Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (novel #208)

It’s a long while since I burst out crying because policemen didn’t like me ~ Sam Spade


When I read my first hardboiled detective novel, The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler, I wrote…


“I’m probably biased, but I don’t consider the detective genre great literature. I consider it more of a guilty pleasure.”


Looking back, I really meant, more specifically, the “hardboiled detective” genre, which is not precisely the same as “detective” or “mystery” novels.


Regardless, I took a little heat for that, which is fair. There was some respectful and intelligent discussion in the comments, but I stuck to my guns (pun intended). However, after reading a second sample from the genre and with apologies to Raymond Chandler, I will dial back my critique. (That should make one reader of this blog happy. Yes, Rachel…You )


I don’t think it’s fair to critique a genre anyway, with a few exceptions. The hardboiled detective novel may not have the broad appeal of romance, sci-fi, or other genres, but it still requires skill and can be done either poorly or masterfully. And brother, let me tell you, Chandler and Hammett are masters. I have yet to read Spillane or Macdonald, but I’m also looking forward to reading about the exploits of Mike Hammer and Lew Archer. (I only exclude Walter Mosely’s antihero, Easy Rawlins, because the series is so recent it probably cannot be considered “Classic” just yet, but still on par with the others.)


Enough about the genre. The Maltese Falcon is a brilliant bit of mystery writing. It’s impossible to read it without imagining Bogey speaking every line, which is good and bad. Good because Bogey was perfect and added substance to my mind’s eye while reading. Bad because I’d seen the movie before reading the book, thus eliminating the mystery and suspense.


The mystery is the stupid black bird. The description of the simple black statuette doesn’t account for the growing frenzy over its whereabouts. The bird has a secret only the fat man knows, and people are dying because of it. Spade is as confused as the reader, but you’d never know it by looking at him or listening to him. And then...the bird has another secret that even the fat man doesn't know.


I’d still say it’s something of a guilty pleasure, which despite the literal contradiction, there’s nothing wrong with a guilty pleasure.


My rating:  4 out of 5 stars



This novel satisfies the Mystery/Detective/Crime classic category in the Back to the Classics 2022 Challenge.


Film Rendition: I’ve already alluded to this. The 1941 film starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade is nearly perfect. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. 





Friday, September 16, 2022

A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul (novel #207)

…he [Mr. Biswas] had thought profoundly and with
despair of the future.


Mohun Biswas is the son of Indian immigrants in Trinidad. The story begins with his birth, probably late 1920s, early 1930s. The story doesn’t begin well. A Hindu pundit gives a not very promising prophecy about the child, and it is considered a bad omen that he is born breech with an extra finger.


It never gets much better.


The story is set in Trinidad, but it feels more like India, as Mr. Biswas and his family keep pretty well within the Indian community in Trinidad. (Mr. Biswas is reportedly based on Naipaul’s father.)


I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this review. I didn’t care for this story. There isn’t one admirable person in it. A few are pitiable, like Mr. Biswas, who is never contented, never happy. Life isn’t working out for him, and it’s always someone else’s fault.




Mr. Biswas tries to rise above his lot in life, but he does it so foolishly that it never works out, and it’s hard even to feel too sorry for him. He is married, almost by accident, to a woman he nearly despises and lives with her family, where he is constantly reminded of his worthlessness and dependence on their patronage.


He could go to Hanuman House whenever he wished and become lost in the crowd, since he was treated with indifference rather than hostility.


He had spent all his life among people without even thinking that he might be afraid of them.


He tries several times to build or buy a home of his own. He eventually succeeds, but it is poorly constructed, not worth what he pays, and more than he can afford. He still isn’t happy.


Living had always been a preparation, a waiting. And so the years passed; and now there was nothing to wait for.


I don’t think I comprehended Naipaul’s message unless it was contempt for his people.


This is the first time I’ve read A House for Mr. Biswas. I’ve read one other work by Naipaul, A Bend in the River, which I didn’t love either. I’ve read that Naipaul’s early works were “wistfully comic.” I hope that doesn’t refer to this one. Wistful? Perhaps, but not comic. He does write well. For that, I give A House for Mr. Biswas



My rating:  3 out of 5 stars




This novel satisfies Black, Indigenous, Person of Color Author category in the Back to the Classics 2022Challenge.



Thursday, September 8, 2022

Six Degrees of Separation: from City of Glass to the Hobbit

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Kate @ booksarmyfavouriteandbest.

It isn’t part of the rules, but I try to stick to the Classics and books I’ve read or those on my TBR. This month’s chain is supposed to begin with the final book in last month’s chain, but I didn’t play last month. My concluding book was City of Glass by Paul Aster, the last time I did. The title of which reminds me of…


Invisible Cities, which is a fictional dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Another work of imaginary dialogue (and journey) between historical persons is…


The Divine Comedy an epic poem, often consisting of dialogue between Dante Alighieri and Virgil, as the latter guides Alighieri through Hell, Purgatory, and ultimately to Paradise. Another story of a traveler making their way to Heaven is…


Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s classic allegory of Pilgrim’s journey to the Celestial City. For far less philosophical reasons, this reminds me of…


Slaughterhouse-Five, whose main character, Billy Pilgrim, is “unstuck in time,” meaning he travels through time and space against his control or will. There is another involuntary space traveler in…


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The main character, Dent, Arthur Dent, is a simple man reluctantly caught up in a fantastic adventure, much like the beloved hero of…


The Hobbit: The tale of Bilbo Baggins' journey There and Back Again.


