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Tiki Tom

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Sometimes I surprise myself. I Just finished “The Age of Reason” by Jean-Paul Sartre (who turned down the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. “No writer should become an institution.”) To my surprise, it was well written and held my attention right through to the amazing pyrotechnic ending. He stuck the landing! Keep in mind that the story includes no chases, no explosions, and no shootouts. The “action” is people sitting around in cafe’s and talking.

The story takes place in the summer of 1938 in Paris. The threat of imminent war with Germany looms in the background. Sartre does a good job of keeping the political situation in Europe mostly in the wings… but it intrudes Into people‘s thinking at key moments. Thoughts of the civil war in Spain bookend the first chapter and the last chapter. But, with pointed exceptions, the story is about the interpersonal dramas of ordinary people who are somewhat in denial about the big picture.

The drama centers around Matthieu, who is a philosophy teacher on summer break. Sartre tees-up the surprise (to me) ending by emphasizing Matthieu’s philosophical commitment to the idea of “freedom” and how he should go about maintaining his personal freedom. Matthieu has a lot on his plate. His girlfriend of seven years is pregnant. Should they pursue an abortion? Should he marry her? On top of this, Matthieu finds himself infatuated with the sister of one of his students. Trying to get a financial loan is a big issue. Old friends are inflicting their own personal dramas on him in several ways. (One estranged old friend wants him to join the communist party so that he can prepare for a resistance fight against the Germans. But this is a side issue that is all but lost in the swirling drama of people‘s lives.)

One of the things that struck me about the book is how modern it reads. The abortion issue is in play, closeted gays and lesbians are there, money issues are always looming, and the threat of war in Europe hovers in the background. There is plenty of existential angst and questions about the meaning of life to go around. But Sartre does not preach. Instead we get good people doing bad things for right or wrong reasons… and horrible people doing good things for wicked reasons.

The ending is a surprising whirlwind. It is a strangely uplifting conclusion, given what we are led to expect. Hint: freedom is not what most people think it is.

This is book one of a trilogy about the fall of France in WWII. The next book (“the reprieve”) focuses on the days around the Munich Agreement of September 1938. Reviews say it is even better than the first book. Am about to order it.

Traditionally, I have always taken wartime/postwar French intellectuals with a big grain of salt. Especially, Sartre (he was only “involved” in the resistance if you are very generous with what “involved” means. But I guess you had to be there.) Anyway, despite my reservations, the man sure can write… and I actually found myself agreeing with his conclusion at the end of the book. As I said: strangely reaffirming.

Not for everyone. But I was bowled over by the ending and I liked the kind of Casablanca-like feel of Paris just before the cataclysm. Well written. I was surprised by how Jean-Paul Sartre was able to reel me in.
 
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Tiki Tom

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Just finished “I heard the owl call my name” by Margaret Craven.
Ms Craven was born in 1901 and didn’t publish this gem until 1967. It didn’t become a bestseller until it was published in America in the early 1970s. Although she wrote a few other things, it was this book that cemented her place in literature. I say “literature“ because this book is rightly considered to be a modern classic. At about 150 pages, it’s an easy read. Basically it’s about a white vicar assigned to a very remote Indian village in the wild coastal country north of Vancouver. By the end of the book, you will have a clear picture of the village in your head and feel that you know the place. The writing is beautifully understated, and the story is about life, death, friendship, faith, and cross cultural communication. I’m not doing it justice. Despite the Indian location and characters, the book really hits on universal topics that everyone can relate to. Nicely phrased pieces of usable wisdom are sprinkled throughout the book. but, mostly, the book conveys a quiet humanity. I’ve heard that this book is sometimes given to people who are struggling with the death of a loved one. I can see why. Recommended.
 

