Mr. Castleman?” a brunette [stewardess] asked him, leaning over with a pair of tongs, and as her breasts slid forward and then withdrew. I could see the ancient mechanism of arousal start to whir like a knife sharpener inside him, a sight I’ve witnessed thousands of times over the decades. “Mrs Castleman?” the woman asked me then, in afterthought, but I declined. I didn’t want her cookies or anything else.

Now age 64, Joan is going to leave her 71-year-old husband. Joe was Joan’s married professor when they met in 1956, and just a few meetings in his office led to sex. According to Joe, his first wife, Carol was “insane. Locked-ward certifiable,” but the affair ‘freed’ him from marriage and brand-new fatherhood. Even though Joe walked out on Carol and new baby Fanny, for years he got mileage out of the idea of the tragic loss of a relationship with his daughter. Over the years, Joan has come to understand that Joe’s display of more introspective, sensitive emotions are simply for show: his ‘anguish’ about losing his baby daughter, supposed ‘sensitivity’ towards women, and he “always did self-doubt very well.” When a writer appears to shows such great sensitivity and understanding towards his subjects, it’s easy, as readers, to assume that he is actually that sensitive and caring in person. But in reality, it’s all about Joe. Always has been. Always will.

The book follows the trajectory of the Castleman’s marriage–a relationship which is established immediately with Joan as Joe’s helpmeet, cheerleader, and general fan. Yet Joan’s first glance at Joe’s early story is a shock. It’s shallow and cliched, but Joan doesn’t tell him it’s crap, because after all she exists as a mirror to reflect back Joe’s monolithic ego. Joan supported Joe after he lost his college position, and so it became very necessary to Joan that Joe succeed–that all the mess, sacrifice (her own writing) and upheaval was actually worth it. Joe’s first novel, The Walnut, a huge success, was “pure autobiography.” His success continued for decades, but his last two novels have been mediocre and his popularity, his relevance, is fading.

Yet critics had always admired Joe’s vision of contemporary American marriage, which seemed to plumb the female sensibility as thoroughly as it did the male, but amazingly without venom, without blame. And early on in his career, his novels had made the leap into Europe, where he was considered even more important than in the States. Joe’s work was from the old, postwar “marital” school–husbands and wives stranded in tiny apartments or boxy, drafty colonials in suburban streets with names like Bethany Court or Yellow Swallow Drive. The men were deep but sour, the women, sad and lovely, the children disaffected. The families were crumbling, full of factions, American. Joe included his own life, using details from his childhood, his early adulthood and then his two marriages.

Joan and Joe eventually have three children–and of course they exist only to extend, brighten or tease out Joe’s image for his friends and public. Joan, who has already sacrificed any sort of career to be Joe’s personal sounding board/ therapist/pimp, also sacrifices her relationships with her children to follow Joe around the globe. Yes no wonder their marriage is successful, because it’s all about Joe, and if Joan ever took her foot off that pedal, she would go the way of Carol in a heartbeat.

The Castleman’s marriage seems a success to outsiders, mainly because it continues, but it continues with intense repeat humiliations for Joan, with her turning a blind eye to innumerable affairs. By the time I was halfway into the book, I was waiting for the big scene where Joan told Joe what a dickhead he is, but then again she doesn’t exactly have the moral high ground. Like every marriage, it’s complicated, and Joan is, at times, complicit in Joe’s tackier behaviour–helping Joe with his ‘research’ on prostitutes and even orgies. …The tremendously disappointing ending undermined the book’s entire message. The story jettisoned from the launch pad with marital fury and fizzed, anticlimactically, with keeping up that old, stale image of a united marital front. With Joe’s gigantic ego and intense selfishness, I waited for him to get his comeuppance, but alas I was destined for disappointment, although there are hints of a possible future revenge.

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts

2021: It’s a Wrap

Book-wise, this was a great year, and here are the highlights.

Best of 2021:

A Kiss Before Dying: Ira Levin

One of the most enthralling, creepiest crime books I’ve read, this is the story of Bud, a psychopath who returns from WWII a hero, but finds that the normal route to success (hard work, starter jobs, college) is not for him. A stint as a gigolo for an older, wealthy widow is just the ticket, but it comes with an expiration date. Bud calculates that the next move is a wealthy, young bride, so he enrolls in a college known as “a country club for the children of the Midwestern wealthy.” The plan works well until the girl gets pregnant….