And that is how you get from City of Glass to the Hobbit.





Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (novel #206)

...Mr. Glowry always chose [his domestics] by one of two criterions, - a long face, or a dismal name.


Nightmare Abbey is an exciting title, but for me, that is where the excitement began and ended. It is often categorized as gothic or horror. I assume these genre characterizations are inferred from the title, but no! It is neither! It is a satire of British romanticism.


Christopher Glowry – the first of many aptronyms in this novella – is a dour widower and lord of Nightmare Abbey, early 19th Century England. He lives with his son Scythrop, a pessimistic philosopher who, when not agonizing over his impotence to change the world, is confused and confounded by love for two different women.


Everyone in this story is ridiculous, which is certainly fair play for satire. The abbey hosts a parade of visitors participating in long, pointless debates. Most are of morose personality, presumably chosen to complement their host:  Mr. Listless, Mr. Toobad, Mr. Larynx, et al. Only Mr. Hilary, Glowry’s brother-in-law, presents a cheerful contrast.


As I write this, I realize the first aptronym is actually the abbey's name. It would have been a nightmare to spend an hour amongst its denizens.


I suppose Nightmare Abbey was successful as satire, but it hasn't aged very well. I found a few moments amusing, but most were lost on me. Many of the cast are caricatures of contemporary persons, some of them authors, presumably those Peakcock is satirizing. This character mapping had little meaning for me.


It’s a short, easy read. I’m glad to be moving on to the next book.


My rating:  3 out of 5 stars



This novel satisfies the category of a title containing a "Compound Word" in the What’s in a Name? 2022 challenge and “A Classic Set in a Place You’d Like to Visit” [England] category in the Back to the Classics 2022 Challenge


Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (novel #205)

Appearing neither interested nor indifferent, but quiet in the way that a battlefield is sometimes quiet, she watched… [the Unicorn]


It’s a rare man who is taken for what he truly is. ~ Schmendrick the Magician


The Last Unicorn is a fantasy about exactly what the title states – though there is some question as to whether she is truly the last. The Unicorn overhears a hunter tell his companion that they are surely in a unicorn’s wood, as it has signs of enchantment. The hunter also expresses his belief, that if there is a unicorn in the woods, it is very likely the last of its kind.


Unicorns are ordinarily solitary and immortal. The Unicorn fears the others may be lost, captive, or in danger, so she leaves her beloved wood to discover the truth and save them if she can.


The Unicorn is aided along the way by Schmendrick an inept Magician, Molly Grue a gruff but kind woman, and eventually by the idler Prince Lir, who may hide a hero’s heart.


Beagle’s narrative has a lithe and whimsical tone that makes it a pleasure to read.


Beyond the town, darker than dark, King Haggard’s castle teetered like a lunatic on stilts, and beyond the castle the sea slid.


“Heroes,” Prince Lir replied sadly. “Heroes know about order, about happy endings – heroes know that some things are better than others.”


The reader grows to love the Unicorn and her friends, and dread the villain King Haggard and his evil hench-being, the Red Bull.


I liked The Last Unicorn very much, but it may have suffered from high expectations. There were two influences that contributed to my expectations: a charming introduction by Patrick Rothfuss and the song, The Last Unicorn performed by one of my favorite bands America. In spite of my unreasonable hopes, it is still a lovely little tale, with an unexpected and powerful ending that elevated it in the end.


My rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars



This novel satisfies the category of a title containing a "Mythical Being" in the What’s in a Name? 2022 challenge.



By the way, did you know that unicorns do not look simply like a horse with a horn?


She did not look anything like a horned horse, as unicorns are often pictured, being smaller and cloven-hoofed, and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses have never had, that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation and goats in dancing mockery. Her neck was long and slender, making her head seem smaller than it was, and the mane that fell almost to the middle of her back was as soft as dandelion fluff and as fine as cirrus. She had pointed ears and thin legs, with feathers of white hair at the ankles; and the long horn above her eyes shone and shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight.


The 1982 animated film is a very good rendition. Beagle wrote the screenplay so it is quite faithful to the book. The animation is superb (very 1982) and the cast of voice actors is star-studded: Jeff Bridges, Angela Lansbury, Alan Arkin, Christopher Lee, Keenan Wynn, et al, and Mia Farrow as the Unicorn.



Saturday, August 6, 2022

Lion of Liberty: The Life and Times of Patrick Henry by Harlow Giles Unger

If this be treason, make the most of it. ~ Patrick Henry

While reading Thomas Jefferson: A Life, I realized a desire to read about Jefferson’s nemesis: Patrick Henry. Thomas Jefferson, the Revolution’s greatest writer, is a fascinating contrast with its greatest orator, Patrick Henry. Nemesis may be a bit strong, but I’ve read of no one else who could both astound and confound Thomas Jefferson, a man not easily affected in either extreme.


