Miami Blues: Charles Willeford (1984)

Frederick J. Frenger Jr., career criminal and a “blithe psychopath,” freshly released from his latest prison sentence, heads to Miami with a wallet full of stolen credit cards. He arrives at Miami airport with plans to steal luggage and hold up in a hotel room while he plans his big heist. When he’s hassled by a zealous Hare Krishna, Frenger reacts with violence and the Hare Krishna dies. So there’s Frenger’s explosive entrance into Miami, and when you see someone enter like that, you know they’re going to exit with a bang. Once in the hotel, Frenger, with the assistance of a ‘helpful’ bellman named Pablo, orders up a hooker, and this second action by Frenger tangles him in a cord of Fate. The waif-like hooker’s name is Pepper, and although she looks underage, she’s a 20 year-old college student named Susan Waggoner.

Why, Freddy wondered, is she lying to me? No college would ever accept this incredibly stupid young woman as a student. On the other hand, he had known a few college men in San Quentin. Although they usually got the best jobs there, they didn’t appear to be any smarter than the majority of the cons.

Needing a car and a place to stay, Frenger decides to play house with Susan, claiming they will have a platonic marriage. Susan is a lousy prostitute and the stupidest one Frenger has ever met. Still she suits his plans and she’s disposable. In the meantime, Homicide detective Hoke Moseley begins investigating the murder of the Hare Krishna. It’s an odd murder and Hoke is interested in how it occurred. As he approaches the investigation, Hoke inadvertently and unknowingly spins into Frenger’s path. Frenger hates cops and so he decides to ‘fix’ Hoke.

Miami Blues has Charles Willeford’s signature dry savage wit. The humour here comes partly from Susan’s naivety and stupidity. She’s pimped out by her brother, and there’s a whole back story here I won’t give away, but I could swear I heard the background music from Deliverance whenever Susan tells her sad story. With her offer of free blowjobs and giving Pablo a 50/50 cut, it’s clear this career is not for Susan. She’s a bizarre mix of character traits: naïve and innocent–yet utterly corrupted, stupid and yet a survivor. Sometimes innocence opens the gates of hell and sometimes innocence gives you a free pass:

Freddy unwrapped the bath sheet and dropped it on the floor. He probed her pregreased vagina with the first three fingers of his right hand. He shook his head and frowned.

“Not enough friction there for me,he said. “I’m used to boys, you see. Do you take it in the ass?

“No, sir. I should, I know, but I tried it once and it hurt too much, I just can’t do it. I can give you a blow-job if you like.”

“That’s okay, but I’m not all that interested anyway. You really should learn to take it in the ass You’ll make more money, and if you learn to relax–“

That’s what Pablo said but I can’t.”

The sardonic humour comes from the telling of this tale and in the portrayal of Hoke, a great series character whose life is a wreck. He’s divorced, handing over half his paycheck in alimony, living in a flophouse motel, trying to hang onto his false teeth (his abscessed teeth were removed in the morgue by the local pathologist). The teeth have quite a role to play in this violent tale. Hoke isn’t a humorous character, but it gets to the point that he’s beaten down so far you can’t see the nailhead. The novel spins around these three characters: Hoke, the slow-moving, low-key thorough detective, Susan, the world’s stupidest prostitute, and Frenger whose vicious acts carve a path of destructive violence. This is a man who is capable of the most brutal acts and the brutality isn’t relative to the provocation–Frenger, who thinks all his mistakes in life can be chalked up to his “altruism,” doesn’t possess a ‘scale of response.’

It took Hoke twenty minutes to find his teeth, but they had landed in a cluster of screw-leaved crotons and weren’t damaged. He put them into a fresh glass of water with another helping of polident and wondered what in the hell he was going to do next.

This is hard-boiled detective fiction: violence and sex. But in this novel, they are the same thing.

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People Like Her: Ellery Lloyd

“She has always had a fairly complicated relationship with the truth, my wife.”

I’m one of those people who find most social media weird. Don’t get me wrong; the internet is a wonderful tool, but spending hours on social media …. I just don’t get it. Reality TV, which really should be called ‘Manufactured TV,’ is one thing if it’s limited to competitions of one sort or another, but let’s face it, the minute you stick someone in front of a camera or put them on public display, what they do and say is going to change. That’s human nature for you. And that brings me to the more complex manifestations of social media … that most bizarre time-sucking phenomenon. IMO it’s bizarre to put your life on public display and also IMO it’s inevitably going to warp your life, and the lives of the people you care about, if you Vlog your daily life.

Ellery Lloyd’s suspense novel, People Like Her, is the story of a highly successful product influencer, Instagram phenomenon, Emily Jackson (Instamum aka ‘Mamabare’) whose schtick is that motherhood is chaos, sleepless nights, messy hair, and a house that looks like it’s been burglarized. Of course this is just the sales pitch that has attracted over a million followers to her Instagram account. But the face that Emily presents to the world is very carefully sculptured, a product of very deliberate, studied marketing. The novel unfolds through three very distinct voices: Emily, Dan, Emily’s writer husband, and a stalker who has an ax to grind with Emily. Poor Dan really has no idea of what he’s dealing with when it comes to the Mrs.

