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What Are You Reading

Tiki Tom

My Mail is Forwarded Here
Oahu, North Polynesia
Savoring my way through 'The Once and Future King' by T. H. White,

That was one of my first dives into real reading. I think I was in high school. How I loved that book. (It started me on a short-lived King Arthur phase which then morphed into an interest in medieval history, which then led me to…). I think I still have my original copy of Once and Future King around here, somewhere. In 2024 I should think about picking it up again.


One Too Many
St John's Wood, London UK
That was one of my first dives into real reading. I think I was in high school. How I loved that book. (It started me on a short-lived King Arthur phase which then morphed into an interest in medieval history, which then led me to…). I think I still have my original copy of Once and Future King around here, somewhere. In 2024 I should think about picking it up again.
I advise against reading Spare if ever so inclined.

Murray's War On The West is going well and I recommend for your reading pleasure.
Harold Bloom's The Western Canon is also excellent and a fascinating delve into literature.
New York City

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig first published posthumously in 1982, but written sometime in the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s

In The Post-Office Girl, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig spins an engaging and, ultimately, noirish tale about a young woman, Christine, whose family was wiped out financially in World War I. This is not a war story, though, but a tale about that young woman's post-war struggles.

Once part of a middle-class Austrian family with a small business, the war destroyed the family's business and directly or indirectly took almost all of Christine's relatives.

Christine now lives with her infirmed mother. She also has an aunt who lives in America. A distant uncle secures Christine a position as the village's postal clerk, which provides just barely enough for her and her mother to get by.

With her tiny salary, a sick mother and no marriage prospects in her poor village, Christine, a happy child before the war, has become a sad, scared and introverted adult of twenty-eight. She drags herself to and from work each day with no hope for the future.

Then the American aunt, who married a rich industrialist, invites her for a two-week vacation to a luxury Alpine resort. Scared to go and embarrassed about her obvious poverty, she shows up, literally, a trembling woman, but then the aunt takes to reinventing her.

Sparing no expense, Christine is given or lent a stunning wardrobe, is coiffed by professionals and is "introduced" as the aunt's socially respectable cousin. For eight days, Christine lives life in a swirl of luxury and respectability she never even imagined existed.

It's the Dorothy in Oz moment, that is, for reasons best left for the reader to discover, all ended after eight glorious days as Christine is unceremoniously sent back to her provincial village with a few extra dollars and soul-crushing memories of a better life.

Christine returns to learn her mother died while she was away. Now embittered by it all, she becomes a tyrant at work, wielding her small office power with meanness. A chance meeting with a disaffected former soldier, Ferdinand, sets Christine on a path into noir land.

Ferdinand, an Austrian, has one of those Russian-like stories of hardship and struggle. Drafted in WWI, he was soon a prisoner of war, abused and nearly starved. He just missed being released in a prisoner exchange only to spend four more years starving in Siberia.

Once home, and with a permanent injury to one hand, the Austrian bureaucracy denies him a pension or aid. He has no money to return to his studies as an architect and all the jobs he gets are temporary and for small pay. He is an angry man.

With his articulate anti-capitalism and anti-government screeds, you'd think he'd be a communist, but what he really is, in his mind, is a nihilist. Most, though, would see him as a criminal.

With the war having shattered both their lives and poverty a daily struggle, Christine and Ferdinand form an unhealthy bond that fuels their grievances. They believe there is no honest way out of poverty for them, but others around them have rebuilt their post-war lives.

In an open-ended climax, no spoilers coming, Ferdinand tries to talk Christine into robbing the post office's safe. Will this once middle-class girl, whose life now has so little hope, agree to Ferdinand's detailed, but insane plan?

Author Zweig, writing well before film noir was a thing, penned a tale so full of human despair and of forces far beyond an individual's control that, in the 1940s, it wouldn't have taken much to turn his novel into an American film noir movie.

Zweig's story, though, is set in post-WWI Austria. It's clear his characters have suffered, but they have also made poor choices. History and even some of Zweig's own supporting characters argue the country's post-war story is more complex than Ferdinand asserts.

