The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler – Book Review

This is my penultimate Philip Marlowe novel and I am so happy with it, you guys.

The Little Sister is as self-reflective, exhausted and close to broken that I’ve seen Raymond Chandler’s PI get. He’s not having an easy time with what promised to be a simple enough missing person case, full of deceptive femme fatales, drugs, corpses and very angry cops. For once, Marlowe doesn’t get his teeth kicked in by the fellas at the local precinct, but it’s not for lack of desire on the part of certain of his new copper friends; makes for a nice change of pace, though, dunnit?

There’s an air to cynicism to The Little Sister which will stay on with you longer than you might be comfortable with; but it’s easy to relate to Chandler for underlining it. The almighty dollar is powerful indeed, folks. That’s a little something the cast of characters, no matter the societal class they belong to, no matter all else that might bind them together, are conscious of; worse than conscious, they’re ready to trod on any joint human relation if it means lining their pockets.

Philip Marlowe is the antithesis of that, a man who, despite his disillusionment with the world at large, has a strong moral backbone, a man unwilling to look the other way when injustice is being carried out. It’s his defining trait, and in the hardboiled world of the old-school crime thriller, it’s as good as you can hope for.

You have to admire Chandler, you have to. What he does with language, the force of his metaphors and flourishes is as much the reason behind the continued popularity of these novels as his plots and characters, perhaps more so. Reading him is like catching a whiff of asphalt fumes in a candy store; sweet as the prose is, it’ll always shock you, the things he comes up with:

Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody. It will make a radiant glamour queen out of a drab little wench who ought to be ironing a truck driver’s shirts, a he-man hero with shining eyes and brilliant smile reeking of sexual charm out of some overgrown kid who was meant to go to work with a lunch-box. Out of a Texas car hop with the literacy of a character in a comic strip it will make an international courtesan, married six times to six millionaires and so blasé and decadent at the end of it that her idea of a thrill is to seduce a furniture-mover in a sweaty undershirt.

And on occasion, when he writes a line like this one: “She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me,” you know Chandler was a man who could take the piss out of himself, someone who knew how to keep the balance between serious and soul-crushing.

Ray Porter’s narration is, as ever, an easy 5/5. He is my Philip Marlowe, it’s as simple as that.

Few other paragraphs could beat this one for my favourite quote in the novel:

Philip Marlowe, 38, a private licence operator of shady reputation, was apprehended by police last night while crawling through the Ballona Storm Drain with a grand piano on his back. Questioned at the University Heights Police Station, Marlowe declared he was taking the piano to the Maharajah of Coot-Berar. Asked why he was wearing spurs, Marlowe declared that a client’s confidence was sacred. Marlowe is being held for investigation. Chief Hornside said police were not yet ready to say more. Asked if the piano was in tune, Chief Hornside declared that he had played the Minute Waltz on it in thirty-five seconds and so far as he could tell there were no strings in the piano. He intimated that someting else was. A complete statement to the press will be made within twelve hours, Chief Hornside said abruptly. Speculation is rife that Marlowe was attempting to dispose of a body.

Thanks for reading! Have a song to get you in the proper mood for a Marlowe story.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller—Book Review

I finished Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 many months ago — I’ve kept pushing the review further and further off because this is one of the classics, it’s loved by many, disliked by some, downright hated by a chosen few. I find myself decidedly in the camp of the first, as this novel illustrated the absurdism of war through examples that will have you either grasping at your sides with laughter or blinking slowly, trying to comprehend what the hell just happened.

It is a difficult book to penetrate, at first. Heller thinks little of chronology, the structure of his chapters a mess that is at once brilliant and confounding; the opening begins in media res, with Yossarian pretending to be both sick and crazy for who-knows-which time. Unafraid to hop from one character’s circumstances to another, Heller uses an omniscient narrator to sketch out the daily life of the soldiers of the U.S. Air Army. He does so in a way that extends to far more than just these characters, encompassing the entirety of the army, of any army, even of every army. The objections to war, after all, should not be examined in a case-by-case basis.

