Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Locked Room by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (1972)

A woman robs a bank and a man dies in a locked room; the two events couldn't be connected ... .

Mystery Review: The Locked Room is the eighth Martin Beck mystery, replete with all we've come to expect: intense social commentary, a dissection of the Swedish police, human beings barely escaping depression. A classic locked room mystery is not what we've come to expect from Sjöwall and Wahlöö, but they do it well and this is as good as any book in the series. The authors hit a high point a few books back and have managed to stay there consistently. The mystery, the interplay of familiar personalities, the description of police procedures (and the occasional humorous bumbling) are only half the story. The other half is the social critique of Swedish society, the police force, what's happening to Stockholm. They all seem to be going in the wrong direction. There seems to be an intense frustration behind The Locked Room. The authors even give us some ethical conundrums to chew on (can one chew a conundrum? perhaps only in a mixed metaphor). Beck himself has a limited role here as he's recovering from the gunshot wound received in the previous installment, but he's still the straw that stirs the drink. As much as I enjoy gradually getting to know the recurring characters as they unravel mysteries, it's the chance to get a glimpse of Sweden at a certain time that I appreciate almost as much. The Locked Room is another success.  [5★]

Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922)

What if ... we aged backwards.

Story Review: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is one of Fitzgerald's fantasy pieces, a sharp turn from the popular flapper stories in which he chronicled the mercurial emotions of the Roaring Twenties (our current Twenties aren't off to quite the same start). Originally published in Collier's magazine and collected in Fitzgerald's hodgepodge of a second story collection, Tales of the Jazz Age (1922); many years later it was made into a 2008 film with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Perhaps it's an early look at magical realism. The story almost seems a finger exercise in which the author set himself a puzzle: he took a premise and extended it into a full story that explored the possibilities of how it all might play out. After reading, one notes "youth is wasted on the young" and wonders why a lifetime of experience and learning coincides with a weakening body and approaching death. Cited as a satire on aging, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is an even more pointed satire of societal requirements that we conform to expectations, as Mr. Button certainly does not. His march to the beat of a different drummer sends everyone into hysterics. He faces intolerance every step of the way. I felt the story had a surprising emotional resonance the first time I read it, and it's one that I've never forgotten. Haunting as well. Even just as an oddity, an imaginative detour for those with creative minds, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" sticks with the reader and is a necessary read.  [4★]

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Basil and Josephine Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1973)

A collection of the 14 stories that Fitzgerald wrote about his teenage avatars.

Book Review: The Basil and Josephine Stories is part of the endless repackaging of Fitzgerald's treasure trove. He released only four short fiction collections in his lifetime, consisting of 46 stories in all, each released after one of his novels. Since then there've been two significant collections of his selected stories (by Malcolm Cowley (1951) and Matthew Bruccoli (1989)), and many other smaller selections in various groupings. For the devout Fitzgerald aficionado there is now much more than the four novels and story collections he published. The Basil and Josephine Stories fits a particularly esoteric niche. These are YA stories (teen and pre-teen) of the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Tales of adolescence, of love an popularity, told by the brash and insecure Basil (nine episodes) and the impulsive but seductive Josephine (five stories). Though he describes both well and convincingly, the differing presentations, attitudes, and outlooks between his female and male personas is telling and would make a good thesis subject, which perhaps could be extended to an examination of the male and female characters in his novels. At times the biographical component is as intriguing as the fictional. For these are stories that Fitzgerald took from life: how he saw himself coming of age and portraits of the girls and women to whom he was attracted. Generally it seems that the more popular a girl the more desirable she was, a recipe born of insecurity and heading for (teenage) disaster. Although few would call these his most meaningful short fiction (the invaluable Introduction, however, makes a strong case for possible levels of analysis), they are compelling and enjoyable for the cataclysmic intensity of their emotional onslaught. At least for those willing to expend time revisiting early youth, as at that age every passion is novel and undoubtedly incapable of repetition, meaning that any given moment may be the end of the world and life as we know it. The Basil and Josephine Stories is for Fitzgerald completists, those exploring his biography, and that small band of intrepid souls willing to relive those first early moments of passion and loss.  [3½★]

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Davidian Report by Dorothy B. Hughes (1952)

Everyone searches for the mysterious report that will prevent a nightmare future.