It turns out that each country has its own quirks when it comes to Instagram parenting. Id been taking my cues from the American moms I admired, who all waft about in cashmere, keep their Carrara marble worktops pristine, dress their kids in plaid shirts and designer denim, and run everything through the Gingham filter to give their photos a subtle vintage effect. A little more googling uncovered that Australia’s lithe, free-spirted mamas all pose against surfboards in crochet bikinis, with their salt-scrunched hair and their tanned blond toddlers. Swedish Instamums wear flower crowns while they coo at babies lying around in grey felt bonnets on paste washed-linen sheets.

You see, with a bit of research, social media makes understanding what people all over the world connect with very simple indeed.

Emily prides herself on her ‘brand’ which she states she “built on honesty, and I’ll always tell it like it is.” Emily knows that for Instagram success, you cannot show maternal competence or organization: “you have to be unable to leave the house without at least a splotch of Bolognese or a splatter of baby puke on your shirt.” Now Emily happens to be extremely competent, an incredible planner and organizer and so the persona she creates for Instagram is a performance. Meanwhile Dan feels overwhelmed by Emily’s Instagram life which has managed, by its demands, to cannibalize his writing career. The fun here is the sheer nastiness of it all: the way Emily manipulates her followers, the way she orchestrates their home to be flooded with free goods whenever she publicly mentions needing a product, and the way it begins to dawn on Dan that he has no idea who his wife really is. Emily has many wonderful characteristics, but put her behind an Instagram account and the humans in her life become accessories to her image. There’s one brilliant section in which Dan goes to answer the doorbell early one morning only to discover that his wife has an interview (of course he knew nothing about it and was totally unprepared) and Emily, the puppetmaster deliberately trashed her house and kept her husband out-of-the-loop to add to the sense of domestic chaos. The book skewers social media, its supreme superficiality, and how people become so addicted to snaring followers and gathering ‘likes’ they sacrifice the very real flesh-and-blood human beings in their lives. While the book adds nothing new to the dangers of stalking and the hazards of putting one’s detailed personal life on social media, the nastiness makes for entertainment.

Review copy

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Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children: Andrew D. Blechman

“I’d rather bite a suicide pill than live with any of my kids.”

Author Andrew Blechman’s neighbors, retired teacher Dave Anderson and his wife, Betsy, took a holiday to Florida, returned home to their small New England town, and promptly put their house up for sale. Blechman was surprised by the Andersons’ decision, but even more surprised to learn that the Andersons were moving to a gated retirement community in Florida. And not just any retirement community; the Andersons were moving to The Villages:

The Andersons were moving to the largest gated retirement community in the world. It spanned three counties, two zip codes and more than 20,000 acres. The Villages itself, Dave explained, was subdivided into dozens of separate gated communities, each with its own distinct entity, yet fully integrated into a greater whole that shared two manufactured downtowns, a financial district, and several shopping centers, and all of it connected by nearly 100 miles of golf cart trails.

Before the Andersons announced their impending move, the author had never heard of The Villages, and neither had I until I stumbled across this fascinating, flawed book. The Andersons move, and the author asks himself what motivated the Andersons to “sequester themselves in a gated geritopia?” Blechman goes to visit, and once there he gathers material for this non-fiction book.

The book includes a fascinating history of retirement communities which started in …. answer in one… you got it: Arizona. Retirement communities were rooted in idealism and also, as the author acknowledges, as a way for older Americans to “find community.” While a fair portion of the book concentrates on the appallingly bad, sexually promiscious behaviour of some of the residents of The Villages, there are also interviews, which do not take place in bars, with residents who express the fact that safety, and being able to go out at night, is a huge factor in their decision to move to The Villages:

I don’t feel threatened like I did back in Boston. Back home, I’d be stuck in the house, scared. Here I can go down to the square by myself, listen to the music, see people dancing, go home and I feel like I did something–and it doesn’t cost me a dime.

At one point, the author takes a tour and learns that “The Villages stands for GLC: golf, lifestyle, and convenience [..] everywhere you go is accessible by golf carts.” No doubt the ability to drive a golf cart anywhere appeals to those who are concerned that aging may threaten the renewal of a Driver’s License, but at several points in the book, there’s the definite feeling that driving golf carts removes the threat of the DUI. The term “Disney for adults” crops up more than once. The Villages is owned by the Morse family, and the author says that “from what I can tell, they own the liquor stores and liquor distribution rights, a mortgage company, several banks, many of the restaurants, two giant furniture stores as well as a giant indoor furnishings arcade called ‘The Street of Dreams,’ a real estate company, gold cart dealerships, movie theaters and the local media.” While I don’t care for this artificial construct, is this type of system that weird? Disney is the same–except people don’t live there (some wish they could). There’s a retirement housing complex in my town. It’s owned by some huge corporation. The seniors pay big bucks for these rentals which include maid service, meals and all these activities. I’m sure every lightbulb and all cleaning products are ‘provided’ by the management. No one seems to lift an eyebrow at the ethics of this–after all it’s sort of along the lines of a hotel playbook. Except in this case it’s seniors and long-term residence of more than a few nights. I couldn’t help but think of Better Call Saul….