Once you become acquainted with the military and its maddening mechanisms, Heller’s thesis statement begins to fall into place:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

Ironic, isn’t it? This circularity is the bread and butter of so much of Heller’s seminal work, and though other examples of this never failed to garner a laugh, chortle or chuckle from me, these became ever more histeric as I continued my sixteen-hour journey across a text that is increasingly pessimistic about the nature of modern society in all its paradoxic, violent and capitalistic glory.

There is something of a postmodernist precursor to this book, something that so well captures the pulse of a movement that was just beginning to arise in the sixties (Catch-22 was published in 1961) that you can’t help but applaud Heller for taking the measure of so much of the postmodernist essence:

It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.

This codifies so much of my experience with postmodernism!…And the distance from this to Angela Carter isn’t that much of a stretch, is it?

I listened to Catch-22 as narrated by Trevor White whose reading brought the characters to life and made the dialogue jump off the page. I recommend you give that particular audiobook a listen — it’s well-worth the Audible credit!

And, before I close this review off, may I say that Milo Minderbinder is one of the most brilliant characters used to satirize capitalism and the notion of free market, ever? The Mess Officer of the Air Force base that most of the book is set up at, is the beating heart of a pyramid scheme that puts all others to shame; Milo is a hell of a guy, and he’s almost as funny as he is scary.

I could write about Catch-22‘s insane cast for days, but alas, I’ve got plenty of other reviews to write. This is one I’ll be coming back to, reading and rereading, and something tells me no two reads will be the same. Just writing this review is enough to fill me with excitement over the possibility of experiencing the narrative Joseph Heller constructed with such impeccable care. If you’ve heard that this is one of the finest novels of the 20th century…well, you’ve heard right.

Vengeance, Bloody Vengeance: Medea by Euripedes (Reading With the Greeks # 01)

I’m making a point of examining the great surviving tragedies of Ancient Greece. The time was right, I knew, when a Signet Classics edition of Euripides: Ten Plays looked at me invitingly from a shelf in the Sofia Airport bookstore this January. It’s a wonderful pocket edition, and it set me back by three euro. My piece of advice? Never miss out on a brand new book full of Ancient Greek goodness for this low a price.

In Medea, the tragic could not be of a more personal nature. This is a tale of a woman scorned, a wife betrayed by the father of her children, for whom she’s spilled the blood of countrymen and kin alike. Medea, child of king Aeëtes of Colchis and granddaughter of Circe, grew up in the territory of present-day Georgia. The easternmost shores of the Black Sea were, to the Hellenistic people, a “wild place” (Paul Roche, Introduction to Medea). Though she bears the blood of the sun god Helios, she is foreign to the inner world of Ancient Greece.

Having taken with Jason and his Argonauts, and aided the hero in his quest, Medea comes to the Hellenistic world proper a barbarian princess. Having butchered her brother and thrown the scraps of his corpse overboard to dissuade Aeëtes from pursuing the Argonauts, she has paid the blood price of loving the hero, Jason:

How dare they do to me what they have done!
O my father, my country, the land I abandoned,
Flagrantly killing my brother!

p.342, Euripides, Ten Plays, Signet Classics

Her rewards seem every inch worth this first blood sacrifice – she is married to the hero, and bears him children, two boys, no doubt a source of pride for any father. At the prologue of the play, the Nurse says about Medea’s role as a wife:

exile though she came
and been in everything Jason’s perfect foil–
in marriage that saving thing:
a woman who does not go against her man.

p. 337

What, to a hero’s ambition and thirst for riches, is a wife who can only offer “in everything [a] perfect foil*”? Jason’s eventual betrayal is designed to further his position – through marriage to princess Glauce of Corinth, he becomes the de facto inheritor of the great Greek kingdom. The beautiful young bride does not hurt, either: “This father does not love his sons. He loves his new wedding bed.”(340)