Nightmare Alley: William Gresham.

This gritty noir story follows the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, a carnie worker who moves up in his trade from mind reader, to medium to reverend. Along the way, he manipulates, steals, defrauds and murders. His weakness is sex and women. He uses women, but eventually stumbles into the life of a woman who’s nastier than he is. There’s a film version of this just released.

The Beggar’s Pawn: John L’Heureux

A well-to-do older married couple allow their lives to be invaded by a manipulative, resentful would-be writer, Reginald Parker. The couple, a professor and his independently wealthy wife, have warning signals about Reginald, but they are ‘nice’ people, burdened with their own sense of privilege and constantly under siege, financially, from their 3 awful children.

The Paper Lovers: Gerard Woodward

Arnold Proctor, a professor and poet, is happily married, or at least thinks he is, when he finds that he’s attracted to one of his wife’s friends, Vera. Arnold becomes fascinated with Vera–yes there’s a strong sexual attraction, but she’s religious and somehow, Arnold can’t align Vera with her strong religious beliefs. A sexual advance leads to almost instant coupling. Again Arnold can’t align Vera’s actions with her beliefs. This is adultery, right? Doesn’t she feel guilty? Arnold finds out the hard way (not that we feel sorry for him) that transgressions for the religious have a certain trajectory.

Wives and Daughters: Elizabeth Gaskell

A wonderful novel which traces the life of Molly Gibson whose father, a country doctor, marries a silly, selfish, vain widow. Dr. Gibson has no idea what he’s dealing with when he marries the snobby, ridiculous shallow widow, Mrs. Kirkpatrick, but Molly doesn’t know what she’s dealing with when her capricious step-sister, Cynthia, arrives.

Oh William!: Elizabeth Strout

This is the story of a man in crisis who calls upon his ex-wife to cushion him from life. Lucy Barton and William have been divorced for some time when the story begins, but she still cares about William. By the time I finished this, I wanted to shake Lucy Barton and ask her why William’s needs were sooo important–even to the exclusion of her own. The tale is told by Lucy who divorced William for his (as it turns out) numerous affairs. Lucy may have left the marriage behind but not apparently the need to ‘care’ about William. When William’s much younger wife dumps William (shock!) Lucy becomes re-involved with William. Their relationship is an example of Amy Witting’s ‘the diners and the dinners,’ and we all know who the diner is here.

The Bachelors: Muriel Spark.

This very funny story strings together several London bachelors who become involved, in various ways, with the sticky tendrils of a forgery and fraud case which involves a male medium who has murderous designs on his pregnant girlfriend.

The Barsetshire Series: Anthony Trollope.

Six novels. The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, The Last Chronicle of Barset. The series follows the lives and tribulations of various characters who live in Barsetshire. With countless subplots, Trollope delves into the squabbles between clergymen, ecclesiastical hierarchy, love affairs, the vagaries of marriage, the power of the press, snobbery, debt. Barchester Towers has long been a great favourite, but The Last Chronicle of Barset comes a close second. Throughout the series, Trollope reveals petty behaviour, but towards the end of the series, petty behaviour yields to much more serious transgressions. But Trollope oversees all with his customary good humour and generosity.

Hoke Moseley series: Charles Willeford

This is a 4-book, hardboiled crime series: Miami Blues, New Hope for the Dead, Sideswipe, The Way We Die Now, Miami homicide detective, Hoke Moseley isn’t anyone’s idea of a hero. When the series opens, he’s divorced, living in a flop house hotel, wearing leisure suits, beginning to go bald, has no teeth and is struggling to make ends meet. By the end of the series, his career is looking up and he has both of his teenage daughters after his Ex took off to California. Now he has a few stray hairs on his head, still wears those outdated leisure suits, and still has no teeth. Actually Hoke’s false teeth play a role in the books. Hoke’s career moves through the influx of Cuban refugees, Affirmative Action, gentrification and, horror of horrors, laws concerning public smoking. Hoke’s laconic attitude belies his natural born-killer instinct and his peculiar way of looking at the world lightens the darkness.

Leisureville: Andrew Blechman

Not the best book I read in 2021, but definitely the most interesting non-fiction book of the year. The book is written by Andrew Blechman who goes to the world’s largest retirement community, The Villages in Florida after a neighbour moves there. While the author didn’t approve of the ethics (if that’s the right word) of the place, I was fascinated. Why would people choose to move to a community with age restrictions? What’s it like? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks?