One of the best parts of the book is a trip to the original development, the humble “decidedly less fancy Village of Orange Blossom Gardens” where “the Villages’ history begins.” One Orange Blossom Village resident notes that the “major difference [is] between the two sides of the highway” that divides his village from the other Village communities is “money.” As The Villages expanded, it became fancier–more amenities, larger houses etc. But then the tendency in America is towards larger, fancier homes.

Andrew Blechman doesn’t seem to like The Villages. I get it: At one point, he says he feels like he’s “on a movie set,” and indeed the impression I get is that it’s like one of those fake tourist towns–you know the ones–where there’s a main street with for the tourists and the ‘real people’ live elsewhere. The sense of the surreal, of this otherworld community is supported by the “The Villages’ own morning show, which is broadcast on Gary Morse’s television station” and then there’s Gary Morse’s local newspaper. The author longs for people his own age, which isn’t too surprising as he’s not the appropriate resident age, but there’s also a sense of disapproval:

While it’s not for me to say seniors shouldn’t enjoy themselves, the reality behind age segregation is another matter. No clever euphemism can hide the fact that these communities are based on a selfish and fraudulent premise–the exclusion of children and families.

I would have loved some interviews with people who left (there’s a whiff of the ghosts of former unhappy residents) or just more residents who weren’t Looking For Love In All the Wrong Places. Mr. Midnight (who gets his Viagra via mail order) and other lotharios at Crazy Gringos may have been easy to interview but I would hate to think they are typical residents. They can’t all be geriatric swingers. I would have also been interested in the financial side of things. These amenities are not free; they are mostly included: so how does that impact the cost-of-living? How many residents find that they run out of money and move on?

No doubt we all know what retirement communities are, and perhaps a few of those who read this live in one. While I had no idea that The Villages existed, after reading the book, I understand why many retired people rave about the place. At the same time, I know there’s no way in hell I’d move there:

Next door is the Savannah Center, a performing arts facility which was built to resemble Scarlett O’ Hara’s beloved Tara and which attracts touring Broadway productions. “I just can’t imagine what we don’t have here, ” Mindy remarks. “It seems like we have everything we could possibly need. And it’s so beautiful–like living in a Thomas Kinkade painting, but in real life.

I can’t stand Thomas Kinkade paintings.

Now I’m going to clarify that… saying I would never live in The Villages . … it’s not a moral judgment; it’s more that I am not social and it would be pointless for me to live there; plus the place would drive me nuts. If I want to put a statue in my front garden, I’m going to do it, dammit (the rules are much more relaxed in Orange Blossom Village, which sounds quite charming to be honest.) I’ve driven by an upscale retirement housing ‘village’ which boasts the sign: Your New Friends Are Waiting For You. Yeah… fat chance. The Villages is a playground for retirees, a “Disney for adults,” and that’s great, but the manufactured downtowns would make me feel as if I lived in one of those revolting tourist towns. But I’ll settle with whatever floats your boat (short of illegal, etc):

The Villagers’ perennially favorite pool: a whimsical creation reminiscent of the Flintstones with a water fall masking a hidden cave and a jacuzzi. There was a Tiki bar on one side, and on the other a small karaoke tent with an older DJ wearing a big grin and blasting music loud enough to make me cringe.

Back to the author’s argument that retirement communities are, in reality, regions of “age segregation,” and that “the communities are based on a selfish and fraudulent premise–the exclusion of children and families.” These seniors are not paying any taxes that are directed to schools etc. Residents can indulge in endless activities and idiosyncrasy seems to be encouraged. It seems creepy to me to imagine not living near children, and somehow jarring that young people staff the restaurants of the very communities in which they cannot live.

Leisureville is a thought-provoking read, but for me, the interest sprang from attitudes and expectations of the retired, the aging, the old. So I’ll ask this question: when we drive by those drab, lower income retirement communities, assisted living, homes to park the elderly, or whatever name you want to apply to these places, do we still think it’s age-segregation? It’s fundamentally the same thing– except, since these residences are not in their own separate, exclusive county, without the tax issue. Without the gloss and the glamour. Are the residents of these less-desirable, unappealing, spine- shivering places “selfish?” No of course not, and the reason we don’t think that is, because we suspect that, inside those walls, no one is having much fun. So is that what it comes down to…. fun…??? How much ‘fun’ retirees are expected to have? How much ‘fun’ do we think they should have?

Leisureville was published over 10 years ago, but there’s a documentary about The Villages on the way. Can’t wait.

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Crocodile Tears: Mercedes Rosende

Uruguayan author Mercedes Rosende’s novel Crocodile Tears opens in a Montevideo prison where Diego waits for his lawyer, Antinucci.

That man walking down the corridor, with his hair combed and slicked with gel, a burgundy tie and Ray-Ban sunglasses, that is Antinucci. The small scar above his right eyebrow, halfway between his nose and his hairline, looks as if it was made by a fist, although it must have happened a long time ago because the skin is tight and shiny around the mark.

Although he isn’t ugly or old, that’s the impression he gives; it’s hard to say why.