This is where Euripides’ tragedy picks up at, with Medea furious at the betrayal: “Don’t approach. Beware. Watch out || For her savage mood, destructive spleen; || Yes, and her implaccable will.”(340). The depth of this betrayal has driven her mad, or perhaps the need for recompense has. Looking at her children, hers are the “eyes of a mad bull.” (340)

Soon after the ruler of Corinth, King Creon himself, comes to her doorstep to order her and her sons banished from the kingdom on pain of death. His reason is “Fear…|| I’m afraid you’ll deal my child some lethal blow || … You are a woman of some knowledge || Versed in many unsavory arts.” (346) Medea time and again attempts to earn herself some small respite and eventually wearing him down and earning herself until the following dawn. It is a decision that will cost Creon, as he suspects when he at last takes pity on her:

My soul is not tyrannical enough.
My heart has often let me down . . .
So now, Medea
Though I know I take a false step:
have it your own way.

349

Creon’s hope that a day won’t be enough for the savage sorceress to perpetrate her ill intent against his daughter is foolhardy. Medea says as much once he leaves, in a speech I can only describe as bordering on the gleefuly wicked:

Friends,
I can think of several ways to bring their death about.
Which one shall I choose?
Shall I set their house of honeymoon alight,
or creep into the nuptial bower
and plunge a sharp knife through their innards?

No, there is a surer way,
one more direct;
for which I have a natural bent:
death by poison.
Yes, that is it.

350

Perhaps this is one of those main sources from whom the notion of poison as a woman’s weapon comes from? Certainly, it would make sense, particularly with what Medea tells herself at the end of this lengthy monologue: “Besides, you are a woman: || feeble when it comes to the sublime || marvelously inventive over crime.” (351) It’s a fascinating monologue this early on, one that shows at once the hurt of betrayal, the impish delight at the prospect of vengeance and the marginalised identity of Medea as a woman. I’m partial to these four lines in particular:

See how you are being treated
laughed at by the seed of Sisyphus and Jason:
you, the daughter of a king
and scion of the Sun.

How fucking good is that?! See the wounded pride, see how it urges her on, forces her hand to action like a thorn embedded deep in the heart of a wound. When Jason comes to try and persuade Medea to leave without creating any trouble, it’s like pouring gasoline on that self-same wound.

The scene, in the second episode of the play, is the first thing that’ll come to me whenever I think of gaslighting from now on. Jason explains:

Yet in spite of everything,
and patient to the last with someone I am fond of,
I come, Medea, to do what I can to help.

353

This is unusual cruelty, masked as benevolence. Before these words, Jason blames Medea for her words, tries to shame her, even – but she will neither be shamed or cowed by this oath-breaker:

Monster —
an epiteth too good for you.

This is not courage.
This is not being brave:
to look a victim in the eye whom you’ve betrayed
–somebody you loved–
this is a disease and the foulest that a man can have.

353

But hypocrisy is not so easily cured. Jason, who at one point claims that Medea’s sacrifices are far less compared to what their marriage has given her, eventually takes his leave, having done nothing so much as rekindling Medea’s fury to new heights.

She concocts her plan – the exact way in which she will take the life of Jason’s new bride. But this is too small a price to pay – and here, finally, is revealed the full depth of Medea’s severity:

But now, my whole tone changes:
a sob of pain for the next thing I must do.
I kill my sons–my own–
no one shall snatch them from me.
And when I have desolated Jason’s house beyond recall,
I shall escape from here,
fly from the murder of my little ones,
my mission done.

365

It is an unnatural act, a mother killing her children – yet Medea, in her savagery and her connection to the sun god Helios**, is bound to laws different and more ancient than those of the Ancient Greeks. Natural laws, what professor Daniel N. Pederson calls in his Great Ideas of Philosophy the law of revenge, “when the chthonic gods of the earth held sway…and the pleadings of the heart trump the demands of rationality.” Passion in this extremity is madness to the Ancient Greeks, and to us. To Medea, it is a power she cannot contest. It’s in her blood; the same force that bid her hack her brother to pieces for her lover now sees her commit an even more horrendous act to punish Jason – and, in a twisted way, reclaim her children. I repeat, again: “I kill my sons–my own– || no one shall snatch them from me.”