In The Post-Office Girl, Zweig writes engagingly about a long-since-past time and place. He brings his characters to life with sharply defined personalities and clear and understandable motivations. For us today, it's a moving bit of time travel with a surprising touch of noir.


One Too Many
St John's Wood, London UK
^ Zweig's tragic has a scald chaser with Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out which recounts post war Britain
left with 1.25 million widows, former girlfriends, and the younger school skirts left behind 1914-18's slaughter
of the flower male trench generation.

Had Europe only heeded her daughter America's Civil War lessons of industrial arms with newly acquired lethality the First World War might have never happened.

Not Lord Peter

New in Town
For Pete's sake Pete slow down and savour Orthodoxy, a classic of verse, verve, veracity, but above all valour.
Chesterton never better, and the thundering celestial chariot coarses Church provenance to seal testament
with absolute mastery of the English language.

You seem young and American, so I tender yuletide wishes all best to you and yours with three literary
suggestions: 1. The Closing of The American Mind; Alan Bloom; 2. The Western Canon, Harold Bloom; 3. Jacques Barzun's From Dawn To Decadence. I just need to add a fourth, Man's Search For Meaning written by Holocaust survivour Viktor Frankl. These four musketeers are ideal classic texts for a young man and offer wisdom to carry you through life, good times and bad.
I shall do my best to savor 'Orthodoxy', first with an audiorecording, then with the printed text.

Correct on both fronts, and thank you for the books, I have added them to my to-purchase list. I actually do own a copy of 'Man's Search for Meaning', as it was required reading for a favorite college course.

A very merry Christmas to you and yours as well, and may the New Year be prosperous and bright.

Tiki Tom

My Mail is Forwarded Here
Oahu, North Polynesia
Just finished “Eastern Approaches” by Fitzroy Maclean. It is his autobiography of the years 1935-1945. If you are not familiar with the name (I wasn’t), he is worth a quick Google search. What a life! What deeds of daring in WWII. This book was a bestseller in 1949.

In short, the book starts with him serving as a junior British diplomat in Paris (age 22). Bored, he gets himself posted to Moscow, where he takes the initiative to make himself the foremost expert on Central Asia by extensively exploring all the “Stan”-Countries during his vacation time. No Brit had visited any of these exotic places since before WWI. The fact that most of these places are “off limits” adds a little zest to his travels. He is also in the front row for Stalins show trials.

When WWII breaks out, he gets himself elected to Parliament so that he can break his Foreign Office contract. This accomplished, he immediately joins the army so that he can serve in the same Highland Regiment in which the men of his family have served for generations. (I’m not making this up.)

We quickly find Maclean becoming one of the founding members of the SAS in North Africa and taking part in some hair-raising missions behind enemy lines with the Long Range Desert Group.

Next, Maclean is sent to Tehran to kidnap a Persian General who is too sympathetic to the Germans. Maclean does this personally, by sticking a pistol in the man’s ribs.

Finally, our hero is hand picked by Churchill to make contact with Tito in Yugoslavia and set up ammo drops and skullduggery to assist the Yugoslav partisans. Midnight parachute drop into hostile territory? It’s all in a days work. This part of the book is practically a treatise on how to conduct a guerilla war behind enemy lines. Maclean paints quite a romantic picture of the partisans.

Interesting book. Fitzroy Maclean was among the last of the aristocratic gentlemen adventurers. I don’t begrudge him the fact that he seems to speak nearly every European language fluently. At times I do get annoyed by the way he plum picks the assignments that are to his liking… and how well connected he is. Presumably it’s a class thing. My only criticism of the book is that the pacing is uneven. Sometimes it races along. At other times Maclean seems to get bogged down in bureaucracy and trivia. Even in those days, war was very much a business of “hurry up and wait.”