Antinucci doesn’t mince words; he tells Diego he’s a “patsy.” It’s hard to argue that this isn’t true. Diego and his partner Sergio, kidnapped wealthy Santiago Losada. Sergio took off with the loot, and so Diego took the fall. But the kidnapping took a bizarre turn when Santiago’s wife, Ursula López offered the kidnappers an even larger amount of money if they killed her husband. But things went south from there with the police storming the hideout, finding Diego and releasing Santiago. According to Antinucci, Ursula claims she never received a ransom demand. Now there’s good news and bad news: Antinucci has worked to get Diego released. The bad news is that Diego will have to repay the debt by being a lookout in an armoured car robbery. The robbery is planned by the revolting Hobo, a prisoner who organized Antinucci’s services. Of course, we know it’s not going to be that simple. Diego has already been marked as a “patsy” once. …

The plot becomes more complicated with the introduction of Ursula López; there are two women by that name: one is the wife, or should I say now the ex-wife of Santiago, the kidnapping victim, and the other Ursula is a seriously damaged, dangerous woman. And this Ursula, thanks to the name confusion, involved herself in the kidnapping plot and then becomes a sort of sidekick to the seriously out-of-the-loop recently released Diego. But can she strictly speaking be called a sidekick? After all. she’s operating with far more info than Diego. Soon corpses abound.

The name coincidence stretched credibility which is a shame as the plot rests on this. There’s a blurb on Amazon that states that the book is a “marvellous mashup of Anita Brookner and Quentin Tarantino” (the Times.) I would not agree at all. Bitter Lemon Press focuses on foreign crime novels in translation, so as a publisher, their books are a great way to discover new authors. Thanks to them I discovered Claudia Piñeiro.

Review copy. Translated by Tim Gutteridge

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The Evil Days: Bruno Fischer (1973)

In Bruno Fischer’s crime novel, The Evil Days, a married couple are on the Straight and Narrow until a bag of jewels introduces greed, sex and sin into suburbia. I love the theme of respectable citizens so easily derailed as it argues that honesty and decency exist simply due to lack of alternatives. One whiff of opportunity and morality, ethics, whatever are tossed to the curb.

Caleb Dawson, associate editor for a New York publisher, has the very typical life of a married suburbanite. Years earlier, Caleb and his sexy, avaricious, discontented wife Sally moved to the suburbs where they now live in a dull little tract home with their two dull little children. The move was a decision based on affordability, and no doubt that ever-elusive ‘quality of life’ issue was wrapped up in there somewhere too:

We lived in one of fourteen ranch-style houses lined up on both sides of the street. The houses were not quite identical. Some had garages on the right and some on the left; some had fixed black shutters on off-white shingles and some had white shutters on gray shingles. All had three bedrooms, and a dinette that merged into the living room, and an up-to-date kitchen wide enough for two skinny people, and a cement-block playroom in the basement. In the six years since we had bought it for more than we could afford, taxes had doubled, and in another twenty-four years (when I would be sixty-two), the mortgage would be paid off.

Every morning Caleb takes the 7:52 commuter train. And every evening Sally drives their sole vehicle, a station wagon, back to the station to meet Caleb from the 5:27 pm train. Life is a treadmill, and that makes Caleb either the hamster on the relentless wheel or a prisoner: you choose.

One day is exactly like another until the evening Sally starts acting weird, nervous and jumpy. At first she won’t tell Caleb what’s going on, but soon she confesses that she found a bag of jewelry outside of the bank. While Caleb’s first impulse is turn in the jewelry to the police, Sally persuades Caleb to delay–arguing that they should at least profit from a reward. Caleb, as village trustee, is in a unique position to monitor a theft/loss report, but things become far more complicated when he discovers that the jewelry belongs to his boss, Mr. Martaine’s wife, Norma.

Of course there are many questions rooted into the basic plot. How did Mrs. Martaine manage to lose her jewelry? How on earth are the Dawsons going to claim a reward without revealing that they have held on to the gems? Things are complicated enough but all hell breaks loose with the murder of a local playboy/poet. Suddenly, this boring little corner of suburbia is a hotbed of riotous sex, peeping toms, and voracious housewives.

The novel flings around some interesting numbers that reflect the cost of living and wages during the ugliness of the 70s. Fischer manages to slide in some criticism about the publishing industry through Caleb who fumes over his relatively low standard of living in relation of others in the work force. I didn’t like any of the characters and didn’t find them particularly interesting. The fun here is the way in which Fischer deftly shifts gears from boredom, routine and dissatisfied domestication to sex, greed and murder in the suburbs. The possibility of newfound wealth unleashes both Caleb and Sally, and there’s the underlying idea that the Dawsons each buried some of the more unpleasant aspects of their respective natures–at least from each other for years. With the jewelry adding temptation, wage slave Caleb finds that his resentments float to the surface and that Sally has hidden depths–none of them are good:

Then she began to move and turn and undulate like a belly dancer, watching herself all the time in the mirror. There was something quite unfamiliar about that familiar body, a hothouse lushness that seemed to have changed it in subtle ways–something unfamiliar about the sensuous smile directed at her naked image. And she was different. She had never before had a quarter of a million dollars of jewels on her flesh, and the erotic effect they had on her in the mirror reached out to me at the window.