Tiki Tom

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“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.
SOMEHOW I managed to avoid reading this book until now. That’s really a shame. What a book!
Huckleberry Finn basically has three parts:
1. The first 35 or 40 pages paints the picture of Huck’s miserable background and upbringing and tells the tale of his abusive father. In addition to this sad story, it takes as many pages to acclimatize yourself to the language and speech patterns used. It was a bit of a slog.
2. But then Huck escapes from his father and from civilization. The next 200 pages are pure heaven. Floating down the Mississippi River on a raft, Huck teams up with a run away slave Named Jim. They hide by day and float by night. The mighty river becomes a metaphor for god and life and time. Huck, the irresponsible, unloved, and rebellious boy, slowly and step by step, comes to love Jim. The feeling goes both ways. For the first time in his life, Huck takes on an adult responsibility. In an amazing slight of hand, Twain uses irony and satire to turn law and morality upside down. After all, Huck is breaking the law by helping a runaway slave. The pair have a string of adventures on the river. By now, you are invested in the fate of Huck and Jim. The writing is a delight. Throughout, Twain uses the language and southern dialect of a 13 year old boy. You can’t help but smile or laugh at the colorful phrases. This also keeps Twain from getting too philosophical or preachy. Heavy truths are handled almost without the reader realizing it. As I said, this vast middle part of the book is a magnificent joy of adventure, freedom, and half hidden truths and feelings. I wanted to cheer.
3. In the last 50 pages or so, Tom Sawyer appears again, and the whole thing degenerates into a silly farce. It’s not even funny… primarily because, by this point, you really care about Jim and Huck. Finally, in the end, the plot comes back together and all the strands of the story are pulled together and resolved in a satisfactory (if not entirely satisfying) manner.

All in all, the book is indeed an American classic. Someone said that Huckleberry Finn is the bedrock book Of American literature. I don’t doubt it. In fact, had I but known, I probably would have recommended this book to my European friends who wanted to understand a little about America before coming here. The book covers a lot of ground regarding class and race and history and the frontier and guns and on and on. After reading Huckleberry Finn, I have renewed respect for Mark Twain. An American treasure.

Warning: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” uses the “N Word” quite freely. Despite the context and the decade when Huckleberry Finn was written, some might —understandably— find this disturbing. approach Accordingly.
 
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Laura by Vera Caspary originally published in 1943


Laura the book, like its famous movie of the same name, is an entertaining noir mystery with a romantic overlay. Set in Manhattan, its unsolved murder tosses together wealthy New Yorkers, loyal "domestics," a southern "gentleman" and a hard-boiled detective.

Titular Laura is a beautiful "selfmade" New Yorker. Like many who come to the big city when still young, poor nobody Laura reinvents herself into a sophisticated and elegant advertising executive.

Helping her in this metamorphosis is nationally syndicated columnist Waldo Lydecker, a fat, condescending and pretentious man who "educates" Laura in the "finer" things in life.

Lydecker, carrying a torch for Laura, can't stand Laura's fiance, Shelby Carpenter, a strikingly handsome Southerner who has old-world charm and manners, but no money (which successful Laura can supply).

You can almost see the story starting to play out except Laura is killed right when the book opens leaving us to learn about her through flashbacks as New York City detective Mark McPherson begins his investigation.

Author Caspary uses the investigation of Laura's murder to mix up the social classes as dandy Lydecker and from-the-streets McPherson become frenemies.

The "domestics" such as Laura's maid Bessie and Lydecker's Filipino "houseboy" (if ever a man would have a Filipino houseboy, it would be Waldo Lydecker) come out of the shadows as their observations carry equal weight with McPherson.

All charm and "breeding" Carpenter is forced to answer questions and other "indignities" as murder investigations make no exceptions for Southern breading.

Caspary makes the most of her stirred pot as neither sophisticated New Yorkers nor polished Southerners look all that smart or composed under the relentless analysis and interrogation of an experienced, street-smart detective.

But Laura is no straight-forward murder mystery as fans of the movie already know, because about a third of the way in, Caspray flips the plot upside down.