15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Gaskell, Elizabeth, Gresham Lindsay William, L'Heureux John, Levin Ira, posts, Spark, Muriel, Strout Elizabeth, Trollope, Anthony, Willeford, Charles, Woodward Gerard

The Husbands: Chandler Baker

“Don’t you just love an organized cIoset?”

In Chandler Baker’s domestic thriller, The Husbands, Nora Spangler is a personal injury lawyer who puts in extra hours every chance she gets. She’s been long enough at the same firm to expect to be made partner, but her personal life often strains her professional commitments. She has one child, 4 year-old Liv, and is pregnant with a second. She’s the one who buys the groceries, goes to pediatric appointments, does 99% of the housework, and bathes and puts her toddler to bed, yet she still feels as though she’s a failure as a mother. Her husband, software salesman, Hayden, always says he will help, but somehow he always manages to disappear whenever he’s needed. Here she is juggling laundry, work, and a demanding toddler–all on a Sunday afternoon:

“Hayden!” she shouts, barely clinging to a note of self-control. “Hay-den!” She leans deep into the two syllables. She can’t help it. Her husband appears from the garage, tilting his head to remove his Airpods. “Where were you?” She sounds like a detective trying to intimidate a suspect into providing his alibi. She hates herself a little for it.

“Sorry.” He pours himself a glass of water, and a stream of it drips onto the front of the refrigerator where it will leave marks on the stainless steel and a puddle on the floor. “I was just working out. I had my headphones in. Did you need me?” He takes in her face. “What’s wrong?”

The thing with Hayden, is that he never refuses to help. He tells Nora that he’s happy to pitch in–“just tell me what to do” is a familiar refrain, but this puts Nora in the position of hunting Hayden down and telling him what needs to be done when more often than not, it’s pretty friggin’ obvious. No wonder Nora is worn out, frustrated and fed up by the sheer inequity of labour at home.

House-hunting for a one-storey home, Nora and Hayden take a look at a suburb called Dynasty Ranch. It’s full of successful, powerful women who are completely and utterly supported by their husbands. One of the women asks Nora to represent neighbour, author Penny, in a wrongful-death suit involving the death of her husband in a Dynasty Ranch home fire. At first, Nora declines the case but under pressure at work to beef up her numbers, she changes her mind.

Dynasty Ranch has a HOA and any new buyer must have a sponsor. After a get-to-know-you dinner party, Hayden is not so keen to move in–he finds he has little in common with the husbands who don’t use the golf course but instead ooze enthusiasm when discussing various ways to remove stains from clothing and the joys of closet organization. While the Spanglers can’t come to a decision on the purchase of the Dynasty Ranch house, thanks to the Penny’s case, Nora still has frequent contact with a handful of the resident wives. During a party, there’s a horrible scene between Hayden and Nora. Dynasty Ranch resident, psychiatrist Cornelia White suggests couples therapy, and so the games begin….

The Husbands is an entertaining read. Just what is afoot in Dynasty Ranch is the book’s big mystery, but another, subtler question concerns Hayden. Is he really clueless when it comes to recognizing how to help Nora? Or has he learned clever avoidance techniques which allow him to hold on to the label of ‘modern’ husband who is always there to help when the reality is that he’s just as hands-off childcare/housework as a 50s spouse? I know where my opinion lands, but Nora is still undecided and that’s where a lot of her problems lie. She feels that she’s nagging Hayden when she must repeatedly ask him for the most basic help, and since he’s so agreeable and reasonable about helping, she can’t quite pinpoint who is at fault here.

Loved the scene where Hayden sends Nora a video of Liv having a temper tantrum and demands that Nora leave work to come and deal with it as it’s “not normal.” One of Nora’s workmates identifies Hayden as the “lazy traveler” in the marriage, and the description rings true.

The lazy traveler. It’s a theory about couples. Two people are travelling together and no matter what their two individual personality types might be, one person will start doing, right? That person starts figuring out which way to the metro, what the day’s itinerary is, how to exchange currency. All that stuff and the other one, they sit back.

The demands of Nora’s life seem all too real–we may ask why they don’t hire a nanny–although there’s mention of difficulties getting childcare. The book addresses the dilemma faced by career women who’ve been told they can have it all. But all too often it means doing it all as well:

Part of her wants to murder feminism herself. Somebody please hand her the knife and Nora will be happy to stab that saucy bitch right in the back. The traitor.