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The Survivors: Jane Harper

Jane Harper’s intense crime novel, The Survivors is an exploration of the corrosive nature of guilt and the ways in which we cope with loss. The title refers both to a shipwreck memorial set on a rock formation on the inhospitable coastline of a dying Tasmanian community, and also to a destructive storm that claimed several lives from this small town. When the novel opens, physiotherapist Kieran Elliot returns home to Evelyn Bay 12 years after the drowning deaths of his brother Finn and his business partner, Toby. It’s a bitter return for Kieran, who, thanks to a foolish mistake, feels responsible for the deaths of Finn and Toby; he’s blamed and hated himself for years, but he’s back to help his aging parents, Brian & Verity, pack up and prepare for a move to a nursing home. Kieran’s father, once a vibrant, energetic man, now suffers from dementia. Kieran, who brings along his girlfriend Mia and their baby for the visit home, really had no idea just how much his father’s condition had progressed, and coming home has been painful.

Some residents still consider Kieran responsible for the drowning deaths of Finn and Toby, but Kieran has a few mates from his youth, including Olivia, Sean, and Ash to hang out with. Shortly after Kieran’s return, Bronte, a young art student from Canberra, who is working temporarily at Evelyn Bay, turns up dead on the beach, and her murder reawakens the disappearance of 13 year-old Gabby Birch, Olivia’s sister, 12-year before. Bronte’s murder brings all the poison from the past floating to the surface, and there are some in town who connect Kieran’s return to the crime. Other residents in this close-knit community would prefer to believe that the murderer is a tourist–not a resident. During the murder investigation, a detective begins to look into Gabby’s disappearance. Gabby vanished the day of the terrible storm which claimed the lives of Finn and Toby. Everyone, except Trish, Gabby’s mother, assumed that she had been drowned since her backpack was found washed up on the beach. In essence Gabby’s disappearance was incorporated into the storm and the drowning deaths. But the murder of Bronte causes some to question Gabby’s disappearance. Did she drown? Was she also murdered? Is Bronte’s murder somehow connected to Gabby’s disappearance?

There are not many characters in this brooding atmospheric novel. There’s a handful of Kieran’s friends, Kieran’s parents, Gabby and Olivia’s grief-stricken mother, a couple of people who work at the barely viable business, The Surf and Turf, a few policemen (the town’s police station is about to be closed,) and a writer who moves to Evelyn Bay only to encounter hostility when he trashes the landscaping of the home he bought.

Intense landscape descriptions have never been a thrill for me, but here in Jane Harper’s capable hands, the landscape is inseparable from the characters and the crimes. While the sea is beautiful, it’s also deadly, menacing and threatening. This is the essence of Nature, of course; it can be unpredictable, but what about human nature–the sense of imminent menace continues on land. This is a community where everyone knows everyone else; they’ve all grown up together, and in theory there are few secrets.

The mystery of Bronte’s murder and Gabby’s disappearance are seminal to this environment and its incubated simmering, brooding violence. Evelyn Bay is a stunningly beautiful yet miserable place-a place with a tourist attraction that commemorates death, and a diving business that lures tourists into revisiting death and tragedy. Kieran and Mia escaped, and the friends who remained behind are permanently stunted by the area’s oppressive, limited economy. The descriptions of the ocean are the most powerful I’ve ever read and they are matched by the descriptions of relentless grief–grief which ravages lives and snatches away any hope of peace. We all accept that grief is a normal, natural process, and yet here we see various versions of grief. Grief is a personal personal journey. Why are some aspects of grief socially acceptable while others are not? Gabby’s mother, Trish, never believed that Gabby drowned during the storm–she believed that her daughter’s body would have washed up somewhere is that had happened. But her theories and persistence have marginalized her and she’s labeled as a broken record, a sad nut case. She identifies with Bronte’s mother and argues that, once the anger has passed, she’ll end up “doing her own secret crazy things like the rest of us.”

“It never changes, you know. Even when they’re older. You’d take a bullet for someone who won’t even wave to you at the school gate. Then suddenly they’re ripped away and..” Trish shrugged.

The drownings, the murder and the disappearance–they have impacted all the town’s residents in various ways. The ravages of grief and the ravages of Time: Police Sgt Renn, who 12 years ago had been “fresh-faced and overeager to please” is permanently damaged by the unsolved mystery of Gabby Birch. The plot plays with the notion of various suspects and the ending was impossible to guess.

I listened to the audio version which was read, marvelously, by Stephen Shanahan.

The beach below was a thin strip, small enough that Kieran immediately felt uneasy. Out to sea, the waves lapped high at The Survivors. All around him, the birds bristled and flapped.

(And if you read this highly recommended book, IMO the crimes were ‘motive-sanitized’ by the perp.)