From there, the story changes, but the mystery, investigation and buffeting of the social classes continues. An odd and intriguing romantic angle also develops, but to explain that would force a reveal of the aforementioned major plot twist.

Laura's charm and engagement, though, is less its very cleverly crafted murder mystery, which does drop a few too many clues along the way, than it's well drawn characters. This is accomplished in part by having the protagonists each narrate one or two sections of the novel, which fully brings out their personalities and weaknesses.

Pompous and effete Lydecker pines for Laura, but is too proud to admit it; intelligent McPherson carries a chip on his shoulder for the wealthy and "smart" New Yorkers he's investigating and cool, kind and arrestingly pretty Laura can still feel like the insecure "hick" she was when she first arrived in the City.

With a 2022 perspective, Laura is a very modern novel. Laura herself is a successful advertising executive who has chosen not to get married and give up her career. Even her pending marriage is really to a man who would be, in the traditional sense of the role, her wife. The past is never as black and white as our modern Cliff Notes version avers.

In another affront to our modern view, while Laura has no need for a man "to take care of her," she does begin to see that she wants a man to "be a man" in the traditional sense of the word. By implication, this means he is strong, honest, confident, decisive and kind. She wants neither a Neanderthal nor an overly sensitive man. It's an interesting 1940s take on our present-day debate about manhood.

The movie Laura made some changes to Laura the book, but most of the story is still there on the screen. Yet the novel provides additional background and the opportunity to spend more time with the characters that many first met through the movie.

Whether you've seen the movie or not, though, for fans or noir mysteries, especially if they like it with a heavy shot of romance, Laura is a smartly constructed and witty page-turner that is well worth the read.
 

Tiki Tom

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Back to Stendhal.
I got now "Lucien Leuwen" and "The charterhouse of Parma".

Let's see, which one I try first.

I recommend The Charterhouse of Parma, which I read some years back. It’s a romp through the Napoleonic years. The protagonist is even at the battle of Waterloo. Plenty of court intrigue and illicit love affairs. My biggest takeaway was that I was left wondering if the protagonist‘s relationship with his aunt (!) was not, ahem, rather unorthodox, to say the least. Scandalous! Although it is never said in so many words. I liked the fact that everyone saw me reading Stendhal and thought “oh, Tiki must be a deep thinking intellectual.” In fact, the book was a fun, trashy romp. Although I guess it is considered a classic. My one criticism is that the book was written in under two months (or something like that) and sometimes it shows. Stendhal himself was a super interesting guy… he participated in Napoleons retreat from Moscow and then became a diplomat. Anyway, I enjoyed it for all the wrong reasons.
 

Julian Shellhammer

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, at the insistence of my daughter; her book club read it and discussed it and she wanted my thoughts. About 2/3 of the way through. The bibliophilic thread throughout the story, and the transforming impact of books on folks who weren't necessarily readers, makes sense when I read the author bio and found that Shaffer had been a librarian and book shop employee, and that the completer of the book was her niece Barrows, who is an author. How many of the wartime anecdotes related by the characters are historical? I tend to think most are.
 
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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, at the insistence of my daughter; her book club read it and discussed it and she wanted my thoughts. About 2/3 of the way through. The bibliophilic thread throughout the story, and the transforming impact of books on folks who weren't necessarily readers, makes sense when I read the author bio and found that Shaffer had been a librarian and book shop employee, and that the completer of the book was her niece Barrows, who is an author. How many of the wartime anecdotes related by the characters are historical? I tend to think most are.

I resisted reading it a tiny bit when it came out because of its silly title, but broke down quickly and really enjoyed it. I liked it a bit less when I reread it right before the movie came out several years back, but still thought it was good. The movie is worth the watch, but as almost always, the book is better.
 