Medea, then, is aware of the personal cost of vengeance, and willing to pay it. Here is a woman capable of ruthlessness and savagery unimaginable to the Greeks, first stealing the lives of Jason’s new bride Glauce, and of her father Creon (the same Creon of Antigone fame), through deception worthy of the granddaughter of the sea witch Circe. Then, when the time comes to act, Medea has a moment of pure reflection:

The evil that I do, I understand full well.
But a passion drives me greater than my will.
Passion is the curse of man: it wreaks the greatest ill.

One of the greatest tragedies of this play is that this realization changes nothing. Medea goes through with it, her vengeance complete. She stays in Corinth just long enough to see Jason come to grips with her vengeance before flying off on the chariot of Helios, pulled by a pair of dragons, denying the father of their dead children even the last goodbye that comes with burying them. The play closes with the Chorus of Athenian women questioning the will of Zeus, wondering why the Olympians have willed this terrible thing to happen, as a disconsolate Jason walks away.

Medea is one of the tragedies of Ancient Greece in which a woman is imbued with the autonomous power to take her destiny in her own hands and deliver blow after blow to the one that has so abused her. It’s more than just a tale of vengeance in the face of infidelity. Medea doesn’t speak for herself alone – her voice is often the voice of the silent masses of women wronged and oppressed by men:

Of all creatures that can feel and think,
we women are the worst treated things alive.
To begin with,
we bid the highest price in dowries
just to buy some man
to be dictator of our bodies.
How that compounds the wrong!

p. 344-345

Hers is an extreme response brought about by the mute suffering of the many before her, a shout of warning and protest in the face of a time in which women are forced into what Pederson calls “a position of reclusive subservience.” It reflects the understanding of the Greek tragedians about the destructive powers of eros, erotic love; but it offers us also a different reading, one which seems not as alien as it first might.

Thanks for reading my essay! You should, without a doubt, read Medea. Me, I think I’ll tackle The Bacchae next!

*I wonder if the notion of the wife as her husband’s perfect foil is drawn out from the Ancient Greek and/or Platonic notion of man and woman as constitution one whole?
**Though I say “god,” Helios is of the older generation of pre-Olympian gods, the titans.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Book Review

What’s there to say about this one that hasn’t been said before?

Vonnegut is among the quintessential American authors, someone who, despite writing science fiction, transcended the stigmata of SF without difficulty, entered popular American consciousness and hasn’t left it since. Its message strongly abhors the very notion of war, decries the brutalities of it and relates the horrors of the Second World War in bloodcurdling detail. It’s not an easy book to read or listen to, not even with James Franco’s voice relating the events Billy Pilgrim goes through. Billy Pilgrim, unstuck through time, going back to World War 2 and forth into the sweet unknown; Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist. Billy Pilgrim, prisoner-of-war in Dresden, shoved forth into Slaughterhouse-Five with the rest of them, along with one Kurt Vonneghut, though he himself never makes use of the name.

“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

Billy Pilgrim, who is kidnapped to Tralfamadore and stuffed into their zoo along with a woman he comes to love. Billy Pilgrim, who knows the hour and the method of his own death, and knows it is predestined, and does not fool himself into believing in the folly of free will*.

So it goes.

What’s between the covers of Slaughterhouse-Five is real. It’s anger and it’s fury and maybe it’s helplessness, too, at the perpetual cycle that churns out war and its injustices. Monstrous, terrible as they are. Vonnegut shows it how it is; no glory can be found amidst the mud and ice – only the illusion of it in the eyes of the vainglorious prick Roland Weary, whose pettiness and cruelty plant a seed the poisonous fruit of which eventually results in the death of a good man.