Review copy

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The Girls of Slender Means: Muriel Spark (1963)

The meaning of the title of this, a short novel from Muriel Spark, becomes clear by the time the book concludes. The Girls of Slender Means is set in an-all female residence, The May of Teck Club. It’s London 1963 in this frame story, and The May of Teck Club has been in existence for decades. Originally, it was intended “for the pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means” below the age of thirty. The 30-year rule has long been ignored and many of the female residents have lived at The May of Teck Club for decades. The novel is jump-started by the news of the death (murder) in Haiti of Nicholas Farringdon, a Jesuit at the time of his death.

The novel goes back and forth from the present (1963) to 1945 and opens in London with a vivid depiction of bombed-out buildings.

The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or no repair at all, bombsites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out leaving the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art form, leading up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye.

So in 1963, when “woman columnist,” Jane Wright hears of the death of Nicholas Farringdon, she contacts acquaintances she knew back in 1945, people who also have slivers of memories of the dead Jesuit. Those who remember him, recall that Nicholas was the lover of Selina, a resident of The May of Teck Club. That’s his claim to fame as far as the residents, or former residents of The May of Teck Club are concerned. Then the story peels back the decades to the story of what happened during that brief period of 1945. Although The May of Teck Club is the home of dozens of young women, we are only concerned with the fate of a handful: including the beautiful, capricious, and fickle Selina, saintly rector’s daughter Joanna Childe, and Jane Wright. The residence houses just women, but some of the female residents pass through a narrow slit window which grants access to the flat roof of the club. It’s here that lovers meet.

This is a peculiar book replete with Muriel Spark’s dark (I’m going to say it: ‘twisted.’) wit. While the plot is far removed from The Driver’s Seat, nonetheless, the connection is the bizarre undercurrent worming its way under what appears to be a fairly non-exciting plot. On one level there’s a shocking incident that occurs in 1945 and that is linked, somehow, to the death of Nicholas Farringdon. It’s not a direct thread–Muriel Spark is too subtle for that. Instead it’s a question of how did Nicholas Farringdon, anarchist/poet, end up as a martyred Jesuit in Haiti? There’s no definite answer to that, but it’s a matter of connecting the dots.

Here’s Lisa’s review

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It’s a Wrap: 2020

It’s been a great reading year and here’s the list:

The Spectator Bird: Wallace Stegner

Narrated by former literary agent, Joe Allston, this marvellous novel focuses on aging and the choices we make. As Joe reflects back on his life, he is full of regrets, yet the choices we make are part of who we are.

To quote Etta James: “If I did it any other way,
It wouldn’t be me.” (Life, Love and the Blues.)

Abigail: Magda Szabó

This impressive Hungarian author sets her novel in WWII. The main character is Gina, a 14 -year-old daughter of a general. Gina’s life changes drastically when her father leaves her at a distant, strict, cloistered all-girls school. Gina, at first furious with her father, eventually learns the power of self-discipline–an invaluable trait, especially in the face of unexpected betrayals. An incredible book.

Valentine: Elizabeth Wetmore: This is the story of a what happens to a handful of women in a small east Texas town following a brutal rape. This is a debut novel, so here is an author to watch.

White Ivy: Susie Yang. Another debut novel that is so assured, so powerful, that I can’t wait for the next novel. The main character here is Ivy, the very troubled daughter of Chinese immigrants. She hungers for the American Dream (money, status) and in the process, any sense of self and identity evaporate and all that is left is a transgressive female, a shape-shifter who is willing to become whatever she needs to be.

Providence: Max Barry. I waited years for another Max Barry. And it was well worth it. In this novel, set mostly aboard a vast space ship, Max Barry goes full sci-fi (fans knew it was coming). We follow a small crew of people as they pursue an alien race, the Salamanders, throughout deep space. Who is in charge? The Captain or the ship’s AI system. Which is more reliable? Man vs. Alien, Man vs AI, all wrapped up in a tale in which social media plays a creepy role. I couldn’t put this book down.

The Imposter: Damon Galgut. Set in South Africa, this is a tale of moral choices and moral dilemmas. After losing his job, Adam decides to retreat to a remote area and write poetry. Guess what…. it doesn’t work out.

More Better Deals: Joe Lansdale. This is a stand-alone noir novel. A used car salesman, a sex-hungry wife and a murder plot. What more do you want?

Good Women: Jane Stevenson. A trilogy of novellas and each one is a wicked, transgressive delight.

Tides: Edouard von Keyserling. What is it about the decaying Prussian Empire? A bunch of Prussian aristocrats gather at a seaside resort for a holiday. Problems arise with the appearance of a former countess who ran away from her elderly husband.

On the Holloway Road: Andrew Blackman. This is what happens when a writer who is in a slump misidentifies a looney’s energy as meaningful and authentic. Part road-trip, part examination of the authenticity of rebellion, this book contains one of my favourite themes: How to Blow Up Your Life.

Theft: Luke Brown. Quirky, understated, darkly funny and also transgressive. How ‘accidents,’ mishaps, and loose lips get us what we really want.

 

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Filed under Barry, Max, Blackman Andrew, Brown Luke, Fiction, Galgut Damon, Keyserling Edouard von, Stegner Wallace, Stevenson Jane, Szabo Magda, Wetmore Elizabeth, Yang Susie

Christmas 1955: Stuart Evers

“Some fantasies, if they are suitably meagre, have the possibility of coming to pass.”