Lew Decker

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Just finished ‘A Suspension of Mercy’ by Patricia Highsmith
Recently read The Talented Mr Ripley and found it engaging, mesmerizing and so decided to read another. Highly recommend Highsmith
 
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Just finished ‘A Suspension of Mercy’ by Patricia Highsmith
Recently read The Talented Mr Ripley and found it engaging, mesmerizing and so decided to read another. Highly recommend Highsmith

I've read several of her books and they have all been very, as you noted, engaging. It was a lot of years ago, so I'd have to do a little memory jarring to remember all of them, but it definitely included the first two in the Ripley series.
 

Tiki Tom

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I am now on page 87 of “War and Peace”!
It has always been on my bucket list. If not now (I just retired), when?
I am approaching it as I would a marathon.
So far, I’m finding it readable/approachable. I‘m enjoying being transported back to an alien culture, 200 years ago. I’m even beginning to be able to keep all the characters sorted and straight. About 2% of the text is actually in French, so I’m also enjoying wrestling With the French (thank god, translations are in the footnotes.)
I am interested in the Napoleonic wars, so that is also a plus.
It‘s a good thing that I’m enjoying it. Only about eleven-hundred pages to go!
I’ll report back in three months or so! ;)
 
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AmateisGal

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Finished Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson last evening, then watched the movie tonight.

The book is wonderful. Hobson's writing is lyrical and beautiful, and it was a pleasure to read.

I'm currently reading about 7,309 books at the same time as I'm in grad school (I kid, I kid...it's not THAT many, but it sure feels like it). One I'm really enjoying is Lynne Olson's Those Angry Days about Lindbergh and FDR before America's entry into WW2. The more I read about Charles Lindbergh, the more I detest that man.
 
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Little Men, Big World by W. R. Burnett published in 1950


The Godfather's skillful blend of fact and fiction creates an operatic underworld of larger than life characters and stories. In the novel Little Men, Big World, author W.R. Burnett hews closer to reality as he narrows the field of vision on the underworld to one large post-war Midwest city.

It's a revealing look at how a crime syndicate really works; hint, it's messier and less organized than in the movies. Burnett brings the atmosphere and zeitgeist of this sordid world alive, while personalizing the story from all its angles: the cops, gangsters, reporters and politicians.

In this unnamed city, "Arky" runs the local mob, while staying almost behind the scenes. He plays the role of a humbly dressed small-time bookie, while his "front man," wearing loud suits and driving a flashy car, is the "face" of the mob to the press and public. The seventeenth ward, with its dilapidated buildings and slums in one part and demimonde nightclubs and bars with all but in-the-open gambling in the other, is Arky's world.

He's a taciturn farm boy who found his way to the city. Years later, he very quietly runs his empire by leveraging his long-nurtured connections to the police - the ward's top cop all but works for Arky, and is well paid for it. Arky also has a relationship with an unknown, even to Arky (they only speak on the phone), "Mover," who has incredible pull in all aspects of the government.

We get to know Arky well. He loves his "big blonde" of a longtime girlfriend, but doesn't quite know it. He lets her decorate his apartment and move in. He all but adopts her relative's abandoned baby to make her happy, yet he comes to kinda love the kid. It all shows that gangsters have complicated domestic lives like many of us.

As always with illegal businesses, there are great risks and threats, especially with a newspaperman, an old school reporter, now a columnist with an ulcer, sensing that the corruption runs up to some very high levels in the government.

There's also an honest reformer serving as Director of Public Safety tasked with rooting out corruption. Finally, Arky has the "big boys" from the national syndicate trying to squeeze him out.

With that set up, the rest of the novel is watching Arky trying to keep his world together as his police connections get nervous because the new Director of Public Safety is serious about cleaning up the city, while the national syndicate begins taking over some of his businesses.

There is some violence in Little Men, Big World, but it's a small part of the story as the game played here is more like human chess: Arky tries to influence people with opportunities to make money or with fear of exposure, more than with force.

At the top of the political house, it's all chess as the dirty politicians try to entice the reformer into taking a more prestigious and career-advancing judgeship to get him out of the reform business.