In contrast to Jefferson, the Tidewater aristocrat, Patrick Henry was a backwoods frontiersman – though classically educated. And in contrast to the ever deliberate and composed Jefferson, Patrick Henry let his passions blaze, though still quite deliberately and with amazing effect.


He was responsible for making the risks and hardships of the revolution popular with the common man, perhaps more so than any other individual.


First learning the art of persuasion as a criminal lawyer, Unger writes of Henry…


He left courtroom spectators stunned, breathless, helpless – in effect, captives.


He is best known for the famous line…” Give me liberty or give me death,” when addressing the Virginia convention in 1775.


But I found his most brilliant speech was ten years earlier, as a 29-year-old member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. He railed against the tyrannical Stamp Act. In summation, he declared…


Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third…


***Dramatic pause for effect***


Met by cries of “Treason” by the Senior Burgesses before Henry continued, I must imagine with a mischievous sparkle in his eye…


George the Third,” he boomed in defiance, “may profit by their example! If this be treason, make the most of it!”


Thomas Jefferson would describe the moment…


I attended the debate…and heard the splendid display of Mr. Henry’s talents as a popular orator. They were great indeed; such as I have never heard from any other man…


George Mason would say of Henry…


He is by far the most powerful speaker I have ever heard.


Every word he says not only engages but commands the attention; and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them. But his eloquence is the smallest part of his merit. He is in my opinion the first man upon this continent, as well in abilities and public virtues, and had he lived in Rome…Mr. Henry’s talents must have put him at the head of that glorious commonwealth.


At one point, in the debate over the Constitution, Henry’s oratory became a nearly supernatural legend; while expressing his most vehement passions in warning against the Constitution, the skies broke, and thunderclaps seemed to accentuate his every pause and point. Again, I imagine a sly grin as he made nature’s fury his own.


History has been a bit unkind to Patrick Henry for his opposition to the Constitution. He was a firm Anti-Federalist and envisioned a loose confederation of independent states. He feared the Constitution gave Congress tyrannical powers. He was also adamant that it sorely lacked a “Bill of Rights.” He proved insightful on that point, and I am not convinced his fears of almighty federal over-reach are not similarly justified.


During his day, and apart from George Washington, Patrick Henry was probably the nation’s most beloved founding father. He would likely have been the third president had he not declined the many calls for him to run. Despite his public declination, he finished fourth behind Jefferson, Adams, and Thomas Pinckney.


He was a devoted husband and father, with 15 children from 2 marriages. He kept a strict moral code, avoiding alcohol and gambling. He was a student of the Bible, saying…


This book is worth all the books that ever were printed.


Harlow Giles Unger’s work is a concise and compelling narrative. Concise, likely of necessity. In yet another contrast to Jefferson, Patrick Henry left few written records. Much of what is known of him is gleaned from the writings and memories of other founding fathers. And while he is neither perfect saint nor sinner, I now have a better understanding of and greater respect for the Lion of Liberty.


I’m going to claim lineage tracing to Patrick Henry. His daughter, Martha, married John Fontaine, a descendent of Huguenots, the de la Fontaines. Most of my clan have accepted further Anglicization to Fountain, but yeah…I’m apparently the great-great-great-great grandson or something like that of Patrick Henry


Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Classics Club 10 Year Celebration Questionnaire

My responses to The Classics Club 10 Year Celebration Questionnaire.


When did you join the Classics Club?

May 2014. I’ve completed Round I and Round II lists and should finish Round III before the year ends.

What is the best classic book you've read for the club so far? Why?

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I’m a Dickens fan, and this is such a poignant example of sacrificial love. I’ve seen others rank Dickens’ novels, and they usually have either David Copperfield, Bleak House, or Great Expectations as #1. I like each of those, but for me, it is no contest; A Tale of Two Cities is #1.

What is the first classic you ever read?

To be very literal, and how can I be anything but in this venue?; I have to say The Cat in the Hat. But if we said “grown-up” classic, I believe it was The Lord of the Rings.

Which classic book inspired you the most?

Death Comes for the Archbishop

What is the most challenging Classic you've ever read or tried to read?

Ulysses. Close second: In Search of Lost Time. Both ugh!

Favorite movie adaptation of a classic:

The Lord of the Rings.  Close second: To Kill a Mockingbird

Least favorite movie adaptation:

Lord of the Flies, several attempts, all failed.

Which classic character most reminds you of yourself?

Tom Sawyer as a child. Sherlock Holmes as an adult, which sounds very presumptuous, but I am a puzzle solver professionally, just not as good as Sherlock. But who is?

Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving? Respecting? Appreciating?

I didn’t know what to expect and was intimidated by the Russian classics. But I found both The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina accessible and enjoyable.

Classic you are definitely going to make happen next year?

Next year? As in 2023? Martin Chuzzlewit

Favorite memory with a classic and/or your favorite memory with The Classics Club?

Completing Round I and Round II, and anytime a club member comments on my blog.