Speaking for myself, the New Year is always a time for reflection: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, so that may explain why I related to Stuart Evers’ short story, Christmas 1955. The main character, June, has the long-held tradition of taking a long, luxurious bath on the evening of the 24th. As with most traditions, June’s leisurely bath is deeply rooted in the past. In this case, June, at age 16 when she was in service to “Madam” was tasked with preparing her employer’s bath, and the task was “as much of a gift as those glittering beneath the eight-foot fir in the dining room.” Madam would remain in the bath until dinner, attended by family and guests, was over.

At age 16, June was so impressed with Madam’s ceremonial relaxation, she “promised herself-in that way we carelessly promise ourselves the impossible-that all June’s future Christmas Eves would be taken just like that; alone, in a bathroom, up to her neck in salted water.”

As June takes her time in the bath, she has conversations with her former employer, “Madam,” who has, as it turns out been dead for some years. June is now married to Peter; we know many decades have passed as Peter is retired and June has a grandson. The time in the bath allows June to reflect on her past, and the many changes in her life; one of the changes was to move to a house with indoor plumbing.

In many ways, Christmas 1955 reminded me of A Christmas Carol, but it lacks the sentimentality and manufactured pathos. June reflects at moments in her life, remembering those she knew and lost, and the memories pass like a series of picture postcards with salient moments caught like fossils in amber.

It is a communion, this tradition, it is an armistice with the dead; but it is also a reckoning of sorts.

The short story is set in the world of Stuart Evers’ novel, The Blind Light, and for some reason, the novel’s release escaped my notice. Onto the list it goes

Review copy

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Quotes from Fay Weldon

Big Girls Don’t Cry:

“Children then were grateful to have been born at all; were on the whole uncritical of their upbringing; parents did the best they could in the light of their own natures, it was commonly assumed.” 

 “Men have muscles: women have defencelessness as their weapon. No wonder this world is so erotic, super-charged: composed of polarities as it is. He, she. Hard, soft. Ying, yang.”

“That was in the mid-seventies: socialist days. Long ago. The notion of primal ownership has returned with a vengeance: and the profit therein. The rain that falls from heaven belongs not to god but to the Water Board, the forests nature grew are fenced off and belong to the Forestry Commission; your very corpse belongs to the state: its parts up for sale for research purposes. Money has won over human dithering. The natural mother owns the genes of the child she forgot and can claim that child back from the adoptive mother any time: the moral right of the one who toils is swept away in the tide of mine, mine: the country you claim is the one of your ancestors not the one which reared you.”

Kehua!:

“Your writer, in telling you this tale of murder, adultery, incest, ghosts, redemption and remorse, takes you first to a comfortable house in Highgate, North London, where outside the kitchen window, dancing in the breeze, the daffodils are in glorious bloom: a host of yellow male stamens in vigorous competition, eager to puff their special pollen out into the world. No two daffodils are alike, nor are any two humans. We attribute free will to human, but not to daffodils–with whom we share 35 per cent of our DNA–though perhaps rashly, when we consider the way some human families behave.”

“Leaving home can cause all kinds of unexpected problems. But I don’t suppose Louis is the kind to go after you with the kitchen knife. But you haven’t got any children he can put in the back of the car and suffocate with exhaust fumes. So I expect you’re okay. But you can never quite be sure what manner of man you have, until you try to get away.”

“it’s all women do, really, isn’t it, run. Tuck the children under the arm and try and find somewhere better, safer. You get into the habit when they’re small and then just carry on.”

Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen:

“A writer’s all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.”

“Who reads Arnold Bennett now, or Sinclair Lewis? But perhaps soon, with any luck, they’ll be rediscovered. ‘How interesting,’ people will say, pushing open the creaking doors. ‘How remarkable! Don’t you feel the atmosphere here? So familiar, so true: the amazing masquerading as the ordinary? Why haven’t we been here for so long?’ And Bennett, Lewis, or whoever, will be rediscovered, and the houses of his imagination be renovated, restored, and hinges oiled so that doors open easily, and the builder, the writer, takes his rightful place again in the great alternative hierarchy. “

Little Sisters:

“Well, all of us are nice, charming enough people, until tried by circumstances and hard times, and then, only then so we find out what we really are.”

“Had you never noticed the way the secret world sends out signs and symbols into the ordinary world? It delivers our messages in the form of coincidences: letters crossing in the post, unfamiliar tunes heard three times in one day, the way that blows of fate descend upon the same bowed shoulders, and beams of good fortune glow perpetually upon the blessed. Fairy tales, as I said, are lived out daily. There is far more going on in the world than we ever imagine.”

“The rich do play games with other people. They have nothing better to do.”

“Something has hardened in her heart. She wants struggle, conflict, victory. She has this scent of triumph in her nostrils: the taste of sexual power between her soft red lips. Something instinctive and nasty surfaces, hardens and takes possession: other women are her enemy, she perceives. Men are there to be made her allies: her stepping-stones to fulfillment and worldly success. Herself, her children, cradled in luxury and safety. (Well, how else is she to do that, on a typing speed of thirty-five, and shorthand fifty-three?) Elsa looks sideways at Gemma and think why, if I wanted, I could have Hamish too. Then where would you be, helpless in your chair, with your unworkable legs and your mutilated hand. Sitting there, patronising me.”