Almost everybody has family and financial pressures and mixed motives and morality, which get revealed when this complex nexus of crime, government and media comes under stress.

This is where author Burnett shines as the story feels real because it's not a heroes and villains tale, but one of regular and flawed humans: a reporter misses a story because of his ulcer, a mobster goes on the lam too quickly because he scares easily and a corrupt cop won't confess until talking to his minister first.

The climax (no spoilers coming) in Little Men, Big World is gripping, but the true value in the book is its revealing look at the people who populate the crazy, dangerous but always-with-us world of corruption that touches so many aspects of society.

It is a more granular and believable look at mob activity than the incredibly captivating and operatic The Godfather story.

One even senses that movie director Quentin Tarantino might have read some of Burnett's work before making his very mobsters-are-real-people-too movies. And it's not like Burnett's work missed the movie opportunity either as several of his novels - Little Caesar, High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle - became successful Hollywood pictures.

For us today, Little Men, Big World is a detailed and engaging look into a post-war American city where corruption is part of its fabric. Until the time machine is perfected, contemporaneous fiction, that didn't have the constraints of the Motion Picture Production Code to contend with, is some of our best time-travel to these now lost worlds.
 

Tiki Tom

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Finished volume 1 (page 295) of War and Peace. There are four volumes plus an epilogue.
I am enthusiastic about this book.
Volume 1 takes us through the Battle of Austerlitz. The fact that I’m enough of a Napoleon nerd to know what was coming, helped me appreciate the strutting, egomaniacal Russian aristocratic officers all the more, on their road to doom.
Hemingway told us that Tolstoy was his model of a great combat writer. I certainly enjoyed it as it flows from cocky battle planning, to the unraveling of the plans, to the feeling of chaos on the battle field itself. Tolstoy writes of woundings convincingly.
So…
Young Prince Andrei is badly wounded.
Count Nikolai (the son) gets by without a scrape, though he was injured in an earlier dust up. I’m suspecting that both these young men will experience a dampening of their earlier enthusiasm for the glory of war.
Meanwhile, back in Saint Petersburg, Pierre has been rail-roaded into a bad —but politically expedient— marriage. The poor boy is so naive, and I fear for him.
Just to make things interesting, Natasha is just coming of age and is starting to survey the landscape of eligible aristocratic young men… be they fools, good guys, or cads (and many of them are already spoken for, at least in theory).
One note: there are a lot of Princes in Tolstoy. This annoyed me, so I looked it up. It turns out that what the Russians call a prince is more like what the Brits would call a Duke. That clears that up.
Anyway, what can I say? War and Peace is a fun read. I don’t know why it has such an intimidating reputation; other than its sheer length.
I’ll report back again in another 300 pages or so. :)
 

Who?

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Vernon, CT
When I run out of library books, and tire of the internet, I reach for my HP Lovecraft anthology.

A true master of the English language.

In general, I loathe books which “make a point” or “teach a lesson” or are “a metaphor” and I detest the process of dissecting a book to find its “meaning”.

I read for enjoyment, and like to admire the author‘s skill with language.

All else seems to me to simply be intellectual masturbation, with strong overtones of pretense and feigned erudition.
 
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AmateisGal

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Nebraska
I Lost My Girlish Laughter by Joan Allen published in 1938.

Allen, the pseudonym for Silvia Schulman, was David O. Selznick's secretary. This novel is about 1930s Hollywood, and it's a very thinly disguised view of many famous people in Hollywood during this time.

It's great fun to read and I'm really enjoying it.
Fh5WyB7XEAE4mQJ.jpg
 

Tiki Tom

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I Lost My Girlish Laughter by Joan Allen published in 1938.
Sounds interesting. Normally I’m not into books about Hollywood. BUT I once read “the moon is a balloon” by David Niven, and was so impressed and delighted by his tales of golden era Hollywood that the book stuck with me. Like I said, Joan Allen’s book sounds interesting!
 

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