This book was great fun, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to. I read a lot of reviews that the book is man bashing. It’s a story. It’s fiction, I’ve seen husband-father disconnect “just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it” umpteen times in virtuoso performances by men who can’t ‘get’ that they too can pick up dirty clothes etc. Learned uselessness. Plus I’ve seen other husbands pitch in. This is a story about husbands of professional women who don’t pitch in (or don’t pitch in enough) and how far a group of women are prepared to go to have ‘perfect’ supportive spouses. This tale has a great dark, twisty ending.

I listened to the audio version of this book. It was beautifully read by Allyson Ryan.

Review copy.

5 Comments

Filed under Baker Chandler, Fiction, posts

The Glass Heart: Marty Holland (1946)

“Women always take one look at me and go back to their husbands.”

Marty Holland (1919-1971) doesn’t seem to be remembered these days. There’s very little about her on Wikipedia. Her first novel, Fallen Angel, was adapted for the screen and starred Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell. The File on Thelma Jordan was based on one of Holland’s unpublished stories. The Glass Heart is a grimy, hard-boiled tale of lust, murder and blackmail (sign me up, baby) but unfortunately, the dark, hard centre of this novel slides into conformity, tinged with sentimentality, towards the end.

Curt Blair, an unemployed petty thief, hangs out in restaurants and makes a marginal, opportunistic living.

It was one of those ritzy has joints in Beverly Hills, away from the hoi polloi. Fancy lace tablecloths, demi-tases, and waitresses in pink organdy outfits. One of those places. I was sitting up at the counter, sipping coffee, puffing on a cigarette, soaking in the warmth of the room, and glancing now and then through the draped window at the rain outside. It was raining like hell. No ordinary downpour: heavy, splotchy drops–the way it rains in California.

Curt steals a customer’s expensive camel hair coat, but he’s spotted and chased. He runs into a gated garden, hoping to hide, but the owner thinks he’s her new handyman. Curt decides to stay, in spite of the nastiness of the bossy owner, Virginia Block. She lists all the work she expects him to do–he’ll live at the house and be responsible for the general upkeep of the house, car repair, gardening etc, and all for twenty dollars a week. Curt considers telling her to shove it–especially when he sees his tiny, filthy room, but when he thinks of the police, he decides it wouldn’t be a bad idea to lay low for a few days.

That was the plan, but Curt didn’t factor in Virginia who calls herself a “defenseless old woman,” and “a woman alone,” but in reality, she’s a penny-pinching, shrewd slave-driver. Crafty Virginia owes money all over town, and one of Curt’s many jobs is to lie to bill collectors. When Curt finds out that Virginia’s husband disappeared, he’s not surprised. Curt rationalises that the absent husband probably couldn’t take the heat any longer and escaped. Curt should move on, but he sniffs that the old lady has money and that if he plays the game, he could be living on easy street. The old lady, by the way is fifty. Curt starts laying on the compliments and Virginia gets skittish with the flattery. Enter a female lodger, a would-be actress, Lynn Cook, and all of Curt’s intentions to smooch Virginia are thrown out of the window.

What was it about the dame that sent my fever up? Chemistry? Or whatever you call it. This one really had it, whatever it was.

Another female lodger, Elsie, moves in. Soon Curt is blackmailing Virginia concerning the whereabouts of her missing husband, and then passing on the proceeds to both of the female lodgers. Curt admits “I’ve always been a sucker that way. I can’t say no to a pretty dame!” This toxic situation can’t last forever, and Curt is playing with fire.

Written with great snappy dialogue, the plot oozes noir. Curt’s involvement with three women is a perfect scenario for noir, but the plot backs off from the darkest descent. There’s a light touch in Curt’s relationships and his marshmallow attitude towards young attractive women. Ultimately the book’s hard edge disappears almost as if the author was reluctant to take the plot to its logical, dark consequences. Still, I’m glad I read this. Virginia is a great (nasty) character.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Holland Marty, posts

Murder’s a Swine: Nap Lombard (1943)

The World War II mystery, Murder’s a Swine (alternate title: The Grinning Pig) was written by husband and wife team, Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart. They wrote two mysteries together (Tidy Death: 1940) and were divorced in 1949. Murder’s a Swine doesn’t have the sort of tone one associates with WWII, but then again, as Martin Edwards explains in the wonderful introduction, the tale’s light-hearted tone was an antidote to the dire reality of 1943 Britain. The book’s mood, in spite of wartime, in spite of murder, is giddy, and the closest thing I could compare it to is a screwball comedy.