Mystery Review: The Davidian Report (also known as The Body on the Bench) was the penultimate novel by Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993), the queen of hard-boiled noir. It's more of a Cold War spy thriller, but still reads like a tough-guy detective story. Not as good as her very best, but a quality read with a gem on every page. She writes with a poet's eye and creates scenes seen only by a slumming street corner cynic: "the lobby smoldered in its customary shadow," "a worn leather armchair, eternally holding the sag of a large man," "what once had been the refuge of old men and pigeons," "the touch of her slippers on the staircase blurred back to his ears," "early twilight sifted down." An airplane in the fog is a "machine creeping through gray fur." From a car one sees "the shops growing more shabby in neighborhoods left behind as the crocodile metropolis crawled westward." Her descriptions are so carefully carved that the reader begins to take them for granted. In The Davidian Report Hughes is always intelligent, precise, aware. The suspense builds quietly till it hums just below the consciousness like summer cicadas. Given this was published in 1952, there's a daub of ardent Americanism, but mostly it's buried with the desperation of characters living in a world without sincerity or honesty. Nobody trusts no one. Having read over half her novels (I'm on a mission), Dorothy Hughes has never disappointed, and The Davidian Report is no exception.  [4★]

Monday, April 19, 2021

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett (1955)

After the apocalypse, teenage cousins search for the past that's become the future.

SciFi Review: The Long Tomorrow presents a post-apocalyptic world that fears and forbids science and technology, elements of which we can see even today. In A Canticle for Leibowitz the priests tried to preserve past knowledge, but here the religious majority is doing all it can to prevent progress. Elements of which we can see today; some readers may see the future civilization described by Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) as an evangelical utopia. Since it was published in 1955 when America still retained some faith in the capacity of science, The Long Tomorrow gently but reluctantly pushes science as the hope for the future. The story concerns the adventures of two teenagers chafing under the intellectual restrictions of their pastoral community. Stories with children as lead characters can be unconvincing as the protagonists are often either unrealistically precocious or impossibly naïve. Here there's a little of both, but overall Brackett seems to get it right. In the last third, realistically, they become obnoxious. This was an easy and quick read, with touches of both Huckleberry Finn and a spy thriller. The writing was average, but the concept was intriguing and persuasive: excellent in intent, mediocre in execution. While worth the read, especially as an example of one of the early nuclear holocaust novels, even the cover blurb damns it with faint praise: "Close to being a great work of science fiction." Agreed. As an aside, The Long Tomorrow was disappointing in that there are no significant female characters and in Brackett's future women have no decision-making roles, even among the scientists. Then again, it was published in 1955. An interesting artifact, a pleasant read, in some ways a model for much science fiction written since.  [3½★]

Monday, April 12, 2021

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1959)

A desert monastery tries to preserve civilization after the end of the world as we know it.

SciFi Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the classic, post-apocalyptic one-hit wonders from the 1950's such as I Am Legend (1954), On the Beach (1957), or Alas, Babylon (1959), and the one with the best sense of humor about the situation. As the full realization of a world with the Bomb sank in, many in the Fifties were scared spitless. Although occasionally written with tongue in cheek, this is an adult novel, capable of containing two opposing thoughts simultaneously. An ability all too rare in fiction. A Canticle for Leibowitz is also unafraid of pushing religious argument to a point that may infuriate the reader. A by-product of which is that there is more Latin in this book than any I've read within memory. Written in three sections, each projecting farther into our shared imaginary future, there is thematic unity and continual growth in thought and scrutiny throughout. Such that at the beginning the reader is far ahead of the characters, amused at their befuddlement, but by the end the reader knows not what's coming next, and can only be piqued by the parallels to current events from a novel published six decades ago. A Canticle for Leibovitz is for those who want their science fiction both clever and contemplative.  [5★]

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Olivia by Dorothy Strachey (1949)

Many years later, a woman reflects on her life at sixteen during a year in a French girls' school.

Book Review: Olivia is too slender a reed to bear the political freight that has been heaped upon it. Called "a lesbian classic" and a "masterpiece of modern homoerotic fiction," it is much simpler, sweeter, and more meaningful than those hastily flung labels. Posed as a memoir, it's not that either. For readers looking for a novel to carry the weight of a pioneering lesbian novel consider Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) or Nightwood (1936) by Djuna Barnes. Dorothy Bussy (née Strachey, 1865-1960), published her only novel when she was 84 under the pseudonym "Olivia." Originally written in French, it followed in theme Colette's Claudine at School (1900) and preceded Thérèse et Isabelle (1954) by Violette Leduc. Connected to the Bloomsbury Group, Strachey dedicated the book to the memory of Virginia Woolf. The plot follows the academic rivalries of a girls' school, in which Olivia ardently chooses sides, concluding with a dramatic incident. The amours in Olivia are tame, chaste, and free of overt acts of pedophilia. In the passionate haze that envelops the novel there is little to tell whether this is a school-girl crush, an infatuation, or a first love. But Strachey expertly captures teenage fevers and the claustrophobic incubation of boarding school. Olivia is undeniably emotive, obsessive, fervent, expressive and a vital read.  [4★]