Still, it is educational and interesting. At its best, it had me saying “damn! I was born 50 years too late!” Sometimes it is necessary to remind yourself that Eastern Approaches is a true story about a real human being. A remarkable man In a remarkable time.
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I'll Lock Up
New Forest

When Billy Connolly set out from Glasgow as a young man, he never looked back. He played his banjo on boats and trains, under trees, and on top of famous monuments. He danced naked in snow, wind and fire. He slept in bus stations, under bridges and on strangers' floors.
The book was a Christmas gift, a few pages an evening get read before I crash out.
New York City

The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien originally published in 1960

Nothing "perfectly" captures the past, but a contemporaneous book from a period will almost always get you closer to that time than a modern period novel. The former is the value of Edna O'Brien's debut novel The Country Girls. Plus it's a good story.

Unless you grew up in an Irish country village in the 1950s, The Country Girls will be the closest thing you'll get to having that experience as seen through the eyes, as the book opens, of one fourteen-year-old girl, Kate.

Kate just lost her mother to a boating accident, which leaves her with her alcoholic and, when drunk, abusive father, plus their middle-aged farm hand, Hickey. Kate's mother clearly kept the household functioning, so now without her, it's falling apart.

O'Brien has an eye for detail. She brings the farm with its chickens, cows, slamming doors and broken bathroom to life. Knowing how the sun hits, the rain falls and the dust tracks lets you intimately experience Kate's family's farm.

The village, with its small shops and quirky owners comes alive too. You can smell the beer in the small hotel's bar where the village workers gather at night and you can feel the eyes of the always leery woman in the notions store watching Kate as picks up and puts things down.

Kate's best friend/frenemy, Baba, is the anti-Kate in many ways. Kate's responsible and reserved; Baba is irresponsible and loud. These two grew up together, fight, make up, play, argue and experience life.

You wonder why Kate stays friends with Baba who can often be mean to her, but Kate seems to intuit that Baba pushes her out of her shell in a way she needs even if the result isn't always good. Plus, Baba is one of those kids other kids just want as a friend.

When the two girls are shipped off to a nearby convent their friendship grows stronger by necessity. Fortunately, the convent is not the brutal place we, today, know some in Ireland were, but with its severe nuns, unpleasant food and strict discipline, it's no joy either.

After a few years the girls intentionally get expelled. It's a good move on their part, especially since their parents seem to take it in stride (you keep fearing they'll be physically punished, but thankfully they never are). Now old enough, they leave together for Dublin.

It's the perennial story of teenagers from "the country" wanting to experience the freedom of a life they've read about in magazines and newspapers, heard about from others and on the radio and, most importantly, have seen in movies.

Baba goes to college and Kate gets a job in a grocery store, which is, ironically, how real life often works as Kate would appreciate college and Baba doesn't. Kate enjoys reading classic literature, while books are toxic to Baba.

The fun, though, is seeing the girls struggle but enjoy their city life, which includes sharing a room in an off-beat boarding house owned by a quirky German couple and having some horrible dates, sometimes, with married men.

That is pretty much the story in this coming-of-age novel, other than a completely inappropriate relationship Kate has with a married middle-aged man. It started when she was fourteen. They don't have sex, but it is still insanely wrong, even in its day.

The book works, despite its simple plot, because author O'Brien lets you see a time and place through the eyes and mind of a teenage girl in 1950s Ireland. Kate is a pensive and smart kid, but still she has silly and wild ideas and zig-zagging emotions like any teenager.

The Country Girls is the first in a trilogy. At the time of its release, owing to its frank discussion of sex and, possibly, its less-than-flattering take on religion, the book was controversial. It was banned by the Irish censorship board (whatever that really means).

Its value today is its ability to time travel you to Ireland in the 1950s with its keen observations of that period and place. Plus, it's an easy read that has you turning the pages to find out what's going to happen next to Kate and Baba.


New in Town
I've read alot of different stuff just starting a few years ago (from the Scarlett Letter again lol to a Street Cat Named Bob!) But recently I started reading Lee Child's jack reacher and Stephen King's Bill Hodges trilogy. Just finished the 5th jack reacher novel, echo burning, love it and started the second Bill Hodges novel, Finders Keepers.
Started Fast Hell (2021) by Alexander Osang, today.