“And let us not think that we get what we deserve, any of us: some of us are better at triumphing over obstacles, that’s all.”

“Gemma had the courage of the very young.”

“The rich lack the inhibitions of the poor when it comes to the discussion of delicate problems. The poor know there are no solutions. The rich have the experience that there generally is.”

“We put ourselves in prison. No one put us there” (on being faithful during marriage)

“It is the imperfect we miss so badly, once they are gone.”

“Damaged people go on living: hide the damage from themselves, laugh, cry, even offer up some verisimilitude of love, but are never what they could have been, should have been.”

“If only,” observes Gemma. “we women could learn from one another.”

“Sexual passion, requited, invigorates the parties concerned, and enhances rather than diminishes the response to the outer world. An excellent patent medicine for all afflictions–curing madness, rheumatism, the bloody flux, anxiety, depression, warts and so on–at least for a time.Romantic love, on the other hand, seems to work as slow poison, making the suffered egocentric, vapid consumptive. and hard to get along with.”

“It doesn’t matter how long ago your childhood was,” says Gemma, by way of explanation. “it is never finished. Never.”

“Wickedness comes expensive. Goodness is a far cheaper and more boring phenomenon, especially in retrospect.”

“I was in love with a man once. I didn’t behave like that. I just kept out of his way. It depends on the opinion you have of yourself, I suppose…”

“How dreadful the past is, and all its inhabitants. I’m sure I don’t know why I go on tormenting myself with it. One will never understand it; much less oneself.”

“Hate is the easiest, most invigorating emotion of all: next, of course, to despising.”

“Don’t despise her. Thus we have all stayed to endure, when we need not. While teachers caned us, parents scolded us, meals upset our digestions. Sat at dinner and been abused: lain in beds, likewise. The door is there, and partly open. We seldom go out of it.”

Lives and Loves of a She-Devil

She devils are beyond nature: they create themselves out of nothing.”

Puffball:

“Many people dream of country cottages. Liffey dreamed for many years, and saw the dream come true one hot Sunday afternoon, in Somerset, in September. Bees droned, sky glazed, flowers glowed, and the name carved above the lintel, half hidden by rich red roses, was Honeycomb Cottage and Liffey knew that she must have it. A trap closed around her.”

“Isn’t she skinny,” said Mabs, watching through field glasses from the bedroom of Cadbury Farm. Her husband Tucker took the glasses.

“They grow them like that in the city,” he said. They both spoke in the gentle, caressing drawl of the West Country, mocking the universe, defying its harshness. “You don’t know they’re from the city,” Mabs objected. “They’re not from round here,” said Tucker. “No one round here does it in public.”

Praxis:

“The funny farm, the loony bin, the mental home. The shelter for the mentally disabled. I have visited them all, over the years.”

“Staring at herself in the mirror, at her doll’s face, stiff doll’s body, curly blonde doll’s hair, she wondered what experience or wisdom could possibly shine through the casing that Ivor had selected for her. She did not blame Ivor: she knew that she had done it to herself : had preferred to live as a figment of Ivor’s imagination, rather than put up with the confusion of being herself.”

“The New Women! I could barely recognize them as being of the same sex as myself, their buttocks arrogant in tight jeans, openly inviting, breasts falling free and shameless and feeling no apparent obligation to smile, look pleasant or keep their voices low. And how they love! Just look at them to know how! If a man doesn’t bring them to orgasm, they look for another who does. If by mistake they fall pregnant, they abort by vacuum aspiration. If they don’t like the food, they push the plate away. If the job doesn’t suit them, they hand in their notice. They are satiated by everything, hungry for nothing. They are what I wanted to be; they are what I worked for them to be: and now I see them, I hate them.”

“There’s only way to get out of the fix you’re in,” said Irma. “And that’s to sleep your way out of it. Sorry and all that.” 

  “a good lay. But where is she going to find that? Look at the way she dresses.”

The Fat Woman’s Joke:

“There were little gray clouds, here and there, like Alan’s writing, which was distracting him from his job, and Peter’s precocity, and my boredom with the home, and simply, I suppose growing older and fatter. In truth, of course, they weren’t little clouds at all. They were raging bloody crashing thunderstorms.”

“Nothing happens here. I know what to expect from one day to the next. I can control everything, and I can eat. Were I attracted to men, or indeed attractive to them, I would perhaps find a similar pleasure in some form of sexual activity. But as it is, I just eat. When you eat, you get fat, and that’s all. There are no complications. But husbands, children-no, Phyllis, I am sorry. I am not strong enough for them.”

I don’t think she feels very much at all. Like fish feel no pain when you catch them. From what Alan says, her emotional extremities are primitive.”

“One wonders which came first,” she said brightly,” the mistress or the female whine. It would be interesting to do a study.”

The Ted Dreams:

“My life seems full of husbands who suggest I ‘see someone’, when all that happens is I see something others don’t.”

“That’s right, I felt like saying: when in doubt, fucking blame the woman.”

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