The book opens with Clem Poplett “youngest warden at the post in Featherstone Mews” seeking a respite from the miserable weather inside an ad hoc shelter at Stewarts Court, a block of flats. Inside the shelter he meets one of the residents, Mrs. Kinghof, who notes the bad smell. Clem chalks the smell up to damp sandbags, but Mrs. Kinghof isn’t convinced. She says the odour is “as if a cat got into the bags and died there.” Close… the stench comes from a dead body of a large man. Of course all hell breaks loose, and so the fun begins.

It’s clear from page one that there’s something very peculiar afoot at Stewarts Court, and the residents are a mixed, odd lot. At the beginning of the book is a plan of the block of flats–along with its residents. There’s also a plan of Mrs. Sibley’s flat. The dead body turns out to be Mrs. Sibley’s brother, a man she hasn’t seen in years, and not long after the discovery of the putrid body, Mrs. Sibley discovers a pig’s head “pressed against the pane.” Mrs. Kinghof and her husband become the amateur sleuths who are hot on the trail of the murderer. The frothy tale, which makes sleuthing seem fun, has a giddy, good humoured tone from the first page. The characters are introduced very quickly into the novel and I found myself referring to the plan of the flats frequently. Mrs. Kinghof’s initial chatter with the air raid warden was nonsensical and somewhat annoying. This is the type of ‘lark’ mystery one must be in the right mood to enjoy. There’s plenty of screaming, squeaking and fainting, and a explanatory denouement by the killer at the end.

Review copy

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction, Lombard Nap, posts

Seven Lean Years: Celia Fremlin (1961)

“Hate is stronger than you know.”

34-year-old Ellen Fortescue isn’t a quitter. She has been engaged for seven long years to Leonard, an accountant who says they can’t marry yet as he has to support his elderly step-mother, Laura. The long engagement has killed any romance, if there was any to begin with. Leonard is the type who loves to deliver patronising lectures, so he always assumes a position of superiority. Perhaps he was subtler 7 years ago, but now Leonard is insufferable. Even Ellen, who has a tendency to doubt herself and feel inadequate, begins to wonder if she wants to marry Leonard. Not that it’s a pressing question.

Ellen knew that every passing year was making it more and more necessary that the wait should have been worth while.

When Seven Lean Years opens, Ellen is the landlady ‘managing’ the various flats in her father’s sprawling home. She left her job a year before and moved in with her father when his health faltered. In order to make ends meet, she began renting out some of the rooms, but this has had spotty success. One of the tenants is Ellen’s cousin Melissa, plus her husband and 2 children There’s also Mrs. Hammond, who on one hand is very tolerant and easy going, but lackadaisical when it comes to her share of the stair cleaning. A married couple, the Butlers are ideal, they are quiet, neat and keep to a strict schedule, but if the schedule (which includes sharing a kitchen is threatened, it’s Ellen’s job to sort it.

They were all of them good tenants; but good, reflected Ellen gloomily, in such dreadfully incompatible ways.

Ellen’s already disordered life becomes more complicated with the return of Leonard’s step-mother Laura. The nursing home in which she lives is closing, and so Leonard takes Laura to his home, temporarily.

The relationships between the characters in the novel are tangled: Ellen’s father, Dick, was married to Laura at one point but left her to marry Ellen’s mother. Laura married a widowed neighbour and inherited Leonard as a stepson. Now Ellen and Leonard are engaged… Yes it’s messy. Laura swore revenge on Dick when he divorced her, and Leonard is convinced that if given half the chance, Laura will keep her promise. Yet Laura seems quite batty, floating in and out of her childhood memories.

Ellen is a problematic character. She’s passive and dumped on by everyone–her father, the tenants, her ridiculous fiancé and even the local builder who supposedly repaired the still-leaky roof. This makes her a difficult character as she is continually acted upon, screwed over and lectured, so much so that I found the book a frustrating read. The psychological aspects of the Ellen/Leonard relationship were interesting, but Ellen is too much of a doormat, at least for this reader. Some people choose to be victims, and this goes a long way to explaining Ellen’s passiveness. Her sudden, final revelations seem hard to believe, given her actions and choices.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Fremlin Celia, posts