It is also a critique of America, in two of the most poignant paragraphs I have read in recent memory:

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”

These words were true when Vonnegut wrote them, and they resonate so much stronger today. I fear they will resonate stronger yet tomorrow, and tomorrow, and the one after it, as well.

Strange, perhaps, that I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I enjoyed the Sirens of Titan. But I appreciate its merits; appreciate, even, that it has more merits than Sirens does. I’ll always remember 2019 for Vonnegut, for this and Sirens and perhaps Breakfast of Champions, if I manage to get through it before the closing of the year.

—————————————————————————————————————–

* But these are not Vonnegut’s beliefs; just because his main character believes it, and the Tralfamadorians believe it, doesn’t make it so, my friends. The only reason I mention this is, Vonnegut seems to have gotten a lot of flack for it in the past.

Oh, and do I even need to tell you how great James Franco does as narrator? No. No, I don’t.

Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett – Book Review

Ah, literary realism, how thou mildly interests me.

Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns is a painfully middle-class English novel, with all that entails. What’s that, I hear you ask — and I’m all too happy to provide as long-winded an explanation as some of the descriptions within the novel. Before that, however, I feel the need to point out one fact:
Despite this novel seeking to present the perfectly ordinary everyday happenings of a small Victorian community, I wasn’t bored. I read it mainly in two sittings for my university course, Researching Literature, and I. Was. Not. Bored.

I enjoyed, as always, the view of Victorian society, the break-down between the social classes (as always, never shown but always hinted at). It’s all very prim and proper until you get to the English Potteries where the genteel mask of our middle-class characters slips away with such remarkable ease. Except, of course, for Ephram Tellwright, father of the eponymous Anna. Ephram is one of those interesting literary characters, easy to despise but also remarkable for the fact that they hold onto no pretenses of their own nature. Ephram’s nature is ugly – devilishly ugly…but he is honest about it, at least.

Now, then. What’re the major issues I take with this novel?

Anna’s meekness: here is a character so perfectly, painfully innocent that you can’t help feeling that she’s a cardboard cutout on which Bennett projects his vision of womanhood. It fits so well, my theory! Anna is the model of the Victorian woman, a dutiful mistress of the household who lives and dies by the responsibilities resting on her shoulders.

The way Willy Price is presented: Oh look at the poor people, they’re so meek and unfortunate! Yeah, no. That’s something I take issue with. Someone in Willy’s position wouldn’t be this accepting and timid – they’d be angry, they’d be pissed!

Really, it all boils down to the overuse of stereotypes. Bennett can’t step outside his I can’t blame him for this – it’s a marking of the time he lived and wrote in. But it makes the ‘realism’ label suspect.

And can I take a minute to disect the blurb on Goodreads for a minute? Listen ‘ere:

Anna, a woman of reserve and integrity, lives with her tyrannical and selfish father. Courted for her money by the handsome and successful Henry Mynors, Anna defies her father’s wrath–with tragic results. Set in the Potteries against a background of dour Wesleyan Methodism, Anna of the Five Towns is a brilliantly perceptive novel of provincial life in Victorian England.

Time and again, we readers are told by Bennett that Mynors is courting Anna because he truly loves her and money doesn’t even come into his considerations — there’s a scene, about 90% into the book, in which money enters into Henry’s considerations, in fact, and it’s very obvious how it affects him.

And “Anna defies her father’s wrath – with tragic results.” What?! Who wrote this?! She defies her father, aye, true enough – but only after tragedy has striken. And “defies her father’s wrath” isn’t correct, either; it’s her defying his will that causes old Ephram’s wrath – but the man is a sexist tyrant and a miser, everything causes his wrath!

Whoever wrote this blurb needs to be severely mocked, is my pronouncement. As for the book? Three stars, thank you very much. Maybe slightly less? 2.95/5? 2.75? Ah, well.

It’s an okay read – and if you’re in love with Victorian England and its middle class, you will just LOVE this. My professional interest in this novels extends no further than…mild enjoyment, however.

Make of that what you will.