A novel about East-Germans, which were widespread in the world after german reunification. But it's suggested, that the stories around the protagonist "Uwe" are more or less fictive.

Digestible 237 pages! :)
New York City

The P.R. Girls by Bernard Glemser published in 1972

All but forgotten today, author Bernard Glemser was a popular writer from the 1950s through the 1970s of witty page-turners that captured their era with smart insight and verve. His novels aren't literature, but entertaining reads that provide a window into the period's culture.

In The P.R. Girls, Glemser takes us to Hong Kong in the early 1970s and the fictional Hong Kong Monarch, the flagship in a chain of world-wide ultra-luxury hotels. This was a time when luxury hotels were an important link in the social, political and media nexus.

Susan Marriner, a smart, young and pretty public relations professional just transferred to the Hong Kong Monarch finds herself being promoted to head of the department at the hotel after her boss is fired for clashing with the hotel's new Teutonic general manager.

Presented here, public relations professionals - or "girls" in the vernacular of the era - are almost all smart, young and pretty women as the job is demanding, hence the smart, but also requires them to represent the hotel at public events, hence the young and pretty.

Today, we try not to allow this, but it was just accepted at the time that "P. R." roles would be mainly filled by smart, young and pretty girls. If this makes you furious, don't read the book, but if you do read it, you'll see that these women are respected for their intelligence.

Sue Marriner is initially in over her head as she not only has to learn, on the fly, how to do her boss' job in an insanely large, complicated and busy hotel, but she has to acclimate herself to the local conventions.

Glemser, who clearly knows Hong Kong and the East, does an outstanding job capturing the culture. We learn about "bar girls," poor local girls whose parents sell them to bar owners in a quasi indentured-servant arrangement that, sadly, turns the girls into prostitutes.

The importance of family, even distant cousins, in Eastern culture, is front and center as large families have "tentacles" that reach in many directions. "Face saving," too, is integretal as publically dressing down an employee is a deeply offensive act.

Crowded Hong Kong, under British rule at the time, is shown to be a vibrant city with an international flavor that combines a free-wheeling capitalism with a culture where graft and nepotism are so deeply ingrained they are simply part of doing business.

When Miss Marriner (women are Miss or Mrs. in this era) takes business trips to Singapore, Manilla and other major Asian cities, Glemser gives us a brief look at each region's culture and idiosyncrasies.

The story, though, is still about a girl and a hotel, as Marriner tries to get up to speed, while dignitaries come and go and VIP guests complain about everything from a snake in the room to the hair salon being all booked up.

Royals show up expecting VIP-plus service as the press hounds the P.R. department for information it can't give out, especially about a mob boss supposedly hiding incognito at the hotel - the Hong Kong Monarch is a wild place.

Marriner also has to deal with her immediate boss, the smart and handsome number two man in the hotel, Alex Dunbar, and his boss, the aforementioned Teutonic and dictatorial general manager, Leo Ludwig.

Both of them are jockeying for more power and career advancement, as those at the top of any company or division almost always are. It's a brutal game of politics and manipulation that makes these prestigious and well-paying jobs seem quite unappealing.

Hong Kong in the 1970s was also a time and place where business and personal relationships were regularly tangled up as we see Marriner start dating her boss and, later, canoodling a bit with the big boss.

All the "girls" in public relations have their dating success stories and disappointments as marriage was the goal for many, but not all. Even those set on marriage are shown as competent professionals. The past is never as black and white as we paint it today.

There is an overarching plot about Marriner's career and love life as they get tangled up with the business of the hotel and, as noted, her two bosses.

The book, though, is at its most engaging when Marriner explores the region or solves a P.R. crisis with her small staff of whip-smart "girls." Marriner's love "triangle," with her bosses, which probably helped the book sell, feels a bit too obviously constructed.

Popular page-turners like The P.R. Girls are valuable cultural windows into the past. No one thing - newspapers, movies or novels of an era, nor history books - fully captures or "explains" a period, but well-researched novels, like The P.R. Girls, get you a little bit closer.

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